“Strange things may be accomplished:” Gurus between Science and Miracles

‘Swami Vivekananda was questioned concerning the truthfulness of the marvellous stories of the performance of wonderful feats of conjuring, levitation, suspended animation, and the like in India. Vivekananda said: “We do not believe in miracles at all…”’

When Indian gurus came to ‘missionise the West’, they spurned any association with the miraculous, and sought instead to win followers by stressing their scientific credentials. This paper will examine the theological claims of Swami Vivekananda, the man who brought ‘Hindu universalism’ to Chicago during the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Although claiming to possess occult powers, he rejected the miraculous as detrimental to the discipline required to achieve ‘higher consciousness.’ Instead, this ‘new-age’ Swami positioned himself against Christian obscurantism by incorporating evolutionary perspectives and the psychological categories of William James into his teaching. At the same time, he distanced himself from what he saw as the fraudulent claims of spiritualism and Theosophy, and sought to compete – on both scientific and religious grounds – with other experimental religions of the period, above all Christian Science. He was unimpressed with the American preoccupation with ‘positive thinking’, preferring instead to teach something of the complexities of his non-dualism (Advaita Vedanta). This philosophy entailed a profound acceptance and embrace of destruction and aggression, and metaphysical preoccupations very different from Christianity.

This paper will hope to contextualise what may seem to be his counter-intuitive approach to the miraculous and the occult through the dual lens of anti-imperialism and Indian cultural nationalism. It will explain how his efforts envisaged making India the world’s guru, a teacher to rejuvenate spirituality, science and ethics in a materialistic and exploitative age.