The Inventor & The Sage: The Friendship of Swami Vivekananda and Nikola Tesla

If your knowledge of science does not extend much beyond what can be amusingly gleaned from “The Big Bang Theory”, and your familiarity with yoga is limited to the various poses mastered at a yoga class, then you might only possess a cursory knowledge (or maybe none at all) of the 19th century scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, and his contemporary, the spiritual leader of the philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga, Swami Vivekananda. Both men were, and remain, extraordinarily influential in their respective fields: Tesla in physics, Vivekananda in Hinduism.

The idea that the pair did become friends and attempted to find commonalities in their seemingly polar-opposite pursuits, does sound improbable. Yet, their friendship is well-documented, as is their attempt to work out a mathematical proof for the ideas central to their respective ideologies—how the universe works, and that matter and energy are in fact one. Their ideas and their unity of thought are remarkable on more than one level. Not only do they demonstrate accord between science and religion, they also bring to light the fact that scientific ideas accepted as cutting-edge modern today, were actually divined thousands of years ago.

Who was Swami Vivekananda?

Swami Vivekananda was born in Calcutta, India in 1863, to an affluent family of lawyers, and was named Narendranath Dutta at birth. He was very well educated in both Eastern and Western thought, and developed a devout interest in Hinduism early on. Later in life, he became a disciple of Indian mystic and yogi Ramakrishna, and Vedanta, one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy.

Vivekananda’s spiritual mentor Ramakrishna was considered by many at the time to be the living incarnation of God. He astounded the crowds that flocked to him by slipping into a transported state that he described as “God consciousness,” existing with neither sleep nor food for days at a time. Vivekananda was his closest and most influential disciple, and Ramakrishna charged him with carrying the message of Vedanta to the world.

A very, very, brief primer on the Vedanta philosophy…

The teachings of Vedanta are rooted in the Vedas — ancient scriptures thought to date back at least 5,000 years. The Vedic texts of the Upanishads enshrine a core belief that God is both within and without—that the divine is everywhere. The texts are a collection of writings such as hymns, prayers, myths, historical accounting as well as dissertations on science, and the nature of reality. The nature of matter, antimatter, and the make-up of atomic structure are described in the Vedas. The language of the Vedas is Sanskrit.

According to Carl Jackson, in his 1994 book, “The Founders, Vedanta for the West: the Ramakrishna movement in the United States, Vivekananda summarised the Vedanta as follows:

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

Within the Vedic view and cosmology, there is an undifferentiated form of material energy called prana, which is the source of all other forms of energy permeating the Universe on all levels. Prana — usually translated as “life force” — is the prime mover of all activity and is energy which creates, protects and destroys. Another related term within the philosophy is Akasha, which means “æther”, or the original and first (fifth) element, acting as the space that holds everything– both the material and non-material elements that make up our existence. 

Who was Nikola Tesla?

Born in 1856, in what is now Serbia, Tesla was a brilliant student who showed a talent for invention very early on in life. After reading the works of physicist and spiritualist Sir William Crookes, he embarked on a career in electronics. Before immigrating to the United States in 1884, Tesla had already gained much experience in the field of electronic transmission of voice and data and electrical engineering.

By the year 1891, at the age of 35, Tesla had already invented a number of useful devices: a system of arc lighting (1886); the alternating current motor, power generation and transmission systems (1888); systems of electrical conversion and distribution by oscillatory discharges (1889); and a generator of high frequency currents (1890), among others. In 1891, however, Tesla patented one of his most famous inventions. It is the basis for the wireless transmission of electrical power and is known as the Tesla Coil Transformer.

Although not as famous as his contemporary, Thomas Edison, for whom he had worked when he first arrived in America (and with whom he had a complicated relationship, to put it lightly), Tesla gave the world some of its most important developments in science and technology: wireless communication, the alternating current motor, fluorescent lights and the AC electrical-distribution system still used throughout the world today.

As early as 1891, Tesla described the universe as a kinetic system filled with energy which could be harnessed at any location, and sought to prove and explain this concept.

The sage and the inventor meet…

In 1893, Vivekananda travelled to America to hold lectures on Vedanta philosophy. He was the first known Hindu sage to come to the West to introduce Eastern thought at the World’s Parliament of Religions, and by all accounts, he was a hit. The Swami impressed everyone who saw and heard him, and became an in-demand guest at social gatherings.

As eminent personalities of the time, Swami Vivekananda and Nikola Tesla frequented the same social circles. According to an article by Toby Grotz, President of the International Tesla Society who organized and chaired two Tesla symposiums in the 1980s, the two men met at one of the soirees given by a famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt.

It was at a party given by Sarah Bernhardt that Nikola Tesla probably first met Swami Vivekananda. Sarah Bernhardt was playing the part of ‘Iziel’ in a play of the same name. It was a French version about the life of Bhudda. The actress upon seeing Swami Vivekananda in the audience, arranged a meeting which was also attended by Nikola Tesla. In a letter to a friend, dated February 13th, 1896, Swami Vivekananda noted the following:

Mr. Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic Prana and Akasha and the Kalpas, which according to him are the only theories modern science can entertain. . .

Swami Vivekananda was hopeful that Tesla would be able to show that what we call matter is simply potential energy because that would reconcile the teachings of the Vedas with modern science.

The Tesla-Vivekananda empirical pursuit…

In 1895, Vivekananda wrote in a letter to a friend:

“Mr. Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go and see him next week to get this new mathematical demonstration. In that case the Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations. I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of the Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect union with modern science, and the elucidation of the one will be followed by that of the other.” ~ (Complete Works, Vol. V, Fifth Edition, 1347, p. 77)

Evidently, both Tesla and Vivekananda recognized that they had been pondering the same thesis on energy—in different languages, through different disciplines and on different continents. Tesla was impressed with Vedanta philosophy, understood the Sanskrit terminology, and believed it to be a good means to describe the physical mechanisms of the universe as he perceived it, while Vivekananda was keenly interested in a scientific proof supporting Vedanta.

However, their collaboration did not end up being very fruitful. According to Grotz: 

“Tesla apparently failed in his effort to show the identity of mass and energy. Apparently he understood that when speed increases, mass must decrease. He seems to have thought that mass might be “converted” to energy and vice versa, rather than that they were identical in some way, as is pointed out in Einstein’s equations.”

A year later, Vivekanada said:

“There is the unity of force, prana; there is the unity of matter, called akasha. Is there any unity to be found among them again? Can they be melded into one? Our modern science is mute here; it has not yet found its way out.” 

The mathematical proof of the principle did not come until about ten years later when Albert Einstein published his paper on relativity.  

The legacy of the friendship

After meeting the Swami and after continued study of the Eastern view of the mechanisms driving the material world, Tesla began using the Sanskrit words Akasha, Prana, and the concept of a luminiferous ether to describe the source, existence and construction of matter.

“All perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, or tenuity beyond conception, filling all space, the akasha or luminiferous ether, which is acted upon by the life giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never-ending cycles all things and phenomena.” ~ Nikola Tesla, Man’s Greatest Achievement, 1907

Tesla’s use of Vedic terminology provides a key to understanding his view of electromagnetism and the nature of the universe.

Today, the idea that everything in the universe is made out of energy is widely accepted by the scientific community. Physicists recognize that physical atoms are made up of vortices of energy that are constantly spinning and vibrating, and that at its smallest observable level, matter is energy. Tesla was very much aware of this almost a century and a half ago, and his study of Vedanta and his friendship with Vivekananda helped to lead him to it.