Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Swami Nikhilananda: Vivekananda: A Biography

To complement my reading of a seclular Bengali intellectual , I've now turned to Chicago's most famous Bengali Swami, Vivekananda, who visited the city in the late19th Century to attend the Parliament of World Religions.  He was recently commemorated by a display of colored lights  on the main staircase at the Art Institute.

That visit - as well as the story of Vivekanada's life - is rather fascinating.

His unique capacity to address a Western audience comes from his initial interest in European culture as cultivated by the educational institutions of  the British Raj.  He liked science - he liked European philosophy and literature.  But then he met a celebrated Hindu mystic,  Ramakrishna, and the two became strongly connected to each other.  The  mystic saw Vivekananda as a re-incarnation of  divinity - while Vivekananda  felt the truth of the mystic's spiritual authority and his ability to "see God".

He arrived in Chicago without credentials - without  any kind of institutional authority - and without much money.  But by shear force of personality, he was invited to address the assembly - and when he did - they came to their feet and applauded.  Subsequently, he attracted a coterie of well-to-do American and English followers who would establish religious organizations that endure to this day.

His primary message was "non dualism" -- the idea that God, or Brahma, is not apart from his creation -- though some enlightened individuals are more aware of it than others.  But  two possibly contradictory intentions seem to have driven him.  On the one hand, he felt called to improve the lot of the great masses of poor Indian people. How can a person pray if he is starving?  On the other hand, nothing can be more important than personal spiritual enlightenment, and he felt that more strongly toward the end of his short life, as he focused his devotions on the great and terrible Mother, Kali.

His approach to scholarship was also conflicted.  On the one hand, he taught his  followers to carefully study sacred Hindu literature.  On the other hand, he acknowledged that many paths lead to God - including the Christian and Islamic.

Unfortunately, the biographer is himself a Swami in the Ramakriskna-Vivekananda tradition - so there's no critical distance between the writer and his subject.  Did Vivekananda ever actually do anything to uplift the masses?  And isn't "masses" a European concept that might not be well applied to Indian society? What is the legacy of his scholarship?  How do monks that followed him compare with monks of other Hindu gurus?  Have his followers had any impact on the development of a  new civil society  before and after Partition? Have they actively helped integrate the lowest castes into the rest of society?  Or - like their master eventually did - have they primary dedicated their lives to personal enlightenment?  Like their master - have they scorned their own flesh and consequently died young ?