Swami Vivekananda’s Views on the Religions of the World

Sep 16, 2020 | Articles, Issue 77 | 0 comments

by Asim Chaudhuri


Swami Vivekananda’s first public statement about his views on all the other religions of the world except Hinduism came during his maiden speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The sentence in which that view was embedded is: “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we [Hindus] accept all religions as true.”1 Out of the four Chicago newspapers that reported on Swamiji’s first speech, only The Chicago Herald quoted that sentence as part of the speech, although their version is slightly different, in that it said, “… we accept all religions to be true.” A detailed account of all the four reports and some comments on them can be found elsewhere.2 We will let the linguists decide on the difference between “to be true” and “as true” in that context.  

This article addresses the ramifications of Swamiji’s statement, or what was reported by the Herald to be his statement, and of other statements he made elsewhere on the topic of the religions of the world. It will also attempt to resolve the apparent inconsistencies in his statements made at different times and in different circumstances. 

Swamiji’s other statements on religion 

The Chicago Herald was undoubtedly the most comprehensive of all the Chicago newspapers in reporting on Swamiji and his multiple speeches at the Parliament. So it is fairly certain that Swamiji uttered those words, or something very close to them. His public statement has often been misconstrued as meaning, “If one religion is true, then all religions are true.” As far as we know, he never made that two-phrase statement, word for word, in public. In his essay, “Soul, God and Religion,” he said: 

The proof of one religion depends on the proof of all the rest. For instance, if I have six fingers, and no one else has, you may well say that is abnormal. The same reasoning may be applied to the argument that only one religion is true and all others false. One religion only, like one set of six fingers in the world, would be unnatural. We see, therefore, that if one religion is true, all others must be true [emphasis by the author]. There are differences in non-essentials, but in essentials they are all one. If my five fingers are true, they prove that your five fingers are true too.3

There is another place, in an essay titled “Hindu Religion,” where he used a similar expression that has been italicized above, and used the same metaphor, as follows: 

Truth has always been universal. If I alone were to have six fingers on my hand while all of you had only five, you would not think that my hand was the true intent of nature, but rather that it was abnormal and diseased. Just so with religion. If one creed alone were to be true and all the others untrue, you would have a right to say that that religion was diseased; if one religion is true, all the others must be true [emphasis by the author].4

An interesting thing to note here is that in both cases Swamiji used the phrase: “….all (the) others must be true [emphasis by the author].” He could have said, “all the others are true,” but he didn’t. This type of expression we use when we don’t know for sure but we are assuming, based on the experiential or empirical evidence, that it is true. For example, looking at the wet street through a window, someone exclaims, “Look at the wet street, it must have been raining!” The street could have been wet because of a malfunctioning lawn sprinkler system, or a municipal truck must have sprinkled water on the street to either wash it or keep the dust under control. The phrase Swamiji used could also be interpreted as expressing an opinion about something that is logically very likely, like: “You must be tired.” 

It is not that Swamiji never said “All religions are true.” He did on a few occasions, but those were rather general statements in passing.5 We will expand on it next. 

What is a “true religion”?

What did Swamiji have in mind when he made the general statement that all religions are true? We can speculate on the answer from two perspectives: pragmatic and mystical. According to William James, the “father of Pragmatism,” if one’s religious faith makes a positive difference in his life, if it helps him make better sense of the world and resolves the problems he faces, then it can be justified as “true” following the pragmatic method because of its experiential and practical consequences. Swamiji was a pragmatist, so the remark that all other religions are, or must be, true was consistent with his beliefs as well.6 On the other hand, Swamiji could have made that remark based on his monistic belief that if there is one universal truth in all religions, it is in realizing God, or seeing Oneness in the universe, Oneness in life, Oneness in everything.7 This would be the mystical perspective. He believed that all other religions accept, or should accept, that universal truth. His metaphoric statement during his maiden speech at the Parliament, “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee,” points to this belief.

Besides what have just been mentioned, Swamiji used other characteristics to describe what a true religion is in his opinion, and those views are scattered here and there in his lectures and conversations; some of them are as follows: 

  1. “True religion is positive and not negative, that it does not consist in merely refraining from evil, but in a persistent performance of noble deeds. True religion comes not from the teaching of men or the reading of books; it is the awakening of the spirit within us, consequent upon pure and heroic action.8
  2. “True religion is “the worship of the spirit by the spirit.”9 
  3. “In true religion there is no faith or belief in the sense of blind faith. No great preacher ever preached that. That only comes with degeneracy….To believe blindly is to degenerate the human soul…. Stand up and reason out, having no blind faith. Religion is a question of being and becoming, not of believing. This is religion, and when you have attained to that you have [true] religion.10
  4. “True religion is entirely transcendental.”11
  5. “If any religion is true, it must be able to show us the soul and show us God and the truth in ourselves.”12

Swamiji, however, once became very specific and drew some characteristics of Hinduism, or better, Vedanta, to explain why that “is the only true religion.” In response to the address felicitating him at Kumbakonam in February, 1897, Swamiji spoke on the “Mission of the Vedanta” and said:

Ours is the only true religion because, according to it, this little sense-world of three days’ duration is not to be made the end and aim of all, is not to be our great goal. This little earthly horizon of a few feet is not that which bounds the view of our religion. Ours is away beyond, and still beyond; beyond the senses, beyond space, and beyond time, away, away beyond, till nothing of this world is left and the universe itself becomes like a drop in the transcendent ocean of the glory of the soul. Ours is the true religion because it teaches that God alone is true, that this world is false and fleeting, that all your gold is but as dust, that all your power is finite, and that life itself is oftentimes an evil; therefore it is, that ours is the true religion. Ours is the true religion because, above all, it teaches renunciation and stands up with the wisdom of ages to tell and to declare to the nations who are mere children of yesterday in comparison with us Hindus—who own the hoary antiquity of the wisdom, discovered by our ancestors here in India—to tell them in plain words: “Children, you are slaves of the senses; there is only finiteness in the senses, there is only ruination in the senses; the three short days of luxury here bring only ruin at last. Give it all up, renounce the love of the senses and of the world; that is the way of religion.” Through renunciation is the way to the goal and not through enjoyment. Therefore, ours is the only true religion. [emphasis by the author]13

It is not our intention here to compare other religions on the basis of these and other characteristics of “true religion” as proposed by Swamiji; we will accept his arguments in favor of Vedanta. It is interesting to note that, out of the four italicized instances above, only twice did he use the word “only”: at the beginning and at the end of the excerpt.  

Reconciling Swamiji’s various statements       

We can only imagine what would have happened if he had said the above at the Parliament, or anywhere in the West for that matter! In point of fact, during a lecture at Ada, Ohio, Swamiji had been quoted by the Ada Record as saying specifically, “We are forbidden to preach that ours is the only true religion.”14 {Footnote: Another Ada newspaper, the University Herald, also reported him as saying, “The religion [Hindu religion] does not hold that it is the only true religion.” (Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda in America—New Findings (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 2008), p. 567)} How can we reconcile his statement that “Ours is the only true religion” with these and others we have seen earlier? Yes, we can, and this is how. 

Once Swamiji went back to India after his first visit to the West, he was welcomed as a national hero wherever he went. In response to the enthusiastic welcome, he delivered several inspiring lectures in various parts of the country, attempting to rouse the religious consciousness of the people and create in them pride in their cultural heritage. These are known as his “Lectures from Colombo to Almora.” 

The lecture at Kumbakonam was one of them. He used this type of extreme, emotive statements to sow the seed of pride in people of India, to wake them up from their sleep, and recognize the greatness of their own religion. He thought he could speak his mind amongst his own people. He found that each of the other religions was claiming to be the only true one, but did not present any supporting arguments for its claim. It is like someone claiming that “My mother is the best cook in the world.” It is a subjective statement signifying personal loyalty—not fact-based. But Swamiji clearly laid out the basis, at least some of them, on which he declared Vedanta as the “only true religion.” From that point of view, he is right, because no other religion has similar beliefs. We can also reconcile his various statements by proposing that the only true religion is that which accepts other religions as true—and Hinduism does that. It sounds like a paradox, and it is.  

Swamiji’s two statements, “….all religions must be true” (or “are true”), and “Ours is the only true religion,” appear inconsistent, but may not be that at all.Swami Shuddhananda, who was Swamiji’s disciple and lived with him in the late 1890s, once related a story and concluded that all of his Master’s apparently contradictory, or inconsistent, statements were true under different circumstances. Being addressed to different individuals or groups, they differed mainly in their emphasis, depending on the occasion and the expected course of action.15 XXXXX  This explanation should settle the issue. Swamiji made liberal use of the power of “purposeful inconsistency” as a method for effective communication. 

The thought that the inconsistency in their statements and actions is often the hallmark of great people was best expressed by Emerson in his essay “Self-reliance,” where he said: 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall….Else, if you would be a man, speak what you think now in words as hard as cannon-balls,  and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day.  Ah, then, exclaimed the aged ladies, you shall be sure to be misunderstood.  Misunderstood! It is a right fool’s word. Is it so bad then to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.16 

It is possible, following Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, that Swamiji had these two concurrent cognitions: “If one religion is true, all the others must be true,” and “Ours is the only true religion.” These two cognitions are dissonant in the face of them. We don’t know if Swamiji felt uncomfortable with this dissonance. (The fact that he never said in the West what he said at Kumbakonam, and then what he had said at Ada, indicate that he probably did.) Assuming that he did (feel uncomfortable), we don’t know which of the four methods Swamiji would have used to resolve the dissonance: changing his behavior or attitude, acquiring a new cognition, by rationalization, or by ignoring the whole thing. It is a good bet that Swamiji would not have changed his attitude, or ignored the dissonance—he knew how to manage them.17 That leaves us with two alternatives, which can be combined into one new cognition: “If one religion is true, then all religions are true, but some may be truer than the others.” This is the cognition we would assign to Swamiji, although he probably had it all the time but never expressed it directly. He, however, alluded to it once and said:

To my mind that is the argument why our religion is truer than any other religion, because it never conquered, because it never shed blood, because its mouth always shed on all, words of blessing, of peace, words of love and sympathy. It is here and here alone that the ideals of toleration were first preached. And it is here and here alone that toleration and sympathy have become practical; it is theoretical in every other country; it is here and here alone, that the Hindu builds mosques for the Mohammedans and churches for the Christians. [emphasis by the author]18

Here Swamiji cites one of the arguments why Hindu religion is truer than the others. If there are many such arguments, then Swamiji wasn’t very far off when he said, from his point of view, that “Ours is the only true religion.” The statement, however, could be an example of his “purposeful inconsistency” while addressing a specific audience who needed to hear something like that. 

Concluding remarks

The new cognition we have assigned to Swami Vivekananda is admittedly speculative, but it has a strong tinge of reality. Regardless of what Swamiji had in mind, in our mind the cognition resolves the apparent inconsistency in his statements. It is also consistent with Swamiji’s view that he expressed while answering his own question on the same topic during a lecture on “Comparative Theology” in Memphis in 1894: “Are [all] these religions true or are some of them true and some of them false?”  He then gave the answer himself: “An analysis of religion shows that man does not travel from fallacy to truth, but from a lower truth to a higher truth.19 There are many such instances where he used the phrase “lower truth to higher truth,” indicating that the subject does not entertain a binary, true-or-false type answer, everything happens in stages, in degrees. His answer then matches quite satisfactorily with the cognition we have assigned to him; various religions are at various levels of truth, so one may be truer than the other, but none of them is false. 

Asim Chaudhuri is a well known researcher on Swami Vivekananda; his books include: Swami Vivekananda: The Ultimate Paradox Manager; Swami Vivekananda in America: New Findings; Swami Vivekananda in Chicago: New findings; and Vivekananda: A Born Leader: The Attributes and Thoughts of an Extraordinary Leader-Manager. Now retired from a career in business, Asim lives in Burbank, and is associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California. He can be reached at asimphoenix@gmail.com.

  1. Complete Works, vol. 1, p. 3. []
  2. Asim Chaudhuri, “Swami Vivekananda’s First Chicago Speech in Major Local Newspapers”, The Vedanta Kesari, March, 2020, p. 20. []
  3. Complete Works, vol. 1, p. 318. []
  4. Ibid., p. 329. []
  5. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 117; vol. 9, p. 438; and vol. 3, p. 495. []
  6. Asim Chaudhuri, “Was Swami Vivekananda a Pragmatist—a la William James?”, American Vedantist, Issue #76, Spring, 2020. []
  7. Complete Works, vol. 2, p. 153. []
  8. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 190. []
  9. Ibid., vol. 8, p. 141. []
  10. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 216. []
  11. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 416. []
  12. Ibid., vol. 4, p. 34. []
  13. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 180. []
  14. Ibid., vol. 2, p. 477. []
  15. Swami Shuddhananda, “So-called Contradictions in Vivekananda’s Teachings,” Prabuddha Bharata, January 1931, p. 16. []
  16. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays (A. L. Burt Company, New York), pp. 35-36. []
  17. Asim Chaudhuri, Swami Vivekananda—The Ultimate Paradox Manager (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 2016), pp. 29-33. []
  18. Complete Works, vol. 3, p. 274. []
  19. Ibid., vol. 7, p. 427. []


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