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 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.’
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.