Was Swami Vivekananda a Hindu Supremacist? Revisiting a Long-Standing Debate

Religions 11 (7) (2020)
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Abstract

In the past several decades, numerous scholars have contended that Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu supremacist in the guise of a liberal preacher of the harmony of all religions. Jyotirmaya Sharma follows their lead in his provocative book, A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism (2013). According to Sharma, Vivekananda was “the father and preceptor of Hindutva,” a Hindu chauvinist who favored the existing caste system, denigrated non-Hindu religions, and deviated from his guru Sri Ramakrishna’s more liberal and egalitarian teachings. This article has two main aims. First, I critically examine the central arguments of Sharma’s book and identify serious weaknesses in his methodology and his specific interpretations of Vivekananda’s work. Second, I try to shed new light on Vivekananda’s views on Hinduism, religious diversity, the caste system, and Ramakrishna by building on the existing scholarship, taking into account various facets of his complex thought, and examining the ways that his views evolved in certain respects. I argue that Vivekananda was not a Hindu supremacist but a cosmopolitan patriot who strove to prepare the spiritual foundations for the Indian freedom movement, scathingly criticized the hereditary caste system, and followed Ramakrishna in championing the pluralist doctrine that various religions are equally capable of leading to salvation.

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Swami Medhananda
University of California, Los Angeles

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