Holy organisers

Vedanta for the West:
February 17, 1995

Writing on the charisma of the holy man as the sustaining power of a religious movement, the great German historian of religions, Rudolph Otto, once gently criticised his colleagues for not watching more closely the religious events taking place "in our own day and under our very eyes" (The Idea of the Holy). Otto was referring to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (d. 1886), the 19th-century Bengali mystic, and the religious movement that he spawned, a tradition which by the early decades of this century was already confidently declaring its founder to be an incarnation of God.

How a village boy from the countryside of Bengal was transformed into a god for millions of believers in India and later entered the American religious landscape through the preaching of his greatest disciple, Swami Vivekananda (d. 1902), is a story that indeed demands more attention, for it encompasses within its richly textured plot so many of the themes that lie at the centre of the history of religions: the centrality of ecstatic mystical experience, the power of psychological, historical and social forces in guiding the appropriation of a founding figure's teachings, and the manner in which religious traditions influence, and are influenced by, foreign cultures.

Jackson's book is a welcome contribution to the project of responding to Otto's original criticism, not simply because it addresses a critical period and place in the history of this important Asian tradition, but more so because Jackson's historical method advances through a series of balanced reflections on the contradictions, cultural complexities, and historical ironies that have defined the movement's history. As such, the study functions as a much-needed corrective to the simpler, "official" view of things advanced in the tradition's own published histories.

In the course of the book, Jackson carefully lays out the backgrounds of both the 19th-century Indian reform movements that gave rise to the tradition and the American developments that prepared the way for the arrival of the swamis (chapter 1), discusses critical issues in the lives of the founders (chapter 2), summarises the movement's teachings (chapter 4), addresses the whys and hows of the movement's appeal to westerners (chapter 5), and outlines the movement's history in the United States (chapters 3, 6, and 7).

Throughout, the themes of irony, contradiction and a certain historical dialectic resonate: thus, although Vivekananda originally went to the US to raise money to alleviate India's troublesome social conditions, in the face of heavy American criticism he soon found himself defending the very conditions and practices he wanted to reform; the allegedly Hindu "Vedanta" Vivekananda preached was actually a complex synthesis of Western social thought and ancient Indian tradition; the movement's success issued largely out of organisational skills that the swamis consistently disavowed; and the central text of the tradition, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, often contradicts the central tenets of the movement.

From a historical perspective, all of these theses are both reasonable and amply documented in the scholarly literature.

In the end, Jackson gives the movement a privileged place in American religious history as the first and most influential of the Asian traditions to go to the US, but at the same time gently takes the tradition to task for its growing conservatism, its resistance to further acculturation, and its tendency to engage in gross cultural stereotyping (the West is "materialistic" and India is "spiritual", Christianity is intolerant and Hinduism is tolerant, etc.).

As a historian of religions who specialises in the Bengali texts of this movement's history, I would summarise the book's effect on me in one word: refreshing. Rudolph Otto would be pleased.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is an assistant professor of religion, Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.

Vedanta for the West:: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States

Author - Carl T. Jackson
ISBN - 0 253 33098 X
Publisher - Indiana University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 185pp

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