World Parliament of Religions
(Chicago, 1893)
   The World Parliament of Religions was the first interfaith religious convention in the West to intro-duce major Eastern religions to a public audience. Held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair, the opening ceremonies were attended by 4,000 people in the newly opened Hall of Columbus. Originally the idea of Charles Carroll Bonney, a Chicago attorney with an interest in comparative religion, the parliament was organized by a Presby-terian minister, John Henry Barrows (1847–1902), as one of 20 congresses covering a number of topics, including women’s progress, temperance, commerce, literature, music, and agriculture. Rep-resentatives of the Roman Catholic Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Confucianism, Buddhism, JAIN-ISM, Hinduism, and Protestantism addressed the audiences over the course of two weeks, creating a climactic event for the closing of the 19th century. A number of Christian faiths refused to send rep-resentatives to a forum that would valorize “false faiths.”
   Unprecedented attention was given to Asian religions; their beliefs and practices were explained directly by adept practitioners from the Orient. Hinduism was represented by Swami VIVEKANANDA and Nara Sima Charyar; JAINISM by Virchand R. Gandhi; the BRAHMO SAMAJ by Protap Chunder Mozoomdar and B. B. Nagarkar; and THEOSOPHY by G. N. Chakravarti. The largest Asian contin-gent was made up of representatives of Buddhism, from Sri Lanka and Japan. The goal was to have a personal spokesperson for every religion, an ambi-tious and impossible ideal to meet. In fact, major Asian religions were represented by practitioners of only one or two sects within each larger reli-gious complex. In the case of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda’s remarks represented VEDANTA phi-losophy and practice but gave no understanding of popular forms of SHAIVISM or VAISHNAVISM.
   Most presentations and papers focused on the areas of agreement between Western and Eastern religions. Several problems between East and West were addressed repeatedly, particularly the misrepresentations of Oriental religions in the West and the destructive ardor and arrogance of Christian missionaries in the East. The entire Sep-tember 22 session was “Criticism and Discussion of Missionary Methods.” Both negative and posi-tive assessments of the parliament were made by missionaries, yet, whatever the final evaluation, missionary delegates revealed a new awareness of the appeal of Asian religion and the need for changes in missionary methods.
   Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, representative of the Brahmo Samaj, while vociferously con-demning the social abuses of India, explained the “world’s religious debt to Asia.” He cited a higher view of nature, recognition of the value of intro-spection, and the crucial roles of devotional activ-ity and self-discipline in a full religious life. His prominence at the world parliament was the sec-ond time he had influenced American audiences with his words of tolerance. His visit in 1883–84 to the United States preceded the parliament by a decade and constituted the first visit of a Hindu teacher to the United States.
   Swami Vivekananda, with fluency in the En glish language and a commanding stage pres-ence, was a sensation with all of his addresses. He became a celebrity as he adroitly rejected, in memorable phrases and stories, Western notions of Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous. Vive-kananda’s clear exposition of tolerance toward other faiths as the essence of Hinduism was a rev-olutionary addition to the West’s understanding.
   The press noted the masterful oration and erudition of Oriental delegates and commented on the arrogance of Western churches that sent partially educated students of theology to instruct the wise and accomplished spiritual leaders of the East. One missionary to India for many years, the Reverend Thomas Slater of the London Mission-ary Society, observed, “The Hindus, by instinct and tradition, are the most religious people in the world.”
   A number of delegates from the East had been or were in 1893 members of the Theosophical Society. Peppered throughout the remarks from Asian representatives were ideas about synthetic religion, a clear influence from Theosophy. The-osophists termed the parliament a “distinctly Theosophical step.”
   Although most of the population of the UNITED STAT E S and the West in general were unaware of the proceedings of the parliament, the concluding remarks of the session lauded the event as per-haps the most important religious gathering ever assembled. The parliament encouraged a growing conviction that the features that believers held in common were essential characteristics of all religions, and that tolerance and charity among all religions were more important than differences in belief. Most certainly, the parliament created a new appreciation of Oriental religions.
   Further reading: John Henry Barrows, ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions, 2 vols. (Chicago: Parliament, 1893); Charles C. Bonney, “The Genesis of the World’s Religious Congresses of 1893,” New Church Review 1 (January 1894): 73–100; Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions and Reli-gious Congresses of the World’s Congress Auxiliary of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, 2 vols. (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1893); Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981); Clay Lancaster, The Incredible World’s Par-liament of Religions at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893: A Comparative and Critical Study (Fontwell, England: Centaur Press, 1987); Richard Hughes Sea-ger, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Bloomington: Indiana Uni-versity Press, 1992).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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