Paper on Hinduism

views updated

"Paper on Hinduism"

"Paper on Hinduism," available online from the Universal Wisdom at Speech delivered by Swami Vivekananda

Given at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago September 19, 1893

Swami Vivekananda delivered the "Paper on Hinduism," at the World Parliament of Religions on September 19, 1893. His speech became an important document in the history of modern religious tolerance. In this speech, and others that Vivekananda delivered to the parliament that September, he introduced Hinduism to the Western world.

For many centuries, knowledge of Hinduism had been confined largely to people in Southeast Asia and was mostly unknown to people in the West. After September 1893, however, the spiritual message of Hinduism gained attention in the Western world. Over the next century many westerners began to explore that message. More important, the "Paper on Hinduism" strengthened modern recognition that religious truths come in a variety of forms. While different cultures may have differing views of the nature and characteristics of God, each of the world's religions reflects the culture and history of the people who practice the religion. All provide spiritual nourishment to people throughout the world.

"I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary … power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there."

As part of his message of religious tolerance, Vivekananda discusses in his speech the nature of God. He notes that throughout the world, different peoples have varying concepts of God. Christians worship God, Muslims worship Allah, Hindus worship Brahma, and so on. Vivekananda, though, says that each of these gods, and many others, are all expressions of the same fundamental truth: that God is eternal and unchanging and the creative force and power throughout the universe. Differing ideas of the nature and being of God are simply the result of different cultural needs. God is multifaceted, meaning that He has many characteristics. Just as Hindus worship numerous gods that are facets, or aspects, of Brahma, so the world community can worship numerous gods that are aspects of a single, unchanging supreme deity. Each religion, then, has its own "light of truth." The differences among them represent "glasses of different colors" through which that light of truth passes.

The paper presents a number of views that were new to most westerners at the time. Vivekananda says, for example, that the universe was not created but that it is eternal; it has always existed. He explained reincarnation (the idea that people die and are born again into the physical world in different bodies and life circumstances) and why people are unable to remember their past lives. He states that the goal of human life is to realize the divinity that lies within and to express that divinity through concern for the welfare of others. Perhaps most important, he rejects the concept, prominent in Christianity, that all people are sinners.

Vivekananda's chief goal, however, was to encourage religious tolerance. In his address, he quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, a prominent Hindu scripture: "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 [preferences], various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee." In other words, despite differences in religions, they all lead to the same God. Vivekananda's address was a call for open-mindedness and acceptance and an end to religious extremism and prejudice. Religious extremism is when violence is carried out in the name of a religion. Prejudice is when individuals, or specific groups of people, are singled out for unfair treatment due to the characteristics of that particular person or group.

Swami Vivekananda was one of Hinduism's great modern teachers. He was born into an educated, well-to-do family in Calcutta, India, on January 12, 1863. He grew up in a home that encouraged learning. From an early age he had a great capacity for absorbing and remembering what he read, including the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As a young man, Vivikananda attended the University of Calcutta. There, he acquired a broad-based education in science, philosophy, and religion and learned to speak several languages, including English. He was also an accomplished musician and singer. During his college days Vivikananda began to discover that many of the principles and beliefs of Western science and philosophy were similar to beliefs found in Hindu sacred scriptures written thousands of years earlier. In time, he came to see little conflict between the teachings of Hinduism and the findings of modern science.

A turning point in Vivekananda's life came in 1881, when he began to study under Sri Ramakrishna, another great nineteenth-century Hindu teacher. At this point, Vivekananda was still somewhat of a religious skeptic; that is, he was not prepared to accept Ramakrishna as a spiritual guru, or spiritual leader, or to believe that the guru was truly able to directly experience the divine. The divine refers to realizations and understandings of God and the teachings of God. Yet by his second meeting with Ramakrishna, Vivekananda began to see the world in a new way.

Over the next five years, Vivekananda studied under Ramakrishna. During these years he explored the basics of Hindu thought. Among them were:

  • Brahma;
  • the nature of the soul;
  • meditation, the practice of focusing on one thought or image to quiet the mind and gain greater understanding of the divine;
  • yoga, a physical and spiritual practice aimed at focusing the mind to achieve greater understanding of the divine;
  • karma, a person's good or bad actions throughout life, which determine the nature of his or her next life; and
  • reincarnation

Vivekananda also studied the Hindu sacred scriptures, particularly the Vedas and the Upanishads. When Ramakrishna died in 1886, Vivekananda inherited his role as a spiritual master. For two years he went on a pilgrimage throughout India, journeying to sacred places. During this time he became exposed to the poverty and hunger that troubled many of his countrymen. From these experiences he became determined not only to help improve the condition of Indians but also to preach the message of the divine unity of humankind. He carried out these intentions until his death on July 4, 1902.

Vivekananda made his first trip to the United States in 1893. When he arrived in Chicago, he did not even know the dates when the World Parliament of Religions was to be held, nor did he have any credentials that entitled him to speak. Nonetheless, as a highly respected guru, he was able to address the seven thousand people in attendance on three occasions, bringing the audience to its feet in applause. The most important occasion was September 19, when he presented the "Paper on Hinduism."

Things to remember while reading the "paper on Hinduism":

  • Vivekananda earned the title swami which comes from a word in Hindi (the language of northern India) meaning "owner" or "lord." A swami is a spiritual teacher and philosopher. Typically, a swami is the head of a school of thought or the head of a social or educational institution.
  • Swami Vivekananda's significance is that he, more than any other person of his time, introduced Hinduism to the Western world. In the century that followed, more and more westerners began to study Hinduism. Although many came to regard themselves as Hindus (one can be a Hindu simply by accepting the teachings of Hindu scripture, especially the Vedas), others were interested in Hinduism more as a life philosophy or as a way of achieving inner peace.
  • The 1893 World Parliament of Religions was the first-ever meeting of this worldwide body. Its goal was to bring together people from different religions to encourage relationships with one another, peace, and justice. It was held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a world's fair that celebrated modern scientific and technological innovations. It also identified Chicago as a major world city. This gathering of religious leaders provided a spiritual dimension for the hundreds of thousands of people who visited the exposition.

A Primer on Hindu Sacred Scripture

Hindus recognize a number of documents as scripture, or holy writings. The chief documents are the Vedas (from a word meaning "vision," "knowledge," or "wisdom"), which were written sometime between 1500 to 1200 bce. There are four Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda. Each Veda consists of four elements: Samhitas, or hymns; Brahmanas, or rituals, encompassing religious duties of all Hindus; Aranyakas, or religious principles, usually studied by Hindu monks; and the Upanishads.

While the Upanishads are part of the Vedas, they generally are treated as if they were separate from them. Hindus typically do not read the other portions of the Vedas, primarily because they are complex. They are more likely to focus their study on the Upanishads. There are 108 surviving Upanishads; among them, 13 are regarded as the most important, in that they contain the essential teachings of Hinduism. Because they come at the end of the Vedas, they are referred to as the Vedanta, or "end of the Vedas."

Although numerous other texts are sacred to Hindus, one that is central is the Bhagavad Gita. Many Hindus, and westerners as well, find the Bhagavad Gita to be one of the most beautiful Hindu scriptures. It is part of Book VI of an epic poem called the Mahabharata, which means "Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty" and was probably written in the first or second century ce. It is written as a dialogue between a warrior prince, Arjuna, and his companion and chariot driver, Krishna, who is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The dialogue occurs on the battlefield: Krishna tells the prince that he is required to perform his duty and to maintain his faith in God, despite his self-doubts and questions about the nature of the universe. The Bhagavad Gita goes on to examine the nature of God and to explore the ways in which human beings can come to know Him.

Excerpt from the "Paper on Hinduism"

The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound ludicrous to this audience, how a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits [that they] were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them.

The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honor them as perfected beings. I am glad to tell this audience that some of the very greatest of them were women.

Here it may be said that these laws as laws may be without end, but they must have had a beginning. The Vedas teach us that creation is without beginning or end. Science is said to have proved that the sum total of cosmic energy is always the same. Then, if there was a time when nothing existed, where was all this manifested energy? Some say it was in a potential form in God. In that case God is sometimes potential and sometimes kinetic, which would make Him mutable. Everything mutable is a compound and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction. So God would die, which is absurd—Therefore, there never was a time when there was no creation.

If I may be allowed to use a simile, creation and creator are two lines, without beginning and without end, zoning parallel to each other. God is the ever-active providence, by whose power systems after systems are being evolved out of chaos, made to run for a time, and again destroyed….

Are not all the tendencies of the mind and the body accounted for by inherited aptitude? Here are two parallel lines of existence—one of the mind, the other of matter. If matter and its transformations answer for all that we have, there is no necessity for supposing the existence of a soul….

We cannot deny that bodies acquire certain tendencies from heredity, but those tendencies only mean the physical configuration through which a peculiar mind alone can act in a peculiar way. There are other tendencies peculiar to a soul caused by his past actions. And a soul with a certain tendency would, by the laws of affinity, take birth in a body which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency. This is in accord with science, for science wants to explain everything by habit, and habit is got through repetitions. So repetitions are necessary to explain the natural habits of a new born soul. And since they were not obtained in this present life, they must have come down from past lives….

So then the Hindu believes that he is a spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce—him the fire cannot burn—him the water cannot melt—him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere but whose center is located in the body, and that death means the change of the center from holy to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter….

Well, then, the human soul is eternal and imortal, perfect and infinite, and death means only a change of center from one body to another. The present is determined by our past actions, and the future by the present. The soul will go on evolving up or reverting back from birth to birth and death to death. But here is another question: Is man a tiny boat in a tempest, raised one moment on the foamy crest of a billow and dashed down into a yawning chasm the next, rolling to and from at the mercy of good and bad actions—a powerless, helpless wreck in an ever-raging, ever-rushing, uncompromising current of cause and effect—a little moth placed under the wheel of causation, which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widow's tears or the orphan's cry? The heart sinks at the idea, yet this is the law of nature. Is there no hope? Is there no escape?—was the cry that went up from the bottom of the heart of despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down…. We are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings, divinities on earth….

Thus it is that the Vedas proclaim, not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One, "by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain and death stalks upon the earth."

And what is His nature?

He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful. "Thou art our father, Thou art our mother, Thou art our beloved friend, Thou art the source of all strength; give us strength. Thou art He that beareth the burdens of the universe; help me bear the little burden of this life." Thus sang the Rishis of the Veda. And how to worship Him? Through love He is to be worshiped as the one beloved, dearer than everything in this and the next life."…

The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst, and the word they use for it is, therefore, Mukti—freedom, freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery—And this bondage can only fall off through the mercy of God…. Purity is the condition of His mercy. How does that mercy act? He reveals Himself to the pure heart; the pure and the stainless see God,… even in this life; then and then only all the crookedness of the heart is made straight…. So the best proof a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about God, is: "I have seen the soul; I have seen God." And that is the only condition of perfection. The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing—not in believing, but in being and becoming….

Descend we now from the aspirations of philosophy to the religion of the ignorant. At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshipers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism….

"The rose, called by any other name, would smell as sweet." Names are not explanations….

Superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing—By the law of association the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindu uses an external symbol when he worships. He will tell you, it helps to keep his mind fixed on the Being to whom he prays….

As we find that somehow or other, by the laws of our mental constitution, we have to associate our ideas of infinity with the image of the blue sky, or of the sea, so we naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the ideas of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. But with this difference that while some people devote their whole lives to their idol of a church and never rise higher, because with them religion means an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and doing good to their fellows, the whole religion of the Hindu is centered in realization. Man is to become divine by realizing the divine. Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps, of his spiritual childhood; but on and on he must progress….

To the Hindu, man is not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him all the religions from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength till it reaches the Glorious Sun.

Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognized it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat which must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or thought of, or stated through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols—so many pegs to hang spiritual ideas on. It is not that this help is necessary for everyone, but those that do not need it have no right to say that it is wrong. Nor is it compulsory in Hinduism….

To the Hindu, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.

It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors—And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna: "I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there." And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression as that the Hindu alone will be saved and not others. Says Vyasa, "we find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed." One thing more. How, then, can the Hindu, whose whole fabric of thought centers in God, believe in Buddhism which is agnostic, or in Jainism which is atheistic?

The Buddhists or the Jains do not depend upon God; but the whole force of their religion is directed to the great central truth in every religion, to evolve a God out of man. They have not seen the Father, but they have seen the Son. And he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father also.

This, brethren, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindu may have failed to carry out all his plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being from the lowest grovelling savage, not far removed from the brute, to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature….

May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble idea!…

What happened next …

During the 1880s and 1890s, Swami Vivekananda actively tried to improve the material lives of Indians. One way he achieved this aim was through the Ramakrishna mission in India, which, among other accomplishments, provided care for Indians during an outbreak of the plague and was credited with saving many lives. During the twentieth century, the work of the mission continued worldwide. Under the name Vivekananda Vedanta Society, it maintains 135 missions throughout the world, 12 of them in the United States. In Chicago, a branch of the society was founded in 1930, with the twin goals of helping people find the God within and of serving others.

Hinduism in the early twenty-first century is the third largest religion in the world. People in the West, the nations of the Americas and Europe, became interested in Hinduism after Swami Vivekananda's presentation. More than 900,000 people in the United States are Hindu. There are more than 400,000 Hindus in the United Kingdom. The largest concentration of Hindu followers remains in South Asia.

The World Parliament of Religions changed its name to the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. It continues to pursue harmony between religions and encourages religious communities to become involved with the world. The Parliament has met in various locations around the world, including Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999, and Barcelona, Spain, in 2004. Nearly eight thousand religious leaders attended the 2004 meeting.

Did you know …

  • Hindus worship many gods and goddesses. Many Hindus worship a particular god or goddess or a group of them based on personal identification with that deity. This means that they have a strong feeling of connection with a particular god. Hindus, however, believe in a supreme god, called Brahma. Brahma is the creator-god and is thought of as being in harmony with the universe. All other gods are considered to be forms or aspects of Brahma. Other major deities in Hinduism are Vishnu (or Krishna), the preserver-god, and Shiva (or Siva), the destroyer-god.
  • Hindus conduct their personal lives according to a variety of principles, but two of the most important are dharma and karma. Dharma means something like "righteousness." Because of dharma, for example, most Hindus are vegetarians, believing that all creatures belong to God and that killing them would violate, or go against, dharma. The other principle, karma, is based on the Hindu belief in an eternal cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Karma determines how a person will live his or her next life. In this life a person who stores up good karma will lead a future life on a higher plane, while one who builds up bad karma will be reincarnated on a lower plane.
  • Yoga is an ancient form of Hindu meditation. Although in modern Western life yoga is practiced as a form of exercise or as a relaxation technique, yoga for Hindus has a higher purpose, which is to become one with the universal god.

Consider the following …

  • Explain why, according to Swami Vivekananda, the universe was not created.
  • Explain the basis for the Hindu rejection of the belief that all humans are sinners.
  • Summarize Hinduism's explanation for the major differences in the world's religions.

For More Information


Cole, Owen, and Hemant Kanitkar. Teach Yourself Hinduism. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Flood, Gavin D. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Knott, Kim. Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Vivekananda, Swami. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 8th ed. West Bengal, India: Advaita Ashrama, 1999.


"Swami Vivekananda." Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. (accessed June 5, 2006).

Vivekananda, Swami. "Paper on Hinduism." Universal Wisdom. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Revelation: Communication through divine means.

Ludicrous: Ridiculous.

Manifested: Obvious, realized.

Potential: Existing in possibility but not in reality.

Kinetic: Characterized by motion or action.

Mutable: Capable of changing in form or substance.

Simile: A figure of speech that makes a comparison between two different things.

Providence: Divine guidance.

Aptitude: Natural ability.

Configuration: The way in which parts are arranged or fitted together.

Peculiar: Unique, distinct.

Affinity: Natural attraction or feeling of belonging together.

Immortal: Undying, lasting forever.

Infinite: Unlimited, without boundaries.

Chasm: Gap.

Uncompromising: Showing no willingness to find a middle ground or negotiate.

Causation: The process of causing an effect.

Proclaim: Announce.

Bondage: Slavery.

Sage: Holy man.

Dogma: Code of belief.

Aspirations: Ambitions, goals.

Polytheism: Belief in more than one god.

Omnipresence: Presence everywhere, throughout all of creation.

Superstition: Belief not founded on reality, often a belief in the magical power of objects or the magical effects of certain actions.

Bigotry: Prejudice, narrow-mindedness.

Brethren: Members of the same community or family.

Constitution: Makeup, combined parts.

Mosque: Place of worship in the religion of Islam.

Idol: A physical object that is worshipped as if it were a god.

Assent: Voicing of agreement.

Doctrines: Bodies of ideas taught as truths in religion.

Fetishism: Worship of an object thought to have magical powers.

Absolutism: Belief in a being who is without limits and beyond human control.

Contradictions: Opposition between two ideas.

Caste: A hereditary class into which Hindu society was divided and which governs such things as one's profession.

Agnostic: Believing that God is unknown and probably unknowable.

Atheistic: Believing that there is no god.

Catholicity: Universality, the quality of including everyone.

Grovelling, or groveling: Crawling or lying on the ground as a mark of meekness or obedience.

Savage: An uncivilized person.

Brute: A lower animal, a beast.

Polity: Society, institution.