The Impact of Swami Vivekananda in the West

Posted: 24.03.2016

Introduction

No single religion has a monopoly on spiritual wisdom. Many paths can lead to eternal life. There is a deep harmony between spirituality and science. God is not an old man in the sky passing out judgment, but a force of love that resides in all beings and that pervades the entire cosmos. One can experience this force directly through the process of meditation. To have this experience one does not have to belong to a church or even be religious in the conventional sense. Serving others selflessly is at least as high a form of spirituality as prayer, meditation, or study. Reincarnation is an idea that makes sense.

Most Americans are not aware that these ideas, which many now take for granted, were first popularized on a large scale by Swami Vivekananda. America could perhaps be called an unconsciously Vedantic nation. Like the footprints of the Buddha, Swami Vivekananda has left behind his traces, while he himself is scarcely known.

History of Swami Vivekananda's Impact in the West

In 1893, Swami Vivekananda came to an America that was still in many ways a deeply conservative nation. Slavery had been formally abolished by President Abraham Lincoln only thirty years prior to his coming, but the bloody Civil War that was required to truly put an end to this inhuman institution had continued to rage for another two years after that. And the freed African American slaves and their descendants would not be, in every sense, equal under the law for many decades to come. Even today, racism lingers in America, as in many other parts of the world. Laws may change, but the deep and true change that must occur in the heart and in the mind requires much more time in order to manifest. Religiously, even those progressive Christians who launched the Parliament of the World's Religions at which Swamiji so famously spoke saw this event as a venue for demonstrating the superiority of Christianity over other religious traditions. It was left to Swamiji and the other delegates from Asia, representing traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism, to initiate the paradigm shift of seeing all religions as "wending their way to the same goal" like rivers flowing into the one ocean of infinite bliss. (CW 1, 4)

The groundwork for this paradigm shift had been established, however, by those Americans who were attracted to the wisdom that they found in those Hindu sacred texts that had been translated into English, some of which were available to American readers as early as the eighteenth century: texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and some of the major

Upanishads. The Transcendentalist movement, consisting of such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, was deeply indebted to these texts. The Transcendentalists were, in effect, the first American Vedantists.

Similarly, the Theosophical Society, established in 1875 in New York City (also the location of the first Vedanta Society, established by Swami Vivekananda in 1894), was made up of westerners whose thought was profoundly shaped by Indian philosophies such as Vedanta, Yoga, and Buddhism. Some of these persons, such as A.O. Hume and Annie Besant, participated in the movement for Indian independence. Besant also helped to establish Banaras Hindu University, and was a mentor to another major Indian thinker who found a home in America: Jiddu Krishnamurti.

There was certainly sufficient interest among Americans in Indian thought, and a spiritual hunger sufficiently profound, to enable Swami Vivekananda to find a ready and willing audience and abundant support among the people of America for the founding of the Vedanta Society, and also for the ventures that he pursued upon his return to India, such as the establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission and Belur Math.

In America, the Vedanta Society became a magnet for important intellectual and literary figures that have played a major role in disseminating the Vedantic teachings of Swami Vivekananda throughout American culture. These figures, shaped by the thought of Swami Vivekananda, have done much to shape present-day spiritual development in the West.

Christopher Isherwood, a famed novelist and associate of such literary figures as W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham–as well as J. Krishnamurti–assisted Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, in his translations of such important works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and the Viveka Chudamani of Shankara. Finally, drawing upon his considerable literary talents, Isherwood wrote what is probably the most popular biography of Ramakrishna in the English language: Ramakrishna and His Disciples.

Aldous Huxley, also affiliated with the California center, was an essayist and a novelist who wove Vedantic themes through his fictional and non-fictional works. His well-known essay, The Perennial Philosophy, outlines Swami Vivekananda's ideal of a universal religion that underlies all existing religions through a common core of direct mystical realization. A major theme of his novels is the expansion of consciousness, and one of his most provocative works, The Doors of Perception, is the source from which the popular California-based band, the Doors, took their name.

Shifting from the west coast to the east coast, author J.D. Salinger was associated with the New York Vedanta Center–the oldest Vedanta center in the US, and founded by Swami Vivekananda himself. Salinger was a disciple of Swami Nikhilananda, and is best known in America as the author of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel of youthful alienation and protest against the norms of conventional western society. His later works, though, such as Frannie and Zooey, are replete with Vedantic themes and references. Salinger abruptly withdrew from society at the height of his fame–a retreat that was the source of much speculation until after his recent death, in 2010, when it came to light that he spent the last five decades of his life practicing meditation and studying the Bhagavad Gita.

Two major scholars of religion, Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell, were deeply influenced by Indian values and philosophies–and particularly by Vedanta. Smith almost singlehandedly transformed the study of the world's religions into a popular discipline, in demand on nearly every college campus in the United States. Campbell also popularized the comparative study of religion and mythology, partially through his own work, such as the celebrated The Hero with a Thousand Faces, on the theme of mythic archetypes, but also indirectly, through his collaboration with George Lucas.

Lucas, inspired by the work of Campbell, dreamed of developing a distinctively American mythology drawing upon Indic and other world spiritual traditions. This vision took the form of the wildly popular Star Wars films. Especially in the teaching of the Jedi Master Yoda, one can hear echoes of Vedanta in the Star Wars universe. "Luminous beings are we," Master Yoda tells his disciple, Luke Skywalker, "not this crude matter." This reflects the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita that the true Self is beyond the realm of the body and the senses. "Just as the embodied one experiences childhood, and youth, and old age, in this body, in the same way he enters other bodies. A wise person is not disturbed by this. O Arjuna, encounters with the material world induce sensations of cold and heat and pleasure and pain. They come and they go. They are impermanent." (BG 2, 13-14) Even the relationship between the initially doubting and scornful Luke Skywalker and his eccentric, seemingly mad master, as depicted in The Empire Strikes Back, reflects the relationship of the young Naren, who would one day emerge as Swami Vivekananda, and the divine madman, Sri Ramakrishna.

Finally, yet another major disseminator of what has emerged as the contemporary global spiritual movement, has been George Harrison, lead guitarist from easily the most popular rock band of all time: the Beatles. Harrison's initial attraction to Indian spiritual thought was, not surprisingly for a musician, through the medium of Indian music, as it was presented to him by his friend and mentor, Ravi Shankar. But it was not long before Harrison would immerse himself fully into Hindu thought and practice. His first visit to India, in 1966, was spent for the most part doing contemplative reading in a houseboat in Kashmir. The two books that Harrison took with him, which he quickly absorbed during

this time, were Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahamsa Yogananda, and Raja Yoga, by Swami Vivekananda. Vedantic and Yogic themes would continue to pervade both the lyrics and the music of George Harrison until he left his body in November of 2001.

The Present-Day Scene: From the Superficial to the Profound

Through the works of all of the various scholars, authors, and artists who received the influence of Swami Vivekananda, either through his writings or through the Vedanta Society, as well as through the various spiritual teachers who came to the west following his example, Vedantic thought now pervades America, despite there being relatively few Americans who actually know Swamiji's name or are directly familiar with his teachings. In a controversial 2009 Newsweek editorial with the highly provocative title "We Are All Hindus Now," Lisa Miller cites polling data indicating that a majority of Americans–65 percent–believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life." This number includes a surprising 37 percent of white evangelical Christians. This survey also indicates that 24 percent of Americans believe in reincarnation, and that 30 percent–almost a third– identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" (Miller, 2009), and thus choose not to identify truth narrowly with any single culture or tradition. Other reputable polls have yielded roughly comparable numbers in response to similar questions.

If one takes a stroll through an American shopping mall and browses through the various stores, one increasingly finds clothing and home decorations adorned with images of Lord Ganesha and other Hindu deities. An international super group, SuperHeavy, with an all-star membership including Mick Jagger and A.R. Rahman, had a hit in 2011 with a song called "Satyameva Jayate." Actress Julia Roberts "came out" as a Hindu in 2010 after having starred in the film Eat, Pray, Love, which includes a pilgrimage to India as a prominent chapter in the journey of its protagonist. Other Western celebrities wear Om jewelry and sport Sanskrit tattoos, as do growing numbers of young people. One of the biggest hit films of 2012, a film that won multiple academy awards, was the beautiful and profound, Vedanta-infused Life of Pi.

If one digs beneath this outward veneer of appreciation for Indian culture among Americans, and a widespread acceptance of Vedantic beliefs (though, again, without very widespread awareness of or acknowledgement of the source of these beliefs), one can see that the west today also bears the imprint of Swamiji's thought inasmuch as it manifests dimensions which correspond to the four yogas which Swami Vivekananda defined in his lectures and writings.

One important imprint that Swamiji has left upon the west has been his emphasis on concrete action for the relief of human suffering as a spiritual path: that is, karma yoga. Beyond the important and vital relief work of the Ramakrishna Mission that he established in 1897, another major figure on whom he had an enormous influence was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi actually sought to meet Swami Vivekananda when the Indian National Congress was meeting in Kolkata in 1902, but Swamiji was unfortunately on his deathbed at that point, and was unable to receive visitors. As I have shown elsewhere, many of Gandhi's ideals about education and social upliftment were drawn almost word for word from the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. (Long, 2011) Gandhi has in turn influenced movements for a peaceful transformation of society across the globe, shaping the thought of such western figures as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

In the realm of the intellect as well–jñana yoga–Swamiji has also had influence on global spirituality. Among the prominent intellectuals who came into direct contact with him during his time in the west was William James, a Harvard professor of psychology and philosophy who, although somewhat of skeptic about some aspects of Vedanta, was open to the wider realm of experience reflected in Swamiji's thought and in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. James would have tremendous influence upon the thought of Alfred North Whitehead, the father of the system of philosophy known as process thought. Process thought shares many strong affinities with both Vedanta and Buddhism, as well as with Jain philosophy. Whitehead's thought also bears the imprint, via William James, of Swami Vivekananda's influence.

In terms of bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, Swami Vivekananda's greatest influential contribution has been in promoting the idea of the ishtadevata, or chosen form of divinity. The radical spiritual freedom that this idea implies is the essence of Vedanta: that whatever form of the divine attracts us, whether it be a Hindu deity, the Buddha, the Jina, Allah, Jesus Christ, or any of the great manifestations celebrated in the world's religions and philosophies, may serve as the vehicle by which our devotion can carry us to the infinite. The infinite truth cannot be bound to any one form or tradition. With this understanding, and his teachings of universal acceptance and the harmony of religions, Swami Vivekananda revolutionized the interfaith movement.

Finally, the popularization of meditation and the practice of Hatha Yoga (known simply as "Yoga" in the west) is similarly hard to conceive of without the influence of Swami Vivekananda: particularly his treatise on Raja Yoga, his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Again, outside the Vedanta Society and Ramakrishna Mission which he instituted, Swamiji's influence in this regard has probably been felt the most deeply through the work of Sri Aurobindo, who explicitly attributes his own profound yogic transformation to a spiritual encounter with Swami Vivekananda in a series of meditative visions. Although Swamiji would no doubt have been critical of the use of yoga purely as a form of physical exercise, those systems of yoga that emphasize the centrality of the practice of meditation are in harmony with the spirit of his teaching.

These are just a few samples of the ways in which Swami Vivekananda has had an impact in the west, as seen through the lens of the four yogas: Gandhi-inspired movements for social justice, the movement of process thought within the realms of philosophy and theology, the interfaith movement in the area of religious devotion, and the popularization of meditation and other yogic practices. The genealogies of all these movements converge in the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji once said that, "It may be that I shall find it good to get outside of my body–to cast it off like a disused garment. But I shall not cease my work! I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God." (CW 5, 414) This would seem to be an accurate description of what has been happening since Swami Vivekananda left his body on the 4th of July 1902. And this work continues even today.

Conclusion: Why Swami Vivekananda's Influence Is Important

Swami Vivekananda's impact in the west is even more important today than it was when he lived and walked the earth over a century ago. The destructive capacities that human beings have developed are a danger to all life on this planet. Humanity stands at a crossroads from which we can either make this world into a heaven or a hell. It is within our power either to continue on a path to destruction, or to transform ourselves. The teachings of Swami Vivekananda hold the key to this transformation. This key is the idea of universal acceptance and the perception of the divinity of all beings that is at its heart.

Swami Vivekananda says, in his famous first address to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893, "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." (CW 1, 3) And in a later lecture, he says, "I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him." (CW 2, 374) This is not mere tolerance–an aversion to the other concealed beneath a polite veneer–but a true acceptance.

"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." (CW 1, 4) Echoing Swami Vivekananda, Carl Sagan similarly speculates that had the great library of Alexandria not been destroyed by a fanatical mob in 391 AD, humanity might already be traveling to the stars. (Sagan, 1980)

"But," Swamiji concludes, on a note of hope, "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." (Ibid) May Swami Vivekananda continue to work through all of us, that his hope might be realized. Let us arise, awake, and stop not until the goal is reached.

References

Long, Jeffery D. "The Politicization of Hinduism and the Hinduization of Politics: Contrasting Hindu Nationalism with the Transformative Visions of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi" (Religion and Public Life, Volume 38)

Miller, Lisa. "We All Hindus Now" (Newsweek, August 31, 2009)

Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980)

Thompson, George, trans. The Bhagavad Gita (New York: North Point Press, 2008)

Vivekananda, Swami. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1979)

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