The Death Knell of Fanaticism | Study Guide

Swami Vivekananda

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The Death Knell of Fanaticism | Summary & Analysis

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Summary

"The Death Knell of Fanaticism" is a series of six speeches given by Hindu leader and social activist Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) from September 11–27, 1893, at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois. Religious leaders from around the world attended the Parliament to discuss how their respective faiths could help contribute to the world's betterment. In "The Death Knell of Fanaticism," Vivekananda describes the basic tenets of Hinduism and argues in favor of reconciliation between the world's religions.

First Speech

Vivekananda thanks the delegates at the World's Parliament of Religions for showing their dedication to establishing peace between the world's religions. He expresses pride in his own religion and home country of India for sheltering religious refugees in the past. Next he quotes a line from the Bhagavad Gita or "Song of God" (c. 5th–2nd century BCE) which is an important religious text in Hinduism. It states, "Whosoever comes to me, though whatsoever form, I reach him. All men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." This line encourages people of all religions to seek enlightenment and promises they will be rewarded for their efforts regardless of what path they take. Vivekananda shares his hope that the former religious conflicts fueled by fanaticism and bigotry have reached an end.

Second Speech

Vivekananda tells a story to illustrate why people from different faiths have fought in the past. In the story a small frog lives inside a well and assumes that the rest of the world is the same as his home. A frog from the sea falls into the well. He tries to explain to the small frog that the sea is much larger than the well, but the small frog refuses to believe him. They argue with each other without making any progress. According to Vivekananda the religious people of the world face the same dilemma. They have been raised inside a single religion which has shaped their perspective of the world. Therefore, they rebel against the idea that the world is more complex than their religion suggests. Vivekananda thanks the United States for providing an opportunity for people from all religions to share their beliefs with one another and expand their views of the world.

Third Speech

To help increase the other delegates' understanding of Hinduism, Vivekananda provides a brief outline of his religion's history, development, and current goals. He argues that Hinduism is a religion that seeks universal enlightenment and accepts all paths to enlightenment as equally valid. In Hinduism the same individual is reborn in different bodies over and over until they have moved past all their faults. Vivekananda states that "becoming perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus." People who attain spiritual enlightenment are elevated to immortality and united in one perfect consciousness. Vivekananda claims that his religion is superior to other religions because it does not seek to convert people through force and welcomes people of all backgrounds without judgment. He anticipates that the rest of humanity will eventually reach the same state of enlightenment experienced by Hindus who have achieved perfection.

Fourth Speech

Vivekananda criticizes Christian missionaries for misplacing their focus and prioritizing religious teaching over the Indian peoples' immediate needs. He remarks, "In India, there are 300 million men and women living on an average of a little more than 50 cents a month." He argues that starving people have no interest in religion, so missionaries should first focus on helping the economic crisis in India by providing Indians with the means and training to support themselves. Monks and priests in his country often take a vow of poverty so that they can use all their energies to spread their faith, but the average civilian has no choice but to be poor. Vivekananda hopes to convince some Americans to fund social programs run through Hindu churches in China and India during his visit to the United States. He has heard great things about the United States' advocacy for human rights, so he anticipates that he will find enough people willing to support his goal.

Fifth Speech

Vivekananda shifts his focus from Christianity to Buddhism in his fifth speech. He argues in favor of a reconnection of Hinduism and Buddhism. In his opinion the religious leader Buddha (c. 560–c. 405 BCE) exemplified the Hindu faith through his life and teachings. Vivekananda insists that Buddha was not only a moral teacher but an incarnation of God. The greatest thing Buddha contributed to the Eastern world was his constant love for people regardless of their social class or past. Vivekananda believes that Hinduism has lost its selfless love for humanity in the centuries since Buddha's death which is one reason why India is now filled with poor and destitute people in need of compassion. He encourages his listeners to "join the wonderful intellect of the Hindus with the heart ... the wonderful humanizing power of the Buddha." According to Vivekananda, Hinduism will then be whole again and better suited to accomplish its mission of uplifting all people to an improved form of life.

Sixth Speech

Vivekananda's speech to the World's Parliament of Religions ends with a call for unity. He suggests that the members of the world's religions have more in common than they think and that they will all benefit from an end of their past hostilities. The cooperation evidenced at the Parliament has reinforced his belief that one day all religions will stand together for the good of humanity as a whole. He thanks the many people who made this meeting possible and anticipates a great change in future relations between the worlds' different faiths.

Analysis

The World's Parliament of Religions

In Vivekananda's words, the World's Parliament of Religions was formed "to smooth the friction of religions." The first meeting of the World's Parliament of Religions occurred in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois. Over 5,000 delegates from around the world attended the conference. Nineteen of the speakers at the conference were women which represented an unprecedented step forward in international women's rights as well as religious relations. Swami Vivekananda's six speeches were widely considered to be a highlight of the Parliament by those in attendance.

Vivekananda expresses hope in Speech 6 that the conference will become a landmark of religious cooperation. He announces to his audience that the "World's Parliament of Religions has become an accomplished fact" and anticipates that it will continue to influence future interactions between the world's religious leaders. The World's Parliament of Religions reconvened in Chicago in 1993 and attracted 8,000 delegates. In 2010 the United Nations established the World Interfaith Harmony Week which occurs on the first week of February every year. Today the World's Parliament of Religions operates a website dedicated to increasing international cooperation between religious groups and fundraising for global initiatives related to health care, education, and climate change.

A Call to Action

Vivekananda uses his speeches to teach his audience about his religion, but he also challenges his listeners to apply their respective faiths toward improving their neighbors' lives. He mentions multiple times in his speeches that religious instruction cannot come at the cost of a person's physical welfare. In Speech 4 he insists, "It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion." The primary need in India in his opinion is food, not religious debate. He expresses a fervent hope that his attendance at the World Parliament of Religions will encourage Christians in America to devote some of their resources to his nation's current economic crisis. Although he wishes to aid people in understanding the main ideas of Hinduism, he came to America "to seek help for my impoverished people." Vivekananda calls for a readjustment of priorities in the global religious community for the sake of the world's poorest citizens.

In Speech 5 Vivekananda admits that his own religion has lost touch with the needs of its followers. He connects this departure from a more practical and less theoretical faith to the disconnect between Hinduism and Buddhism. The two religions differ on a great deal of ideas, but they once shared the overarching goal of reforming society for the general betterment of humanity. He claims, "Hinduism lost something—that reforming zeal, that wonderful sympathy and charity for everybody." The poverty that pervades his country has in part been caused by outside interference and natural disasters, but Vivekananda argues that at least some of the blame falls upon himself and his fellow Hindus. They have abandoned their original goal to help their neighbors in favor of religious debate, and they have distanced themselves from the suffering strangers around them. Vivekananda pledges to refocus his attention on helping those in need and encourages the other delegates at the Parliament to do the same.

Cooperation

"The Death Knell of Fanaticism" is a call to communal cooperation as well as a call to action for individual members of the religious community. Vivekananda argues that the ongoing conflicts between the world's different religious groups are significantly hampering their effectiveness. He proclaims in Speech 5 that the "separation between the Buddhists and the Hindus is the cause of the downfall of India." This loss of communication and cooperation between the two religions has been to both sides' detriment. He goes on to explain, "If the priests of China and India were organized, there is an enormous amount of potential energy that could be used for regeneration of society." If multiple religions could combine their resources toward a single task, they could achieve a great deal more than if they operated alone.

Multiple times in his speeches, Vivekananda appeals to the delegates' shared desire to improve the lives of their followers and to help society become more stable and just. He argues, "Holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world." He suggests that all the religious leaders in attendance share the same optimistic view of the future and that they simply lack the necessary tools to see their dreams to completion. The many conflicts between the faiths are obstacles to society's improvement, and they need to be resolved if any real progress is to be made. Vivekananda petitions for a final settlement of past grudges for the sake of future generations.

Symbolism

Because "The Death Knell of Fanaticism" relies heavily on metaphysical ideas, Vivekananda uses symbolism to communicate concepts that might be difficult for the average listener to visualize. In Speech 3 he compares the mind to an ocean with the conscious part represented by the ocean's surface and the subconscious represented by the ocean's depths. In the same speech, he likens humans to lotus leaves which are designed to grow atop the water without being consumed by it. He argues that religious people in the same way should interact with the outside world without being buried by its material concerns.

Vivekananda relies on natural imagery in Speech 6 like he did in Speech 3 when he describes the coexistence of multiple religions in the same world. He says that the world is like a garden, and its various religions are the plants which grow from its soil. The plants need to cooperate with one another to survive and even rely on one another for support. However, they also need to "preserve their individuality and grow according to their own law of growth." He argues that it is foolish to imagine that all religions will look the same because they come out of different cultures and historical circumstances. Their differences do not mean that they are destined for vicious rivalry and dissent. Like plants in a garden, the world's religions should enjoy the beauty of their diversity and collaborate with one another to grow.

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