Wanted to focus on multifaceted nature of Vivekananda: Author Ruth Harris

NewsDrum Desk
22 Jan 2023

Jaipur, Jan 22 (PTI) All his life, Swami Vivekananda struggled with the "internal dilemma" of striking a balance between staying true to his Indian roots and absorbing Western thought, according to author Ruth Harris.

Harris was in conversation with historian-author Hindol Sengupta on the latest book "Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda" on Sunday at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) here.

In her research, the American academic said she found Vivekananda was often "exhausted" as he travelled around the world dispelling myths about his home country.

"He depends on the West for new ideas, but at the same time, he's determined not to let his Indianess be overwhelmed by Western values. "But if you want to understand his exhaustion and illnesses, you would take account of the fact that he's constantly negotiating this internal dilemma of wanting to hear about the newest trends in Western thought, absorbing them quickly.

"And, at the same time, wanting to deflect all the cliched criticisms that people talk about India. He comes back with a witty reply but it's also wounding. So he has to decide how to respond," she said. Everywhere he would go, the philosopher would carry two books with him, added Harris. They were: "The Gita" and "The Imitation of Christ", a Christian devotional book by Thomas a Kempis.

The professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford said there was another dichotomy to Vivekananda.

"What I found the most extraordinary was that in India he is known as a man maker. But in America, he said, 'I'm a woman amongst women'. "He spoke about his future incarnations that he wanted to come back as an American woman. I wanted to focus on the multifaceted nature of Vivekananda and not to reduce him. See the two sides that are actually one and his attempt to create unity was so important." Harris also touched upon the women in Vivekananda's life, including Sarada Devi, wife and spiritual consort of his guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

At one point, the philosopher wondered that she would become more important than Ramakrishna, which was a remarkable thing to say given his love for his guru, she said.

"He refuses to go to America without her permission," she added.

The author also talked about British women's rights activist and theosophist Henrietta Muller and Irish teacher-author Margaret Nobles, better known in India as Sister Nivedita: the "white women" in Vivekananda's life who helped him create his life and legacy.

Asked if, as a white woman herself, she had ever reflected on why these women were so fascinated by the philosopher, Harris said there was more than Vivekananda's "charisma" that had such a pull on them. "There was something about the message he conveyed about universalism and spirituality that people were impressed by.

But at the same time, Harris said she was really interested in getting people in the West to think about all kinds of practices they think may have come from India "because they've co-opted and misunderstood".

"And that's what was one of my tasks that I set myself. And they do not recognise that there was also an anti-colonial dimension. And it's undeniable." Although he is viewed as someone who had "very socially conservative views of women", the author said Vivekananda took them very seriously.

"What they loved was he listened and he engaged in their lives in ways that they weren't accustomed to... . He felt the Indian women he knew were not empowered enough. And yet at the same time, he was worried about taking on Western ways too much.

"He was violently opposed to child marriage, though he didn't say so, perhaps enough in public. But at the same time, he never argued for widow remarriage. It's a very complicated story," added Harris.

The scholar also addressed accusations against Vivekananda of "sanitising" Hinduism for the West.

"He believed too much symbolism would make people fight. But, if you take away all the symbols, you will take away their tradition," the author said.

JLF will conclude on Monday. PTI RDS RT

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