Ramakrishna Mission in the West became a Magnet for Intellectuals and Artists

  • By Jeffery D Long
  • March 9, 2023
  • 718 views
  • Origin of Vedanta Society in America and comparison with Ramakrishna Mission. It has exerted a massive influence upon Western culture. The indirect influence of serious Vedanta practitioners has shaped American society in ways that are unrecognised.

The Ramakrishna Mission and the Vedanta Society

The Ramakrishna Mission and the Vedanta Society are two distinct organisations. Both were established by Swami Vivekananda in the last decade of the nineteenth century, during a period of intensive activity that has been dubbed ‘cyclonic’.1

 

The Vedanta Society was actually the first of these organisations to be established when Swamiji founded the Vedanta Society of New York in November of 1894. The Ramakrishna Mission was founded nearly three years later, in May of 1897, after Swamiji’s triumphant return from his first journey to America.

However, while these two organisations remain distinct, the Ramakrishna Mission and the Vedanta Society are often popularly seen as, respectively, the Indian and international branches of the same broad spiritual movement. Both are run by the swamis of the Ramakrishna Order whose headquarters are located at Belur Math, near Kolkata, in India. Both are dedicated to promulgating the vision of Swami Vivekananda and his guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Generally, both could be referred to jointly—along with the wider global penumbra of persons inspired in various ways by Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji—as integral elements of the ‘Ramakrishna Movement’.

The distinction between the two organisations, however, is not merely geographic, even if they are widely spoken of as being really two parts of the same movement. The work that each carries out is distinct in nature, though there is certainly considerable overlap in this regard as well. The Ramakrishna Mission is primarily devoted to activities related to education, health care, and poverty relief. It runs institutions such as schools, hospitals, and orphanages with the aim to carry out Swami Vivekananda’s vision of karma yoga, or seva, which refers to selfless service to God in the form of suffering living beings. Service to Daridra Narayana, or God in the form of the poor, is its chief mandate. Its schools, of course, teach spiritual values, and its students learn about the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, the Holy Mother Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and other great figures of the Ramakrishna Movement.

But they are schools in a comprehensive sense and are by no means limited to spiritual instruction. They cover a whole array of educational topics in their curricula. Moreover, they are open to students of all backgrounds, regardless of caste or creed. This is of course entirely in keeping with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Education is a central focus of the work of the Ramakrishna Mission because one of the surest ways for a person to escape from poverty is to receive the self-empowerment that comes from education.

RKM School, Along Arunachal Pradesh. 

The Vedanta Society, on the other hand, while being global in its reach, with centres around the world, is located mainly in more affluent nations, such as the United States. Its focus is less on poverty relief and more on spiritual instruction. By way of a broad generalisation, one could say that India has spiritual teaching in abundance, but its people are in great need of material aid. The West, on the other hand, has material wealth in abundance—though this is certainly not equitably distributed—but stands in need of Vedantic teaching. 

Vedanta Society Hollywood, Los Angeles. 

This, at least, was Swami Vivekananda’s way of seeing things. This is why he established the Ramakrishna Mission in order to meet, primarily, the physical needs of the people of India, and the Vedanta Society to meet, primarily, the spiritual needs of the people of the West.

This is, of course, a very broad pair of generalisations. There are plenty of people in India who are not drawn to spiritual teaching of any kind, and plenty of people in the West who face the harsh realities of poverty. But the larger trend remains, even more than a century after Swamiji’s lifetime, that it is India which stands chiefly in need of material support, and the West which faces crises that are of a more spiritual nature. The Ramakrishna Mission and the Vedanta Society are thus each oriented towards these respective needs.

That being said, it is certainly not the case that spiritual teaching is absent in the work of the Ramakrishna Mission, nor that the Vedanta centres in the West do not engage in any kind of relief work. Indeed, as India’s affluence grows and as the West faces its own economic challenges, it is likely that the distinction between these two organisations and their respective missions will grow less and less. 

Both organisations are in any case devoted to both goals, in the words of Swami Vivekananda: ‘Atmano mokssrtham jagat hitsya ca; for one’s own liberation and for the welfare of the world.’ Both are animated by the same vision.

The Influence of the Vedanta Society in America

If we can speak then, broadly, of the Vedanta Society as coextensive with the Ramakrishna Mission, while bearing in mind the historical distinctions between these two organisations, we can say that the Ramakrishna Mission, through its Western branch, the Vedanta Society, has exerted a great deal of influence in the Western world.2

The extent of this influence is quite staggering when one looks beyond the membership of the Vedanta centres in, for example, the United States, and to the transformations in the culture of America that can be traced back to the existence of these centres. Certainly, Hindu teachers from lineages other than that of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have also exerted an influence on American culture.

But a number of Hindu influences in American culture do have a clear Vedantic provenance, such as the inclusion of Vedantic themes in the popular Star Wars films.

Interestingly, however, most Americans are unaware of the extent to which various Hindu philosophies, including Vedanta, have come to permeate their culture, particularly their popular culture: movies, music, and so on. As religion scholar

Vasudha Narayanan has noted: ‘Americans may not know it, but they’ve long been embracing Hindu philosophy.’3 Why is this the case?

The answers to this question are complex and include reference to such unpleasant realities as racism and religious bigotry, as well as the deliberate appropriation of Hindu ideas and practices by some who then pass those ideas and practices off as their own, as can be observed in some quarters of the global yoga community.

In the case of Vedanta in particular, though, there is another aspect of this phenomenon of unconscious Hindu influence that is worth mentioning. Throughout its existence, but especially in the early and middle portions of the twentieth century, the Vedanta Society in America has been a magnet for intellectuals and artists: people who today might be dubbed cultural ‘influencers’. It is not the case that these individuals nefariously passed off Vedantic ideas as their own. They were, in fact, all quite open about their Vedantic allegiances. 

However, given that the Vedantic ideals which they held dear came to permeate all of their work, and indeed their entire approach to life, it was inevitable that others who enjoyed their work picked up on certain themes and concepts but without fully grasping that these themes and concepts were Vedantic in origin.

Major intellectuals and artists who were drawn to Vedanta, and whose work later came to influence others who were less directly connected with it, including such luminaries as Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, J D Salinger, Joseph Campbell, and Huston Smith. Isherwood and Huxley were both initiated into Vedanta by their guru, Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, which remains a very central and important hub of the Vedanta movement in America today. Salinger and Campbell, on the other hand, were both close to Swami Nikhilananda, of the New York Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, while Smith had a connection to the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, Missouri.4

All of these men were influential writers who had a considerable impact upon the generations that followed them: particularly the generation that came of age during the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s, which was a period of especially strong Hindu influence in America. Isherwood, Huxley, and Salinger were all novelists who wrote books infused with Vedantic themes (though not always explicitly about Vedanta, due to which their readers were not always aware of the origins of the appealing ideas that they found in the works of these authors). Campbell and Smith were scholars of religion who were similarly influential.

Again, none of these figures made any secret of their Vedantic affiliations. Isherwood, in fact, jointly authored several translations, with his guru, of important Vedantic texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras, as well as independently authoring one of the most accessible books on the life of Sri Ramakrishna in the English language, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, and an autobiography titled My Guru and His Disciple. Huxley presented Swami Vivekananda’s ideas about universal religion in his groundbreaking book-length essay, The Perennial Philosophy. And while Salinger was an intensely private man, he permitted the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York to release his correspondence with Swami Nikhilananda after his death, allowing the world to see the closeness of his relationship with his guru.

A particularly strong example, though, of how Vedantic influence passed from one of these major figures to the wider public (without the wider public realising the source of this influence) is the relationship between religion scholar Joseph Campbell and film director George Lucas. In terms of Vedantic influence, Campbell was quite close to the Vedanta Society. Indeed, he aided Swami Nikhilananda in his translation of the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita into English as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The influence of Vedanta pervaded his scholarly works to such a great degree that Pravrajika Vrajaprana has written that ‘no reader of Joseph Campbell can escape Sri Ramakrishna’.5

One of these works was a book on archetypal images and narrative themes in traditional mythologies called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A young George Lucas read this book and became determined to create a great American epic myth in film. The result was Star Wars, which has had a huge, multi-generational following in America. In popularity, the Star Wars films are probably only comparable to the music of the Beatles—another conduit through which Hindu ideas have come to pervade Western society.

Conclusion

By serving as a magnet for intellectuals and artists—people in a position to influence the ideas, morals, and ways of life of millions of Americans—the Vedanta Society has exerted a massive, albeit largely unknown, influence upon Western culture. The Ramakrishna Mission—or rather, it’s global twin organisation, the Vedanta Society—has thus had an influence on the world as a whole that is difficult to calculate or quantify, going, as it does, beyond mere numbers of formal adherents and extending into cultural attitudes and dispositions whose sources are often unknown to those who hold them. The indirect influence of serious Vedanta practitioners with wide cultural reach has shaped American society in ways that are often unrecognised, either in India or the West. 

This influence is nevertheless real, and an important part of the story of America.

 

Author Jeffery D Long is the Carl W Zeigler professor of Religion, Philosophy, and Asian Studies, at Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania, USA.

 

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References

1. By, among others, Sukalyan Sengupta and Makarand Paranjape in the title of their edited volume The Cyclonic Swami: Vivekananda in the West (New Delhi: Samvad India, 2005).

2. Much of this influence is documented in my book, Hinduism in America: A Convergence of Worlds (London: Bloomsbury, 2020). What follows is drawn largely from my research for that book.

3. Vasudha Narayanan, ‘Americans May Not Know It, but They’ve Long Been Embracing Hindu Philosophy’, Quartz India (6 February 2018) (https://qz.com/india/1199543/americas-long-and-complex-relationship-with-hinduism/, accessed 27 May 2022.)

4. The geographic locations of these important figures are not insignificant, as they illustrate the extent of the Vedanta Society’s reach in the United States, encompassing both the East and West Coasts (New York and Los Angeles) and the Midwest (St. Louis).

5. Pravrajika Vrajaprana, ‘Vedanta in America: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are’, (https://vedanta.org/2000/monthly-readings/vedanta-in-america-where-weve-been-and-where-we-are/, accessed 27 May 2022.)

This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

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