With the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on January 22 with the Supreme Court’s blessing, and the almost complete silencing of Muslim opposition, it is obvious that a certain idea of India is dead. The idea of a secular India—where no religion is favoured, where a citizen’s religious beliefs are her private affair, and faith plays no role in the functioning of the state.
What is less obvious but equally true is that the building of a Ram Mandir on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid might well mark the death of a certain idea of Hinduism. This is the idea of Hinduism associated with Adi Shankara, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Narayana Guru, which is anchored in the Upanishads, in the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata, the Brahma Sutra of Vyasa, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It would be up to Hindus to decide whether a Hinduism eviscerated of these spiritual principles and sacred texts is what they would want to follow in the future.
The most brilliant and articulate exponent of this idea of Hinduism in modern times was probably Swami Vivekananda. The Sangh Parivar and the BJP claim Vivekananda as an inspiration and one of the foremost exponents of both Hinduism and Hindu pride. The RSS spearheaded the construction of a Vivekananda statue on the rock in Kanyakumari where Vivekananda sat and meditated on the future of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi constantly invokes the monk’s name in his speeches and on state occasions.
What would have been Vivekananda’s attitude towards the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and the building of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya? Of course, with any historical personality, the exact stance they would have taken on a future issue is hypothetical and necessarily speculative. Nonetheless, Vivekananda took such definitive positions on the various elements that constitute the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, including the kind of events that occurred, the movement’s underlying assumptions and the ideas that drove it, that we can form a very clear picture of the general stance he would have taken.
Vivekananda’s possible reaction
A careful examination of Vivekananda’s writings, speeches, and correspondence leaves one with little doubt that the destruction of the Babri Masjid would have pained and anguished him. He would not only not have supported the movement for building a temple in place of a mosque at the disputed site in Ayodhya but would have tried his best to make Hindus understand that such an attempt would be against natural justice and go against the core principles of Hinduism. And when a mob demolished the Babri Masjid, he would have, like Gandhi is sure to have done, considered it a sin. Vivekananda would have asked the Hindus to apologise to the Muslims for destroying their place of worship, and he would have exhorted his co-religionists to help the Muslims build back the mosque. But most of all, his heart would have bled at the thousands of lives, both Muslim and Hindu, extinguished in the riots that the Ramjanmabhoomi movement sparked.
Today, as the BJP and millions of Hindus celebrate the consecration of the deity in the temple built where a mosque stood for 500 years, Vivekananda would not see this as a moment of triumph for Hinduism, but as a moment of great danger to the religion he loved so much and to whose service and regeneration he dedicated his life. Let us seek to understand why.
Vivekananda was proud of Hinduism. But what exactly was it about Hinduism that he was proud of? In his very first recorded speech, the one at Chicago in 1893 that catapulted him to fame, he said, “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.” He told a Hindu audience: “It is here in India that Hindus have built and are still building churches for Christians and mosques for Mohammedans.”
Vivekananda was primarily proud of Hinduism for its history of religious tolerance, of the fact that as far as it was known in his time, Hindus had never carried out religious persecutions in their 3,500-year-old history. He was asked by an American journalist whether he thought Hindus could never persecute. “He has not done so yet,” Vivekananda had replied. It is no longer something that the Hindus can claim. Those words became untrue the moment a mob of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal men demolished the Babri Masjid.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid is excused by the Hindu right wing and those who have bought into their propaganda by appealing to the litany of imagined and fantastically exaggerated grievances against Islamic conquests and conversions by Christians. We know what Vivekananda would have said to this. Even during a period when British and American missionaries functioning under the imperialistic flag were vilifying and abusing Hinduism in the worst possible way, Vivekananda exhorted Hindus: “In spite of their hatred… and in spite of the vile language they are given to uttering, we will and must go on building churches for Christians and mosques for the Mohammedans, until we have conquered through love, until we have demonstrated to the world that love alone is the fittest thing to survive and not hatred.”
The Ramjanmabhoomi movement is based on the following assumptions: temples are central to Hinduism, Ram is an actual historical personality who was an incarnation of God, and the Ramayana gives accurate information about his personality and life. Ram was thus born in Ayodhya and the Babri Masjid stood at the place of his birth. And, hence, that place has a special significance for Hinduism. Vivekananda would disagree with all these assumptions.
For example, Vivekananda said of the role of temples in the Hindu religion: “Temples have no hold on the Hindu religion; if they were all destroyed, religion would not be affected a grain.” By this, Vivekananda, who occasionally worshipped at temples himself, meant that temples were not essential to Hinduism any more than monasteries were essential to Christianity. He argued several times that Krishna and other Puranic characters were mythological rather than historical. And he, like his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, recognised no difference between praying in a temple, mosque, or church.
Vivekananda was a true universalist in religion. He proclaimed at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago that Hindus not only tolerated all religions but accepted them all as true. Asked in an interview by an American reporter what exactly about religion he was teaching, Vivekananda replied, “It is really the philosophy of religion, the kernel of all its outward forms. All forms of religion have an essential and a non-essential part. If we strip from them the latter, there remains the real basis of all religion, which all forms of religion possess in common. Unity is behind them all. We may call it God, Allah, Jehovah, the Spirit, Love; it is the same unity that animates all life, from its lowest form to its noblest manifestation in man. It is on this unity that we need to lay stress, whereas… it is on the non-essential that men are apt to lay stress. They will fight and kill each other for these forms, to make their fellows conform. Seeing that the essential is love of God and love of man, this is curious, to say the least.”
It is important to understand this distinction between form and truth, between symbol and reality, in order to understand both Vivekananda’s thought and the praxis of Hinduism. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana speak of an ultimate infinite reality called Brahman which is impersonal and devoid of all form and qualities.
But at a secondary level of reality, it recognises an all-powerful lord of the universe, possessed of infinite positive qualities, called Ishvara. Thus, though the Hindu scriptures speak of only one all-encompassing all-powerful God, Hinduism is full of thousands of deities. How is this possible? Is Hinduism polytheistic? That was certainly the charge that both India’s imperialist masters and Western missionaries made, condemning Hinduism as polytheism and therefore inferior to monotheistic Christianity.
In the 19th century, before Vivekananda’s advent, it seemed that Hinduism was faced with the choice of rejecting its most important scriptures, or of rejecting its lived religion of devotion to innumerable gods and goddesses. One of the many contributions of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda to Hinduism was that they showed how the monotheism of the Hindu scriptures was not in conflict with the Hindu’s devotion to the gods of her pantheon.
Ultimate aim of religion
Vivekananda’s answer was that all forms of God are necessarily anthropomorphic. The human mind cannot seize upon the abstract and ineffable nature of an infinite transcendental reality. It needs a concrete image through which to grasp what it cannot conceive, a representation which through the quality of association, gradually brings the idea of divinity and the infinite to mind. To state it from a more traditionally theistic point of view, God has infinite aspects, and each form of God is an attempt to embody a certain aspect of God for the devotee. To believe that there is something particularly special about the form itself is to get stuck at the level of the purely material, to confuse the material representation for the spiritual reality which it represents.
As Vivekananda says, the ultimate aim of religion is the direct apprehension of God in a state of supersensual or mystical experience. Temples, rituals, ceremonies, and so on, are only instrumental aids for those who need them in the beginning of the spiritual path. Vivekananda said: “The spirit is the goal and not matter. Forms, images, bells, candles, books, churches, temples and all holy symbols are very good, very helpful for the growing plant of spirituality, but thus far and no further…. In the vast majority of cases, we find that the plant does not grow…. If therefore anyone says that symbols, rituals and forms are to be kept forever, he is wrong.”
If temples have no special significance for Hinduism, what about Ram, Krishna, and other divinities of Hindu lore? Vivekananda held that neither was it necessary for Hinduism to believe that Ram and Krishna literally walked the earth, nor was it supported by historical facts.
Of the Ramayana, he said: “Take the Ramayana, for illustration, and for viewing it as an authority on building character, it is not even necessary that one like Rama should have ever lived. The sublimity of the law propounded by Ramayana or [Maha]Bharata does not depend upon the truth of any personality like Rama or Krishna, and one can even hold that such personages never lived, and at the same time take those writings as high authorities in respect of the grand ideas which they place before mankind. Our philosophy does not depend upon any personality for its truth.”
While Vivekananda does not discuss the historicity of Ram specifically, he spoke on the historicity of Krishna at many places. He scoured ancient Sanskrit literature and came to the conclusion that like the mythology of all nations, Indian mythology, too, was based more on imagination than on facts. He told a set of disciples to whom he was teaching the Gita: “Much doubt exists about the personality of Krishna. In one place in the Chandogya Upanishad we find mention of Krishna, the son of Devaki, who received spiritual instructions from one Ghora, a Yogi. In the Mahabharata, Krishna is the king of Dwaraka; and in the Vishnu Purana we find a description of Krishna playing with the gopis…. In very ancient times in our country, there was in vogue a festival called Madanotsava (celebration in honour of Cupid). That very thing was transformed into Dola (sic) and thrust upon the shoulders of Krishna. Who can be so bold as to assert that the rasalila and other things connected with him were not similarly fastened upon him? In ancient times, there was very little tendency in our country to find out truths by historical research. So, anyone could say what he thought best without substantiating it with proper facts and evidence…. It is human nature to build round the real character of a great man all sorts of imaginary superhuman attributes. As regards Krishna the same must have happened.”
“In what sounds almost like a foretelling of the events of the Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath, Vivekananda said, “We can very much agree as to principles, but not very much as to persons. The persons appeal to our emotions; and the principles, to something higher, to our calm judgment… when principles are entirely lost sight of and emotions prevail, religions degenerate into fanaticism and sectarianism. ”
Ram and Krishna are forms of divinity imagined and created by Hindus to visualise the formless, infinite reality of the Godhead. It is this understanding which makes it perfectly possible for the Hindu to pray or contemplate any form of the divine, including those of other religions, as the one all-powerful, all-encompassing reality. The Hindu can, without contradiction, pray in turn to Siva or Vishnu or Ram or Christ as the only divine reality. Without this understanding, the practice of Hinduism would lapse into mere polytheism that would contradict its own scriptures—which are avowedly monotheistic. This is also the basis for the extraordinary freedom that is allowed in Hindu religious matters. There is no compulsion to pray to or revere a particular deity or follow a particular custom; because Hinduism implicitly recognises, as Vivekananda preached, that there is nothing inherently sacred about any image, idea, custom or ritual; they are only symbols meant to direct the finite mind towards an infinite reality that is the ground of Being itself.
Vivekananda spoke many times of how foundational this idea was to Hinduism. “For unless a man chooses for himself, the very spirit of Hinduism is destroyed. The essence of our Faith consists simply in this freedom of the ishta.” It was freedom of both the positive and negative type. Vivekananda said of the other side of ishta, “There are so many ideals; I have no right to say what shall be your ideal, to force any ideal on you.”
It is from this idea of ishta that Vivekananda develops the idea of the universality of religion: that all religions express the same truths through different external symbols and forms, varying according to psychological, historical, and cultural circumstances. He considered this a special discovery of Hindus and the philosophical basis of their religious tolerance. He said: “This ‘my father’s religion’, ‘my country’s religion’, or ‘my book’, or my this and that, are but the superstition of ages; they vanish. We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Quran; yet this has to be done by harmonising the Vedas, the Bible, and the Quran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of The Religion, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.”
Looked at from all these aspects, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement represents a march backwards rather than forwards. It is based throughout on a logic of difference rather than unity. And it is the logic of religious difference and identity that drove L.K. Advani’s rath yatra with its incendiary appeal to build a Ram Mandir where the Babri Masjid stood. Vivekananda warned of such dangers. “We say that if a temple, or a symbol, or an image helps you to realise the Divinity within, you are welcome to it. Have two hundred images if you like. If certain forms and formularies help you to realise the Divine, God speed you. But do not quarrel about them; the moment you quarrel, you are not going Godward, you are going backward, towards the brutes.”
The hypocrisy of the Indian Right is nowhere more evident than when it talks about the religion it claims to represent. Right-wing intellectuals mouth platitudes about Hinduism being “a way of life”, which is in any case a vacuous claim, while in practice the Sangh Parivar tries to impose standards of food, dress, and religion on the populace. Nowhere is this more evident than in the celebrations around the consecration of the Ram Mandir. Every Hindu is asked to celebrate Ram and the temple, every Hindu is asked to take pride in it, and those who do not are branded “anti-Hindu”. This is to take the axe to what Vivekananda considered the essence of Hinduism—the ishta. No one has the right to force a particular ideal, worship, or practice on a Hindu. Or demand her allegiance to any such. The attempt to do so is to kill the spirit of Hinduism, to destroy the spiritual character which it has developed over millennia.
The BJP and the RSS want to make Ram and the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya essential to Hinduism and Hindus with the sole aim of political consolidation. Vivekananda thought of Hinduism as a field of spiritual principles. For Vivekananda, one of the greatest advantages of Hinduism was that it was not tied down to any one personality or prophet. Scriptural authority in Hinduism does not derive from the personage with which a text or speech is associated. And this principle has been followed uniformly by all commentators down the ages. “In Vedanta the chief advantage is that it was not the work of one single man; and therefore, naturally, unlike Buddhism, or Christianity, or Mohammedanism, the prophet or teacher did not entirely swallow up or overshadow the principles…. The Upanishads speak of no particular prophet, but they speak of various prophets and prophetesses,” Vivekananda said.
Vivekananda was the rare case of a spiritual figure who was acutely aware both of the spiritual potential of religion and the dangers attendant on it. The keynote of his career was religious harmony. He pointed out that once people begin to organise religiously, they end up hating others, eventually leading to carnage. The history of religious violence in the world has been less about ideas than about personalities (the Reformation in Europe is a curious exception), whether the wars were over ancient tribal deities like Baal, Moloch, and Yaweh, over the veneration due to Ali, or the right of Catholics to worship saints.
This is another reason why Vivekananda encouraged bhakti but he also warned innumerable times that the intensity of emotion involved, if not guided properly, can become the stuff of sectarian fanaticism. In what sounds almost like a foretelling of the events of the Babri Masjid demolition and its aftermath, Vivekananda said, “We can very much agree as to principles, but not very much as to persons. The persons appeal to our emotions; and the principles, to something higher, to our calm judgment… when principles are entirely lost sight of and emotions prevail, religions degenerate into fanaticism and sectarianism. They are no better than party politics and such things. The most horribly ignorant notions will be taken up, and for these ideas thousands will be ready to cut the throats of their brethren. This is the reason that, though these great personalities and prophets are tremendous motive powers for good, at the same time their lives are altogether dangerous when they lead to the disregard of the principles they represent.”
Nothing can be truer of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement than that in the name of Ram the very principles he stood for have been trampled underfoot. Ram is a representation (how successfully executed is a different question) of the idea of maryada, of ethics, justice, kindness, and love. A movement that let loose a tide of blood in order to destroy a place of worship so as to build another one that worships God in a different name is not doing God’s work or practising the maryada of Ram.
Just as the secular constitutional republic of India stands today at a crossroads, so does Hinduism. Will it choose the Hinduism propounded by its sages, with its breadth of universality and the power of inclusion, or will it choose a new Hinduism fashioned in the shakhas of the RSS, with its crude tribalism and hatred of others?
Govind Krishnan V. is the author of the recently released book Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom, which contests the Hindu Right’s appropriation of Swami Vivekananda, arguing that Vivekananda is the ideological nemesis of the Sangh Parivar.