Iconoclast Swami

Print edition : February 08, 2013

The peepul tree at Kakrighat on the way to Almora, Uttarakhand, where Vivekananda is said to have had a vision about the oneness of the microcosm and the macrocosm. Photo: AXaAXax

The house in Cossipore, Kolkata, where Ramakrishna spent his last days.

Mount Abu in Rajasthan, which he visited in the summer of 1891. He stayed in a cave on the banks of the Nakki lake. Photo: AzsAXazx

Hardwar, where the stoicism of ascetics made a strong impression on the young Sadhu. Photo: aAXax

Bhuvaneswari Devi. Vivekananda was born in Kolkata on January 12, 1863, to Bhuvaneswari Devi and Vishwanath Dutta. He was named Narendranath.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. In November 1881, Vivekananda met Sri Ramakrishna for the first time.

SWAMI Vivekananda represents the high noon of a Hindu revival, both in popular perception and serious historical literature. Expectedly, in the VHP’s [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] 1993 celebration of the centenary of the Chicago Congress of Religions where Vivekananda made his debut, they claimed the Patriot-Prophet as one of their own. Amiya P. Sen’s study of the Hindu revival published in the same year 1, a work of scholarly and analytical excellence, confirms this received perception, even if it recognises the complexity and nuances of Swamiji’s mission. I draw upon the same material as has been used in Sen’s work and arrive at a very different conclusion, that the Hindu revival, a phenomenon I would prefer to describe as the Hindu reaction, was at best peripheral and for the most part antagonistic to Vivekananda’s concerns. His role and his personality were misinterpreted in his own time for identifiable reasons. The persistence of that misreading is, however, less justified.

There are three distinct, though necessarily interrelated features in Swamiji’s religious concerns. First, his personal quest was defined early in life as a quest for ultimate realisation. He sought its fulfilment as a disciple of the saint, Ramakrishna. The Ramakrishna order of monks which he set up shared his faith in the guru. But Vivekananda refused to propagate their very special perception as to who Ramakrishna was and the reasons for his advent. I argue, however, that he too had full faith in that perception, a fact which set a limit to any sense of identity with the prevailing modes of Hindu reaction. Ramakrishna himself has been identified as one major source of Hindu revivalism, a thesis which needs to be scrutinised very carefully.

The second component of his religious concern was articulated during his first visit to the USA and Europe. It consisted in an exposition of what he considered to be not only the highest spiritual truths attained in the Indian religious tradition, but the ultimate truth underlying all religious beliefs—Aldous Huxley’s highest common factor. He also did his best to counter the mischievous propaganda which had long presented Hindu faith and practice as forms of extreme barbarism. The rapturous reception he received in India as a hero of militant Hinduism derives primarily from this two-fold agenda for his actions abroad. But the way his role abroad was interpreted in India had more to do with the cultural insecurity of middle-class Hindus in his day than with what he actually sought to achieve. And the stereotyping of Vivekananda as a militant Hindu has persisted for less obvious reasons.

His agenda for national revival in which the Ramakrishna Order of monks and nuns were to play a central role is the third component of his religious concern. The monistic doctrine of Vedanta was to be the inspiration of this activity; but the virtues he preached for the benefit of Indians was not particularly Hindu, and in fact not particularly religious in any accepted sense of the term. There is, however, a self-consciously Hindu orientation in this agenda but only up to a point. More important, he rejected with contempt the central planks in the propaganda of Hindu reaction. The fact that he had an equal lack of regard for the Babu-sponsored reforms has obscured that act of rejection. His agenda for national regeneration was unique for his time and that explains much of the contemporary as well as later misinterpretations of his objectives.

His personal faith, a belief in Advaita, non-duality without any qualification is summed up in a letter to one of his American devotees:

He who is eternal, without limits, omnipresent and all-knowing is not an individual person, but only a consciousness. You, I and everyone else are but manifestations of that consciousness. Finally everyone must become his image in full… and then in reality everything will become one. Religion is nothing but this. The obsolete and lifeless rituals and notions regarding godhood are but ancient superstitions. [BR 7:293]

He also accepted without qualification the doctrine of maya. “This world which you behold,” he told his disciple Sarat Chakravarti, “also does not exist. Everything is an act of imagination.” [SSS:67]

Advaita, or non-duality as projected in Vedanta, is certainly a central theme in the Brahminical tradition. But in the perceptions of Vivekananda and his guru it transcended the limits of any particular religious or cultural tradition. They certainly did not see it as a part of any denominational creed. Ramakrishna stated his faith in the basic unity of all religions in a folksy epigram, jato mat tato path (“there are as many ways as there are creeds”). Vivekananda developed this simple notion, the truth of which Ramakrishna is said to have realised through his own mystical experiences, into a systematic philosophical statement. The Vedas, in his view, were eternal in the sense that they contained timeless truth. Further, all religious and metaphysical notions were inherent in Vedanta. The doctrines of duality, qualified monism and monism were but three successive stages in man’s spiritual progress. Hinduism was the form which Vedanta had assumed as the end product of Indian beliefs and practices. Dualism was its first stage. Christianity and Islam were also dualistic faiths and as such expressions of the Vedantic truth shaped by particular cultures in historic times. Buddhism on the other hand was an embodiment of non-duality or yogic consciousness. [BR 7:157] In these terms, all religions had to be accepted as true and not simply tolerated. All divisiveness was traceable to ignorance. The distinction between castes, religions and races ceased to have any meaning for the enlightened. [SSS:35] The plea is not for syncretism à la Keshab Sen but a recognition of the fundamental unity of all religions. Its cultural antecedents were the doctrines of the medieval saints and the Upanishadic dictum ekam sad, vipra bahudha vadanti (“the truth is one, only the sages state it in many different ways”). Vivekananda summed up his personal faith in one simple statement: “Truth alone is my God; the entire world is my country.” [Letter to Alasinga, BR 7:193] What could be further from the preoccupations of Hindu chauvinists either in our time or in the nineteenth century?

There is an aspect of Vivekananda’s personal faith which certainly belongs to the Hindu tradition, but which he firmly refused to project beyond the immediate circle of his fellow believers. I refer to the belief of Ramakrishna’s disciples that their guru was an incarnation of the deity. Vivekananda was under some pressure to declare this faith as the foundation of the Order’s credo, the central plank of all their religious propaganda. There is little reason to doubt that he more than shared this faith. It was he who composed the mantra for the worship of Ramakrishna in the monastery: sthapakaya ca dharmasya sarvadharmasvarupine, avataravaristhaya ramakrsnaya te namah (“We bow to Ramakrishna, the greatest of all incarnations, the founder of dharma, he who was the embodiment of all religions”). [SSS:70] The rules he laid down for the members of the order contained the following instruction:

… Teach them that one may bow to all other deities, but we worship only Ramakrishna… The other deities have become old and obsolete. We have a new India now, a new deity, a new faith, a new Veda.

He wrote to his fellow disciple, Sivananda, in his characteristic irreverent slang, “I do not have the least doubt that Ramakrishna is the father of God himself… We do not know if Krishna was ever born or not, Buddha and Chaitanya now appear to be hackneyed. Ramakrishna Paramahansa is the latest and most perfect… Can anyone else be compared to him?” But he was averse to forcing this belief down people’s throats, partly because he did not want to establish another sect. [BR 7:75] Besides, he explained, “I understood him very little. I consider him so great that I am afraid to say anything about him, lest I …demean him by painting him in my own light.” [SSS:146] In the Indian tradition, every incarnation has a particular purpose. The reason for the advent of Ramakrishna according to Vivekananda was to end sectarianism in all its forms and hence the disciple could not risk founding one more sect in the name of the master. [SSS:26] The belief in incarnations combined with the faith that Ramakrishna was born to end all sectarianism locates Vivekananda in a curious relationship to the Hindu tradition. The very acceptance of a notion peculiar to that tradition is mobilised to transcend all allegiance to any particular creed.

Yet there was an element of ambivalence here. Vivekananda celebrated the ritual worship of Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in the monastery he set up, and would have sacrificed animals but for Sarada Devi’s refusal to allow it. And all this was done in accordance with the prescriptions of Raghunandana. The orthodox pundits who came to the monastery went back satisfied that the monks of the order were true Hindus. These rituals were of course unacceptable not only to non-Hindus, but to Hindu sects like the Vaishnavas. [SSS:225ff.]

To repeat, Swami Vivekananda’s image as the champion of militant Hinduism derives above all from his mission in the USA and Europe. But one needs to emphasise here that he certainly did not go to the USA primarily with the object of propagating Hinduism. The purpose of his visit is stated quite explicitly in a letter to Mary Hale: “In fact I came here with the object of quietly raising some funds; but I have been caught in a trap, and now I shall not be left in peace.” [BR 7:25] Shortly before his death he again told his disciple Sarat Chakravarti that one major object of his Western mission was to find some way of providing for the poor in India. [SSS: 235] It is not quite clear how he proposed to set about achieving this end. We have somewhat imprecise references to his two-fold expectation—that he might help secure Western technology for India’s industrial development and that the Americans would help with funds to set up a monastery in India which would be the centre of a programme for ameliorating the condition of the masses. The available record however suggests that his plan of action in the West emerged gradually and was partly determined by changing circumstances.

Arguably, that plan had very little to do with the propagation of Hinduism in any accepted sense of the term, despite the fact that he stood forth as the representative of the Hindu religion at the Chicago Congress. What he actually said in different sessions of that Congress needs to be analysed carefully. His famous speech at the inaugural session emphasised his pride in belonging to a religious tradition which taught people to accept all religious opinions as true: “We do not merely tolerate all religions, but accept them all to be true.” He quoted the Sivamahimna stotra: rucinam vaicitryad rjukutilananapathajusam, nrnam eko gamyas tvam asi payasam arnava iva (“You alone are the object of all human quest, the way all rivers merge into the ocean. They follow straight or winding paths because their tastes happen to vary”). And the concluding paragraph ended with the expression of a robust faith that sectarian conflicts which had drenched this earth with human blood would now come to an end. The speech on 19 November was ostensibly an exposition of Hinduism. It addressed the metaphysical and philosophical foundations of Hindu practice—the concepts of Brahman, karma, duality and non-duality. But its central emphasis was on a spiritual or rather mystical ideal: “Hinduism does not consist in any effort to believe in any creed or dogma; its prime object is the realisation of the transcendent, to merge in the ideal….” He concluded by congratulating the Americans for their initiative in declaring that one encountered God in every religion. As leaders of human civilisation it was their preordained task to carry forward the flag of universalism.

The Hinduism he preached in the West during the years which followed was also primarily an exposition of Vedantic metaphysics. Besides, he also lectured and wrote on the fourfold path to realisation: karma, action without attachment, bhakti, the path of devotion, jnana, knowledge and raja yoga, the techniques of a mystical regime expounded in Patanjali’s Yogasutra. The Vedic and Puranic Karmakanda, ritualistic duties so central to Hindu practice and beliefs, is totally absent from these expositions.

In a letter written to a fellow disciple in December 1895, he explained the nature of his mission in the West:

I am not writing any book on Hinduism at the moment… Every religion is an expression, a language to express the same truth, and we must speak to each in his own language… We will see about Hinduism at some point later. Our main concern is his (i.e. Ramakrishna’s) religion. Let the Hindus call it Hindu religion—and let others similarly name it (what they like)… Does our master belong only to India? India’s degeneration is the result of such narrow attitudes. Any beneficial outcome is impossible unless these are destroyed. [BR 7:246-7]

There is no scope for misreading this statement. He was in the West to preach the universal spiritual truth embodied in the life of his guru. The Hindus might call it Hinduism and others by other names, but his concern was to break down all such barriers. The same idea is made even more explicit in a letter to Mrs. Bull:

My master used to tell us that Hindu, Christian etc. are but different names (of the same truth). They are barriers to fraternal feelings between human beings. We must first try to break these down… Even the best among us behave like monsters under their evil influence. Now we have to work hard to break these down and we will surely succeed. [BR 7:127]

In his farewell speech at the Congress of Religions he stated unequivocally what he did not want:

Much has been said here about the common ground for unity among religions… But if anyone here hopes that such unity will be achieved by the triumph of one of the many religions now current and the destruction of others, I tell him, ‘Brother, yours is a false hope.’ Do I wish that the Christians should become Hindus? God forbid. Do I wish that any Hindu or Buddhist should become Christian? God forbid. [BR 1:33]

…Vivekananda’s Indian agenda, more than his personal faith and his mission abroad, does up to a point provide evidence in support of the thesis which projects him as a hero of neo-Hinduism, albeit a reformist one. His chief handiwork back home, the Ramakrishna Mission, did have in practice a strong Hindu orientation, both in its ideological pronouncements and in the sections of the population it actually served. Swamiji’s self-conscious and persistent efforts to counterbalance this bias however needs to be emphasised. In a letter dated 1897, he states specifically that from the very beginning the Mission did not discriminate between the different communities of India in their programme of service. [BR 7:446] His plans for national reconstruction gave a priority to the Hindus, but chiefly in a chronological sense. In his view the decline of India was the end result of its culture of discrimination, its long tradition of contempt for others. [SSS:176] That decline began the day the contemptuous epithet, mleccha was invented. [BR 7:29] To reverse that process, it was first necessary to raise the entire Hindu community from its fallen state and then revitalise the whole of mankind. The process of regeneration for the Hindus had to proceed step by step. First, the divisions within each caste had to be abolished, then all castes had to be given the sacred thread until every Hindu had attained the status of Brahmins “because all Hindus were brothers”. [SSS:78] Despite the revolutionary implication of such a programme as spelt out by Swamiji (“…the Brahmin and the Chandal must be placed on an equal footing”) it does sound like an agenda for Hindu communal solidarity.

Such an interpretation of his objectives are however countered by other features of the same programme. The Ramakrishna Mission under his leadership dedicated itself to “the task initiated by Ramakrishna of establishing a close relationship among the followers of all religions in the knowledge that all religious beliefs in this world were but the varied expressions of the same eternal truth”. [SSS:56-7] He declared that the reason for the advent of Ramakrishna was the destruction of communal barriers, sampraday-bihinata. [SSS:26] In a letter to a fellow disciple written in 1894, he spelled out what the projected organisation must avoid at all cost:

Make sure that the universalist attitude is not hampered in any way. Everything must be sacrificed, if necessary, for that one sentiment—universality…universality—perfect acceptance, not tolerance only, we preach and perform. [BR 7:56-7]

The monastery, guided by the spirit of Ramakrishna, was to be the centre for the union of all faiths, sarvadharma-samanvay. [SSS:112] The movement’s mouthpiece, the Brahmavadin, was to contain translations from religious texts in Arabic and Persian as the basis for an enquiry into the fundamental truth underlying all scriptures. He explained his understanding of the advent of Ramakrishna in the following words:

The satyayuga , the age of truth, dawned the day he was born. All divisiveness ended from that day…. He was the one who would resolve all conflicts—all distinctions, between Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Hindus all these disappeared. Those sectarian conflicts belong to another age; in this age of truth everything is submerged in the flood of his love. [BR 7:252]

The point of radical departure in Vivekananda’s Indian mission, where he stood apart from all reformers of that era, was his emphasis on the masses, the deprived and the underprivileged people of the country. Service to the poor, in the belief that in serving them one served God, does have antecedents in the Hindu tradition. And other Indian reformers like Ranade had organised volunteer groups to offer help to those most in need. But Vivekananda’s understanding of the Indian problem differed from theirs, because he attributed to the underprivileged in India a centrality in the life and history of the country in a way which has no precedents. I have argued elsewhere that in course of his travels in India as a parivrajaka, a mendicant, he discovered Indian poverty and developed a passionate empathy with the Indian masses. As he told a fellow disciple, he had not found God in his travels but had learned to love human beings. What is especially remarkable is that there was no element of condescension in his faith that the grand achievements of Indian high culture were insignificant compared to the contribution of the masses. One boasted of one’s ancestors who had written a few philosophical texts and constructed a few temples, but remained oblivious of the poor on whose labour the whole structure of civilisation was raised. It was his firm belief that the future belonged to the masses and the only worthwhile task before the educated middle classes in India was to make them aware of their power, especially through education. [BR 7:276] …

He had no faith in any religion that was unconcerned with the physical misery of human beings [BR 7:27] and was contemptuous of bhadralok politics which paid no attention to such things as mass illiteracy. A few thousand graduates, he argued, could not be the basis of a nation. [BR 7:36] India had become a land of the dead. Educating the masses was the only way to revive it. [BR 7:241] Once they were aware of the world around them and their own power they would know what to do. People of his own class would have no further function in Indian life. It is difficult to read into this agenda any message for Hindu revival.

Of course the programme he chalked out for the Mission had less mundane concerns as well. The dedicated missionaries were to preach the message of Vedanta and try to realise its ideals in their own lives. Detailed instructions were laid down as to what to avoid—like lokacara, or popular practices, and bamacara, the extreme form of Tantricism. A knowledge of the Yogas was also to be propagated. In all this the non-denominational spirituality of the doctrines was to be emphasised.

Such an agenda was of course within the Hindu tradition and could well be construed as one form of contribution to Hindu nation-building. Yet, any careful reading of Swamiji’s words and writings leaves one with a very firm impression that the centre point of his Indian agenda was an effort to create mass consciousness and the minimum physical conditions required for the purpose. His ultimate aim, to use current and somewhat inappropriate vocabulary, was empowerment. Hindu revivalism was inconsistent with such an objective. The regeneration of the Indian people, with the masses installed in the position of primacy which they had always been denied, rather than the revival of Hindus or Hinduism, was evidently his goal. But he wanted this worldly purpose to be informed by a high spirituality, because in his perception human life, and in fact the entire universe, was an indivisible totality. That spiritual message was derived from the Vedantic tradition as realised in the life of his guru, but projected repeatedly as a universalistic faith. And the message was to be preached by a band of dedicated celibates freed of any worldly attachments. … His tensions with the different strands in the Hindu reaction of his days needs to be spelled out. It is important to remember that Hindu orthodoxy found him and his ways unacceptable. They questioned this non-Brahmin youth’s right to be an ordained monk. They considered his journey across the black waters a violation of taboo and they suspected that he had not observed ritual taboos about food and commensality when he was abroad and of course they were right. His answer to such criticism was unequivocal.

When was I an othodox Puranic Hindu? [BR 7:211] I have read carefully into our scriptures and find the spirituality and religion are not for the Sudras. Even if he observes the taboos about food etc. and journeys abroad, he does not acquire any merit. It is all wasted effort. I am a Sudra and a mleccha—why should I bother about all that? [BR 7:392]

He described the Hindu orthodoxy of his days as a religion of “don’t touchism” where virtue had finally found a shelter in the purity of cooking pots. The florid adjectives he used to describe the educated Hindus leave Macaulay’s description of Bengalis cold at the doorstep: “crushed by the wheels of caste divisions, superstitious, without an iota of charity, hypocritical, atheistic cowards”.

His contempt for certain specific manifestations of Hindu reaction in the last quarter of the nineteenth century is recorded in picturesque detail in his Bengali work, Bhabbar katha (“Matters to think about”). It is impossible to do justice in translation to his racy style, but it seems worthwhile to give some extracts, for they establish beyond reasonable doubt that the man who wrote these could not be a Hindu revivalist. I quote one famous passage on the then familiar efforts to prove that all Hindu superstitions had a scientific explanation:

Gurgure Krishnabyal Bhattacharya is a great scholar. All knowledge concerning the entire universe is at his finger tips… There is nothing that he does not know and especially knowledgeable is he regarding the movement of electricity and magnetic forces from the tip of one’s pigtail to all the nine orifices in the human body. And by virtue of this knowledge he is peerless in his ability to explain scientifically such matters as the (scientific necessity for) impregnating ten year old girls… As to evidence or reasoning, he has made things so simple that even little children can follow his arguments. You see, there is no religion outside India; within India none but the Brahmins have the right to understand it; among the Brahmins too everybody except the Krishnabyals is utterly worthless, and among the Krishnabyals Gurgure alone counts. Therefore whatever Gurgure says is self-evident truth. There is a lot of education around, people are getting somewhat restive, they want to understand everything, taste everything; therefore Mr. Krishnabyal assures everyone, ‘Have no fears; I shall away whatever doubts may bother you and do so in a scientific manner. Stay just as you were. Put some mustard oil in your nostrils and enjoy very sound sleep. Only, do not forget my fees.’ And the people said, ‘We are saved. What danger were we in! To actually get up from our beds, in fact move about! What botheration!’ They shouted ‘Long live Krishnabyal’, turned over and went to sleep again.

He castigated what he described as the mindless imbecilities of popular Hinduism in equally strong language:

Today there are bells [for the worship], tomorrow there will be trumpets in addition and the following day yak tails will be waved... and people are regaled with 2000 absurd tales; the wheel, the mace, the lotus and conch shell; the conch shell, the mace, the lotus and the wheel etc. etc. This is what is described in English as imbecility… Whether the bell should be rung on the right side or the left, whether the sandal paste mark should be placed on the forehead or some other part of the anatomy; people who spend their days and nights in such thoughts are truly wretched. And we are the wretched of the earth and are kicked around because our intelligence goes no further.

The lines which follow have a peculiar relevance to the contemporary strategies of Hindu chauvinism:

Ten million rupees are spent to open and close the temple doors at Kashi and Brindaban. Now the deity is changing his attire, now he is having his meal, or maybe he is providing pinda for all the ancestors of the stupid bastards [the priceless expression he used in Bengali is atkurir beta, i.e. sons of barren mothers] and all the time the living god perishes for the want of food, for want of education. The banias of Bombay set up hospitals for the bed bugs. No matter if the human beings die [for want of care]… A mortal sickness is abroad in our land. The entire country is one vast lunatic asylum. (BR 7:8-9)

His prescription for the country’s material and spiritual well-being in this context was simple and direct: “Throw away the bells and the rest of the rubbish into the river Ganges, and worship the incarnate God in man, worship all that are born as human beings.”

Amiya Sen in his monograph on Hindu revivalism has discussed at length the massive campaign against the Age of Consent Bill. He identifies it, correctly to my understanding, as the high watermark of the Hindu reaction. Vivekananda described that agitation as a matter for shame. [SSS:31] Again I shall quote his words because there is no other way one can convey adequately the vehemence of his feelings on the subject:

…I deeply despise the custom of child marriage… Our people are paying for this grievous sin. I shall be an object of contempt to my own self if I support this monstrous practice directly or indirectly… I must kick hard with all my might at the inhuman custom known as child marriage. [BR 7:232; also 107]

Vivekananda’s iconoclastic contempt for much in the Hindu tradition was not confined to the contemporary scene. His diatribe against the inanities of neo-Hindu scientism to which I have referred concludes with a swipe at the mindless ritualism of the Hindu tradition. What could one expect of a culture, he wrote, in which the best minds have been debating for over two millennia whether to eat with the right hand or the left. He lashed out at those who blamed the Muslims for the Hindus being allegedly forced to adopt the purdah system. He referred his correspondent to the Grhyasutra—the provision that a girl child must be given in marriage before she learns to masturbate, hastad yonim na guhati. [BR 7-107] And then there is that famous passage on the asvamedha sacrifice as prescribed in the Black Yajurveda:

Tadanantaram mahisim asvasamnidhau patayet (“Thereafter make the queen lie down beside the horse… And then they all had a drunken orgy.”) Vivekananda wrote, “The sacrificer, the priests, their assistants, everybody. Heavens, Sita was in exile, Rama celebrated the sacrifice on his own. I was relieved to learn this.” …

This role which he gradually defined for himself has been transformed in popular perception into one of leadership of a Hindu revival. The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement, we are told, stemmed the tide of reform and helped restore people’s confidence in the popular Hindu tradition, earlier shaken by Western as well as reformist criticism. In the process, the tide of reform which had swept the educated sections of society was turned back. I question this thesis for a number of reasons. …

There is no identifiable link between the movement he sponsored and the decline of interest in reform. As Partha Chatterji has shown in a seminal essay 2, the bhadralok did not abandon their efforts to alter the condition of women. They had achieved their basic goals in this respect. Besides, notwithstanding the alleged apathy of reformers and Vivekananda’s unwillingness to support reforms, the desired changes came about slowly through the operation of impersonal forces. Through women’s education, a slow rise in the age of marriage, and a decline in polygamy, the hoped-for objectives of the reformers were eventually achieved. Widow-remarriage never became popular among Hindus, an evidence in support of Vivekananda’s belief that social change has a certain autonomy and can be forced only to a limited extent. The religious debates regarding the nature of the Deity, whether He or She had a form or not, and the relevance of idol worship, had long lost their urgency. The majority of Hindus, educated and uneducated, had never given up the worship of images. Even the illiterate villager believed that he worshipped, not an image, but something else that it symbolised; and whatever the merit or demerit of the doctrine, Vivekananda did not preach polytheism. The cult of Ramakrishna, like the Vaishnava movements of the nineteenth century, stimulated an upsurge of bhakti, a recurrent and characteristic phenomenon of Bengali social life. Incidentally, this particular tendency had become manifest in the lives of the Brahmos as well. Not only Keshab with his Vaishnava-style kirtans, but the non-conformist Brahmos like Sibnath Sastri were imbued with this new spirit, very different from the rationalistic and this-worldly concerns of Rammohan and his immediate followers. The new rationalism of the early nineteenth century had become a part of the bhadralok social culture, but it had to co-exist now with a much older tradition of emotional religiosity. That emotionalism was soon to inform a new impulse which had no precedents in Indian life, namely revolutionary fervour. I draw attention to this transition in attitudes only to emphasise that the appeal of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda has to be located in a context which is not coterminous with the Hindu reaction of that time. I have argued at length that Vivekananda found the basic values informing that reaction profoundly repugnant. Yet he has been and continues to be claimed as one of the great leaders of Hindu revival. His cultural vocabulary and style of action were partly responsible for it. But it is also interesting to note how selectively a movement or its devotees can interpret the messages of a leader. The Mission he set up, for instance, has been more concerned with social service in general than with educating the masses. Its preoccupation with universalism generally omits references to Swamiji’s enthusiasm for Islam and the Indo-Islamic heritage. … Vivekananda had a two-fold agenda which he had time to pursue for less than a decade: to preach an universalist spiritual faith based on the life of his master which he saw as the ultimate realisation of the Vedantic truth, and secondly, to create a mass consciousness through service and education. The seed fell on very infertile ground. He was hailed in his own time as a hero of Hinduism who had conquered the West. Today understandably the VHP has the audacity to claim him as their own. I have argued that it is difficult to imagine him as the ideological ancestor of people who incite the ignorant to destroy other people’s places of worship in a revanchist spirit.

Tapan Raychaudhuri, formerly with St. Antony’s College, Oxford, is a historian of British Indian history, India’s economic history and the history of Bengal.

1. A.P. Sen, Hindu Revivalism in Bengal 1872-1905: some essays in interpretation (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993).

2. See P. Chatterji, ‘A Nationalist resolution of women’s question’, in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds.), Recasting Women: essays in colonial history (New Delhi, 1989), pp.233-53.


BR: Swami Vivekananda, Bani o racana (Collected Bengali Works) 10 Vols, (Calcutta, 6th. Edn. 1982)

SSS: Saratchandra Chakrabarti, Swami-sisya sambad (Calcutta, 5th Edn. 1982)

The article is taken from the book Swami Vivekananda and the Modernisation of Hinduism, edited by William Radice and published by Oxford University Press in 1998.


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