It is well accepted that at the top of leadership abilities is communication skills. Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy and Martin Luther King could all speak in an authentic but eloquent way such that millions listened and followed them. In the corporate world, we know that career growth depends more than anything else on our ability to communicate our ideas and vision, persuade and motivate people. Youngsters in particular are told that they should grab any ‘elevator’ opportunities to speak to the right persons – say something very briefly but so powerfully that it opens up the door for a longer meeting in the corner suite!
Swami Vivekananda was a transformational leader: a 19th century Adi Sankara. He was a great organisation builder – Ramakrishna Mission and its associated institutions all over India stand testimony. Not surprisingly, he was a brilliant communicator. He needed this skill never more than when he appeared at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions in 1993. His trip to the USA to attend the Parliament was a disaster up to that point. He was ill equipped to stand the weather; he had little money; his lodgings fortuitous, when not rough-sleeping in train platforms. And, not having registered in time, he would not have even been able to attend it, but for a chance meeting with a Harvard professor, who sponsored him.
On 11th September, 1893, the Parliament opened. The Chairman Rev Barrows introduced the representatives of the different religions one after another and each spoke, in fact, as was the custom, read a prepared speech in a formal way and tone. Swamiji passed up his turn a few times, as he had no prepared speech and probably wanted time to reflect on what he should say. Finally, in the afternoon session, he stood up and uttered the now famous words – ‘Sisters and brothers of America’. The 7000 strong audience rose to their feet: shouted and clapped their hands and applauded for 2 or 3 minutes, as much in awe of the strangely dressed oriental figure as touched by the message from the heart of an obvious scholar.
Exactly one score and ten years earlier, in 1863, the year in which Swami Vivekananda was born, the all-time greatest short speech had been delivered in the USA – Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, beginning ‘Four scores and seven years ago….’. Since then theses have been written on why the speech was so great. Interestingly, the Swamiji’s speech shares several of the features of Lincoln’s speech. It is particularly remarkable, as Lincoln had carefully prepared his speech, indeed several versions of his handwritten manuscript are available – Swamiji did not even know if he would attend the Parliament. Lincoln was the President of the USA and was the chief guest, but, Vivekananda was an unknown.
So what was great about Swamiji’s speech (indeed about Lincoln’s)?
First, it was brief – less than 500 words, all very simple easily understood words.
Second, it had a time tested structure: begin with the hoary past so people can recognise the profoundness; describe the current context and paint a picture of the future and what needs to be done.
Third, given that this was to introduce himself, the objective was very clear and modest: it was like a film trailer, as if all that the Swamiji wanted was to generate interest in him and his topics so that people will want to hear him later for a longer period.
Fourth, he knew that especially when there is a very large audience, people have to hear some key words again and again: partly it is oratory and partly it is to reiterate the key message. He repeated the words ‘thank you’ and ‘I am proud’, both, four times, which is particularly remarkable as the speech was very short! He was also clear about the reason for his pride – that he represented a religion whose core principle is tolerance.
Fifth, he anchored his arguments solidly: his message for the Parliament was they should not argue over the relative merits of different religions but accept pluralism. He quoted Gita to make the point: ‘many paths, but one goal’.
Lastly, it had a powerful beginning and an oratorical ending.
It was a great speech: simple but profound, brief but eloquent, with a powerful and resonant message. And, a star was born. The Chairman of the Parliament said ‘India, the mother of religions, was represented by Swami Vivekananda, who exercised the most wonderful influence over his audience’. Posters in Chicago streets containing the next days’ programmes carried his pictures. Newspapers variously reported: "An orator by divine right”; “his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them"; "After hearing undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation"; "a great favourite .. if he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded".
In all, Swami Vivekananda delivered six speeches in the Parliament. His second speech was also a brief one – ‘Why we disagree’. He said “I am a Hindu, sitting in my own well and thinking that the whole world is my little well; the Christian and the Mohammden sit in their own wells and think their little well is the whole world. ..we need to break down the barriers of these little worlds of ours’. He reserved his magnum opus for the third speech: it was the 6000 word ‘Paper on Hinduism’, which he ‘read’ on 19th September, 1893, and explained the major teachings of Vedas.
The speech delivered on 11th September, 1893, and started the legend of Swamiji in the Western world, is reproduced in full here.
“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 honour 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 remnant 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 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."
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 civilisations 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 honour 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.”