Swami Vivekananda’s “On Hinduism”

I am teaching a religions of the world class online. One feature of the course is that I am making the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religion, which was part of the Columbian Exposition of the World’s Fair in Chicago, a central component of each unit.

This week is our Hindu module, so we are reading, among other things, the speech by Swami Vivekananda, “On Hinduism,” which he presented at the Parliament on the 9th day. I had a student ask me to unpack an early paragraph in the speech:

From the high spiritual flights of Vedantic philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like the echoes, the agnosticism of the Buddhas, the atheism of the Jains, and the low ideas of idolatry with the multifarious mythology, each and all have a place in the Hindu’s religion.

Swami Vivekananda, “On Hinduism”

In this early paragraph, S. Vivekananda is trying to illustrate the wide variety of Indian traditions from high philosophical speculation (Vedanta) to the veneration of images (“idolatry”) and various mythologies.  He will offer explanations and defenses of both later in the speech. He also is very expansive in his definition of a “Hindu,” including Buddhists and Jains, which today are usually considered their own religions.  He is probably being so expansive with his term, “Hindu,” because Buddhism and Jainism also originated in India originally as something of reform movements.  

This, however, is a “set up” paragraph: he is labeling – albeit rather quickly – the dizzying variety of beliefs and practices that constitute Hinduism in order to, for the rest of his presentation, show what most of these varieties share or have in common – though some of these things, like the Vedas, would not be shared among Buddhists and Jains, per se.  He is seeking a common thread through all of this variety, but has to state the variety first before he can do so.  

His note that science is merely an echo of Indian philosophy also hints at his overall attitude toward religion and science: that science is figuring out what at least the wisest among Hindus – and other religions do this too sometimes – have known all along.  Throughout his favorite analogy to Hindu philosophy, especially his favorite branch of Advaita Vedanta (Non-Dualism), will be the search for a unifying theory in physics.

This paragraph largely has more of a rhetorical function to set up what comes later in his presentation, moving from variety to unity, but it also hints at some of Vivekananda’s presuppositions as well.

I hope to share more insights from my Religions of the World class in the coming weeks.


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