To understand the monumental impact of Swami Vivekananda’s memorable speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893, we must first remember the world situation during his time.
The late 19th century was the height of the colonial era. Extensive regions of the world, including India, were under an oppressive foreign rule. This rule was not just military and economic but also cultural and religious. Native peoples of North and South America, extending to Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands were discouraged or prevented from practicing their native religions and targeted for conversion by force, allurements, or deception. Many native traditions did not survive the onslaught. Even major ancient world religions like Hinduism and Buddhism were denigrated as heathen, polytheistic and uncivilised, and concerted efforts were made to weaken or eliminate them.
India was the main battleground of this colonial devastation. Hindus in particular were taught they were inferior racially and mentally and should abandon their traditional culture and values for those of the West. Only western educated Indians were afforded respect, but to be put to the task of sepoys for Europeanising their society, which also meant making it Christian.
Swami Vivekananda stepped out into this colonially dominated world where a Hindu point of view was afforded no credibility. The United States was a colonial power and American Christian missionaries were active worldwide, including in India. He had to face hostility wherever he went in the West.
Yet this young Hindu sadhu changed the civilisational narrative and brought a new spiritual vision into the world. This Vivekananda did by the power of his own character, the grace of his guru, and his inner realisation. He was able to share Hindu Dharma through its Yoga and Vedanta teachings with a new receptive audience worldwide. Let us look at a few key points for how he accomplished this amazing task.
From religious belief to experiential spirituality
Colonial missionaries taught religion as a belief that would take you to heaven, while not accepting it would condemn you to hell. This has been the main focus of Christianity all along but they gave it the power of a proposed superior civilisation.
Swami Vivekananda rejected such mere beliefs and taught an experiential spirituality instead. He demonstrated that true spirituality is not a matter of belief or even charity and good conduct, but extends to individual practices of yoga, introspection and meditation so that we can experience the Divine directly within ourselves – something unheard of in the missionary realm. He shared the spiritual wealth of India of the paths of yoga, pranayama, mantra, meditation and samadhi, to a world hungry for a deeper knowledge that it had been deprived of for centuries.
Since Vivekananda this movement of experiential spirituality has expanded in many directions and has influenced science, art and medicine, as Swamiji foresaw. The old belief and save model of religion is now ejected by intelligent and aware individuals throughout the world.
From God to Self-realisation
Swamiji emphasised the Vedantic view that the goal of life is Self-realisation, which means realising that in our core essence we are one with the Self of all beings. This idea of Self or Atman is very different than the missionary idea of a God who saves us from on high. For this we must know ourselves, which requires that we look and live within. Experiential spirituality aims at Self-realisation more than any faith, theology, or idea of God. If God is apart from ourselves, such a God cannot help us. If God or the Divine is our true Self, it is inner meditation we need, not accepting some Supreme Being or One God as all knowing or all powerful in the distance.
From historical based religions to a cosmic vision
The turn of the twentieth century marked a major shift in scientific vision through the work of Albert Einstein, who taught the relativity of time and space and shared a new vision of the unbounded universe. Swamiji similarly recast religion and spirituality as an inner science of consciousness for understanding the universe as a whole.
Swamiji brought Yoga, Vedanta and Hinduism to the world as part of a global spiritual transformation from outer religious beliefs to inner spiritual practices, allowing each individual to discover the higher truth within his or her own nature.
That one young sadhu could accomplish so much in a short time remains an inspiration not only for the youth but for everyone today. Science has created a powerful new information technology but has yet to unfold the deeper science of consciousness that has been suggested from Einstein to Quantum Physics. The vision of Swami Vivekananda can guide us to another transformation in civilisation from outer technology to an age of higher awareness.