The organisers of the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago, had intended the event to be a showcase of American Christianity. Representatives of other faiths were expected to sit wide-eyed in wonder at the achievements of rational Protestantism mixed with American material prowess. This is not what happened. Attention focused instead on the thirty-year-old Indian spiritualist Swami Vivekananda, who delivered an epochal speech that outlined his vision for a new ‘universal Hinduism’ that could thrive far from its home in the communities and sacred landscapes of the Indian subcontinent. He also attacked fanaticism and the missionary spirit, arguing that all religions contained truth and proclaiming that he pitied, from the bottom of his heart, anyone who ‘dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the other’. The effect on the assembly was electric.
Vivekananda was well suited to the role of global ambassador for Hinduism. He appeared as comfortable striding down New York avenues or London lanes in his saffron robes and turban as he was sitting in devotion before his own guru, Ramakrishna, or meditating in front of the many-armed statue of Kali in Calcutta.
Today’s global obsession with Indian spirituality, including yoga, is partly due to the hurricane of lectures and talks that this stocky, meat-eating, tobacco-loving swami gave all over the world, not to mention the friendships and connections he made and movements he started. For all his historical and theological importance,