The Ramakrishna movement originated in India in the latter nineteenth century, based on the teachings of an Indian saint and mystic named Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). The movement was brought to the United States by the Bengali saint's disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who represented Hinduism at the 1893 Chicago World Parliament of Religions. If Ramakrishna was the spiritual founder of the movement, Vivekananda stands out as the movement's chief organizer and publicist. Staying on after the Parliament, the swami lectured widely on Hinduism and founded the first Vedanta societies in America. As the first Asian religious movement to establish centers in the United States, the Ramakrishna movement may be said to have launched a new era in American religious history, pioneering the way for the numerous Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian religious groups now active in the United States.
The Ramakrishna movement's message to Americans has been the Vedanta, a tradition that traces its inspiration back to the Upanishads, which originated as philosophical commentaries on the Vedas. As interpreted by Shankara, its most important early proponent, the Vedanta philosophy emphasizes a nondualistic view, arguing that all distinctions are unreal and that the only reality is Brahman. In addition to nondualism, the message presented by Ramakrishna swamis in the United States reveals a strong emphasis on Vedanta's universalism, compatibility with modern science, and ethical teachings. While presenting a broad, philosophical Hinduism to the American public, among close followers the movement has increasingly emphasized devotion to Ramakrishna and to Ramakrishna's wife, Sarada Devi, known to devotees as the "Holy Mother." Some have argued that the rising prominence of devotionalism threatens to undermine the movement's universalistic message.
While consistently denying any desire to propagate Hinduism or to convert Americans, the Ramakrishna movement has attracted a small American following numbering in the thousands. The membership has remained fairly steady since the 1890s, with a membership at present of approximately twenty-five hundred followers organized into twelve Vedanta societies. Historically, the typical follower has come from an educated middle- or upper-middle-class background; most have been female, many with earlier "spiritual seeker" roots; and a majority reveal prior Protestant upbringing. However, since the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which for the first time allowed significant immigration from India, Asian Indians have become increasingly prominent, a development that has brought important changes to the movement.
Organizationally, each of the Vedanta societies is headed by a senior swami, who looks to the Belur Math in Calcutta for direction. The worldwide movement consists of two guiding organizations, the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission, with the Math representing the movement's monastic wing and the Mission directing the movement's extensive medical, relief, and educational programs in India. In practice, however, the two organizations operate as one, with the trustees of the Math serving as the Mission's governing board. In the early history of the American movement, individual Vedanta societies enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, with the local swami often playing a decisive role in each society's message and work. However, since World War II the Indian headquarters has steadily worked to establish greater control over the American centers, a manifestation of the Indian organization's increasing conservatism.
The significance of the Ramakrishna movement cannot be measured by its small numbers. Thanks to its long and continuous history in the United States and the intellectual stature of several of its U.S. swamis (Swamis Nikhilananda, Prabhavananda, Paramananda, and Akhilananda, among others), it has played a leading role in expanding American awareness of Hinduism and the Vedanta philosophy. Indeed, more than any other Hindu group, the Ramakrishna movement has served as the "official" voice of Hinduism in the United States, a role suggested by the movement's frequent invitations to represent Hinduism at interreligious congresses, as well as by the prominence of Ramakrishna movement translations and commentaries in contemporary bookstores and as texts in classes on world religions.
Today the Ramakrishna movement continues to work quietly, with major centers in such urban areas as Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Boston; New York City; Providence; St. Louis; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle. Also active in other Western countries, it maintains contemporary centers in Canada, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Argentina. Never concerned to reach a large audience, the movement promises to remain small. However, its early appearance on American shores, wide intellectual influence, and recognized position as the voice of Hinduism seem to guarantee that it will always be remembered as a pioneer in the introduction of Asian religion in America and the West.
French, Harold W. The Swan's WideWaters:Ramakrishna and Western Culture. 1974.
Jackson, Carl T. Vedanta for the West: TheRamakrishnaMovement in the United States. 1994.
Yale, John, ed. What Vedanta Means to Me: A Symposium. 1960.
Carl T. Jackson