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The Bengali Swami Vivekananda (Narendra Nath Datta, 1863–1902) is probably best known for his years of travels and lecturing as an Indian missionary to the United States and Europe, beginning with his address in 1893 to the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He also founded, in 1897 in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the Ramakrishna Mission, a Vedantic religious society named after his guru (born as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay [1836–1886]), an illiterate village priest who, his followers believed, had had ecstatic divine visions (p. 237). Vivekananda's interests and life reflected important currents in the development of modern India: religious reform and revival, anticolonial nationalism, and the intellectual and social crises of modernity and globalization. Vivekananda's role in meeting these challenges is a significant theme in the chapters contained in the eclectic and thought-provoking volume edited by A. Raghuramaraju, Debating Vivekananda: A Reader. Believing whether or not Vivekananda [End Page 596] was successful in his main goal of globally propagating Vedanta, as well as his other endeavors, very much depends on which scholars one consults. This multivalence makes this book and the issues it raises particularly useful and interesting.
The editor's stated purpose (p. xxiv) is a "rigorous evaluation" of Vivekananda by examining debates across seven sections: his impact, practical Vedanta, his guru Ramakrishna, secularism, Hindu fundamentalism, women, and science. Some sections fit together better than others. For example, while the secularism section consists of a series of exchanges in print between intellectuals from 1973, and it is useful to see the development of the arguments, it would be beneficial also to see views on the topic from another era. The section on science has selections from the 1990s that could have been consolidated with the secularism chapters. Overall, though, the chapters are insightful and include work by highly noted figures and scholars of South Asia, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Wilhelm Halbfass, Sumit Sarkar, and Ashis Nandy.
The first debate is about the extent and limits of Vivekananda's impact. There are his classmates and political figures such as Nehru who argue for his importance. The strikingly contrarian voice in this otherwise flattering section is that of Delhi University historian Prabha Dixit, who challenges time-honored beliefs such as that Vivekananda's travels in the West were groundbreaking (p. 22); she points out that well over a century before Vivekananda visited them, Westerners such as Hastings and Jones and generations of German Indologists were interested in India and studied it extensively, and not just from a closet in England, as James Mill advocated in his History of British India (1817). She rather argues that Vivekananda had only passing interest as an exotic new personality, a plaything of the rich. This question of extent of interest is always hard to measure. Perhaps it is best to be conservative and assume low numbers and influence unless one has non-anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Religious and missionary interests can be notoriously unreliable as they may be promoting their agenda.
Another issue Dixit confronts is a subtheme throughout the volume, the notion that Vivekananda was working behind the scenes for Indian independence, secretly inspiring revolutionaries. Rather, Dixit argues, Vivekananda sat on the sidelines, refusing to get involved in politics, which was his official position, and apparently not just a clever dodge to avoid imperial entanglements with the authorities. Likewise, his disciples followed his lead and, Dixit argues, did largely nothing during the decades of struggle through independence, which is not unprecedented if one considers the turn that Sri Aurobindo Ghose made toward introspection after his 1908 trial. If Vivekananda was conservative, supporting the status quo and providing a foundation for Hindu nationalism, cultivating division rather than brotherhood, despite some of his rhetoric (p. 39), what was the relation between religion and activism? The degree to which Vivekananda did help develop an India lobby and networks that helped Indians like the Ghadar (revolt) movement during the First World War is certainly worthy of further study.