In an unprecedented gathering, more than a dozen orange-swathed Hindu swamis representing every Ramakrishna order center in North America will assemble in Chicago next week and then spend the weekend at a Hindu retreat center in Ganges, Mich.
More than 500 devotees are expected to join the 14 swamis for a conference that will examine their religion in the third millennium, an era that Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna order, called a "golden age of wisdom."
"People are getting involved in problems and crises because they have lost their spiritual identity," said Swami Chidananda, head guru of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society. "It's a kind of awakening for people, this conference."
The swamis who will gather June 22 at the Vivekananda Vedanta Society in Hyde Park include Swami Gautamananda-Chennai, spiritual leader of the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras, India, one of the largest in a Hindu tradition that has about 5,000 American devotees and thousands more worldwide.
Chicago plays an important role in the Ramakrishna religious order and for all Vedanta Hindus because Vivekananda is credited with introducing Hinduism to the West during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Vivekananda traveled to Chicago as a 30-year-old monk, or swami, to participate in the World Parliament of Religions at the world's fair. He became a popular figure after addressing the crowd of religious dignitaries from around the world as "brothers and sisters."
"Swami Vivekananda sowed the seeds at the Parliament of Religions in 1893," Chidananda said. "Now, the seeds are sprouting up."
Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society in New York in 1896, after leaving Chicago.
To this day, devotees from India, where Vivekananda's birthday is a national holiday, travel to Chicago to see where he delivered his speeches and taught his first yoga classes, said Frank Parlato, a yogi and spokesman for the Hyde Park society.
"A lot of the swamis who are coming to town actually consider Chicago to be a thirtha, a place of pilgrimage because of its association with Swami Vivekananda," Parlato said. "They actually come to follow his footsteps."
J.V. Lakshmana Rao, managing editor of the India Tribune, the largest English-language newspaper for Indians and Southeast Asians in the United States, said the conference is a watershed for the Indian community here.
"They want to hear what the swamijis have to say," Rao said. "We are Hindus, but we do not know in depth what our culture and religion say. This gives us an opportunity . . . to learn more about ourselves."
Vivekananda taught that all religions lead to the same goal and the same god. The religious tradition that has grown up around his teachings is far more inclusive than other forms of Hinduism. The worship area in the Hyde Park monastery has images of Vivekananda and his spiritual master, a monk named Sri Ramakrishna, displayed next to icons of Jesus Christ and the Buddha.
"In our particular tradition, the main emphasis is on the harmony among different schools of Hinduism, but also among all religions," said Swami Varadananda, another monk at the Hyde Park monastery. "We see them all as different roads leading to the same place."
Next week's conference, without precedent in scale, will revisit some of Vivekananda's principal ideas and how they can be applied in the new millennium. Among the topics the swamis will lecture about are meditation, compassion for all living beings and the purpose of human life.
"Swamiji says every soul is potentially divine," Chidananda said, referring to Vivekananda. "Your task is to manifest that divine."
WHAT'S A SWAMI?
"Swami" is a title of respect in Indian religions given to a holy man or a religious teacher, kind of like "reverend."
It's a Sanskrit word that means "owner" or "master." Because it is a courtesy title, in different religious traditions the men known as "swami" come to that title in different ways.
In the Hindu Ramakrishna order, any man who is a monk can call himself swami. All monks are swamis, and all swamis are monks, says Swami Chidananda of the Hyde Park Vivekananda Vedanta Society.
But a guru--that word, also from Sanskrit, means "heavy"--is a term the Ramakrishna order bestows only upon men who have special training to be leaders of religious communities, or ashrams. Chidananda, a swami for 45 years, became a guru only in 1993, when he took over as head of the Hyde Park ashram.
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