Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago was a formal announcement of his presence to America and to the world at large. But this did not happen very smoothly. When he arrived in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda learnt that he needed a letter of introduction to register, and that the date for registration had already passed. There was no chance that he would be allowed to speak at the event. After a few days in Chicago, he realized that he was running out of money. The opening date of the Parliament was put off by a few months. Swamiji then decided to leave Chicago and travel around.
Swamiji’s encounter with Miss Kate Sanborn on the train journey from Vancouver to Chicago was to be instrumental in his subsequent entry to the Parliament of Religions. Kate Sanborn was very much impressed by Swamiji’s appearance and demeanour and she gave him her card and invited him to be a guest at her home in Metcalf, Massachusetts. She wrote these details in her book Abandoning an Adopted Farm: “But most of all I was impressed by the monk, a magnificent specimen of manhood – six feet two, as handsome as Salvini (a then famous Italian actor) at his best, with a lordly, imposing stride, as if he ruled the universe, and soft, dark eyes that could flash fire if roused, or dance with merriment if the conversation amused him…He wore a bright yellow turban many yards in length, an ochre robe, the badge of his calling; this was tied with a pink sash, broad and heavily befringed. Snuff-brown trousers and russet shoes completed the outfit. He spoke better English than I did, was conversant with ancient and modern literature, would quote easily and naturally from Shakespeare or Longfellow or Tennyson, Darwin, Muller, Tyndall, could repeat pages of our Bible, was familiar with and tolerant of all creeds. He was an education, an illumination, a revelation! I told him, as we separated, I should be most pleased to present him to some men and woman of learning and general culture, if by any chance he should come to Boston.”
Not much later, Swamiji needed all the help that he could get. Lonely and with his money running out, he left Chicago for Metcalf and reached Boston on August 14 or 15 of 1893. Kate Sanborn wrote in her memoirs: “Just risen from a sick-bed, I received a telegram announcing that my reverend friend on the train was at the Quincy House, Boston and awaiting my orders. Then I remembered vividly. I had urged him to accept my hospitality if he felt lonely and needed help. I had promised introductions to Harvard professors, Concord philosophers, New York capitalists, women of fame, position and means, with brilliant gifts in writing and conversation. It was mid-august. Not a soul was in town, and how could I entertain my gaily appareled pundit? I was aghast, but telegraphed bravely: Yours received. Come today. 4.20 train, Boston Albany.”
Katharine Abbot Sanborn was a poet, teacher, lecturer, a humorist, a farmer and above all a humanist. Known as Kate, she was amiable, prominent and gregarious – precisely the person to act as hostess to Swamiji in those early days, for she not only introduced him to Professor Wright and other men and women of influence, but was instrumental in providing him with a well-rounded preview of the American scene.
Swamiji, though a prolific letter-writer, was frugal in sharing his initial experiences. After about twenty days, he wrote to Alasinga Perumal a letter with an undercurrent of disillusionment. “All those rosy ideas (of raising funds for needy people in India) we had before starting has melted, and now I have to fight against impossibilities. A hundred times I had a mind to go out of the country and go back to India. But I am determined and I have a call from Above.” He further wrote of his stay with Miss Sanborn, “Just now I am living as the guest of an old lady in a village near Boston. I accidentally made her acquaintance in the railway train, and she invited me to come over and live with her. I have an advantage of living with her, in saving my expenditure of one pound per day, and she has the advantage of inviting her friends over here and showing them a curio from India! And all this must be borne. Starvation, cold, hooting in the streets on account of my quaint dress, these are what I have to fight against. But, my dear boy, no great things were ever done without great labour…”
Although Swamiji referred to her as ‘an old lady’, she was not old when he first knew her. She was 54 and very energetic. She had a lively humor and a warm sympathy for her fellow beings, was keenly observant and widely known for her repartee. But for her, Swamiji would not have been able to meet Prof Wright or speak at the Parliament of Religions.