23 March 2014

Huston Smith On Swami Vivekananda

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Huston Smith (born 31 May 1919) is an American religious writer, philosopher, scholar. One of his most notable books The World's Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man) has sold over two million copies. Some of his other works are— Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions, Beyond the Postmodern Mind, The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. A detailed biography of Smith is available at Wikipedia. In this article you'll find Huston Smith's quotes and comments on Swami Vivekananda.

Huston Smith told—
Spiritually speaking, Vivekananda’s words and presence at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions brought Asia to the West decisively. For, reading correctly the spiritual hunger of the West that his words and presence brought to the surface, Vivekananda went on to found the Ramakrishna Mission whose centres in almost every major city of Europe and America launched the influx of Asian spirituality that has changed the religious complexion of those continents permanently. Buddhism, Sufism, Sikhism, Baha'i and others have followed, but Vedanta was the pioneer.

The importance of this fact needs no belabouring, but I should like to expand the notion of East meeting West by pointing out that it houses a temporal as well as a spatial dimension. For though we have no time machine to set clocks back, it is possible (in our Westernised world) to break out of our modern time frame by venturing abroad. When I find Vivekananda reporting that "when my Master touched me, my mind underwent a complete revolution; I was aghast to realize that there really was nothing whatever in the entire universe but God", and when he proceeds from such reports to conclude that our seeming self is not our true self, the latter being in actuality divine I hear his words echoing not only from a different land (India) but from a different time—a past when the human outlook was less hobbled by the materialistic, reductionistic styles of thought that the West has fallen into.

I grant that there is danger in stating things this way, for the cult of novelty has led many people to confuse 'past' with 'inferior'. Reflective thinkers, though, are coming to recognize that one of the most important questions of life—who are we? Where did we come from? What are we supposed to do, if anything —modern science has confused us, along with clarifying things in other respects. For in being able to deal only with things that are woven of space, time, and matter ... science has unwittingly led many people to assume that samsara (the relative world) is more important and real than nirvana (the experience of absolute Reality).

Personally, therefore, I welcome Vivekananda as envoy, not only from a different land but from a time that was more open to 'the breath of the eternal' that the Upanishads attest to so compellingly.


  • Vivekananda : East Meets West, Swami Chetanananda (Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1995), p. vii.

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