A century-and-a-quarter after Swami Vivekananda’s rousing speech to the World Parliament of Religions here in 1893, the World Hindu Congress has declared its objective to re-connect the 1.1 billion Hindus worldwide with their common heritage and their spiritual link to people of all other denominations.
For three days, beginning September 7, about 2,300 delegates will converge at the Westin Hotel in Lombard, a Chicago suburb, to deliberate, introspect and draw out a plan of action in keeping with the World Hindu Congress conference motto derived from Chapter 37 of the Hindu epic Mahabharata — Sumantrite Suvikrante (Think Collectively, Act Valiantly) and from the Rig Veda: Sam Gacchadhvam Sam Vadadhvam (Stay Together, Express Together).
The Westin Hotel is some 32 km from the Art Institute of Chicago, where Vivekananda’s bust commemorates the spot he spoke from.
Many religious leaders are scheduled to attend the Hindu Congress conference. A video message from the Dalai Lama, who had to drop out due to frail health, will be screened. Speakers in the various events include professor Ved Nanda of the University of Denver; Lord Jitesh Gadhia, the youngest Briton of Indian origin in the House of Lords; Swati Dandekar, a former legislator from Iowa; Congressman Raja Krishnmoorthi; Columbia professor Arvind Panagariya, a former economic advisor to the Indian government; and the actor, Anupam Kher.
The overwhelming majority of the 2,300 delegates — 1,300 — are from North America, with other delegates coming from 60 countries.
For Indian immigrants, much has changed in Chicago since 1893. Over a century ago, Vivekananda spent a night shivering in a railway yard before a Good Samaritan took him in. He cut an exotic figure in his flowing robes, with passersby pulling at his saffron turban as he walked on the streets.
At the parliament, Americans heard a Hindu monk speak on behalf of his religion for the first time. Today, Chicago and its suburbs have more than a dozen expansive Hindu temples. Discourses by the likes of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev attract packed audiences.
The faith’s underlying message, in 1893 and 2018, is unity and tolerance. In his now famous speech, Vivekananda, who is regarded by many as more of a social reformer than a religious leader, spoke of the fact that India has sheltered “the remnants of the Israelites who came to South India seeking refugee from Roman tyranny, and remnants of the grand Zoroastrian nation”.
Another common message, then and now, is of dharma-righteousness for its own sake. Following his speech, an American journalist commented: “Vivekananda’s address before the parliament was broad as the heavens above us, embracing the best in all religions, as the ultimate universal religion — charity to all mankind, good works for the love of God, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward.”
The Hindu Congress conference, in the estimation of the organisers, has almost similar ambitions, an indication that Hinduism’s core message is timeless and unchanging.
“There will be no spiritual discourses,” conference convener Abhaya Asthana said in an interview. “The aim is to use the essence of Hindu philosophy, dharma, to inform how we come together (in the diaspora) as men, women and youth — in politics, education and commerce.”
Asthana noted that despite the fact that Hindus have done well individually in North America, they do not have collective clout, a deficiency that the conference will deliberate on. “We are almost there in the social media, but we need more impact in politics, commerce and technology,” he said.
Do Hindus, especially those in alien lands, need to take a long hard look at Hinduism? This is a question that hangs uneasily in the air when Indian Americans talk of current events in India.
But Asthana is sanguine. “We do not have to redefine dharma. The philosophy is sound, the principles are sound. Ahinsa (non-violence) is ingrained. All we need to do is to live our lives rooted in the philosophy of service and tolerance.
“We want to connect all Hindus worldwide as well as reach out to all others for the happiness of all living creatures,” Asthana said.
The pervasive, although often unspoken, apprehension, that religion is the great divider of modern times, has persisted since the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893.
The solution, as propounded by various speakers at the parliament, then, was an all-embracing universalism that envisioned a coming together of the great religions of the world.
Racism, xenophobia and intolerance were unaddressed issues when Vivekananda spoke in Chicago.
Poor immigrants from southern Europe, including many Jews fleeing Russia, had arrived in the United States at the time. Nativist feelings inspired laws designed to limit the entry of immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 and the Immigration Restriction League in 1894.
The parliament chairman, Presbyterian minister John Henry Barrows, noted the scepticism: “Many felt that religion was an element of perpetual discord, which should not be thrust in amid the magnificent harmonies of a fraternal assembly of nations. On the other hand, it was felt that the tendencies of modern civilisation were toward unity.” The one word that tolled like a bell through the halls of the parliament was “universalism”.
Vivekananda, in his address to the final session of the parliament, elaborated on the theme: “My thanks to this enlightened audience for their uniform kindness to me and for their appreciation of every thought that tends to smooth the friction of religions. A few jarring notes were heard from time to time in this harmony. My special thanks to them, for they have, by their striking contrast, made general harmony the sweeter.”
Despite the passing of a century, participants at the World Hindu Congress conference may well find the tools to overcome the impediments in the path of righteousness unchanged.
In addition to unity and tolerance, dharma inspires us to “stand up for justice”, said Ashtana, scientist at the Nokia Bell Labs, who works on Artificial Intelligence and neural networks, offering another quote from the Mahabharat — Yato Dharmastato Jayaha (Whence Dharma, Thence Victory).
(Ashok Easwaran is an American journalist of Indian origin. He has reported from North America for over two decades. The views expressed are personal.He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
— This commentary first appeared August 28 in Indo Asian News Service