Vivekananda literature continues to grow and thrive even as one gets the sense that the man himself is being read less and less. Swami Vivekananda has become one of the enduring icons in the national imagination and, like Gandhi and Ambedkar, is in acute danger of being confined to bookshelves, public functions and rituals of empty adulation. With Vivekananda, the danger is greater, not only because the historical distance is vaster but also because, unlike other figures in our national pantheon, his field was religion. It makes him at once more esoteric and far removed from the intellectual interests of a modern reading public. This is by and large reflected in the secondary literature about him. The almost annual offerings confine themselves to encomiums or re-hashing accepted opinions about the monk and his legacy.

Which is why the book Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s restatement of Religion by Professor Jyotirmaya Sharma (Harper Collins, 328 pages, `499) ought to generate some excitement. Going by the title and the stated aim of the author, the book, published last year, is an attempt to assess Vivekananda’s interpretation of Hinduism. To quote Sharma: “This volume looks at the most definitive and influential restatement of Hinduism in the twentieth and twenty first centuries by Vivekananda. Specifically, it examines his formulation of Hinduism as religion.”

Given its protean and heterogeneous nature, the sheer historicity and breadth of the tradition, the bewildering number of scriptures, commentaries, sects and divisions, and the interpretative difficulties woven into the very fabric of its practices1, the task is, to say the least, an ambitious one. It is also a task of critical importance, and not just for intellectual reasons.

Vivekananda is in the air, as it were. For years, Hindutva extremists have been trying to appropriate him. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has always claimed Vivekananda as its own, trying to align the 19th century Hindu revivalist’s legacy with its own post-colonial project of Hindu majoritarianism. It is worth noting, however, that these efforts have so far met with limited success. This is due in the main to a long tradition of liberal as well as leftist historians reading Vivekananda as a progressive and revolutionary thinker. Liberal commentators have been quick to contest the claims of the right-wing and re-instate the image of a Vivekananda who stood for toleration of all religions.

This is the Vivekananda of the Chicago speeches, who electrified the World Parliament of Religions (1893) with a message of universal religious harmony and advanced the doctrine that all religions are equally valid paths to the same God. While these responses have secured Vivekananda’s legacy, they suffer from the flaw of treating his life and work as detached from the Hindu tradition. And this more than anything else, accounts for their limited success in displacing the cultural claims of Hindutva.

Vivekananda’s articulation of Hinduism as religion makes him the father and preceptor of Hindutva ... this volume rejects the claim that Hindu nationalists appropriated Vivekananda’s ideas to push their  agenda.

Vivekananda gave intellectual definition to Hinduism during one of the most critical phases of its contact with modernity (1893-1902). As such he is not only the pre-eminent modern interpreter of Hinduism, but current notions of the religion shared by Hindus and non-Hindus, layman and academic alike, can be traced directly back to his thought. His influence in constructing modern Hinduism can hardly be overstated. This is exactly why Vivekananda’s legacy is the most fertile site to contest Hindutva. If his interpretation of Hinduism is as liberal and broad as is generally believed, surely his thought is the most powerful weapon to combat the parochial, violent and chauvinist Hinduism promoted by the Sangh Parivar.

Roughly since the Nineties, however, this reading of Vivekananda has been called into question by sections of academia. Some have found ideological affinities between parts of his thought and political Hinduism, while others take issue with his attitudes towards nationalism, Muslims, women, social reform and caste2. But these have usually been confined to academic journals. Sharma’s is perhaps the first major and accessible work to try and ideologically “deconstruct” his thought.  Sharma goes much farther than his predecessors. His thesis, simply put, is that Vivekananda is the fountainhead of present-day Hindutva.

“Vivekananda’s forceful and substantial articulation of Hinduism as religion also makes him the father and preceptor of Hindutva ... this volume rejects the claim that Hindu nationalists have appropriated Vivekananda’s ideas to push their dark and diabolical political agenda. To paraphrase Vivekananda himself, the possibilities of a future tree are in the seed itself. The seed is what we today know by the composite term ‘Hinduism’ and Vivekananda’s thought is just the tree at a certain stage of his thought.”3

Sharma’s book is not merely a critique of Vivekananda’s ideology and its bearing on Hindutva. He writes in his preface: “If a critical study of Vivekananda is written or read merely as a reason to intervene in the politics of Hindu nationalism, it is bound to have a very short breath.” The aim rather is to delineate the manner in which Vivekananda re-interpreted the tradition, and fashioned a modern Hindu identity out of its constituent elements.

Sharma’s project is to map the discontinuities, departures and ruptures Vivekananda introduces into the tradition and the way he constructs a new religion to meet the political demands of a nascent nationalism. The task is at once philosophical, historical and biographical.

The book is divided into three chapters. The first argues that there was a schism between Vivekananda and his master Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the mystic of Dakshineshwar. According to Sharma, he believed in a scripture-based, rationalist Advaita as the only acceptable form of religion, while Ramakrishna’s faith was an irrational mysticism rooted in devotion (Bhakti) and Tantra. He claims that after Ramakrishna’s death, Vivekananda doctored his master’s image to fit his own ideas of political Hinduism.

(Advaita is one of the metaphysical theories of Vedanta, originating with Shankaracharya and states that the universe that we perceive is a delusion. Instead of a personal Godhead, it believes in a formless, attribute-less Brahman as the ultimate and only reality.)

In the second chapter, Sharma analyses Vivekananda’s own works to excavate the nature of this political Hinduism. What he finds is surprisingly similar to the ideological underpinnings of 20th century Hindutva. Vivekananda, he claims, wanted Hindus to worship the Hindu race and give absolute allegiance to their religion.  He dismissed Western concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity as millenarian and fanatical. He denigrated bhakti, which he associated with femininity and blamed for India’s degradation. Instead, he privileged masculinity, the Vedas and caste. Sharma rejects the widely held consensus that Vivekananda was a vocal critic of Brahminism and caste. Instead, he idealised Brahmins and the caste system. He believed in the power of priestly revival. “Caste was good; it was the plan Vivekananda wanted to follow for India’s future. All it needed was an occasional readjustment ... He wanted caste reinstated and strengthened.”

In the third and final chapter, Sharma outlines what he believes is Vivekananda’s blueprint: a masculine and scientific Hinduism as the core of the nation. To do that, he sidelined “non-Sanskritic, bhakti, tantric, tribal, folk, low-caste, vernacular and all other non-elite and politically marginal perspectives.” This normative order Vivekananda envisioned for India, would be Vedic, Vedantic, Advaitic and exclusively Hindu. Sharma claims Vivekananda was contemptuous of all dualism, which includes Christianity and Islam. Vivekananda, the proponent of religious tolerance, is a myth.

Sharma writes: “Vivekananda seems to propose that the Vedic religion was the only perfect religion, the Vedas alone disseminate the idea of the real absolute God, and that the Aryan man alone was capable of an introspective search for divinity.”

This essay aims at evaluating the claims contained in Sharma’s book, which if true, has the most detrimental consequences for the relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva. At the very least, Sharama’s thesis makes Hindutva coterminous with Hinduism rather than a distorted, hegemonic, politically charged version of the latter. Even if partly true, it bodes ill for our ability to secure the secular space from the onslaught of religious majoritarianism.

Some judgments on the book have of course already come in. The mainstream media and some academicians have given it enthusiastic reception and, one assumes, to the ideas it professes. Outlook magazine carried a lengthy extract immediately after the book hit the stands. CNN IBN invited the professor to an online interactive session on CNNIBNLiveReaders. David Shulman, professor of humanistic studies at Hebrew University, writes approvingly: “A book of substance and importance … illuminated by flashes of wit and, of course, by the author’s deep knowledge of the cultural background and historical record. The scholarship is sound, well informed and well presented and will become the classic statement about Vivekananda in this generation.”

A review in The Hindu by Aishwary Kumar is even more ebullient. “It is important to place Sharma’s remarkable work in its global context. The question at the heart of this work is not merely of one religion but of Spirit at large ... There is a danger of losing that philosophical story at the heart of this book, unless one resists anachronistic polemic and pays attention to Sharma’s astute footnotes.”

 Aside from the question of the “Spirit”, a mysterious entity that Kumar conjures out of nowhere, it probably is not wrong to call the footnotes “astute”, for the work of both Aishwary Kumar and Shulman has been quoted there.

In one sense, Cosmic Love and Human Apathy is unique. It does not even possess a bibliography. If the reader is taken aback by this omission she would find the reason soon enough. The sources and references cited are so few that the book really does not need an extended bibliography. For a book that seeks to interpret the modernisation of a three millennia old religious tradition, the number of books Sharma refers to in the entire volume is exactly 164. The other references are from sundry essays. And that number is less than 20.

To write meaningfully about any religious tradition is hard. The problems with Hinduism are compounded by the multiplicity of texts and the lack of a definite canon. It doesn’t help in the least that the tradition we now call Hinduism has undergone radical, almost revolutionary changes several times from the second millennium BC to the 19th century. In the early Vedic Age (2000 BC), religion was centred in the Samhitas, or ritual portion of the Vedas. Later, it included the Brahmanas, which provided extensive commentary on the four Vedas. Around 6 BC, the Upanishads, the metaphysical texts, started to be written and became the philosophical core of the tradition. Upanishads form a crucial departure, often criticisng the Brahmanas and Samhitas, and shifting the emphasis from ritual and propitiation of deities to mysticism and philosophy.

The Upanishads continued to be composed well into medieval times, and number more than 200. Between the late Vedic age and the rise of the Guptas (fourth century AD), the principal Puranas were composed, again altering religious life in profound ways. The devotional impetus the myths introduced saw its fruition in the Bhakti movement of Ramanuja, Madhva, Chaitanya and others.

He does not draw on any substantial scholarly work on the history of Hinduism or Hindu philosophy but  castigates Vivekananda for ignoring the philosophical subtleties and nuances of the Mimamsa.

The thrust of Sharma’s analysis is the philosophical re-interpretation of Hinduism by Vivekananda. This allows him to narrow his focus somewhat. But even if he were to completely cut out the historical, social and other textual aspects, the volume of material and cast of characters is still gigantic. Orthodox Indian philosophy is traditionally split into six major schools (darsanas), viz Vedanta, Yoga, Sankhya, Vaisheshika, Nyaya and Mimamsa. Each has an extensive scriptural and exegetic literature and there has been a history of complex disputations among them, which testifies to the inherent pluralism of Hindu tradition. Vivekananda expounded Hinduism from the standpoint of one of these systems, Vedanta. Advaita or absolute non-dualism is only one of the several branches of Vedanta. Each school had its own array of commentators down the centuries, who wrote on the Upanishads, Brahmasutras and other scriptures, as well as on preceding commentators.

Thus within the rubric of Vedanta alone we have the literature of qualified non-dualism (vishishtadvaita) of Ramanuja, the dualism (dvaita) of Madhva, the pure monism (shuddadvaita) of Vallabhacharya,  the bhedabheda of Bhaskara, Nimbarka and Yadava, and the achintyabhedabedha (inconceivable difference-non-difference) of Chaitanya.

Advaita itself had several commentators and schools after Shankara, who not only developed his exposition further, but whose doctrinal positions or interpretations often varied from that of the system’s originator. The major schools of post-Shankara Advaita are that of Suresvara, Padmapada and Vācaspati. Other original commentators include Vimuktaman, Anandabhoda, Mandana, Sriharsha, Chitsukha, Anandajnana, Vidyaranya, Prakasananda and Madhusudhana.

For all this wealth of primary material, Sharma references just two books: a translation of the Upanishads by Patrick Olivelle and the Chaitanya Kathamrita. That is it.

In the secondary material we have a single book on the poetry of Ramaprasad, the Vaishanavite mystic and an Oxford anthology of Bhakti literature. None of the original texts of Hinduism, their commentators, the philosophical systems and the discussions within the tradition find any appreciable mention, let alone discussion.

He does not draw on any substantial scholarly work on the history of Hinduism or Hindu philosophy but at the same time castigates Vivekananda for ignoring the philosophical subtleties and nuances of the Mimamsa, and alleges that his re-interpretation of philosophical terms, “seem random, discontinuous with philosophical traditions and lacking methodological justifications.” With the complete absence of the nodal points of any of these traditions anywhere in Sharma’s own book, this seems just hot air. If such a grave charge has to be taken seriously, it has to be situated within an informed discussion on what constitutes continuity within Indian philosophical traditions and what would count as methodological justification, something Sharma does not remotely come close to doing.

While all this raises considerable doubt about Sharma’s project, his claims require to be examined in their specificity. One should not judge a book by its cover and perhaps to accommodate Shulman’s notion of “sound scholarship”, we should extend the principle to sources and references as well. After all, intellectual brilliance has often shown disdain for conventions. Albert Einstein’s paper on Special Relativity had no references but revolutionised physics. Edmund Gettier forever changed the field of epistemology with a two-page paper on the justification of knowledge. Some such thing might well be happening with Sharma.

Root up priestcraft from the old religion, and you get the best religion in the world. Can you make a European society with India's religion? I believe it is possible, and must be.  

Sharma’s specific claims present the critic with an immediate set of problems. The first is that there is no historical context to the discussion at any point. The second is that he does not discuss his textual sources.

We will deal first with some of the general problems Sharma has with Vivekananda. These concern Vivekananda’s use of concepts, ideas and idioms that are now part of the terminology of the Hindu nationalist discourse. Sharma assumes, without much in the nature of an argument, that labelling these terms is sufficient to establish Vivekananda’s credentials as a Hindu nationalist.

He paraphrases a letter Vivekananda wrote to Alasingha Perumal in 1894 where he put forward his ideas for India’s revival. He doesn’t quote it directly but writes that part of his “blueprint”5  for revival is unswerving fidelity to “our religion”6

The exact words are “Now, this is to be brought about slowly, and by only insisting on our religion and giving liberty to society. Root up priestcraft from the old religion, and you get the best religion in the world. Do you understand me? Can you make a European society with India's religion? I believe it is possible, and must be.”

 Nowhere does Vivekananda insist on anything close to “unswerving fidelity”. More importantly, through the scare quotes around “our religion” and giving an authoritarian slant to the words, Sharma evokes present-day Hindu nationalism. He writes that
Vivekananda’s world is not Ramakrishna’s spiritual mansion of mirth, but “an ideal from the past whose importance needs to be restated and its bygone glory restored.”

Without anything resembling a substantive argument, he insinuates that Vivekananda’s vision of the past was akin to the Sangh’s atavistic revivalism. In the same vein, he writes that a series of speeches Vivekananda gave “are completely in the glorious spiritual traditions of India and the spiritual greatness of Hinduism.”

Vivekananda “created, attested and re-stated the stereotypes of the spiritual East and
materialistic West”. He picks out phrases like “unity of the Hindu religion” and “true religion of the Aryan race” for censure. He reads the frequent use of terms like “manly”, “man-making” education, and “strength” as symptoms of an ideological obsession with masculinity.

In Vivekananda’s claims that religion can be scientific, he sees a regressive scientism. “In his espousal of western science as a means of removing servitude and poverty, Vivekananda is far removed from any serious critique of the flipside of modern science and technology,” he writes.

The problem with all this is its complete lack of historical grounding. For a book that seeks to come to terms with the philosophy and ideology of a 19th century figure, it is more than surprising that there is not a single line about the historical context of its subject. Sharma is oblivious to the historical distance between himself, his readers and Vivekananda. He writes as if Vivekananda and Ramakrishna exist in some ahistorical transcendental space, while complaining at the same time that Vivekananda’s views are ahistorical.

The India of the late 19th century is as far removed from the politics, culture and society of our times as the Europe and America that Vivekananda went to lecture on religion is from today’s West. The intellectual landscape of the late Victorian Age, the paradigm of thought available to Vivekananda, the nature of the colonial discourse, all escape Sharma. So does what one would suppose is the common knowledge that concepts and idioms often change their meanings down the years, and might signify very different things from what they mean to us. To give one of the more egregious examples, Sharma remarks that: “Neither does Vivekananda make the well-known distinction between religion and spirituality.”

The question to ask, of course, is well known to whom? Such a distinction is well-known today, but to imagine this was the case in the Victorian Age is to betray a complete ignorance of intellectual history. In fact the wide appeal of such a distinction, which separates the outward sociological and doctrinal aspects of religion from the inner core of its experience, came about in part, due to 19th and early 20th century pioneers in comparative religion like Vivekananda.

Much the same can be said about Sharma’s efforts to read something ideologically ominous into Vivekananda’s predilection for justifying the principles of religion in terms of the scientific practices of the age7. The attempt to justify philosophy, arts and literature by imitating the objectivity of the physical or mathematical sciences runs from Descartes to Kant to Husserl to Russell and from I. A. Richards to Eliot and Pound. Indeed, the entire trajectory of Western thought from the 17th century to the first half of the 20th can be understood as a reaction (acceptance or rejection of) to the changes wrought by science. To think there is something singular in Vivekananda’s preoccupation with science is to reveal an alarming ignorance about world history.

To understand the civilisational claims Vivekananda made for Hinduism, and the reasons for making them, we need to acquaint ourselves with the colonial narrative about Hinduism in the 19th century.

Sharma proceeds to draw a direct line from cherry-picked phrases about the East-West dichotomy, Aryan religion and the spiritual greatness of Hinduism, to Hindutva proper only by detaching Vivekananda’s thought and actions from within the British colonial discourse about Hinduism and India. The British understood India as a dominantly Hindu civilisation and Vivekananda occupied a peculiar position—a colonised subject who preached religion to the coloniser. British and European Imperialism worked not only by force of arms, but by creating a narrative about the subject race and its civilisation.

This narrative, which operated through all the instrumentalities of empire, created a cultural hegemony by othering the East, Hindus and India—as savage, pagan, sensual, barbarous, idolatrous, effeminate, irrational, and primitive. Social evils like the caste system, poverty, the position of women, infant marriage, sati and religious superstitions, were often recruited to the cause of the colonial cultural narrative. The West was portrayed as civilised, rational, masculine and scientific, while Hindu civilisation was represented as uncivilised, irrational, effeminate and unscientific.

To understand the civilisational claims Vivekananda made for Hinduism, and the reasons for making them, we need to acquaint ourselves with the colonial narrative about Hinduism in the 19th century and the ideas that had currency in that period. James Mill, whose The British History of India was extremely influential in framing colonial policy in India, writes in the same: “Whenever indeed we seek to ascertain the definite and precise ideas of the Hindus in religion, the subject eludes our grasp. All is loose, vague, wavering, obscure, and inconsistent. Their expressions point at one time to one meaning, and another time to another meaning; and their wild fictions, to use the language of Mr Hume, seem rather the playsome whimsies of monkeys in human shape than the serious asservations of a being who dignifies himself with the name of the rational.”

First published in 1819, it saw a revised and expanded fifth edition in 1858, five years before Vivekananda’s birth. Stereotypes, false beliefs and ignorance about India and Hinduism informed the audiences Vivekananda lectured to in the West, determined their attitude towards him and set the stage for his perorations.

He was often called a heathen in public, mobbed in the streets for his strange dress, confused for a Buddhist or a Rajah, and asked why Indians threw only female babies to the crocodiles in the Ganges, why Hindu fanatics killed themselves by throwing themselves under the wheels of the car at the Jagannath temple and why if the Hindu religion was true, India was a hell hole8.

One of his lectures in the West was titled “Is India a Benighted Country?”. The situation is complicated by the fact that religion was part of the story in a big way. For the West, Christianity was both a source of self-definition and a cultural narrative that served imperialist hegemony. The term “civilisation and light”, originally part of the 18th century reaction against the Catholic Church9, had been appropriated by both evangelical Christianity and imperialism. Western prosperity was adduced as a testament to the truth of Christianity and both the empire and Christianity were self-invested with a mission to civilise and enlighten Asia and Africa10.

The binary of the Spiritual East and the Materialistic West were not “stereotypes” floating in the air that Vivekananda latched on to. They came about because Vivekananda contested boldly bigoted assumptions about the superiority of Western civilisation and turned the colonial narrative on its head. It was an act of resistance, of clearing the ground, of creating the very possibility that he could address his colonial interlocutors as equals.

Vivekananda’s exhortations on behalf of the glories of Hinduism in India were no different from the attempts of incipient nationalists struggling against foreign occupation anywhere in the world; to combat the rulers’ narrative about the inferiority of the subject civilisation. To read this simplistically as proto-Hindutva is to miss the bus in a major way. Similarly, to find something politically problematic in the term “Aryan race” is pure historic anachronism which is oblivious to the knowledge economy in which Vivekananda functioned. Prevalent post-Enlightenment theories of history tended to see world history in terms of the histories of races and nations. The first English edition of Marx’s Das Kapital with its idea of a scientific history appeared only in 1887, and was decades away from having the kind of impact it eventually had.

This is not to claim Vivekananda’s historic conditions were such that expressions of nascent nationalism could not also, at the same time, be an articulation of a proto-Hindutva ideology. But for such a claim (and one that seeks to invert a century’s worth of historiography), Sharma needs to produce substantive arguments. To merely label Vivekananda’s terminology without realising the changes, re-definitions and appropriations these concepts have undergone in a century, is historical blindness. If it raises any anxieties at all, they relate to the competence of the author to deal with historical material.

The second problem with Sharma’s approach is the way he uses his sources. Any work that seeks to arrive at a reasonably accurate picture of a past thinker’s thought has to deal with the fact that there are multiple kinds of sources for the subject’s life and views. They are not all of the same reliability, import or significance. Interpretive strategies vary with the texts and there may be much in the material that would be mutually contradictory, ambiguous or even of dubious authenticity. To treat them all as the same is to court disaster. This is exactly what Sharma does.

Vivekananda’s published writings form an extremely slim collection. The most significant part comprises lectures in the West and India, taken down by disciples. The rest of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 volumes) consists of a considerable correspondence, conversations written from memory by devotees and friends, interviews published in newspapers and so on. Of course, it is for the particular writer to work out what seems to her the exact relationship between these various texts and the way they mutually inform each other. However, some things can be said without undue controversy.

Vivekananda’s writings present us with the least anxiety about accuracy or interpretive difficulties. His public lectures are reliable sources for his views but with the added caveat that one has to be sensitive to the context in which they were delivered. He lectured to diverse audiences, from New York to Chicago to California, London to Cambridge, Jaffna to Colombo, Dacca to Lahore, Calcutta to Rameswaram. The demands made by the interests of the audience, by their social ideology, and by the format of the speech, often influenced the way Vivekananda expressed himself. At times, he expressed views directly contrary to what he often stated in public and maintained in private. Most of this came from his historical position: a colonised subject contesting the civilisational superiority of the coloniser. There are occasions when he defends the historic origins of child marriage and caste, while most of the time he expressed his abhorrence of these institutions in private and in public.

Sharma pays no attention to context or format and draws freely from speeches, lectures, newspaper interviews and third person memoirs of casual conversations, as all equally representing Vivekananda’s theoretical positions on Hinduism, caste, patriotism, other religions and so on. Individual utterances are not checked for coherence with the main lines of his thinking. Such an uncritical methodology leaves the door wide open to stitch together isolated fragments and anomalous strands of thought into a portrait that is the diametric opposite of the original.

The problem is amplified by Sharma’s excessive dependence on textual fragments, often no more than a couple of sentences, a turn of phrase, or even choice of words, in his interpretation. When it comes to Ramakrishna, this is not merely a problem but simply unfeasible. The main source for Ramakrishna is the Kathamrita, translated into English as The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. It consists of conversations Ramakrishna had with his disciples and devotees, recorded by Mahendranath Gupta, who made a record of his visits to Dakshineshwar in his diary. Unless we credit Gupta with photographic memory we have to conclude that the contents of the Kathamrita are not to be considered a verbatim reproduction of Ramakrishna’s words.

Though Sharma starts with the position that Ramakrishna considers all paths to God equally valid, he writes that “Ramakrishna is categorical that to attain God one needs an intensely yearning heart.

Cosmic Love and Human Apathy is about Vivekananda’s re-statement of Hinduism, but the central figure is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. An alleged breach between disciple and master is the foundation of his book. A parting of ways between an 18-year-old Narendranath Dutta and Ramakrishna, the one leading to nationalism, Brahminism and orthodoxy and the other to an all-embracing tolerance and heterodoxy, is the essence of all that follows. But who is Sharma’s Paramahasa?

Sharma says he was a Bhakta, a devotional mystic mad with the love of God. Ramakrishna accepted all paths to spiritual realisation, including jnana (knowledge), but gave pride of place to Bhakti, characterised by intense and ecstatic emotion. He lived as a woman for six months while undergoing the devotional practices of Vaishnavism. During tantric practice he would eat food from low-caste people and animals and lose all distinctions of pure and impure. This allowed Ramakrishna, claims Sharma, to constitute a “vocabulary” and “methodology” of “transgression” and “transcendence”.11 

Though Sharma starts with the position that Ramakrishna considers all paths to God equally valid, this soon turns out to be tokenism. He writes that “Ramakrishna is categorical that in order to attain God one needs an intensely yearning heart.”

Later he says, “For Ramakrishna, what was non-negotiable for spiritual aspirants at every step on the way to realising God was the sense of longing, the ecstatic and mad love of God.” For Ramakrishna, God was beyond the scriptures, beyond the Vedas and Vedanta. God could not be reached through the scriptures or through reason.

Ramakrishna’s attitude is basically anti-intellectual, against arguments and theories and substituting in its stead a complete surrender to God’s will. This surrender which Sharma calls Ramakrishna’s “blueprint” for real bhakti leads to realisation.

“Loving engagement and surrender to God will help us know God’s true nature. Once that is known, the realisation that there is no distinction between Brahman and Kali will become clear … In suggesting that Brahman and Kali are the same, Ramakrishna also comes to the conclusion that differences are only in name and form, whereas reality is one and undifferentiated,” Sharma writes.

He interprets Ramakrishna’s comments about the unity of Kali and Brahman to imply an absolute identity. And he understands from this that Ramakrishna believed the differentiation between God with form, such as Kali, or Krishna, and Brahman, the unqualified absolute, is ontologically non-existent. Thus, he says that “having transcended name and form, having rejected the artificial distinction between the formless God and God with form”, Ramakrishna found his way to a new model of accepting all religions and faiths that went beyond all predictable models.

“Not only is it not desirable to characterise one’s own faith as false, it is also entirely undesirable to point out flaws in one’s faith or in the faith of others …Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the kind of triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide they are right and all others are wrong.”

The basis of this tolerance, Sharma argues, lies in refusing to privilege the claims of any one religion or sect. Ramakrishna “list(s) all faiths without privileging any, but also conflates the faiths and sects without singling anyone out for special mention.” According to Sharma, “there was no inherent hierarchy that informed either faiths or paths or even scriptures” for Ramakrishna.

Vivekananda is the exact opposite of all this. And his paramahamsa, Sharma would have it, is a carefully doctored one, made to order for his disciple’s nefarious nationalistic purposes. The young Narendranath believes only in the formless God of the Advaita. “Vivekananda’s rejection of Ramakrishna’s trances as hallucinations or a figment of his imagination is extremely significant. It marks a rupture that signifies two incompatible worlds, where the definition of sanity and insanity are strikingly different. Ramakrishna’s hallucinations are perfectly intelligible within the boundaries of Indian mysticism and would be considered sane and normal.”

In other words, Vivekananda is a rationalist who rejects mysticism as irrational and mad. He also rejects Tantra, which he “conflated” with Vamachara, a degenerate form of Tantra. For Vivekananda, religion was to be found only in the texts of the Vedas and Vedanta. Most importantly, Sharma claims he “had only contempt” for dualism. The Hinduism he fabricated for modern India was scientific, rational and Advaitic. This world view has no place for sects that are dualistic---and by extension, Christianity and Islam which believe in a personal God.

At this point, a brief glance at the existing Vivekananda-Ramakrishna literature is in order. Almost all the biographical, hagiographical as well as critical literature12, contains an account of the differences between Vivekananda and his master in terms of temperament, education, intellectual inclinations, even spiritual tastes.  Far from denying this, hagiographical and celebratory literatures weave their narrative around this contrast between the young English-educated Narendranath Dutta and Ramakrishna. Vivekananda, a philosophy student at Calcutta University, was schooled in the scepticism of Hume and Berkley. Ramakrishna, who could do little more than write his name in Bengali, was immersed in a world of deities, visions and mystical experience.

The young Narendranath’s initial resistance to that world and Ramakrishna’s long training to convert him is so well-documented that it forms part of a popular Bengali film on Ramakrishna. Sharma’s arguments can have purchase only if they show that the “rupture” between the two is more than a difference in idiom, intellectual framework or a product of the different social and political universes they inhabited due to the trajectory of their careers.

Sharma’s central argument about Vivekananda’s worldview “systematically marginalising” other religions does not hang on any direct statements attributable to Vivekananda. At least if there are such statements, they are not to be found in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. What Sharma gives us instead is an analysis of his views of universal religion, in which Sharma detects a philosophical system that announces the supremacy of Advaita and relegates every other system to a subordinate position.

From the Complete Works, we know Vivekananda tries to solve the incompatible claims of various religions and sects by a three-fold division. In the first is the dualistic idea that God, individual souls and the universe are eternally separate and different entities. The second is the vishistadvaitic position that the universe and all the sentient beings are part of God or the Absolute. The last is the Advaitic idea that all three are the same and the perception of difference is due to cognitive error or delusion (avidya or maya).

Vivekananda claims these varying spiritual experiences are not contradictory but mutually reinforcing, different stages in the journey towards God. In the first kind of experience an individual feels there is a God separate from her and loves that divine being. According to him, as that love intensifies, she realises she is a finite part of that infinite God. In the final stage, the individual soul realises that she and the infinite God are one.

To see what Vivekananda is attempting, it might help to remember the religious conversations he was part of. The demand for a universal theology was articulated in the 19th century, to address anxieties that arose from a wider knowledge of world religions. The contradictory and often exclusive claims of Catholicism, Protestantism, liberal Christianity and other denominations, as well as those of foreign religions like Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, seemed to many to call into question the theological enterprise itself. Vivekananda’s thinking is that none of the spiritual experiences within these religions are false, but points on a path to God realisation13.

Sharma’s problem is the inherent hierarchy within this scheme. He argues that to put non-dualism at the top of the ladder is to privilege Advaita and marginalise all other sects and religions. As we have seen, Sharma believes Ramakrishna did not differentiate between various sects and their differing theological claims. He writes that Vivekananda converts Ramakrishna’s model of tolerance “into a hierarchy of aspirants and an evolutionary schema conspicuously absent in his master.”

Before going into the question of whether this is an honest summary of Ramakrishna’s views, let us understand what Sharma is demanding of Vivekananda. For Sharma, the necessary condition of an acceptably tolerant religious worldview is that it should be non-hierarchical and accept the truth claims of all systems as equally valid. This includes the theologies of Catholics, Protestants and dozens of other Christian denominations, the various schools of Hinduism and Buddhism, the Shias, Sunnis, Ahmedis and so on. Such a system would then affirm the truth of all the following propositions at the same time.

A. Christ died on the cross to expatiate the sins of mankind.

B. Christ did not die on the cross to expatiate the sins of mankind.

C. Christ is the son of God.

D. Christ is not the son of God.

E. The Eucharist is the actual blood and flesh of Jesus Christ.

F. The Eucharist is not the actual blood and flesh of Jesus Christ.

G. God and the universe are separate.

H. God is identical with the universe.

I. God created the universe out of nothing, ex-nihilo.

J. God is the material and efficient cause of the universe.

K. Reality is infinite existence.

L. Reality is emptiness or Void (Shunyata). 

M. God and the individual soul are identical.

N. God and the individual soul are not identical.

This list can be expanded ad infinitum, but by now the reader has a fair idea of what Sharma’s argument entails.

In other words, Sharma’s understanding of what constitutes a universal theory of religion would need to hold that P is Q and P is not Q at the same time. Such a theory would violate the law of non-contradiction in a spectacular way. Why, of all the philosophers in history, Vivekananda alone should shoulder this extraordinary epistemological burden Sharma never cares to explain. The other problem with the position Sharma takes is its serious implications for minority rights. To claim a religious fact is true is ipso facto to claim that its opposite is not true. By Sharma’s lights, the very act of theology is a crime. What position would the act of proselytising occupy within such an ethical framework? A Christian or Muslim who wants to convert someone to his religion has absolutely no ethical justification for such an act. How, then, do we defend proselytisation against a right-wing discourse that seeks to criminalise it?

The other leg of Sharma’s argument is that Ramakrishna was a religious ecstatic who did not differentiate between the claims of any religion. This is not only factually untrue, but a priori impossible. To be interested in religion is to be interested in the nature of God, of the soul and so on, whether intellectually or as a matter of non-conceptual experience. And to be interested in these questions sincerely is to seek knowledge about it and take positions on it. The moment one does that one has positioned oneself within a set of theological discourses.

The kind of non-committal plurality that Sharma advocates is not only incoherent, but possible only for an outsider who has never approached these questions. What was Ramakrishna’s own position? There is a reason he has been read as an Advaitin by generations of scholars. The Kathamrita contains categorical, definite and repetitive statements asserting his position. And unlike what Sharma contends, a hierarchy of spiritual experiences with the experience of non-duality as the final one is very much part of Ramakrishna’s teachings.

Ramakrishna describes the various stages of mystical experience thus: “The Vedas speak of the seven planes where the mind dwells. When the mind is immersed in worldliness, it dwells in the three lower planes … The fourth plane of the mind is at the heart. When the mind dwells there, one has the first glimpse of spiritual consciousness … The sixth plane is at the forehead. When the mind reaches it, the aspirant sees the form of God day and night. But even then a little trace of ego remains … In the top of the head is the seventh plane … Then the Brahmajnani directly perceives Brahman.”14 

Ramakrishna’s discourses are in the nature of practical instructions but there are many instances where he stated his doctrinal positions. Thus we have this classic statement of Advaita, “Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute is one and one only. But it is associated with various limiting adjuncts on account of the different degrees of manifestation. That is why one finds various forms of God”.15  

Even the “Attainment of Chaitanya, Divine consciousness, is not possible without the knowledge of Advaita, Non-duality.”

How then does Sharma arrive at his non-Advaitic Ramakrishna? He takes hold of Ramakrishna’s repeated statements that Shakti and Brahman are the same. As the statements on Advaita show, the attributeless Brahman when perceived through limiting adjuncts of the mind is seen as a personal God. In this sense, they are the same.

But for Sharma: “In certain ways of looking at the world, God is perceived as the Absolute. For instance, the Vedanta way of perceiving reality, suggests that only Brahman is Real. Ramakrishna accepts all these views but suggests that there cannot be the Absolute without the relative and vice versa.”

Nothing in his book exposes so clearly the author’s absolute failure to comprehend the concepts of the conversation he is trying to be part of. Strictly speaking, the phrase “God is perceived as the Absolute” is meaningless. Within any monotheism, monistic or dualistic, Vedanta or Christianity, God is Absolute. By its very definition, God is that which is Absolute—which has an absolutely independent existence. To talk of God being perceived as the Absolute is in the same category of statements like “The table was perceived as square.” When discussing Advaita the statement becomes simply incoherent.

The Nirguna Brahman of Advaita is independent of the duality of subject-object distinctions, the only reality, without adjuncts, quality or any relations. Who would perceive it? To talk about someone perceiving Brahman is to conceive of something existing apart from Brahman, which is by definition impossible16.

In any case, to talk about the Absolute being dependent on the relative, is a contradiction in terms within any monotheistic philosophy. That would mean that the independent and immutable is dependent on the dependent and mutable. One regrets to say this, but only someone who is completely ignorant of the basics of both Western and Indian philosophy could make a statement like this17.

Sharma’s lack of familiarity with the Hindu tradition is obvious also in the way he proceeds with his case that Vivekananda manufactures a “Vedic-Vedantic primacy”. Vivekananda repeatedly asserted that the Vedas (Shrutis) were the primary spiritual authority within the Hindu tradition. The puranas (smritis) and other texts derived their validity as interpretations and commentaries on the Shruti. The problem with this is simply this: if this hermeneutic hierarchy is to be rejected as inauthentic, we will have to throw out a good part of the last 1,200 years of Hindu philosophy. The superiority of Shruti over Smriti goes back to the Bhagavata, but finds explicit formulation in the philosophy of Shankara. (eighth century AD). The Upanishads are accepted as the primary authority by the Chaitanya school of Bengal Vaishnavism and by the bhedabheda of Bhaskara and Yadava. Madhva, the founder of the dualistic school (13th century AD ) uses the same scheme as Shankara, where Smriti is subordinate to Shruti. These are the very dualistic schools that Sharma imagines that this interpretative hierarchy somehow sidelines.  The only dissenter among the major Vedantic schools is Ramanuja (11th century AD) who gives the same importance to the Vedas, Pancaratna and the writings of Alvar saints18 19.

The alleged schism between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda on which Sharma bases his book rests on these claims: Vivekananda rejected Ramakrishna’s trances as hallucinations, he rejected Kali, and denigrated Bhakti. The claims fall apart at the slightest scrutiny. As I said before, the young Narendranath Dutta’s rejection of Ramakrishna’s trances as hallucinations is well documented and is an integral part of Vivekananda literature.

According to Vivekananda’s own testimony, that of Mahendranath Gupta and of his several brother disciples, Narendranath finally accepted Kali several months before Ramakrishna fell fatally ill from throat cancer (1895). Sharma does not dispute this. But he claims that this acceptance was not genuine.

The preface narrates an event described in the Kathamarita. A few months after Ramakrishna’s death, Narendranath playfully imitates Ramakrishna’s trances. It is from this that Sharma concludes that Vivekananda rejects Ramakrishna’s trances as hallucinations. Does Sharma produce any evidence that Vivekananda continued to hold on to his earlier scepticism? There is not a single passage in his recorded correspondence from 1888 to 1902 where he throws doubt on anything related to Kali worship, trances or visions. On the contrary, he wrote poems about Kali, initiated his disciple Sister Nivedita in Kali worship20 and in hundreds of letters, expresses his devotion and dependence on “mother” and exhorted his correspondents to have faith in her. Far from rejecting visions, he claimed to have visions himself, of various forms of gods and goddesses under Ramakrishna’s guidance, and later, most famously of Shiva at Amarnath and the female deity Kshir Bhavani at the Kshir Bhavani temple21

In his writings, public lectures and in memoirs of conversations recorded by devotees, there is no instance that shows he rejected Kali, Bhakti, visions or a personal God. And there is a huge amount of material where he affirms these very things in no uncertain terms. In fact, the route to mystical experiences including “occult” visions is the core of his book Raja Yoga and all his lectures on yoga. Far from denigrating Bhakti, he wrote a book on Bhakti yoga, delivered lectures on the topic and gave classes to disciples.

Sharma does not mention any of this. Rather, he gives his reader the impression that Vivekananda continued to reject Kali, visions and so on. The only “evidence” he provides from the mature Vivekananda’s work is this letter written to Mary Hale in 1900. “Kali worship is not a necessary step in any religion. The Upanishads teach us all there is to religion. Kali worship is my special fad: you never heard me preach it, or read of my preaching it in India. I only preach what is good for universal humanity. If there is any curious method which applies entirely to me, I keep it a secret and there it ends.”

Sharma follows this up with an emotive commentary that characterises his argumentative style throughout the book. “Kali worship, then, is reduced to a personal fad, a curious method, and a secret that is not to be shared with anyone. Nor is any explanation for nursing this secret fad to be entertained. More significantly, neither is Kali worship a necessary step in any religion that he preached or part of one that could be taught universally, nor is it something that could be for the good of humanity.”

It is difficult to understand by what process of reasoning Sharma arrives at these exaggerated conclusions. It is also interesting to note the inversion of values and contradictions that he has been led to, in order to maintain his version of Vivekananda. For Sharma, fidelity to Ramakrishna’s tolerant religion requires Vivekananda to teach Kali worship as a necessary step for everyone universally. The logical implication of this is that, to be true to Ramakrishna’s religion, when Vivekananda teaches religion to a Christian, as in this case, he should insist that she should worship Kali. And if he teaches a Buddhist, he should insist that they follow the path of devotion, completely alien to many Buddhist traditions. Rather than Ramakrishna, this sounds closer to the virulent intolerance of some extremist Hindutva groups who insist that Christians and Muslims in India should be culturally Hindu and “accept” Hindu deities and traditions.

There is a lot in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda corpus that Sharma hides from his readers to advance his thesis. The most significant “omission” is about Ramakrishna and Vivekananda’s relationship with Advaita. Sharma’s book rests on the narrative of a young Narendranath, an ardent Advaitist who fights Ramakrishna over belief in Kali. While it is true that Narendranath resisted Ramakrishna’s attempts to make him believe in a God with form, Sharma does not mention that the “fight” was also about the disciple’s refusal to accept Advaita.

According to all the primary accounts we have, it is Ramakrishna who converted a scoffing Narendranath to the counter-intuitive philosophy of Advaita. Nikhilananda’s biography narrates it thus: “One day he (Narendranath) was making fun of Sri Ramakrishna’s non-dualism before a friend and said, ‘What can be more absurd than to say that this jug is God, this cup is God, and that we too are God?’ Both roared with laughter. Just then the Master appeared. Coming to learn the cause of their fun, he gently touched Naren and plunged into deep samadhi.”

Vivekananda narrates that upon Ramakrishna’s touch, he had an experience of the Advaitic state and came to accept the philosophy’s conclusions22. We have the same account from Vivekananda’s brother disciples, including that of Saradananda in the Lilaprasanga. And we have Ramakrishna’s own word: “God alone has become everything. All that we perceive is so many forms of God. Narendra used to make fun of me and say: Yes, God has become all! Then a pot is God, a cup is God! ... I used to worship the Deity in the Kali temple. It was suddenly revealed to me that everything is Pure Spirit. The utensils of worship, the altar, the door-frame­—all pure spirit. Men, animals and other living beings—all Pure Spirit.”23

It is important to note here that Sharma does not challenge any of this. He simply pretends that it does not exist. It is difficult to believe that anyone who has read standard biographies of Vivekananda could remain unaware of the narrative of Ramakrishna’s conversion of Vivekananda to Advaita.

The most damning of Sharma’s accusations is that Vivekananda wanted to revive caste in India. The question of Vivekananda’s views on caste is too complex to be gone into here, but the overall consensus has been that he was vehemently critical of the role Brahmins played in creating a caste-bound society. Sharma, however, argues that Vivekananda was a worshipper of Brahmins and wanted to revive priestly power.

He discusses a historical essay published in the Udbhodhan in 1899 titled “Modern India” (Translated to English from Bengali). In the essay, Vivekananda attempts to analyse the evolution of India through the dynamics of the power relationship between various castes and classes- mainly as a struggle for supremacy between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, or rather between the priestly class and the ruling class. Commenting on the period of the Islamic conquest he writes: “To the Mussalman, the Jew or Christian is not an object of extreme detestation, they are at worst, men of little faith. But not so the Hindu. According to him, the Hindu is idolatrous, the hateful Kafir … The utmost the Mussalman kings could do as a favour to the priestly class—the spiritual guides of these Kafirs—was to allow them to somehow pass their life silently and wait for the last moment.”  Sharma writes that “the exaggerated stress on the spiritual role of the Brahmins defies historical scrutiny and common understanding.” The argument is so intellectually inane that it requires no refutation.

Without quoting directly, Sharma then goes on to claim that “Vivekananda regrets that after the waning of Mughal power, the Sikhs and Marathas too did little to revive priestly power.” There is nothing in the essay that can possibly lend itself to such a reading. All we have from Vivekananda is an objective description: “At the end of this period, when Hindu power again raised its head, and, to some extent, was successful in regenerating Hinduism through the Mahrattas and the Sikhs, we do not find much play of the priestly power with these regenerations.”

Also, it is not the case that the essay in question does not make Vivekananda’s position on Brahminical power clear. After describing the fall of priestly power during the Islamic conquest, he says: “Crushing the Brahminical supremacy under his feet, the Mussalman king was able to restore to a considerable extent the lost glories of such dynasties of emperors as the Maurya, the Gupta, the Andhra and the Kshatrapa.”24 And when the essay moves on to discuss modern India, he predicts the end of Brahminical power as a direct result of the modernity introduced by British rule. “If the current of affairs goes on running in this course, then it is a question of most serious reflection, no doubt, how long more will the priestly class continue on India’s soil … in obedience to the inevitable law of nature, the Brahmin caste is erecting with its own hands its own sepulchre; and this is what ought to be. It is good and appropriate that every caste of high birth and privileged nobility should make it its principal duty to raise its own funeral pyre with its own hands.”25

Sharma here seems to be involved in deliberate distortion to fit the meaning of the text to the requirements of a radical sounding thesis. It has no place in any kind of book, especially one that seeks to deconstruct myth-making in the name of truth. Nor is this the only instance. The book is replete with such distortions. On the topic of caste itself, Sharma claims Vivekananda discriminated against Shudras during a ceremony at the Belur Math in 1898. The claim is mischievous and the intellectual integrity behind it suspect. The occasion is Ramakrishna’s birthday and Vivekananda is handing out sacred threads to people who visit the math. The incident is narrated in Vivekananda literature as a breaking of caste barriers by giving the sacred thread to all castes. But Sharma writes: “Note that non-brahmins have not been given the sacred thread, but only the Gayatri Mantra.” Sharma refers to the conversation on this occasion, which has been recorded by Sharat Chandra Chakravarthy, a disciple. However, there is nothing in the text that would allow Sharma to infer non-Brahmins were not given the thread. In fact, even a casual reading points to the opposite.

So how does Sharma explain Vivekananda’s well-known diatribes against Brahmins? “Vivekananda strongly resented brahmins espousing more popular forms of religion, whether bhakti or Tantra,” he writes. But he does not provide a single quote to prove this. Indeed there is not a single line in the Complete Works where Vivekananda says anything close to this. This is pure invention on Sharma’s part. All he gives is a string of cherry-picked quotes, with increasingly bizarre interpretations and frenzied commentary.

However much one wishes to be charitable to Sharma, it will be an abdication of our intellectual responsibility not to recognise the book for what it is, a hack job, and one of such appalling ineptitude that it gives hack jobs a bad name. 

There is nothing sacrosanct about the figure of Vivekananda. Like every other icon, he should be subjected to the most intense critical scrutiny possible. But a wide gulf separates such scrutiny from what Sharma offers. The book is a bewildering tissue of confusions, a morass of philosophical and intellectual incoherence. That such a book should receive critical acclaim is an alarming commentary on the intellectual standards and honesty of our public sphere. In the long-run, Vivekananda’s reputation is likely to survive such scurrilous attacks. But whether Indian academia can survive books like Sharma’s and the intellectual trends they signify is another matter entirely.

 

Notes and references

1 For a discussion of the conceptual difficulties in interpreting Hinduism as religion, see The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the Dynamics of Religion by S. N. Balagangadhara. For the methodological problems in delineating Hinduism, see the first chapter of The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger.

2 For example, D. R. Nagaraj, Narasimha P. Sil, and other writers.

3 Sharma seems to be getting his metaphor mixed here. What he means probably is that Vivekananda’s thought is the seed and modern Hinduism (which Sharma equates with Hindutva) is the tree.

4 This does not include the standard biographical material on Vivekananda and Ramakrishna, viz The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, the Kathamrita and the Lilaprasanga. I have also discounted Sharma’s references to his own previously published work.

5 My emphasis.

6 Emphasis in the original.

7 Vivekananda did not, at any rate, advocate an uncritical acceptance of scientific discourse. “As soon as a great scientist's name, like Darwin or Huxley, is cited, we follow blindly. It is the fashion of the day. Ninety-nine per cent of what we call scientific knowledge is mere theories. And many of them are no better than the old superstitions of ghosts with many heads and hands, but with this difference that the latter differentiated man a little from stocks and stones. True science asks us to be cautious. Just as we should be careful with the priests, so we should be with the scientists. Begin with disbelief. Analyse, test, prove everything, and then take it. Some of the most current beliefs of modern science have not been proved. Even in such a science as mathematics, the vast majority of its theories are only working hypotheses. With the advent of greater knowledge they will be thrown away.” Complete Works, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Page 28-29.

8 The word “juggernaut” itself was formed from the apocryphal myth of Hindu devotees sacrificing themselves under the temple car during the rathyatra at Jagannath temple in Puri.

9 For a reading of the Enlightenment as Pagan and anti-Church, see The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism by Peter Gay

10 For a discussion on how Christian missionary activity in India utilised colonial assumptions of racial superiority, see The Heathen in His Blindness.

11 Sharma never explains what this vocabulary consists of, and where, if ever, Ramakrishna used it.

12 See for instance, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel by Romain Rolland, Vivekananda: A Biography by Swami Nikhilananda, and Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master by Swami Saradananda.

13 This is made possible only by separating the ritualistic and doctrinal part of each religion from the mystical experiences associated with it. See The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.

14 The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Page 150-151.

15 The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Page 277.

16 Sri Ramakrishna held the classic Adavitic view that that to talk about Brahman in any terms was a delusion. See for instance: The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Page 900.

17 In a footnote, Sharma contends that Ramakrishna’s view was closer to Chaitanya’s Achintyabhedabheda. This is not feasible for two reasons. Ramakrishna positively identifies Advaita in the Kathamrita innumerable times, but never discusses the philosophy of Achintyabhedabheda. The Brahman of Chaitanya’s school is not
non-dual in the sense it is understood in Advaita.

18 The position of the Suddhadvaita school of Vallabha is more complex. It follows the same order with the Vedas as the foundational texts and the Bhagavat Gita, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavata as further commentaries. In practice however, the Bhagavata, as the latest commentary, occupied the most significant position within the tradition.

19 For an introduction to the systems of Chaitanya, Madhva, Bhaskara, Ramanuja and Vallabha, and a discussion of textual authority within these traditions, see these essays:  “The Acintya-Bhedabheda School” by Radha Govinda Nath, “Madhva’s Brahma-Mimamsa” by H. N Raghavendrachar, “Bhedabheda School of Vedanta” and “The Visistadvaita of Ramanuja” by P. N Srinivasachari, and “The School of Vallabha” by Govindlal Hargovind Bhatt.

20 For Nivedita’s exposition of Kali worship as she learned it from Vivekananda, see Kali, the Mother by Sister Nivedita.

21 In the case of Kshir Bhavani, Vivekananda described the experience as one in which he heard the deity talking to him directly.

22 The Life of Swami Vivekananda: His Eastern and Western Disciples.

23 The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Page 396.

24 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 4. Mayavati Memorial Edition, Page 447.

25 Ibid Page 458.0