The First Visit
Swami Vivekananda had first heard about the Parliament of Religions towards the end of 1891 or 1892 while traveling through India. His friends and followers urged him to attend it and to represent Hinduism, offering to raise money for his fare and expenses. His final decision to undertake the trip, however, was not made until April of 1893 when, having prayed for guidance, he received, as he later told, "a Divine Command." On May 31, 1893, he set sail from Bombay for America aboard the SS. Peninsular.
After going through Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nagasaki, Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Kobe and Yokohoma, the ship arrived in Vancouver on July 25. From there, he took the Canadian Pacific Railway train and arrived at Chicago on July 30th. The World's Columbian Exposition had been underway for three months when he arrived and to his shock found that the authorities of the Parliament of Religions required all delegates to produce credentials. Moreover, he was, he found, too late to register as a delegate even if he had had credentials. Thus his hope of speaking before the Parliament vanished almost at once and there remained no chance of his gaining a hearing in America until the late fall when the "lecture season" would begin. The cost of living in Chicago being exorbitant, he decided to go to Boston.
During the twelve days or so that Swamiji spent in Chicago, he visited the Fair almost every day, for it was a huge and spectacular exhibition of the modern wonders of steam and electricity, and, as he wrote, "one must take at least ten days to go through it.". Thus it was in something like despair that he left Chicago for Boston, where, as he had been told, the cost of living was lower.
Professor J.H. Wright of Harvard, who wrote a letter introducing Swami Vivekananda to the Parliament
It was on the train to Boston that he met an old lady who invited him to live at her farm in Massachusetts. It was through this providential woman that Swamiji was to meet Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University. Professor Wright was at once appreciative of Swamiji's genius and persuaded him of the importance of attending the Parliament of Religions. He gave him all the ncessary assistance; he introduced him by letter to all the proper authorities as a superbly well-qualified delegate, one "who is more learned than all our learned professors put together" and who, as he said, was like the sun, with no need of credentials in order to shine; he brought his train ticket back to Chicago, gave him some money, and saw to it that his housing would be arranged for. And so, on September 8, he left Saratoga Springs for Chicago.
So, on September 9, probably around mid-day, Swamiji reached Chicago for the second time. This time, in spite of having the credentials, he had lost the address of the Parliament's office. A merchant on the train had promised to give him directions, but on his arrival at the station Swamiji could not find the merchant. Unsuccessful in locating the Parliament's office, or the organizing President Rev. John Henry Barrows' Presbyterian Church, he decided to spend the night of September 9th in a freight car at the Chicago & North Western Station.
North end of Dearborn Avenue (top) & Lincoln Park (bottom) in 1893. Credit: Library of Congress 93500499
On the morning of Septmeber 10, the day before the Parliament was to begin, Swami Vivekananda was out on the street. Hungry and tired, he begged for food and directions as he plodded through the streets of what is now the Gold Coast. The people and butlers had no time or sympathy for a strange looking monk, in rumpled clothes & with a travel worn appearance, and slammed the doors in His face. People turned away, servants slammed doors in his face. He walked on. Finally exhausted, weary, and hungry he sat down on the curb of Dearborn street — in front of where St. Chrysostom's Church is now located -- and resigned himself to God's will.
In a few moments, the front door of the house opposite opened, and out came a dignfied, well-dressed woman — Mrs. George W. Hale who went up to him and ventured, "Sir, are you a delegate to the Parliament of Religions?" Learning that he was, she at once took him into her house, gave him breakfast, saw to it that his every need was attended to, and herself took him to the offices of the Parliament. Thus Swami Vivekananda not only was cared for, he was led to the Hale family at the very beginning of his American work. The Hale family was to become more dear to him than any other he would know in the West.
The news report in the Chicago Record of September 11, 1893 contains the first known mention of Swamiji as a delegate to the Parliament. The report reads Four leaders of religious thought were sitting in Dr Barrow's parlor -- the Jain, George Condin...Swami Vivekananda, the learned Brahman Hindoo, and Dr. John H. Barrows, the Chicago Presbyterian. The Hindoo is of smooth countenance. His rather fleshy face is bright and intelligent. He wears an orange turban and a robe of the same color. His English is very good. 'I have no home,' said he. 'It is very gratifying to us to be recognized in this Parliament, which may have such an important bearing on the religious history of the world."
Continue reading about the Columbian Exposition and Parliament of Religions here
To read more about the people and places associated with Swami Vivekananda's time in Chicago, click here