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One of the many stories, based on a Sanskrit tale, that the late U R Ananthamurthy [21 December 1932 - 22 August 2014] used to tell often is    AnanthamurthyLondonBookFair2009of a cow named Punyakoti which would go out to graze in the forest in the country called Karnataka.  One evening, as the other cows made their way home, Punyakoti meandered into a particularly grassy area that was, however, the territory of a tiger.  As Arbutha was about to pounce upon the cow, Punyakoti pleaded with Arbutha that she might be allowed to go feed her calf before returning to become his dinner.  If the tiger was hungry, so was her calf; and the tiger ought to be sufficiently well-informed in dharma to know that a promise thus given would not be broken.  The tiger relents:  Punyakoti reaches home, feeds her little one, bids her farewell, and then presents herself before Arbutha.  Astounded by Punyakoti’s fidelity to truth and her capacity for sacrifice, Arbutha has a sudden change of heart and begins to undertake penance—or so states the Sanskrit original.  Recounting this popular story some years ago in an essay entitled ‘Growing up in Karnataka’, Ananthamurthy had this to say:  ‘It is the dharma of the tiger to be a flesh eater.  By a change of heart he cannot become a vegetarian.  He has no choice but to die.’  Contrary to the Sanskrit storyteller, the Kannada poet has Arbutha leap to his death:  ‘The Kannada poet is more convincing.  By a change of heart, the tiger can only die.  It is as absolute as that.’

 

Encapsulated in Ananthamurthy’s pithy commentary on ‘The Song of the Cow’ are many of the principal themes which shaped the literary oeuvre and worldview of an immensely gifted writer and critic whose death a week ago has robbed Kannada of its greatest voice, India of an extraordinary decent man and supple writer, and the world, which sadly knew too little of him, of a storyteller and intellectual whose fecundity of thought and robust play with ideas shames many of those who style themselves cosmopolitans.  Much has been written on the manner in which Ananthamurthy, not unlike other sensitive writers and thinkers in India (and elsewhere in the global South), negotiated the tension between the global and the local, tradition and modernity; but, as is palpable from more than a merely cursory reading of his criticism and fiction, Ananthamurthy also remained engaged throughout his life with the tension between Sanskrit and the bhashas, the marga and the desi, and what he called ‘the frontyard’ and ‘the backyard’.  Ananthamurthy completed a doctorate in English literature, taught English at a number of institutions, and was completely at home in the masterworks of Western literature; and, yet, he was profoundly rooted in Sanskritic and especially Kannada literary traditions. In reading Ananthamurthy, one is brought to an overwhelming, indeed humbling, awareness of his deep immersion in a thousand year-old tradition stretching from Pampa, Mahadeviyakka, and Allama Prabhu through the Vijayanagar-era poet and composer Purandaradasa to his contemporaries Shivarama Karanth, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Bendre, Kuvempu, Adiga, and others.  In this, as in other respects, Ananthamurthy also inhabited a world where the simultaneity ‘of the ancient, the primitive, the medieval and the modern’ was ever present, not only in social structures but ‘often in a single consciousness’.  It is doubtful that anyone among the most celebrated of our writers who have made a name for themselves as notable exponents of the English novel or what might be termed global non-fiction have anything even remotely close to the knowledge that Ananthamurthy had of Indian bhashas.  In his essay, ‘Towards the Concept of a New Nationhood’, Ananthamurthy gave it as one of his ‘pet theories’ that ‘in India, the more literate one is, the fewer languages one knows.’  In ‘the small town where I come from,’ Ananthamurthy was to write, ‘one who may not be so literate speaks Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, some Hindi, and some English.  It is these people who have kept India together, not merely those who may know only one language.’

 

Few Indian novels have been discussed as much as Ananthamurthy’s Samskara.  Fewer still, especially in India, are the number of creative people who have been entrusted with the care of institutions and intellectual enterprises and not left them diminished.  Ananthamurthy was not only a celebrated writer, but someone who stood at the helm of important institutions—Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune—and strengthened them.  As President of the Sahitya Akademi, he strove to ensure that all the languages under the academy’s jurisdiction received parity; moreover, he ensured the autonomy of the institution by prevailing upon the academy to reject the Haksar Committee’s recommendation that the academy’s president be appointed by the government on the advice of a search committee.  Those familiar with the Indian literary, artistic, and intellectual scene that extends well beyond the metropoles and even “provincial” capitals are more likely to remember Ananthamurthy as the principal mentor of that unique experiment which for decades has been taking place in Heggodu, Shimoga District.  Here, in the midst of areca nut plantations, the cultural organization Ninasam attracts students, workers, and villagers for a week-long annual course to discuss literature, movies, music, philosophy, and science.  Ananthamurthy unfailingly graced this gathering every year, nurturing the young and facilitating spirited conversations that lasted long into the night.

 

Ananthamurthy might, thus, be remembered for many different things, but nevertheless it is the categories through which he worked that mark his contribution to Indian literature and thought as distinct and enduring.  It would be a grave mistake to view him merely as staking a middle ground:  taking a leaf out of Gandhi, Ananthamurthy was quite certain that Western civilization was not good not just for India but even for the West.  Consider, for example, his literary, emotional, and intellectual investment in the idea of the sacred, though this is something that his Hindutva critics, who fancy themselves custodians of the Hindu tradition, can barely understand.   He has told the story of a painter who was traveling through villages in north India studying folk art; on one of these sojourns, he encountered a peasant from whom he learnt something bewildering:  ‘Any piece of stone on which he put kumkum became God for the peasant.’  Ananthamurthy understood well that nearly every place in India is sacred:  here Sita bathed, there Rama rested his weary body, and over there the gods dropped nectar.  But he takes the idea of the sacred much further:  place, bhasha, childhood—all these notions, so centrally a part of the worldview of Ananthamurthy, revolved around the idea of the sacred and the untranslatable.  Sacred, too, is the dharma of the writer, laid bare by Ananthamurthy in his Jnanpith Award acceptance speech:  ‘There is something wrong with us writers if we do not lose a few of our admirers with every new book that we write.  Otherwise, it may mean we are imitating ourselves . . .  We should never lose the capacity to say those things in which we believe when we are absolutely alone.’

 

First published in the Indian Express, 30 August 2014 (print and online).  

 

Gandhi and Hilter:  In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

Gandhi and Hilter: In Close Proximity, at the Om Bookshop, Gurgaon

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

A Strange Case of Doppelgangers?

Mein Kampf, which by law cannot be sold in Germany, has much more than a respectable market in India. In a country where the sale of 5,000 copies is enough to warrant a title’s inclusion in the best-seller list, it is notable that a reprint of Mein Kampf by the Indian publisher Jaico had, as of June 2010, sold over 100,000 copies in ten years. When we consider that the book is also sold on the pavement in various pirated editions, the real sales figures are bound to be much higher. London’s Daily Telegraph, in an article published on 20 April 2009, first drew attention to this phenomenon with a striking headline: “Indian business students snap up copies of Mein Kampf”. Notwithstanding anything that Sir William Jones might have said in the late 18th century on the common Aryan links between Indians and Germans, or the Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg’s views on India as the ancestral home of the Aryans, Indian students appeared to have eschewed the grand historical narratives that have animated so many intellectuals for something seemingly much more pragmatic. The same articles informs its readers that sales of Mein Kampf have been soaring in India as Hitler is regarded as a “management guru”, an opinion apparently derived from conversations with several booksellers and students. The owner of Mumbai’s Embassy Books, who reprints Mein Kampf “every quarter”, explained that Indians read in the book “a kind of a success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it”. A related BBC article, which appeared a year later, quotes a 19-year old Gujarati student, “I have idolised Hitler ever since I have had a sense of history. I admire his leadership qualities and his discipline.”

Hitler’s popularity in India arises from a conjuncture of circumstances and certainly shows no sign of diminishing; indeed, I wonder if the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi, who is similarly admired, especially by the Indian middle classes, for his “leadership qualities” and authoritarian style of governance, might not make Hitler an even more attractive figure. The evening before last, on a visit to the Om Bookshop at the Ambience Mall on the Delhi-Gurgaon border, where my friend Darius Cooper was launching his collection of short stories, I was struck by the extraordinary proximity of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Gandhi’s Autobiography on the shelves and in the display area. On one shelf, the two books were placed next to each other; closer to the cash counter, the two books were again arrayed next to each other in a display bound to catch the attention of most visitors. The salesman was luckily inclined to answer my queries: in the four years since the bookstore was established, Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s Autobiography had each sold something in the vicinity of around 500 copies at that store alone. I can’t say if I breathed a sigh of relief at being told that Gandhi had just marginally edged out Hitler—as well that he should have, considering Gandhi’s bania origins—though, as the reader shall find out shortly, this is far from being the case all over the country.

In India, and in much of the rest of the world, it has become commonplace to view Hitler as the supreme embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, just as Mohandas Gandhi is likely to be seen as the greatest instantiation of good. There are, of course, some exceedingly enlightened voices, so we are told, who would rather speak of Hitler and Gandhi as representing a strange case of doppelgangers. Slavoj Zizek, we might recall, gave it as his considered opinion that Gandhi was more evil than Hitler, and Gandhi has been much more than a source of irritation to one who extols the Gandhians with guns walking the Indian countryside and apparently creating revolution. But let us turn to the more conventional view: the cover of a fairly recent issue of Time (3 December 2007) sums up this opposition quite well: on the left side of a large sketch of the brain is a hologram showing Gandhi, and on the right side is a hologram featuring Hitler. The cover story is entitled, “What Makes Us Good/Evil”, and the caption accompanying the story states: “Humans are the planet’s most noble creatures––and its most savage. Science is discovering why.” In the land of his own birth, nevertheless, Gandhi appears to have been eclipsed by Hitler, and the comparative sales of Mein Kampf and Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with the former outselling the latter by a margin of nearly two to one at the Crossword chain of bookstores, is only one of the telltale signs of the diminishing place of Gandhi in the country’s public life. The young who idolize Hitler’s life as a model of ‘leadership qualities’ and ‘discipline’ evidently have little knowledge of the manner in which Gandhi left his huge impress upon the anti-colonial struggle, forging a mass movement of nonviolent resistance that at times displayed an extraordinarily high level of discipline, and transforming the principal nationalist organization, the Indian National Congress, from a party of elites into a body of mass politics. Yet, if there were misgivings about Gandhi in his own lifetime, many of those have become aggravated in an India which views Gandhi as a backward-looking luddite who emasculated India and would have set the country hopelessly adrift in a nation-state system where national interest and violence reign supreme. In such a setting, Hitler’s idea of a virile nation set on a course of domination appears as an attractive alternative, even if it left Germany smoldering in ruins.

One might also suppose that it is but natural that Hitler should have a constituency in Mumbai, large chunks of which over the last few decades have been under the control of Shiv Sena, a political party comprised in good part of hoodlums who appear to have learned something about both terror tactics and racial ideologies of hate from the Nazis. However, as empirical and anecdotal experience alike suggest, copies of Mein Kampf have sold well in other parts of India, and as the BBC article noted, the more pertinent fact is perhaps that “the more well-heeled the area, the higher the sales.” The Indian middle class has been strongly inclined to view admirably countries such as Germany and Japan, the success of which, most particularly after the end of World War II left them in ruins, is held up as an example of what discipline, efficiency, and strenuous devotion to work can accomplish. Of Japan’s atrocities in the war very little is known in India, and the middle class gaze has seldom traveled beyond what is signified by the names of Sony, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, and the like; as for Hitler, the same middle class Indians marvel at his ability to command millions, forge an extraordinary war machine, and nearly take a country humiliated at the end of World War I to the brink of victory over India’s own colonial master. I heard from more than one person, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup final, that Germany deserved to win because it had the most “efficient” machinery of football domination. Yes, there is little doubt that Hitler, too, was supremely efficient.

There is, however, an equal measure of truth and falsity in the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of “the mutual influence of India and Hitler’s Nazis on one another. Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with the Fuhrer, pro-Independence leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army allied with Hitler’s Germany and Japan during the Second World War, and the Nazis drew on Hindu symbolism for their Swastika motif and ideas of Aryan supremacy.” Gandhi addressed two brief letters to Hitler, urging the German leader to renounce war and take advantage of his unparalleled sway over the masses to usher in a new era of nonviolence. But by no means can this be described as a ‘correspondence’ with the Fuhrer: exercising its wartime prerogatives of censorship, the British Government of India ensured that neither letter reached the addressee. Hitler never wrote to Gandhi: under these circumstances, ‘correspondence’ seems an extraordinarily extravagant description of what transpired. On the other hand, the invocation of Subhas Chandra Bose, who commenced his political career in awe of Gandhi but came to a parting of ways with the Mahatma, may perhaps go some ways in explaining the attraction felt for Hitler among India’s youth. Bose is revered nearly as much as Gandhi, and certainly has fewer critics; lionized for his relentless opposition to British rule, which eventually led him to an opportunistic alliance with the fascists, Bose is remembered most of all for the creation of the Indian National Army. In a daring escape while he was under house arrest in Calcutta, Bose eventually made his way to Berlin where he founded the Indian Legion, comprised of Indian POWs captured in North Africa and attached initially to the Wehrmacht. Its members, significantly, were bound to an oath of allegiance which clearly establishes the nexus between Hitler and Bose: “I swear by God this holy oath that I will obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler, as the commander of the German armed forces in the fight for India, whose leader is Subhas Chandra Bose.” It is an equally telling fact that Hitler had little interest in granting Bose an audience, only agreeing to a short meeting more than a year after Bose’s arrival in Berlin—a meeting at which Hitler refused to issue a statement in support of India’s independence. Fooled perhaps by the esteem in which India was held by the supreme figures of the German enlightenment, from F. Schlegel, August Wilhelm Schlegel and Goethe to W. von Humboldt and Herder, and fooled too perhaps by his own personal affinity to Germans, one curiously shared by other supposed ‘radicals’, Bose seems to have been unable to fathom that, from the standpoint of Nazi ideologues, India was a living testament to the degeneracy to which the eastern branch of the Aryans had fallen when they failed to preserve their purity.

If the troubled relationship of a nationalist hero with the Nazis is insufficient to explain Hitler’s privileged place in the middle class Indian imagination, we may turn with greater success to the writings of Hindutva’s principal ideologues. At the annual session in 1940 of the Hindu Mahasabha, a political party founded to promote the political interests of the Hindus and advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra (nation), Savarkar, in his Presidential Address, described Nazism as “undeniably the saviour of Germany under the circumstances in which Germany was placed”. Though Savarkar’s admirers describe him as a man of great intellectual acumen, it is remarkable that his only riposte to Jawaharlal Nehru, who throughout remained a vigorous critic of both Nazism and fascism, was to argue that “Hitler knows better than Pandit Nehru what suits Germany best”: “The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.” M. S. Golwalkar, who presided over the RSS from 1940 to 1973 and became the chief spokesperson for the idea of a Hindu nation, was similarly moved to argue that “the other nation [besides Italy] most in the eye of the world today is Germany. The nation affords a very striking example.” That spirit which had enabled ancient German tribes to overrun Europe was once again alive in modern Germany which, building on the “traditions left by its depredatory ancestors”, had taken possession of the territory that was its by right but had, “as a result of political disputes’, been “portioned off as different countries under different states.”

Nazism was built, however, on the twin foundations of expansion and contraction: if the idea of lebensraum became the pretext for the bold acquisition of territories, Germany itself was to be purified of its noxious elements, principally the Jews but other undesirables as well, among them gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and mental retards. The treatment meted out to Jews was, from the standpoint of those desirous of forging a glorious Hindu nation, an object lesson on how Hindu India might handle its own Muslims. Much ink has been spilled on just who all were the advocates of the two-nation theory in India, though Savarkar is clearly implicated. “India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation,” he told his audience while delivering the Presidential Address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937; rather, “on the contrary, there are two nations in the main: the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.” These two nations, moreover, did not stand on the same footing, as the Hindu alone recognized Hindusthan as his or her pitribhu (fatherland), matribhu (motherland), and punyabhu (holyland); the Muslim, his eyes always looking beyond Hindusthan, was a rank outsider. The fate of Indian Muslims was sealed: as Golwalkar put it unequivocally, “the foreign elements in Hindusthan” had but “two courses” of action open to them, entertaining “no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or they were to live “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not even citizen’s rights.” In all this, Golwalkar held up Germany as a country that might usefully be emulated by India: “Germany has also shown how impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.”

How long will we, in India, continue to place Gandhi and Hitler alongside each other?

I first heard of Nelson Mandela in 1983 when, on a five-month long trip to Australia where I was traveling as a Thomas Watson Fellow, I encountered an Australian peace activist who had the audacity, as I then thought, to mention him alongside Gandhi as a heroic figure in the fight against oppression.   There was a time, though the present generation has no awareness of this fact except as an abstraction that concerns them little, when there was no internet; and, in the Australian outback, though I hungered for more information, stunned by my interlocutor’s invocation of Mandela’s now famous speech at Rivonia, I had no recourse to a library.

Several months later, back in India, I was distracted by other thoughts and it was not until I commenced my graduate work at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1984 that Mandela once again came to my attention.  The anti-apartheid movement was then in full swing; on university campuses in the United States, the call for sanctions and divestment from corporations that traded with South Africa’s apartheid regime was loud and clear, though it is my impression that university administrations remained largely indifferent to student-led demands that universities disengage in every respect with the brutal system of apartheid.  At the University of Chicago, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement was an Indian graduate student, Sahotra Sarkar, who now holds a professorship in the philosophy of physics and biology at the University of Texas, Austin.  At the end of every rally, invariably accompanied by shouts of ‘Free Mandela’, the motley crowd of radicals and activists would raise their fists to the chorus of ‘Amandla’, the Zulu word for ‘power’ that had become the rallying cry of the African National Congress (ANC).  On one occasion, sometime around 1986, Sahotra announced a 48-hour hunger-strike in an effort to make the university administration more responsive to student demands.  A handful of supporters, myself included, joined him in a sympathetic fast.  This was my most substantive initiation into activist politics.  It will be for the historians to judge how far thousands of such actions, carried out across the world, contributed to Mandela’s release from prison, the eventual dismantling of apartheid, and the birth of a free South Africa.

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison.  Photograph: AP

Nelson Mandela gives the black power salute during a speech on 13 February 1990, two days after he was released from prison. Photograph: AP

Mandela is no more; yet, as Obama put it in his public pronouncement hours after Mandela’s death, echoing the words said to have been uttered by Secretary of War Stanton upon being told of Lincoln’s assassination, ‘now he belongs to the ages’.  Still, however apposite this thought, there are many critical questions that linger on, and some are called to mind by the deafening noise with which Mandela’s life is now being celebrated even as the last vestiges of everything he stood for have disappeared from our moral compass.  Mandela himself always recognized, even if the American media with its obsessive addiction to the ‘Great Man of History’ theory is too dim-witted to allow for any such admission, that the movement was much greater than him, and that he alone was not called to sacrifice:  countless others, some named, an equal or greater number unnamed, were lost in the struggle against apartheid and its supporters, among them the so-called leaders of the Western world (nowhere more so than in the US) who continued to offer unstinting support to the white despots of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Yusuf Dadoo, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo: the names—and there are many more—roll off the tongue, one after another, each incessantly engaged in a principled struggle to recover the dignity of human beings.

MandelaSisulu

Nelson Mandela (left) with Walter Sisulu at Robben Island. Photo: Robben Island Museum

All this was known to me by my own reading of South African history, but I was brought to a visceral awareness of the ugly facts of apartheid—and the repertoire of creative and extraordinarily responses to such forms of dehumanization—by a chance meeting with the artist Ronald Harrison on my only visit to South Africa in 2006.  Harrison recognized Albert Luthuli, the greatest exponent of the idea of nonviolent resistance in South African history, as his political and spiritual mentor.  Harrison, who passed away virtually unheralded in 2011, has related in his memoirs that he was struck by an epiphany shortly after he embarked upon his career as an artist:  what if he were to signify the suffering of South Africa’s black people by recalling the crucifixion of Christ, rendering Luthuli as a modern-day Christ and apartheid’s ideologues, Verwoerd and Vorster, as Roman centurions, “the tormentors of Christ”?  And so came about Harrison’s painting, ‘The Black Christ’:  unable to recognize the living Christs in their midst, apartheid’s ideologues and assassins, who had already claimed the great Luthuli as one of their victims, staging his death as an ‘accident’ on the railway tracks close to his home, would go on to imprison and torture Harrison.  For thirty-five years, Harrison’s painting, which the apartheid state’s censors would not permit to be exhibited, languished in a London basement home.  Yet, when I met Harrison for the first time in 2006, he held no grudge against his oppressors:  much like Mandela, he worried that we might become akin to those we despise.  As he was to write movingly in The Black ChristA Journey to Freedom (2006), “Verwoerd had been a monster; he had been a tormentor.  But he had also been a loving husband, a caring father, someone’s friend, the beloved son of proud parents.”

Ronald Harrison, "The Black Christ," oil on canvas, 1962.  Copyright: Ronald Harrison

Ronald Harrison, “The Black Christ,” oil on canvas, 1962. Copyright: Ronald Harrison

It is, of course, these very qualities of generosity, forgiveness, and compassion that have endeared Mandela to people around the world.  It is also precisely these qualities that were never even remotely on display among the political leaders and elites of the West, when the African National Congress called for a worldwide resistance to the apartheid regime, who are now outdoing each other in their craven attempt to be viewed as being on the right side of history.  If this is the time to remember what Mandela stood for, it is also the time to remember that the United States, France, and Britain insistently, repeatedly, and unfailingly vetoed mandatory United Nations resolutions in the Security Council calling for sanctions against South Africa under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.  Many will suggest that such ‘hypocrisy’ is indisputably a part of the game of politics, but why then celebrate Mandela’s life at all?  The African National Congress was, of course, closely allied to the South African Communist Party, and Mandela remained keenly aware, to the end of his life, of the immense price paid by Dadoo, Slovo, and others stalwarts of South African communism.  It is to Mandela’s credit that he never disowned those friends and supporters who stood by him during his difficult years, among them the much reviled Fidel Castro and even Muammar Gaddafi.

BIO-MANDELA-KADHAFI

Nelson Mandela with Muammar Gaddafi in 1997. Photo: AMR NABIL/AFP/Getty Images

There are, for those interested in Mandela’s life and even more so the history of the long struggle against apartheid, many questions that remain to be asked.  While Chief Luthuli, South Africa’s first Nobel Laureate in Peace (though this is commonly forgotten), and the principal architect of the ANC’s policy of boycott in 1959, offered nothing but unwavering support to Mandela, notwithstanding his own principled conviction in the power of nonviolent resistance, Mandela’s own part in having contributed to the partial evisceration of Luthuli’s legacy and even the public memory of Luthuli will no doubt be investigated in years to come.  One could also probe whether Mandela’s three-decade long term in prison had, in various ways, the effect of obfuscating his understanding of globalization. But these considerations, and many more, pale before the most pressing question that should be present to those living in the US, Britain, and France, among other countries in the global North.  Why did not these countries do more to offer support to the African National Congress and the movement of resistance to oppression?  Whatever damage apartheid did to Mandela, it surely also caused irreparable damage to the West.  There is perhaps no more glaring evidence of this than the fact that growing inequality strikes at the very root of these societies.  To take cognizance of Mandela’s life is to acknowledge that various forms of apartheid have crept into what are ostensibly free societies.

Part IV of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

[this is the concluding part of a 4-part series; see also parts i-iii, which are the previous entries on this blog]

In the United States, Mohandas Gandhi has long been the most well recognized figure from India.  In the early 1920s, his American admirer John Haynes Holmes, an influential Unitarian Minister and pacifist whose principled opposition to violence led him to oppose American involvement in both World War I and II, thus exposing him to ridicule from the likes of Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss)—‘If we want to win’, wrote Dr. Seuss, ‘we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not.  We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left’—had already proclaimed Gandhi in a public lecture as the ‘Greatest Man in the World Today’; in another public lecture, he would speak on the ‘World Significance of Mahatma Gandhi’.  It is, of course, the American civil rights movement that again helped to make Gandhi nearly a household name in the United States, though one can also think of such supreme moments in the popular imagination as these lyrics by Cole Porter,

You’re the top!

You’re Mahatma Gandhi.

You’re the top!

You’re Napoleon Brandy.

There is an entire history, rather different from the narratives that presently circulate about Gandhi’s “relevance” or “influence”, to be written on how Gandhi has earned India immense cultural capital.  In this respect, Vivekananda presents something of a contrast:  notwithstanding the fact that Vivekananda has had his share of admirers in the West among intellectuals or those, who have always been a small minority, with an abiding interest in ‘Eastern religions’, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure to the wider non-Indian public in Europe and even the United States.  But it is no exaggeration to suggest that among people of Indian origin throughout the diaspora, and especially the United States, Vivekananda is ever so slowly supplanting Gandhi as the supreme representative of their idea of India.  For all of his status as ‘the Father of the Nation’, Gandhi has never been very attractive to those in the diasporic settings who imagine themselves as the vanguard of a resurgent and modern India.  Vivekananda is also less controversial than Gandhi:  since his writings have received much less scrutiny than those of Gandhi, he is also imagined to be a sterner critic of the caste system and more ‘universal’ in his outlook.  One cannot imagine, for instance, the kind of demonstrations around Vivekananda’s statue in Chicago that have taken place around Gandhi’s statues, such as the demonstration in progress over the last few weeks in Cerritos, a neighborhood in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, where a disaffected crowd of some a few dozen people have, quite preposterously, been describing Gandhi as ‘a friend of Hitler’ or a ‘child molester’.

There is, as well, a more recent history of the appropriation of Vivekananda by Indian organizations in the United States, a history that amply suggests the hugely iconic status that Vivekananda has come to acquire as a preeminent figure of the notion of a resurgent India.  It is no surprise that he is the patron saint of the Hindu Student Council, which rather modestly and cunningly describes itself as ‘an international youth forum providing opportunities to learn about Hindu heritage, spirituality and culture.’  The HSC is, of course, the youth division of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and it has been especially active on American campuses, serving the needs of what are sometimes called ‘heritage students’, or second- and even third-generation Indian Americans, who are keen to learn about Hinduism, ancient India, the modernity of Hinduism, and the affronts to Hindus in countries where they are a minority.  The organizational strengths of the HSC can reasonably be surmised from the fact that in 1993, on the centenary of Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions, it held a ‘Vision 2000 Global Youth Conference’ attended by 2000 Hindu students from the US, India, and nearly 20 other foreign countries.

vivekanandaFlyer

A Stanford HSC flyer announces an event celebrating Vivekananda in 2006.  The flyer claims that “Vivekananda is the modern face of Hinduism.”

Vivekananda is the one figure from the relatively recent Indian past who is most admired in HSC circles as someone who not only spoke for the youth of India but unabashedly suggested that India was positioned to achieve conquest over the world with its rich spiritual inheritance.   It is Vivekananda who, from the standpoint of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Students Council, successfully transformed Hinduism from an inward-looking faith to the global religion that it had once aspired to be as it spread through Thailand, Java, Bali, and Indochina.  The Hindu Student Council’s ‘Global Dharma Conference’, held at Edison, New Jersey, in 2003, was thus not only a tribute to Vivekananda’s conception of Hinduism as a global religion but an affirmation of Hinduism’s capacity to organize its devotees and take its place alongside other world religions.  The Hindu American Foundation, an organization of relatively recent vintage set up by young Indian American professionals who have been aggressive in advertising their grievances as the upholders of a faith which they claim has little visibility and respect in the US, just as they proselytize about Hinduism’s uniquely tolerant outlook towards other faiths, has been similarly enthusiastic in pushing forward Vivekananda as the ultimate icon of Hinduism’s ecumenism and uniquely spiritual dispensation.  The Foundation’s 5th Annual ‘Next Generation’ essay contest encourages young Indian American Hindus to reflect on the teachings of Vivekananda on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, and sets them the task of commenting on a quote from Vivekananda keeping in mind that, to quote from a press release from the Foundation, ‘In a mere five word greeting of “Brothers and sisters of America,” he [Vivekananda] relayed Hinduism’s ancient teaching of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, inspiring so many in the audience and countless other Americans to live up to the dharmic understanding of pluralism and mutual respect. His teachings, like Hinduism, continue to stand the test of time and serve as an inspiration to Hindus and non-Hindus alike.’

‘This is the story of a phenomenon.’  Thus Christopher Isherwood commenced his elegant even mesmerizing biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples.  Isherwood tells a great many stories—and tempts me to conclude with one of the many stories, largely apocryphal, that have now become part of the legend that has grown up around Vivekananda and his legacy in the United States.  In the 1980s, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago with a certain attraction to Sri Ramakrishna, I became a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Center in Hyde Park.  In time I came to find out that, under the leadership of Swami Bhasyananda, land was acquired in 1968 in the township of Ganges, Michigan, and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat was duly established in the midst of a wonderfully bucolic setting.  Upon inquiring how Ganges had acquired its name, I was told by the residents of the Monastery that the town was founded by an early follower of Vivekananda; others mentioned to me that the disciple in question was the Governor of Michigan, and that in honor of the Indian swami he conferred Indian names on two towns, the other being Nirvana.   At that time I ceased my probe into this matter, inclined to accept the view that the story was worthy to be told to others, whatever its veracity.  In recent years, as Vivekananda’s place in the diasporic imaginary has grown tremendously, I thought it worthwhile to investigate this story further and found not a scrap of evidence to corroborate the view held by members of the Vivekananda Monastery.  Thus Walter Romig, in his reasonably authoritative Michigan Place Names, states that Ganges was settled in 1838, and so ‘named by Dr. Joseph Coates, a member of the legislature from Otsego, after the holy river of India, for reasons unknown’; of Nirvana, he says that it is ‘Buddhist for highest heaven’, and acquired its name from the great admiration that Darwin Knight, the town’s first postmaster, bore for ‘Oriental religions’.  But will this matter at all to Vivekananda’s followers and disciples in America and around the world?  Should it matter at all?  What could be more fun, after all, than to arrive in Nirvana, and then drop a few postcards to friends and family members announcing one’s arrival in (Vivekananda’s) Nirvana?

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

[The four parts were together first published, though in a much abbreviated form, in OUTLOOK, Web edition]

Part III of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

It would be four years before Vivekananda found his way back to India.  One of the stories most frequently recounted about him, no doubt both to convey a sense of his intellectual prowess as well as his unyielding commitment to the idea of service, is that in the aftermath of the World Parliament he was offered a Chaired Professorship in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University but that, cognizant of the task he had set himself of serving the poor in India and carrying on the mission of Sri Ramakrishna, he declined the invitation.  Harvard maintains no record of such an offer to Vivekananda, nor has anyone been able to furnish an iota of evidence in support of this claim; but like much else that is told of him, this story requires no corroboration from the standpoint of those who view him as a spiritual and intellectual luminary.  The story has received many embellishments:  for instance, according to a version published in no less a place than the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Vivekananda was asked if he would chair Harvard’s philosophy department; allegedly, Columbia University at once made a bid for Vivekananda when the offer from Harvard was brought to their attention.

It may even be that the quest for ‘the truth’ is not altogether germane:  what is certain is that Vivekananda acquired a considerable following, and there are histories of American intellectual and cultural enterprises that are now inextricably intertwined with the name of Vivekananda.  The role played by two New England women, Sarah Farmer and Sara Chapman Bull, in creating a spiritual retreat, Green Acre, where Vivekananda discoursed frequently on Indian philosophy and conducted a class on Raja Yoga over several months is but one of many illustrations of his ability to command a following among some influential and certainly well-placed sectors of American society.  At what came to be known as the Cambridge Conferences, held in December 1894 in the vicinity of Harvard at the instigation of Sara Bull, Vivekananda starred as the main speaker.  The guests in attendance at his lectures included Charles Lanman, Professor of Sanskrit and Editor of the Harvard Oriental James; Ernest Fenellosa, one of the world’s leading authorities on Japanese art; and the philosopher William James.  A Harvard colleague of William James is reported to have remarked that the Indian Swami ‘had swept Professor James off his feet’; but what is unequivocally clear is that James quoted at some length from Vivekananda’s treatise on Raja Yoga in his highly influential work, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Vivekananda with some female supporters in Pasadena, California, in 1900.  Photo: Vedanta Society of Southern California

Vivekananda with some female supporters in Pasadena, California, in 1900. Photo: Vedanta Society of Southern California

Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894, and another branch in San Francisco in 1900 on his second visit to the United States.   Vivekananda passed away in 1902, but the institutionalization of Vedanta in America was well on its way within a few years after his death.  By 1929, there were Vedanta Centers in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Providence, and three in the Los Angeles area alone—Pasadena, Hollywood, and La Crescenta.  One of the most arresting chapters of the growth of Vedanta in the US—a narrative that calls attention to its enticements to Western intellectuals, especially in the aftermath of World War I, which had taken an extraordinarily large toll of young men and brought home to millions of Europeans the devastatingly frightening idea of a ‘total war’—would be written in Southern California, where the young monk, Swami Prabhavananda, who had been sent from San Francisco to Hollywood by the Ramakrishna Order in 1929, eventually gathered a renowned group of British writers and intellectuals around him, including Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard.   Prabhavananda and Isherwood together produced translations of a number of key Hindu philosophical texts—the Bhagavad Gita, Shankara’s Vivekachudamani, and the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali—published in the Mentor Library series and so played a critical role in popularizing Indian philosophy. We might say that Hollywood’s interest in ‘Eastern spirituality’ was kindled by Isherwood, whose connections with film, art, and literary circles were prolific.  Meanwhile, on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Swami Nikhilananda, who founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York in 1933 and served as its Minister until his death in 1973, gathered around him an equally illustrious band of followers, some present in person and others in spirit.   Swami Nikhilananda’s translation into English of the Sri Sri Ramakrisna Kathamrita, rendered as the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, would win him a large following, and in later years his devotees included George Harrison and the reclusive J. D. Salinger.  In one moving letter addressed to Nikhilananda on 19 January 1972, Salinger wrote:  “I sometimes wish that the East had deigned to concentrate some small part of its immeasurable genius to the petty art or science of keeping the body well and fit.  Between extreme indifference to the body and the most extreme and zealous attention to it (Hatha Yoga), there seems to be no useful middle ground whatever, and that seems to me one more unnecessary sadness in Maya.’  Salinger had an intensely personal relationship with Swami Nikhilananda; as the venerable monk showed signs of aging, Salinger offers him this reassurance:  ‘Your voice sounds the same, though, Swami.  It may be that reading to a devoted group from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is all you do now, as you say, but I imagine the students who are lucky enough to hear you read from the Gospel would put the matter rather differently.  Meaning that I’ve forgotten many worthy and important things in my life, but I have never forgotten the way you used to read from, and interpret, the Upanishads, up at Thousand Island Park.’

Vivekananda in front of the Pasadena house that is now his namesake.

Vivekananda in front of the house he stayed at during his time in South Pasadena, California. The house is now his namesake.

There is but no question that memories of Vivekananda linger in the American imagination.  A Victorian home in South Pasadena, where Vivekananda stayed for six weeks in 1900, is now under the care of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.  The Trabuco College of Prayer, established by Gerald Heard in 1941 as a quiet retreat for meditation amidst 300 acres of land in the hills of Santa Ana to the south of Los Angeles, was turned over to the Vedanta Society in 1949 and rededicated as the Ramakrishna Monastery.  Two years later, a statue of Vivekananda, modeled after one that had been installed at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, would be installed at the Trabuco Canyon monastery.  Significantly, the dedication ceremony took place on July 4th:  thus an attempt would be made, one which is to be witnessed repeatedly in the ground-breaking ceremonies that have accompanied the inauguration of new sites for Hindu temples in the United States, to synchronize the notion of political freedom prevailing in the US with the idea of spiritual freedom, an idea that many educated middle-class Hindus believe reached its apogee in Indian civilization. (Swami Prabhavananda, as an aside, passed away on 4 July 1976, the exact bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence.  Was this only a coincidence, or had the Swami willed his death on this day?)  However much America, in this view, may represent the culmination of the idea of freedom of expression and the material freedoms that have to define modern life, Vivekananda, the emissary of an ancient civilization that has long grappled with the notion of spiritual emancipation, was needed in the West to fulfill the very idea of freedom itself.

(The final portion, Part IV, will be posted shortly.)

See also Parts I and II, the preceding posts on this blog.

Part II of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

It is the World Parliament of Religions which first brought Americans face to face with a living emissary of ‘Hinduism’, a circumstance wrought with ironies.  The Parliament was itself one of various congresses convened in 1893 to celebrate the quadricentennial of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. As Columbus set landfall in the Americas, he imagined he had reached India.  We need not be detained here by a consideration of the far-reaching consequences of that mistake—none as calamitous as the genocide of native Americans—except to suggest that, in a manner of speaking, Vivekananda arrived in the United States in the wake of that mistake.  If what has come to be celebrated as the inclusiveness of American society was predicated on an exclusiveness that called for nothing less than the wholesale extermination of the peoples of the Americas and the subsequent enslavement of Africans, the World’s Columbian Exposition would echo that worldview.  The Parliament billed itself as the world’s largest gathering of the representatives of religions from the world, and so eminent a scholar as Max Muller, one of the pioneers of the comparative study of religion, signified his approbation of the enterprise with the observation that the Parliament ‘stands unique, stands unprecedented in the whole history of the world.’  Yet, American Indian religions were excluded, on the supposition that Native Americans, though not without culture, could not be viewed as possessing something that might be called ‘religion’; likewise, insofar as Africans (and African Americans) received any representation, it was only to the extent that they were members of some Christian denomination.

Ten faiths were conceived by the organizers as the world’s great religions and invited to send their representatives; alongside the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and Zoroastrianism were six religions originating in South Asia and the Far East:  Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  Some Christian leaders objected to the Parliament on the grounds that it furnished parity to all faiths and thus undermined Christianity, ‘the one religion’ as described by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  ‘I do not understand’, the Archbishop wrote in a letter to the organizers, ‘how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their positions and claims.’  With respect to the Parliament’s proceedings, the greater preponderance of the papers dwelled on Christianity—152 out of 194, to be precise. Virchand Gandhi appeared as the sole spokesperson for Jainism; today his statue stands outside the Jain temple in Chicago, an emblem of a community’s gratefulness for having brought visibility to a faith which had historically been confined to India.

It is on September 11th, now a day of infamy in America, that James Cardinal Gibbons opened the Parliament by leading the delegates in the Lord’s Prayer.  At the Parliament, only two representatives spoke up on behalf of Islam—a rather slim participation, considering the fact that Christianity and Islam had encountered each other repeatedly over the centuries, and not always, notwithstanding the popular understanding of Islam in the West, as hostile faiths.  In retrospect, Islam’s extraordinarily miniscule presence at the World Parliament in 1893 may be read as a premonition of the fact that Islam and Christianity have an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover if they are going to engage in a genuine inter-faith dialogue.  For the worldwide Indian diaspora, September 11th luckily augurs other possibilities.  More than a decade after Vivekananda delivered his rousing address, across the world in Johannesburg Gandhi gathered together with friends, associates, and ‘delegates from various places in the Transvaal’ on the evening of September 11th, 1906, to consider how best South African Indians could resist the injustices imposed on them.  Such was, in Gandhi’s own words, ‘the advent of satyagraha’, the term he coined to signal not only the birth of a new movement of nonviolent resistance but an entire worldview.  But that is another story:  back in Chicago, on the afternoon of September 11th in 1893, Vivekananda mounted the stage and Hinduism was, in the received view, itself propelled on the world stage.  Vivekananda had shared the dais alongside other ‘representatives’ of Hinduism: among others, there were Siddhu Ram, ‘an appeal writer’ from ‘Mooltan, Punjab’; the Reverend B. B. Nagarkar, a minister of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Bombay; Professor G. N. Chakravarti; Jinda Ram, President of the Temperance Society, Muzzafargarh; and the Reverend P. C. Mozoomdar, Minister and leader of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Calcutta.  Those other names are now lost to history—whatever they may have said, they appear to have been swept aside by Vivekananda.  And, yet, Virchand Gandhi, speaking on behalf of Jainism, provided a different perspective:  not only Vivekananda, but all the Indian delegates, Virchand Gandhi wrote, were a great draw, and ‘at least a third and sometimes two-thirds of the great audience . . . would make a rush for the exits when a fine orator from India had closed his speech.’

Swami Vivekananda (center-right) with Virchand Gandhi (left) and Anagarika Dharmapala (center-left) at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893.

Swami Vivekananda (center-right) with Virchand Gandhi (left) and Anagarika Dharmapala (center-left) at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893.

By all accounts, and these are not only narratives that have come down to us from his acolytes and other advocates of Hindu nationalism, Vivekananda had an electrifying impact on his audience.  ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, Vivekananda proceeded to say—and with this he brought his audience of 7,000 to its feet.  The Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Henry Barrows, in whose charge the organization of the Parliament had been placed, wrote in his official two-volume history of the Parliament that Vivekananda’s initial words were followed by ‘a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes’; by his own testimony, Vivekananda was the most popular speaker at the Parliament.  Once the din of the applause had subsided, Vivekananda thanked the people present ‘in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world’, ‘in the name of the mother of religions’, and ‘in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.’  Vivekananda declared himself proud ‘to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.’ Vivekananda would drive home what he viewed as the essentially ecumenical character of the Indian, and particularly Hindu, religious sensibility by reminding his audience of a hymn which he remembered repeating in childhood, ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’

In Vivekananda’s opening address, the first of many he was to deliver at the Parliament, are already present some though by no means all of the characteristic features of the interpretive strategies that he was to deploy to great effect in his public performances in the West.  There is no disputing the fact that India had given shelter to the ‘remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation’, just as it had accorded hospitality to the Jews being hounded in much of the rest of the world.  His immediate audience may not have known all this, but Vivekananda was indisputably on firm ground.  However, there is already a tacit claim, one which would receive fuller expression once Vivekananda went on the lecture circuit in the United States, about the superiority of Hinduism over other religions.  He describes Hinduism as ‘a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance’, but at once appears to be suggesting that this may not be true of other religions.  When he adds, ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true’, there is far more than a hint that Hinduism occupies a unique place in the pantheon on account of the fact that it accepts all religions as true. ‘We’, the adherents of Hinduism, practice ‘universal toleration’; but what of the adherents of other religions?  Addressing his audience briefly on September 20th, Vivekananda advised Christians that they ‘must always be ready for good criticism’:  having arrived in India in large numbers ‘to save the soul of the heathens’, they were yet to understand that ‘the crying evil in the East is not religion—they have religion enough—but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats.’

Copy of a poster that was hung up around Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

Copy of a poster that was hung up around Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

It has been argued that as much as his teachings, it was the vast impress of his personality that turned Vivekananda into a sensation.  The Chicago Inter Ocean reported that ‘great crowds of people, the most of whom were women’, would arrive an hour before the afternoon session was to commence, ‘for it had been announced that Swami Vivekananda, the popular Hindu Monk, who looks so much like McCullough’s Othello, was to speak.’  The Boston Evening Transcript was similarly candid in its assessment that ‘the four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus’ were prepared to sit through an hour or two of other speeches with a smiling countenance, ‘to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.’  Harriet Monroe, a well-known figure in literary circles, was struck by his voice, characterizing it ‘as rich as a bronze bell’.  Vivekananda had arrived in the United States with some hope of procuring funds with which he could carry out his mission in India; in America, on the other hand, he appeared to some as a good business proposition, the proverbial wise man from the East with a charm, poise, good looks, and a command over English.  No sooner was the Parliament over that Vivekananda was signed up on the lecture circuit.

(to be continued)

See also Part I:  Before Vivkekananda

Part I of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam:  Histories, Stories, Politics

 

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in  Jaipur, 1891.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) in Jaipur, 1891.

As India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, the paramount place of his sojourns in the United States in giving shape to the most widely accepted views of this ‘son of India’ becomes all too apparent.  Much of what has been said and written about him is nearly akin to the puranic lore that is so deeply encrusted into the fabric of everyday life in India.  What might Vivekananda have been, one wonders, had he not commenced the first of his three speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 with those five words, ‘Brothers and Sisters of America’, which are said to have won him a standing ovation at that unusual gathering and, one hundred twenty years later, still win him the approbation of those who view him as the greatest emissary of Hinduism to the West?  Just what aspects of Vivekananda’s legacy have endured in the United States, and to what effect?

The history of Hinduism’s reception in the West has often been written with the assurance that the beginning is clearly marked by the convocation that is known as the World Parliament of Religions, certainly the first gathering of its kind when representatives of what were deemed, at least by the Parliament’s organizers, as the ten great world religions met to reflect both on the diversity and unity encompassed by ‘religion’.  In India the Parliament is chiefly remembered for the speech that launched Vivekananda on to the world stage, but in the United States it occupies a yet more significant place, though seldom recognized, in the intellectual history of the country.  The notion of ‘religious pluralism’, which in principle serves as the bedrock of American civil culture, was given its first substantive hearing at the World Parliament in 1893; similarly, the academic (and, to some extent, popular) study of comparative religion may, in some respects, be viewed as having originated in the immediate aftermath of the World Parliament.

What is indubitably certain is that when Vivekananda first arrived in the United States, almost nothing was known of Vedanta, Hinduism, or, more broadly conceived, Indian religions.  Perhaps it is apposite that he had to be ‘lost’ before he could be ‘found’–and this itself can be read in several registers–and Hinduism could be received in a country that is generally believed to hold its doors wide open for people of different faiths and beliefs:  arriving in Chicago a couple of days before the Parliament was to open, Vivekananda discovered that he had misplaced the address where he was to report.  It is said that he wandered about and finally fell asleep, hungry and tired, in an empty railway wagon.  On waking up the following morning, Vivekananda, in the manner of a Hindu fakir, started going from door to door in the hope of getting some nourishment for his empty stomach. But the sight of this swarthy and turbaned young man in orange robes alarmed the housewives of the neighborhoods through which he walked; however, a certain Mrs. Ellen Hale, who had read reports on the impending Parliament of Religions, surmised that Vivekananda was one of its delegates and welcomed him to her home.  In time, as many Indians have fondly believed, Vivekananda would repay the debt by furnishing spiritual nourishment to empty souls.

Returning, however, to the question of what was known about Hinduism in the US before the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a few considerations come to mind.  American periodicals, such as the Christian Disciple and the Theological Review (1813-1823) and the North American Review, which commenced publication in 1815, had begun to carry occasional articles on Hindu customs and mores, and especially ‘Hindu idolatry’, but such pieces were invariably informed by an Orientalist outlook.  The understanding of Hinduism, if one can even call it that, was mediated, on the one hand, by Charles Grant’s highly influential A Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East (1805) and, on the other hand, by the interest shown in the life and work of Rammohun Roy, the founder of the reformist and theistic movement known as the Brahmo Samaj.  The American Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in particular, had more than dabbled in some of the sacred books of the Hindus.  The young Emerson, not yet out of his teens, had made bold to interpret ‘Hindu theology’ in a lengthy poem, now known only to scholars, called Indian Superstition (1821).  Emerson’s then paltry knowledge of Hinduism may be surmised from his invocation of ‘the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine’ (l. 71), or of devotees engaged ‘in wild worship to mysterious powers’ (l. 47).  In time, Emerson would gravitate towards a considerably more complex, indeed sympathetic, view of Hinduism—as is suggested, for instance, by his poem ‘Brahma’, where the impress of the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is clearly suggested.  His younger contemporary, Thoreau, entered into a wider engagement with Indian texts, and took copious notes from the Gita, the Upanishads, the Vishnu Purana, and the Manusmriti.  ‘In the morning’, Thoreau wrote of his experiences at Walden Pond, ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.’  The Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is given over to dense quotations from Thoreau’s favorite Hindu writings.

Thoreau was also doubtless the first person in the United States to describe himself as a yogi.  Yet, for all his mental peregrinations, he never travelled outside the United States; indeed, he confined himself to New England.  Thoreau was far from having ever seen an Indian, let alone a Hindu yogi; and many Indians have all but overlooked his remark that ‘no Hindoo tyranny prevailed at the framing of the world, but we are freemen of the universe, and not sentenced to any caste.’  There is nothing to suggest that, in the aftermath of Emerson and Thoreau’s reasonably sustained engagement with Indian philosophy, interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu myths was kindled among Americans.  To be sure, Sanskrit had made some inroads, howsoever slight, into the curriculum at a few of the principal American institutions of higher education.  Edward Elbridge Salisbury was installed as Professor of Sanskrit and Arabic at Yale University in 1841, and Salisbury would also go on to play a pivotal role in giving shape to the American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 as the first learned organization of its kind in the United States.  Yale would subsequently become home to William Dwight Whitney (1827-94), author of a widely used Sanskrit grammar (1879) and translator of the Atharva Veda.  By the late 1880s, Sanskrit was being taught at more than half a dozen American universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale.  One might, with due diligence, summon a few other similar nuggets of American interest in India, and especially in Hinduism; but, viewed in totality, one is inescapably drawn to the conclusion that when Vivekananda arrived in Chicago as one of a handful of people charged with representing Hinduism to the American public and the wider world, Hinduism remained an utter novelty to Americans.  Certainly there would have been no one, whether among the public or even in the academy, to contest his readings of Hinduism or of Indian society more generally.

(to be continued)

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