What Do We Make of the World's Parliament of Religions?

Michael J. Altman

I got the World's Parliament of Religions on the brain lately.  A few weeks ago marked Swami Vivekananda's 150th birthday. That got me thinking about Vivekananda's role in American religious history and my dissertation, especially his famous speech at the Parliament and the thundering applause he received. Then I spent most of the day Friday revising the final chapter of my dissertation, the chapter all about Hinduism at the Parliament. As I was revising I re-read the following quote from one of Vivekananda's speeches at the Parliament.
 “We who come from the East have sat here on the platform day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England, the most prosperous Christian nation in the world with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men. At such a price the Hindoo will not have prosperity. 

I have sat here today and I have heard the height of intolerance. I have heard the creed of the Moslem applauded, when today the Moslem sword is carrying destruction into India. Blood and the sword are not for the Hindoo, whose religion is based on the law of love."

I love this quote for two reasons. First, I love it because it completely undercuts two major interpretations of the Parliament in the academic literature. This quote is certainly not part of the "dawn of religious pluralism" in America. Nor is it an example of how the Parliament birthed comparative religion in America. No, it is a quote dripping with blood. It is anti-Christian and anti-Muslim. It's the sort of thing we hope a student doesn't say in an intro to religion course. The second reason that I love the quote is that it was hidden. John Barrows, a Presbyterian minister and the man behind the Parliament, did not include this particular speech in his history of the Parliament papers and proceedings. Nor does it appear in Walter Raleigh Houghton's anthology of Parliament papers. As far as I can tell it was only published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on September 20, 1893. The headline read "Hindoo Criticises Christianity."

American religious historians have not spent a lot of time or words on the Parliament lately. Around 1993 its centenary gave it a brief breath of new life. Most recently our blog's very own Kathryn Lofton offered her interpretation of the Parliament within a larger argument about the relationship between religious studies and religious history. But this lost quote gives me pause about any interpretation of the Parliament that doesn't render it as deeply conflicted and cacophonous. There seems to be a resurgence of studies of liberal religion in our field--a resurgence I welcome. So perhaps it is time to reevaluate the Parliament and its place in American religious history, American liberal religion, and comparative religion in America. What is the place of the Parliament in American religious history? I'd love to hear your answers. I'll get you my answer when I finish revising this chapter.


Jeff Wilson said…
Thanks for the post, Mike. I think the problem arises when we try to make the Parliament fit into a single tidy narrative, rather than attending to the "cacophony," as you put it. The Parliament was many things for many people; it was many things for the same people. So it can be simultaneously the dawn of religious pluralism AND an instance of overt Hindu intolerance (and, especially, Christian preening). Likewise, we need to tell multiple and conflicted stories about liberal Protestants. They could genuinely seek to include non-Christians and non-whites in ways previously unthinkable, and at the same time hold to very ethnocentric or triumphalistic agendas.

William Hutchison's last book was "Religious Pluralismi in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal." He argues that not all Protestant pluralisms are created equal--there are pluralisms of tolerance, pluralisms of inclusion, and pluralisms of acceptance. The Parliament plays a significant role in his story. In my own most recent book, I talk about pluralism of appreciation as well. That's something we don't see much of at the Parliament, especially in quotes such as you offer here. But that doesn't mean that there weren't certain types of pluralism in operation at the Parliament. After all, the very practice of allowing a dark-skinned Asian colonial heathen to share a platform with Anglo-American ministers and preach an insulting message of anti-Christianity to an overwhelmingly Protestant and Catholic audience must be seen as a fairly remarkable instance of Victorian-brand pluralism. Cotton Mather, Johathan Edwards, and Francis Asbury were surely rolling in their graves.
Lincoln Mullen said…
Great find, Mike. I completely agree that the "dawn of religious pluralism" argument about the Parliament needs to be revised. I'm trying to figure out where the Parliament belongs in the history of 19th century religion. I don't think that it belongs as the conclusion of the 19th century story, which is how it's often positioned, but as an important but unusual episode along the way.
George Coe said…
Swami Vivekananda's statement does not reflect “overt intolerance.” Much of his statement seems to be based on reality. Viekananda argues that western prosperity developed “by cutting the throats of its fellow men” He’s right. The rise of the west succeeded at the expense of indigenous peoples in Latin and South America, not to mention Africa. In each of those areas, western conquistadors brought with them Catholic priests so they might convert Americans and Africans. And at the height of imperialism, England clearly became prosperous “with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics.” After the Sepoy Rebellion in 1859, England increased the pressure of that foot on India.

And yes, by allowing “dark-skinned Asian colonial heathen” to share the World Parliament stage with western Christians suggests a certain degree of pluralism, it also smacks of hypocrisy. At the same time Vivekananda was speaking at the Parliament, England had a firm grip on the government of India. How genuine was this “Victorian brand of pluralism?”
It is not Swami Vivekananda's fault that simply stating historical truth in a straightforward way amounts to a stinging rebuke of Christianity and Islam.

The problem for the monotheists is not just that they have a track record that is clearly written in blood throughout their histories. The problem is that also throughout their histories, the Christians and Muslims have bragged openly about their violence towards all those they disagree with, including their fratricidal violence among their own co-religionists.
Consider Religion's as schools that develop our mind and help us transcend our little identification (ego) to realize our infinite Self.

In that light, true relgion must be based on love and nothing else.
Let us not forget that Swami Vivekananda was an enlightened being and the key point of his statements were - Hindu religion was based on love and was not forced upon.

Isn't 'love' the only way to transcend our little 'mind-body-intellect' identities ?

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