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“The Death Knell Of All Fanaticism”

The next few posts center on my most recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. Twenty years I’ve been going to this museum and it has never let me down. There is always something new and walking by the same Renoir, Matta, Rodin and 12th-century religious art is like visiting old friends. I don’t want to leave.

If you are in Chicago right now or plan to visit in the near future, you should check out Jitish Kallat’s Public Notice 3 and the special exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography.

Art Institute of Chicago

You may miss Kallat’s installation because it is, quite literally, underfoot and everyone is usually busy being lost or staring up at the skylights in the quest for Real High Art to realize that, hey, these shiny LED letters are not normally here. OF COURSE there was a part of me that wanted to run up and down the stairs to see if the lights would go off and on as I yelled “Billie Jean is not my lover.”

Remember those words? No, not Michael Jackson’s lyrics, but the ones on the steps. I had to rummage through my memory for a few seconds until it hit me. Pictured above is the first part of the speech with which Swami Vivekananda, the English-speaking, orange-clad monk who brought Hinduism to the west, opened The Parliament of World Religions at the Art Institute on September 11, 1893. As you walk up the stairs, the rest of his words unfold.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor 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.

The weight and irony of that last paragraph are not lost on Kallat:

Drawing attention to the great chasm between this speech of tolerance and the very different events of September 11, 2001, the text of the speech will be displayed in the colors of the United States“ Department of Homeland Security alert system. Opening on September 11, Public Notice 3 explores the possibility of revisiting the historical speech as a site of contemplation, symbolically refracting it with threat codes devised by a government to deal with this terror-infected era of religious factionalism and fanaticism.

I fear all religions, even Hinduism, have disappointed Swami Vivekananda in the way they have allowed their hateful and tyrannical to speak most vocally and react, not act, on their behalf. It is then up to the rest of us to keep the swami’s vision alive by acting through reason and compassion. Wisdom comes when we understand that whatever we want to save in our respective faiths is not worth us turning into that which we hate the most.

But wait, did he say that India contains “the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny?” Hello, Hinjews calling. Come in, Liprap! I told you guys the lost tribe ended up in India. In Cochin, in fact, following “the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE.” And you didn’t believe me. Hmph.

2 comments… add one
  • liprap October 4, 2010, 1:52 PM

    Long live the mighty Hinjew tribes. A nifty book by Hillel Halkin chronicles some trces he might have found of another tribe that may have ended up in southeast Asia. Talk about a wandering bunch. We need to get going on a good Hinjew theme for KdV now…

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