His journey to America took him through China, Japan, Canada and he arrived at Chicago in July 1893. But to his disappointment he learnt that no one without credentials from a bona fide organization would be accepted as a delegate. He came in contact with Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University. After inviting him to speak at Harvard and on learning of his not having credential to speak at the Parliament, Wright is quoted as having said:
“To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens.”
Wright then addressed a letter to the Chairman in charge of delegates writing:
“Here is a man who is more learned than all of our learned professors put together.” On the Professor Vivekananda himself writes, “He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation.”
Parliament of World’s Religions
The Parliament of Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago. On this day Vivekananda gave his first brief address. He represented India and Hinduism. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the goddess of learning and began his speech with, “Sisters and brothers of America!”. To these words he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” And he quoted two illustrative passages in this relation, 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!” and
“Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.” Despite being a short speech, it voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality.
Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.”
The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”
The American newspapers reported Swami Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.
He spoke several more times at the Parliament on topics related to Hinduism and Buddhism. The parliament ended on 27 September 1893. All his speeches at the Parliament had one common theme—Universality and stressed religious tolerance.
Lecturing tours in America, England
“I do not come”, said Swamiji on one occasion in America, “to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”
After the Parliament of Religions, Vivekananda spent nearly two whole years lecturing in various parts of eastern and central United States, appearing chiefly in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. After suspending his lecture tour in 1895, the Swami started giving free and private classes on Vedanta and Yoga. In June 1895, for two months he conducted private lectures to a dozen of his disciples at the Thousand Island Park. Vivekananda considered this to the happiest part of his first visit to America. He later founded the “Vedanta Society of New York”.
During his first visit to America, he traveled to England twice—in 1895 and 1896. He also received two academic offers, the chair of Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University and a similar position at Columbia University. He declined both, saying that, as a wandering monk, he could not settle down to work of this kind.
From West, he also set his Indian work in motion. Vivekananda wrote a stream of letters to India, giving advice and sending money to his followers and brother monks. His letters from the West in these days laid down the motive of his campaign for social service. He constantly tried to inspire his close disciples in India to do something big. His letters to them contain some of his strongest words. In one such letter, he wrote to Swami Akhandananda, “Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying “Ramakrishna, O Lord!”—unless you can do some good to the poor.”
Eventually in 1895, the periodical called Brahmavadin was started in Madras, with the money supplied by Vivekananda, for the purpose of teaching the Vedanta. Subsequenly, Vivekananda’s translation of first six chapters of The Imitation of Christ was published in Brahmavadin (1889).
Vivekananda left for India on 16 December 1896 from England. On the way they visited France, Italy, seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and set sail for India from the Port of Naples on December 30, 1896.
Second visit to the West
He once again left for the West in June 1899, amid his declining health. He was accompanied by Sister Nivedita, Swami Turiyananda. He spent a short time in England, and went on to America. During this visit, he founded the Vedanta societies at San Francisco and New York. He also founded “Shanti Ashrama” (peace retreat) at California, with the aid of a generous 160 acre gift from an American devotee. Later he attended the Congress of Religions, in Paris in 1900. The Paris addresses are memorable for the scholarly penetration evinced by Vivekananda related to worship of Linga and authenticity of the Gita. From Paris he paid short visits to Brittany, Vienna, Constantinople, Athens and Egypt. For the greater part of this period, he was the guest of Jules Bois, the famous thinker. He left Paris in October 24, 1900 and arrived at the Belur Math in December 9, 1900.