- freely available
Religions 2017, 8(6), 101; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel8060101
2. Mid-Twentieth Century Indology and the Quest for Origins
3. The Problematic Alterity of “Neo-Vedānta”
4. Neglected Traditions and Genres
5. The Transmission of Advaitic Philosophy into the Colonial Period
6. Swami Vivekananda as Cosmopolitan Theologian
Conflicts of Interest
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Versions of this paper were delivered at a DANAM panel at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Madaio 2013) in 2013 and at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (Madaio 2014) in 2014. This paper, and my argument here pertaining to issues of historiography and neglected text genres, was also partly summarized in a RISA-L discussion thread (Madaio 2015).
Pertinent here is A. Nicholson’s (Nicholson 2010) path-clearing work on the role that precolonial doxographies (saṃgraha) played in the configuration of modern Hinduism.
The remarks of R. Inden (Inden 2000, pp. 3, 25) are à propos: “postcolonial scholarship seems to have reinscribed a major divide in colonialist discourse, the divide between the traditional...and modern…It has shifted people’s attention away from the practices and institutions of the past before the advent of colonialism, and onto a fanciful remote past that seems to have little to do with their everyday life…”
Paradoxically, the need to take serious such sources, and their transmission into the colonial period, is as significant a lacuna as it is obvious. If Vivekananda’s own citations were not enough, even a cursory examination of the educational and publishing activities of the Ramakrishna Mission—or other “Neo-Vedāntic” groups, such as the Chinmaya Mission or the Divine Life Society (to say nothing of the teachings of the Śaṃkarācāryas at the so-called “traditional” maṭhas)—reveals an overwhelming emphasis on precolonial sources, including hymns, hagiographies, independent works, as well as texts such as the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha, Āṣṭāvakragītā, Avadhūta-Gītā, Adhyātma-Rāmāyaṇa (particularly the Uttarakāṇḍa), and so on. Indeed, the publications of such organizations provide a useful map for detecting the advaitic, yogic and narrative traditions that not only helped to build their respective outlooks but which were broadly popular on the eve of colonialism.
Helpful here is Talal Asad’s (Asad 1996) account of a discursive tradition, albeit put forth in a much different context.
The issue is a complicated one, but I intend here Indological scholarship after the orientalist period. Medieval vedāntic traditions were indeed influential in shaping the understanding of Hinduism and Indian philosophy among orientalist scholars such as H. T. Colebrooke, E. B. Cowell, Max Müller, Albrecht Weber, Richard Garbe, P. Deussen, A. E. Gough, among others.
Hacker’s approach included consideration of whether a text had been quoted by Śaṃkara’s immediate disciples as well as the manner of attribution in colophons. With regard to the latter, if a work was attributed to the more ambiguous “Śaṃkarācārya”, which was also the title held by the pontiffs, or mahants, of the ritual-learning institutions (maṭhas) linked to Śaṃkara, it was considered less authentic than the more reverential title used for Śaṃkara by his contemporaries (such as Bhagavat, Bhagavatpāda, and Bhagavatpūjyapāda). While Hacker’s conclusions have shaped subsequent European and North Atlantic scholarship, most Indian scholars are either unaware of, or have ignored, Hacker’s publications. Interestingly, Hacker’s approach appears, in fact, to be indebted to earlier work by Svāmī Saccidānandendra (Suthren Hirst 2005, pp. 4–5). Saccidānandendra, notably, set out to distinguish the method of the (historical) Śaṃkara, who wrote the foundational vedāntic commentaries, from later additions and, on his account, misrepresentations.
I elaborate elsewhere (Madaio, forthcoming) on Hacker’s theological premises and inclusivism.
Since the texts that Halbfass mentions did not originate in Vedānta traditions (sampradāyas), it would be more accurate to call them “advaita” texts rather than “vedānta” texts. In that way, it is possible to speak of sanskritic and vernacular advaitic texts (which are either explicitly non-dualistic or permit a non-dualistic reading) and “Advaita Vedānta” texts which originate within sampradāyas that claim an Advaita Vedāntic lineage. This, then, avoids the obfuscating tendency to subsume advaitic but non-vedāntic works under a “Vedānta” or “Advaita Vedānta” umbrella.
“He [Vivekananda] is not willing or able to see how far he has removed himself from the position of Śaṅkara …” (Halbfass 1988, p. 242). It is important to note, however, that Halbfass omits from consideration not only the medieval works attributed to Śaṃkara but also the well-known hagiographies about him. The historical Śaṃkara, who is the subject of Indological articles, has, of course, very little to do with Śaṃkara as he is understood on the ground. What might be called the “hagiographical Śaṃkara”, inherited by Neo-Vedāntins, and certainly well-known at Advaita Vedāntic maṭhas, entails a cluster of archetypes from a broad range of traditions: the paradigmatic brahmin-smārta, the model ascetic-renouncer, and the goddess worshipping tāntrika. Śaṃkara was also well-known as a yogic siddha, composer of stotras and, of course, as a virtuoso debater. It should be noted that the reach of the “hagiographical Śaṃkara” would not have been limited to the sectarian spaces of patronized paṇḍita circles, certain smārta brahmin communities, or householders with allegiance to Śaṃkarite maṭhas, but also, the diverse and inerrant, daśanāmī renouncers. I must defer pursuing the implications of this issue for a later publication.
Sil, while apparently operating under the premise that the germination of a tradition is more authentic than later developments, cites a paper by M. Comans (Comans 1993) to prove his point. Ironically, Comans, in the last two pages of that paper, provides a few examples indicating the importance of samādhi in Advaita Vedāntic works during the medieval period. It is also worth pointing out that the works that Comans cites (not unlike the JMV) have all been published by the Ramakrishna Mission.
I adapt here L. McCrea and P. Patil’s “text tradition” model (McCrea and Patil 2010, pp. 3–7), originally employed in their treatment of the late eighth century Buddhist philosopher Jñānaśrīmitra.
A. Rambachan, for example, relegates VCM to a footnote: “…his [i.e., Vivekananda’s] understanding of Śaṃkara was influenced by questionable works like Vivekacūḍāmaṇi…” (Rambachan 1994, pp. 139–40, f.8, emphasis mine). One is left to ask: questionable to whom?
M. Müller (Müller 1899, p. 108), who had himself met Vivekananda, argues that the Advaita Vedāntin Madhusūdana Sarasvatī as well as the Bhedābheda Vedāntin Vijñānabhikṣu “…are bent on showing that there is behind the diversity of Vedānta, Sāṃkhya, and Nyāya one and the same truth, though differently expressed; that philosophers, in fact, may be many, but truth is one”. Vivekananda was, indeed, familiar with the commentaries of Vijñānabhikṣu (e.g., Vivekananda  2008, p. 270) and one finds it hard to imagine he was unaware of Madhusūdana whose Gūḍārtha-dīpikā would later be rendered into English by the prolific translator Swami Gambhirananda, the 11th President of the Ramakrishna Mission. With regard to Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s Prasthānabheda, J. Hanneder, for example, noted the work “…addresses the issue of integrating various religious and philosophical systems within the framework of Vedism and would therefore hold as a forerunner for a modern conception of Hinduism” (Hanneder 1999, p. 575). See the excellent aforementioned work by Nicholson (2010) on medieval doxographies which incisively develops the wider implications involved.
H. Stainton (Stainton 2013, p. 44) rightly points out that “…the stotras attributed to Śaṅkara represent a significant weakness in the scholarly understanding of India’s religious history”.
My thanks to R. Balasubramanian for conversations on this and other issues in Kaladi, Kerala in 2010. Also relevant here is M. Allen’s (Allen 2013) positioning of the work of Niścaldās (1791–1863), and a plethora of understudied texts in Hindi, as part of what he calls “Greater Advaita Vedānta”.
Hacker also influentially claimed that Vivekananda had lifted a non-dualistic, Schopenhauerian ethics from P. Deussen. T. Green (Green 2012), however, argues that Vivekananda formulated his approach before coming into contact with Deussen.
Jñāneśvar was likely influenced by the Nāth tradition in Maharashtra, as evinced in his advaitic Anubhavāmṛt (Chitre 1996). Movements linked to the understudied Maharashtrian Nāth tradition were formative to a stream of contemporarily popular “advaita” associated with the teacher, and Bombay merchant, Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897–1981). Similarly, the Avadhūta Gītā, a popular text among colonial period advaita related groups, and a work cited by Vivekananda (e.g., Vivekananda 1927, p. 70), is also related to the broad Nāth tradition (Rigopoulos 1998).
Vivekananda also refers to a Hindi work entitled Vicār-Sāgar written by Niścaldās, a Dādūpanthi from the region of Haryana. Vivekananda boldly asserts that Niścaldās’s text “…has more influence in India than any that has been written in any language within the last three centuries” (Vivekananda  2008, pp. 154, 160). What is interesting to note here is that Niścaldās, in a number of self-disclosures, was reflexive in his writing about social circumstances that limit access to salvific knowledge, such as caste discrimination and language barriers, which he faced first-hand (Pahlajrai 2009).
Swami Śivananda (1887–1963), founder of the Divine Life Society, who traces his familial lineage to the great Advaita Vedāntin polymath Appayya Dīkṣita, would later publish two volumes, in 1941 and 1947 respectively, on the lives of saints. While he did not limit his account to Indian or Hindu saints, Śivananda’s work is helpful for reconstructing the kind of vernacular traditions inherited by so-called Neo-Vedāntins. While dedicating considerable ink to South Indian saints, Śivananda could also make the emphatic claim that the seventeenth century Maharashtrian Rāmdās, well-known for his advaitic work Dāsbodh, “was one of the greatest saints of the world” (Śivananda 2009, p. 195).
There are, of course, Sanskritic advaitic texts, which did not emerge within vedāntic sampradāyas, that provide a model for this kind of approach, such as the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha, which influenced not only Swami Vivekananda (e.g., Gupta 1974, p. 978) but also Swami Rama Tirtha (1873–1906) (Tirtha 1951, p. 79, 130) and Swami Śivananda (Śivananda 1963).
J. Sharma (CNN-IBN 2013), for example, problematically suggests that “substantial portions of his [i.e., Vivekananda’s] work…are a call to a dead, fossilised tradition”.
Elsewhere, Vivekananda notes that Pavhari Baba’s “Raja Yoga”, which apparently indicates a mediational yoga that culminates in samādhi, also includes some sort of postural practice: “I had heard that Pavhari Baba knew the science of Hatha-Yoga” (Vivekananda 1927, p. 240).
Such scholars include, Pramadadas Mitra, Pandit Shankar Pandurang of Porbandar, Pandit Narayan Das, and Pandit Sunderlal Ojha of Khetri. The biography of these figures, and the exact nature of their relationship with Vivekananda, remains an issue yet to be adequately documented.
Given the nature of Vivekananda’s “collected works”, it is also not a theology that is most fruitfully approached through a lens of systematicity, considering that much of Vivekananda’s corpus consists of talks and dialogues, many of which were pedagogical encounters, situationally tailored to a broad range of audiences of different educational and cultural backgrounds.
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