Attempts at appropriation

Print edition : February 08, 2013

In London in July 1896, just before he left for a tour of the European continent with Captain and Mrs Sevier and Henrietta Muller. Photo: dvdvsdvs

An aerial view of the advaita ashram in Mayavati, which was founded in March 1899 with funds provided by the Seviers. Photo: d wefrgrtygert

The Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiruvalluvar statue off Kanyakumari. The making of the Rock Memorial as a sacred Hindu nationalist site was a huge national exercise and a success for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Photo: M. VEDHAN

January 13: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at the Swami Vivekananda Yuva Shivir, organised to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary, in Nadia, West Bengal. Photo: PTI

With brother monks at the Baranagore Math.

SWAMI VIVEKANANDA STILL COMMANDS AN ICONIC presence in contemporary India. When India celebrates his 150th birth anniversary, various claimants are likely to compete to project themselves as rightful inheritors of his ideas and legacy. While Ramakrishna Mission, perhaps the natural custodian of Vivekananda’s saintly legacy, may prefer to make the celebration a solemn affair, disseminating the message of Vivekananda’s pious Hinduism in a sombre spiritual milieu, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of Hindutva, would like to make it a pompous road show, passionately invoking Vivekananda’s public Hinduism, proud patriotism and assertive cultural nationalism. In fact, the Sangh Parivar kick-started the show with Narendra Modi’s Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra in the run-up to the 2012 Gujarat Assembly elections.

Hindutva’s Vivekananda connection

What is Hindutva’s connection with Vivekananda? K.B. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS, constructed the ideology of the Hindu Rashtra on V.D. Savarkar’s concept of Hindutva and was under the direct influence of other Maharashtrian Hindu leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and B.S. Moonje. At the same time, he was also inspired by the political Hinduism of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Aurobindo Ghosh during his student days in Calcutta (now Kolkata). However, as an avowed political activist, he preferred not to dabble much in the domain of religion; thus, Vivekananda’s Hinduism was peripheral to his politics. On the contrary, his successor, M.S. Golwalkar, who was more inward-looking and inclined to spiritualism, showed more interest in the goal of personal salvation (moksha) prior to his joining the RSS. This urge persisted; in 1936 he abandoned his RSS work in Nagpur and left for Bengal to join the Ramkrishna Ashram at Sargachhi. Here he was initiated by Swami Akhandananda, one of the direct disciples of Ramakrishna, who had been the most active supporter of Vivekananda’s ideal of service. Swami Akhandananda died within a short period after Golwalkar’s arrival; before his death, he reportedly advised Golwalkar to go back to the RSS.

Though Golwalkar’s stay at Sargachhi was short, his personality and ideology were deeply influenced by this experience. Here he recognised how Vivekananda had brought a paradigm shift in the quietistic Bhakti tradition of Ramakrishna towards the making of a public Hinduism focussed on identity construction and organised philanthropy. Golwalkar, following the new paradigm, abandoned his quest for moksha and returned to Nagpur to work on Hindu identity and service.

Golwalkar translated Vivekananda’s Chicago speeches into Marathi and wrote his famous text We or Our Nationhood Defined, which became the “Bible” of the RSS. After being anointed as the chief of the RSS, he infused some of the ideals of the Ramakrishna Math into the RSS system. Hedgewar’s “man-making” mission got a facelift with the institutionalisation of the pracharak system, which relied on renunciation and sacrifice. The RSS also adopted service as one of its key objectives and came forward to help victims during the crises of Partition, floods, cyclones and earthquakes. Moreover, the RSS projected Vivekananda as a great icon of resurgent Hindu nationalism, a champion of Hindu superiority and a great defender of Hinduism vis-a-vis Islam and Christianity. Building on this image, Golwalkar conceived the idea of an organisation dedicated to Vivekananda, which would not be directly controlled by the RSS and yet would maintain a close fraternal and ideological relationship, supplementing the RSS mission. Without raising hostility and suspicion, this organisation would expand Hindu ecumeny by bringing all hues of Hindus to a common platform and simultaneously disseminate a soft and less strident Hindutva. This was the Vivekananda Kendra.

The making of the Vivekananda Kendra:

The making of the Vivekananda Kendra: A special RSS affiliate

Claiming to be “a spiritually oriented service organisation”, the Vivekananda Kendra, a special “affiliate” of the RSS over the past four decades, has been pursuing the twin agenda of “man-making” and “nation-building”, in line with Vivekananda’s ideals of renunciation and service. The precursor of Vivekananda Kendra was the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Kanyakumari. To commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s birth centenary in 1963, the RSS planned to construct a sacred Hindu nationalist site dedicated to Vivekananda. The site identified was a rock at Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of mainland India, situated at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. As the RSS narrates, after traversing the length and breadth of the country as a parivrajaka (wanderer) in 1892, Vivekananda reached Kanyakumari, swam across the sea to this rock on Christmas Day and sat in meditation continuously for three days; it was here that “the simple monk was transformed into a great reformer, a great organiser and a great master-builder of the nation”.

A Celebration Committee consisting of local RSS workers and some Hindu organisations decided to construct a memorial on the rock. But local Christians, mainly the fishermen, opposed the move, claiming that St. Francis Xavier, who converted their ancestors, had stayed on the same rock. As they also demanded a memorial, the rock became a disputed site. However, the RSS, with the help of local Hindu organisations, established its control over the rock and successfully overcame the resistance by mobilising Hindus. It formed a national-level Swami Vivekananda Centenary Celebration and Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee, which resolved to erect a full-fledged memorial; Swami Chinmayananda made the first donation of Rs.10,000.

Golwalkar appointed Eknath Ranade, former general secretary of the RSS, the secretary of the committee. An astute organiser, Ranade first drafted a memorandum and mobilised 323 Members of Parliament, cutting across political lines, to sign it. This memorandum appealed to the Central government and especially the Government of Madras to facilitate the construction of this national monument. Many of these MPs did not support the ideology of the RSS, yet they all agreed on Vivekananda’s unique place in national life. The Madras government eventually gave permission for the memorial. A broad spectrum of political parties, both ruling and opposition, became partners and every State contributed towards the memorial. Ranade even roped in the Chief Minister of Nagaland, a State with an overwhelming Christian population, to become an active associate. The only leader who rebuffed Ranade was E.M.S. Namboodiripad, the Communist Chief Minister of Kerala. Ranade skilfully used the media as well, and his effort to build a consensus on Vivekananda as a non-sectarian and non-partisan model of Hindu/Indian identity was greatly successful.

Despite all hurdles, the project was completed in just six years. RSS workers played a major role in the success—from collecting donations to coordinating with different organisations and disseminating Vivekananda’s ideas throughout the country. Nearly five million folders containing Vivekananda’s select messages were printed and three million people donated one, three, or five rupees. The folders became an ideal medium for disseminating Vivekananda’s Hinduism and nationalism in every nook and corner of the country. The Army establishment and cantonments also contributed, acknowledging Vivekananda’s lofty patriotism. In every sense, the construction of the memorial became a national exercise under the guidance of the RSS.

The inaugural ceremony became a congregation of religious, spiritual and political leaders. While the chief of the Ramakrishna Mission conducted the pranpratistha ceremony, the then President of India V.V. Giri inaugurated the memorial and the Dravidian leader M. Karunanidhi, a hard critic of Aryan-Hindu-Hindi imposition on the Tamil identity, was the guest speaker. Thus, Vivekananda became a powerful symbol of cultural nationalism, courtesy of the RSS; even the secularists who earlier dismissed Vivekananda as revivalist soon recognised his influence on popular consciousness. The making of the Rock Memorial as a sacred Hindu nationalist site was a huge national exercise and a success for the RSS. More than 20 lakh persons visiting the memorial during the year 2011-12 corroborate this point.

Ranade was very clear that his mission was not to construct a cement-and-concrete structure but “to erect a living and dynamic monument” to concretise Vivekananda’s grand vision of a future India. Thus, the Vivekananda Kendra was launched in 1972 with the conviction that service with spiritual orientation could result in man-making, which would simultaneously become an exercise in nation-building. In consonance with Vivekananda’s prescription, the Kendra emphasised service, believing that if religiosity could be converted into public service then an all-round national reconstruction would be possible. The organisation aspired to “encompass the entire Hindu society and the entire length and breadth of Bharat. It should arouse all Hindus and all India.” Thus, the Kendra adopted Vivekananda’s apparently inclusive and non-sectarian ideal, “worship of man is worship of God” (, as it had great potential to attract many Hindus. Accordingly, it undertook a mission of national reconstruction by focussing on education, rural and tribal development, natural resources development, and yoga. By institutionalising spirituality and service, the Kendra fashioned a role for itself that was distinct from the roles of other organisations of the Sangh working in these fields.

The Kendra’s headquarters is located at Vivekanandapuram, Kanyakumari. By 2012, the Kendra had set up a network of 234 branches and 690 centres across the country with more than 150,000 patrons and 2,500 workers ( karyakartas). It runs 64 schools, 221 balwadis, six projects, two sevaprakalps, seven prakashanprakalps, four hospitals, 636 swadhyaya/sanskarvargas, 52 anadalayas, 199 medical camps, 133 personality development camps and 95 yoga vargas. The Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan Trust publishes and disseminates Vivekananda’s ideas in English, Hindi and the regional languages. Besides books and pamphlets, the Trust brings out many journals: YuvaBharati and Vivekananda Kendra Patrika (in English), Kendra Bharati (in Hindi), VivekVichar (in Marathi), VivekVani (in Tamil), Jagriti (in Assamese), and VivekSudha (in Gujarati). Most of the projects, spreading across the tribal and rural areas, have created a service network catering to the unprivileged and the marginalised.

The Kendra has devised a well-worked-out cadre system, which categorises its workers as jeevanvratis (those who join the Kendra for life), sevavratis (those who join the Kendra for a specific period) and vanaprasthis (those who join the Kendra after retirement). At present the three categories together have a total strength of 240: 86 jeevanvratis who have completed five years of training; 32 jeevanvratis who are yet to complete five years of training, and the rest as sevavratis and vanaprasthis. Besides this core cadre, the Kendra has recruited a number of patrons, well-wishers and thousands of local workers ( karyakartas). Women constitute 30-35 per cent of the core cadre, and their recruitment has increased to 50 per cent during the last three years; three women jeevanvratis are in the Central Managing Committee.

One of the prominent projects of the Vivekananda Kendra, the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya (VKV) has been engaged in the “man-making” and “nation-building” mission, which is manifested in a system of education by which “character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded and by which one can stand on one’s own feet”. In 2011-12, the Kendra was running 65 schools in tribal and rural areas, educating 26,063 children and employing 1,498 teachers and staff.

In 1993, the Vivekananda Kendra established the Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture (VKIC) in Guwahati, aspiring to make it the “Intellectual Fountainhead” of the north-eastern region. The primary objective of the VKIC has been to focus on seminars, lectures, research and documentation by involving local/indigenous communities and intellectuals in order to promote the richness of indigenous traditions, and to propagate and popularise the idea of “Development through/with Culture”. The “cultural” activities of the VKIC include the protection and preservation of indigenous tribal culture by creating awareness among communities and mobilising them to “defend” their culture from the influence of “alien” culture, namely Christianity. The Kendra repeats the Sangh Parivar’s favourite quote from Vivekananda: “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less but also an enemy more”; indigenous elites increasingly share this view. Perceiving a serious threat to their tradition and culture from Christianity and Westernisation, they strongly plead for protection, preservation, mobilisation and resistance.

As Vivekananda’s mission was also global, the Vivekananda Kendra International (VKI) was formed in 2003 to develop inter-civilisational dialogue and understanding among nations and promote India’s cause at the global level. The VKI changed its nomenclature to Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) in 2009 and started focussing more on national security strategic issues. The constitution of the Advisory Board of VIF speaks for itself: out of the 10 members, five are retired top brass defence officers, one is a retired Director General of the Border Security Force (BSF), two are retired Secretaries to the Government of India, one is a professor, and one a financial expert. The Executive Committee also consists primarily of retired defence officers and civil servants. In 2011, the VIF organised a series of seminars on contemporary political and security issues from national, regional and global perspectives and interacted with security experts in India and abroad. It seems the VIF has been slowly emerging as an alternative think tank on national security.

Thus, the Vivekananda Kendra, like the RSS, is a cadre-based organisation with a dedicated band of life-workers. The Kendra’s service projects, catering to the poor and the downtrodden in tribal and rural areas, help expand the horizon of Hindu ecumeny by bringing new regions and people into its fold and promoting Hindu identity and Hindu nationalism. Though, in contrast to the aggression of the Sangh Parivar, the Kendra adopts a subtle and nuanced approach to the Hindu identity, nevertheless, its Hindu assertion is no less forceful than the former, and depending on the context, it has the potential to promote communal politics.

The 150th birth anniversary (Swami Vivekananda Sardha Shati Samaroh)

The RSS has authorised the Vivekananda Kendra to act as the nodal affiliate for the grand celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Vivekananda from January 12, 2013, to January 12, 2014. Organising committees have been formed at the national and State levels. The theme of the celebration is “Bharat Jago! Vishwa Jagao!!” (Wake up Bharat! Enlighten the World!!). This will be carried through Panchamukhi, a five-pronged programme: yuvashakti (for the youth), prabuddha Bharat (for the elite and intellectuals), samvardhini (for women), gramayan (for villagers) and asmita (for Janjatis—people in interior areas like mountains and forests). The Kendra plans to reach out to four lakh villages and 20 crore persons; four crore photographs of Vivekananda will be distributed. The programmes will involve well-known religious leaders, sportspersons, social activists and leaders from various spheres of society.

An impressive schedule has been prepared. The inaugural ceremony was launched on January 12 with grand processions in Delhi and other cities. A Samoohik Surya Namaskar will be organised on February 18. An ambitious programme of Grih Sampark/Gram Sampark will be organised between March and July. While a Bharat Jago Daud will be held on September 11, a lecture series and competitions focussing on nationalism will be organised in August-September. A workers’ camp will be held at Kanyakumari for three days (December 25-27, 2013) before the grand finale on January 12, 2014.

Vivekananda’s Hinduism and Hindutva: convergence and divergence

Though Vivekananda’s Hinduism, in many respects, differs from the genre of political Hinduism/Hindutva represented by the RSS, Vivekananda has been one of the most celebrated icons and role models for RSS cadres ( swayamsevaks) and organisers ( pracharaks). Claiming to be the true inheritor of his legacy, the RSS selectively draws from his writings and speeches and conveniently co-opts/appropriates and even “mis-appropriates” him. The RSS finds convergence with Vivekananda’s ideas as he essentially projected the superiority of Hinduism over other religions and visualised the conquest of the whole world by the Hindu religion and spirituality.

Vivekananda’s engagement with Hindu identity has evoked contesting responses. While one view portrays him as a proponent of a strong and virile Hindu nation and interprets his ideas of tolerance and unity of all faiths as fragile, another view contests the “stereotyping” of Vivekananda as a militant Hindu, arguing that Vivekananda’s personal quest for ultimate realisation sets limits to identity politics, thereby making his agenda of national revival not particularly Hindu. Both the versions seem to be partly true. Vivekananda’s views were quite complex and frequently ambiguous. But he surely operated within the paradigm of religious enlightenment: though he stressed the self-assertion of Hindus, he never entertained violent identity politics. However, it is clear that his “missionary Hinduism” offered potential and possibilities for the development of a militant Hindu nation, allowing Hindutva to make selective readings and interpretations of his texts and speeches. Moreover, Vivekananda’s approach to philanthropy and accommodation of the marginalised has also been found handy for Hindutva leaders to construct an inclusive pan-Indian Hindu identity by expanding Hindu ecumeny. Hence, Hindutva’s claim on Vivekananda’s legacy may not be completely misplaced!

Pralay Kanungo is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.