William James and Swami Vivekananda: Religious Experience and Vedanta/Yoga in America

NORRIS FREDERICK
ABSTRACT
William James was known to his colleagues as being remarkably open to new ideas and an amazing variety of people. One of those persons to whom he was drawn, Swami Vivekananda, had come from India to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 to educate the West about his religion. James met him twice and called him “the paragon of Vedantist missionaries.” Like James, Vivekananda had studied Western philosophy, logic, and science; saw great strength in multiple approaches to religion; and had in some ways a pragmatic approach.  However, James described Vivekananda’s Vedantist philosophy as a monistic view of reality, while writing that his pragmatism “must obviously range upon the pluralistic side.” While
Vivekananda’s clearly had mystical experiences, James wrote that “my own constitution shuts me out from their [mystical experiences] enjoyment almost entirely, and I can only speak of them only at second hand.” For reasons of both philosophy and temperament James ultimately rejects key tenets of Vivekananda’s philosophy.

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