Despite the continued presence of religious fanaticism and bigotry in the word, the twentieth century has witnessed a significant growth in religious tolerance. The idea that different religions and spiritual traditions have a valid approach is more widespread than at any time. To a large extent, up until the 19th Century, a defining feature of religion was the idea of the one true religion, and through its adherence you were either saved or damned. There was little if any ecumenical tradition and views of other religions were often clouded in myth, superstition or even contempt.
However the ideal of religious harmony is however increasingly shared by many. This essay offers a short look at two Indian Spiritual teachers (Swami Vivekananda and Sri Chinmoy) who have both have made a contribution to furthering religious tolerance.
1893 World Parliament of Religion
A crucial event in shaping a more pluralistic, tolerant view of religions was the inaugural World Parliament of Religions in 1893. As part of the Chicago exhibition it was decided to invite participants from all the main religions. Some suggest the Parliament was founded in the expectation of proving the superiority of Christianity over the other religions. This may or may not have been a partial motive, but the idea of inviting representative from different religions was a relative novel concept and an outreach towards greater tolerance.
The World Parliament of Religions could possibly have passed into relative anonymity had it not been for the participation of the young Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda was a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna a great saint from Bengal, India. Under his guidance Vivekananda had learnt, practised and embodied the ancient ideals of Vedanta. After the passing of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda had taken the vows of a sannyasin devoting his life to God and service of humanity.
Throughout his time in the United States Vivekananda rarely mentioned his master Sri Ramakrishna. He felt it too difficult to explain the spiritual depths of a God Realised soul. Foremost Sri Ramakrishna was a devotee of Mother Kali, but after realising the highest spiritual experience in his own sadhana (spiritual discipline) he was inspired to practise with great devotion, the religious and spiritual disciplines of other religions and sects. Thus Ramakrishna was able to proclaim with the inner certainty of direct experience that all religions led to the same goal. For Ramakrishna the unity of all religions was not just a philosophical idea it was something he had realised and experienced himself.
As the spiritual successor to Ramakrishna it was fitting that Vivekananda would be able to make such a positive impression on the Parliament of World Religions.
In Vivekananda the audience felt a sincere spirituality a religious feeling that was not confrontational but all-inclusive. At his inaugural address Vivekananda began his immortal address with the words:
“sisters and brothers of America…” (1)
Spontaneously the 4,000 audience rose to their feet in appreciation for the sentiments and spirit of his lofty message. Vivekananda continued.
“It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us…”
Swami Vivekananda was chosen to represent Hinduism however he did not try to prove the superiority of his religion. Instead Vivekananda spoke with great sincerity about the harmony of world religions and the common spirituality of humanity. It was this universal message of oneness which captivated the audience.
“As different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.” (1)
Vivekananda proved to be an eloquent exponent of Vedanta and the ideals of all religions. In addition people felt in this handsome and striking Monk a calm detachment, a luminous personality and genuine spirituality. Unexpectedly Vivekananda proved to be the star of the World Parliament of Religions
100 years later another World Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago. The aim was to commemorate the historic Parliament 100 years ago and also to renew the commitment to interfaith dialogue. Since then there have also been Parliaments convened in Cape Town 1999 and Barcelona 2004. In Chicago and Barcelona the opening meditation was led by Sri Chinmoy. During his meditations Sri Chinmoy said
“During my Opening Meditation I am praying for the oneness of all religions.” (2)
Like Vivekananda, Sri Chinmoy comes from India and since his arrival in United States in 1964 he has sought to spread a message of unity and oneness between people of different faiths. In 1970 at the invitation of the then UN secretary general, U Thant Sri Chinmoy has led twice weekly interdenominational meditations at the United Nations. Sri Chinmoy is also the founder of the World Harmony Run; a global relay run seeking to offer a dynamic way of bringing people together in harmony and oneness.
To Sri Chinmoy religious tolerance is of great importance but also Sri Chinmoy suggests tolerance is not the highest ideal, we can go beyond tolerance to feel a oneness and sympathy with other religions in the knowledge all religions are a reflection of the Ultimate Truth
“… I fully agree that all religions lead to one truth, the Absolute truth. There is One truth. There is only one Goal, but there are various paths. Each religion is right in its own way.”
– Sri Chinmoy (3)
To promote world harmony Sri Chinmoy has also travelled around the world offering concerts of prayerful music. Through music Sri Chinmoy says he is able to offer the most to aspiring seekers. When giving lectures there is a separation between the speaker and the audience but through music the audience is able to establish a feeling of oneness with the performer and the music. It is for a similar reason that Sri Chinmoy was most inspired to offer a moments of silence, rather than just give a lecture. Silent meditation is a powerful way of bringing people together.
Throughout 1993 Sri Chinmoy dedicated 39 peace concerts in honour of Swami Vivekananda. Sri Chinmoy wished to honour his pioneering contributions over 100 years ago, especially in the field of religious harmony
“Today’s Peace Concert I am devotedly offering to Swami Vivekananda, the world-teacher, who advised the world to live in the heart-discovered oneness-religion and not in the mind-invented division-religions.”
– Sri Chinmoy (4)
It is not to say intolerance, suspicion are not still common. However the positive view, the idea of religious tolerance, and even the underlying unity of religious paths is an increasingly powerful belief. This essay mentions a little of the contributions of Swami Vivekananda but easily could have chosen many others who have helped to create this growing acceptance of other religions.
- Welcome Address to World Parliament of Religions September 11th 1893 – Swami Vivekananda
- “I Bow To the Soul of the Parliament of Religions Barcelona 2004:” by Sri Chinmoy. Pub Agni Press
- Excerpt from Earth’s Cry Meets Heaven’s Smile, Part 2 by Sri Chinmoy.
- “Vivekananda Soul Heart” by Sri Chinmoy
- Kind Words section at Sri Chinmoy.org
- Opening meditation of World Parliament of Religions 2004 by Sri Chinmoy
- Timeline of religious tolerance
- Quotes on unity in diversity
- Quotes on tolerance
- Religious freedom and ACLU – An extended series of essay son the practicalities of religious tolerance for minority spiritual groups.