239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

May 24, 1912
Boston, MA
Storify Feature

The Invasion of the Easterners

THEY FIRST INVADED American shores in 1883, when Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, a leader in the Brahmo Samaj, an offshoot of Hinduism in the Indian region of Bengal, traveled across America. Anagarika Dharmapala, a leader of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism from Ceylon, had been in touch with Americans for many years before he was invited to represent “Southern Buddhism” at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Then, in September, 1893, Swami Vivekananda, a young firebrand from the Advaita branch of Hinduism, wearing a red turban and bright orange robes, lit up the conference with his fiery oratory, in perfect, poetic English.

“After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation,” the New York Herald wrote.

These eastern teachers were all from India, and Boston was kind to them. Sara Chapman Bull, of Brattle Street in Cambridge, became Vivekananda’s leading patron. And in Eliot, Maine, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Sarah J. Farmer provided a platform for them at Green Acre, her annual forum where she put the World’s Parliament of Religions on a permanent basis every summer. These were the men who offered American journalists the stereotypes that they would try to use to describe ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912.

But these earlier speakers differed from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in several important ways.

First, India was struggling to free itself from British control. Therefore, the Indians brought a heavy anti-colonial message with them to America. At the Parliament in Chicago, Vivekananda excoriated church missionary efforts in India, telling the audience that India could use many things from the West, but that the churches could kindly keep their religion to themselves. Dharmapala made no apologies for linking Sinhalese Buddhism to the struggle for Ceylon’s independence, and Mozoomdar, and the poet Rabindranath Tagore after him, who happened to meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America in 1912, placed Indian cultural nationalism at the center of their concerns. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in contrast, argued for a single global identity, and rarely addressed political affairs.


Second, Vivekananda was no slouch when it came to turning on the charm with women. He was single and thirty years old when he came to Chicago. Dharmapala was also a single monk, aged twenty-nine, but he had taken a lifelong vow of chastity. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been married for over forty years. He and his wife, Munirih, had four educated, grown-up daughters and several grandchildren.

Third, while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had plenty of financial support for his trip, and a growing community of Bahá’ís in the United States who sometimes hosted him, the other easterners had no base of support in America. They were constantly raising money to support their travels and to fund their projects back home. Americans, especially the press, were regularly surprised that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was not only turning down offers of money, but was actually giving it out in America, such as at the Bowery Mission.

Fourth, and most importantly, the Indian teachers formulated a politicized rhetorical dichotomy that portrayed their “ancient” and “spiritual” East as superior to the degraded, nouveau-riche, “materialistic” West that surpassed them in global power. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from the moment he stepped off the Cedric in New York harbor, had praised America for its material, scientific, and entrepreneurial spirit, which he found to be powerful and unique. He also repeatedly stated his opinion that America’s great spiritual capacity would enable them to lead the world to peace.


  • Michael

    This is beyond insightful. I didn’t know the relationship with the East especially India at the time of the Master’s visit. It’s also facinating to explore the varying messages and how the Master lived the concept of one planet and humankind as one. That’s the principle that really is struggling at the basis of endless political and social debates today.  Bravo!

  • Candace Hill

    Follow this link to enjoy an art exhibit last year at the Art Institute of Chicago based upon Vivekananda’s great talk.  This was so popular that kept it up for a year, the site includes links to the text of the talk and other photos of the exhibit.  It was terrific.

  • http://www.facebook.com/estherbill Esther Bradley-deTally

    I grew up in Boston, and smiled at phrases such as Brattle Street in Cambridge, and i snorted and snuff in a low chortle over, “He was no slouch,” and I am a word devotee of these posts.  Kudos, love and prayers.

  • Anne Perry

    Nice job, Jonathan! This discussion (on how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá differs from the other Eastern sages visiting America) is also at the heart of Rob Stockman’s new book, “‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America.” 

  • Robertahodgin

    Abdu’l-Baha, not like any other, today and yesterday!

  • Tim Marr

    Abdul-Baha addresses this during a talk in San Francisco in October: “Until now it
    never happened that someone from the East, impelled by the promptings of his
    conscience, should come to the West to see the friends of God and to associate
    with respected individuals with such sincere love and friendship and without
    any political or commercial motive or the desire of sightseeing. It is without
    precedent and is not recorded in any history. If others have come, it has been
    to sightsee or for commercial or other reasons.”

  • nine

    The wonderful writing continues.  I appreciate being able to experience the maelstrom of the times and the calm wisdom of the Master.

  • Anne Perry

    Your banner mentions the scenery, hillside, and lake where Abdu’l-Baha spoke in Brookline today in 1912. We shot footage there last summer & I have posted an interesting story and  some photos of the White mansion on my blog today. Scroll down to see them at: http://master-in-america.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/terry.poirier.3 Terry Poirier

    What a wonderfully informative article!!

  • Iraj F

    A very well done essay.  The story of “Mystery of God” is astonishing.  Those who encountered him during His travels to the west, were amazed to see His vitality, love, courage and knowledge. 

  • Rooplall Dudhnath

    Thanks for this very edifying………….

  • Hans J. Knospe

    Just great to see and understand the influence of Abdu´l-Bahá related to other charismatic visitersof the Eastern world to the American shores! And what it all means up to our time and century here and now?! This informatiive articles are very helpful for deeper understanding of the todays-problems, changes and needs worldwide and worth to share it as much as possible for deepening and consulting in all aspects, for everybody and for more unity and peace around the globe! One Planet, One Peace, please!