Transplanting Yoga in American Soil: The Legacy of Vivekananda

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Bob Gilbo, Yoga Teacher Magazine


On the opening day of the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, Swami Vivekananda—who had demurred when called upon to speak earlier, and who appeared to be meditating onstage—finally rose to speak, and did so without notes. The date, as numerologists like to point out, was September 11, so his message of religious inclusivity and tolerance was delivered exactly 108 years, to the day, before the bombing of the World Trade Center (108 having great significance as a number in Indic lore).


“Sisters and Brothers of America,” he began, in a sonorous voice tinged with “a delightful slight Irish brogue,” according to one listener, attributable to his Trinity College–educated professor in India. Vivekananda was speaking to a Victorian audience most accustomed to being addressed as “Ladies and Gentlemen.” He attempted to continue. “It fills my heart with joy unspeakable...”

Then, if accounts by his later followers are to be believed, something unprecedented happened: what might now be called a rock star moment, presaging those that decades later would greet the Beatles (one of whom, George Harrison, would become a lifelong Vivekananda devotee). The previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus attendees rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk, who, having never before addressed so large a gathering, was as shocked as his audience.  The ovation continued for two or four minutes, depending on which account one reads. “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world,” he responded. “I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.”

Few origin myths are more cherished than the unlikely tale of Swami Vivekananda’s spellbinding series of talks at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, an event that is frequently cited as America’s introduction to yoga. The Parliament was convened as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the great fair nominally celebrating the quatercentenary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Where Columbus had stumbled on America while searching for a shortcut to India, the delegates to the World’s Parliament of Religions, while seeking to affirm the preeminence of their own religious systems, stumbled on a charismatic ambassador of Hinduism in the dashing, orange-robed, yellow-turbaned figure of Swami Vivekananda.

Hollywood could scarcely improve upon the scenario that brought the 30-year-old swami from Calcutta to Chicago. Hearing of the Parliament and deciding it was just the platform he needed to raise awareness of the Neo-Vedantic Hinduism he had absorbed as part of the Brahmo Samaj (the religious and social reformist movement founded in his native Bengal), Vivekananda set sail from Bombay at the end of May 1893.

Two months later, he arrived in Chicago only to learn that the Parliament would not begin for another six weeks, and, arriving without the required credentials, he was too late to apply for them.  Moreover, the young swami’s meager funds were stretched to the limit by the inflated prices of food and lodging caused by the opening of the Columbian Exposition. Hearing that things were cheaper in Boston, he hopped a train, on which he met, and evidently charmed, Katherine Sanborn, a former Smith College Professor of Literature, who invited him to stay at her home outside Boston.

In Boston‒an intellectual milieu that had been exposed to Eastern thought in the early nineteenth century by the Transcendentalists, and later, the Theosophists‒Vivekananda captivated lecture audiences with his perfect English and his exotic dress, as well as his erudition. Among his listeners was Harvard philologist John Henry Wright, who sponsored Vivekananda’s bid to appear at the World’s Parliament of Religions, writing to the chairman of the Parliament that the swami is “a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”

With his credential now assured, Vivekananda returned to Chicago, only to lose the address he’d been given to obtain lodging as a delegate to the Parliament. Sitting on a curb on Dearborn Street, outside the train station, after spending the night in a boxcar, once again he is “rescued.” This time his benefactress was Belle Hale, who took it upon herself to accompany him to Parliament headquarters. In a short time, she will discover that the traveler she has aided has become the biggest international celebrity of the Columbian Exposition.

Over the sixteen days of the Parliament, Vivekananda addressed the conference several times, each scheduled appearance drawing a larger crowd than the one before. It was without a doubt a seminal moment in the history of East-West dialogue, but was it really America’s introduction to yoga or to an unbroken lineage of teaching from India?

In fact, Vivekananda seems to have scrupulously avoided using the term “yoga” at all during his addresses to the Parliament. And despite a traditional education in Sanskrit, along with his study of Western philosophy, what he represented as Indic tradition was his own synthesis of Neo-Vedanta, Western esotericism and the mystical teachings of his guru, Bengali visionary and saint, Ramakrishna.

Even when he later began to teach what he called Raja Yoga, he appears to have made a conscious decision to emphasize a universal, adaptable Vedanta-Yoga, and to keep aspects of Hinduism that might be construed as cultist or idolatrous—including asana—in the background. One of his stated reasons for the journey to America was, after all, to raise funds for his Ramakrishna Mission in India, and he therefore shrewdly adjusted his talks to the sensitivities and worldview of his spiritually inclined Western audiences.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, he seems to have been the ideal messenger at the right moment in the history of America’s yearning for something beyond material prosperity. Stefanie Syman (The Subtle Body, 2010) attributes Vivekananda’s fame and success in the United States to the fact that he “simultaneously fulfilled and debunked Orientalist stereotypes, allowing his audiences to romanticize him and India without abandoning too many of their cherished ideals.”

This is not to imply that his message or his sincerity were not genuine or genuinely welcomed. Indeed, Vivekananda’s footprint in American culture has been large and lasting, both through his teachings and writings, and through his influence on many central cultural figures. From William James—who called Vivekananda “the paragon of Vedantist missionaries,” in The Varieties of Religious Experience—to William’s novelist brother Henry, who also attended his lectures, the swami’s circle of admirers included Gertrude Stein, John D. Rockefeller, Jane Addams, Sarah Bernhardt (who introduced him to Nicolai Tesla), and Leo Tolstoy.

Before returning to India, Vivekananda founded the New York Vedanta Society, which continues to this day as a beacon for seekers. J.D. Salinger, who wove Vedantic ideas into many of his stories, took solace in the Society and had important relationships with its teachers.

On his second, and final, trip to America of his short life, Vivekananda founded the Vedanta Society of San Francisco in 1900, where his ideas also flourished. The Vedanta Society of Los Angeles later welcomed Christopher Isherwood who, with his guru, Swami Prabhavananda brought Vivekananda’s teachings to a new generation of Americans in the 1960s.

What, exactly, were those teachings, especially with regard to yoga? Following his breakout success at the Parliament of World’s Religions, Vivekananda returned to the Boston area, where he gave informal talks and retreats to smaller groups. Two Bostonians, Sarah Jane Farmer and Sara Chapman Bull, were instrumental in organizing what may have been the first yoga retreat in America at Green Acre, a summer resort in Maine. There he began a series of talks that continued in Cambridge, and later New York, which became the basis of perhaps his most influential book, Raja Yoga. First published in 1896, it remains in print today and, though the only practices described in specific detail involve pranayama, it was America’s first yoga manual.

Responding to his devotees’ hunger for a practice that would bring them closer to the Self-realization at the basis of Vivekananda’s Neo-Vedanta, his presentation of yoga in Raja Yoga is based primarily on pada ii and some of pada iii of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra: the most practice-oriented aspects of ashtanga yoga. Part I of Raja Yoga is an exposition of ashtanga yoga itself, while Part II is a very free translation, one might almost say “adaptation,” of the whole of the Yoga Sutra, along with Vivekananda’s commentary.

Vivekananda’s yoga is Vedantic in flavor; his approach is non-dualist (as opposed the metaphysical dualism underlying both classical yoga and Samkhya), and he freely intermingles aspects of hatha and tantra into his presentation. Kundalini and the chakras are discussed in detail, which, of course, have no place in Patanjali’s presentation of ashtanga yoga. Many of his examples are taken from the Kurma Purana, which is a Shaiva text that is more or less a guide to meditation on various forms of the deity, culminating in either identity or union with Shiva—decidedly not the kaivalya described by Patanjali in pada iv.

David Gordon White writes in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, that, over the past century, Vivekananda’s legacy has prevailed in the yoga subculture, where teachers continue to confuse yoga philosophy with puranic, hatha, and tantra doctrines and to present Western metaphysical and scientistic concepts in Indian trappings.

Perhaps another of Vivekananda’s unintended legacies is our ongoing anxiety over authenticity in yoga teachings. The swami reached an audience eager to embrace as authentic anyone who came from the East. But to point out the variegated sources of his teachings, and sometimes even their contradictory statements, does not necessarily detract from what he taught. True faith, as the swami taught, is only affirmed through direct revelation arising from individual experience, intuition and meditation.

Moreover, Vivekananda laid out the ground rules in his introduction to Raja Yoga: “It is wrong to believe blindly. You must exercise your own reason and judgment; you must practice, and see whether these things happen or not. Just as you would take up any other science, exactly in the same manner you should take up this science for study.”

In giving priority to one’s own experience as a validating principle, Vivekananda was possibly anticipating our anxiety of authenticity: an insight into the Western penchant to see yoga as a monolithic system with an unbroken line of transmission going back to antiquity, rather than as a cluster of related, at times inconsistent, systems of belief and practice loosely gathered under a word that can mean everything from arithmetic to zen.

Vivekananda's genius was to make Vedantic thought accessible to Westerners by synthesizing it with what he found here in American spiritual culture. And his presentation was irresistible: God was not the capricious tyrant in the heavens avowed by Bible-thumpers, but rather a power that resided in the human heart. “Each soul is potentially divine,” he promised. “The goal is to manifest that divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.” And to close the deal for those who might be ambivalent about listening to a monk from India, he emphasized Vedanta's acceptance of other faiths and their prophets. Christ and Buddha were incarnations of the divine, he said, no less than Krishna and his own teacher, Ramakrishna.

In between his two treks to the West, Vivekananda returned to India an even bigger cultural hero than he was in the U.S., and founded the Ramakrishna Order as both a monastery and a service mission. Today it is among the largest philanthropic organizations in India—providing food, medical assistance and disaster relief to millions. In other words, his prescription for his countrymen, who had been demoralized by colonialism, was to borrow a page from the West, and, ever the synthesizer, he made an example of the “can do” spirit of Americans as a motivating force.

One can’t help but wonder what Vivekananda would have made of American baby boomers—more inclined to “doing” than “being”— opting for hot yoga classes over meditation. Or the fact that at some point later in the century he lived to see, these ancient, profoundly antimaterialist teachings had morphed into a fitness cult with expensive accessories.

Nevertheless, the trail had been blazed, and he was one of its pioneers, setting the template for nearly all the gurus of every stripe who came after him. And Vivekananda’s essential message is one that is every bit as urgent and necessary as it was on that September day 121 years ago: “You are not your body.” This might not be welcome news to some of today’s yoga-mat crowd. But surely its corollary provides solace to our stressed-out twenty-first century lives: “You are not your mind.”


A fascinating account, culminating in some incisive commentary

Engaging, eye-opening article by a superbe teacher and scholar! I wish I had more opportunities hear Bob Gilbo speak, read his work and absorb his extensive knowledge of philosophy. What a pleasure to begin to grasp a historical context to the ever-growing field of yoga practice and industry. A trustworthy, inquisitive genius I intend to follow for years to come. I look forward to reading his writings listed in the bio. "You are not your body" -- "you are not your mind." -- tag lines not to be beat. Keep an eye out, an ear out and an open heart out for the writings and teachings of Bob Gilbo!

What a concise and engaging piece! Without denigrating any of the contemporary
teachers and commentators I know, Mr. Gilbo introduces and brings vividly alive a
figure to whom all current practitioners and students of yoga and meditation owe a great (but unburdening!) debt. Thank you.

Very interesting and well researched article that I would like to see become a series. Mr. Gilbo is so knowledgeable that it would be wonderful to be able to go into the particularities that he is only able to mention here.

This is a Well written article and am sure the author and others reading it would appreciate the philosophy Knowledge which is for all Human Beings and would help our species to further enhance our Lifestyle and Knowledge base ..

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