There is a saying among early settlers in North America that an idea is known by the footprints it leaves behind. By the early twentieth century, Americans had discovered the eternal footprints of Vedanta. The eminent Austrian philosopher Moriz Winternitz surmised that ‘if we wish to understand the beginnings of our own (Western) culture…, we must go back to India, where the oldest literature of an Indo-European people is preserved’.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the East&’s messenger of Vedanta was Swami Vivekananda, who journeyed in 1893 from India to America to attend the first Parliament of the World Religions, which was held in the bustling manufacturing hub of Chicago. Vivekananda was the leading disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who practiced an extraordinary religious ecumenism. Vivekananda once recalled about his teacher: ‘He was not what one might call a very learned man…, but a very bold one, deeply imbued with the spirit of Vedanta philosophy, (who) obtained a wonderful insight into the spiritual world…. He was the living commentary on the Vedas and their aim’.
The earliest Vedic canon, the Rig-Veda (1500–1200 BCE), is an extant collection of 1,028 hymns and 10,600 verses, organized into ten books (Mandalas). It is both universal and eternal, in that the hymns boldly affirm that ‘Truth is one, (although) wise men (and women) call it by various names’. The sages remind us that truth is complex and that no single state or society can lay claim to ‘truth’ that is based on a single-minded moral guardianship over freedom, liberty, and justice.
Despite Vivekananda&’s declining health, he returned to the United States in 1899. During his stay, as in earlier years, he shied away from the two extremes of Hindu orthodoxy and missionary Christianity. Unlike dogmatism or conversion, the modern sage from the East drew many Americans to the Vedanta philosophy by quintessentially decoding the moral language of the Vedic texts into four aspects of yoga: karma-yoga (action); bhakti-yoga (devotion); raja-yoga (stillness of mind); and jnana-yoga (knowledge of the divine).
Soon, centres were being officially recognized by the Ramakrishna Math&’s head office in Belur Math and incorporated across America. In 1894, the first Vedanta center of worship, the Vedanta Society of New York, opened its doors to the community at 34 West 71st Street, where it is still located. Only six years later, when Vivekananda visited San Francisco in 1900, his northern California devotees chartered the Northern California Vedanta Society. In 1910, the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society opened a centre in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1925, the Society opened a center in Portland, Oregon.
Between 1928 and 1939, the Vedanta centres in America nearly doubled in number. In 1928, the Society opened a centre in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1930, it added a centre in Chicago, Illinois, where Swami Vivekananda delivered a memorable speech to the congress. In that same year, the society opened a centre in Los Angeles, California. Then, in 1933, the Society opened a second centre in New York City, this one at 17 East 94th Street.
In 1938, Swami Satprakashananda started the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, Missouri. Also during that year, the Society opened the centre of the Vedanta Society of Western Washington, in Seattle. In 1939, the Society opened a centre at the Vedanta Society of Berkeley, California. In 1953, the Society opened a centre at the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, California. Most recently, in 2005, the Society opened a centre at the Vedanta Center of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg, Florida.
By the early twentieth century, outstanding scholars, both born in America and immigrants from Europe, became active members of local Vedanta centres. For example, two prominent faculty members at Harvard College, the Russian émigré Professor Pitrim Sorokin, head of the department of sociology, and Dr. Gordon Allport, a professor of psychology, were members of the Boston centre. Dr. Allport presented the book, ‘Hindu Psychology, Its Meaning for the West’, authored by Swami Akhilananda to the public of the West. Professor Joseph Campbell, who was a faculty member in the department of religion at Sarah Lawrence College, collaborated with Swami Nikhilananda, who founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda centre in New York. In the Saint Louis centre, Dr. Houston Smith, also a professor of religion was closely associated with Swami Satprakashananda. Three British intellectuals, Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood, were members of the centre in Southern California, and actively collaborated with its chief monk, Swami Prabhavananda, in advancing the Vedanta message.
But why have Americans been drawn to the Vedanta philosophy? Starting with the spellbound audience attending the first congress, as well as those individuals who organized the thirteen fully accredited centres stretching across America, this basic question must be asked. What soulful string did Vivekananda pull that made Americans join the Vedanta order?
Vivekananda may not have fashioned a new faith; nonetheless, the Vedic philosophy that he advocated is timeless, positing that each of us has a divine capacity and natural desire to know God. In America, Vivekananda combined spiritual humanism with common pragmatism. With super-sharp intelligence, the itinerant monk reminded everyone that he belonged ‘to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance’. He highlighted the liberal values of the sacred texts of all the world&’s religions. This monk strongly believed that social inequality grows out of the narrow sectarianism that divides humanity. Vivekananda repeated in public speeches and private discussions that human liberty can be searched for and located, not in the material artifacts of history, but in the pristine self-realization that the soul is immortal and divine. Birth and death are mere events in time and space.
Vivekananda had a vigorous and dramatic style of delivery as he contrasted human beings’ longing for truth with greed. Much like the Western orchestral symphony (think Brahms), almost always, Vivekananda was deliberative in that he contrasted human beings’ inner aspiration to truth to the rising capitalist theology. The lecture themes sought to close the gap between the inner-directed sacred Self and the other-directed secular self. He cautioned the world against the ethical costs of raked modernity.
In this vital sense, Vivekananda&’s presentations to the audience had a song-like quality. His self-styled timbrel character represented the world as a continuous unsliced reality. Judging from the follow-up questions that were thrown at him by skeptical members of the audience, Vivekananda&’s direct, blunt, but always poised replies affirmed the eternal presence of the ancient coda of truth. America clearly witnessed that Vivekananda&’s goal was not an imaginative evocation, but a call to follow the footprints that would lead them to the hymnal road to liberation.
The writer is an emeritus professor of sociology.