A New Vision of Vivekananda?

In this paper, I will explore why Vivekananda’s words challenged and enticed so many audiences around the world. Why did publics as diverse as respectable New Englanders and Swadeshi “terrorist” honour him so fervently? I want to suggest that the title of my recent book “Guru to the World” was not designed to reinforce the tired story of Vivekananda as the first global guru who unlocked eastern spirituality for the materialism west. I too will speak about Vivekananda’s relationship to Hinduism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, and Karma yoga, but seek to depart from the constraining vision of him as a “Hindu Revivalist”. Instead, I want to combine the “Indian Vivekananda” with the “global guru” and to insist that there is only one man, a figure endlessly responding to circumstance and milieu. I will seek to re-capture the currents of fin-de-siècle globalism when science, religion, and the occult swirled in eddies that flowed into one another and when the conversations they provoked were all the more interesting – and trenchant – because of surging anti-colonialism.

Ruth Harris is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at All Souls’ College, and a Fellow of the British Academy. She has published widely in the history of religion, science, women’s history, French history, and more recently, global history. Ruth Harris is the author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (1999) and The Man on Devil’s Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France (2010), which won the Wolfson History Prize and the National Jewish Book Award. In her most recent publication, Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda (2022), Professor Harris offers an arresting biography, showing how Vivekananda’s thought spawned a global anticolonial movement and became a touchstone of Hindu nationalist politics a century after his death.

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