Ruth Harris has written a new book [“Guru to the World: Life and Legacy of Vivekananda,” Harvard University Press, October 2022] that examines Vivekananda’s life through his transformative relationships and the impact he had on transforming the Western understanding of spirituality and the global perspective as a whole.
Ka Jingshai (KJ) was in conversation with Prof Ruth Harris (RH). Here is an abridged version of the interview, which can be found in full at https://bit.ly/3KgGkFk
KJ: Your book about Vivekananda covers the importance of his philosophy from multiple perspectives in an interesting way. How did you discover Vivekananda, and why you decided to switch genres in your writing?
RH: Well, there are two things. On one level, it was a shift, a tremendous shift, and I had to spend 8-10 years doing the book because I had no background. On another level, it wasn’t because I came to it through French history. I was reading about the relationship between Romain Rolland and Gandhi and picked up two other books he wrote. One on Ramakrishna (La Vie De Ramakrishna), and the other on Vivekananda ( La Vie De Vivekananda). It’s that book that got me started.
The second reason is that people like Vivekananda came from the colonial and imperial world to the west, but they shaped our views and shifted our perceptions. Also, I wanted to explore why somebody like Vivekananda had such an impact outside of India before he returned to India. I began to read letters, and I got a sense of him as a human being. That was very enticing.
KJ: When you read him first, what really struck you?
RH: What struck me about him was his capacity to express very harsh, fundamental truths through wit and humour, especially to his western audience and, at the same time, his openness to their preoccupations. I was stunned by this because he could have been very angry. There were times when he said, ‘Please, don’t speak of us as heathens, don’t offer us stones when we need food.’ It was also his cultural ambidexterity that he could engage in any of the discussions Westerners were interested in. That struck me, and so did the first woman who dealt with him. He could talk about many things, and I began to think, ‘what does it mean for somebody like this, to so many different people, that he had to encompass all this learning and ability to communicate?’
KJ: Did you ever feel like ‘let me write on the Guru of Vivekananda?’
RH: Well, I have to say, of all the things I wrote, the chapter on Sri Ramakrishna was the most difficult. As a Westerner not brought up in this tradition, I had read the gospel of Ramakrishna, and I began to think of how difficult it is to convey the message of Ramakrishna. I was trying to understand, but we get that message only through devotees completely changed by his presence. We get an extraordinary sense of his charisma, humanity, and capacity to touch people with different psychological makeups.
The story of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda is often told as a story of opposites, but it’s superficial opposites. Certainly, Ramakrishna comes across as Bhakta, Vivekananda as sceptical Jnani. But underneath, it was Ramakrishna’s wisdom that he was learning. Vivekananda himself said, ‘I am a bhakta’. It is a complex and transformational relationship; I think Ramakrishna understands that you need somebody who can communicate in the wider world; the savviness of somebody like Ramakrishna really impressed me.
Finally, I found out how he insisted on being a baby and said that innocence and play of babyhood are authentic Atman. He acknowledges Vivekananda’s intelligence; when he reasons too much, he says, ‘you must go beyond that.’ This is something that he used when he was speaking to his audience. It wasn’t just the rational Vivekananda that they loved.
KJ: What thoughts made you think that the concept of ‘Swami Vivekananda and America’ needs a new light?
RH: There was a personal dimension here in a weird way. It brought many things together for me. Of course, I am American, ended up in Britain, and married an Englishman. It was interesting that working on Vivekananda brought my American, British and Indian friends together.
Most of my American friends said, ‘we’re growing up; we’re not religious; we’re spiritual.’ I thought, ‘Where does that come from?’ Many of them were Jewish or Christian. But they all think of themselves as spiritual. Yet, they knew on some level that many of the ideas around spirituality they professed came from some vision of yoga or India.
I realized that people had not grasped the connection between Vivekananda and William James, who was considered in America to be the founder of psychology. Romain Rolland, in his discussion of Vivekananda, writes about William James. He recognizes that Vivekananda is part of a greater shift in views of self-consciousness and religious experience. I read some of his correspondence and realized that he was having a debate with Vivekananda. He does not accept Hinduism. He still thinks of it in very orientalist terms as metaphysical and transcendent, but not based on science.
KJ: It’s intriguing that you present and understand Indian ethos so delicately in this book. How challenging was that?
RH: I can’t tell you. In the fourth year, I began to despair. I thought, ‘Oh, this time, I’ve bitten off too much. This time, I’m going to get into trouble.’ That’s because I could not understand, but I was working hard. I was raised in a Jewish tradition and spent a year working on Catholicism to learn about the Virgin Mary.
I think the change came when I listened to a good translation of the Gita. When you begin to understand what it is, for Arjuna not to defend his family and his relations because of his Dharma, when Indian families mean so much. The sacrifice is extraordinary for the higher ethos I began to appreciate.
Interestingly, many of my Indian friends began to recognize that we really can’t understand politics, and of course, the Indian anti-colonial struggle without religion. I had been working on religion and science for many years, but what I was doing on Vivekananda was different. It was in exchanges with my friends that I began to get an idea. I tried to be delicate, I’m not sure I always managed.
I tried to use my historical imagination to enter into the world I was looking at. I realized that people pick and choose from Vivekananda. But the world he lived in was not like ours. We have to understand that it was a world of theosophy, spiritualism and Christian science.
KJ: In Vivekananda’s writings and speeches, there seems to be a convergence between modern science and Vedanta. He also cautioned against superstitious beliefs in both science and religion. What is the main lesson to be learned from these opposing ideas?
RH: What he’s saying is don’t accept claims from either religion or science as blanket claims. Each individual must find her own path through intellectual understanding. Vivekananda globalizes Hinduism, he engages in debates, and he’s provocative. The Orthodox didn’t accept what he was doing. There are those who disagree with his vision of the relationship of Karma Yoga with Advaita. There are others who do not want to give up rituals. He never said you had to give up anything. He wanted people to question. Though he did prioritize Advaita above other forms, he never lost sight of the fact that Ramakrishna had achieved everything spiritually through Kali.
KJ: Do you think Swami Vivekananda, in a sense, was more unique in his approach than Ramakrishna?
RH: It is not that, that he isn’t unique; Ramakrishna is utterly unique. He’s not like anybody I’ve ever encountered, he’s remarkable. But what I’m saying is that Vivekananda becomes a global figure, he goes to Chicago, he does all those things that Ramakrishna could never engage with.
In his encounter with Ramakrishna, he wants to see God. Vivekananda has this mystical sense and he knows, that it was Ramakrishna who can do that. That’s when he accepts Ramakrishna. It’s a spiritual reconciliation of the highest order. I think that’s partially why he hopes to bring reconciliation when he goes to America. But he’s also savvy, he needs to impress them, he also acknowledges that there are dynamics of power that have to shift. He scolds the people in the West. He says, ‘You’re brutal, you’re materialistic. You don’t listen, you don’t see yourselves.’ When he comes back to India, he says, ‘You’re timid, you’re quarrelsome. you must learn self-reliance, commit yourself to practical Vedanta.’ Like a good Guru, he says different things to different audiences. Despite that, I don’t think that there are two Vivekanandas. He wishes he was back with Ramakrishna, but he has to shift his whole rhythm and psyche and it’s exhausting. That’s why his women friends in America, worry about him all the time, they see he’s exhausted.
KJ: Do you believe that the mental pressure and stress Vivekananda experienced was due to the obstacles and superstitious beliefs that he had to overcome?
RH: I do think it was very exhausting, it’s again that human capacity to acknowledge his weaknesses that I got attracted to him, that he wasn’t a Superman. That he not being a Superman, he’s extraordinary. He talks about ‘The imitation of Christ.’ You can imitate Christ, he says, be Christ, be better than Christ. But he doesn’t want Indians to imitate the British; he wants them to be Indian. How do you take the world, the universal, while remaining authentically yourself? That’s his message for individuals and nations.
KJ: How do you think these ideas about blending experience and reason are influencing the modern thought currents of the West?
RH: In this connection, we may remember his discussion with William James. They all were trying to blend experience and reason. When people say in America, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, what they’re trying to say is, I think, ‘we’re not superstitious, we don’t belong to these old ideas, but we are open to many different paths.’
He was interested in creating a Vedantic science, but he himself could not do that. He was interested in the idea that people would see the cosmic and the mundane together. They found it difficult because they think the universality is European rationality. But when science comes to India, it doesn’t shift. People are interested in science, but many continue to have their spiritual preoccupations.
In the West, there was a split. By the end of the 19th century, there was a revolt against these ideas and Vivekananda slots into those discussions. What’s interesting about Vivekananda is he believes in evolution, but he doesn’t believe that natural selection has a role in the higher mental and psychological faculties. Even Darwin’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, would have agreed with Vivekananda.
KJ: There is a popular trend of using science to justify every religious ritual or practice. What was Vivekananda’s stance on this matter?
RH: Vivekananda wanted everyone to find his or her own way. He didn’t think that real spirituality was the miraculous. He encouraged people not to search for ‘getting powers or being miraculous’ He thought that a more enduring spirituality was based on perseverance and disciplined search.
I think he’d learned that from Ramakrishna, and that’s why I begin that chapter by talking about how Ramakrishna has throat cancer and his disciples want him to cure himself, and Ramakrishna says, ‘I can’t ask for that. As I spent all my time explaining that the body is nothing.’
These are things that Vivekananda knew and tried to convey to his American devotees.
One of the things about my book is to show how the vision of science changes very much over time. I still think that we have an overinflated view of science. It can explain some aspects of the world but not everything.
KJ: In your treatment of disciples of Swami Vivekananda, you have dealt with the Indians, the Americans and the British separately. Were their perceptions of Vivekananda different during his time? How do you look at this when the world is considered just one village?
RH: Absolutely. I mean, even though it is one village. In India, there are many who view Vivekananda through the eyes of family tradition; it’s there in the bone. Yet everyone has a different view in India of Vivekananda.
In America and in Britain, it’s again, different because they see Vivekananda as basically the door opener to all these Indian ideas. I was trying to get them to understand that there’s a background to why he came to America.
That Chicago thing is important because America is not yet an imperial power, it will be in 1898, five years after the Parliament. He’s glad to be in America because he speaks English but doesn’t have to deal with colonists. In Britain, people have heard of Vivekananda but don’t think of him through an imperial lens. They think of him as the founder of yoga. That’s what many people have heard of Vivekananda, but they don’t realize that he has had such a powerful afterlife in Indian society.
KJ: After reading Swami Vivekananda’s teachings on Vedanta, the concept of Self, Atman, and oneness, as a Westerner, how revolutionary were those ideas for you to comprehend?
RH: Yes, it really was revolutionary. But I also have to say what I loved about reading these high flights of Hindu metaphysical thought was how he joined them to stories.
First, I only understood the parable side, and then, with time, I began to investigate the other side. I spent so much time reading about American women because I was like the American women. But also because I’ve lived in Britain so long, I was like Margaret Noble. Again the relationship between universalism and particularity is a very important issue for the Jews, the relationship between love and longing for spirituality.
Vivekananda has been spoken about as a great cosmopolitan or a great globalist. But I think, after the pandemic, we realized that it’s not so easy when we are a village on one level, but we’re also highly fragmented.
KJ: Vivekananda was many things to many people. Ruth, why did you want to attribute the word Guru to him?
RH: It’s very simple. I was saying that he was trying to be a guru to the world. But I also was trying to explain that India was often placed in that position. But rather than being easy to do, it’s also problematic because the idea that India is spiritual and the West is materialistic is basically a cliche.
We know that Indians are not purely spiritual and that Westerners are not purely materialistic. So while he enters into the Western world, by presenting himself as a guru to the world, he’s also constrained by these very categories that don’t allow people to step outside the box. I think that’s a great paradox for him.
I think it’s, if you don’t mind my saying, because I’m not Indian, it remains a great paradox for India today because India wants to be a world teacher, but it’s not always true that people do it that way. I wanted to explore that paradox honestly and with generosity.
KJ: You mentioned that the book’s purpose evolved over time. Have you ever travelled to India, and if so, for what reason?
RH: I did. I went to the archives, and I did everything. I also went all over America to look at archives. I was in St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. I, of course, went to Calcutta, to Belur Math. I had to go to all these places. Because if you don’t have a sense of place, you can’t understand and, when you go and visit people, they give you bits of history. They give you their memories, what has been passed down to them, and you learn a lot.
KJ: Do you think Vivekananda’s philosophy should be taught to school or college students for a better world tomorrow?
RH: I think it would be very interesting to have some aspects of his work on universalism and diversity in the curriculum in our schools. In England, there is teaching in Christianity. But there’s also a lot of emphasis on religious studies, and now they’re starting to do courses on Hinduism.
I would recommend reading ‘Practical Vedanta’, the lectures in London, where he describes that everything can be in the service of this Self that is God, even in the most humble things.
Professor Ruth Harris is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls’ College and a Professor of Modern History at the Oxford University. She has been awarded Guggenheim Fellowship and Wolfson History Prize and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. She has published widely in the history of science and medicine, the history of gender and religion, and the history of politics and emotion.