Swami Vivekananda's Concept of Woman

Narasingha P. Sil
Western Oregon State College


Though slightly over five feet eight inches tall, quite plump and cherubic, with a body weight of some hundred and eighty pounds, Swami Vivekananda (Narendranath Datta, 1863-1902) charmed and mystified the women of America and England with his handsome visage, rich baritone voice, colorful silk robe and turban, and sweet chanting in exotic Sanskrit. Edith Allan of San Francisco felt he "towered above ordinary mortals"1while her husband Tom regarded the Swami as a forty feet giant.2Josephine MacLeod of New York was struck by Vivekananda's "unlimitedness": "the amazing size of him!"3Another New Yorker, Christina Greenstidel, found him in Detroit "a powerful saint" full of "the ojas. . ., that mysterious power which comes when the physical forces of the body are transmuted into spiritual power."4

The thirty year old monk not only seemed tall and terrific but immeasurably mysterious and holy. Blanche Partington felt he seemed to be "a Buddha come to judgment"5 and an old woman in London, while listening to his sermons, felt she was beholding at "someone out of the Bible."6 To Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita), the Swami in his crimson robe, chanting "Siva! Siva!" resembled Raphael's portrait of the "Sistine Child."7 He exuded such holiness by touching a Detroit high school teacher of German that she "couldn't bear to wash. . .[her] hand for three days!"8 On meeting him for the first time, Mrs. Allan kept on weeping and had all her miseries washed away, so to speak, while the Madame Emma CalvŽ felt her brain emptied "of all its feverish complexities."9 Even Laura Glenn's (Sister Devamata) dog, reportedly, seemed to be aware of the monk's sacred presence.10

In spite of the Swami's phenomenal popularity with the American women, his attitude toward them as well as toward femininity in general was markedly condescending at best and contemptuous at worst. Vivekananda scholars have generally overlooked or ignored his gender bias that lurks behind his numerous sermons, speeches, comments and conversations. My paper seeks to examine it and suggest that in spite of his occasional extravagant admiration for the American women and his insistence on the regeneration of Indian women and his claim for gender equality, he remained, basically, a typical Bengali Hindu of his time with a schizophrenic attitude: obsequious to the maternal but suspicious and paranoid of the erotic in woman. He ultimately suffered a severe emotional crisis which sprang from his close contact with Western women--an experience he never had before coming to the States but one he loved as well as dreaded.


The Western women, on their part, profoundly impressed the Swami, who was simply charmed by his admirers, mostly female, who later became his devotees and disciples. "There are no women in the world comparable" [to the Americans]. . . .How pure, free, self-reliant and kind they are," he wrote to Ramakrishnananda. "Women are everything in this country. . . .When I see the women here, boom! I'm at my wit's end" [akkel gudum], confessed the enchanted young monk.11 To Alasinga Perumal he had written on November 2, 1893: "The average American woman is far more cultivated than the average American man. The men slave all their life for money, and the women snatch every opportunity to improve themselves." And his conclusion was: "Asia laid the germs of civilization, Europe developed man, America is developing the woman and the masses."12 A few months later he reiterated his praise for them: "In this country, women are the life of every movement and represent all the cultures of the nation."13 The American maidens appeared to the ascetic as the embodiment of purity itself, and even more. In his inspired hyperbole, they are "pure as the icicle on Diana's temple and withal with much culture, education, and spirituality in the highest sense."14 In short, as Swamiji would have it, "they are the grandest women in the world."15

His fascination with the American women was typical of the Bengali obsession with fair skin--something even his mentor, Ramakrishna, had exhibited often. He was disarmingly candid in a letter to a friend (having duly cautioned him to treat the letter as strictly confidential) that "the American women are very beautiful" and by contrast "even the prettiest woman of our country will look like a black owl there."16 The young ascetic was so carried away by the beauty of the American women that he did not even bother to contradict his observation on the beauty of the Hindu women made only a few months earlier that to see a Hindu girl "is to pause and marvel that God could make anything so exquisite."17

The Swami's gratitude for the American women was the outcome of his deep indebtedness to their generosity. Deep down at heart, he had been aware of the magnitude of love, kindness, respect, and material and moral assistance provided by them. He was quite candid in his acknowledgment in this regard in his letter to his Indian patron and disciple, Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri: "American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! I have not words enough to express the depth of Oriental gratitude--_If the Indian Ocean were an inkstand, the highest mountain of the Himalayas, the pen, the earth, the scroll and time itself, the writer', still it will not express my gratitude to you!"18

Yet Vivekananda was quite critical of women in the Western world. For example, he criticized the American women whom he had once considered as "pure as the icicle on Diana's temple," grossly materialistic. In a fiery sermon he challenged his audience to show him "a dozen spiritual women in America." "Nice dress, wealth, brilliant society, operas, novels," he quipped. "There should also be spirituality, but that side is entirely absent from Christian countries. They live in India."19 He claimed in a public lecture that "the Hindu women are very spiritual and very religious, perhaps more so than any other women in the world."20 A lady who had listened to the Swami say in a lecture in Pasadena that Indian women were more moral than the lustful Western women, exclaimed at his secretary, Mrs. Alice Hansbrough, trying to escort him out of the lecture hall: "You little fool! Don't you know he hates you?"21

He confided to his disciple Saracchandra Chakrabarti that the American sluts and buggers (magi minsegulo) used to be sexually aroused after hearing his lectures.22 He found the Boston women to be particularly wretched. As he declared there, they were "not steady, serious and sincere."23 He in fact classified the women of Boston as "all faddists, all fickle, merely bent on following something new and strange."24 He must have resented having to playact a Hindu mystery man at the home of his hostess Kate Sanborn, whose notice he had attracted while journeying by train from Chicago to Massachusetts in 1893. Most probably, during his initial months in the United States, he had not yet internalized his newly formed image of a princely ascetic from the East. He thus may have been embarrassed, even enraged, by Mrs. Sanborn's driving him through the streets of Boston in a horse-drawn carriage furnished with a liveryman. He might have been upset even more after having read the report in newspapers.25 He probably alluded to this experience in his letter to Alasinga: "Just now I am living as the guest of an old lady in a village near Boston. . . .I have an advantage in living with her. . .and she has the advantage of inviting her friends over here and showing them a curio from India!"26


Swami Vivekananda basically harbored a set of values typical of the Bengali culture. The Bengali or, for that matter, the Indian, perception of femininity oscillates between extremes--maternal and carnal. Cutting across this polarity there runs a series of negative qualities associated with effeminacy such as lethargy, cowardice, volatility, and immaturity. The woman in her "negative" aspects is seen as an impediment to man's realization of higher ideals presumed to be manly and holy. The Swami inherited his gender consciousness from his culture, which extolled the ideal of a de-erotized woman as a mother figure and condemned the sexual female as an ogre. As Robert Goldman has demonstrated, "in many texts women are idealized as pure, spiritual, and nurturant when they are de-erotized and placed in clearly defined and sexually tabooed blood relationships such as those of mother, sister, or daughter. In other words, when emphasis is placed on their sexuality, they are often vilified for this aspect of their nature and condemned as temptress, seductress, or whore."27

He was convinced that the cultivation of purity of thought was predicated upon chastity. From Frank Rhodehamel's report of his sermons to a packed gathering in San Francisco we learn that "as a practice to develop purity, he expounded the theory of looking upon every woman as one's mother."28 He thus declared that "the ideal of woman in India is the mother, the mother first, and the mother last. The word woman calls up to the mind of the Hindu, motherhood. . .that marvellous, unselfish, all-suffering, ever-forgiving mother."29 And the mother "deserved worship" because she "was a saint in bringing. . .[her child] into the world" by keeping "her body pure, her mind pure, her food pure, her clothes pure, her imagination pure, for years" in expectation of becoming a mother.30 With a view to demonstrating the universality of the Hindu apotheosis of motherhood, he provided an example from contemporary Europe. "In the religion," Swamiji wrote in a fantastic essay titled "The East and the West" (Prachya O Pashchatya), "Jehovah, Jesus, and the Trinity are secondary; there the worship is for the Mother--She, the Mother with the Child Jesus on her arms. The emperor cries _Mother,' the field-marshal cries _Mother,' the fisherman in his rags cries _Mother,' the beggar in the street cries _Mother!' A million voices in a million ways, from a million places--from the palace, from the cottage, from the church, cry _Mother,' _Mother,' _Mother!' Everywhere is the cry _Ave Maria,' day and night, _Ave Maria,' _Ave Maria!'"31

This attitude of obsequious passive surrender to woman as mother transmuted into ecstatic devotion to Goddess Kali, the Universal Mother (Jagajjanani or Jagadamba) became a concomitant to this unmistakable misogynist culture that verbally exalted the female as the mother but denied her identity as a sexual being, at par with the male. "Is woman a name to be coupled with the physical body only? he asked his audience in a lecture. "Ay! the Hindu mind fears all those ideals which say that the flesh must cling unto the flesh. No, no! Woman! thou shalt not be coupled with anything connected with the flesh. The name has been called holy once and for ever, for what name is there which no lust can ever approach, no carnality even come near, than the one word mother?"32 Vivekananda's idea of an immaculate mother was typical of bhadralok imagination. This is clear in his elder cousin Ram Datta's adoration for the Holy Mother Saradamani's surrogate motherhood of the Paramahamsa's devotees and disciples. As Ram wrote in his biography of Sri Ramakrishna: "After all she was no ordinary wife. Could the wife of someone who was the master of thousands of [spiritual] orphans, the deliverer of unlimited number of reprobates, the jewel of the heart of the Lord of the Universe, deign to acquire the habits of beasts given to sexual appetites? The scriptures approve of [the union of] man and woman for begetting a son. O Ma, you are mother to thousands of sons and daughters. Do you have to lower yourself to the status of dogs and jackals in order to become mother?"33


The tragic death by suicide of Vivekananda's younger sister Yogendrabala as well as his experience with the Western women had made him conscious of the tribulation and degradation of the Indian women, for which he expressed his utter indignation in a conversation with a visitor at Belur: "Look here, Baba [this affectionate form connotes both a father or a child], you have cried enough about sati ["chaste woman"] and burnt thousands of widows on the bamboo pyre. . . .are all women guilty of passion and lust? . . . [You] hypocrites and selfish to the bone! . . .quit humiliating the Mother of the Universe and you will see how quickly the country prospers."34 For him the most important step toward women's liberation was their education.

He, however, obliquely disapproved of their "modern" education. As he declared in the United States, even though Indian women had exhibited "spiritual genius and great strength of mind" in the past, contemporary women constituted a degenerate lot, who think of "nothing but eating and drinking, gossip and scandal"35--a misleading statement most probably based on his hasty reading of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay's satirical essay "Prachina O Nabina."36 He therefore prescribed an education that would create "great fearless women--women worthy to continue the traditions of Sanghamitra, Lila, Ahalya Bai, and Mira Bai--women fit to be mothers of heroes. . .".37

In other words, such an education was to be predicated on what Swamiji considered "true womanhood." For him, true womanhood consisted in "the old-time intensity of trustful and devoted companionship to the husband," as Nivedita writes.38 Hence he reminded his countrymen: "O India! Forget not that the ideal of thy womanhood is Sita, Savitri, Damayanti."39 He categorically asserted that "the women of India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only way."40 Indeed, for him, the ideal of Hindu womanhood remained, as these names make it manifestly clear, chastity and loyalty to husband. Development of true womanhood was thus the primary goal of women's education. As Nivedita has written, according to Swamiji, "unless it held and developed the spirit of true womanhood, there could be no education of woman worthy of the name."41


Vivekananda's upbringing in his patriarchal culture precluded any meaningful contact with females other than his own direct relations. As was the case with a middle-class Bengali family of the nineteenth century, young Narendranath's association with women was limited either to siblings or cousins or aunts and the elderly. With both groups he could be frivolous, even wanton. At college, his companions were all male (the General Assembly's Institution where did his B.A. admitted coeds much later, after it had changed itself into the Scottish Church College). Such an upbringing squared very well with his later ascetic life (free from contact with women, except the elder female devotees of the Master and his relatively young widow who was regarded as the Holy Mother) that was predicated upon Ramakrishna's dictum against kamini-kanchana (literally, "woman and gold," but denoting "lust and lure"), especially the Master's phobia of a sexual female.

Nevertheless, the Swami showed himself to be quite a female watcher. He was both keen and curious about the figures and fashions of the American women. In a letter to his monastic brother he observed that the American women belonged to the race of the titans (birochaner jat) and that they were extremely body-conscious and thus "always keep their body clean and made up."42 He noticed that "in the West, men of forty years and women of fifty years are still young" and "the secret is that they do not marry at an early age." However, he also noticed that the upper class women "suffer the torment to death to make themselves shapely in appearance. . .by squeezing the waist, making the spine crooked, and thus displacing the liver and spleen and disfiguring the form!" He even observed that "as a matter of fact, the dress of the English and the German women is not good because "they do not generally follow the Paris fashions." Further, he noticed that the Western women danced with exposed face, shoulders, and upper part of the body to view."43

Though he declared in Detroit that "the girls of India would die if they like American girls were obliged to expose half their bodies to the vulgar gaze of young men,"44 he did not seem to be particularly upset or offended by the "exposure" of the American women, for we have his preference for female curves which he made explicit to Nivedita by confessing that "fat plump spinsters were good--but thin never."45 In fact he claimed to poseess a knowledge of the intimate garments of the English women in the Middle Ages. In an informal gathering at the home of the Harvard professor John Henry Wright, Vivekananda declared that the English were savages "just a little while ago," an instance of their savagery being the fact that "the vermin crawled on the ladies' bodices. . .".46


Vivekananda always emphasized "man-making" as his educational goal for building character and equipping students to the task of what he called "life-building."47 This program of education included women as well as the lower castes (they were often lumped together by the Swami). However, he equivocated with the word man (manus in Bengali), occasionally using it in a generic sense--"mankind" or "humanity"--but often meaning specifically "male." For example, his concept for manliness--standing for both the Bengali manusyatva ("humanity" or "humanness") and purusatva ("masculinity" or "maleness"), often denoted the latter. In a letter to Mary Hale, he clearly defined his idea in this regard. With a view to inspiring her, he wrote: "The gods themselves have no clue as to women's moods and man's fate, what to speak of human beings" [translation of the Sanskrit adage striyah charitram purusasya bhagyancha devah na jananti, kutoh manusyah]? My instincts may be feminine, but what I am exercised with just this moment is, that you get a little bit of manliness about you." He pointed out that this manliness would inculcate "individuality" with "backbone," which she, her "brain, health, beauty. . .haughtiness, spirit, etc." notwithstanding, did not possess.48

In fact, he was quite explicit and deliberate about his attitude to femininity. In his letter written from Almora to Akhandananda he declared: "I am a fighter [bir] and will die in the battlefield. It does not behoove me to sit idle like a woman here."49 He took his south Indian disciple to task for not rising against the Christian missionaries: "I know my son, I shall have to come and manufacture men out of you. I know that India is only inhabited by women and eunuchs."50 His androcentrism was so pronounced that he once told Nivedita: "Yes, the older I grow, the more everything seems to me to lie in manliness. This is my gospel. Do even evil like a man!"51 Even while praising a woman for her gallantry in a public lecture, he unwittingly revealed his gender bias. Thus he told his audience in Boston that one of the mutineers (of 1857) led by the Rani of Jhansi regarded the queen as "a goddess" and reportedly confessed to the Swami that "when overcome, she fell on her sword and died like a man."52

The Swami often equated femininity with effeminacy. He attacked the Vaishnavas of Orissa and Bengal viciously. "Look at this nation," he observed in a conversation with Surendranath Sen. "Through the preaching of that love broadcast, the nation has become effeminate--a race of women! The whole of Orissa has been turned into a land of cowards, and Bengal, running high after the Radha-prema, these past four hundred years, has almost lost all sense of manliness."53 He in fact advised a visitor at Almora in June 1897 to "use the whip left and right" on those who were indulging in the erotic Radha-Krishna songs (meaning, of course, the Vaishnavas).54

In similar vein, he interpreted the poems of the aesthete Rabindranath Tagore (who would be the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913) as effeminate and warned Nivedita about the Tagores: "Remember that that family has poured a lot of erotic venom over Bengal."55 He ridiculed his gurubhais (brother monks) Premananda (Baburam Ghosh) and Yogananda (Yogindranath Raychaudhuri) who, as devotees of the late Paramahamsa, followed the path of devotion, as effeminate in that theirs was an attitude of a helpless and hapless woman (deenaheena bhava). He admonished them to get rid of such a mentality by reflecting: "I am the Soul, how could I be sick? _Deenaheena' for what?"56 He similarly disparaged Christianity as effeminate devotionalism (meyeli bhaktir dharma) in a conversation with his friend Priyanath Sinha.57

Besides being despicably effeminate, women also personified lust. From Turiyananda's (Harinath Chattopadhyay) reminiscences we come to know how Swamiji found inspiration for his life as a renouncer after having read an admonition in a Hindi couplet etched on the walls of a sadhu's cottage in Vrindavan. Vivekananda's choice of its message illustrates his caste and gender consciousness:

O desire, you are the lowliest of
the lowly [ati neechan ki neech],
like a woman of the caste of sweepers or tanners [chamari].
Had you not come inside me, I would have remained a Brahman.58

As a matter of fact, Vivekananda and his gurubhais at the Baranagar Math used to refer to women, old as well as young, as magi, that is, "whore." The young renouncers who habitually moved about in the monastery stark naked would cry out on seeing women visitors: "The magis are coming." Later they substituted the word magi for mogi, a pun for mog which stood for a Burmese in Bengali. Thus they changed the expression into "The mogis or the Burmese are coming," and made the adjustment fearing that some women might overhear them.59

A self-made celibate, the Swami sought to impose the same austerity on his women devotees. He literally (almost) indoctrinated the young Hale sisters, especially the most attractive of them, Mary, into remaining a virgin. He wrote to her: "This hideous world is Maya. Renounce and be happy. Give up the idea of sex and possessions. There is no other bond. Marriage and sex and money are the only living devils. All earthly love proceeds from the body. No sex, no possessions; as these fall off, the eyes open to spiritual vision. The soul regains its own infinite power."60 When someone told him that some American physicians had advised sex to a young man from India suffering from a disorder due to continence, Vivekananda thundered: "You doctors in this country who hold that chastity is against the law of nature, don't know what you are talking about. You don't know the meaning of the word purity. You are beasts! beast! I say, with the morals of a tomcat if that is the best you have to say on the subject."61 He was oblivious of the fact that his guru Ramakrishna's so-called "madness" had been diagnosed by the Master's family members and employers as an outcome of his self-inflicted continence, and they hastened to get him married.62

The Swami did not seem to consider women capable of mature behavior. Thus he declared in Madras, rather nonchalantly, that "through centuries of slavery, we have become the nation of women." He explained the predicament with an example: "You scarcely can get three women together for five minutes in this country or any other country, but they quarrel. Women make big societies in European countries, and make tremendous declarations of women's power and so on; then they quarrel, and some man comes and rules them all."63 Women are not only quarrelsome by nature, they are also meddlesome. "I am always dragging other's pain into me. . .just as women," Vivekananda once confessed to Marie Halboister, and asked her: "Do you think this has any spirituality in it? Nonsense, it is all nervous bondage."64


The Swami contrasted the fickleness and fragility of women with the stability and strength of the thoughtful, resourceful, and powerful male. He always projected the image of himself as a "Man of Fire and Flame, a regal, majestic figure, vital, forceful, dominant," in the admiring prose of Mary Funke of Detroit.65 He was not just a sadhu--a mere seeker of God; he was also a protector of the meek and the weak. He told Sister Nivedita how he rescued a helpless English woman (most probably his English patron Henrietta MŸller) deserted by her cowardly male escort from a charging mad bull by simply taking up "his stand." "The animal suddenly stopped, a few paces off, and then raising his head, retreated sullenly."66 He told her another story of his youthful gallantry in the streets of Calcutta, where he rescued another damsel in distress on a carriage dragged by a runaway horse by boldly restraining the wild beast.67 He often provided such instances of his gallantry and prowess to his Bengali admirers and devotees. Once, as a copassenger to some Englishmen in a first-class train compartment, he subdued the "racist imperialist" white men trying to kick him out of the car by simply showing them his muscles. "You may shove me," declared the proud and powerful Bengali, "but before that all of you get ready to be thrown out of the running train. Just examine my biceps and triceps before you get up to shove me out."68 Another episode, with its perfect joke-book character, involved his subduing two British army officers in a first-class train compartment. When, on seeing a monk enter the car, one of them remarked contemptuously "Here comes a log" and the other "No, here comes an ass," the indignant ascetic sat in between them and said with perfect equipoise and nonchalance: "And I am sitting between the two." The British bullies were cowed down by the Swami's personality and his command of the English language.69

Ironically, in spite of his powerful masculine image, Vivekananda possessed a most fragile health underneath his plump physique. He "did not possess what might be called an athletic physique [paloani chehara]," to quote his friend and devotee Manmathanath Gangopadhyay. "On the other hand, his arms [baju] and fingers were smooth and tapered."70 This description of the man agrees with that given by Dr. Edgar C. Beall in The Phrenological Journal: "One of the most striking peculiarities of this man is the femininity indicated in nearly every contour of the figure, face, head and hands. He has probably as perfect a conic hand as could be imagined."71

He in fact never did any physical exercise either systematically or regularly since his college days, nor was he inclined to it. He gave up the idea of learning hathayoga (various yogic postures demonstrating a high degree of control of muscular movements and breathing) from the Pavhari Baba of Ghazipur when he found out the sheer difficulty of conditioning the body through a disciplined regimen and exercise.72 He made up a fantastic excuse that he had to leave in order to save the Baba from embarrassment because the venerable old man had requested Vivekananda to teach him Vedanta. Even when the Swami was advised by physicians to do regular exercise to counter his advanced diabetic condition, he was lukewarm about, even indifferent to, it.73 Even his life style and food habits were anything but healthy. He was an overeater and a chain smoker. He probably inherited his diabetes and weak heart condition from his family and suffered from the attacks of both diseases quite early in life.74 Additionally, he suffered from dyspepsia or diarrhoea, liver complications, gallstones, lumbago, and toward the later part of his life, from asthma.75