Vivekananda, a global teacher

Ruth Harris on her new biography, which looks at Vivekananda’s life through his transformative relationships, and how he changed western visions of spirituality

Updated - March 17, 2023 10:04 am IST

Published - March 17, 2023 09:01 am IST

Ruth Harris feels Vivekananda spoke differently to different publics in the same way that a guru would tailor his teaching to different individuals.

Ruth Harris feels Vivekananda spoke differently to different publics in the same way that a guru would tailor his teaching to different individuals. | Photo Credit: John Cairns

At the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda fascinated audiences with eclectic teachings even as he advocated a more inclusive conception of religion. In her biography, Ruth Harris shows how Vivekananda’s thought spawned a global anticolonial movement and became a touchstone of Hindu nationalist politics a century after his death. In an interview, Harris says she wanted to find out how Vivekananda put together multiple legacies for himself and for the world. Edited excerpts:

While your previous work has ranged widely in theme and period, you are a historian of France. How did that background inform your approach to Vivekananda?

You may be surprised to learn that I came to Vivekananda through my interests in French history. Years ago, I was reading Romain Rolland, the French pacifist and intellectual, who had a fantasy in the interwar period that Gandhi should come to Europe to save the continent from fascism. Gandhi refused, but I was amazed by Rolland’s belief that the ‘spiritual’ East could somehow save the ‘brutal’ west from its violence. I began to read his other works during his so-called ‘Indian’ period and was astonished to discover that the idea of the ‘oceanic sensation’ had come through Rolland’s reading of Ramakrishna: the term was Rolland’s way of describing Ramakrishna’s mystical connection to Kali.

This work brought together many of my worlds. As an American, I had many friends who subscribed, probably without knowing it, to William James’ view that one could be ‘spiritual’ without accepting conventional religious dogma. I wanted to understand why they turned to ‘eastern spirituality’ and yoga while knowing little, if anything, about India. Why, I wondered, had India become a ‘guru to the world’?

Your book’s title and cover present it as a life of Vivekananda, but I read it as something closer to a group biography with three protagonists: Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Nivedita. How did you come to write the book in this way?

Thank you for this question! There is no doubt that the book has been marketed as a biography of Vivekananda, but you are quite right — it was intentionally constructed around three individuals so that it would not be a conventional account of a ‘great man’. Instead, I concentrated on Vivekananda’s transformative relationships — the first with his guru Ramakrishna, the last with Margaret Noble, the disciple who did more than anyone to nationalise and internationalise aspects of his thought. Ramakrishna took him away from the Brahmo samaj to a more accepting and wide-ranging understanding of Hindu and world religious traditions; Margaret Noble shaped the ‘legacy’ that is integral to the book’s subtitle. I hoped that Vivekananda would then be regarded as standing between these two figures.

Vivekananda with his followers in Kashmir. From left, Josephine Macleod, Ole Bull and Margaret Noble.

Vivekananda with his followers in Kashmir. From left, Josephine Macleod, Ole Bull and Margaret Noble. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

“Vivekananda’s writings”, you tell us, “provide little joy for the intellectual historian,” because he was not a “system maker”, and said different things in different contexts. Do intellectual historians need their subjects to be system makers? Gandhi, whose remarks could also be frustratingly contradictory and context-specific, continues to provoke a great deal of academic intellectual history.

You are correct to pull me up on this. Of course, Vivekananda will continue to provide fuel to the fires of intellectual historians. And, had I been inclined I could easily have written a book on the relationship between self and subject; imitation and authenticity; nationalism and universalism; and detachment and activism. There are so many questions that might interest the Indologist and theologian, all vital to understanding Vivekananda’s thought.

As you know, I touch on many of these themes, but I believe they are intellectual abstractions that cannot hope to tell this very human story. Many great Indian thinkers — including Vivekananda and Gandhi — were activists rather than professional philosophers or political theorists, and they operated on the hoof. In fact, it is their inconsistency that I find so interesting. Vivekananda spoke differently to different publics in the same way that a guru would tailor his teaching to different individuals.

Your book contains some of the most moving, detailed and unsettling accounts of Vivekananda’s Indian and Western disciples. A large majority of these disciples were women — what do you think specifically drew women to Vivekananda?

As you suggest, much of the book concerns Vivekananda’s links to women — in both India and the West — and their centrality to the internationalisation of his enterprise. I focus at length on his personal charisma and the novel combination of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities that western women especially found ‘enchanting’ (their word). They were also attracted by his intellectual prowess, his ability to teach, and his tremendous openness to their world and concerns. Above all, I argue, that together they sought to create a guru-disciple relationship in a culture that had no understanding of such traditions. Despite his often socially conservative views on women’s place in society, he was remarkably attentive to their emotional needs, his presence a constant balm when they faced personal and spiritual trials.

What are you working on next?

I am hoping to write a book called ‘Jesus in India’. Although Christianity has a long history in India, I will focus on the 19th century, and especially the legend of the ‘lost years of Jesus’ and the view that Christ learned the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount from Buddhist masters and Hindu gurus. I will explore Jesus’ theological significance for a range of Hindu and Buddhist thinkers, and also hope to examine Islamic legends that insist that Jesus survived the crucifixion and spent his last days in Kashmir; I will pay particular attention to the Ahmadis in propagating another view of Christ around the world.

Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda; Ruth Harris, Harvard University Press, ₹799.

The writer is based in Bengaluru.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.