DATELINE: LEMONT, Ill.
Just over a century ago, a Hindu monk arrived for an international
religious conference in Chicago, penniless and lacking even an invitation
to attend the gathering.
Swami Vivekananda became one of the most honored speakers at that 1893
And on Sunday, his spiritual descendants are unveiling a 10-foot bronze
statue at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago that honors him as the first
man to bring Hindu religion and the practice of yoga to America.
''Our original plan was to put the statue in a city park in Chicago, but
apparently there's no precedent for honoring a religious leader in that
way,'' said Barbara Horton, a member of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of
Chicago, which raised money for the monument.
Vivekananda has been eclipsed in American memory by later Indian imports
men who hobnobbed with the Beatles and Beach Boys.
But in India, Vivekananda's birthday is a national holiday. He's honored as
an early champion of Indian independence and the founder of that nation's
largest non-governmental charity.
The statue is based on a photograph taken of the 30-year-old Vivekananda at
the World's Parliament of Religions on Sept. 11, 1893.
The gathering was supposed to involve all the world's major religions, but
there was no official Hindu representative.
Vivekananda made his own way to the conclave, slept in an empty boxcar at
the train station, and was only allowed to speak after a Harvard scholar
he'd met went to bat for him.
Vivekananda spoke on religious tolerance and what he saw as the essential
unity of the world's great religions.
Newspapers of the day reported, without explanation, that the audience gave
Vivekananda a standing ovation after he'd said only five words: ''Sisters
and brothers of America ...'' One called him ''undoubtedly the greatest
figure of the Parliament.''
Originally named Narendranath Datta, he was from a merchant family and
attended a Western-style university in his native Calcutta. He studied
Christianity, law and science, and had little exposure to Hindu thought
until he encountered Sri Ramakrishna, a mystic monk.
On Ramakrishna's death in 1886, Vivekananda became the leader of his
movement and spoke out on social reform issues, He opposed the practice of
child marriage and the caste system, and advocated public education for all
Indians, including the poor and women.
He also became an opponent of British colonial rule, influencing such later
nationalists as Gandhi and Nehru.
After his Chicago appearances, Vivekananda lectured for several years in
the United States and Britain. He returned to India in 1897 and received a
''The city of Madras essentially shut down for nine days when he passed
through on his way back to Calcutta,'' said Frank Parlato, a Chicagoan who
is writing a biography of Vivekananda.
In Calcutta, Vivekananda, who died in 1902 at age 39, founded a monastic
order and the Ramakrishna Mission, which now runs schools, hospitals and
orphanages throughout India and has 135 centers worldwide.