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  • Okakura Kakuzō and Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita):A Brief Episode
  • John Rosenfield (bio)

Ideals of the East (1903), Okakura Kakuzō's first book in English, is an impassioned defense of premodern spiritual traditions in Asia.1 Still in print, it continues to inspire persons throughout the world who resist such aspects of modernity as the secular sciences, capitalism, or industrial technology. Okakura had developed his ideas while lecturing in Tokyo, and in 1902, during his sojourn in India, he translated them into English with the aid of Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish woman living in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Okakura had excellent command of English,2 and although Noble claimed that she intended only to preserve the music of his prose, she injected Hindu ideology and grandiloquent Victorian rhetoric into the body of the text. She wrote a long introduction and signed it "Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekānanda"—thus directly linking Okakura's book to a powerful Indian spiritual-political movement called Advaita Vedanta (explained below).3

The unlikely collaboration of a Japanese art scholar and an Irish expatriate woman was a by-product of the presence in India of foreigners greatly inspired by Eastern spirituality. Okakura travelled to India to meet the charismatic Swami Vivekānanda, and the Swami's Western disciples befriended him. The identities of these disciples, the paths by which they came to India, and the roles that they played in Okakura's career are the subjects of this essay.

The Protagonists

Swami Vivekānanda (1863-1902).

Vivekānanda was a disciple of the most famous Indian prophet of modern times, Swami Ramakrishna (1836-86). Born in Bengal, Ramakrishna had led a movement called in Sanskrit a'dvaita vedanta (the undivided totality of the Vedas), which held, inter alia, that each of the great faiths—Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Islamic—embodied the ultimate truth. Focused on ancient [End Page 58] Vedic texts and the classic Upanishads, the movement emphasized spiritual self-realization admixed with strong undercurrents of Indian nationalism. When Ramakrishna died in 1886 he was succeeded by a brilliant young Bengali, Narendranath Dutta (given the monastic name Vivekānanda), who aimed to establish Ramakrishna centers of worship and social welfare throughout the world.

Vivekānanda came to Boston in 1893 and, remarkably fluent in English, opened the still active Ramakrishna Vedanta Society located near Boston University.4 In the same year he managed to attend the famous Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago—part of the World's Columbian Exposition, a great landmark in American cultural history.5 The religion congress, which lasted for thirteen days, featured representatives of many creeds, and though Vivekānanda had arrived late, he was added to the roster of speakers. With a soaring vision of the transcendent unity of all spiritual creeds, he spoke of Advaita (non-duality)—"All alike were roads to the One Real." Amazingly, his talk was recorded and is freely available on the Internet.6 We can hear his voice and understand how he electrified the audience—"like a tongue of flame it fired the souls of the listening throng."7 Suddenly a celebrity, he spent the next four years in America and Europe, lecturing on Vedanta, going as houseguest from one charmed host to another, and collecting funds for his Ramakrishna centers. He met with such influential thinkers as William James, Robert Ingersoll, Josiah Royce, Max Müller, and Romain Rolland, and was offered (but declined) teaching posts at Harvard and Columbia universities. Another eloquent young Bengali, Swami Saradānanda, came to take charge of the Vedanta Society in New York and remained Vivekānanda's loyal associate for years.

Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908).

Both men had occupied powerful positions in Japanese art education, museum administration, art collecting, and government cultural policy.8 Okakura, for example, was a counselor for the Japanese mission at the Chicago exposition of 1893. There the Japanese government at great expense built the elaborate Hōōden, a display building modeled on the famous Phoenix Hall (Hōōdō) in the Byōdōin, the eleventh-century Buddhist temple in Uji.9 But in 1896, only two years later, Okakura was forced for political and...