An article on Swami Vivekananda in the Wall Street Journal of 30th March titled, “What Did J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, and Sarah Bernhardt Have in Common?” makes for delightful reading. What they had in common was their devotion to Swami Vivekananda, the man who introduced Vedanta and yoga to America. I did not know that. But anyway, it’s the sort of positive article about a Hindu monk that would give conniptions to the leftist “secular intellectuals” in India. But the Wall Street Journal does not suffer from the knee-jerk negative reflex of the main stream English language media in India; the latter would recoil with horror at the mere thought of publishing a laudatory piece about a proud Hindu. Wouldn’t that be tantamount to endorsing — horror of horrors — Hindutva?
Yoga is popular in the US and in many non-Muslim parts of the world. Why it is not popular in the Islamic world is interesting (and more about that later.) An excerpt from the WSJ article:
Although all but forgotten by America’s 20 million would-be yoginis, clad in their finest Lululemon, Vivekananda was the Bengali monk who introduced the word “yoga” into the national conversation. In 1893, outfitted in a red, flowing turban and yellow robes belted by a scarlet sash, he had delivered a show-stopping speech in Chicago. The event was the tony Parliament of Religions, which had been convened as a spiritual complement to the World’s Fair, showcasing the industrial and technological achievements of the age.
On its opening day, September 11, Vivekananda, who appeared to be meditating onstage, was summoned to speak and did so without notes. “Sisters and Brothers of America,” he began, in a sonorous voice tinged with “a delightful slight Irish brogue,” according to one listener, attributable to his Trinity College–educated professor in India. “It fills my heart with joy unspeakable…”
Then something unprecedented happened, presaging the phenomenon decades later that greeted the Beatles (one of whom, George Harrison, would become a lifelong Vivekananda devotee). The previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus attendees rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk, who, having never before addressed a large gathering, was as shocked as his audience. “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world,” he responded, flushed with emotion. “I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.”
I feel a kinship to Swami Vivekananda–which arises not merely from my being a Bengali and a Hindu like he was. It’s more of an intellectual kinship that transcends space and time. Swamiji had the power to move people spiritually and emotionally. I knew that George Harrison was influenced by Indian thought but I did not know that the path lay through Vivekananda:
“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood wrote a half century later, surmising that a “strange kind of subconscious telepathy” had infected the hall, beginning with Vivekananda’s first words, which have resonated, for some, long after. Asked about the origins of “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison replied that “the song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’ ”
The teachings of Vedanta are rooted in the Vedas, ancient scriptures going back several thousand years that also inform Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. The Vedic texts of the Upanishads enshrine a core belief that God is within and without—that the divine is everywhere. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) is another sacred text or gospel, whereas Hinduism is actually a coinage popularized by Vivekananda to describe a faith of diverse and myriad beliefs.
Vivekananda’s genius was to simplify Vedantic thought to a few accessible teachings that Westerners found irresistible. God was not the capricious tyrant in the heavens avowed by Bible-thumpers, but rather a power that resided in the human heart. “Each soul is potentially divine,” he promised. “The goal is to manifest that divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.” And to close the deal for the fence-sitters, he punched up Vedanta’s embrace of other faiths and their prophets. Christ and Buddha were incarnations of the divine, he said, no less than Krishna and his own teacher, Ramakrishna.
Swami Vivekananda was valued for what he represented — Indian thought — and recognized by some of the brightest minds in America. One of them was Nicola Tesla. A few years ago I came across a wonderful documentary on Tesla. (I will dig up the reference later.) There I got to know that Swami Vivekananda and Tesla had met.
[Sahah] Bernhardt, in fact, introduced him to the electromagnetic scientist Nikola Tesla, who was struck by Vivekananda’s knowledge of physics. Both recognized they had been pondering the same thesis on energy—in different languages. Vivekananda was keenly interested in the science supporting meditation, and Tesla would cite the monk’s contributions in his pioneering research of electricity. “Mr. Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic prana and akasha and the kalpas [time],” Vivekananda wrote to a friend. “He thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go to see him next week to get this mathematical demonstration. In that case Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations.” For the monk from Calcutta, there were no inconsistencies between science, evolution and religious belief. Faith, he wrote, must be based upon direct experience, not religious platitudes.
As I said before, the WSJ piece is quite delightful. But I have one tiny disagreement. It is this:
Vivekananda’s influence bloomed well into the mid-20th century, infusing the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Jung, George Santayana, Jane Addams, Joseph Campbell and Henry Miller, among assorted luminaries. And then he seemed to go into eclipse in the West. American baby boomers—more disposed to “doing” than “being”—have opted for “hot yoga” classes over meditation. At some point, perhaps in the 1980s, an ancient, profoundly antimaterialist teaching had morphed into a fitness cult with expensive accessories.
The claim that Vivekananda “infusing the work of Mahatma Gandhi” is untenable. Swami Vivekananda exhorted people to be strong, while Gandhi’s call to Indians (and anyone else who would care to listen) was passivity and resignation. Gandhi told people to surrender passively in the face of evil. India has indeed followed Gandhi’s path and rejected Swamiji’s. Examples of that would fill volumes but let me just point out one simple instance.
Auranzeb was one of the many tyrannical rulers of India who slaughtered Indians wholesale. One of the major thoroughfares of the capital of India prominently bears his name. One can understand that Pakistan celebrates those who invaded and subjugated India but it is absolutely puzzling to see India do so. Why? The answer must be because Indians are weak. I believe that the day that Indians throw off the yoke of subjugation will be the day that India embarks on the path to emancipation and freedom.
Weak people don’t have the freedom to take what is best and what is good for them. Instead they are forced to take whatever is least threatening to their overlords. The English language main stream media of India is what it is because it is filled with weak people doing what they are allowed to do by the neo-colonial rulers of India. An article praising Swami Vivekananda would be unthinkable in the Indian MSM.
Imagine if Vedanta and yoga were to be introduced as part of the curriculum in Indian schools. You bet there would be howls of protests from all corners of India. Vedanta and yoga — what Swamiji meant by the word “religion” — are not for the weak. The intellectuals and seekers of the West who came in contact with Vivekananda and the message he embodied were strong. They freely drank deep from the well of Indian wisdom.
. . . Christopher Isherwood and his friend Aldous Huxley, who wrote the introduction to the 1942 English-language edition of “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,” a firsthand account (originally published in India in 1898) described by Huxley as “the most profound and subtle utterances about the nature of Ultimate Reality.” Nikhilananda, Salinger’s guru, did the translation, with assistance from Huxley, Joseph Campbell and Margaret Wilson, the daughter of the late president.
Huxley and Isherwood were introduced to Vedanta in the Hollywood Hills in the late 1930s by their countryman, the writer Gerald Heard. In a fitting counterpart to the New York Center, the Hollywood Vedanta society was likewise run by a scholarly and charismatic monk, Prabhavananda, who initiated the English trio of writers.
Like Nikhilananda, Prabhavananda was a magnet for the intelligentsia, and his lectures often attracted the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and W. Somerset Maugham (and led to his writing “The Razor’s Edge”). Inspired by Isherwood—who briefly lived at the center as a monk—Greta Garbo asked if she too might move in. Told that a monastery accepts only men, Garbo became testy. “That doesn’t matter!” she thumped. “I’ll put on trousers.”
Henry Miller, who made headlines with his torrid and banned “Tropic of Cancer,” visited with Prabhavananda at the Hollywood center, devoured a small library of Vedanta books and settled down in Big Sur in 1944. Throughout his memoir, “The Air Conditioned Nightmare,” Miller invokes Vivekananda as the great sage of the modern age and the consummate messenger to rescue the West from spiritual bankruptcy.
The supreme irony is that India itself needs rescuing from spiritual bankruptcy — all the while when India itself has the world’s largest stock of spiritual capital safely locked away. As they say in Hindi, दिये के नीचे अँधेरा (“it’s dark right under the lamp”.) Perhaps centuries of slavery has robbed Indians of the discriminating faculty and the intelligence to recognize true wealth and wisdom.
Isherwood’s commitment to Vedanta, like Salinger’s, was unswerving and lifelong. Over the next 20 years, he co-translated with Prabhavananda the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s “Yoga Aphorisms” and Shankara’s “Crest Jewel of Discrimination,” and was the author of several books and tracts on Vivekananda and Ramakrishna.
Alright, I have quoted enough from the WSJ piece. It’s a fairly long piece and I recommend it in its entirety. Here’s one last bit from it.
India has scheduled a yearlong party to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Vivekananda’s birth, beginning on January 12, 2013. There will be plenty of readings of his four texts on yoga as a spiritual discipline. Nine volumes chronicle his talks, writings and ruminations, from screeds against child marriage to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to his pet goats and ducks. But if there were a single takeaway line that boils down his teachings to one spiritual bullet point, it would be “You are not your body.” This might be bad news for the yoga-mat crowd. The good news for beleaguered souls like Salinger was Vivekananda’s corollary: “You are not your mind.”
[Read more on Swami Vivekananda in this blog.]