The “pied piper” of the modern yoga movement

Vivekananda: The monk who inspired Americans from J.D. Salinger to Nikola Tesla

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda, courtesy of Vedanta Society

Although J.D. Salinger of “The Catcher in the Rye” fame published his last story in 1965, he did not stop writing. From the early 1950s until his death in 2010, he corresponded with monks and fellow devotees of Swami Vivekananda of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York. Vivekananda’s amazing century-long influence on Salinger and other prominent writers, thinkers, and artists is splendidly chronicled by A. L. Bardach in The Wall Street Journal.

The central, guiding light of Salinger’s spiritual quest was the teachings of Vivekananda, the Calcutta-born monk who popularized Vedanta and yoga in the West at the end of the 19th century. “Franny and Zooey” is saturated in Vedantic thought and references. Salinger confided . . . that he intentionally left a trail of Vedantic clues throughout his work from “Franny and Zooey” onward, hoping to entice readers into deeper study.

Although he experimented with Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, Salinger settled on Vedanta. “Unlike Zen,” Salinger’s biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, points out, “Vedanta offered a path to a personal relationship with God . . . [and] a promise that he could obtain a cure for his depression . . . and find God, and through God, peace.” Salinger’s “ferocious literary ambition” was completely replaced by his spiritual quest, led by Vivekananda.

Vivekananda, a Bengali monk, introduced the word “yoga” to the West. In 1893 he spoke at the Parliament of Religions, convened in Chicago as a spiritual complement to the World’s Fair. His impact was huge, wrote Annie Besant, a British Theosophist and a conference delegate. She described Vivekananda’s impact, writing that he was “a striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago.” The Parliament, she said, was “enraptured; the huge multitude hung upon his words.” When he was done, the convocation cheered him thunderously.

“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood wrote a half century later, surmising that a “strange kind of subconscious telepathy” had infected the hall, beginning with Vivekananda’s first words, which have resonated, for some, long after.

When asked about the origins of “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison said that “the song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’ ”

Vedanta teachings are rooted in the Vedas, ancient scriptures going back several thousand years that also inform Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The Vedic texts present the idea that God is everywhere, in all things. Vivekananda’s genius was to simplify Vedantic thought to a few accessible teachings that Westerners found irresistible.

‘He is the most brilliant wise man,’ Leo Tolstoy gushed. ‘It is doubtful another man has ever risen above this selfless, spiritual meditation.’

Vivekananda’s teaching had profound influences on Harvard professor William James, his brother Henry, and a plethora of contemporary intellectuals from Gertrude Stein to John D. Rockefeller. The great actress Sarah Bernhardt became lifelong friends with him and introduced him to the electromagnetic scientist Nikola Tesla, who was struck by Vivekananda’s knowledge of physics. Both recognized they shared the same ideas on energy but used different languages to describe it. Tesla would cite the monk’s contributions in his pioneering research of electricity.

Vivekananda’s influence broadened well into the mid-20th century, shaping the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Henry Miller, among others. Then he fell out of favor.

He seemed to go into eclipse in the West. American baby boomers—more disposed to “doing” than “being”—have opted for “hot yoga” classes over meditation. At some point, perhaps in the 1980s, an ancient, profoundly antimaterialist teaching had morphed into a fitness cult with expensive accessories.

To read more about Vivekananda’s profound influence on America, read Bardach’s full article: