In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Vivekananda

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Photographs
  • Primary Sources, Critical
  • Primary Sources, Edited with Commentary
  • Biographies, Critical
  • Biographies, Sympathetic
  • Vivekananda’s Guru, Ramakrishna
  • Sister Nivedita and Other Women Disciples
  • Ramakrishna Math and Mission
  • The West
  • United States of America
  • Hinduism and Religious Reform
  • Yoga
  • Philosophy
  • Education
  • Politics
  • Hindu Nationalism
  • Historical and Colonial Context
  • Masculinity (Muscular Nationalism)

Hinduism Vivekananda
Douglas McGetchin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0117


Narendranath Datta, later known as Swami Vivekananda (b. 1863–d. 1902), was a Hindu missionary who traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, propagating a message of pride in Indian heritage. He is perhaps best known for his dynamic presence and speeches at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, associated with the World Fair there that year. Naren (the future Vivekananda) was from an educated middle-class Bengali family in Calcutta. His father was a lawyer who supported the British. Naren attended Presidency College in Calcutta and studied Western topics, including philosophy, and joined the moderate reformed Hindu Brahmo Samaj (Brahma Society). Naren was skeptical when he met Gadadhar Chattopadhyay (b. 1836–d. 1886), who took the name Ramakrishna Paramahansa, from a poor, rural Brahmin family in the village of Kamarpukur in the Hoogly district of West Bengal. As a priest at the temple of Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna pursued a mystical, ecstatic form of Hinduism, achieving what he and observers believed were trance-like beatific divine visions, “seeing God.” Naren first met Ramakrishna in 1881 and took some time to accept him as his guru. After facing doubts and personal crises such as the death of his father in 1884, Naren intensified his contact with Ramakrishna, obtaining ordination as a monk before the latter’s death in 1886. Ramakrishna’s followers took formal vows and Naren spent the years 1888 to 1893 traveling around India as a wandering monk. His wandering then expanded internationally when he traveled in 1893 to the United States to attend the World Parliament of Religions. His speeches there and his charismatic presence made many friends for his movement. A handsome man with a deep voice and charming accent, he became a speaker in great demand as he traveled widely in the United States and Europe from 1893 to 1896 and again from 1899 to 1900, making contacts and friends with influential people in the West such as the Oxford Indologist Max Müller. He inspired westerners, most notably the Irish woman Margaret Noble, who took the name Nivedita (“the dedicated”) and moved to Calcutta where she ran a school for Hindu girls and wrote several books about the attraction of Hinduism and Vivekananda. He established a religious legacy that continues to thrive. These organizations include the Ramakrishna Math and Mission he founded in Calcutta in 1897 as well as Vedanta Societies in New York and San Francisco. Vivekananda’s interpretation of “Hinduism” is a modernized or Westernized variety that some refer to as “Neo-Hinduism.” The vast majority of literature on Vivekananda is published by devotees, or swamis, within the religious order Vivekananda founded, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, named after Vivekananda’s guru. While this literature naturally seeks to put Vivekananda in the best possible light, much of it is very detailed, extensive, and quite scholarly, with a deep knowledge of the many primary sources associated with Vivekananda. There is a challenge reading semi- or pseudo-scholarly works that are clearly biased yet do contain useful information. These accounts are clustered in their own separate sections.

General Overviews

One challenge in examining Vivekananda is separating the historical person from the religious figure. As a controversial and outspoken religious leader, he attracted support in India and the West from those in his movement and other admirers, but he had opponents as well, including both Christian missionaries and orthodox Hindus who did not like his interpretations of their common heritage. These polemical interpretations have left a widely divergent range of interpretive texts navigating Vivekananda’s legacy, from hagiographic praise to insinuating exposés. The texts in this list are all in English, but there are many texts available in Indian languages, especially Bengali. There are thematically organized overviews in French 1974. Prabhusankara 1999 provides a look at Vivekananda’s writings. For a short introductory overview, see Sen 2000, and for a critique independent of the Ramakrishna Mission, see Williams 1974. Other than the standard internal biography Nikhilananda 1953 and accounts in Advaita Ashrama 1960, the rest of these listed are scholarly sources.

  • Advaita Ashrama. The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by His Eastern and Western Disciples. 2 vols. 6th ed. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1960.

    Two-volume account of Vivekananda’s life, including childhood and visits to the West. Second volume has glossary, bibliography, and index.

  • French, Harold W. The Swan’s Wide Waters: Ramakrishna and Western Culture. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1974.

    Account of Vivekananda’s connection to Ramakrishna and travels to the West. Emphasizes Ramakrishna’s Indian roots in this examination of Vivekananda’s spreading of his guru’s teachings.

  • Nikhilananda, Swami. Vivekânanda: A Biography. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953.

    Concise account of Vivekananda’s life and work from the perspective of the order Vivekananda founded. Includes both secular interpretations and religious assertions.

  • Prabhusankara, and University of Mysore. Swami Vivekananda Bibliography: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books and Articles by and on Swami Vivekananda. Mysore, India: Prasaranga, 1999.

    Bibliography of Vivekananda’s works.

  • Sen, Amiya P. Swami Vivekananda. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    This short (109-page) introductory biography is not critical or extensive, and it is without footnotes or references to non-Indian authors. The account is most critical about Vivekananda’s views of women.

  • Williams, George M. The Quest for Meaning of Svāmī Vívekānanda: A Study of Religious Change. Chico, CA: New Horizons, 1974.

    This scholarly examination of Vivekananda examines critically the orthodox Ramakrishna view, instead focusing on Vivekananda as a historical figure. Although it does not examine Vivekananda’s devotion to the goddess Kali, it does examine the practical Vedanta Advaita doctrine.

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