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I read avidly the available writings on Hinduism and especially the collected works of Swami Vivekananda. In the context of colonial Trinidad and claims for Christian superiority, Swami Vivekananda spoke powerfully to a young Hindu mind.
I [did] three years of intensive study in India with Swami Dayananda Saraswati, in which we read the commentaries of Śaṇkara on the principal Upaniṣads, the Bhagavdgītā and the Brahmasūtra. This study was integrated with training in relevant religious practices (sādhana).
Rambachan completed his undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. He received his M.A. (Distinction) and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom, where he researched "classical Advaita epistemology and, in particular, the significance of the śruti as a source of valid knowledge (pramāṇa) in Śaṅkara."
Since 1985 Rambachan has been teaching in the Department of Religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, USA, where he "continued my research and writing on Advaita, the Hindu tradition in a global context, Hindu ethics, Hinduism and contemporary issues and interreligious dialogue."
Rambachan is a Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, USA. He has been teaching at St. Olaf since 1985. Rambachan is a Hindu and was the first non-Christian chair of the Religion Department at this Lutheran college. He is a member of the Theological Education Steering Committee of the American Academy of Religion, the Advisory Council of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Society, University of Victoria, BC, Canada, an advisor to Harvard University's Pluralism Project and a member with Consultation on Population and Ethics, a non-governmental organization, affiliated with the United Nations.
Rambachan is very involved with interreligious dialogue and more specifically, Hindu-Christian dialogue. He continues to participate in interreligious activities, both nationally and internationally. He is an active member and participant in the dialogue program of the World Council of Churches and participated in the last four General Assemblies.
He has traveled and lectured in Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya, India, Trinidad, Brazil, The Vatican, Japan, Italy, Spain, Canada and the United Kingdom. A series of 25 lectures was broadcast internationally by the BBC. Rambachan also led the first White House celebration of the Hindu Festival of Diwali in 2003. He continues to return to Trinidad on a yearly basis and was awarded the Chaconia Gold Medal, Trinidad and Tobago's second highest national honor for public service.
Studies of classical Advaita
In several of his publications Rambachan analyses Vivekananda's understanding of Adi Shankara's Advaita Vedanta. Rambachan shows how Vivekananda interprets anubhava as to mean "personal experience", akin to religious experience, whereas Shankara used the term to denote liberating understanding of the sruti. Rambachan himself explains:
It is my years of study with Swami Dayananda Saraswati that made me aware of a sharply different understanding of the nature and role of the śruti in relation to the gain of liberation (mokṣa). This understanding is centered on Śaṅkara’s regard for the śruti as a source of valid knowledge (pramāṇa). Śaṅkara does not dismiss other sources of knowledge. He, in fact, commends the necessity and value of these in their appropriate spheres. In relation to the knowledge of brahman, however, he argued that all other sources were subordinate and supplementary. Unlike Swami Vivekananda, who contended that the teachings of the śruti had a provisional validity and required verification from anubhava, Śaṅkara describes the śruti as a self-valid source of knowledge. Śruti will not be a pramāṇa if it fails to independently engender liberating knowledge (pramā). There is no evidence in the commentaries of Śaṅkara that he argued for experience of any kind as a pramāṇa with the same status as śruti.
I discovered also that many commentators uncritically identified Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of the significance of the śruti with Śaṅkara, and Śaṅkara was described as affirming experience as a pramāṇa. Śaṅkara’s Advaita was classified as a form of mysticism on the basis that he proposed mystical experience as the highest source of knowledge. I undertook my doctoral research to examine and account for these differences between the classical tradition and its foremost contemporary exponent. I focused on how Śaṅkara and Vivekananda understood the source of liberating knowledge (brahmajñāna) and the process of its attainment.
Rambachan has been criticised for this conclusion by Rajiv Malhotra, an enthusiast follower of Vivekananda, who also interprets anubhava as to mean "direct experience", seeing Rambachan's position as a threat to "Hinduism’s unity":
Unfortunately, the importance of direct experience in Hinduism is vigorously contested by members of the neo-Hinduism camp. They claim that authentic tradition, especially Advaita Vedanta, considers only the sruti (Vedic text) as the path to moksha (enlightenment); therefore, anubhava, or direct experience, cannot lead to moksha. They cite Shankara’s works (of the eighth century CE) to support their position. Since Vivekananda emphasized anubhava, he is accused of having violated this core tenet of classical Hinduism.
The dangerous implication of this position is that it makes Vedanta and yoga appear mutually incompatible, thereby undermining Hinduism’s unity. This is the main philosophical attack denying the existence of Hinduism as a coherent, unified and continuous system.
Contrary to the argument of Rajiv Malhotra, Rambachan's position is not that Vedanta and Yoga are incompatible. While Shankara admits the value of Yoga, he clearly does not regard Yoga practice as a valid source of knowledge for Brahman. Shankara stands on the primacy of the Upanishads as the source of this liberating knowledge. Experience of any kind may be ancillary and supportive to the Upanishads. Rambachan has argued that a Hindu unity predicated on the premise of a homogenized tradition will be superficial. Unity can be grounded also in a mature and respectful acknowledgement of diversity.
Anantanand Rambachan published an extensive defense of himself and other scholars against Rajiv Malhotra's characterizations. He states that Rajiv Malhotra's characterizations "belong appropriately to the realm of fiction and are disconnected from reality."
- Rambachan, Anantanand (1991). Accomplishing the accomplished: the Vedas as a source of valid knowledge in Śankara. [Honolulu]: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1358-8.
- Rambachan, Anantanand (2006). The Advaita worldview: God, world, and humanity. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-6852-6.
- Rambachan, Anantanand (1994). The limits of scripture: Vivekananda's reinterpretation of the Vedas. [Honolulu]: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1542-4.
Rambachan has created a two-part video series on the Hindu Vision as well as a lecture - video on the Bhagavadgita entitled, Gitanidarsana: Similies of the Bhagavadgita. He has also co-produced an informative CD-ROM, Hinduism: Wisdom and Way.
- "Untangling the False Knots in Rajiv Malhotra's 'Indra's Net,' http://swarajyamag.com/culture/untangling-the-false-knots-in-rajiv-malhotras-indras-net/
- National Library of Trinidad
- Rambachan 1984.
- Rambachan 1991.
- Rambachan 1994.
- Rajiv Malhotra, Eight Myths to be Challenged
- Anantanand Rambachan (1991), Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Shankara. Honolu: University of Hawaii Press, pp.112-113.
- Anantanand Rambachan (2013), The Traditional Roots of Difference. Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Volume 26, 2013, 2-9.
- National Library and Information System of Trinidad and Tobago
- St. Olaf College
- World Council of Churches Address Notification
- Rambachan, Anant Anand (1984), The attainment of moksha according to Shankara and Vivekananda with special reference to the significance of scripture (sruti) and experience (anubhabva) (PDF), University of Leeds
- Rambachan, Anantanand (1991), Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Shankara, University of Hawaii Press
- Rambachan, Anatanand (1994), The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda's Reinterpretation of the Vedas, University of Hawaii Press
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