Resistance, Complicity and Transcendence: A Postcolonial Study of Vivekananda's Mission in the West

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Rolfsen, Catherine
Religion , Vivekananda
In this study, I examine the figure of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), a sanyassi who traveled to America, England, and France, becoming one of the first Hindus to articulate his religion in the West. I argue that Vivekananda’s spiritual mission can be seen as a critical engagement with the Orientalist essentialisations of his day in an effort to change the subordinate role of India in relation to the West. After a brief literature review, in chapter one I outline the discursive challenges which Vivekananda and his contemporaries faced through a Saidian examination of Orientalism in India. In chapter two, I explain how, in his presentation of India and Hinduism, Vivekananda used his rhetorical ingenuity and his physical person as a way to refute the Orientalist theses of India’s degeneracy and effeminacy, and offered a formulation of the Vedanta tradition with which he hoped to earn for India the status of respected spiritual teacher. In chapter three, I complicate matters by examining how Vivekananda was complicit in the Orientalist essentialisations which he wished to deny. His representation of himself and of Vedanta can be criticised in terms of his compromises to the expectations of his Western audience, his perpetuation of dichotomies such as spiritual/ material and feminine/ masculine, and in his essentialising approach to Hindu tradition. However, by the end of chapter three, I argue that Said’s examination of Orientalism is too narrow a lens to capture the complexity of Vivekananda’s life and endeavours. In chapter four, I draw on the work of Ashis Nandy and Homi Bhabha to argue that Vivekananda was neither an innocent victim nor a polemical manipulator of his circumstances, but by virtue of his liminal status between cultures, ultimately sought to transcend the discursive dichotomies in which he was often mired.
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