From Advaitic Inclusivism to Yogic Pluralism: A New Diachronic Interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s Views on the Harmony of Religions (TT22)

Location: Online meeting
Speaker: Swami Medhananda
Date: June 22, 2022
Time: 3:00pm – 4:00pm

Past scholars have tended to paint Swami Vivekananda either as a modern-day exponent of Śaṅkara or as a passive colonial subject whose views were largely a reaction to Western hegemony and the British occupation of India. By contrast, I argue in my new book, Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2022), that Vivekananda was a cosmopolitan Vedāntin who developed distinctive new philosophical positions through creative dialectical engagement with thinkers in both Indian and Western philosophical traditions. This talk is based on the third chapter of my book, which provides a new diachronic interpretation of Vivekananda’s doctrine of the harmony of religions. Most scholars claim that in spite of Vivekananda’s pluralist-sounding statements that the different world religions are equally valid paths to the same goal, he was actually more of an inclusivist, since he affirmed the superiority and uniqueness of Advaita Vedānta and Hinduism vis-à-vis other religions. I argue that these scholars overlook the fact that his views on the harmony of religions evolved from 1893 to 1901. From September 1894 to May 1895, Vivekananda harmonized the world religions on the basis of the “three stages” of Dvaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Advaita, claiming that theistic religions like Christianity and Islam belonged to the Dvaita stage. However, beginning in late 1895, he explained the harmony of all religions not in terms of the three stages of Vedānta but in terms of the four Yogas. According to Vivekananda’s final position, every religion corresponds to at least one of the four Yogas—namely, Karma-Yoga, Rāja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Jñāna-Yoga—and each of these Yogas is a direct and independent path to salvation. On this basis, he defended not only a full-blown religious pluralism but also the more radical cosmopolitan ideal of learning from—and even practicing—religions other than our own. On the basis of this diachronic interpretation of Vivekananda’s views, I argue that the vast majority of scholars have seriously misrepresented his mature Vedāntic doctrine of the harmony of religions by taking it to be based on the three stages of Vedānta rather than on the four Yogas.

Swami Medhananda (Ayon Maharaj) is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the Ramakrishna Institute of Moral and Spiritual Education in Mysore, India. His current research focuses on Vedāntic philosophical traditions, cross-cultural philosophy of religion, cross-cultural approaches to consciousness, Indian scriptural hermeneutics, and the philosophies of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo. He is the author of three books: Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Cosmopolitanism (Oxford University Press, 2022), Infinite Paths to Infinite Reality: Sri Ramakrishna and Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, 2018), and The Dialectics of Aesthetic Agency: Revaluating German Aesthetics from Kant to Adorno (Bloomsbury, 2013). He is the editor of The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Vedānta (2020) and co-editor, with Benedikt Paul Göcke, of Panentheism in Indian and Western Thought: Cosmopolitan Interventions (Routledge, under contract). He is also the editor of two special issues of the International Journal of Hindu Studies (Springer), one on “Vedāntic Theodicies” (December 2021) and one on “Swami Vivekananda as a Philosopher and Theologian” (in progress). Since January 2018, he has been serving as a Section Editor of the International Journal of Hindu Studies (Springer), overseeing submissions in Hindu and Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. He has published nearly thirty articles in such journals as Philosophy East and West, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Journal of Religion, The Monist, Kantian Review, Journal of World Philosophies, Journal of Dharma Studies, Religions, History of European Ideas, PMLA, and Journal of the History of Ideas.