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Finding the Unfamiliar in the Familiar

Peter Heehs

Edited by Amiya P. Sen
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2006, pp. xi 242, Rs. 595.00


Growing up in Pennsylvania during the 1960s, my friends and I used to hang out at a drugstore (that is, a combined eating place, general store and pharmacy) in an outer suburb of Philadelphia. Bolted to the lunch-counter of this establishment was an ancient fortune-telling machine. On its front was the picture of a turbaned “Swami” who would share his knowledge of the future with anyone who inserted a small coin. A decade or so later, when I saw the well-known picture of Vivekananda clad in robes and turban, I realized that he was the unacknowledged model of the fortune-telling Swami of my youth. The rusting artefact on the drugstore lunch-counter testified to the nationwide celebrity enjoyed by Vivekananda seventy years before.   Today nobody in south-eastern Pennsylvania – apart from the tiny minority with an interest in Indian spirituality – knows a thing about the man who brought the message of Vedanta to the United States. In India it took a while for Vivekananda’s name to become known – he wrote somewhat testily to brother disciples in 1894 that things might have gone better for him if people in Madras and Calcutta had held meetings “recognizing me as their representative and thanking the American people for receiving me with kindness” – but once established, his reputation has never ceased to grow. In 2000 he came out tops in the “great minds and spiritual lights” category in a Times of India poll to select the greatest Indians of the twentieth century – even though he died in 1902. His image is everywhere, quotations or half-quotations from his works appear on billboards and in the newspapers. But, as always is the case when a man becomes an icon, the richness and complexity of his life and works have been overshadowed or replaced by popular representations or misrepresentations. His words have not yet been reduced to the level of fortune-telling inanities, but they have been made use of by all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas, some of which are very much at odds with the Swami’s hopes for a strong and spiritually united India.   An anthology of the works of a significant writer should serve two purposes. First it should familiarize a new or different readership with the works that made the writer famous. Second, it should defamiliarize these very same writings by throwing them up against less-known works that show different sides of the writer’...

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