Submitted by Gary Kemper
About the time I was offered the position of Coordinating Editor for American Vedantist, some readers were concerned about the growing number of ethnic Indian devotees at Centers in the West. There was lament about the changes this brought about — some crowding at events, a growing sense that aspects of Indian culture were displacing Western social attitudes and practices, and other, similar complaints.
As a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California since 1973, I have seen all the things AV readers wrote to us about, and have listened to devotees who now feel alienated from what they regard as their spiritual home. Those who would condemn these disaffected people might want to reread the quotations from Swami Ashokananda here.
And to those who are bitter about the increasing numbers of Indian devotees at Western centers, I offer the same prescription! There can be little doubt that these deeply devoted people and their children are part of the future for Vedanta as it grows in the West.
Q. What are you willing to do, to help assure that Swami Vivekananda’s vision of an American Vedanta is fulfilled?
Sister Gayatriprana responds:
Vivekananda and American Vedanta
I was very pleased to see in the Spring 2009 edition of American Vedantist the emphasis on the work of Swami Vivekananda, whom you recognize as the source of Western Vedanta. I am also very grateful for your call for suggestions to “assure that Swami Vivekananda’s vision for an American [Western] Vedanta is fulfilled.”
My own take on this subject is that first we must thoroughly familiarize ourselves with what Vivekananda’s message for the West actually is. My own study of Vivekananda over forty years has convinced me that he not only had a message for India, but also one for the West, which he himself announced in Brooklyn in December of 1894 (CW, Vol. 5: Q and A at the Brooklyn Ethical Society, p. 314). And while both of these messages derived directly from the vision of Sri Ramakrishna, they do have different emphases, almost certainly because the needs of India and the West are different. India, he stated again and again, needed to manifest in terms of the contemporary, scientific, democratic and humanistic world the millennial wisdom of its sages, while the West, masters of the science that unlocks the secrets of the material world, must turn to realization of their inner spiritual potential mapped out in Vedanta, not in terms of the culture of India, but in terms of Western science, psychology, transcendental philosophy and spirituality. In expounding this vision, Vivekananda drew liberally on the language and concepts of the German Idealists, American Transcendentalists, and European Positivists, thus speaking all the more directly to the Western audiences who hung on his words.
These two agendas are in no way contradictory or in disagreement. They both join spirituality to the contemporary world, but moving in different directions, as it were. Together they supply a yin-yang, holistic picture of the ways contemporary humanity can express itself and realize its full potential, not only in the inner worlds, but also in the physical world.
In that context, I feel that the need of the moment is for Westerners to acquaint themselves with the Western teachings of Vivekananda. Fortunately these are readily available at the Ramakrishna Monastery Trabuco’s Press in the form of ten volumes of Vivekananda’s Western Works compiled, edited, and published by Western monastics.
Here you will find Vivekananda’s teachings to Westerners compiled in a coherent and rational way, reflecting the progression of his own work in the West. First come the principles of universal religion followed by the concept that spiritual life is a systematic development of consciousness, both ideas in harmony with contemporary Western thought. Then you will discover the four yogas as taught in the West by Vivekananda, followed by his Western treatment of the difficult subjects of maya and evolution of consciousness. Further volumes are in progress, covering the vision of what a fully realized soul is in the context of Western Vedanta with illustrations of this ideal from the life of Vivekananda himself.
This series has built on the insight of Swami Ashokananda, whose work also appears in the Spring American Vedantist, that Vivekananda’s work became progressively more and more expansive and more and more deep as time progressed. There have been protests that this could not be possible because, as a perfected soul he could in no way “evolve”; but from a Western standpoint, there is no reason to doubt that the depth of his teaching was revealed as he moved deeper and deeper into the needs and yearnings of the Western soul. This was how he manifested Vedanta in the physical world.
This principle is also worked out in each of the individual volumes of the Western Works, largely following the chronological order of the materials on each of the subjects presented. It also lies behind the magisterial six-volume series on Swami Vivekananda in the West by Sister Gargi (Marie Louise Burke), who was commissioned by Swami Ashokananda himself to demonstrate the history behind the progression of Vivekananda’s teachings. In these volumes we see how profoundly Vivekananda met the needs of some of the West’s most enlightened thinkers, Nikola Tesla, Edward Carpenter and William James being some whose names and message still resonate today. And, while Sister Gargi does not mention it, Vivekananda’s works had a profound effect on Leo Tolstoy and through him Gandhi and our own Dr. King, which Uma Majmudar is currently studying and writes about so beautifully in the Spring issue.
It is time for Westerners, like Vivekananda, to acknowledge the greatness of their Western heritage, and to begin to engage with the literature which documents it. One work which has come out recently is Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought, by J.J. Clarke. (New York: Routledge, 1997) This volume focuses on the Western tradition up to the present day and demonstrates how Asian thought has introduced whole new ways of working out our problems, without rejecting Western culture. Precisely the agenda that I find in the Western works of Vivekananda.
We have to mold Vedanta according to our own tradition, with the help of the spiritually inspired teachings of Vivekananda, which can encompass both India and the West in an integral way. In several volumes I hope to publish in the near future, I cover many areas of Western culture and concern to which Vivekananda’s teachings are related in several dimensions, demonstrating their relevance and the effects they have already had on Western culture. And, God willing, I hope to bring out a video series on how Vivekananda took the spiritual message of Sri Ramakrishna and molded it into the twin teachings for India and the West. That will be my contribution to Western Vedanta. Just pray that I live long enough to get it done.