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Gurus, Women, and Yoga: The Spiritual World of Hindu Universalism

Monday, September 23, 2019, 5:30 – 7pm

Common Room, CSWR, 42 Francis Ave.

Gurus, Women, and Yoga


Annual Hindu View of Life Lecture

After the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Vivekananda became a global celebrity and an emissary of neo-Vedanta or Hindu Universalism in Europe and America. He brought the practice of Raja Yoga and new forms of Hindu teaching to Europe and America, shaping Western disciples searching for post-Christian spirituality. This lecture will examine how Vivekananda conveyed the meaning of ‘guru-bakhti’ to his new female disciples, and the spiritual lens through which he sought to mold them. He had grown up in an entirely male spiritual milieu, where the guru’s power was transmitted to worthy male aspirants. In the West, Vivekananda had to adapt much of his teaching (i.e. guru-disciple relationship and the practice of meditation) to encompass an entirely new world of feminine devotees, many of whom had engaged in spiritualism, hypnotherapy and, above all, Christian Science. Professor Harris argues that he had to adapt to their concerns while constantly differentiating neo-Vedanta from a host of competing, and his view, spiritually deficient, Western ideas and practices. He also had to protect neo-Vedanta and his own mission from the suspicion of luring women away from their native faith into a world of seductive ‘orientalism.’ Last and not least, pleased though he was by the loyalty and seriousness of his female devotees, he was keen to locate men who would lead the movement outside of India, yet he was much less successful recruiting men than women.

Ruth Harris is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at All Souls’ College. She has published widely in the history of religion, science, women’s history, French history, and more recently, global history.




Professor Charles Stang. Photo: Justin Knight
Professor Charles M. Stang
Director, CSWR

The CSWR seeks to promote the study of the world’s religions in their classical and contemporary forms, serving both as a residential community of students and scholars and an international “think tank” in the study of religion.



Thirteen apartments located within the CSWR are available for rent by students and affiliates of Harvard University by application to the Center.

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