Area Hindus immortalize famous cleric
By Cathleen Falsani
July 05, 1998
A Chicago street is named for him.
A plaque inside the Art Institute bears
a tribute to him.
And next Sunday, several thousand
people, some from as far away as India,
are expected to attend the unveiling of a
10-foot bronze statue of his likeness at a
temple in Lemont.
But do you know who Swami
The first Hindu monk to come
to the West, Swami Vivekananda
made his American debut at the
1893 World Parliament of Religions during the
The 30-year-old monastic
stole the show at
and won world-wide fame by
was the first Hindu
monk to come to the
five simple words:"Sisters and brothers of America"
Through his addresses on the integrity
of all religions and oneness of all people,
Vivekananda is credited variously with
spurring religious tolerance, awakening
modern interest in spirituality, catalyzing the Indian Freedom Movement and
introducing yoga to the United States.
"He was one of the first ways Hinduism was introduced to the West," said
Dirk Ficca, director of the Metropolitan
Chicago Interreligious Initiative, a project of the Council for a Parliament of the
"It was the quality of his rhetoric, the
message of the need to end religious
bloodshed and the need for tolerance,
that made his message so powerful at
that time and it's still relevant today."
Vivekananda impressed the American
audience with articulate and profound
speeches and with a vast knowledge of
religion and philosophy. He changed the
way many Westerners thought about
"He was the first person who actually
succeeded at getting people to look at
Hinduism as something beyond superstition and idolatry," said Jim Lochtefeld, a
religion professor at Carthage College in
In India, where Vivekananda's birthday is a national holiday, schoolchildren
study his teachings and his journey to
"When I was growing up, this was a
separate chapter in our history books."
said Ashok Easwaran, Chicago bureai
chief for India Abroad, the largest Indian
newspaper outside of India.
"He is revered as one of our greatest
saints. Everyone knows who he is,'
Born Narendranath Dutta in 1863 tc
an upper-caste Bengal family
Vivekananda studied western philosophy in college and later enrolled in law
In his late teens, Vivekananda met Sri
Ramakrishna, a monk who pursued the
young man, believing he possessed extraordinary spiritual potential. Vivekananda was not a particularly religious man,
eschewing the traditional Hindu worship
with its many deities and rituals.
After a few years of rejecting Ramakrishna's spiritual instruction, Vivekananda became one of his disciples,
championing his swami's message that all religions lead to the
Shortly after Ramakrishna's
death in 1886, Vivekananda
became a monk and wandered
through India for a few years.
Legends say he walked from the
Himalayas to the southernmost
tip of the subcontinent, swam out
to a tiny island and had a spiritual revelation.
When he returned to the mainland he decided to go to the West,
to the World Parliament of Religions.
"He wanted to appeal to the
West to save India," said Frank
Parlato, a yogi and Vivekananda
scholar who lives at the
Vivekananda Vedanta Society in
"At the time there were millions of Indians eating only one
meal a day and that of wildflowers," Parlato said.
A wealthy maharaja bought
him a rust-colored robe and saffron turban and paid for his passage to Vancouver, British
Columbia, where he arrived July
At first he was rejected by Parliament officials, who said he did
not have proper clerical credentials and had not registered in
time to participate
But after a wealthy Chicago
family befriended him and introduced him to a Harvard University professor who vouched for
his authenticity as a learned
monk, Vivekananda was invited
to join the Parliament activities.
He hopped a train back to
Chicago and. practically penniless, spent the night in an open
boxcar at the train station, just
two days before he would become
a worldwide phenom.
Vivekananda delivered several
speeches during the 17 days of
the Parliament. Then he was
signed by a rather unscrupulous
lecture bureau, which advertised
his lectures throughout the Midwest as the "Cyclonic Hindoo"—
something of a sideshow attraction, Parlato said.
On Jan. 1, 1895. Vivekananda
taught the first yoga class in
Chicago and soon after headed to
New York. where he continued to
lecture, preach and give yoga
His fame and popularity
among the socially and intellectually elite inspired a hit Broadway musical, "My Friend from
India." in which a nouveau rich
family attains entrance into high
society by dressing up their butler like a Hindu monk.
Vivekananda published what
are thought to be the first Western book on yoga, "Karma Yoga"
and "Raja Yoga," in 1896. He also
traveled to England and Europe,
winning many followers before
Vivekananda returned to
India in 1897 to a triumphal
reception. In Calcutta. 20,000
people greeted him at the train
station: in Madras, the city was
shut down for more than a week
in celebration of his arrival, Parlato said.
"Simple folk thought he had
converted the whole West," he
said. "He stimulated them out of
their lethargy ...showed them
that Hinduism was not dead."
When the plague broke out in
Calcutta, Vivekananda drafted a
plague manifesto and, broom in
hand, swept filth from the city's
open sewers himself. "Through
his efforts the plague was conquered." Parlato said.
Out of the plague efforts.
Vivekananda established the
Ramakrisna Mission, today the
largest social service agency in
India, and the Ramakrishna
monastic order. There are 138
Ramakrishna monasteries and
missions worldwide, including 12
in the United States. Parlato said.
Vivekananda died at age 39 on
The Vivekananda Vedanta
Society is a branch of his mission
and monastic order. In 1929, a
monastery was established in
Chicago. About 30 years ago, the
Vivekananda Vedanta Society
moved into a building on Hyde
Park Boulevard, thought lo be the
former residence of Al Capone'a
brother. Five monks and a few
other followers live there today
Thousands of visitors come to
the Vedanta Society each year.
Parlato said, many making the
pilgrimage to Chicago to see
where Vivekananda made his
first impact on the world scene.
Vivekananda and his followers
adhere to a more intellectualized
and inclusive form of Hinduism
than what is traditionally practiced by many Hindus in India, Lochtefeld said.
A worship area in the Hyde
Park monastery includes images
of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda alongside icons of Jesus Christ
"You can follow any path you
want. but you are reaching the
same goal." explained Swami
Chidananda. head monk at the
Hyde Park monastery "You pick
the path you want." Today there are about as many
American-born followers of
Vivekananda's teachings as
native Indians, and it is not
uncommon to hear the devout
describe themselves with amalgamated labels like "Hindu
Christian" or "Buddhist-Hindu."
"He did preach the integrity of
all religions." Lochtefeld said. "He
wanted to promote religious tolerance. This sort of tolerance at the
time was not very common, particularly for people who are were
beyond the JudeoChristian pale.
"He was more than a bit of an
Vivekananda's followers have
been a driving force behind inter-faith dialogue in Chicago, one of
the most religiously diverse cities
in the world, according to the Rev.
Stan Davia, executive director of
the Chicago's National Conference, a group that promotes
"They have brought glory to
themselves and in that light of
glory, really acted as a window
through which many other non-Western religions have been
Contact Frank Parlato Jr.