The Hermeneutics of Religious Syncretism: Swami Vivekananda

Author: 
Bryson, Thomas L.
Year: 
1992

     This study begins with a discussion of syncretism. "I . . . trace the history of the term's usage and sketch the immense range of religions to which scholars have applied it. After proposing a definition, I examine a central pre-supposition of syncretism: the existence of a 'tradition.' Next, I address the question of agency in syncretism. In my proposal the primary agent is the individual syncretic leader who assimilates alien symbolic elements to a canonical framework in a context of cultural dissonance. I . . . set forth a methodologically plural approach to the analysis of this phenomenon, using historical, sociological, and psychological categories. . . . After considering reflexive aspects of this hermeneutical exercise, I [apply] . . . the model in the following chapters to the case history of Swami Vivekananda, founder of the Ramakrishna Movement in 19th century Bengal."
     I have divided the cultural contexts of Vivekananda's life into two major fields -- conventionally labeled 'Hinduism' and the 'West.' . . . . Under the Western division I consider first the colonial Indian context: British administration, the Christian missionary presence in Calcutta, and education. Then I consider his travels outside of India to the West, especially America where he spent most of his time; the relevant contexts considered there include audiences, the press, the missionaries, and major individual relationships. Under the Hindu division . . . I consider traditional social linkages (caste, Bhadralok society), immediate family), Vivekananda's own personhood (abilities and tendencies), his voluntary associations (Brahmo Samaj and Ramakrishna's community), the Calcutta press, travel experiences in India, and important individual relationships. In each case I select representative illustrations rather than attempt an exhaustive presentation. Each of these subdivisions I again relate to the issue of cultural bipolarity and construe the relative significance and probable meaning each of the particular contexts had for Vivekananda -- whether as a general model for the resolution of inter-cultural conflict or as building-block for his own model."
     Then I . . . analyze the syncretic process at the individual level insofar as it is revealed in Vivekananda's works . . . . Finally, I . . . present the view of Vivekananda -- again emphasizing mythic and symbolic genres -- developed by his successors and followers. This view represents the ongoing consolidation of his syncretism within a community and the accompanying creation of new strategies and traditions of interpretation. . . In this final chapter I . . . review the arguments and note areas where work remains to be done. I conclude that the heuristic use of the category of syncretism results in a productive phenomenological reading of the historical and textual evidence and reveals patterns in cross-cultural interpretations which may be reflected also in scholarly appropriations.

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