The Big Question: what was the greatest speech? Mark Tully argues that it was Swami Vivekananda's first-ever public speech, delivered in Chicago, 1893

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013

The first World’s Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a big moment: the first time representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions had gathered together. Several thousand delegates flocked to Chicago to listen to them, and perhaps the most astonishing words they heard came from a 30-year-old Hindu monk. "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance," he said. "We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true." The vast majority of the delegates were Christians whose religion was not known for tolerance or acceptance, and who dismissed Hinduism as idolatry. Yet Swami Vivekananda, who had never been outside India before, nor spoken in public, was such a hit at the Parliament that he was asked to speak six times. The New York Herald said, "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions."

He was relevant then and is relevant today for his constant affirmation that all religions are paths to God, and his call for tolerance. He ended his first speech by saying, "I fervently hope 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."

Christian leaders were unamused by the suggestion that their religion was not the only way to God. The Archbishop of Canterbury refused to have anything to do with the Parliament fearing it might create the impression there was "equality and parity between Christianity and other religions". Pope Leo XIII censured Roman Catholic speakers at the Parliament and forbade anyone to participate in "future promiscuous conventions".

Vivekananda’s speeches at the Parliament resonate today for the many who claim to be spiritual but not religious, who reject religion based on faith and seek experience of God. He said, "The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realisingnot in believing but in being and becoming." And, looking to the future, he said, "It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity…Its whole scope, its whole force will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own, true, divine nature." That is the religion so many seek today.

Mark Tully was the BBC's bureau chief in India for 22 years

Photograph Topham