There are 2 things I believe that might seem contradictory:
- Most Westerners aren’t as familiar with Eastern thought as they should be.
- Too much of the literature in this area is written by Westerners.
Some clarification before you yell at me:
- Yes, I realize “Eastern thought” isn’t a monolith and there is rich diversity just in that area.
- I’m not saying you shouldn’t read any book on Eastern thought written by a Western author – just that those shouldn’t be the only books you read in that area.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, some information about Hindu texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita made its way to some of the educated classes in the Western world. However, the information was coming from Western authors such as Goethe and Tolstoy.
All this changed in 1893. In conjunction with an early version of the World’s Fair to be held in Chicago that year, the organizers decided to host a World’s Parliament of Religions, where representatives from a wide variety of religions around the world were invited to speak about their traditions. Among the traditions represented were a few different schools of Buddhism, a Jain preacher, a rabbi, a Muslim, a Bahá’í, and speakers from a few then-emerging spiritual movements, both Eastern (Brahmo Samaj) and Western (Spiritualism, Christian Science).
But the breakout star of the event was Swami Vivekananda, representing Hinduism. Not only did his speech receive a two-minute standing ovation, but he was invited to speak all over the United States and Europe afterward. During his travels, he founded several local organizations known as Vedanta Societies. Today these organizations serve as the Western arm of the Ramakrishna Mission, the worldwide spiritual and relief organization that Vivekananda founded and named in honor of his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna.
Why did Swami Vivekananda and his teachings appeal so strongly to so many people? Let’s not discount that by all accounts, he was a charismatic speaker. But that only gets you so far. I think there was something in his message that reached the right people at the right time.
As you might have guessed, this was a time of a lot of change in how we looked at spiritual practice. With the increasing pace of scientific and technological innovation, there was a sense among some people that the way things had always been just wasn’t cutting it.
Vivekananda offered people a fresh take on spirituality that didn’t contradict people’s education or lived experience. He said, “Religion is realization; not talk, not doctrine, nor theories, however beautiful they may be. It is being and becoming, not hearing or acknowledging; it is the whole soul becoming changed into what it believes.”
If you read Vivekananda’s writings (I’ll include some recommendations at the end of this post), you’ll notice he doesn’t talk much about belief. Indeed, he tended to be critical of sectarianism and fanaticism, which he believed to the natural consequences of blind devotion.
Another teaching of Vivekananda’s that spoke to me personally was his attitude toward service to others. I think most of us are brought up to think service is something we do to help the other person or maybe make the world a better place. Vivekananda said we should be grateful for any opportunity to provide service because it actually helps us by giving us the chance to acknowledge the divinity within everyone.
If you’re interested in learning more about Vivekananda’s teachings, his complete published works are available online, as they have been public domain for decades now. If you consider yourself devotionally inclined, start with Bhakti Yoga. If you’re more of a skeptic, I recommend Karma Yoga.
No points for guessing which category I fall into.
Has there been a spiritual teaching or philosophy that changed your life? Tell me about it in the comments!