THIS nation has distinctive ways of celebrating its heroes. We are ever so prompt and passionate in commemorating the births and deaths of notable individuals as though these events in themselves mattered more than the ideas or institutions they left behind. Over the past couple of years or so, various agencies and organisations, including the Government of India, have been hosting a variety of programmes commemorating the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Such celebrations have called to the platform well-known public figures, among them several politicians and bureaucrats, who excitedly read out speeches that probably did not originate with them. In Delhi, the local branch of the Ramakrishna Mission made a special effort to invite prominent personalities from the fields of culture and sports whose very names have led to swelling crowds. The Mission also seems to have thought rather poorly of lay scholarship, for most of the speakers invited to speak on a variety of themes ranging from international peace to quintessential spirituality were those who adorned the ochre robe. What got left out in all this were the private thoughts of a citizen on a luminous life and its legacy.
It may be reasonably doubted if this long and enduring trail of public eulogy at all leaves adequate space for more measured and critical reflections on a life. That apart, Vivekananda’s life and work have been variously interpreted: one has heard of the Left understanding sanyas as parasitic and of the tendentious appropriation by “Hindutva” forces. The new danger, though, comes from Vivekananda’s closest guardians: the Ramakrishna Mission itself, which, I have reason to believe, is getting increasingly selective about what views or perceptions of the Swami to accept officially. Even so, some reflections, I felt, I owed to myself, especially considering the ways in which the life and work of Vivekananda have shaped my own understanding of modern India and Indians.
I would begin by pressing the claim that the idea of India as a distinct civilisation and cultural habitat found its most creative expression in Swami Vivekananda. It was his persistent belief that India was capable of giving back to the world as much as it took from the world and thereby re-establish its rightful claim in the assembly of nations. In part, no doubt, this reflected the burgeoning nationalism of his times which drew upon shades of cultural revivalism and romanticised readings of the Indian past.
However, Vivekananda also appears to have gone beyond this tendentious project, for he rejected pure political praxis and visualised freedom as much as a social concept as the political. In modern India, Vivekananda anticipates Gandhi in attempting to understand the nation not so much in terms of some ideology as developing a deep relationship with its people. This he performed not through some upper-class rhetoric, as had been pompously aired before him, but through genuine empathy and understanding, based upon close observations of Indian life. His ideals were the Buddha, who had no metaphysics but heartfelt compassion, and the contemporary philanthropist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who rediscovered human warmth and innocence among rustic Santhals, at some distance from the pretentious world of colonial Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Like Gandhi again, he was not particularly seized with the idea of offering sophisticated models explaining Indian poverty but spent a lifetime in befriending the poor. It occurs to me that long before he attempted to understand the intricacies of monistic Vedanta, Vivekananda had grown aware of the fact that a philosophy that spoke so idealistically of the underlying unity of all life had been practically defeated in everyday social relations. To a weary and starving Vivekananda, human goodness shone through the noble act of the menial who willingly offered his coarse chapattis to the Swami or the courageous cobbler who shared a smoke, unmindful of the severe social retribution that might have followed.
In later life, Vivekananda often tried to explain his recurring violations of taboos regarding food and drink with reference to his standing as a sanyasi on whom, apparently, social conventions did not apply. On the other hand, it would not be unreasonable to say that as a class, Hindu sanyasis, even to this day, are not usually given to such transgressions. Speaking before an English audience in London in 1896, Vivekananda was thus heard to say: “One defect in the Advaita [Vedanta] was its being worked so long on the spiritual plane only. ...now the time has come to make it practical.” However, that metaphysical truth could turn quite meaningless when entirely divorced from social realities would have dawned upon the Swami long before the 1896 lectures. Like several thinkers before him, Vivekananda believed that a grossly materialist West was in need of spiritual enlightenment and that such instructions could suitably arrive through India. On the other hand, he was also heard to say that England and America were more fertile grounds for Vedanta to succeed since, compared with India, they were societies that had secured a state of material development that could better sustain human life. Religion, as the Swami was never weary of emphasising, was not for empty stomachs.
The other interesting quality about Swami Vivekananda was his ability to combine a programme for social empowerment with efforts to restore to the individual his innate self-belief and dignity. The social emancipation of the masses was an objective very dear to Vivekananda which he hoped to carry out somewhat in the manner of the Jesuits, combining religious zeal with an ethically ennobling mission to educate. Swami Vivekananda did not expect the poor and the unlettered to come flocking to schools; rather he anticipated present-day voluntarism by exhorting a band of dedicated young men and women to tour the country teaching people rudimentary science and familiarising them with the artefacts of material culture in a manner that might help improve their everyday life. “A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with the eternal faith of the Lord, nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the fallen and the downtrodden,” he wrote in a letter to a fellow monk, “will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social rising up, the gospel of equality.”
In consistently expressing this concern to be at one with the people, to make them better aware of their own human potentialities, Vivekananda departed company of both his siksha guru and diksha guru. He differed from Acharya Sankara (in whose spiritual lineage he situated himself) by giving primacy to intuitive experiences over knowledge gleaned from scriptures. He parted the company of his own guru, Sri Ramakrishna, by rejecting the category of adhikar bheda, a system under which spiritual entitlement was linked to birth. In both cases, he had the courage and the social imagination to move away from exclusivity to what may be loosely called spiritual democracy. And yet, for Vivekananda, the most fundamental changes appeared to occur at the level of the individual. Freedom itself was not something that man could seize in the external world; it was something that one had to realise within. It was not knowledge per se but experience that ultimately mattered. That Moses, Christ or the Buddha had attained salvation meant nothing for a man unless he, too, could realise this himself. “Man-making” was, therefore, the Swami’s preferred agenda, and this included both the development of material skills and the spiritual edification of souls.
Vivekananda distrusted organised religions and attempts at institutional reform since these operated on the basis of aggregates and not individual experiences or insights. The urge to change, the Swami maintained, had to come from within, not dictated from above by self-righteous people. This is precisely the ground on which he spurned social legislation and the condescension of upper-class reformers who believed that they could bring about meaningful changes without truly understanding the problems of everyday quotidian life. “Root and branch reform” was what the Swami wanted.
For Vivekananda, the ideal man had to acquire four primal qualities: abhaya (fearlessness), ahimsa (non-injury), asanga (non-attachment) and ananda (divine bliss). Fearlessness came from a man’s realising the Divine within. A man was to be judged not by what he manifested but what he represented, Vivekananda would say. While in this world he was always capable of sinning and wrongdoing, he was equally capable of overcoming these once he came to realise the Divine within.
Both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda sharply disagreed with the idea of man being overburdened with a sense of guilt, such as one had come to hear from evangelists. A man truly treading on the spiritual path had little cause to fear moral pitfalls. Likewise, refraining from wanton violence and causing injury to others came from realising the common source of all life in God. Asanga for Vivekananda did not suggest withdrawing from everyday world or refusing to be caught in the web of social relationships but remaining dispassionate in work and transcending petty self-interest. Ananda, the Swami maintained, again much in the manner of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, was revelling in the munificence of God and His joyous creation. The world, in his view, ceased to have meaning unless we were prepared to vest some spiritual meaning in the seemingly material aspects of our lives. Our several follies and failings could be sublimated once we understood that the world was indeed pervaded by the secret delight of God.
For Vivekananda, the term “religion” carried multiple meanings. It could suggest piety and the adoration of God but also a pragmatic world view that tried to bring about the positive improvement of self and society. In yet another sense, it represented a cultural paradigm that quintessentially characterised a people or a nation. Looking back at his life and work, this would seem to be something of a paradox. The Vedantin in him wistfully eyed moksha-centric liberation, whereas the strongly humanist side to his character not only spurned such goals but came to question the universal need for salvation itself. “The present-day Hindu society is organised only for spiritual men and women and hopelessly crushes out everybody else,” he complained in a letter of 1894, “why should they go who want to enjoy this world with all its frivolities?”
Swami Vivekananda once told the militant nationalist leader from East Bengal, Aswini Kumar Dutta, that so long as a dog of his country went unfed, to feed it and to take care of it was his religion and that everything else was either non-religion or false religion. Unlike Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda was not a sadhaka, nor did he possess the philosophical depth or originality of Sri Aurobindo. His most precious possession, though, was an expansive heart that could weep at all the pain and misery that came to be experienced in this world and rejoice, too, in the smallest improvement in the human condition.
There are three aspects to the life and thoughts of Swami Vivekananda that continue to intrigue me. First, there is the inconsistency over social reform questions, especially those relating to women. Vivekananda plainly ridiculed conventions that would have a Hindu girl turn a mother at ten and felt that a religion that could not wipe the widow’s tears was not worth very much. And yet, in 19th century Bengal, his voice, together with that of the novelist Bankim Chandra, was the loudest in opposing widow marriages. Though a lifelong celibate, Vivekananda worried, almost in the manner of a hugely burdened father, about how his virgin daughters might find ideal suitors now that widows too were getting prepared to marry!
He was also against men associating themselves with woman-related reform on the grounds that such reform was best left to women themselves. If anything, this negates the argument best put by the reformer from Maharashtra, Mahadev Govind Ranade, that the state itself and individually motivated men were obliged to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves. Second, whereas Vivekananda often critiqued the idea of always measuring religion by standards of social usefulness, he is also known to have unwittingly fallen back on the category of utility itself. The Swami rightly argued that religion could not be held to be bad just because it failed to improve the material condition of the poor. On the other hand, he leaves room for criticism when trying to explain selflessness or altruism in terms of Vedantic monism. One could be easily persuaded to serve others, the Swami argued, since in serving others, he really served himself. The metaphysical foundations of the argument are clear; on the other hand, it would seem as though in Vivekananda’s understanding, self-concern itself led one to selflessness!
Finally, there is the recurring argument that as a religion, Hinduism came closest to religion perennis. The Swami is known to have often argued how Hinduism was not founded upon any historical event or personality. Hinduism, when so defined or understood, obviously could not be said to move with time. Such a thesis, it has to be said, would better suit Sri Ramakrishna, who believed that all religions originated in God, not man. The Swami, on the other hand, appears to remain ambivalent on this question. That Hinduism, just as any other religion, was historically determined and manipulatively made to serve certain social interests was implicit in Vivekananda’s own critique of contemporary Hinduism with its open condemnation of a tyrannical priest-craft. And yet, quite inexplicably as it would seem, Vivekananda prefers to treat religions autonomously of society. The institution of caste, he alleges, was a purely social institution, unaffected by religious ideology.
Even over a hundred years after his death, one is apt to remember Swami Vivekananda for the openness and intensity with which he identified himself with his country and its people. At times, he could be startlingly witty and original. To the best of my knowledge, Vivekananda is the only Hindu thinker of his time or even thereafter to have dared to suggest that at the battlefield of Kurukshetra, Arjuna’s “moral predicament” was only a euphemism for the fear that he suddenly developed of the vast Kaurava army! It may also be justly claimed that Vivekananda was the first prototype of the modern guru and that his own understanding or projection of Hinduism both in India and abroad, has, to good measure, shaped the religion of modern, middle-class Hindus.
Many years ago, his most well-known disciple, Sister Nivedita, had the insight to locate in him the patriot as different from the politician. This, however, was not the patriotism of the ballot boxes. Rather it had the perspicacity to see that contemporary India was nationalistic without really developing into a nation. It was a patriotism of endearment, not exclusion. It was patriotism that aimed at grass-roots reform, not cosmetic changes to institutions that were in any case out of bounds for the common man. It was patriotism that sought self-expression through its own nativity, not idioms or practices borrowed from other cultures. Though in many ways an untypical sanyasi, Swami Vivekananda remained alive to the fact that he was a part of the Hindu monastic tradition and that this placed on him certain special responsibilities. True and enduring reform, he once argued, could be carried out by the renouncer, not the lay social worker, for the former alone was a man in the world but not of it. The lay worker, by comparison, was apt to falter or be misled since his own understanding or expectations could not be detached from those of the larger community. Selfless work in this world was founded on tapas for its first precondition was to obtain moral and spiritual strength by giving up one’s deepest worldly attachments and fondest desires. In the nearly 40 years that he lived on this earth, Swami Vivekananda was able to amply demonstrate how his own life had been exemplary tapasya.
Amiya P. Sen is Professor of Modern Indian History, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.