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People & Ideas: Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda

Source: Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi

A follower of the Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu monk who introduced Hinduism to the United States in the late 19th century. Wide-ranging in his intellect, Vivekananda studied Western logic, philosophy, history, classical music and Indian Sanskrit scripture. His teachers considered him a prodigy.

At the age of 30, Vivekananda first visited the United States in 1893 as a delegate to the World's Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. In his opening remarks, he greeted the assembled gathering with the words "Sisters and Brothers of America." The 7,000 people in attendance rose to their feet for an ovation lasting more than three minutes. Vivekananda proceeded to give a brief but eloquent speech that celebrated toleration and condemned fanaticism and its ills: "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true."

Continuing in this vein, Vivekananda went on to quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their waters in the sea, so, Oh Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

Swathed in his orange turban, Vivekananda became the star of the Parliament. The New York Herald wrote: "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation."

Following the Parliament, Vivekananda continued to attract attention, delivering lectures on Hindu philosophy and popularizing the practice of yoga. He founded the Vedanta Society in New York and established chapters in Boston and San Francisco. Vivekananda died on July 4, 1902, less than nine years after his appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions.

His ideas were admired by renowned thinkers and writers, including Robert Ingersoll, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

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Published October 11, 2010

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