Swami Vivekananda: Master Marketer of Yoga

Modern Indian guru repackaged Western spiritualism as brand of Yoga

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

Swami_Vivekananda_Jaipur
Swami Vivekananda c. 1887

Born 12 January in 1863 Calcutta, West Bengal British India, the Datta family named him Narendranath. Datta’s father was a lawyer and a Freemason. After his father’s sudden death, Narendranath sought solace at the feet of a famous guru, Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Within eighteen months his guru died of throat cancer. Then began six years of wandering–the bewildered Vivekananda wore the robes of a Hindu holy man–and crisscrossed the Indian continent in a quest for wisdom and for funding to back his Neo-Hindu reform plans1.

As a student the young Datta was keenly interested in Western philosophy. In 1881, he attended Scottish Church College in Calcutta and the same year joined the Brahmo Samaj–led by self-proclaimed prophet Keshub Chandra Sen who’d just announced his “New Dispensation”–a modern blend of faith and science using Yoga, Bhakti, and Christianity.

In 1893 the Swami traveled to the Chicago World Parliament of Religions and was the featured Hindu lecturer. He charmed Western audiences and taught that “self-realization” could result from right practice of his interpretation of yoga. In 1896, he published Raja Yoga, “at bottom, a self-help book grounded in Western esotericism”1. In 1899, the Swami returned to the West but asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia restricted his activity. He died 1902 in Calcutta.

Quotes

“With no effort from us many forms of the Hindu religion are spreading far and wide, and these manifestations have taken the form of Christian science, theosophy, and Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia.”

“…Out of bewildering Yogi-ism must come the most scientific and practical psychology”.

“Knowledge is power. We have to get this power. So we must begin at the beginning, with Pranayama, restraining the Prana.”

“Some day, if you practice hard, the Kundalini will be aroused… No more will you need to go to books for knowledge; your own mind will have become your book, containing infinite knowledge.”

“When a man goes into Samadhi, if he goes into it a fool, he comes out a sage… his whole character is changed, his life is changed, illumined.”

Milestones

1881 became member of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen, joined a Masonic lodge

1882 met his future guru, Ramakrishna, for first time

1884 sudden death of his father, family bankrupt; his visits increase to Ramakrishna

1885 his guru, Ramakrishna, diagnosed with throat cancer

1886 death of his guru, Ramakrishna, from cancer

1887–1893 traveled India as a wandering sannyasa monk; compiled a Bengali song anthology named Sangeet Kalpataru (1887)

1889 translated the first six chapters of The Imitation of Christ  published in Brahmavadin

1893 featured guest speaker at Chicago World Parliament of Religions

1894 founded Vedanta Society of New York

1896 published Raja Yoga compiled from lectures to Americans and Brits

1897 founded Ramakrishna Mission (missionary-charity organization), in Calcutta India, with a small group of Western disciples

1899–1902 visited the West a second time, died in 1902 in Calcutta

Conclusions

Swami Vivekananda packaged and popularized Hindu religion and Yoga for Western consumption. It may help the reader here to give David Gordon White’s useful summary of Vivekananda’s marketing brilliance:

“By recasting prana in the way he did, Vivekananda was able to simultaneously dismiss what he called ‘queer breathing exercises of the Hatha Yoga’ as inauthentic, and repackage Western spiritualism as a brand of Raja Yoga. Forcing such straightforward Indian concepts into a Western occultist mold was, as Elizabeth De Michelis has shown, a deliberate strategy on his part. Like his American audiences, Vivekananda was influenced by Theosophists and deeply engaged in the alternative healing traditions that characterized the ‘New Thought’ of the period. In his expansive reworking of the yogic principles and practices of breath control, we see him speaking their language, a language that many modern yoga gurus continue to speak.”2

Question for readers: What are your thoughts about Western spiritualism that is rebranded as “authentic” or “classical” yoga from the East?

Notes
1 David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography p125
2 ibid. p121. Also, I highly recommend readers get Elizabeth De Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism for a scholarly history demonstrating the tremendous impact Swami Vivekananda played on B.K.S. Iyengar’s teachings and on virtually all Modern Yoga schools present today. 

Sources
“Swami Vivekananda”: Encyclopaedia BritannicaWikipedia
A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism by Elizabeth De Michelis
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White

0 comments

  1. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Good points, Chris. I agree. Humans can get straight, directly to compassion, presence, kindness, etc. without needing intercession (saviors or gurus) or special methods (prayers or mindfulness). Thanks for your reminders to get back to Nature.

  2. Chris Highland

    Yes, Scott, and what if we simply encouraged each other to be thoughtful, mindful, reflective, reasonable and sensitive to others? And isn’t this often best practiced in Nature? I heard an author on NPR today talking about meditation from a more scientific angle, but it made me even more clear that thoughtfulness and clarity of mind (wisdom) probably ought to be our intent rather than yet another brand or style of “meditation.” Do you agree?

  3. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Hi Chris: Engaging in constructive dialogue is important. But being too accommodating can be harmful.

    The argument of “Altruism” (that religion, churches, or gurus feed the poor, build clinics, etc) is often used to defend religions. Humans have a natural desire to help others–especially kin. I agree, let’s decouple altruism from the baggage of beliefs and focus more on Nature.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Chris Highland

    I can’t really comment on V’s views on yoga, but I’ve always appreciated his Interfaith work beginning with the first World Parliament of Religions in 1893. He opened a meditation retreat not far from where I live and I like to visit, walk and enjoy nature there without anyone pushing any particular view on me. In my mind, a curious wonder in Nature leads to far more contentment than any packaged meditation.

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