Legacy of service

Print edition : February 08, 2013

In January 1886, at the Cossipore garden house where Sri Ramakrishna spent his last days. Photo: dvsdvsdv

September 1898, Kashmir: With some of his Western disciples: (from left) Josephine MacLeod, Mrs Ole Bull, Sister Nivedita. Photo: Courtesy: Vivekananda Illam

Monks of the Ramakrishna Mission inspecting the construction of houses for families affected by a natural calamity, in Belgaum. A file photograph. Photo: VIJAYKUMAR PATIL

Vivekananda Shobha Yatra organised by the Ramakrishna Mission to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary passing through Visakhapatnam on January 12, 2013. Photo: C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

In Hyderabad. He left the Math in July 1890 and travelled to Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Hyderabad and Kerala. During 1890 to 1893, as the Wandering Monk, he acquired an intimate knowledge of the life of the toiling masses.

ANNIVERSARIES of the key events of Swami Vivekanandaa’s life periodically confront his devotees and admirers, India, the land of his birth, and scholars and commentators with the question of how best to mark his career and legacy. That Vivekananda’s achievements and continuing influence in India and beyond merit a commemorative mixture of celebration and careful reappraisal is beyond question. Pausing to consider how previous commemorations have celebrated his life, and what they have highlighted, provides a vantage point from which to reflect on the imminent 150th birth anniversary and thus how Vivekananda is viewed at the beginning of the 21st century.

Vivekananda’s death in 1902 at the age of 39 left his followers and obituary writers with a sense of not just a life “unfinished” but, with the Ramakrishna Math and Mission still in the process of being established, a project barely begun. A common focus of reports of Vivekananda’s death, as in The Bengalee, was his role at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 where he emerged as a powerful apologist on behalf of “Hinduism”, a concept he greatly shaped in the process. Vivekananda was remembered primarily as somebody who through his skilful reinterpretation of Vedanta had been able to demonstrate to the world the richness of India’s spiritual traditions. This was undeniably a source of pride for many in India at the height of the colonial period. Some commentators presciently noted the importance of Vivekananda’s publication Raja Yoga, which is now routinely acknowledged as having been influential in the global expansion of interest in yoga.

In the immediate aftermath of Vivekananda’s death there were many calls for memorials to be set up through private subscription. The institutionalisation of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, arguably the most fitting, living memorial to Vivekananda, was completed legally by 1909. The issue of creating a suitable national memorial to Vivekananda became central to deliberations about how to celebrate the centenary of his birth in 1963. Led very much from Belur Math and centred on activities in Kolkata, conferences, publications, public processions and cultural events drew attention to Vivekananda’s various achievements in a manner captured in the Swami Vivekananda Centenary Memorial Volume, which was published by the movement with the support of some state funding. Its contributors acknowledged with differing nuances Vivekananda’s patriotism, whether, as did Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in a broad sense of promoting a “religion of humanity”, or, as did Chakravarti Rajagopalachari and others, more specifically as India’s “nation-builder”.

The Ramakrishna Math and Mission had originally planned to restore Vivekananda’s ancestral home in Kolkata to mark the centenary, but this proved impossible until 2004 because of legal disputes and the dilapidation of the original building. Thus, in the run-up to the centenary of Vivekananda’s birth, it was left to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to orchestrate a campaign led by Eknath Ranade to create the dramatic and evocative Vivekananda Rock Memorial. It was to be located on the very rock, off the shore of Kanyakumari, where Vivekananda is said to have meditated at the end of 1892 on a future India uplifted both materially and spiritually through the efforts of sanyasins. Those responsible for planning this memorial directed attention to Vivekananda’s role within India, arguably celebrating the birth of his vision prior to his journey to Chicago as the seed from which his future achievements in India would grow, rather than to his subsequent role as the first “global guru” who responded to the spiritual needs of those whom he met in the United States and Britain. Individuals across India were called on to donate Re.1, and approaches were made by Ranade to State governments, other institutions, and philanthropists. For Ranade, Vivekananda was to be hailed as a patriot, a hero who set in motion a national revival that led to the rebuilding of the country. If the Vivekananda of the obituaries is the “champion of Hinduism” in Chicago, the Vivekananda of Kanyakumari is the “master builder of the nation”.

The prominent involvement of the RSS in the centenary celebrations provoked questions about which “Vivekananda” was being commemorated, the “Hindu hero” or the “Indian hero”. In line with its principle of not becoming involved in organised political activity, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission withdrew from actively promoting the memorial once a heated political controversy surrounded the RSS’ bid for permission from the Tamil Nadu government to build on the rock. The Math and Mission and many of its prominent supporters, however, played a full part in the eventual consecration of the Rock Memorial and contributed to the commemorative publications linked to it.

It would seem that the major public occasions for reflecting on Vivekananda’s life and work have elicited evolving responses to Vivekananda, which have emphasised different aspects of his career and legacy. They have also taken on “national” dimensions in different ways. It is telling that, in the context of India of the first decade of the 21st century, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission referred to its completed restoration of Vivekananda’s ancestral home as “the nation’s homage” to Vivekananda. This begs the question of how the nation, the secular Republic of India, should celebrate a person who on his death was certainly saluted as one who had restored pride in India but was more typically spoken of as a Hindu religious teacher and reformer.

As this issue goes to the press, some events are already under way. Integral to the national, public commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary will be a recognition of Vivekananda’s contribution to the promotion of seva (understood here as “organised service to humanity”). The Prime Minister of India has inaugurated four-year-long service programmes, which will be conducted by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission with government support, and has “released” two books brought out by the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi for free distribution to students. The Railway Minister has flagged off a special train from Howrah station, which contains an exhibition devoted to Vivekananda. It will travel through India until January 2014, by which time it is expected to have covered one lakh kilometres. Whatever the Ramakrishna Math and Mission adds to this commemoration, together with all the other organisations that independently acknowledge Vivekananda’s inspiration, it is clear that the 150th birth anniversary is being conceived of as a national event, and not as one solely of concern to Vivekananda’s devotees.

The prominence of service projects in the forthcoming commemoration is a reminder that the Ramakrishna Mission was the recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1998, the first occasion when the award was made to an institution and not an individual. The official citation referred to, among other things, the Mission’s focus on action and service. In recognising the Ramakrishna Mission in this way, the Gandhi Peace Prize acknowledged the legacy of the individual who had shaped the movement’s philosophy of service and its earliest institutions. It was with this in mind that I returned to earlier commemorations to discover how Vivekananda’s promotion of organised seva, understood as a sadhana (or spiritual discipline), had been represented.

Most strikingly, the promotion of seva was not a prominent feature in the accounts of Vivekananda published on his death in which, we noted, he was more typically remembered as the “champion of Hinduism” in Chicago. It comes through more strongly in the Ramakrishna Math and Mission’s own periodicals, The Brahmavadin and Prabuddha Bharata. On reflection, this is hardly surprising as Vivekananda died while the Math and Mission were still being shaped. But, anybody attempting at that time to foresee the future shape of Vivekananda’s legacy on the basis of his obituaries could be forgiven for not anticipating how much we would come to think of Vivekananda in terms of his promotion of seva, not just through the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, which he created, but through many other Hindu organisations and groups he has influenced subsequently. As commemoration should also include an element of reappraisal, I shall suggest some reasons why this might have been so.

In addition to the relative brevity of Vivekananda’s “unfinished” life, we need to remember that it took several years after the death in 1886 of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, for Vivekananda to reach the point where he began actively to promote a new style of seva, spearheaded by sanyasins. In the early 1890s, Vivekananda’s correspondence exhibited increasing awareness of social problems in India, particularly relating to famine and lack of education. It was not until March 1894 that Vivekananda first communicated to his brother-disciples the nature and implications of the vision he reported having experienced at Kanyakumari late in 1892. Before that point, Vivekananda’s concerns as a wandering sadhu were more closely tied to resolving personal dilemmas relating to the plight of his family and his own sense of an as yet unfulfilled spiritual destiny. Plans were made while in the U.S., but these were only translated into action in 1897 on his return to India where he had to contend with strong resistance. Several of his brother-disciples and prominent householder devotees of Ramakrishna objected vehemently to Vivekananda’s proposal that sanyasins should take responsibility for seva and to the kind of organisation that Vivekananda hoped the Math would become as the conduit for the delivery of service.

A difficulty we face is that the accounts we have of Ramakrishna contain several examples of his trenchant criticism of philanthropic activity, including that directed against Bankim Chandra Chatterji when Ramakrishna declared: “Charity! Doing good! How dare you say you can do good to others?” For Ramakrishna, “doing good” was the work of God, and the risk of pride or self-satisfaction from engaging in charitable action constituted an ever-present danger and distraction from the path of God-realisation. The utterance by Ramakrishna that Vivekananda selected as his primary justification for setting the Math and Mission on a life of service was delivered while Ramakrishna was in a state of altered consciousness. At that point, Ramakrishna seemingly commended “service” ( seva), as distinct from a condescending exercise of “mercy” and “compassion”, which he rejected, on the grounds that all beings ( jiva) are embodiments of Siva. Vivekananda later encapsulated this insight in the phrase daridra narayana–let the poor be your God. Ramakrishna’s original words, however, were only reported in Swami Saradananada’s account of Ramakrishna’s life, and not in Mahendranath Gupta’s record of Ramakrishna’s discourses, and Saradananda acknowledges that the deeper meaning of this statement was intuited and appreciated by Vivekananda alone. The fullest accounts we have of Ramakrishna’s life, moreover, do not include his final days, when he was said to have commissioned Vivekananda to lead his followers, and so we have very little direct evidence of what that commission might have entailed.

In addition to trying to reconstruct Ramakrishna’s intentions—and it is important not to overlook the fact that Ramakrishna’s recorded criticisms of philanthropy centred on the donation of money and not specifically on the kind of life of service that Vivekananda envisaged—we also have to consider Vivekananda’s own priorities. Once back in India in 1897, Vivekananda almost immediately began to plan his return to the U.S. and London. Teaching and strengthening his bonds with the American and British admirers he had gathered between 1893 and 1897 were major preoccupations in his declining years. This work was clearly intended to be supportive of his project for India. At times, it could exist in tension with it, as when in 1894 Vivekananda declared, in response to a question about whether to direct resources to the Greenacre Conference in Maine, “India can wait as she is waiting centuries and an immediate work at hand should always have the preference.” Vivekananda, of course, never abandoned his project for India, but from 1894 he increasingly confessed to being weary of his involvement in “helping” and spoke longingly of reverting to the lifestyle of a more “traditional” sanyasin, and certainly having nothing more to do with the raising and management of funds.

When Vivekananda began to devise an institution that would bring sanyasins and educated lay workers together in a life of service to India’s downtrodden, he thought in terms of a hierarchy of needs, ascending from bodily, through intellectual to spiritual. Service thus begins with the “gift of food” followed by the “gift of learning”, which finally leads to the “gift of knowledge” (here spiritual knowledge). Vivekananda had grasped the importance of dealing with pressing physical and material needs and insisted on intervention. His understanding of India’s condition rested on an analysis of structural factors and power, as is evident in his comments on famine, but linked to his insistence that lasting change could only come from the work, the service, of selfless individuals. This is why some commentators have criticised Vivekananda and those who have followed him for gradualism at the cost of radicalism, and an idealistic reliance on the transformation of the individual as the way to change society. The style of service Vivekananda had in mind, however, was undoubtedly modern in certain key respects, and those who have attempted to explain the sources of his ideas crudely in terms of borrowings from established forms of Christian charitable endeavour do his ideas a considerable injustice. Yet, while never dismissing human suffering as something to be borne stoically or as merely a prelude to some future compensation, Vivekananda saw the ultimate purpose of seva as spiritually transformative of both recipients and performers. In serving humanity as a sadhana, performers had to realise that they were serving embodied divinity and were thus privileged to have this opportunity—not to offer compassion that could mask condescension or even self-interest but to serve daridra narayana.

It is against this backcloth that we can appreciate why Vivekananda became frustrated as the greater part of the newly created Math and Mission’s human and financial resources in the latter years of the 19th century were channelled into disaster relief, necessary at that time, but not the “gifts” of learning and knowledge that were Vivekananda’s goals. It is somewhat ironical that Vivekananda criticised in this vein the work of Swami Akhandananda. Of all Ramakrishna’s direct disciples, Akhandananda was the most supportive, albeit with some reservations of his own, of Vivekananda’s attempts to lead sanyasins into a life of service, and Akhandananda took many initiatives to bring this about. In 1897, while Akhandananda was engaged in relief work at Mahula, Vivekananda praised his efforts but not his “system”: “It seems they are frittering away their energies in one little village and that only doling out rice. I do not hear that any preaching has been done with this helping.” This telling comment reminds us clearly of Vivekananda’s priorities, as well as contrasting Vivekananda, the strategist of service, with Akhandananda, its hands-on deliverer. The Math and Mission’s absorption in disaster relief is indicated in an early report (1912) of its work by The Hindoo Patriot, which referred to the movement having touched the lives of in excess of 30,000 people. By this time, the Ramakrishna movement had established four major “Homes of Service” and other smaller centres.

To understand how seva has come to dominate the public profile of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission and the way in which Vivekananda’s legacy is understood today, we need to come down to the post-Independence era. The early leadership of the Math and Mission continued to institutionalise the practice of seva in the years after Vivekananda’s death. This in itself was significant, given the ambivalence that Vivekananda’s project had generated among Ramakrishna’s immediate followers, an ambivalence that even Vivekananda expressed from time to time in the latter years of his life. At the Ramakrishna Math and Mission Convention of 1926, called to review the direction of the movement as its leadership began to pass from Ramakrishna’s direct disciples, the movement affirmed it would follow Ramakrishna’s reported admonition to Vivekananda that he should dedicate his life to the welfare of the many. The convention also emphasised events from Ramakrishna’s life that were presented as examples of Ramakrishna’s own practice of seva, although the provenance and meaning of some of these reports have been questioned outside the movement. For example, we have accounts of Ramakrishna instigating others to alleviate the terrible effects of famine, rather than acting directly himself, and of Ramakrishna cleaning a sweeper’s house/latrine (the reports differ) with his hair, although this seems more like a test of his own detachment rather than an act of service as such. Thus, although there are many testimonies to Ramakrishna’s warmth and caring attitude, it is difficult to view his behaviour strictly as providing precedents for the later Math and Mission’s organised service to humanity. It certainly could not be said that he actively sought out opportunities to serve, and his own weakened state of health would have prevented him from rising to such a physical challenge.

The report of the 1926 convention affirms the centrality of the practice of seva to the life of the movement by the mid-1920s. The report also shows the beginnings of the transition from that early phase in its growth, when the movement was largely engaged in ad hoc, temporary disaster relief, to a new phase in which it would increasingly concentrate its resources in permanent institutions or long-term projects in, for example, health care, education, and rural development. It was not, however, until after Independence, when India’s new government looked to trusted voluntary organisations to help in the provision of welfare and education, that the extent of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission’s involvement in the long-term provision of seva changed to the kinds of levels we associate with the movement today. By the early 1940s, the total number of branches of the Math and Mission had risen to 129 (with additional sub-branches). By 2011, this had risen to 172 worldwide, excluding the headquarters at Belur Math. The real measure of the expansion of seva during the intervening years, however, is to be found not so much in the number of centres but in the hugely increased numbers of those passing through these centres, and in the expansion of some of these centres, such as the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama at Narendrapur, and their projects. Ever insistent that its service is offered as a sadhana, not merely as social work, the Ramakrishna movement, nevertheless, has had to accommodate, as have other non-governmental, voluntary organisations, the increasing professionalism of the delivery of service that has inevitably accompanied growing demands for technical expertise.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, it is intriguing to speculate whether Vivekananda ever envisaged the degree to which the Ramakrishna Math and Mission would commit itself to the administration and delivery of complex service provisions. Reflecting on how Vivekananda might have imagined his legacy brings into sharper relief the ways in which the place given to seva has changed over the years both within the movement he created and in commemorative judgments passed on him since his death in 1902.

There is little doubt that Vivekananda was aware of India’s acute needs by the time he came to formulate his own mission, and that seva could provide a powerful rallying point around which to bring together those committed to India’s uplift, at a time when British colonial rule imposed controls on the nature and purpose of organisations in India. Vivekananda’s encounters in India with the realities of famine and limited educational provision had demonstrated to him the need to intervene and to motivate in a new way, especially as, in Vivekananda’s eyes, India’s traditional elites had failed to offer the necessary leadership. Yet, it might be tempting to think that by the end of his life Vivekananda may well have begun to recall Ramakrishna’s caveats about the dangers of immersion in a life of philanthropy. It should not be forgotten, however, that much of Vivekananda’s frequently expressed frustration undoubtedly arose from the multifaceted nature of his career, rather than from wrestling with one dilemma of how to reconcile the solitary life of the meditative ascetic with a life devoted to the welfare of the many. Vivekananda juggled different kinds of projects in India and the U.S. and London, often torn by the competing demands of his widely spread followers and feeling unable to energise sufficiently those, whether in India, the U.S. or London, who were left to carry forward his work during his absence.

Vivekananda’s premature death arguably robbed him of the opportunity to draw together the strands of his life’s work, and perhaps to elaborate further his theory of Practical Vedanta and his social ethic. Many have come to regard these as underpinning his seva project and the summation of his distinctive contribution to Hindu thought, although scholars have questioned both the coherence and the sources of these ideas. For my part, I have long been convinced that Practical Vedanta was a response to the needs of Vivekananda’s followers in the U.S. and London rather than a rationale for the practice of seva as organised service to humanity, which Vivekananda had justified in India through the identification of the poor and downtrodden as daridra narayana. Vivekananda made surprisingly little reference to Practical Vedanta by name outside the lectures delivered in London in 1896 in which he first outlined this theory. He argued that Vedanta (or Hinduism, for he often used these terms as if interchangeable) was the most scientific, and therefore universal, system to date in bringing human beings to a new level of consciousness. What made Vedanta “practical” for Vivekananda was its capacity to lead to spiritual self-realisation and direct experience of God, a promise that resonated particularly with those of his admirers in London and the U.S. who had turned their backs on church-based Christianity. Vivekananda at that time did not systematically connect the principles of Practical Vedanta to the practice of seva, although others have done so subsequently. Attracted to Vivekananda’s brand of universalism, a significant number of his followers in London and the U.S. had limited interest in India, and they saw no reason to follow their own spiritual quest by embracing either what they regarded as aspects of Hindu belief and practice or Vivekananda’s own understandable commitment to India and India’s future. Vedanta Societies in the U.S. and Europe to this day have not offered the range of activities subsumed under organised seva in India on the grounds that much of this would be unnecessary in more affluent societies, restricting service to teaching and spiritual counselling. This elasticity, I would suggest, is entirely consistent with Vivekananda’s theory of Practical Vedanta, which emerged in very different circumstances from his earlier formulation of daridra narayana and was first shared with a very different audience.

In considering today that specific part of Vivekananda’s legacy relating to his promotion of seva as a form of organised service rooted in a sadhana, it is right that we should acknowledge the sheer scale and durability of his impact, not just through the movement he created but through many other Hindu movements that have been inspired by his example to adopt this practice. At the same time, it is important to recognise the extent to which this seva project awaited development after Vivekananda’s premature death, and the extent to which its evolution was affected by factors external to the Ramakrishna movement and in ways Vivekananda would have been unlikely to have anticipated. External factors, such as the impact of Independence, the demands made in India on trusted NGOs, and the increasingly professional and technical nature of involvement in the voluntary service sector, have been instrumental in positioning the delivery of service within the strategic priorities and daily concerns of the Ramakrishna Mission and other Hindu organisations that have been touched by Vivekananda’s influence. How Vivekananda would have reacted to this, had he seen this future, is difficult to envisage. We can linger over the ambivalence and frustration that Vivekananda voiced from time to time and indeed the resistance of some to the path he took in Ramakrishna’s name.

Vivekananda was an astute observer of accelerating processes that we now bundle together under the heading of “globalisation”, and I suspect he would have taken into account significant changes in the context and the nature of the challenges facing his later followers before venturing a judgment on the path they have taken. In much the same way, it is overly simplistic to base judgments on the direction taken by Vivekananda on our reconstructions of Ramakrishna’s intentions. Even in the short time between the flowering of the careers of guru and disciple, the worlds they occupied and addressed had changed, and Vivekananda confronted challenges, issues and opportunities that Ramakrishna never faced or chose not to address. This is even more the case when one considers the passage of time between the death of Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna movement of today. Vivekananda’s vision and theory of seva is central to his legacy as one of 19th-century India’s most influential thinkers and leaders. Much of its current form and its widespread practice by contemporary Hindu movements are the products of opportunities afforded by the course of Indian history from the late colonial period to the present. The mechanics of its delivery have been no less profoundly affected by international developments in this field.

From our 21st-century vantage point, I sense that the iconic power of the symbolism of Vivekananda’s intervention at the World’s Parliament of Religions is gradually fading. Vivekananda’s philosophy of service, on the other hand, continues to exert influence in India. This is no less true of comparable, religiously inspired initiatives in other parts of the world, as voluntary organisations exploit the space created by civil society to meet real and urgent needs left unanswered by governmental provision. Vivekananda, the inspiration behind over a century of service to India’s people, arguably provides more of a national focus today than Vivekananda “the champion of Hinduism” in Chicago. It would be interesting to see what the organisers of the bi-centenaries of his birth in 2063 will choose as the focus of their commemorations, what in their time they will see most clearly and value of Vivekananda’s legacy.

Gwilym Beckerlegge studied religions at the Universities of Oxford and Lancaster, and is currently Professor of Modern Religions in the Department of Religious Studies at The Open University, UK. His research has centred on the growth of seva within the Ramakrishna Math and Mission and other contemporary Hindu movements inspired by Vivekananda. His publications include Swami Vivekananda's Legacy of Service: A Study of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission (2006). For more details, visit http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/religious-studies/beckerlegge.shtml

Quotations have been taken from;

Vivekananda, Swami (1989): The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Mayavati Memorial Edition, eight volumes (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama).

(1997): The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, originally recorded in Bengali by M., a disciple of the Master, and translated into English with an Introduction by Swami Nikhilananda (New York: Ramakrishna-Vedanta Centre).

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