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Narendra Modi kicked off a recent rally with a Swami Vivekananda statue adorning his campaign vehicle. A large number of his supporters sported images of Modi and the great seer on their shirts. This symbolic appropriation ought to have embarrassed Modi.
The philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi’s Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry famously recalls an episode: “Swami Vivekananda was in Kashmir towards the end of his life but his heart was heavy even in that paradise on earth. Large-hearted though he was, he felt tormented by the fact that successive invaders had desecrated and destroyed countless sacred images of Hinduism’s gods and goddesses and pulled down Hindu temples and built mosques over their ruins. Unable to bear the burden of this humiliating testimony of history, Vivekananda poured out his anguish at the feet of the Divine Mother in a Kali temple. ‘How could you let this happen, Mother? Why did you permit this desecration?’ he asked despairingly. Swamiji has himself recorded all this, and reports that Kali whispered in his heart: ‘What is it to you, Vivekananda, if the invader breaks my images? Do you protect me, or do I protect you?’” His questions were laid to rest. The goddess had awakened him to his own unexamined arrogance and temptation towards self-deification. This episode is unlikely to hold a moral lesson for Modi.
Like his guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who strove to experience the divine variously as a Muslim, Christian and Hindu, Vivekananda had profound respect and love for Prophet Mohammed and Jesus. Even if one is not able to read through the swami’s nine-volume corpus, his famous 1893 address at the Parliament of the World Religions, Chicago, alone should confirm his love of religious diversity: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
Besides, the swami has termed himself a socialist on occasion (“I’m a socialist not because it’s a perfect system, but (sic) half a loaf is better than no bread.”). Although his socialism wasn’t a well worked out doctrine, his concerns towards social and economic equality are present across his writings and speeches. Modi’s unconditional love of business capital for Gujarat and steadfast refusal to apologise to the Muslim victims of the Godhra riots make him singularly ineligible to bear the swami’s legacy. But the symbolic and electoral gains from this association pip considerations of ethical integrity.
Modi, of course, is in a long line of Hindu right-wing activists striving to attach Swami Vivekananda to their work. In the early ’60s, M.S. Golwalkar, a former Ramakrishna Mission initiate who later became RSS chief, asked his colleague Eknath Ranade to help establish the Vivekananda Memorial in Kanyakumari. After the memorial was completed in 1970, Eknath went on to found Vivekananda Kendra to further RSS activities in the Northeast. Right-wing outfits bearing the swami’s name in India are now legion. It is doubtful whether the swami’s respect for Islam and Christianity or his rejection of priestly orthodoxy posed an ideological problem for the RSS. What seems to have mattered for them was his charisma and status as a Hindu youth icon who inspired trust and goodwill among people of different religions. A symbolic hijack of the swami would bring them a popular legitimacy and visibility they could never hope to earn through their deeds. And so, the Hindu right has expended much cynical labour in this regard over the decades. They misalign the swami’s thoughts with their own interests and don’t let his deep Hindu reformist concerns or love of religious diversity deter them.
The Ramakrishna Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda, has stayed silent amidst the heinous abuse of the swami’s words and deeds. A monk from its Mysore branch once told me: “We do not comment on politics since we are a social organisation.” Swami Vivekananda’s passionate efforts to renew Hinduism (which, for him, meant Advaita Vedanta) in the late 19th century steered clear of metaphysical and social malice towards non-Hindus—in marked contrast to the revivalist efforts of contemporaries like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Dayanand Saraswati. Little surprise, therefore, that he should hold moral appeal for Gandhi, Aurobindo and many others who saw good politics as inseparable from spiritual values. It is this valuable historical legacy of social interventions outside of secular frames that the Hindu right has sought to take over. This should not go uncontested. Swami Vivekananda needs to be claimed back.
(The author is professor of sociology at Azim Premji university)