by Ruth Small, Ph.D.

Swami Vivekananda, 1893 Parliament of Religions

Swami Vivekananda, 1893 Parliament of Religions

In the early fall of 1893, when an obscure Swami from Calcutta, India stood up to address the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, America had already experienced a rich variety of encounters with India’s land and culture.  For nearly 200 years prior to the Indian Swami’s presentation before the American public, impressions of India were being fashioned and fabricated.

In 1784, more than a century before the World Parliament, the first American merchants arrived in the port city of Pondicherry, India, seeking new sources of trade to compensate for their loss of trade with England after the American Revolution.1   American Christian missions, established to convert the “heathen,” had been on Indian soil for 101 years. More significant to Vedanta, Unitarian missionaries, who played a decisive role in Indo-American relations during the 19th century, had been in India for over 70 years, and their influence was already deeply ingrained and reflected in both cultures.

On the opening day of the World’s Parliament of Religions, when the Swami delivered his first and very brief address, American Transcendentalism—a western philosophical movement with some of its roots established in Indian philosophy—had been in existence for slightly more than 60 years.  And, 40 years before the Swami addressed his American audience in Chicago, Western academicians interested in the East (Orientalists) and the Comparative Religion movement in American universities had come into bloom.

Merely two decades before America was introduced to this remarkable Swami, who was to become the founder of American Vedanta, another representative of Eastern thought and leading member of the Bhramo Samaj, Protap Majumdar, had arrived on Western shores.  Although Majumdar’s primary purpose was to reform Hinduism within India, he became the first Indian representative in America and Europe to speak on his native Indian religious traditions.2

Each of these various groups—merchants, missionaries, Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Orientalists, and members of the Comparative Religion movement—held distinct viewpoints and assessed Hinduism in a variety of ways.  And all of them together laid the foundation for Swami Vivekananda to speak the famous first words of his first address to the Chicago audience of the World’s Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893, “Sisters and Brothers of America….” For the first time, when the Swami stood before the global audience of religionists, “Asian teachers presented their faiths directly to Western Audiences” inaugurating a “new stage in the history of Eastern spirituality in the United States.”3

Only at the end of the 19th century was America truly ripe for the influx of Vedic philosophy. With the initiative of a few spiritually-minded pioneers under the leadership and spiritual guidance of Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta became rooted in America.  In small, but ever more substantial increments, this initiative finally took form early in the 20th century, becoming known as the Ramakrishna movement.

The following abbreviated history of Vedanta in the West, reveals how India’s and America’s becoming “sisters and brothers” has been a lengthy historical process which began long before Swami Vivekananda ascended onto the platform in Chicago to deliver his first lecture before the World’s Parliament of Religions.  Furthermore, although the two nations are quite complementary to one another, their relational process has not always been marked by an easy transfer of ideas or smooth-flowing development.

Epistolary Inception

In the pre-dawn hours of America’s nationhood, nearly 200 years before the Swami’s mission swept across the American landscape from New York to San Francisco, a serious-minded religionist and statesman, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a well-known 18th century Puritan Divine, took an interest in the “Orient.” He corresponded with an American-born governor of Madras by the name of Elihu Yale and, through a German friend, took an interest in Danish Christian missionary work in India with an eye to himself also becoming involved.4   Mather penned two lengthy letters published in 1721 as India Christiana, which, in part, outlined his ideas on the best means to convert India to Christianity.5

In the late 1700s, letters such as Mather’s were to become a popular mode of literary expression and became the precursor to modern fiction as it developed. American authors followed European models in adopting this genre to satisfy their readers’ curiosities about India and the East. Howsoever ethnocentric their presentation, these “letters” were published as travelogues and perceived as reliable accounts depicting other cultures.  They satisfied colonial America’s interest in the Orient, having been written by recent American “visitors to India.”

Nearly a century after Mather wrote his India Christiana, quite a different and noteworthy example of epistolary writing was published in Boston.  In 1802 an American undergraduate student of Dartmouth College, Samuel Lorenso Knapp, wrote sympathetically about Indian philosophy, mentioning in his letters the Veda and Brahma and devoting two segments of his volume to a discussion of the Gitagovinda.  The volume was titled “Letters of Shahcoolen, A Hindu Philosopher Residing in Philadelphia to his Friend El Hassan an Inhabitant of Delhi.”6  To the solely rationally minded-person such subtle gestures could hardly be considered anticipatory of our Swami’s future visit there. Yet, this Hindu philosopher was to visit the city of Boston and lecture there before the century passed. While on his tour of eastern United States (in an interesting reversal of Mather’s vision) the Swami questioned in a letter he wrote to a friend, “where is there a better field than here for propagating all high ideas?”7

An Un-Enlightening Enlightenment

In the 18th century, about 150 years before a spiritually “enlightened” Swami first met his American devotees, a Western rational materialist philosophical movement evolved and became known as the Enlightenment. This movement seemed promising in stimulating American interest in Eastern philosophy as its tenets conjoined several principles conducive to cultural dialogue.8 But, surprisingly, in terms of generating interest in Indian philosophical wisdom, its impact in America yielded only minor results. As few Indian philosophical works were available in print to colonial America, most Americans’ knowledge of Asian wisdom, at that time, came secondhand through European sources.  However, one minor link, worthy of mention, between Indian and American culture, occurred through Benjamin Franklin’s close friendship and written correspondence with Sir William Jones, the English Orientalist and founder of Sanskrit studies in the West.9 Just at the time that Jones was considering emigration to America, having been encouraged by Franklin, he was granted a position in India. His stay in India proved to be fruitful as during that time period he completed two “seminal translations of the Laws of Manu and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala.”10   Although this link held some potential promise for an introduction of Vedanta through a highly influential American, Franklin’s interest in India never amounted to much as he remained primarily enthused by his studies of other Asian cultures.  Jones’ influence on the American dawn of Vedanta was to increase during the era of 19th-century Transcendentalism.

Amongst important thinkers and statesmen of the Enlightenment period in America, only scant references to India are found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  Their contemporary, John Adams stands alone as the only important American Enlightenment figure to demonstrate a deep abiding interest in Indian philosophical wisdom.  His letters to Thomas Jefferson after 1812 reveal the breadth of his reading and interest. Joseph Priestley, the famous European scientist who emigrated to America in 1794, was the primary catalyst for Adams’ interest in Asia.  Adams drew an interesting conclusion from his voluminous readings on religion and culture that foreshadowed a more broad-scale public reaction that was to emerge by the end of the 19th century.  After reading several volumes of Priestley’s religious discourses and comparative texts, including his famous Comparison of the Institutions of Moses, with those of the Hindoos, and another thirty volumes on similar lines, Adams wrote to Jefferson, “My conclusion from all of them is Universal Tolleration.”11

Merchants & Spiritual Mendicants

More than a century before the Swami’s two extended visits to the West,12 American merchants and other westerners were visiting the Orient providing first-hand observations and opinions of India’s culture to post-colonial Americans.  As an independent nation, America’s encounters with India began in 1784 with the onset of trade relations between the two countries. Amongst all the categories of visitors to India, merchants and seamen comprised the largest group of Americans to encounter Asian culture in the 18th and 19th centuries. As these merchants eagerly sought out new markets in Asian ports to replace the interrupted trade relations with England, their mother country, the American public grew more curious about the Orient, its religions and culture. Quite naturally, these merchants’ primary focus was on matters of trade—with some notable exceptions—hence, their reactions to their observations of Indian life and culture were simple and unsophisticated, communicated primarily in the form of letters and journals. Such reports, containing favorable and unfavorable impressions of India, influenced mainstream American opinion of Indian culture and, at the same time, provided some of the earliest evidence of American awareness of Eastern religions.

One of these notable exceptions was a journal written by Major Samuel Shaw who was aboard the first American voyage to Asian countries in 1784.  His Journals provide one of the earliest examples of the American response to Indian culture—one mixing wonder with censure.  Shaw sometimes remarked about various tapas performed by Indian sadhus (although these were not necessarily events he personally witnessed) with the classic and expected horror and repulsion of the average western observer. Similar to the missionary reports of that era, Shaw’s concern was directed towards the austerities yogis performed that, to the Western mind, fringed upon self-torture: for example—yogis who gazed at the sun and became blind; ascetics who stood on one leg and became paralyzed in that position, spiritual aspirants who swung from hooks pierced through their skin or who in other ways mortified their bodies.13   Conversely, Shaw’s picturesque images of Hindu religious practitioners also exhibited his willingness to empathize with Asian culture, despite any limitations in his personal understanding.  Such dual “testimonies,” whether first- or secondhand, did much to determine the generalized Western view of Eastern societies and religion.  As Carl Jackson notes, a better understanding of both Eastern and Western religious traditions would likely reveal the “principle behind such austerities was the demonstration of indifference to pain and the subjugation of the body, by some viewed as prerequisites to spiritual advancement, but in many cases the practice had clearly degenerated into exhibitionism.”14 Furthermore, as our Swami himself protested when confronted by American critics of Hinduism, Vedanta itself has little to do with such practices.15

Missionaries, Ministries & Miseries

As a part of his Inaugural Address in Chicago, the Swami expressed the hope that the “bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” Just 101 years earlier, William Carey, an American writing a letter from his Serampore Mission in India, was busy penning his heavy criticism of Hindu literature and practices. In a now famous letter he characterized Indian religion as “so ‘black that even the father of wickedness himself’” would have “disowned” Hinduism,16 spreading what we now refer to as the “Black Legend.”

In 1792 William Carey inaugurated one of the early missionary movements to “convert the heathens,” just twenty year prior to the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  This organization became the major impetus for the Christian missionary movement in India.  Beginning in 1812, American missionaries were regularly dispatched to India, and continued to send home denouncing and frequently distorted portraits of what they felt were corrupt Hindu religious practices.  Jackson writes, “Hinduism was portrayed as a totally debased religion, dominated by idol-worship and female infanticide.”17

What should be understood, is that Hindu reformers were themselves working to correct what they felt were excesses within their own tradition (e.g. sati or widow burning, the caste system, the “untouchables,” child-marriages, etc.). Resentment was roused by the fact that criticism generated from “the outside,” from those who had little background or understanding and little at stake other than promoting their own livelihood.  It is somewhat redeeming to note that later missionary groups were to modify this overemphasis with both greater sympathy and more ecumenical attitudes. Yet, 18th-century missionary reports did much to aggravate Western understanding and opinions of Indian tradition, and their denunciations continue to reverberate even into the twentieth-century.

Vivekananda, himself, entered the fray as both a reformer and an apologist for the Indian wisdom tradition.18 His Paper on Hinduism delivered on September 19, 1893 at the World’s Parliament of Religions, offers a typical example of the Swami’s defense of Hinduism. Responding to charges of polytheism and idolatry Vivekananda declared, “Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognized it.  Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas and tries to force society to adopt them.”  In the same speech, obliquely referring to frequently heard western criticisms of sadhus’ austerities and sati or widow-burning, the Swami adeptly retorts, “The Hindus have their faults…but mark this, they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbours. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition.  And even this cannot be laid at the door of his religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.”19 While the Swami did not deny the excesses, he defended Hinduism and typically responded to critics with four basic arguments: that such extreme practices were not central to Vedanta; that foreign conquerors had introduced these abuses; that Western critics were guilty of misinterpretation; or that the practices described were vestigial remnants that were at one time meaningful in their own context and time.20

Scientists and Sympathies

Ninety-nine years before the Swami stood before the estimable Chicago audience who applauded his religious ecumenism and integration of science and religion, Joseph Priestly, the famous British scientist, emigrated to the United States (1794). Shortly thereafter, Priestly published the first Comparative Religion text in America titled A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with Those of the Hindoos (1799).  As a scientist, Priestley was noted for his isolation of the oxygen molecule as well as his work in electricity. In the sphere of religion, he is equally noted as one of the founders of English Unitarianism. While Priestley had previously written briefly about Hinduism in his other works, his Comparison exposed the American public, for the first time, to an extensive and more scholarly inquiry of Indian tradition.  Generally accentuating the superiority of Christianity, he was appalled by polytheism and objected to some Hindu practices as “abominable and disgusting.”21 However, what stands out about his work, according to Jackson, is its comparative approach, even admitting to similarities between Christianity and Hinduism (e.g. both religious traditions’ understanding of the nature of God, the universal flood, and some parallel moral precepts, etc.).  As a “pioneer” of the comparative approach to the study of religions, Priestley is lauded today as a major precursor to the modern Comparative Religion movement.  His Comparison inspired other Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Adams, and it was read by Thomas Jefferson.  Priestley apparently had extensive libraries both in Europe and America.  Although translations of Vedic scriptures were largely unavailable in America at the turn of the 19th century, except through European sources, Priestley’s writing and Adams’ letters to Jefferson makes it evident some Eastern philosophical texts were becoming available and circulating amongst American intellectuals.

Another milestone in Comparative Religion, which deserves mentioning, occurred with the publication of Hannah Adams’ A View of Religions in 1801. Adams became deeply interested in religion at an early age, read profusely, and was the first American female to take up writing as a profession. She attempted to embrace all of the world’s religions in her two-part compendium and committed herself “to avoid giving the least preference of one denomination above another,” “to honor each religion by allowing their own spokespersons to present their tradition’s ideas” and ideals, as well as “to take the utmost care not to misrepresent the ideas.”22 Both Priestley’s and Adams’ works represent milestones in the field of Comparative Religion.

While Americans were advancing along the lines of Comparative Religion, the mind of the Swami, at the World’s Parliament of Religions, dwelt upon comparisons between science and religion. In his lecture, titled Paper on Hinduism, delivered before the audience of religions’ representatives, the Swami declared, “Science is nothing but the finding of unity.” Speaking of spiritual knowledge as a “necessary…conclusion,” he further remarked: “Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter, and Advaita (unity) is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, Soul.”  He further declared that all science, chemistry and physics, would “fulfil its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations, and the science of religion become perfect when it would discover Him who is the…constant basis of an ever-changing world…. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality, that the ultimate unity is reached.  Religion can go no farther.  This is the goal of all science.” Further, he declares, “All science is bound to come to this conclusion in the long run.”23   For the Swami, science is religion and religion science.

Unitarian Diversity

Seventy-some years before the Vedantan Swami lectured in Boston and New York, and before he wrote to a friend in India about the “grand field” in America “for propagating all high ideas,”24 Unitarians in America were visualizing their own “grand field” in India, and a momentous, irreversible cultural exchange was fully underway. Unitarian interest in establishing missions in India began with their introduction to Rammohun Roy, the Hindu apologist and reformer who founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828. Roy was rumored to have “converted to Unitarianism” when he rejected polytheism and proclaimed that the earliest Vedic understanding of God was monotheistic. With Roy’s “conversion” and a hopeful attitude about possibilities in India, Unitarians opened their first missions in India in the 1820s.

With the arrival of Unitarian missionaries—who were among the earliest American missionaries to India and played a special historical role in Indo-American relations—began the fostering of a kind of “inter-religious dialogue” between Unitarians, in particular, and Hindu sub-sects, such as the Brahmo-Samaj.  This historical exchange added fuel to what, on a grander scale, took place and became known as the “Hindu Renaissance.”  This very dynamic and interactive movement, beginning in the late 1700s, assisted the process of socio-religious reform in India and likewise facilitated subtle changes amongst religious-minded intellectuals in America.  As a consequence, America began to adopt more liberal attitudes (e.g. “universalism”) that were to develop more fully in the latter half of the 19th century.

Through this unique contact between American Unitarian missionaries and Indian reformers in India, several of Roy’s tracts and translations of Vedic scriptures were known to have reached America (e.g. his English translations of the Upanishads, his Defense of Hindoo Theism and his Translation of an Abridgment of the Vedant completed between 1815 and 1820).  Roy’s documents began to be utilized by writers and religionists such as William Tudor.  Tudor’s article, Theology of the Hindoos, as Taught by Ram Mohun Roy, was published in the North American Review (1818) and is one of the earliest essays on Hinduism printed in America.

While Unitarians were pioneers in religious toleration and willing to recognize the underlying universal qualities in diverse traditions, as often they affirmed the superiority of their own Christian faith. Tudor’s essay, Theology of the Hindoos, offers an example of this.  While the essay suggests certain parallels between Hinduism and Christianity, including extracts from Indian scripture, it simultaneously divulges his criticism of Hinduism, that is, Tudor’s distaste for its sacrifices and idolatry.  Counterbalancing this criticism was Roy’s attempt to “clean house” in his non-native religious tradition.  Roy came under the censure of Unitarians when he attempted to apply the same standards of monotheism to Christianity as he did to Hinduism.  He denounced the Christian Trinitarian doctrine of three manifestations of God-in-one declaring that it was as polytheistic as Hinduism’s panoply of deities.

Controversies and developments during this process of exchange between the Brahmo Samaj and Unitarians were closely recorded in two publications of the Unitarian church, the Christian Examiner and Christian Register.  The close scrutiny of this inter-cultural “dialogue” in these two journals, together with the consistent inclusion of essays in the North American Review and Edinburgh Review during the first twenty years of the 19th-century, provided Westerners with considerable information about Asian cultures and religions.  All of these publications tended to exercise greater sympathy towards Oriental religions than had the volumes of letters and private journals, the primary medium of communication, of the previous century.

Unitarian interests and presence in India provided another significant contribution to the growing Indo-American religious dialogue.  After Roy passed, Unitarians looked to his successors, first Keshub Chandra Sen and then to Protap Majumdar, for their missionary purposes in India. Eventually, they invited Sen to tour and lecture in America—which he was unable to do. This led, instead, to the sponsorship of Majumdar’s tour of both England and America in 1874 where he gave scores of lectures in Unitarian churches.25   Of course, such invitations were extended with their own particular purpose in mind: to advance Unitarianism. But it nevertheless gave an opening to a number of Indian spiritual leaders that eventually were to travel to America.

As Carl Jackson remarks in his book, Vedanta for the West, no group “played a more significant role in bringing the Asian religions to American public attention than Unitarianism”26 not only impacting the 19th century, but the 20th century as well. Unitarians played an active role in the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 which introduced Asian religious representatives, speaking on behalf of their traditions, to many sympathetic Western listeners.  Subsequently, many of India’s spiritual teachers traveling in the West in the late 19th and early 20th century, such as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Ram Tirtha, and Paramahansa Yogananda, gained entree into the United States and were frequently welcomed, though not necessarily sponsored, by Unitarians to lecture in their churches.

Transcendental Trajectories

The increasing availability of Indian scriptures as well as articles from journals such as the North American Review—which, incidentally, was founded and managed by Unitarian clergy—and the Edinburgh Review, attracted the sympathetic readership of a small group of Boston intellectuals.  Known as Transcendentalists, this group encountered Asian culture and Vedic scriptures sixty-some years before the Calcutta-born Swami delivered his message of transcendence before a ready American audience.  Beginning in the 1830s, American Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, James Freeman Clarke, Samuel Johnson and Moncure Conway—many of whom were also Unitarians—subtly imbued American thought with Eastern ideas.  Unlike their American predecessors, these Transcendental philosophers, for the first time, read and absorbed Hindu scriptures as “devotees” rather than as critics, and disseminated, indirectly or directly, Eastern ideas and ideals through their lectures and literature.  These two leading intellectual journals of that era, the North American Review and the Edinburgh Review, also helped in lending familiarity to Eastern thought in the West.

In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s preeminent Transcendentalist, wrote what has been termed his Transcendentalist Manifesto, his essay entitled Nature. Emerson’s “manifesto” was composed not only at a time when he was only vaguely familiar with Asian wisdom but when he was still only marginally impressed by its content and even less aware of the total impact the Indian philosophical tradition was to have on his own thought and writing.  However, by 1836, Emerson had read Sir William Jones’ translation of The Laws of Manu, selections from the Mahabharata as well as articles from various preeminent journals (e.g. Edinburgh Review, which, incidentally, was one of the sources from which he determined his reading selections) and Emerson’s compass towards the East was set.27

When Emerson was a junior at Harvard, he began keeping a journal that would become the storehouse of his reflections and record of his readings. His first impressions about Hinduism, recorded in 1820, affirm his youthful affinity with Unitarianism and his goal to become a minister in that tradition with no hint of the devotee of Vedanta he would later become. In his early journal and letters he privately conveys his impressions of the East, the “fanatical and inhuman” “superstition” as well as his curiosity to read “Hindoo mythologies,” in the typical attraction-repulsion idiom of his day.28 As these readings were from secondary sources, they most likely reflect the biases of the journals that he was then reading.  By 1841, when Emerson wrote The Over-Soul, his writing demonstrated a deeper understanding of Eastern thought. Subsequently, his audiences received the harvest of Emerson’s reflections as he began to transform and “trans-literate” many of Hinduism’s key concepts for Western appreciation and understanding. For example, in Representative Men, he suggests that in the “uses” of “great men,” the ego is diminished and the individual self is transcended in the manifestation of the One Self.  The individual self is merely maya.  In his writings, jnana yoga is transliterated into “the path of gnosis” and karma yoga the “path of works,” or “Divine Compensation, or Beautiful Necessity.”29

By 1875, Emerson had read many of the available primary texts of Vedanta (e.g. the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), and had assimilated its principal ideas and appears to have reexamined many of his earlier writings in the context of this understanding.  The Over-Soul represents a prime example of this. In 1861, at a time when Emerson was more fully immersed in Eastern thought, he wrote what might be called a reassessment of the term “over-soul” in a notebook entitled “Orientalism.”  There Emerson links the over-soul with the Hindu philosophical terms, atman and paramatman,30 an assessment which he most likely would not have been capable of in 1841 when he wrote the original essay.

Many critics of Emerson agree that many of Emerson’s uses of Eastern philosophy were literary, essentially semi-private trans-literations, accomplishing both a public purpose and a private synthesis, avoiding total conversion, so to speak, into a foreign religious system.  Hence, as in Society and Solitude (1870), in his discussion of maya, Emerson avoids the usual Vedantan snake-rope analogy and substitutes ordinary objects from his audience’s milieu in a deliberate gesture of “trans-literation.”31 The outcome was that he neither suffered as Thoreau had (shunned by a literary public for his disregard of their ethnocentric sentiments), nor did he succumb to losing, what he termed in his Introduction to Nature, an “original relation to the universe.”32

Emerson and Thoreau, as early representatives of Transcendentalists, have often been compared and contrasted: “Emblematic of the difference between the two authors,” Arthur Versluis writes, “Emerson’s journals are filled with references and quotations from Hindu and other scriptures, whereas Thoreau’s are virtually devoid of them. Likewise, Emerson’s public discourse often keeps his Oriental references submerged, whereas Thoreau emblazoned his Eastern readings throughout his published works.”33 Thoreau’s two important works, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden, are replete with Vedantic references.  Of the two, Thoreau seemed likely the “better Vedantan”—Emerson intellectualized Eastern philosophical principles, Thoreau became an American ascetic, a “yogi,” by some commentators’ standards: Emerson was the metaphysician, Thoreau the practitioner; Emerson, more subtle in his allusions and suggestions of personal commitment to Indian philosophy and oblique in his references, avoided offending his readership; Thoreau, forthright and willing to risk being truthful over remaining silent, offended his public audience and, during his lifetime, suffered semi-obscurity as a writer.  Ironically, Emerson’s fascination with Eastern philosophy increased over his lifetime, Thoreau’s declined in the years preceding his death.34 With the emergence of Transcendentalism in the mid-19th-century—although often accused of presenting a romanticized view of Indian religion—many of the ingrained prejudices, which had developed in America against Oriental religion, were displaced by a more positive consideration.

Transcending Transcendentalism

On the springboard of Unitarianism, Transcendentalism became the most prominent challenge to orthodox Christianity in 19th-century America.  Unitarianism itself had arisen out of liberal New England Congregationalism, which had its roots in early American Calvinism. In three heretical sweeps, Transcendentalism deconstructed traditional Christian thought: first, by challenging orthodox notions of the divinity of Christ, opening the way for other means to salvation; next, by recognizing that other religious traditions also originated from divine revelations; and finally by denying the doctrine of predestination, which, in opposition to long-standing Calvinist doctrines, reaffirmed individual effort in attaining salvation, opening the door for Eastern religions with similar sensibilities that humanity must work out its own salvation.35 Similarly, Transcendentalism became the impetus behind another movement, which further drifted from orthodox Christianity—the Free Religious Association (1867) and the Comparative Religion movement.

These departures from orthodoxy paved the way for the Comparative Religion movement, the contribution of post-bellum Transcendentalists such as James Freeman Clarke, Samuel Johnson and Moncure Conway.  These three authors and Unitarian ministers each produced major works of Comparative Religion—linking the early Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau with the second cycle of Transcendentalists during the later half of the 19th century—preparing the ground for Vivekananda’s momentous entrance upon the American scene at the World’s Parliament of Religions. Clarke published his voluminous text, Ten Great Religions, in 1871 and included extensive chapters on Asian religions.  Despite the book’s monotheistic bias, Clarke attempted to present a balanced analysis of the world’s religions. Between 1872 and 1885, Samuel Johnson published a three-volume text, titled Oriental Religions and Their Relations to Universal Religion.  Johnson more aggressively asserted that all world religions contained spiritual truth and that no religion could proclaim itself as having a monopoly on Truth.  His method was to treat all religions’ practices as natural and functional adaptations to their immediate environment, discrediting the earlier Western view of Hinduism disseminated and provoked primarily by merchants and missionaries.  Moncure Conway brought an end to the idealism of the Transcendentalists when he himself visited India in the 1880s.  Having published the Sacred Anthology in 1873, which gave prominence to sacred writings from all traditions, including Hinduism, Conway promoted the notion of universal truth when he ascribed and categorized sayings from all religious traditions under common topical headings, such as “God” or “Nature,” etc. Though still an advocate of Eastern philosophy, after his visit to India, Conway became more aware of what he saw as the limitations of Hinduism, reducing the tendency of romanticizing the East, a characteristic of mid-century American Transcendentalism.

Edward Salisbury is hailed as the first professional Orientalist in America, translating many of the sacred scriptures of the East and taking a more scientific and rational approach to the study of world religions.  In 1867, Salisbury received an appointment at Harvard as “lecturer on non-Christian religions” and “most leading American universities had established professorships in Comparative Religion by 1900.”36   As a consequence, Westerners were beginning to realize the legitimacy of Eastern religious traditions as they had come to view non-Christian traditions more sympathetically over the last century.

Arriving in America at the peak of the Comparative Religion movement, there is no doubt that Vivekananda’s presence at that moment in history at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 was pivotal and ushered in a new era for Vedanta.  As Jackson remarks, the Ramakrishna movement in America  “is the story of the convergence of the right movement and the right time.”37   With the growth of works by these later Transcendentalists, and the inevitable complement—a changing attitude towards other cultures—the Comparative Religion movement awakened in America not much before the Calcutta Swami proclaimed unequivocally, “Arise, awake, and stop not until the Goal is reached.”

Vedanta in America

The face of Vedantic America varies dramatically from what it was even a century ago. Beginning with Swami Vivekananda’s establishing the New York Vedanta Society in 1894, Ramakrishna Centers were gradually established from New York and Boston, to St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest, and along the West coast in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  In 1895, Swami Vivekananda conducted the first Vedantan retreat in Thousand Island Park in New York and initiated the first sannyasins in America—Leon Landsberg and Marie Louise.  He opened the way for later Indian spiritual teachers traveling west, such as Swami Ram Tirtha and Paramahansa Yogananda in the early half of the 20th century.

In 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, scores of gurus from the East have come to America, establishing ashrams and transplanting all varieties of Hinduism.  This was a historical reversal of the Western missionary movement that swept India for centuries, beginning as early as Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India in 1498, and continuing to the present.  The American impetus to missionary activity abroad began in 1792, shortly after American independence.

Madame Blavatsky and The Theosophical Society; Paramahansa Yogananada and Self-Realization Fellowship; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation; Swami Muktananda and Siddha Yoga; Swami Prabhupada and the Hari Krishnas; Swami Rama and the Himalayan Institute; Swami Sivananda and The Divine Life Society; Subramaniyaswami of Hinduism Today fame; and others, such as Swami Narayan, Swami Radha, Rajneesh, Radha Soami, Sai Baba, Ammachi and other Indian-imported missions are commonplace bywords amongst Americans embracing “alternative” religions. Hinduism, today, has become a global religion.

Although it may be difficult to project the course of Vedanta in America, beyond a doubt it is here to stay.  The more recent trend in Vedanta has displaced the earlier monopoly of the Ramakrishna Centers with manifold options. Some 250 temples of all varieties and from all regions of India have come up in American cities and rural areas. The face of Hinduism in America has representation from all ethnic and racial backgrounds, but the influx of East Indians building their own temples, bringing their own tradition to America, has been the most pronounced difference between the Hinduism of 1900 and that of the year 2000.  Within the last 40-some years Vedanta aggregates have formed in America linked with Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society, Swami Chinmayananda’s Chinmaya Missions, Swami Dayananda’s Arsha Vidya Gurukulum, and, most recently, Swami Bodhananda’s Sambodh Society.

Swami Bodhananda Saraswati

Swami Bodhananda Saraswati, Spiritual Director and Founder of The Sambodh Society, Inc., began his mission in the United States in 1997. This occurred less than a decade after Swamiji became well established in India as both founder and spiritual director of his core organization, The Sambodh Foundation in New Delhi, and several ashrams and precursor societies throughout Kerala.  Well-grounded in traditional Vedanta, Swami-ji is a highly qualified teacher, having accumulated nearly 30 years of teaching and experience in training teachers of Vedanta as well. Abreast of every current trend sweeping the West—whether it be studies in consciousness, new physics, ayurveda or modern business management, Swamiji’s example is probably best suited to illustrate the “cutting edge” of Vedanta in America today. The founder of The Bodhananda Research Foundation for Management and Leadership Studies in Kerala, Swamiji has been highly successful translating India’s ancient wisdom for delivery in a fast-paced society of mega-malls and micro-chips, bringing meditation into the workplace and giving seminars on The Bhagavad-Gita and Management.

True to his Vedantan roots, where spirituality finds expression and completion in the world rather than the cave, Swami Bodhananda’s societies are based upon a combination of three aims. The first is promoting understanding of India’s ancient spiritual heritage, particularly teaching of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Yoga Sutras, and the Vedantic philosophy of the Hindu philosopher Sankaracharya.  The second is activating the inner spiritual power of individuals via instruction in meditation.  And the third is turning this power towards active and constructive social service.

Swami Bodhananda’s first ashram in America was inaugurated on June 9, 2007, and those that Swami-ji founded in Kerala are instructive of what may develop. In Kerala, each ashram has a monastic unit as well as members from the larger society who function together.  Each of his full-fledged ashrams has an organic quality in its development, responding to the interests and abilities of the ashram members as well as to the needs of the immediate larger society. With Vedanta and regular instruction at the core, each ashram undertakes a service project, returning something to the world and society from which it received.  Thus, for example, in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) offers a home for the elderly, and in Kollam (Kerala) a school for handicapped girls has been operating for many years. Swamiji’s ashram in Bangalore that sprung up in more recent years, is established as a “Centre for Living Values” applying ancient principles to modern issues.

In America, the need of the hour is to imbue the society with higher spiritual knowledge and values.  Since the Immigration Act of 1965, the influx of Indians into America has modified the face of Vedanta in America as well.  Although East and West now live side by side, there is still more need to meet face-to-face. Indians are prospering in a materialistic society replete with opportunity, but dissatisfied, many times, with the general decline of the value system in an “adolescent” society.  Americans, suffering from varieties of spiritual fatigue and mystical deprivation, as well as over-satiated with scientific rationalism, turn towards the deeper wisdom of a more ancient culture for a spiritual reawakening and resurrection.  This interface offers dynamism. Swami Bodhananda’s spiritual dynamism and the message of Vedanta appear to be what is required in this new millennium—to bridge the gap between East and West in a global era.

Vedantans are hopeful, projecting the growth of the Vedic tradition in the West at a time when India is rife with Hindu nationalism in the wake of independence and burgeoning with Western material values—particularly in urban areas—and having to cope with the moral and ethical complexities that attend social change.  While American Vedanta prospers, India’s rishis are rumored to be retreating from their traditional Himalayan habitats. And Swamis soar westward with lofty missions in mind. The ancient hopes of the missionaries, East and West, find pockets of fulfillment: the 150 year-old dream of the Transcendentalists for a “universal Bible” seems nearer;38 the century-old Unitarian wish for universal tolerance and the Comparative Religionists’ drive for sympathetic understanding between religious traditions finds resonance; modern merchants meditate, and today’s western tourists go on pilgrimages to Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and circumambulate Mt. Kailash.  In all these movements we hear the echo of Swami Vivekananda’s words from his Paper on Hinduism, presented before the World’s Parliament of Religions some 100 years ago: “‘To the Hindu, the whole world of religions is only a travelling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal.  Every relation is only evolving a God of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them.  Why then, are there so many contradictions?  They are only apparent, says the Hindu.  The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.  It is the same light coming through glasses of different colours.…But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns.  The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna: ‘I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls.  Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.’”

Ruth Small is a Trustee of The Sambodh Society, Inc., and the Administrative Director of the Bodhananda Vedic Institute, School of Ayurveda at the Sambodh Center for Human Excellence ashram in Kalamazoo, MI. She can be reached at


1. Jackson, Carl. Oriental Religions and American Thought. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1981: 6.

2. Protap Majumdar was also present at the World’s Parliament 2 of Religions, representing the Brahmo Samaj. (Jackson, OR, 246).

3. Jackson, Carl. Vedanta for the West: the Ramakrishna Movement in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994: 15.

4. Jackson. (OR, 4). Elihu Yale, the Boston-born governor of Madras, spent 27 years in India retiring and returning to England in 1699. Yale, who became the benefactor of the college which bears his name, was once an employee of the British East India Company and apparently brought many Oriental art objects (although none apparently remain in the United States).

5. Many of Swami Vivekananda’s most inspiring and personal thoughts and teachings are to be found in his volume of Letters of Swami Vivekananda, published by Advaita Ashram, Calcutta. Other than his letters, “the only book,” according to Carl Jackson, that “Vivekananda actually drafted was the Raja Yoga.” Source: Jackson. (VW, 30).

6. Jackson. (OR, 5).

7. Letters. 170.

8. Jackson lists these as: an “emphasis on religious toleration, the influence of environment in the formation of one’s ideas, the basic oneness of human nature” all of which might contribute “to a more sympathetic attitude towards Asian thought.” (OR, 13).

9. Arthur Versluis reveals that Jones, who was appointed a judgeship in 1783 in India, had a difficult time “gaining access to Hindu sacred books and Sanskrit, but could find no Brahmin willing to teach this unbelieving foreigner, and only with great effort was he able to find a Hindu physician who taught him enough Sanskrit sufficient to translate the laws of Manu and the Hitopadesa, both of which were later influential on the Transcendentalists.” American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. NY: Oxford UP, 1993: 18.

10. Jackson. (OR, 15).

11. Jackson. (OR, 31).

12. Swami Vivekananda’s first visit took place between 1893-96, and he again visited the United States between January 1899 and July 1900.

13. Jackson, (OR, 90). It is important to note that Christian ascetics were not themselves above bodily mortifications and a surfeit of examples occur in western religious traditions.

14. Jackson. (OR, 90).

15. See Jackson’s comments regarding Vivekananda as a Hindu a pologist, in Vedanta for the West, 33-34.

16. Addresses. 27; Jackson. (OR, 87).

17. Jackson. (VW, 7).

18. See Swami Vivekananda’s Letters, nos. 98-103 for some of his comments on missionaries and spiritual brotherhood and unity. (Letters of Swami Vivekananda, 4th ed.: Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1976: 42-251).

19. Swami Vivekananda’s Addresses: At the World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1993: 46.

20. See Jackson. (VW, 33-34).

21. Jackson. (OR, 27).

22. Jackson. (OR, 17).

23. Addresses. 41-42.

24. Letters. 170.

25. Jackson reports that Majumdar delivered “seventy speeches in just three months in fifty Unitarian chapels.” (VW, 8).

26. Jackson, (VW, 8).

27. Versluis. (AT, 54). Versluis gives a full account of Emerson’s reading of Eastern philosophical works over the course of his lifetime, correlating his reading with what he wrote and published, adding his observations of the influence of Asian religious literary sources upon Emerson’s thought and development of ideas.

28. Versluis. (AT, 55).

29. Versluis. (AT, 68-69).

30. Versluis. (VW, 66).

31. E.g. The Hindoos represent Maia, the illusory energy of Vishnu, as one of his principal attributes, as if…Nature employed certain illusions as her ties and straps—as a rattle, a doll, an apple, for a child; skates, a river, a boat, a horse, and a gun for the growing boy; and I will not begin to name those of youth and adult, for they are numberless.” (See: Versluis: VW, 66).

32. Selected Writings of Emerson, ed. Donald McQuade. NY: The Modern Library, 1981: 3.

33. Versluis. (VW, 83).

34. See Versluis, 80-99.

35. See Versluis for a discussion of this (VW, 10).

36. Jackson. (VW, 13).

37. Jackson (VW, 1).

38. An example of this is the 914-page web-text, The Bridge Across Consciousness, which categorizes 4000 scriptural passages from 268 sacred texts and 55 oral traditions into 164 common themes from the world’s religions. See: Beversluis, Joel, ed. A Sourcebook for the Earth’s Community of Religions. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Co-Nexus Press, 1995: 342. (http.//

39. Addresses, 47.

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