The first Vedanta society was established in New York City by Swami Vivekananda in 1894. In subsequent decades additional Vedanta societies were launched in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Providence, Saint Louis, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, among other cities. Established in the United States to support the work of the India-based Ramakrishna movement, these societies have played and continue to play a key role in the introduction of Hinduism in the West.
Historically, the Ramakrishna movement's success in establishing Vedanta societies in the United States marked a radical departure from traditional Hindu practice. Throughout most of its history, Hinduism has passed down its teachings from generation to generation, not through the promulgation of official creeds or the founding of organized societies, but by individual transmission from teacher to disciple. However, Swami Vivekananda accepted the need for organization to support his work, following his decision to remain in the United States to lecture after the 1893 Parliament of Religions. As a spiritual teacher and monk, he was quite relieved to turn over the scheduling of his lectures and the handling of travel arrangements and financial matters to the newly founded New York Vedanta Society. From the first, a policy was adopted of splitting the work of the Vedanta societies, with the Indian swamis given responsibility for the movement's spiritual teachings and the board of each Vedanta society assigned responsibility for finances and support activities.
Questions concerning the nature and extent of Indian authority over the American societies have at times arisen. Though each Vedanta society has tended to operate autonomously, the Ramakrishna Matha (monastery) and Mission, based in Calcutta, has always asserted the right to select the resident swamis and to oversee the spiritual teachings promulgated in American centers. In the 1990s the Indian headquarters moved to increase control over the American societies. On occasion, this move has led to dissent and even secession, as in the separation of the Boston Vedanta Society and its Los Angeles affiliate following the death of Swami Paramananda in 1940.
Typically, a Vedanta society fills several roles, providing a home for the resident swami as well as serving as a center of the Ramakrishna movement's religious activities. In larger centers, American devotees may live in the society quarters. Unlike other Hindu movements—such as the Self-Realization Fellowship and transcendental meditation, which have aggressively propagated their teachings through advertising and other channels—the Vedanta societies have consistently rejected such methods, preferring to promote their message through word-of-mouth reports and the sale of books. As the century ended, the societies increasingly interacted with outside religious groups, frequently participating in interreligious conferences. While the adoption of Sunday services, emphasis on a broad philosophical message, and acceptance of organization suggest significant accommodations to the West, the Vedanta societies remain quite Indian in their continued reliance on Indian-born swamis and control from the Belur Matha in Calcutta.
Jackson, Carl T. Vedanta for the West: TheRamakrishnaMovement in the United States. 1994.
Kaushal, Radley Shyam. The PhilosophyoftheVedanta:A Modern Perspective. 1994.
Carl T. Jackson
American Vedanta Societies stem from the visit to the United States by Swami Vivekananda in 1893, when he lectured on Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. The Swami founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1896, followed by the Vedanta Society of San Francisco in 1900.
Swami Vivekananda became the foremost interpreter of Yoga and Hinduism in Western countries, basing his teachings on the inspiration of his master Sri Ramakrishna.
Vedanta comprises the supreme wisdom of the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures of India, together with the Upanishads, which derived from them. This wisdom is manifest as a revelatory experience after following spiritual disciplines (such as the various forms of yoga ) in conjunction with scripture study under the guidance of a qualified guru or teacher.
There are now some sixteen Vedanta Centres in the United States which form branches of the Ramakrishna Order of India. Addresses: Vedanta Society of Northern California, 2323 Vallejo St., San Francisco, CA 94123; Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1946 Vedanta Pl., Hollywood, CA 90068. There are also Vedanta Centre/Ananda Ashrama communities providing spiritual retreats in both Massachusetts and Southern California. Addresses: Vedanta Centre, 130 Beechwood St., Cohasset, MA 02025; Ananda Ashrama, 5301 Pennsylvania Ave., CA 91214.