Looking Back on Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago Address

A hundred and twenty four years and one day ago, on 11th September, 1893, Swami Vivekananda took to stage at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago and uttered those wonderful words which have since inspired generations of youth.

As a student of the Ramakrishna Mission school system, I have remained enchanted by his words and his works, which have played a definite role in the way I look at life. So, imagine my surprise, when, a while back, someone forwarded me a message with an audio clip attached, which proclaimed that it was the rarest of rare captures and was the real audio of the Swami’s words, held frozen in time:



Clearly, I was skeptical about this claim and a little digging around proved me to be right. Multiple sources emerged which clearly pointed out logically why this was NOT the original recording. Although most websites were prone to gush over the fact that this was the Swami’s voice, my skepticism paid off when I landed on an issue of the Vedanta Keshari, in which an article written by MS Nanjundiah (MSN) laid out threadbare the reasons why this recording was not the Swami’s real voice. In this article, MS contends:

The author has reviewed the position regarding the technology available in US in 1893 for voice recording and the manner in which the recordings were made—record making required the person to speak into a mouthpiece attached to a diaphragm which was connected to a stylus that etched vibration patterns from a sound source on a rotating cylinder (The Berliner Gramophone, which could record on discs for 2 minutes only, became popular in USA only in 1894). Only ‘two minute’ cylinders were in use and these could record for only 2 to 3 minutes. Recordings outside studios were not practicable; getting an acceptable quality involved a lot of effort even in studios. In view of the limitations of the technology, a recording of the sessions at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 would not have happened.

MSN concludes the article emphatically stating that this recording is not the original and provides evidence from the correspondence of Swami Vivekananda to further establish this:

Also one recording that is circulating has a lady introducing Swami Vivekananda. This shows it is not genuine. Swami Vivekananda himself has said in a letter written to Alasinga Perumal [an admirer of Swamiji from Madras] on 2 November 1893 that Dr Barrows introduced him; also that the applause after his opening statement, ‘Sisters and Brothers. . . ’ lasted two minutes. The applause in the recording is only a few seconds. There is another aspect. Recordings of that era (such as Edison cylinder recordings) when retrieved after many years have an ‘accumulated noise’ which, if removed, will distort the sound; the recording under circulation has no such noise.

An article in The Hindu, which laments the end of the search/speculation whether the Swami’s voice was recorded or not, refers to Marie Louise Burke, a researcher who has studied Swamiji’s travels through the Western world, and states:

During her visit to the Belur Math in January 1994, Marie Louise Burke, a researcher on the Swami’s visit to the West, said that according to two historians who specialised in that period of American history and according to her own searches, the Swami’s speech was not recorded.

MSN contacted the Research Wing of the Chicago Historical Society, and the Art Institute Archives, Chicago, asking whether any recordings were made at the Parliament of World’s Religions. Further, the Art Institute Archives confirmed that: “‘There is no indication that any voice recordings were made at the Congress”.

However, the objective of my sitting down to write this piece today was not to call out the audio as fake, but to actually reflect on the need and relevance of the Swami’s words in the context of today’s world. In his welcome address, he quotes two verses – one from the Shivamahimna Stotra and another from the Bhagavad Gita 

As the 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.
रुचीनां वैचित्र्यादृजुकुटिल नानापथजुषां
नृणामेको गम्यस्त्वमसि पयसामर्णव इव॥


Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.
ये यथा मां प्रपद्यन्ते तांस्तथैव भजाम्यहम् |
मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्या: पार्थ सर्वश: ||



Swamiji went on to decry the evils of “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism”, and he fervently hoped “that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal” – a realization we are no closer to achieving in 2017 than we were in 1893. In his eyes, Hinduism was, at once, a religion, which nurtured the ideals of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, as it was a civilization, a way of life – as reflected in his pronouncement that it was Hinduism that provided the fleeing, persecuted religions with a safe haven. In an era when the world is being torn apart by sectarianism and dogma, where the trust between man is getting eroded slowly but surely, these words of the Swami ring with prophetic premonition. Perhaps it is today that we need to grasp the Swami’s doctrine of “sarva dharma samnwaya” (the unified, peaceful coexistence of all religion) harder than ever before.

A century and a bit after the fiery Swami’s proclamations rocked the world, we are still looking at him, hoping to find guidance. Hoping to find the formula which helps to mitigate the divisive forces of “sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism” at bay, it is time for us to look deeper into his words and find their true meaning. Rather than converting his extremely quotable speeches into jingoistic “motivation” banners, we need to feel the truth that rings in them, the fact that these words were often meant for people across religions, castes, creeds and colors – so that we can crack the puzzle that he exemplified in his speech “Why we disagree“:

I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you of America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours, and hope that, in the future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose.

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