Comments on: Vivekananda’s 1893 Speech at World Congress in Chicago

Comments on: Vivekananda’s 1893 Speech at World Congress in Chicago

FaceBook discussion on the page of D.R. Butler

BABA:            This speech marks the beginning of Hindu-ism as a religion, and as a “world religion,” that is, possessed of attributes going beyond a local culture, i.e., universal. As I see religion as politics, this is a political speech, if taken in the context of the times. Being an intellectual of the highest order, and a true Indian patriot, Vivekananda found himself in a very ironical place: he felt that without unity, the Indian cultures would be subsumed in the colonial discourse. Indian cultures were under a double attack, that of the Western Academy, backed by the supreme authority of modern science, representing Indian knowledge, and Christianity, with its huge financial support and organizations chipping away at the underbelly of local cultures connected with nature.

Both the Academy and Christianity were armed with universal ideology, which is not the nature of the Sanatan Dharma, concerned not with the ideas and fickle logic of man, but with the operation of nature Herself, and the maintenance of balance in the world. Vivekananda saw that the survival of local cultures, the sum of which constituted the Sanatan Dharma, could only be hoped for through their unity, which required the attributes of “religion,” a unity of deity, text, and doctrine. This had to be superimposed upon India.

Curiously enough, this was in the interests of both the colonizer, as it would make ruling its colony easier, as well as the resistance to this. The other element Vivekananda superimposed upon the Sanatan Dharma was Science, as “Hindu-ism” had to be “scientific” in order to compete with the supreme authority Science had come to assume by the end of the 19th century. He was not the first, however, to pick up on that, as he was in a long line of Bengali intellectuals following the cue of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

GRAHAM:            @Babaji… That’s so true!… and such an irony that to uphold the critical contribution of the Indic traditions to tolerance (vs. especially the Abrahamic religious traditions) he had to make it seem as though “Hinduim” was actually a unified “religion” that he represented. As you point out, this stance capitulated to the gross and stifling Abrahamic idea of a “religion” (a revealed scripture [=Veda], with laws from God [=Laws of Manu] mediated by authorities [=brahmans] etc.) and stifled the truly enlightened and vitally re-generating “alternative vision” that the Indic tradition brings to the table.

But we can still cheer how he hammered the point of “all rivers reach the sea.” And his great impact at the World Congress must have been in large part to the fact that India’s pluralism and non-dual vision of spirituality could TRULY represent the higher vision (“ocean”) that the religions gathered there longed for to release them from the “sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism” that he spoke against and which seems to be an inevitable result of the idea of “religion.”

I’m not aware of how he superimposed “science” but it must have been a stretch with Vedic brahmanism (widow-burning, idol worship, sacred cows etc.!!) Did he turn to “Yoga”? (Which represents a somewhat scientific exploration of the physical and psychic aspects of consciousness.)

But whatever “spins” he was compelled to create I feel are overshadowed by the enormous and historic gateway he gave for the healing wisdom of “the Perennial Tradition” (a term I prefer coined by turn-of-the-century admirers of the Indic tradition whereas “Sanatan Dharma” for me is connected nowadays with Hindu fanaticism.)

Jai Jai Vivekananda! And let’s also heartily cheer and “let it sink in” that a wild Tantric mystic – Sri Ramakrishna – was behind Vivekananda – not some pompous, scripturally-bound, institutional “Hindu”!! That Vivekananda could stand in orange robes and turban to carry off his resonant rhetoric about “Hinduism as a religion” while being the disciple of a mostly un-clad Tantric guru who was neither “educated in the scriptures” nor a “swami” says a lot for the way the Indic tradition breaks the mold of “religion”!!

BABA:            @Graham, we’ve touched on a fascinating area, and I have discovered that more we deconstruct our idea of Hinduism and for that matter, India, we come to this man, Vivekananda, and this period exemplified by the famous speech.

Even being the disciple of Ramakrishna, he was surrounded by English educated Bengali intellectuals, largely Brahmins, who were collaborators with the British in constructing a new religion and hence society, each for their own reasons.

But it wasn’t the Vedas, Laws of Manu, and the priesthood that the Bengalis stood for, but Advaita Vedanta as the doctrine, Bhagavad Gita as the text, and a One God, called by different names, as the deity, thus fulfilling the categorical requirements of Western discourse, in which they were well studied.

It was the Academy and the missionaries who pushed the Vedas, etc.  It’s obvious, if Indian culture was to save itself, it had to be able to compete in its own land.  And for India’s imperial rulers, if it was to continue ruling the masses, they had to represent the culture of India as an archaic priesthood controlling superstitious masses in the hierarchy of an irrelevant exclusivist cult.

Both sides were informed by Western discourse.  The “Vedic Brahminism” that you refer to was a construction of the Imperium, as all of India worshipped idols, the “widow-burning” was among Rajputs, and sacred cows were also respected by Mohammad.  We were also told how Iraqi soldiers bayoneted incubator babies in Kuwait.

Yoga, as we think of it today, didn’t exist back then.  Its success today in the West is largely because of the connection that other Bengali intellectuals, such as Yogananda, made with science, and not with magic.  It had to be sanitized of deities, secularized, and made physical in order to flourish, and this is very consistent with what is often referred to as Hindu renaissance in 19th century Bengal.

‎GRAHAM:            @Baba Rampuri, let’s discuss more elsewhere as FB is mostly about quick and light. But it’s fascinating, as you point out, that while India was constantly reforming and refining itself, (eg. Advaita) the West could construct a “cows and idols” box around it! I guess what they saw on the street in India was overwhelming and the highly refined and esoteric traditions were hidden from sight.

But to focus on the Yoga-thread in your last comment… I understand Yoga was always an esoteric tradition whose Tantric fringe engaged in the wider exoteric deity worship, but classical Yoga (eg. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) was informed by Samkya darshana where the closest thing to a “deity” (if one could call him that) was Purusha – the formless consciousness like Brahman in Advaita. I think, as you say, Yoga’s transition to the West, was more challenged by it’s connection to mystic powers (as you say… “magic”) rather than having to be “secularized” from deity worship. The “Yoga as we think of it today” (assuming you refer to “Hatha Yoga”) was systematized by the Nath Yogis long before Vivekananda, and I agree it was on the fringes in his time. But Yoga in its expanded sense was deeply part of the Indic psyche. Even the Bhagavad- Gita is essentially a discussion of “devotion vs yoga.” BG 6:12 “…let him practice yoga for the purification of the soul.” But it seems from your description that Advaita had much more intellectual prestige in his time and the geniuses at the roots of Yoga like Abhinavagupta in Kashmir didn’t register on the screen of the “Imperium.” So Yoga’s arguably more “scientific” exploration of the body/mind/consciousness (as opposed to the religious faith of a “Hindu” in some god) that he might have usefully focused on for a science-obsessed-West was off-limits because of its association with magic powers and freaky tapasaya (beds of nails, Houdini holding his breath forever underwater etc.)

Such is the amazing play of history. But I feel that Yoga in the West is now mature enough to reclaim its wider spiritual and philosophical heritage (eg. Anusara Yoga, Siddha Yoga etc.) because the de-construction of its excesses (esotericism, magic, tapasaya) has already been done and hat’s off to Swami Vivekananda for being at the apex of the heavy lifting! Thanks for this! If you want to continue, let’s talk outside of these FB boxes.

BABA:            Yes, Graham. let’s expand this conversation beyond Facebook.  I will put some things up on my website over the next few days, and can start going into detail.

I think we should examine our vocabulary, words like “science,” “magic,” “diety,” and others as well as the concept of agency, when one culture represents another.

The “excesses” you describe are precisely the Western constructions of India, and to eliminate them is to sanitize a culture so that we may REPRESENT its ideas for a profitable use within our own ideological thinking.

Yoga is many things to many people, most of which has little to do with the Yoga we have known in India for countless millenia.  To consider that after all this time, THEY got it all wrong, and WE come along in a few years and because we got SCIENCE and Alternative Thinking, we can correct its “excesses.”  I call it “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

The Yoga that both Patanjali and Abhinava Gupta refer to is full of dieties, and has little to do with any scientific method.  They comment on Revelation and Knowledge, not on physical exercise per se.  They don’t preach or prescribe, but describe.  They don’t “figure things out,” as things are revealed not from ideas, but from resemblance.

Advaita Vedanta is also full of dieities.  Adi Shankara, himself, established Mother Goddess Temples all over India.  But you will find a huge difference between the Tradition of Advaita, and its modern sanitized representation.

Patanjali is popularly known today because a yoga business has used his expression “8-limbs” completely out of Patanjali’s context as a tradename, a brand, and through the marketing of that brand, brings the authority of Patanjali into its promotion.  Few of the people who have heard of his Yoga Sutra know that while he spontaneously composed the YS, he spent 80 years composing his “Mahabhashya,” which I believe is NOT sold on Amazon.  His Mahabhashya is his commentary on Knowledge which he describes as the diety “Speech.”


  1. Interesting discussion. I can understand Babaji's defense of an authentic representation of the Sanatan Dharma but as a practical matter some of the "sanitized versions" have gone a long way towards expanding the consciousness of many in the West. Some (with the authority of Lineage) have even been a vehicle to carry some Westerners to Liberation which I thought was the idea. Granted the Yoga brand has been commercialized and monetized to the best ability of many capitalists but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    I greatly respect and admire Baba's pure perspective on the authentic approach. Perhaps the sanitized versions may have made many Westerners open to the great richness of vision that a Westerner turned Naga Baba now can offer.

  2. Great conversation, I'm interested in learning more about what has been "sanitized" from the Indian ancestral traditions to make it more popular for westerners. In my own learning about spiritual traditions, it has become clear that there is a shamanic origin to all of the great traditions, and I have known that this exists within the Hindu traditions, but I know little about it. What forms of magic are used? And what is the proper understanding and role of deities? I am hungry to learn more!

  3. now i understand a little, after reading your book, baba-ji. and your interview in that russian magazine. i lived in nepal for many years and the confusion in my head sort of cleared away finally when you told the difference between the western thinking and the Sanatan Dharma. thank you!

  4. Baba Rampuri,
    Well I've found this thread here! So as far as "excesses", I'm in total sympathy with your view that to "sanitize a culture" and "correct its excesses" can be "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." Still, it's the nature of everything to be constantly refined and every tradition has seen fit to relegate certain things to the basement without risking the ecology within the living area.
    It's probable that most middle-class people both in India and the West have very little use for the "bhairava" aspect of Indic tradition, so if that is glossed over in the West it's because that's needed to present what is wanted in Yoga studios (a system of uplifting, health-inducing mental and physical culture). It's also glossed over in middle-class India!
    There's no claim in Western studios that they're representing ALL of the Indic tradition, or Yoga in its entirety, or the depths of Tantra, so I'm fine with superficiality where one needs to be superficial for the sake of seeding kramas that will in the end lead people (even lifetimes later) to a deeper understanding and practice of initiatory spirituality with a lineage in the traditional way that I think you are envisioning it. I don't think, for example, that condemning "extreme tapas" (for personal goals and powers) or widow burning as an "excess" is "throwing the baby out." Many of India's great leaders and sages condemned these as excesses so I don't think they're simply Western constructs, though I know they were deliberately blown out of proportion by Christianity to discredit "Hinduism".
    I believe in a vibratory seed-krama embedded in even tiny fragments of Indic spirituality, that will inevitably lead to more expanded matrix of understandings, so I am much more tolerant of "glosses."
    However, as someone no doubt holding an initiatory, authoritative position, I can understand that it is your duty to point out superficiality to draw those (rare) seekers who are ready for more.
    I think it all goes together somehow, though… Jai Jai Shiva Shambho!

  5. Fascinating debate between Baba and Graham. i am well versed in Hinduism in its many facets, living in India for long and married to a Hindu.. What puzzles me is the point you make about the old spiritual traditions of India not being universal. (as opposed to the other Judeo-Christian religions being universal, which according to you is one of the requirements to be recognised as a religion).
    i have always considered Hindu (and Buddhist) spirituality as being universal in their approach, aim and appeal to any seeker. Can an 'eternal tradition', or perennial tradition, or Sanatan Dharma – be called eternal without being seen as universal (with universal kinship)?
    This debate is particularly fascinating to me, because i'm engaged at this very moment in a very similar debate, concerning Buddhism, about the diverging (and sometime conflicting) streams of 'the wild yogi' and 'the academic'.

    1. Thank you Florence. The Sanatan Dharma is the SUM of all the non-universal parts. All the parts are local, in the sense of caste, geography, lineage, gender, etc. That is what makes it what you might call "universal." The "world ordering" religions, on the other hand are homogenized. The parts look the same, they are in basic agreement, they follow a common hierarchy.

  6. Widow-burning is a myth – it was never something that was inflicted upon anyone under any sort of coercion. Certain castes used to have a custom called 'Sati', whereby a widow would voluntarily throw herself upon her husband's burning funeral pyre in emulation of Sati's mythical self-immolation for the sake of Shiva's honour. The British saw this tradition and purposefully misconstrued it and exaggerated it in their propaganda, in order to give themselves the appearance of holding the high moral ground and by extension to justify their rule over the natives. It was nothing less than a calculated exploitation of certain ideas about Christianity and the 'white man's burden'. By concocting these wild and fanciful stories about 'suttee' and the Thuggee cult, they were able to manufacture support for an aggressive consolidation of political and military power in the territories controlled by the East India Company.
    In short, the 'widow burning' of popular imagination is just a leftover from Orientalist propaganda, with no basis in fact.

  7. Baba, in that sense, i'm really glad that Vivekananda had his part in making Hinduism a religion, so that generally all religions can approach each other with respect and conflicts can lessen. i speak in a wider view, since my practice part has been mostly Buddhist, but i'm now in a stage of less identity (and less belonging) and so i've nothing to defend, and nothing to attack.
    Hinduism, of course, and even India and Indic – are all wrong terms and words, since they all trace their birth to Alexander crossing the river Sindh, and calling all people beyond that river the Sindhu, which later became 'Hindu' and 'India'. But some word has to be used, right?

    From my own experience i've realised that all spirituality is universal in its aim, approach and appeal. It's not that i 'should not', but i
    'can not' possibly aim for a realisation-mukti-enlightenment-awakening (or whatever it's called) only for myself.

    Concerning the wild yogi – versus – the academic….. debate, in a general way, there's got to be room for both streams, for the true proportion of humans truly interested/motivated from within for actual practice and seeking – – is small.

  8. Baba, in that sense, i'm really glad that Vivekananda had his part in making Hinduism a religion, so that generally all religions can approach each other with respect and conflicts can lessen. i speak in a wider view, since my practice part has been mostly Buddhist, but i'm now in a stage of less identity (and less belonging) and so i've nothing to defend, and nothing to attack.

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