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Sitting in the Heart of the World

by Ellen Grace O’Brian
Vice-Chair, CPWR Board of Trustees

As a practitioner of yoga, I was aware of the Parliament of the World’s Religions as the watershed interreligious event that opened the door to yoga in the West through Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic presence at the first convening in 1893. What I didn’t know was that beginning in 1993, this powerful global event was now occurring approximately every five years and was open to everyone with an interest in the interreligious movement. Although I had heard about the Parliaments in Chicago (1993) and South Africa (1999), it wasn’t clear to me how to participate and that it was something that could so profoundly affect my life and my community.

Curiosity has a way of helping us discover doorways that we didn’t know existed. In 2002, I learned about a local group of people meeting in someone’s home to talk about the next Parliament event slated to convene in Barcelona in 2004. Between homemade soup, networking, and sharing about why we thought it could make a difference to bring people together, I found myself on the path to the fourth global parliament event. This local connection with people who had been to other parliaments, and those who, like me, were just learning about it, was invaluable. It provided inspiration as well as information. Little did I know I was already engaged in one of the hallmarks of the Parliament: bringing people together in ways that empower and equip them to solve the problems we face in our world today.

When I checked in at my first Parliament in Barcelona, I was overwhelmed by the abundance of programs and events, the sight of so many people from different religious traditions and far reaches of the globe engaging in dialog, and the inspiration that pervaded everything from the meeting place to the program book. After a time of prayerful consideration about what I should chose amidst such rich opportunity, I dove in. One of the things I decided to participate in was a dialog with others who were concerned about the rise of religiously motivated violence in our world.

The dialog group I was assigned to included a Hindu man from India; a Muslim woman from Egypt, a Christian seminary student from the US, a Catholic woman from Rome, and a Lutheran man from Switzerland. We were provided with some questions to reflect upon and discuss. Why was this issue important to us? What in our own experience had contributed to why we cared about violence in our world? What could we see ourselves doing we returned home to our own communities that would make a difference?

As I sat with this group of people from religions, countries, and viewpoints different from mine, something became apparent that changed everything for me: we all shared a deep concern about this issue and a belief, grounded in our diverse traditions, that peaceful change was possible. The experience of connection across differences was profound, I felt like I was sitting in the heart of the world. We were inspired to return home and engage in action. Then it came to me. I live in a large, diverse, metropolitan area. I realized that if people who were concerned about the rise of violence in our own community gathered together, that group would look very much like the one I was with in distant Barcelona. And, with a similar rich diversity, we could find ways together to begin to solve this problem.

When I returned home with this inspiration from the Parliament, I reached out and was joined by leaders from different faith communities, educational institutions, government and nonprofit organizations, students and community members who met to convene a community nonviolence conference. Inspired by the Parliament model, hundreds of people have attended these conferences over the years and brought forth their own commitments to action.

Whenever I think about what the Parliament does, or what it means to attend such a global gathering, I remember my experience of sitting in the heart of the world. And I think about what happens when people come together and share their deepest concerns and aspirations for a peaceful world.

Rev. Ellen Grace O’Brian is the Spiritual Director of the Center for Spiritual Enlightenment, a ministry in the tradition of Kriya Yoga. She was ordained to teach in 1982 by Roy Eugene Davis, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. She is the author of several books on spiritual practice and is the editor of the quarterly magazine, Enlightenment Journal.

Rev. O’Brian is the Founder of Meru Seminary, training leaders in the Kriya Yoga tradition, as well as Founder and Chair of the community nonprofit educational organization, Carry the Vision, which provides educational programs in nonviolence. She received the 2008 Human Relations Award from the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations recognizing her contribution to positive human relations and peace in Santa Clara County. She serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Association for Global New Thought; on the Executive Board of the International New Thought Alliance; and as Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

How Yoga Won the West

Vivekananda in Chicago, 1893. (Vedanta Society of Southern California)

by Ann Louise Bardach
from New York Times

Ann Louise Bardach is a writer at large for Newsweek. She is working on a biography of Vivekananda.

The party planning is in full swing throughout India. Never mind that the big day, Jan. 12, 2013, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vivekananda, is more than 15 months away. Not too long ago, Vivekananda, a household name in his homeland, was famous here as well, as the first missionary from the East to the West.

If you’re annoyed that your local gas station is now a yoga studio, you might blame Vivekananda for having introduced “yoga” into the national conversation — though an exercise cult with expensive accessories was hardly what he had in mind.

The Indian monk, born Narendranath Datta to an aristocratic Calcutta family, alighted in Chicago in 1893 in ochre robes and turban, with little money after a daunting two-month trek from Bombay. Notwithstanding the fact that he had spent the previous night sleeping in a boxcar, the young mystic made an electrifying appearance at the opening of the august Parliament of Religions that Sept. 11.

For most of the rest of the month, Vivekananda held the conference’s 4,000 attendees spellbound in a series of showstopping improvised talks. He had simplified Vedanta thought to a few teachings that were accessible and irresistible to Westerners, foremost being that “all souls are potentially divine.” His prescription for life was simple, and perfectly American: “work and worship.” By the end of his last Chicago lecture on Sept. 27, Vivekananda was a star. And like the enterprising Americans he so admired, he went on the road to pitch his message — dazzling some of the great minds of his time.

Yet precious few of the estimated 16 million supple, spandex-clad yoginis in the United States, who sustain an annual $6 billion industry, seem to have a clue that they owe their yoga mats to Vivekananda. Enriching this irony was Vivekananda’s utter lack of interest in physical exertions beyond marathon sitting meditations and pilgrimages to holy sites.

“You are not your body,” he often reminded Americans, who tend to prefer “doing” over “being.” More distressing, for some, was his other message: “You are not your mind.”

Click here to read the full article

October 15th, 2011 at 10:04 am

Hindu Community Makes Its White House Debut

by Joshua Stanton
from Huffington Post

Hinduism is hardly new to the United States. Swami Vivekenanda is thought to have first introduced it when he visited as part of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. He received a standing ovation from the 7,000 people in audience, whom he declared his “Sisters and Brothers of America.”

In spite of Vivekenanda’s reception, subsequent series of lectures, and ultimately the establishment of the Vedantic Society of New York, with satellites in Boston and San Francisco, Hinduism remained a tiny presence in the United States for decades. It was but a demographic trickle. Only after 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which eased immigration from India and the rest of Asia to the United States, did the population of Hindus begin to grow. They now comprise a reputed .4 percent of the U.S. Population or, depending on whose arithmetic, 1.2 million people.

And what a population it is! According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, nearly half of Hindus living in the United States in 2009 had a post-graduate degree, by far the highest percentage of any community and five times the national average. As a population, they appear to be socially mobile and rising quickly within American society.

Hindu communal organizations similarly appear to be burgeoning; there may be as many as 1,600 Hindu Temples and centers across the country. And now the Hindu community is developing a national infrastructure.

Click here to read the full article

Vivekananda speaks to Norway

by William Lesher

The hearts and prayers of people of goodwill everywhere go out to the people of Norway and to the families of those killed and wounded in the recent bombing and senseless slaying of young people.  It is especially painful when such tragic acts are in any way associated with misguided religious overtones.

The poignant words of Swami Vivekananda in his opening speech at the first Parliament in 1893 come readily to mind:

“Sectarian bigotry and its horrible descendent fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.”

How relevant this 118 year old statement is to this current situation.  Vivekananda ends by declaring, “ But their time has come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolls this morning may be the death knell of all fanaticism…”

Given the aura of contentiousness, conflict and confusion that hangs over the global social order today, it is doubtful that violent acts against people and property can be prevented.  It is, nevertheless, Vivekananda’s fervent hope that still motivates the Parliament of the World’s Religions and all expressions of the interreligious movement.

At the Barcelona Parliament in 2004, hundreds of participants attended workshops on “Religiously Motivated Violence” and made commitments to stand with people of other faiths whenever lives are threatened or property is defaced or destroyed.  Currently the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions encourages religious and spiritual communities everywhere to adopt a “Solidarity Pledge” as a minimal expression of their harmony, support and respect for people of other faiths.  In the greater Los Angeles area where I live, a group has recently formed called “Interfaith Witnesses for Peace,” pledged to gather on short notice, as a silent testimony to peace, wherever a religious community is threatened.

The tragedy in Norway is another occasion for us all to reassess our personal commitment and that of our religious communities, to active expressions of peace-building.  Are we building bridges to other faith communities?  Are we teaching and preaching respect for other religions, providing opportunities to learn what others believe and how to best share our beliefs with them?  Are we exploring ways to work together for the common good?  Are we mobilized to act, as a powerful presence of solidarity and love when tragedy strikes.

It is our engagement in interreligious actions like these that keep Vivekananda’s fervent hope alive.

Dharmic Seva and Vivekananda: The Catalyst to Building Pluralistic Communities

by Anju Bhargava from Huffington Post

The Dharmic American community has an immense, untapped potential to serve at home and abroad. Dharmic Seva can become a catalyst to strengthening and building pluralistic communities. Our ancient expression, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The Whole World is One Family) is a key principle driving Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) as we prepare for the first historic briefing at the White House, followed by the conference at Georgetown University.

The theme of the event is “Energizing Dharmic Seva (Service): Impacting Change in America and Abroad,” and is designed to inspire all toward community service. We will explore ways to further strengthen America through service and honor those within our community who have served, are serving and will serve. We have an impressive slate of speakers coming to share their perspectives.

As we started our journey to impact change and encourage new service ideas, HASC sponsored a widespread civic and service participation essay contest to develop service plans. The winners of the contest will be recognized by HASC at the White House briefing on the 29th. With their Seva Plan we expect our participants to become change makers as they become part of expanding the ongoing seva movement. They will play a role in America valuing the talents of its diverse faiths, its pluralistic multicultural communities, the New Americans. As a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in our report we recommended and are now implementing interfaith cooperation and community service as an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.

We asked our community to tell us: What role does your dharma (religion/faith/spirituality) play in civic engagement, social justice and development issues? How do you propose to establish and expand seva (service) on campus, places of worship, yoga centers, in towns, cities or rural areas (for example through “seva centers” or virtual hubs)? What other ways will you grow the faith and/or interfaith seva movement? What is the change you want to see in yourself and in your communities by doing selfless service?

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“God in America” website features Swami Vivekananda

From PBS

A follower of the Indian mystic Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu monk who introduced Hinduism to the United States in the late 19th century. Wide-ranging in his intellect, Vivekananda studied Western logic, philosophy, history, classical music and Indian Sanskrit scripture. His teachers considered him a prodigy.

At the age of 30, Vivekananda first visited the United States in 1893 as a delegate to the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. In his opening remarks, he greeted the assembled gathering with the words “Sisters and Brothers of America.” The 7,000 people in attendance rose to their feet for an ovation lasting more than three minutes. Vivekananda proceeded to give a brief but eloquent speech that celebrated toleration and condemned fanaticism and its ills: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Continuing in this vein, Vivekananda went on to quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their waters in the sea, so, Oh Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

Click here to read the entire article.

New Play Captures Spirit of Vivekananda

From The Hindu

Like the protagonist of his solo play on Swami Vivekananda, singer-actor Shekhar Sen won the hearts of one and all.

The life and vision of the man divine, Swami Vivekananda was presented by Impresario India in an incredible musical play written, composed and enacted by the renowned actor-singer Shekhar Sen from Mumbai at Kamani auditorium this past week. The outstanding performance of this gifted artiste encompassed the life of the patriot saint whose vision of shared spirituality and eloquent message at the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago conquered the hearts of people from across the world. Disclosing the making of this dynamic saint, the two-hour long riveting play unfolds the stories of his childhood, the impact of the Brahmo-Samaj on him, his eagerness to find God and meeting his revered mentor Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, his unforgettable Chicago speech, and so on.

A talented singer, composer, lyricist and actor, Sen left the audience awestruck, debating whether he was a better singer or actor, after his spellbinding performance as Vivekananda. With a solid background provided by his initial training in classical music from an early age under his parents Anita and Arun Kumar Sen, both renowned vocalists of the Gwaliar gharana, Shekhar later established his distinct identity by singing poetry of the medieval poets. He has done more than 1500 shows across the world. With 190 cassettes and CDs to his credit, he has also sung for the record-breaking serial “Ramayana”. After the resounding success of his musical mono-acts on Goswami Tulsidas and Kabeer, “Vivekananda” represents yet another milestone for this gem of an artiste.

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Art Installation References 9/11, First Parliament

Kallat’s installation at the Art Institute of Chicago

Kallat’s installation at the Art Institute of Chicago

Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat’s site-specific installation on the Art Institute’s grand staircase considers the events of September 11, 2001 in light of September 11, 1893, when Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda’s landmark speech about global religious tolerance was delivered at the First World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, just feet away inside the museum’s auditorium. The force of visual impact in the artist’s installation keeps its commentary on the regression of religious tolerance and the global rise of fanaticism from feeling secondhand or pious. Kallat converts the entirety of Vivekananda’s speech into a permanent LED display that takes up both rises of the grand staircase, a site previously mined by artist Daniel Buren. It’s surprising how strongly Kallat’s piece resonates with the permanent collection objects surrounding it; the text reflects off the windows of the Buddhist art gallery on the first floor and draws attention to the great divide between this tradition and the Impressionists on the other side of the stairs. Kallat’s choice to reference the events of 9/11 with the colors of the Department of Homeland Security’s alert system is an easy symbolic gesture of terror’s infection on speech that’s nonetheless usefully confrontational. (Monica Westin)

read the full review on newcity.com

New Art Reflects on 9/11, Religious Tolerance

September 11, 2010-January 2, 2011

CHICAGO—The Art Institute of Chicago will present a site-specific installation on the anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech of September 11, 1893 to the first World Parliament of Religions. In a new work entitled Public Notice 3, artist Jitish Kallat connects the date of Swami Vivekananda’s address to the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in a meditation on religious tolerance.

The 1893 Parliament, held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marked the birth of interreligious dialogue and the first formal gathering of representatives of eastern and western spiritual traditions. Iconic Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda urged an audience of 7,000 to practice tolerance and universal acceptance of all faith traditions.

Exactly 108 years prior to the 9/11 attacks, Vivekananda closed his address by saying, “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor 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.” His words were met with a standing ovation.

Public Notice 3 will display the text of Swami Vivekananda’s address in LED colors corresponding to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security alert system on the risers of the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase in Fullerton Hall, the exact site of the address 117 years ago. The exhibit will be the first major presentation of Indian artist Jitish Kallat’s work in an American museum.

The Art Institute of Chicago Commemorates First 1893 World Parliament

From Art & Artworks

This fall, acclaimed contemporary artist Jitish Kallat turns the landmark Art Institute Grand Staircase into a meditation on religious tolerance, drawing on the museum’s own history in concert with the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil. Public Notice 3 , a site-specific installation, brings together two key historical moments: the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, opening on September 11, 1893, in what is now the museum’s Fullerton Hall, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 108 years later, on that very date. Public Notice 3–the first major presentation of Kallat’s work in an American museum–will be on view September 11, 2010 through January 2, 2011.

The Art Institute of Chicago has long held a unique historical connection with India. In 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition, the museum’s building served as the site of one of the most important gatherings in the history of modern religion, the first World’s Parliament of Religions. One of the opening speakers was a young Hindu monk from India, Swami Vivekananda, who stunned and enthralled the audience of 7,000 with an address that opened one of the first dialogues between Eastern and Western traditions and, importantly, argued passionately for universalism and religious tolerance. Exactly 108 years before the attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, Swami Vivekananda called for an end to all “bigotry and fanaticism” and pleaded for brotherhood across all faiths, a speech that was met with a standing ovation and was heralded by journalists as one of the pivotal moments of the Exposition. (Even today, the stretch of Michigan Avenue in front of the Art Institute is the honorary “Swami Vivekananda Way.”)

Kallat has chosen this historical event as the basis and site for his monumental installation. For Public Notice 3 , Kallat will convert the complete text of Vivekananda’s inspiring speech into LED displays on each of the 118 risers of the museum’s Woman’s Board Grand Staircase, which is itself adjacent to what is now Fullerton Hall, where Vivekananda made his original presentation. Drawing attention to the great chasm between this plea for tolerance of 1893 and the very different events of September 11, 2001, the text of the speech will be displayed in the five colors of the United States’ Department of Homeland Security alert system–red, orange, yellow, blue, and green.

This historical coincidence–and the fact that the speech was delivered at the earliest attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths–heightens the potency of Vivekananda’s persuasive words. The resulting work, Public Notice 3, creates a trenchant commentary on the evolution, or devolution, of religious tolerance across the 20th and 21st centuries. The installation will serve not as a passive commemorative act but rather as an actively contemplative space.

Public Notice 3 draws on Kallat’s earlier works, Public Notice and Public Notice 2, which also converted historic texts into large-scale installations.

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Click here to learn more about the exhibit.