The Death Knell of Fanaticism | Study Guide

Swami Vivekananda

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The Death Knell of Fanaticism | Main Ideas


Conflicts between Religions Are Ultimately Wasteful

The main goal behind the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions was to foster communication and cooperation between the world's various religions. Vivekananda opens "The Death Knell of Fanaticism" with a firm condemnation of fanaticism and conflict-based decision-making in religion. He insists that the past rivalries between the world's religions have "filled the earth with violence, drenched it ... with human blood, destroyed civilizations, and sent whole nations to despair." This meeting of religious delegates from around the globe has the potential to lay at least some of these old conflicts to rest. Vivekananda suggests that the first step to reconciliation is to admit that each side has made mistakes in the past and to open up new lines of communication between the religions. He hopes that the delegates will act as mediators between their respective congregations and thereby minimize future disagreements.

Religions Are Products of History and Culture

According to Vivekananda it is illogical to expect that one day the whole world will be united under a single religion. All religions are shaped by their historical and cultural contexts. He argues that asking every person to express the same kind of faith is like planting seeds from many different plants in different patches of soil and expecting them to all look the same once they have reached maturity. Religion and culture are inextricably linked, and the differences between the religions do not automatically make them enemies. They all serve a purpose just like plants in a garden. However, Vivekananda also acknowledges that some religions have weaknesses that can be overcome by integrating aspects of other religions. There is nothing wrong with one religion trying to teach something to another as long as it does not try to consume the other religion altogether.

Hinduism Advocates for Personal Growth and Communal Enlightenment

The middle section of "The Death Knell of Fanaticism" addresses the primary ideas behind Hinduism. Vivekananda explains that one person's expression of Hinduism will naturally differ from another's, but he argues that there are some unifying factors that help define the core beliefs of Hinduism. Hindus believe that the soul is immortal, that it moves from one body to the next while still retaining some memories of its past experiences, and that each life helps the soul progress toward a higher state of being. Each life is useful because it ultimately builds toward total enlightenment when the soul becomes unified with God. According to Vivekananda, Hindus have a shared responsibility to improve the lives of those around them. In this way they aid one another along their individual journeys to eternal peace and understanding.

Religion Should Have a Practical Application

Vivekananda applies the idea of social responsibility to the members of all religions. He advocates using the various religions' resources to aid in social justice and the end of suffering. His primary complaint against the Christian religion is that its followers have shown a tendency to ignore the physical needs of the same people they wish to save. He argues that they value the soul over the physical body, and this focus leads them to overlook their immediate responsibility to feed the poor, protect the vulnerable, and shelter widows and orphans. Vivekananda asserts that all religious people should cultivate empathy toward the most destitute and neglected members of their communities. The best way of expressing their faith is through action.

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