Rediscovering Vivekananda in the East and the West

By Swami Tyagananda

Swami Tyagananda is Head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston. He is also the Hindu chaplain of both Harvard University and M.I.T. The following article was first presented as a paper at a conference organized by the Center for Indic Studies, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Christopher Columbus came to America in the year 1492—and his arrival here was considered the discovery of a new world. Not everyone apparently agreed with that. A Native American chief of the Onondaga Iroquois is reported to have said: “You cannot discover an inhabited land. Otherwise I could cross the Atlantic and ‘discover’ England.” Whether or not it is proper to use the word “discover” to what Columbus did, we can be certain about one thing: Columbus’s expedition must have helped him discover himself anew. Every landmark in life—every significant achievement, every vital experience—usually helps us know ourselves better, which is another way of saying that it helps us rediscover ourselves.

Discovery is a two-track process: on one track, we discover places or things or people; on the other track, we discover our own selves. The two tracks are interconnected: our discovery in the external world helps us discover hitherto unknown elements in our internal world, and with a new understanding of our inner self, we discover further possibilities in the external world. These two tracks thus support and reinforce each other.

This conference can be seen as a discovery expedition, not unlike the expedition that Columbus undertook more than five centuries ago. The two tracks inherent in the process can be located in the present expedition too: on the one hand, through the ideas and insights shared in this conference we will try to discover Vivekananda, and on the other, our efforts to understand him—no matter what impression he ultimately leaves on us—will help us rediscover our own selves.

Since many of us have already heard of Vivekananda and have some idea of who he was, we have in a way already discovered him. A conference like this has the potential to uncover some of the aspects of Vivekananda’s life and teaching that may have eluded us. This conference provides us an opportunity to re-assess our understanding of Vivekananda and rediscover him a hundred years after his death.

Rediscovery Through Literature

Most of us came to Vivekananda through literature on and by him. We learnt about his life from his biographies and we learnt about his ideas through the records of his lectures and writings. Those who wrote the biographies of Vivekananda were themselves on a voyage of discovery even as their readers were after the publication of those books.

The earliest biography of Vivekananda, first published in 1912, was a collective effort of his immediate disciples and admirers. So it doesn’t have a single author; the book titled The Life of Swami Vivekananda is credited to “His Eastern and Western Disciples.” Over the years, it has undergone several incarnations: from the initial four-volume tome it was after twenty-one years (in 1933) condensed into two volumes, then—sixteen years later (in 1949)—it was abridged to a single volume, and the current edition (1978), enlarged and thoroughly revised in light of newly discovered information, is back in a two-volume format.

The authors of this powerful and moving biography had firsthand knowledge of Vivekananda but they seem to have written the book with primarily the Indian reader in mind and hence placed it in the context of India’s social and political reality of the time. The later revisions did little to change the basic orientation of the book. Thus Vivekananda’s love for India and the relevance of his message for India’s political freedom and social welfare get more space and a closer look than what his life and thought mean to the world at large. Most of the later biographies in English, not to speak of those in other languages—with the exception of the one by Romain Rolland—followed more or less the same pattern.

If those biographies, written as they were from the viewpoints of devotees and admirers of Vivekananda, seemed too adulatory, there were of course a few others, beginning in the 1970s, that provided a counterpoint by presenting what was claimed to be a human Vivekananda minus the halo of divinity in which the hagiographical literature had engulfed him. It was clear that at least for some people Vivekananda’s larger-than-life figure seemed either too unreal or too awe-inspiring and so needed to be cut down to size, as it were.

The upshot has been that we now have two sets of books: one set written by those who are almost religiously devoted to Vivekananda, and the other set written by those who are willing to be skeptical and critical about claims that seem to make Vivekananda more than human. These two sets of books have mostly been patronized by two different groups of audiences who seldom communicate with each other. Is it possible to write a biography that will address the needs and concerns of both the groups? Is it possible to have a believable Vivekananda who is both like us and yet not quite like us?

The time is surely ripe for another biography, considering that the socio-political context in which most of the early biographies were written no longer exists: India is not a British colony anymore and the world has come a long way after the two World Wars, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the emergence of widespread global trade and travel, and the rise of international terrorism. What we need today is a biography that will take a critical look at Vivekananda’s life to see if it still has anything to teach us and if he is relevant to the twenty-first century. Such a book must be written by one who is not afraid to tear down myths and unsubstantiated claims and who, at the same time, is free from a mindset that stubbornly refuses—even in the face of evidence—to acknowledge the untapped power latent in the human mind and the glory of the human soul.

A major reason why such a divergence of views exists about Vivekananda is the mixed and ambiguous nature of the textual legacy left behind by him. His works are presently available in 9 volumes comprising nearly 5,000 pages. It is helpful to analyze the nature of its contents. By far the largest segment of the Complete Works is the transcripts of Vivekananda’s lectures, which occupy about 2,000 pages, or 40% of the material. His writings occupy 13% of the works and his letters 20%. Amazingly, nearly 20% of the works are written not by Vivekananda but by others; these include the notes of his class talks and conversations. Nearly 300 pages, or 6% of the material, are actually newspaper clippings of his lectures and interviews reported in the media.

We can be fairly certain about the accuracy of Vivekananda’s lecture-transcripts, taken down as they mostly were by J. J. Goodwin, an expert stenographer, whose efficiency and skill were acknowledged by Vivekananda himself. While these lectures remain the basic source of Vivekananda’s ideas, it must be remembered that they were shaped by the needs of the specific audiences he was addressing. It was impossible for him—as, indeed, it would be for anyone—to develop an elaborate system of thought through lectures on different subjects in different places to different audiences. The exceptions occurred when Vivekananda gave a regular series of classes for a sustained period to the same audience, as he did when he spoke on the yogas—which later became books and were published during his lifetime.

The rules of writing and the rules of public speaking are not identical. The speaker is constrained to take into consideration the time available and the nature of the audience to fit his or her message to suit the occasion. The writer also has a specific audience in mind but has much greater flexibility as regards time and space to develop a specific line of thought. So it is generally easier for a writer to develop an idea logically, systematically and thoroughly. Vivekananda had little opportunity to do that through his lectures and he didn’t have enough time to write books. What little he wrote was indeed fascinating but it was mostly light-hearted travelogues for the Bengali magazine Udbodhan. There is very little of his deeper vision and thoughts to be found in his writings.

Vivekananda’s personal correspondence is prolific and powerful, and we find flashes of brilliance and inspiration in them. Even then, the letters are a mixed bunch dealing with mundane as well as profound subjects, and mostly reflect his thinking at the time he wrote a letter. A quarter of Vivekananda’s works is really the writings of others about Vivekananda: these include newspaper reports, interviews published in the media, and his disciples’ records of conversations with him. While these bring to us some of Vivekananda’s important observations and insights, it’s still not easy to get through them a clear idea of his philosophy.

If Vivekananda had written a book—as he indeed planned to do at one stage—it would have been easier for everyone to study and understand his philosophy of life. In the absence of that, we are now left with a representative collection of his lectures, writings, interviews, conversations, reminiscences and letters to figure out for ourselves the kind of person he was and the nature of his teachings. The literature is voluminous but, depending on which part of it is given primacy, vastly differing appraisals of Vivekananda’s thought have emerged over the years casting him in a wide range of roles: a spiritually illumined teacher, a visionary, a saint, a patriot-prophet, a charismatic religious leader, a dreamer with Utopian ideas, and even a quasi-socialist.

All of these appraisals occurring through literature can be viewed as attempts to discover Vivekananda. These attempts are important and should be taken seriously so long as they have unquestionable textual evidence to back their conclusions. Theoretical assessments, even if they are based on textual evidence, become strengthened only when their conclusions are tested in the workaday world. That takes us to the second way of rediscovering Vivekananda.

Rediscovery Through Work

Inspired by Vivekananda’s message and wanting to “do” something about it, there have sprung up numerous organizations, institutions, study-circles, meditation centers, and philanthropic groups. There is also the Ramakrishna Order, founded by Vivekananda himself, with centers today in many parts of the world. So far as I know no one so far has documented the number of such Vivekananda-inspired organizations and the quality and quantity of work they do.

We do have, however, some numbers connected with the work the Ramakrishna Order does. In its Annual General Report (released in April 2003) we see that last year the Order maintained 14 hospitals and 141 dispensaries in which 7.3 million patients, most of them poor and from rural and tribal areas, were treated at the cost of $7 million. In the field of education, the Order spent $7.5 million in maintaining its 600 schools, colleges, and orphanages that served the needs of 169,165 students. The Order’s work in times of natural disasters is also impressive: last year it spent a total of $4.7 million on relief and rehabilitation activities, which included rushing food supplies to people in distress due to fire, flood, storm, and earthquake, and building storm-proof and earthquake-resistant houses for the afflicted.

This is in addition to the Order’s religious activities through temples, spiritual discourses, and celebration of festivals. While the Order’s centers in Asia combine religious work with philanthropic activities, its centers in the West (called Vedanta Societies) have mostly concentrated on spiritual and intellectual work. The books of the Ramakrishna Order have made a significant contribution in making Vedanta accessible to the English-speaking world, particularly through translations of the Upanishads, the Gita, the Brahmasutra (along with commentaries) and other important Sanskrit texts. The publication houses of the Order have released more than two thousand titles in English and other languages.

Each in its own way, every Vivekananda-inspired group and community is trying to translate his message into action for individual and collective welfare. Assuming that their understanding of Vivekananda’s message is free from distortions, we can say that he “lives” in their group activities to the extent they succeed in bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Rediscovering Vivekananda at the workplace means to constantly assess the method of functioning, the attitudes of the participants, the utilization of the beneficial results, and such other things in the concerned activity of the group—and check how close they are to Vivekananda’s own vision. There must be a constant reappraisal to ensure that at no time do the activities get derailed or sidetracked.

This makes it imperative that activities in any group must take place simultaneously at various levels. At the intellectual level the activity must be to see that the basic principles are not compromised, the ideas are not distorted, and the transition from thought to action is smooth and spontaneous. At the mental level the activity must ensure that the morale of the group is kept high and the motivation is pure. At the physical level the activity must be to see that the work of the group is carried out efficiently, producing optimum results.

In the activities that owe their inspiration to Vivekananda, questions such as these must be often asked and answered: Is this work going along the lines Vivekananda envisioned? Is it producing the expected result? If it is not, why is it not? Can this work be done in a better way? If Vivekananda had been physically present at this time, would he have conducted the work the way it is being conducted now? It is through frank, honest answers to such questions that those involved in the work can rediscover Vivekananda. Of course, merely questioning is not enough; there must also be the will to act if certain answers call for action, however unpleasant or painful or difficult.

In the final analysis, we find that success in rediscovering Vivekananda through collective work depends almost wholly on the capacity to discover him at the personal level—and this must be done not only by those who are actively involved in the work but also by those who are merely observing a Vivekananda-inspired activity from the sidelines.

Rediscovery Through Reflection

To reiterate what was said in the beginning of this paper: discovery is a process that proceeds along two mutually related and supporting tracks—external discovery and internal discovery. The process of internal discovery is called “meditation” (dhyana) in religious language or “reflection” in more general terms.

Neither books of Vivekananda nor the work inspired by his message yield a glimpse into who he was without careful study backed by sufficient reflection. Why certain aspects of him or his message appeal to a person and why certain others don’t depends almost entirely on the needs and preferences of the person concerned. What we like about Vivekananda, or what we don’t like about him, tells us perhaps more about ourselves than about him. The rediscovery of Vivekananda is thus preceded by our rediscovery of ourselves.

It is no surprise, then, that there exist vastly different estimates and appraisals of Vivekananda. Indeed, it would have been a miracle if everyone had said much the same thing about him. What matters is that our rediscovery of Vivekananda is based on an honest search through the literature that is available to us, a search that is considerably aided through seeing how Vivekananda’s ideas are being worked out in the real world, and a search that complements our own inner search for meaning, joy and fulfillment.

There must be something special in a person who appears on the world-stage and significantly changes the lives of not only his or her contemporaries but also of generations that come later, in a way that promotes both individual and collective harmony, peace and fulfillment. Vivekananda was such a person. Through literature, work and reflection it is possible to get a glimpse into who he was and what he stood for—and this exercise may help us get a glimpse into who we are and what we stand for.

Letters of Swami Turiyananda
June 5, 2005
My Reminiscences of Sri Ramakrishna
August 1, 2005
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Rediscovering Vivekananda in the East and the West