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A local interfaith group in Los Angeles began meeting informally in 2002--modeling  itself on the example of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, a global organization headquartered in Chicago, where it was originally founded in 1893.  In preparation for the modern-day Parliament that was to be  held in Barcelona in 2004,  the local Los Angeles group decided to organize a Pre-Parliament Event at the University of the West in Rosemead, CA. When they returned from Barcelona, impacted greatly by their Parliament experience, they continued  meeting and  planning interfaith events. In 2007, when their numbers had grown significantly, they officially launched the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (SCCPWR). Since then the SCCPWR has sponsored and co-sponsored multiple Los Angeles area interfaith events and held annual  retreats.

But to fully understand the significance and raison d'etre of SCCPWR, one has to go back more than 100 years.  Following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Ruth Broyde Sharone's book,  MINEFIELDS & MIRACLES, which details the birth of the original Parliament:

"The very first Parliament held in September of 1893 took place in Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan. It was held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition of the World’s Fair which lasted for about six months, from spring into the early fall of 1893.  The Parliament event marked the first time religious leaders of the East were invited to join with their counterparts in the West for interfaith exchange. Great excitement was generated in the city and at the fair when religious dignitaries descended on Chicago from all around the world. From accounts subsequently published, it was lauded as a singular, unforgettable event, one that opened the doors to new possibilities for international exchange and, more specifically, for the religions of the East and West to engage. The opening day of the conference was September 11, 1893."

One of the stars of the conference turned out to be Swami Vivekananda, 32, a member of the Ramakrishna Order in India, who was urged by his disciples to participate. He made a great splash upon his arrival, with his striking appearance, dress, and manner of speech . . .

His speech to the parliament was described in vivid detail:
His face glowed like fire. He eyes surveyed in a sweep the huge assembly before him. The whole audience grew intent, and then he addressed his audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America.”’ And with that, before he had uttered another word, the whole Parliament was caught up in a great wave of enthusiasm. Hundreds rose to their feet with shouts of applause. The Parliament had gone mad; everyone was cheering, cheering, cheering! The Swami was bewildered. For full two minutes he attempted to speak, but the wild enthusiasm of the audience prevented it.

When silence was restored, the account continues, he quoted two evocative passages from Hindu scriptures:

As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they may appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.

Swami Vivekananda’s words at that first Parliament have been saved, savored, and memorized by many, because in retrospect his words appear to have been prophetic as well as historic.
Here are the concluding lines of Vivekananda’s address:

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.  But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."


Outline of “Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament and After”

Talk given at the Claremont School of Theology Convivality Conference
February 23, 2012

Main Thesis:
I want with the help of a particular historical example to explore some of the nuances of conviviality and religious pluralism.  The particular example is the partnership of Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836-1886), hereafter “R,” and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), hereafter “V.” They are often compared to Socrates and Plato or Jesus and St. Paul—the charismatic master and his gifted disciple. 

Historical Context: 

British rule in India from 1757-1947 preceded by almost two centuries of Moghul rule from roughly 1526-1757.  These two periods of colonial rule generated cultural and religious encounters with imperial powers. A civilization encountering colonial rule obviously displays a wide range of reactions—acceptance, rejection, resistance, and selective adaptation—and different modalities and degrees of these reactions.

Ramakrishna and Vivekananda compared:
A barely literate religious genius on the one hand and an intellectual and philosopher on the other.  R. was a mystic who had not only gone through the whole range of Hindu spiritual disciplines but also claimed to have had Christian and Islamic mystical experiences.  On the basis of this experience, he could claim that “the substance is one though that one substance is differently named.”  In spite of their social, intellectual, and temperamental differences, R. appointed V. as his chosen successor though he left the organizational details indeterminate.

V. fulfilled this charge first by speaking at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago and second by going about the task of forming centers which would propagate the neo-Hindu vision of his master, R. However, these centers were also dedicated to social reform and social service.  One of his purposes was clearly to boost the self-confidence of his fellow Hindus and instill a sense of pride in their spiritual culture.

The intellectual-spiritual basis for this dual mission was still the idea of the unity of all religions, but now argued for not on the basis of mystical experience but on philosophical grounds of sanatana dharma, the eternal religion.

Vivekananda at 1893 Chicago Parliament
a. The Context   b. The Message   c.  The Impact of the Message

Analysis and Critique of  Vivekananda’s Inclusivistic Stance
a.Differences between Inclusivism, Pluralism, and Tolerance
b.Dangers of Inclusivism

A retrospective analysis of R. and V.’s religious views.

Joseph Prabhu
California State University, Los Angeles

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