The author’s latest book is an effort to challenge the Sangh Parivar’s depiction of the spiritual leader.
Govind Krishnan V.’s recently published Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom is a conscious effort to challenge the Sangh Parivar’s depiction of the monk as an exemplar of right-wing values. Instead, as Krishnan demonstrates through a close and meticulous reading of the swami’s works, Vivekananda, even as he anchored his ideas in Hinduism, stood firmly on the side of modernity as opposed to reactionary revivalism. His writings, which are phenomenal in their range and content, are clear on the importance of dissent, of the centrality of critical thinking, and take a broad, sober view of history that neither vilifies nor romanticises men and events. Excerpts from an interview:
What caused you to research and write a book specifically about Vivekananda and the RSS’s recruitment of his icon? In a personal sense, where did this journey begin?
I encountered Vivekananda relatively early. At 16, I became haunted by existential questions: “What is the meaning of life?” “Does it have a purpose?” No teachers, parents, mentors, and friends were able to help. In college, I chanced upon The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. I started with the first volume and went on till the eighth, mesmerised. My thought world was revolutionised, because Vivekananda was addressing these very existential questions. The answers he offered, however, were not comfortable, just like the Buddha’s are not, and it opened up as many questions as answers for me. But the upshot was that my understanding of religion and Hinduism were formed by Vivekananda, for whom absolute freedom, critical enquiry, and non-normativity were essential conditions for spirituality and the modern human. And according to him, Hinduism, properly understood, exemplified these values.
My idea of RSS and Sangh Parivar organisations came later, from my work as a journalist. It was in the immediate aftermath of the infamous Mangalore pub attacks in 2009. I was one of the first English language journalists to report on the caste dynamics behind the communal policing by extremist Hindutva groups there. These groups and the RSS use Vivekananda as an icon. I recall a bizarre moment from this period, when a college belonging to a group named after Vivekananda, tried to impose bindi on Muslim girls. The head of the group backtracked when I called him, and he said they were only insisting that students follow Indian culture. And what was Indian culture? “Not drinking, not smoking, and dressing decently.” He was nonplussed when I informed him that Vivekananda himself was a regular and open smoker.
Over the years, reporting on the creep of the Sangh Parivar’s communal ideology and its legitimisation by state structures in many parts of India, I felt a sense of helplessness. I believe what is happening in India today is the biggest existential threat that the republic has faced since the Emergency. And this assault on our democracy and communal fabric is done in the name of Hinduism, hijacking the legacy of figures like Vivekananda. That is when I hit upon the idea of writing a book that would demonstrate that Vivekananda is the ideological nemesis of the Sangh Parivar. His understanding of the role of Muslims and Christians in India, his reading of India’s history and society, are polar opposites to the Sangh’s view. And his exposition of Hinduism is such that it negates the very possibility of Hindutva as a political project.
Given that he has left voluminous writings, did you find that in different contexts he made seemingly contradictory statements? Which means, is there room for Hindutva figures to find what they wish to see in Vivekananda, just as a critic might find plenty to support a very different position?
I would say, both yes and no, depending on the kind of ambiguity we have in mind. Vivekananda had the tendency to say the absolute opposite things. One reason was his historical situation in the last decade of the Victorian Age in the West and the pre-nationalist phase of India. It was a time of intense intellectual, political, and cultural contestation which placed Vivekananda in contexts which were in opposition to each other. Coloniser versus colonised, resistance versus reactionism, West versus east, Hindu reformers versus Hindu traditionalists, European triumphalism versus Orientalism, and so on. I have tried to provide a broad historicisation of this context in the book.
There is also the intellectual character of Vivekananda the thinker. It is almost a truism that if Vivekananda states something categorically several times, somewhere or other he would have said the exact opposite thing. This has generated suspicion that he is either inconsistent or worse, disingenuous. But with a thinker of the prodigious calibre of Vivekananda, one has to do multiple close readings, live with his ideas, and tease out patterns of his thinking. Instead, many critics take a cavalier and often frivolous approach.
My own understanding is that Vivekananda was careful to recognise that a perspective, however true, was always partial. Because we can never see the whole, we have to leave something out. So, while he would take categorical positions, he would often examine the issue afresh from the opposite vantage point and come to a different conclusion which was true in relation with it. The new conclusion was not meant to contradict the earlier one but complement it.
This does leave room for Hindutva figures to find a tenuous foothold in some of his statements, which they can detach from its context, and project through their ideological lens. Parallelly, many critics of Vivekananda have done the same, not necessarily out of malintent, but definitely with a serious lack of judgment.
But at a different level, the thoughts of all original thinkers display contradictions. This is commonplace for the historian of ideas. And there are well-established and almost standard historical and biographical methods to negotiate them. The themes that the book deals with are those that are fundamental to Vivekananda’s thought, hence they are also the most basic. If Vivekananda is afforded the careful scholarly treatment that every genuine thinker merits, I do not think there would be much ambiguity about his broad positions.
How do you perceive Vivekananda as a man, a thinker, and a monk? Were there any surprises in the course of your research?
I find Vivekananda to be one of the most fascinating personalities in modern history. He combined in him powerful expressions of completely opposite tendencies and dispositions, but somehow managed to harmonise them. An uncompromising scepticism with unshakable faith, the greatest detachment with tender-minded love, fearless iconoclasm with tradition, razor-sharp reason with mysticism, jnana with bhakti, immense idealism with the most clear-eyed pragmatism, and the greatest humanism with otherworldly pessimism. And the contrast and often the tension, worked to show both the elements of these dyads at their best. His iconoclasm was the more impressive because it spoke from the hallowed sources of tradition, his humanism more magnificent as coming from someone who despised the world as an illusion.
In spite of his liberal attitudes towards enjoying the luxuries of modern life, he undertook the most extreme ascetic practices, often going without food for days and pushing himself to the brink of death more than once. But what I find fascinating about him as a monk is that he did not suffer from the intellectual limitation that calling often imposes, the tendency to see all domains through the spiritual alone.
Vivekananda was that unique case of a monk who was able to live as a citizen of the world, with all the intellectual and social responsibility it entails. He neither cut himself off from the world nor escaped its responsibilities by raising himself upon a spiritual pedestal. Thus, he offers penetrating political analyses about the possibility of a European War (the first World War), predicted a “great upheaval” in Russia (the 1917 Russian Revolution), warned, despite his sympathy for the movement, that socialism may lead to tyranny (this was fundamentally Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of Leninism), and was decades ahead of his time in supporting female suffrage.
What surprised me during my research for the book, was the breadth of Vivekananda’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Quite possibly, he had an abnormally powerful memory, perhaps eidetic, because I simply do not see where he had time to read as much as he did. John Wright of Harvard, a renowned classicist, described Vivekananda, then 30, as “someone who is more learned than all our learned professors put together”. He had a profound knowledge of eastern and Western philosophy, English literature, Sanskrit classical and scriptural literature, Indian and world history, the concepts of the physical sciences (there is reason to believe he taught himself abstract mathematics), and probably even Christian theology.
But what is astounding is his knowledge of history, which in its breadth, probably surpassed that of many professional historians of his day. He was extremely knowledgeable on both the ancient and more modern histories of India, Europe, the Near East (West Asia and North Africa), China, and ancient Russia. His knowledge of European history seems particularly deep, ranging from ancient Greece to the medieval crusades and the Renaissance. He knew of the Islamic contribution of Greek knowledge to the European Renaissance. This is really interesting, because the history written then was extremely Eurocentric and as far as I know, studies of Islamic influence on Europe did not appear in English until a few decades into the 20th century.
As a thinker, I believe Vivekananda has been highly underestimated. He has been seen by the academia as a populiser of Advaita Vedanta, and not as a philosopher in his own right.
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Tell us about his views on Islam and minorities in India.
Vivekananda held Islam in high regard as a religion. He appreciated the relatively egalitarian nature of Islamic societies, and the commitment of the Quran to social justice. He noted the fact that the Quran and the Hadiths comment on all known disciplines of the time, including the natural sciences, while pointing to the relative paucity of these in the Bible and Hindu scriptures. As a thinker active in comparative religion as well as a votary of universal religion, Vivekananda would point out those aspects of a religion which were its unique excellences, and also criticised what he saw as its shortcomings. In this way, he also criticised Islam at times. This has been latched on to by the Hindu right wing as mirroring their own antagonism towards Muslims. And by several left-liberal critics as examples of Islamophobia and communalism. It is pertinent to remember that in Vivekananda’s work there is far more criticism of his own religion—Hinduism—for its shortcomings, than of other religions.
The narrative that is being spread through the country today is that India suffered under a thousand years of foreign rule. That Islamic invasions led to a genocide of Hindus, and every Muslim in India was converted by force or is descended from those who were. Vivekananda made it clear that what was meant by Islamic conquests was essentially an interracial conflict between Indians. Except for the marauding expeditions of Mohammad of Ghazni and Nadir Shah, the other conquests were territorial expansions within India by a Turkish military elite whose army was composed of Hindus or Buddhists converted to Islam. The battles were fought largely between members of the Indian races, though they belonged to different religions.
Vivekananda saw that in the beginning there were forced conversions. But for him, something that happened for a brief time in the 13th century paled in significance to the six hundred years of rule by Islamic dynasties that followed and which was the historical experience recalled in his own time. Vivekananda considered the Mughal empire the greatest empire India had seen, and Akbar the greatest monarch.
Addressing a Hindu public gathering, he said, “Even to the Mohammedan rule we owe that great blessing, the destruction of exclusive privilege. That rule was, after all, not all bad; nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good. The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Mohammedans. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be the height of madness to think it was all the work of sword and fire.” That is, caste privileges and oppression within Hindu society caused lower castes to convert to Islam. Again, Vivekananda saw the basic reason for conversion to Christianity as the apathy of the upper castes towards the condition of the lower castes and their practice of untouchability. But conversions by Christian missionaries did not bother him, it does not appear even as a marginal concern in his writings, speeches, and correspondence.
Manu S. Pillai is a historian and writer.