Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) arrived in the West: 1893

Swami VivekanandaAt Parliament of Religions Narendranath Datta was born on January 12th, 1863, in Calcutta, into an upper-middle-class Kayastha family in Bengal, he was educated at a Western-style university where he was exposed to Western philosophy, Christianity, and science. Social reform was given a prominent place in Vivekananda's thought, and he joined the Brahmo Samaj a Hindu reformist organisation, dedicated to eliminating child marriage and illiteracy and determined to spread education among women and the lower castes. He later became the most notable disciple of Ramakrishna, who claimed to demonstrate the essential unity of all religions by becoming a total exemplar of each religion.

In September 1893 Swami Vivekananda made a speech at the World Parliament of Religions that created quite a stir in the largely American audience. He was kept busy for the next two years lecturing and teaching and bowdlerising Vedanta for the West and attracting support (mature single ladies of means are especially important for Indian missionaries). Vivekananda was pretty careful to tailor his message to his audience as his guru was the truly wild, flamboyant and crazy Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) of Dakshineswar (outside Calcutta). Ramakrishna was acknowledged throughout India as a saint of celestial proportions but not a comfortable guest for afternoon tea. Most books written by monks of the society do not discuss the truly awesome strangeness of Ramakrishna who was at one time the lion of Bengali society despite his peasant coarseness and earthiness and his overt passionate love for the young Vivekananda. He was accused of being transvestite for his living out of his role as a woman devotee and his immmersion in the role of Muslim, Christian, etc though sometimes perfunctory was at others times looked complete. Vivekananda's gospel also bore very little resemblance to that of his master and this caused much controversy amongst Ramakrishna's immediate group of disciples. Vivekananda's role in marketing Vedanta and Yoga for the West is discussed in Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture by Andrea R. Jain

But Europeans and Americans were not the only ones who reified and privileged a notion of raja yoga that censored the physical practices associated with hatha yoga and that was perceived to be compatible with modern ideas and values, especially a modern interpretation of advaita vedanta or neo-vedanta, which interpreted nondualism as a rational Indian philosophical religion based on self-development and ethical activism. Reid Locklin and Julia Lauwers note two opposing Indian responses to the global diffusion of advaita vedanta . On the one hand, various forms of Indian religious nationalisms that emphasized geocentric national identity, such as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), resisted global diffusion. Accommodationist approaches to yoga sought to revive advaita vedanta for Indians and to simultaneously promote it as a universally accessible gift to humanity . Accommodationists accomplished this mission by presenting advaita vedanta in the modern “universalist, objective language of natural science, meditative technique, and spiritual therapy" (Locklin, Reid, and Julia Lauwers. 2009. “Rewriting the Sacred Geography of Advaita: Swami Chinmayananda and the Sankara-Dig-Vijaya." Journal of Hindu Studies).

More than any European or American, the famous Hindu proselytizing guru Vivekananda was responsible for systematizing and globally diffusing a narrow and modern version of yoga. Vivekananda was one among many Hindus who expressed contempt for certain types of yoga based on a bifurcation between yoga's philosophical and meditative techniques, often equated with raja yoga, and its physical techniques, often equated with hatha yoga (Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice).

De Michelis, who suggests that Vivekananda was the “creator" of “Modern Yoga," argues that he was responsible for starting “something of a ‘yoga renaissance' both in India and in the West" (de Michelis, Elizabeth. 2004. A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism). He did this through the diffusion of a modern notion of raja yoga. Vivekananda used raja yoga to refer to what he considered authentic yoga according to his selective reading of the Yoga Sutras.

On his return to India with a small group of Western disciples in 1897, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission at the monastery of Belur Math on the Ganges River near Calcutta. Self-perfection and service were his ideals, and the order continued to stress them. He attempted to combine Indian spirituality with Western material progress, maintaining that the two supplemented and complemented one another. His Absolute was man's own higher self; to labour for the benefit of mankind was the noblest endeavour. He died on July 4th, 1902, in Calcutta at the age of 39.

Ramakrishna Sri Sarada Ramakrishna was born as Gadadhar Chatterji on February 18th, 1836, in Hooghly, Bengal. He was the son of a poor Brahman family, he had little formal schooling. All his life he spoke a coarse dialect of Bengali and knew neither English nor Sanskrit. At the age of 23 he was married to Sarada-devi, age five; the marriage was never consummated, because one of his principles was celibacy. Sarada-devi later was deified and is still considered a saint by the Ramakrishna sect, which calls her the Divine Mother.

Rather than learning about God from books, he wished to realize him through the way he lived and worshipped. Moderation was alien to his nature, and he oscillated between exaltation and deepest gloom. He became God-intoxicated at the age of seven, apparently falling into a mystical trance. So much legend surrounds him as a revered figure, however, that the true man is somewhat obscured. Only the essence of his philosophy is quite clear.

Sri Sarada Ramakrishna fought against sexual passion and money. He believed that those twin evils caused men to fail in achieving spiritual enlightenment. Later in life, his objection to gold became so intense that it was said to have an allergic effect upon him, and finally he could not touch metal of any kind. He rejected the idea of caste, repudiating any kind of artificial social division. He died on August 16th, 1886, in Calcutta at age 50.

The Ramakrisha Mission was founded in Calcutta by Vivekananda in 1897 to spread the teachings of Vedanta as embodied in the life of his master Ramakrishna and to improve the social conditions of the Indian people. In Ramakrishna's lifetime there grew about him a small but devoted band of disciples, among whom the young Vivekananda was outstanding and was chosen by Ramakrishna as his successor. These disciples were the nucleus of the Ramakrishna math ("monastery") established at Belur, on the banks of the Ganges near Calcutta, and consecrated in 1898. The Shri Sarada Math, begun in Calcutta in 1953, was made a completely separate organization in 1959, following the earlier wishes of Vivekananda; it and its sister organization, the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, now operate a number of centres in different parts of India. Several Ramakrishna Mission centres specifically serving women were turned over to the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission.

The Vedanta Society of the City of New York, incorporated in 1898, is the oldest branch of the mission in the U.S. It grew out of classes held by Vivekananda while on a visit to the U.S. to appear before the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The activities of the order spread rapidly during the next half century. In the 1980s the order operated 13 branches in the United States and had centres in Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, France, Switzerland, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. The centres in Western countries do not carry on social service work but are devoted exclusively to promulgating Ramakrishna's teachings. In India nearly 90 math and mission centres carry on various philanthropic activities, including medical service, educational work, publications, and relief work.

There is Ramakrishna Home Page.


Bibliography:

  • The books published by the Ramakrishna Math are too numerous to list, a selection includes the many books by swamis Vivekananda, Prabhavananda (long time head of the LA temple) etc, etc.
  • Teachings of Swami VivekanandaTeachings of Swami Vivekananda
    Swami Vivekananda
  • My Guru and His Disciple
    Christopher Isherwood
  • Vedanta for the West
    Carl T. Jackson
    An interesting book which relates Vivekananada's travels and travails in the USA and his interactions with his early US disciples.
  • Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography
    Narasingha P. Sil, (1998) (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.).
  • RamakrishnaSwami Vivekananda: A Reassessment
    Narasingha P. Sil, (1997) (Mississauga, ON: Associated University Presses).

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