Vedanta in America: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

By Pravrajika Vrajaprana

Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun of Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara at the Vedanta Society of Southern California; she is the author of Vedanta: A Simple Introduction. This article originally appeared in the February, 2000 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.

“In order to promote the kingdom,” writes Paul Knitter—former Divine Word missionary and current professor of theology at an American Catholic university—”Christians must witness to Christ. All peoples, all religions, must know of him in order to grasp the full content of God’s presence in history.…But in the new ecclesiology and in the new model for truth, one admits also that all peoples should know of Buddha, of Muhammad, of Krishna.”1

Welcome to America as she stares down the face of the new millennium and welcome to an America whose religious face has been profoundly transformed in recent years.

Even thirty years ago it would have been inconceivable for a Christian missionary—speaking from his own experience—to say, “It can be said that the goal of missionary work is being achieved when announcing the gospel to all peoples makes the Christian a better Christian and the Buddhist a better Buddhist.”2

While the words bear an unmistakable Vedantic ring, having them intoned by a Christian missionary and theologian is nothing less than astonishing. It is here, in the realm of attitudes and ideas, that we can see Vedanta’s transformative effect on America most clearly, for it is not an exaggeration to assert that the Vedanta movement has played a significant role in the religious transfiguration of the American landscape. This transformation is all the more remarkable considering how small the Vedanta movement is when compared to other religious movements in the West.

Were we to assess Vedanta’s impact on the West by looking for large numbers attending Vedanta Societies, we would certainly be disappointed. Yet before we succumb to hand wringing over numbers, let us remember that Swami Vivekananda’s mission in the West was to spread ideas, not churches. In this mission—the spreading of ideas and the changing of attitudes—the Vedanta movement has succeeded quite well. Though our numbers are small, the impact of Vedanta in America has unquestionably been pronounced. Concerning the Vedanta movement in the West, American historian Carl Jackson wrote: “Few other religious bodies of such Lilliputian size have equaled the movement’s impact or historical significance.”3

How did this happen? Through the dissemination of ideas via the world’s intelligentsia.

While Eastern ideas had already appeared on Western shores via Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and other Transcendentalists, the rivulet of Eastern thought became a robust river only with the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in 1893. The Vedanta philosophy which had been exposed only to the select few suddenly became available to a much larger audience.

Swami Vivekananda traveled widely and spoke frequently; his talks were widely reported and avidly discussed in all segments of the population. He managed to be both a philosophical topic and a trendy news fad. After Vivekananda left the country, interested students formed groups which continued to study and practice Vedanta. Yet these groups had much less influence on society than the social and intellectual lions of the day; it was their interest that continued to spread Vedanta’s influence far and wide long after Vivekananda’s American sojourn had ended.

A look at Josephine MacLeod—an American disciple of Swami Vivekananda and a connoisseur of the elite—provides us with a fascinating example of how the Vedanta ball kept rolling in the West. A true world citizen, Josephine MacLeod’s sole ambition was to spread Vivekananda’s message wherever she went. Her modus operandi was to collect influential people and feed them Vivekananda’s ideas, peppered with her own infectious enthusiasm. Sri Ramakrishna’s great disciple, Swami Shivananda, told her: “It is for this work Swamiji has left you still in the world—and making you to scour round the world in search of great men.”4

Romain Rolland was one such trophy. Considered the greatest living French writer of his day, Rolland won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915. Interestingly, it was via another one of Josephine MacLeod’s trophies—Dhan Gopal Mukherji—that Rolland became interested in Sri Ramakrishna. Meeting Mukherji in America, Josephine MacLeod inspired him to write about Sri Ramakrishna, pouring into him her wealth of knowledge and zeal. The direct consequence of her efforts was Mukherji’s book on Sri Ramakrishna, The Face of Silence, which was chosen by the League of Nations as one of the best forty books of 1926 and was also selected for the International Library of Geneva.

Discovering Sri Ramakrishna via Mukherji, Romain Rolland became fascinated by Mukherji’s subject. Rolland’s interest was conveyed by Mukherji to Josephine MacLeod who promptly sent Rolland books on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, followed by her own visits to Rolland’s home in Switzerland. The happy result of her blitzkrieg was the publication of The Life of Ramakrishna and The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel. Because of Rolland’s immense stature, the books were widely read by the general public and translated into several foreign languages.

One of the people who read Rolland nearly twenty years later was the famed American author Henry Miller, who read Rolland’s works while crossing the American continent. “Now that the trip is over,” Miller wrote in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, “I must confess that the experience which stands out most strongly in my mind is the reading of Romain Rolland’s two volumes on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.”5

Known primarily for his steamy novels and censorship battles, one would expect Miller to be the last person to find inspiration in Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Yet not only was he inspired, he also ended up inspiring others by bringing Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda to the public’s attention.

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare opens with a “Citation from Swami Vivekananda,” consisting of two long quotations which absorb almost one full page. Throughout the book Miller mentions both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Referring to Sri Ramakrishna as “the very incarnation of love and wisdom,” he adds several pages later: “I was full of Ramakrishna on leaving Pittsburgh. Ramakrishna who never criticized, who never preached, who accepted all religions, who saw God everywhere in everything: the most ecstatic being, I imagine, that ever lived.”6 In another portion of the book Miller quotes Romain Rolland’s Life of Vivekananda for nearly one full page and writes of Swamiji’s triumph at the 1893 Parliament of Religions.7 In the book Miller also bemoaned the fact that Sri Ramakrishna was virtually unknown in America: “Ramakrishna—probably not one out of a hundred thousand ever heard of that name, nor are they apt to as long as they live.”8 Miller’s statistics are probably not far from the mark, yet today there are prominent devotees who, had it not been for their study of Henry Miller, would never have discovered Sri Ramakrishna.

Miller’s pan-American trek brought him directly to Swami Prabhavananda—the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Miller met the swami only once, but he “left a great impression on my mind.”9 The same swami profoundly influenced three other prominent cultural icons—Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard—who themselves passed on Vedanta’s ideas to countless numbers of people.

Meeting Swami Prabhavananda in Hollywood in those early years was, as Christopher Isherwood later related, “a contact which had far-reaching effects on the lives of all three of us.”10 All three men were well-known, prominent intellectuals who wrote about the matters that interested them. Because of their intellectual standing, what interested them became a matter of interest to a large segment of the population: while not everyone can be a genius or social luminary, there are legions of those who appreciate and follow the interests of those who are. “The growing audience for mystical ideas…[was] further widened by the publications of well-known authors like Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Christopher Isherwood,” American historian Hal Bridges wrote.11

Huxley was, along with Heard and Isherwood, an initiated disciple of Swami Prabhavananda; again, like Heard and Isherwood, he was a regular contributor to the Southern California Vedanta journal Vedanta and the West. Huxley wrote thirty-one books, sixty-five stories and innumerable articles—Vedantic themes appearing in many of them. Even his novels were created as vehicles for expressing his philosophy. The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley’s best-known philosophical work, was published in 1944 to critical acclaim: The New York Times deemed it a “masterpiece.” For over a half-century it has continued to reach an extraordinarily wide audience, the book’s appeal lying as much in its vast sweep as in its suggestion “that the end of human life is contemplation, or the direct and intuitive awareness of God.”12

While Gerald Heard was celebrated in his day, today he has fallen into literary oblivion. Yet during his heyday in the 40s and 50s, he was widely read, publishing more than forty-seven volumes of writing, many of them directly concerned with Vedanta. Indeed, it was Gerald Heard’s direct influence that brought Dr. Huston Smith to Vedanta, and it was through his guidance that Dr. Smith met Swami Satprakashananda in St. Louis.

An octogenarian, Huston Smith today continues to actively support Vedanta activities. In recent years he has been called both “the world’s greatest authority on world religions” and a “media star.” Dr. Smith is probably best known as the author of The World’s Religions (previously entitled The Religions of Man) which also has a separate incarnation as The Illustrated World’s Religions. Over two million copies of the various editions have been sold since its 1958 publication; it has been translated into fourteen languages. Considered the standard by which to judge other texts on world religions, The World’s Religions is one of the most frequently assigned books for college-level classes on religion. In every edition of this book, Sri Ramakrishna is both mentioned and quoted. In The Religions of Man, Smith says that Sri Ramakrishna was “the greatest Hindu saint of the nineteenth century.”13

Over the years, Dr. Smith has had several television series on world religions; the latest and most popular being The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith, a five-part series that consisted of Bill Moyers’s televised interviews with Dr. Smith. One of the many satisfactions of viewing The Wisdom of Faith was to see a photograph of Swami Satprakashananda taking up the entire television screen while hearing Huston Smith’s voice in the background speaking of how much he had gained from his association with the Swami. In the television series Smith clearly emphasized how much he had gained spiritually from the Vedanta movement in general and Swami Satprakashananda in particular. On Christmas Eve, for example, Smith and his family would attend a local Christian church for the family worship. Once home however, Dr. Smith would leave for the Vedanta Society to hear Swami Satprakashananda speak on the message of Christ. That, Smith remarked—while millions of television viewers listened—was where he got his spiritual sustenance.

It’s essential to keep in mind that while only a handful of people out of the millions of viewers would remember the name “Swami Satprakashananda” or perhaps even “Vedanta,” the effect of programs such as these hasn’t been so much to bring people to Vedanta’s doorstep as to normalize it in the American context. Swami Vivekananda was the first and—up to this point at least—the only Vedanta bombshell; since his time the changing of the American religious outlook has been gradual and incremental. The effect of all these books, magazine articles, and television appearances has not been to bring the American masses to their local Vedanta Societies but to broaden Americans’ personal outlook regarding spirituality.

Let us now return our gaze to Hollywood: Of the Huxley-Heard-Isherwood triumvirate, it was Christopher Isherwood who was the most intimately connected with the Vedanta movement, remaining so throughout his long life. Whereas Huxley later became sidelined by promoting psychedelics for nirvana and Heard slipped into cultural obscurity, Isherwood used his considerable literary gifts to bring Vedanta to the public eye. Not only was his book Ramakrishna and His Disciples published by one of America’s foremost publishers, Simon and Schuster, but his literary collaborations with Swami Prabhavananda—which provided elegant translations of Hinduism’s basic texts—reached a vast audience.

The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita; How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali; and Shankara’s Crest-Jewel of Discrimination are the best-known Prabhavananda-Isherwood collaborations. For many years each title was available in a mass-market edition by a major publisher, thus making the books widely available to the general public. “A distinguished literary work” is how Time magazine characterized the Prabhavananda-Isherwood Bhagavad-Gita which has sold over one million copies since its 1944 publication. It is the only Prabhavananda-Isherwood title still available in the mass-market edition; today the book is still widely used as a college text and—unlike most other Vedanta books—remains available in general-audience bookstores.

In 1996, the New York Times Book Review created a list of the century’s most influential writers; both Huxley and Isherwood were featured on that list, as was another world-famous American writer deeply influenced by Vedanta: J.D. Salinger.

Salinger brings our discussion to America’s Eastern seaboard where Swami Nikhilananda was drawing New York’s intellectual crème de la crème.

In the 50s Salinger gave a copy of his best-selling book Franny and Zooey to his mentor Swami Nikhilananda; within the book was Salinger’s inscription—words to the effect that he “was able to circulate the ideas of Vedanta only through the medium of such stories as these.”14 Salinger’s later short stories are Vedanta-drenched: one story describes Swami Vivekananda as “one of the most exciting, original, and best-equipped giants of this century.” The story’s protagonist further declares: “My personal sympathy for him will never be outgrown or exhausted as long as I live, mark my words, I would easily give ten years of my life, possibly more, if I could have shaken his hand or at least said a brisk, respectful hello to him on some busy street in Calcutta or elsewhere.”15

To continue our New York discussion, we need to backtrack into the 40s to meet the luminaries that graced Vedanta’s intellectual milieu. Heinrich Zimmer, one of the century’s most prominent religious philosophers, was but one of the stellar personalities attending the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center. Zimmer’s interest in Indian philosophy effectively changed the way that many Westerners looked upon the East. In his monumental opus, Philosophies of India, Sri Ramakrishna figures prominently and is frequently cited. Not only is he quoted frequently, he is quoted at length: some of Sri Ramakrishna’s quotations run into several pages. By the end of the volume, one has read a significant selection of Sri Ramakrishna’s words from Swami Nikhilananda’s translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.

It is a testament to the intellectual eminence of New York’s Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center that a man of Joseph Campbell’s rarefied caliber would spend several years helping Swami Nikhilananda in his translation of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in addition to spending years assisting him in his four-volume translation of the Upanishads. In fact, as President of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York for some years, Campbell was a pivotal figure in the Center itself.

There are few intellectual giants whose names can truly be called “household words,” but Joseph Campbell was “the rarest of intellectuals in American life,” K.C. Cole of Newsweek wrote. “A serious thinker… embraced by the popular culture.”16 Campbell was considered the world’s greatest authority on mythology and folklore, and throughout his copious writings we find Sri Ramakrishna quoted on a regular basis. On occasion the quotations are lengthy, sometimes quite brief. What is important, however, is that no reader of Joseph Campbell can escape Sri Ramakrishna. Very few twentieth-century thinkers have had the power of attraction Campbell possessed, thus making his influence more profound than those who quoted Sri Ramakrishna more often or at greater length.

It should be mentioned at least in passing that other prominent intellectuals also served to bring Vedanta’s ideas into America’s public domain: the historians Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant; the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin; the great psychoanalyst and philosopher Carl Jung; the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton. All these luminaries and others that remain unmentioned contributed to opening the American religious mind to the ideas that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda propounded. Most of the intellectuals mentioned above are now long gone though their imprint on American culture remains.

Where does that leave us today?

An obvious contrast between today and a few decades ago is that we no longer have within the Vedanta ranks the social and intellectual powerhouses that we once had. Sorokins and Huxleys and Campbells, sad to say, do not grow on trees. This is not to say that we lack extraordinarily intelligent, dedicated individuals whose contributions are noteworthy in various fields of endeavor. Our movement is blessed with many of a very high caliber. Yet despite their brilliance, they are not in the position of spreading ideas through the force of their prestige and personality.

America is vastly differently—for good or for ill—from the country that nurtured Vedanta’s earlier intellectual czars: whereas Vedanta used to be one of the few Eastern religions available in America, Vedanta is now one relatively small group in a flood of many. Since the 60s a deluge of Hindu gurus has come and gone, some leading such ignoble lives that even the word “guru” carries a hint of the pejorative. Major news magazines routinely equate Hinduism with “New Age” religion—i.e., bereft of intellectual moorings and plain common sense. Because Hinduism was taken up ignorantly and nonchalantly by many as a 60s fad, Hindu philosophy has yet to regain its earlier intellectual standing.

Recent years have seen the meteoric rise of Buddhism, a spiritual path not associated with religious or cultural trappings, thus enabling noncommitted Christians and Jews to maintain their traditional identity while following helpful Buddhist spiritual practices. The fact that Vedanta offers equally priceless wisdom is, unfortunately, unknown. As importantly, Buddhism has world-renowned spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh whose exemplary lives and well-publicized teachings have attracted millions of Westerners. The Buddhist nun Pema Chödron, famed for her down-to-earth practicality and humor, has also enjoyed singular success in the West. Buddhist books, available from any bookstore anywhere in the country and published by America’s largest publishers, have also spurred the growth in American Buddhism.

By contrast, while several Vedanta centers continue to publish Vedanta books and import and distribute books published by the Ramakrishna Order, the reality of today’s publishing world dictates that the vast majority of these books will not reach the general public. They will be available in Vedanta bookstores in Vedanta centers for Vedanta devotees. Market-driven publishers offer what will predictably turn a profit; a little-known brand of Hindu philosophy doesn’t place dollar signs in corporate eyes.

Further, today’s American bookstores are dependent upon mammoth book distribution centers for their books; these distributors stock all the major publishers and most of the medium-sized ones. Small publishing houses (i.e., the ones that publish Vedanta books) can ill afford the huge discounts that these mega-distributors demand.

Is Vedanta’s view from America bleak then? Not at all. Vedanta’s presence remains vibrant in cities where Vedanta Societies actively participate in interreligious dialogue as well as in places where they are actively participating in school, college and university outreach. Still, in a vast, highly populated country, we’re only referring to approximately twenty Vedanta Societies and another small group of nonaffiliated centers.

How, then, do we spread the ideas that were once spread by the intelligentsia? Through Vedanta’s continuing work with interreligious councils, through pro-active work with educational facilities, and especially through the great democratizing force of the Internet.

Can’t find any Vedanta books in your local bookstore? No problem—you can find them on the Internet. And, happily, Vedanta books aren’t just listed on Vedanta sites. They’re on the web sites of the world’s largest online booksellers: and, among others. Out of curiosity I booted up the site to look up Swami Shraddhananda’s book Seeing God Everywhere. Not only was it there, it carried beneath it a glowing review:

An engaging, thought-provoking, spiritual text This book is an especially enriching, spiritual text. Its message spans all religions and cultures, and offers thought-provoking insights. Extremely easy to read and understand, you’ll find it difficult to put down. The spiritual exercises at the end of the book are especially helpful for those seeking to establish a closer relationship to God.

The review was voluntarily submitted by a person completely unknown to Vedanta; amazingly, upon inquiry I discovered that the review’s author was a Catholic deacon!

While bookstore sales of Vedanta books are not what they were in previous years, the online sales have grown tremendously. There’s no doubt that this trend will only increase.

No Vedanta Center within 1000 miles of your home? Not to worry: there are Vedanta sites online which will provide not only fine reading material but also a forum where people can submit questions to monastics. One recent inquiry from South Carolina is as follows:

At church we’re studying Swami Prabhavananda’s The Eternal Companion … the term “discrimination” confuses us. What exactly does it mean? Does he mean discernment between those things that lead to self-realization and those that don’t?

To have a Vedanta book studied in a Christian church in a conservative state like South Carolina is enough to make one’s head spin. But this e-mail in itself tells what progress Vedanta has made in this country.

There are numerous Internet inquiries requesting information on the Vedanta Center closest to the person’s home and also requests for more information on Vedanta literature. All in all, the information revolution has had an extremely positive effect in bringing Vedanta’s message to a wider audience.

This only goes to show that where there’s a will there’s a way—particularly where God is concerned! We’ve always heard that the Lord does his own work; today the work is progressing in ways that would have been inconceivable to us mortals even a decade ago.

The future, then, seems to bode well. As long as we remain true to Vedanta’s timeless ideals, all we have to do is perform our work as best we can. The rest, as we can see, the Lord will take care of in his own way and in his own time.


1. No Other Name? (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1985), p. 222.
2. Ibid.
3. Vedanta for the West (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1994), p. 108.
4. Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana, Tantine: The Life of Josephine MacLeod (Dakshineswar, Calcutta: Sri Sarada Math, 1990), p. 203.
5. Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 18.
6. Ibid., p. 26; p. 31.
7. Ibid., pp. 46-48.
8. Ibid., pp. 164-65
9. Letter of Henry Miller to Ursula Bond, June 16, 1962; archives of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.
10. Hal Bridges, American Mysticism (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 87.
11. Ibid., p. 74.
12. Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 1st Harper Colophon ed., 1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1944), p.294.
13. Huston Smith, The Religions of Man (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 26.
14. From a lecture given by Dr. Sumitra Menon in the Santa Barbara Temple, Feb. 24, 1991 on J.D. Salinger and Vedanta.
15. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” The New Yorker, June 12, 1965, p. 6. This short story later appeared in The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J.D. Salinger, 2 vols., 1974.
16. Thomas Walsh, ed. Contemporary Authors: New Revised Series, 147 vols. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990) vol. 28, p. 93.

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Vedanta in America: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are