February 15, 2020
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Vivekananda In Nirvana Land

The Story of a Phenomenon: As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the indelible place of his sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the mythographies that have developed around his life becomes all too apparen

Vivekananda In Nirvana Land
Vivekananda In Nirvana Land

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the indelible place of Vivekananda’s sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the mythographies that have developed around his life becomes all too apparent. What might Vivekananda have been had he not commenced the first of his three speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 with those five words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, which are said to have won him a standing ovation at that unusual gathering and, one hundred twenty years later, still win him the approbation of those who view him as the greatest emissary of Hinduism to the West? Just what aspects of Vivekananda’s legacy have endured in the United States, and to what effect?

Much ink has been spilled on the convocation that is known as the World Parliament of Religions, certainly the first gathering of its kind when representatives of what were deemed, at least by the Parliament’s organizers, as the ten great world religions met to reflect both on the diversity and unity encompassed by ‘religion'. In India, at least, the Parliament is chiefly remembered for the speech that launched Vivekananda on to the world stage, but in the United States it occupies a yet more significant place, though seldom recognized, in the intellectual history of the country. The notion of ‘religious pluralism’, which in principle serves as the bedrock of American civil culture, was given its first substantive hearing at the World Parliament in 1893; similarly, the academic (and, to some extent, popular) study of comparative religion may, in some respects, be viewed as having originated in the immediate aftermath of the World Parliament.

What is indubitably certain is that when Vivekananda first arrived in the United States, almost nothing was known of Vedanta, Hinduism, or, more broadly conceived, Indian religions. American periodicals, such as the Christian Disciple and the Theological Review (1813-1823) and the North American Review, which commenced publication in 1815, had begun to carry occasional articles on Hindu customs and mores, and especially ‘Hindu idolatry’, but such pieces were invariably informed by an Orientalist outlook. The understanding of Hinduism, if one can even call it that, was mediated, on the one hand, by Charles Grant’s highly influential A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East (1805) and, on the other hand, by the interest shown in the life and work of Rammohun Roy. The American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular, had more than dabbled in some of the sacred books of the Hindus. The young Emerson, not yet out of his teens, had made bold to interpret ‘Hindu theology’ in a lengthy poem, now known only to scholars, called Indian Superstition (1821).Emerson’s paltry knowledge of Hinduism may be surmised from his invocation of ‘the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine’ (l. 71), or of devotees engaged ‘in wild worship to mysterious powers’ (l. 47). In time, Emerson would gravitate towards a considerably more complex, indeed sympathetic, view of Hinduism—as is suggested, for instance, by his poem ‘Brahma’, where the impress of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly suggested. His younger contemporary, Thoreau, entered into a wider engagement with Indian texts, and took copious notes from the Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and the Manusmriti. ‘In the morning’, Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.' The Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is given over to dense quotations from Thoreau’s favourite Hindu writings.

Thoreau was also doubtless the first person in the United States to describe himself as a yogi. Yet, for all his mental peregrinations, he never travelled outside the United States; indeed, he confined himself to New England. Thoreau was far from having ever seen an Indian, let alone a Hindu yogi; and many Indians have all but overlooked his remark that ‘no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.' There is nothing to suggest that, in the aftermath of Emerson and Thoreau’s reasonably sustained engagement with Indian philosophy, interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu myths was kindled among Americans. To be sure, Sanskrit had made some inroads, howsoever slight, into the curriculum at a few of the principal American institutions of higher education. Edward Elbridge Salisbury was installed as Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University in 1841, and Salisbury would also go on to play a pivotal role in giving shape to the American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 as the first learned organization of its kind in the United States. Yale would subsequently become home to William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), author of a widely used Sanskrit grammar (1879) and translator of the Atharva Veda. By the late 1880s, Sanskrit was being taught at more than half a dozen American universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale. One might, with due diligence, summon a few other similar nuggets of American interest in India, and especially in Hinduism; but, viewed in totality, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that when Vivekananda arrived in Chicago as one of a handful of people charged with representing Hinduism to the American public and the wider world, Hinduism remained an utter novelty to Americans. Certainly there would have been no one, whether among the public or even in the academy, to contest his readings of Hinduism or of Indian society more generally.

It is the World Parliament of Religions, then, which first brought Americans face to face with a living emissary of ‘Hinduism’, a circumstance wrought with ironies. The Parliament was itself one of various congresses convened in 1893 to celebrate the quatrocentennary of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas. As Columbus set landfall in the Americas, he imagined he had reached India. We need not be detained here by a consideration of the far-reaching consequences of that mistake—none as calamitous as the genocide of native Americans—except to suggest that, in a manner of speaking, Vivekananda arrived in the United States in the wake of that mistake. If what has come to be celebrated as the inclusiveness of American society was predicated on an exclusiveness that called for nothing less than the wholesale extermination of the peoples of the Americas and the subsequent enslavement of Africans, the World’s Columbian Exposition would echo that worldview. The Parliament billed itself as the world’s largest gathering of the representatives of religions from the world, and so eminent a scholar as Max Muller, one of the pioneers of the comparative study of religion, signified his approbation of the enterprise with the observation that the Parliament ‘stands unique, stands unprecedented in the whole history of the world.’ Yet, American Indian religions were excluded, on the supposition that Native Americans, though not without culture, could not be viewed as possessing something that might be called ‘religion’; likewise, insofar as Africans (and African Americans) received any representation, it was only to the extent that they were members of some Christian denomination. Ten faiths were conceived by the organizers as the world’s great religions and invited to send their representatives; alongside the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and Zoroastrianism were six religions originating in South Asia and the Far East: Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Some Christian leaders objected to the Parliament on the grounds that it furnished parity to all faiths and thus undermined Christianity, ‘the one religion’ as described by the Archbishop of Canterbury. ‘I do not understand’, the Archbishop wrote in a letter to the organizers, ‘how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their positions and claims.' With respect to the Parliament’s proceedings, the greater preponderance of the papers dwelled on Christianity—152 out of 194, to be precise. Virchand Gandhi appeared as the sole spokesperson for Jainism; today his statue stands outside the Jain temple in Chicago, an emblem of a community’s gratefulness for having brought visibility to a faith which had historically been confined to India.

It is on September 11th, now a day of infamy in America, that James Cardinal Gibbons opened the Parliament by leading the delegates in the Lord’s Prayer. At the Parliament, only two representatives spoke up on behalf of Islam—in retrospect, that appears as a premonition of the fact that Islam and Christianity have an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover if they are going to engage in a genuine inter-faith dialogue. For the worldwide Indian diaspora, September 11th augurs other possibilities. More than a decade after Vivekananda delivered his rousing address, across the world in Johannesburg Gandhi gathered together with friends, associates, and ‘delegates from various places in the Transvaal’ on the evening of September 11th, 1906, to consider how best South African Indians could resist the injustices imposed on them. Such was, in Gandhi’s own words, ‘the advent of satyagraha’, the term he coined to signal not only the birth of a new movement of nonviolent resistance but an entire worldview. But that is another story: back in Chicago, on the afternoon of September 11th in 1893, Vivekananda mounted the stage and Hinduism was, in the received view, itself propelled on the world stage. Vivekananda had shared the dais alongside other ‘representatives’ of Hinduism: among others, there were Siddhu Ram, ‘an appeal writer’ from ‘Mooltan, Punjab’; the Reverend B.B. Nagarkar, a minister of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Bombay; Professor G. N. Chakravarti; Jinda Ram, President of the Temperance Society, Muzzafargarh; and the Reverend P. C. Mozoomdar, Minister and leader of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Calcutta. Those other names are now lost to history—whatever they may have said, they appear to have been swept aside by Vivekananda.And, yet, Virchand Gandhi, speaking on behalf of Jainism, provided a different perspective: not only Vivekananda, but all the Indian delegates, Virchand Gandhi wrote, were a great draw, and ‘at least a third and sometimes two-thirds of the great audience . . . would make a rush for the exits when a fine orator from India had closed his speech.’

By all accounts, and these are not only narratives that have come down to us from his acolytes and other advocates of Hindu nationalism, Vivekananda had an electrifying impact on his audience.' Sisters and Brothers of America’, Vivekananda proceeded to say—and with this he brought his audience of 7,000 to its feet. The Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Henry Barrows, in whose charge the organization of the Parliament had been placed, wrote in his official two-volume history of the Parliament that Vivekananda’s initial words were followed by ‘a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes’; by his own testimony, Vivekananda was the most popular speaker at the Parliament. Once the din of the applause had subsided, Vivekananda thanked the people present ‘in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world’, ‘in the name of the mother of religions’, and ‘in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.' Vivekananda declared himself 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.’ Vivekananda would drive home what he viewed as the essentially ecumenical character of the Indian, and particularly Hindu, religious sensibility by reminding his audience of a hymn which he remembered repeating in childhood, ‘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.’

In Vivekananda’s opening address, the first of many he was to deliver at the Parliament, are already present some though by no means all of the characteristic features of the interpretive strategies that he was to deploy to great effect in his public performances in the West. There is no disputing the fact that India had given shelter to the ‘remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation’, just as it had accorded hospitality to the Jews being hounded in much of the rest of the world. His immediate audience may not have known all this, but Vivekananda was indisputably on firm ground. However, there is already a tacit claim, one which would receive fuller expression once Vivekananda went on the lecture circuit in the United States, about the superiority of Hinduism over other religions. He describes Hinduism as ‘a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance’, but at once appears to be suggesting that this may not be true of other religions. When he adds,' We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true’, there is far more than a hint that Hinduism occupies a unique place in the pantheon on account of the fact that it accepts all religions as true. ‘We’, the adherents of Hinduism, practice ‘universal toleration’; but what of the adherents of other religions? Addressing his audience briefly on September 20th, Vivekananda advised Christians that they ‘must always be ready for good criticism’: having arrived in India in large numbers ‘to save the soul of the heathens’, they were yet to understand that ‘the crying evil in the East is not religion—they have religion enough—but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats.’

It has been argued that as much as his teachings, it was the vast impress of his personality that turned Vivekananda into a sensation. The Chicago Inter Ocean reported that ‘great crowds of people, the most of whom were women’, would arrive an hour before the afternoon session was to commence, ‘for it had been announced that Swami Vivekananda, the popular Hindu Monk, who looks so much like McCullough’s Othello, was to speak.' The Boston Evening Transcript was similarly candid in its assessment that ‘the four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus’ were prepared to sit through an hour or two of other speeches with a smiling countenance, ‘to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.' Harriet Monroe, a well-known figure in literary circles, was struck by his voice, characterizing it ‘as rich as a bronze bell'. Vivekananda had arrived in the United States with some hope of procuring funds with which he could carry out his mission in India; in America, on the other hand, he appeared to some as a good business proposition, the proverbial wise man from the East with a charm, poise, good looks, and a command over English. No sooner was the Parliament over that Vivekananda was signed up on the lecture circuit.

It would be four years before Vivekananda found his way back to India. One of the stories that are most frequently recounted about him, no doubt both to convey a sense of his intellectual prowess as well as his unyielding commitment to the idea of service, is that in the aftermath of the World Parliament he was offered a Chaired Professorship in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University but that he declined the invitation. Harvard maintains no record of such an offer to Vivekananda, nor has anyone been able to furnish an iota of evidence in support of this claim; but like much else that is told of him, this story requires no corroboration from the standpoint of those who view him as a spiritual and intellectual luminary. It may even be that the quest for ‘the truth’ is not altogether germane: what is certain is that Vivekananda acquired a considerable following, and there are histories of American intellectual and cultural enterprises that are now inextricably intertwined with the name of Vivekananda. The role played by two New England women, Sarah Farmer and Sara Chapman Bull, in creating a spiritual retreat, Green Acre, where Vivekananda discoursed frequently on Indian philosophy and conducted a class on Raja Yoga over several months is but one of many illustrations of his ability to command a following among some influential and certainly well-placed sectors of American society. At what came to be known as the Cambridge Conferences, held in December 1894 in the vicinity of Harvard at the instigation of Sara Bull, Vivekananda starred as the main speaker. The guests in attendance at his lectures included Charles Lanman, Professor of Sanskrit and Editor of the Harvard Oriental James; Ernest Fenellosa, one of the world’s leading authorities on Japanese art; and the philosopher William James.

Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894, and another branch in San Francisco in 1900 on his second visit to the United States. Vivekananda passed away in 1902, but the institutionalization of Vedanta in America was well on its way within a few years after his death. By 1929, there were Vedanta Centers in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Providence, and three in the Los Angeles area alone—Pasadena, Hollywood, and La Crescenta. The most arresting chapter of the growth of Vedanta in the US—a narrative that calls attention to its enticements to Western intellectuals, especially in the aftermath of World War I, which had taken an extraordinarily large toll of young men and brought home to millions of Europeans the devastatingly frightening idea of a ‘total war’—would be written in Southern California, where the young monk, Swami Prabhavananda, who had been sent to Hollywood by the Ramakrishna Order in 1929, eventually gathered a renowned group of British writers and intellectuals around him, including Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard.Prabhavananda and Isherwood together produced translations of a number of key Hindu philosophical texts—the Bhagavad Gita, Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, and the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali—published in the Mentor Library series and so played a critical role in popularizing Indian philosophy. We might say that Hollywood’s interest in ‘Eastern spirituality’ was kindled by Isherwood, whose connections with film, art, and literary circles were prolific.

There is but no question that memories of Vivekananda linger in the American imagination. A Victorian home in South Pasadena, where Vivekananda stayed for six weeks in 1900, is now under the care of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. The Trabuco College of Prayer, established by Gerald Heard in 1941 as a quiet retreat for meditation amidst 300 acres of land in the hills of Santa Ana to the south of Los Angeles, was turned over to the Vedanta Society in 1949 and rededicated as the Ramakrishna Monastery. Two years later, a statue of Vivekananda, modelled after one that had been installed at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, would be installed at the Trabuco Canyon monastery. Significantly, the dedication ceremony took place on July 4th: thus an attempt would be made, one which is to be witnessed repeatedly in the ground-breaking ceremonies that have accompanied the inauguration of new sites for Hindu temples in the United States, to synchronize the notion of political freedom prevailing in the US with the idea of spiritual freedom, an idea that many educated middle-class Hindus believe reached its apogee in Indian civilization. However much America, in this view, may represent the culmination of the idea of freedom of expression and the material freedoms that have to define modern life, Vivekananda, the emissary of an ancient civilization that has long grappled with the notion of spiritual emancipation, was needed in the West to fulfil the very idea of freedom itself.

The more recent history of the appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian organizations in the United States echoes as well the hugely iconic status that Vivekananda came to acquire as a preeminent figure of the notion of a resurgent India. It is no surprise that he is the patron saint of the Hindu Student Council, which rather modestly describes itself as ‘an international youth forum providing opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage, spirituality and culture.' The HSC is, of course, the youth division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and it has been especially active on American campuses, serving the needs of what are sometimes called ‘heritage students’, or second- and even third-generation Indian Americans, who are keen to learn about Hinduism, ancient India, the modernity of Hinduism, and the affronts to Hindus in countries where they are a minority. The organizational strengths of the HSC can reasonably be surmised from the fact that in 1993, on the centenary of Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions, it held a ‘Vision 2000 Global Youth Conference’ attended by 2000 Hindu students from the US, India, and nearly 20 other foreign countries. Vivekananda is the one figure from the relatively recent Indian past who is most admired in HSC circles as someone who not only spoke for the youth of India but unabashedly suggested that India was positioned to achieve conquest over the world with its rich spiritual inheritance. It is Vivekananda who, from the standpoint of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Students Council, successfully transformed Hinduism from an inward-looking faith to the global religion that it had once aspired to be as it spread through Thailand, Java, Bali, and Indochina. The Hindu Student Council’s ‘Global Dharma Conference’, held at Edison, New Jersey, in 2003, was thus not only a tribute to Vivekananda’s conception of Hinduism as a global religion but an affirmation of Hinduism’s capacity to organize its devotees and take its place alongside other world religions.

‘This is the story of a phenomenon.' Thus Christopher Isherwood commenced his elegant even mesmerizing biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples. Isherwood tells a great many stories—and tempts me to conclude with one of the many stories, largely apocryphal, that have now become part of the legend that has grown up around Vivekananda and his legacy in the United States. In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago with a certain attraction to Sri Ramakrishna, I became a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Center in Hyde Park. In time I came to find out that, under the leadership of Swami Bhasyananda, land was acquired in 1968 in the township of Ganges, Michigan, and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat was duly established in the midst of a wonderfully bucolic setting. Upon inquiring how Ganges had acquired its name, I was told by the residents of the Monastery that the town was founded by an early follower of Vivekananda; others mentioned to me that the disciple in question was the Governor of Michigan, and that in honour of the Indian swami he conferred Indian names on two towns, the other being Nirvana. At that time I ceased my probe into this matter, inclined to accept the view that the story was worthy to be told to others, whatever its veracity. In recent years, as Vivekananda’s place in the diasporic imaginary has grown tremendously, I thought it worthwhile to investigate this story further and found not a scrap of evidence to corroborate the view held by members of the Vivekananda Monastery. Thus Walter Romig, in his reasonably authoritative Michigan Place Names, states that Ganges was settled in 1838, and so ‘named by Dr. Joseph Coates, a member of the legislature from Otsego, after the holy river of India, for reasons unknown’; of Nirvana, he says that it is ‘Buddhist for highest heaven’, and acquired its name from the great admiration that Darwin Knight, the town’s first postmaster, bore for' Oriental religions’. But will this matter at all to Vivekananda’s followers and disciples in America and around the world? Should it matter at all? What could be more fun, after all, than to arrive in Nirvana, and then drop a few postcards to friends and family members announcing one’s arrival in (Vivekananda’s) Nirvana?

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