Jitish Kallat, an Indian artist, has created a provocative site- specific piece, Public Notice 3, at the Art Institute of Chicago which opened on September 11 last year and will remain on display until today, September 11, 2011. Kallat has used the words of Swami Vivekananda, who delivered a speech at the first World’s Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893 during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, exactly 108* years before 9/11, as the material for this piece. (The speech was literally given in Fullerton Hall just a few yards from the location of this artwork.) Vivekananda’s speech embraced tolerance for all religions and the understanding that all religious paths led in the same spiritual direction. The purpose of this first meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religions was to dialogue and to embrace the notion of all religions being constructive manifestations of being human with universal intent.
Kallat has transformed Vivekananda’s speech into LED displays on the 118 risers of the grand staircase of the Art Institute. One literally reads his words of tolerance as one ascends the steps. The colors used for the LED lights are the ones that the United States Department of Homeland Security uses for terror alerts.
The confluence of Swami Vivekananda’s words of open-mindedness and acceptance connected with the events of 9/11 and our response to these events makes for a powerful piece, filled with great irony, historical synchronicity, and opportunity to contemplate, model, and make manifest what tolerance really signifies.
Here are Swami Vivekananda’s words:
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.
*108 (and its multipliers) is a sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism as well as many other traditions. There are 108 beads on a full buddhist and hindu mala (or 18 or 36 in smaller versions). Hindu gods have 108 names.