Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions, 1893
Book Excerpt
Swami Vivekananda: Social reformer or caste votary? Religious inclusivist or Hindu supremacist?
Cosmic Love and Human Empathy: Swami Vivekananda's Restatement of Religion
Cosmic Love and Human Empathy: Swami Vivekananda's Restatement of Religion
By By Jyotirmaya Sharma
Published by HarperCollins
Pages 300 | Rs. 499

A new book on Swami Vivekananda reveals him to be a man who wasn’t quite what he has been made out to be.  

Vivekananda on Hinduism 

If there is one phrase in the popular consciousness that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna, it is ‘Ramakrishna’s catholicity’. Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct the elements that constituted this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’. He used it to mean what he thought was Ramakrishna’s tolerance, generosity and inclusiveness in relation to other faiths while carefully glossing over the sources and influences that produced this ‘catholicity’. The continued use of the term has had a longevity independent of Vivekananda’s remoulding of Ramakrishna from a “religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic”, and continues to be used even to this day by perceptive and critical readers of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda story. 

Faith is a creation and gift of god and it is beyond the jurisdiction of humans to tamper with it: “Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then god Himself will correct these errors.... If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.” Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide that they are right and all others are wrong. They think of faith in terms of winning and losing, where, invariably, they perceive that they and their faith alone have won and all others have lost. “But a person who has gone forward may be detained by some slight obstacle,” warns Ramakrishna, “and someone who has been lagging behind may then steal a march on him.” God’s ways are mysterious, and triumph and defeat too are in his hands.

If these are the foundations upon which Ramakrishna’s inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity rested, it is also true that there was a complete absence in the Kathamrita of a clearly articulated Hindu identity. Even less so was the idea of a threatening, antagonistic ‘Other’ in the form of Islam or Christianity. Sumit Sarkar is right when he says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. There is, however, one exception within the Kathamrita that causes a mild dissonance in our total and categorical rejection of the presence of a cohesive Hindu identity in Ramakrishna. It must also be said that this exception is vastly outweighed by the overwhelming evidence that points towards Ramakrishna’s radical rejection of differences, hierarchies and claims of superiority among sects and faiths.

AFP (From Outlook Magazine Jan 21, 2013 Issue)

The exception can be traced to October 20, 1884. Ramakrishna visits the Marwaris of Burrabazar, who are celebrating the Annakuta festival. While returning from the festival, Ramakrishna speaks admiringly of the devotion of the Marwaris, especially the joy with which they carried the image and lifted the throne of the deity on their shoulders. He calls this the “real Hindu ideal” and also terms it ‘Sanatana Dharma’. For Ramakrishna to be excited about expressions of bhakti is not unusual, and so the expression “real Hindu ideal” can be understood in this context. What is more difficult to explain is the use of a politically charged neologism like ‘Sanatana Dharma’. 

For Vivekananda, the plurality of faiths is limited to the externals. Remove these and you have his universal faith.
Not only does he mention the term, he, then, proceeds to explain it: “The Hindu religion alone is the Sanatana Dharma. The various creeds you hear of nowadays have come into existence through the will of God and will disappear again through His will. They will not last forever. Therefore I say, ‘I bow down at the feet of even the modern devotees.’ The Hindu religion has always existed and will always exist.” 

The coming together of the terms ‘Sanatana Dharma’ and ‘Hindu religion’ not just militates against the tone, tenor and spirit of the Kathamrita, but the speech itself does not sound like Ramakrishna. If it does sound like anyone, it is Vivekananda, who considered only Hinduism to be worthy of the epithet ‘religion’ and thought of Islam and Christianity to be merely sects. As noted above, this exception takes little away from what is popularly known as Ramakrishna’s “catholicity”; that his inclusiveness and doctrinal generosity is much more radical and exceptional has been explained above. 

Power, and its use by upper castes, are relegated to the naive belief by Swamiji that all would accept the Brahmin ideal.
Vivekananda’s interpretation of Ramakrishna is a simultaneous act of fidelity and distortion. In every instance, the skeleton of Ramakrishna’s thought is kept intact but the flesh and blood imposed on the skeleton often bear little resemblance to the original. Take, for instance, the moment when Vivekananda is talking about the mistake Shankaracharya and other commentators made in thinking of the truth exemplified in the Vedas as having an overall coherence and unity. When faced with contradictions and conflicting voices within the Vedas, they tried to fit these contradictions forcefully within their own view and that of their philosophical system. 

As against this kind of attempt, contradictions do seem apparent between Vedic texts and between the doctrines they preach. Vivekananda suggests that Lord Krishna himself tried to partially harmonise these contradictions, and he himself had come in the form of Ramakrishna to show the right way in which to truly understand the Vedas and Vedanta. Ramakrishna, he suggests, had through his life and teachings made sense of the seeming contradictions in these scriptures. What did he do? Vivekananda concludes that Ramakrishna perceived the contradictions as indication that various texts and their teachings are “meant for different grades of aspirants and are arranged in the order of evolution”. We already know that Ramakrishna had little interest in scriptures, thought nothing of the Vedas, made little distinction between the Vedas and the Vedanta in a formal sense, and found such textual details boring and monotonous.
In 1896, Vivekananda gave two lectures in America and England on Ramakrishna. At the outset, he confesses that he speaks on behalf of his Master, but the errors in interpreting the message are entirely his own. The bare bones of Ramakrishna’s message are all there, beginning with renunciation, devotion, love, and ending with Ramakrishna’s love of all sects and religions. But the moment one unravels the details, a very carefully doctored picture emerges. The first thing that strikes any reader of these lectures is that they are placed entirely in the context of the glorious spiritual traditions of India as contrasted with the materialism of the West. Further, and, more importantly, they are placed within the context of the spiritual greatness of Hinduism. There are frequent references to Hinduism’s capacity to withstand external shocks, including the coming of materialism in the guise of the West and the flashing of the Islamic sword. Despite all this, the national ideals remained intact because they were Hindu ideals. In turn, Hindu ideals are always painted as a deep quest for spirituality and the celebration of holiness.
Vivekananda tersely mentions that Ramakrishna was seized with the desire to find the truth of all religions. He had only known his own religion till now. His listeners in 1896 and his readers today would, of course, understand Ramakrishna’s religion to be Vivekananda’s version of Hinduism, something that it was not even in a generously extended sense. The desire to know the truth about various faiths led Ramakrishna to get to know each first-hand. As the ‘scientist’ par excellence, Ramakrishna learns about Islam and Christianity. After following these two faiths, he came to realise that these faiths led him to the same goal he had already attained. The differences were only in name and form. All this was accomplished, Vivekananda tells us, from actual experience.

Rite note: Evening arti at Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh/ Photo by Sanjay Rawat

This is what Vivekananda claims he learned from his Master. Just as after learning about Islam and Christianity, Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna comes to the conclusion that these faiths led to the same goal that Ramakrishna had already reached. Similarly, Vivekananda learnt from his Master that all religions in the world were phases of one eternal religion. Notice the dexterity with which the word ‘phases’ has been added and introduced. What was the parity and equality of all faiths becomes “phases” of one “eternal religion” in the hands of Vivekananda. In the last part of the lecture, Vivekananda would claim that Ramakrishna did not want to disturb the faith of any individual, not even a sect like the Muslims whom “we always regard as the most exclusive”. Again, Muslims and Islam are reduced to a sect and condemned as “exclusive”. But more crucially, and perhaps ironically, the idea that without disturbing a man’s faith, one needs to “get hold of a man where he stands and give him a push upwards” is attributed to Ramakrishna. It also requires no great leap of imagination to know that “eternal religion” translates as ‘Sanatana Dharma’. Indeed, in the subsequent part of his lecture, the inference drawn becomes abundantly clear when Vivekananda argues that India was the soil to preach religion and the Hindus accept religion with effortless ease. The conflating of India, its soil and Hindu religiosity is accomplished with a flourish, something that would become part and parcel of Vivekananda’s politically charged conception of Hinduism. 

Much of Vivekananda’s mystique rests on his perceived liberality with respect to other faiths. There is a clear identification between Vivekananda and the view that religions might differ in word, ritual, doctrine and emphasis but all faiths are ultimately paths to the same god. In many of his public pronouncements, he explicitly seeks to convey that his message was one of peace and a united religion and not of antagonism. Having studied comparative religions, he finds all faiths to have had the same foundations as his own faith. If there were differences, these were in the realm of the non-essential elements within faiths. Going a step further, he wants a plurality of faiths in the world to suit a variety of contexts. In a world that constantly has to contend with religious strife and the violence that is the inevitable consequence of such conflict, such words and thoughts can be seductively reassuring. This is especially so when quoted out of context, selectively and without attention to the fine print. An example would illustrate the point better. Here, Vivekananda is talking about the desirability of different faiths: 

“I do not deprecate the existence of sects in the world. Would to god there were twenty million more, for the more there are, there will be a greater field for selection. What I do object to is trying to fit one religion to every case. Though all religions are essentially the same, they must have the varieties of form produced by dissimilar circumstances among different nations.”

This sounds perfectly reasonable. It is worth marking that he calls them “sects” and not religions. But the overall tone and tenor is one of remarkable liberality. Now read the last line of the quote: “We must each have our own individual religion, individual so far as the externals of it go.” The plurality of faiths, then, is limited to the externals. Remove the externals and what will emerge is a universal faith defined by Vivekananda, based entirely on his reading of the Vedanta. The Vedantic ideal of Oneness and the Universal Soul would ultimately prevail. 

“When we shall feel that oneness, we shall be immortal. We are physically immortal even, one with the universe. So long as there is one that breathes throughout the universe, I live in that one. I am not this limited little being, I am the universal. I am the life of all the sons of the past. I am the soul of Buddha, of Jesus, of Mohammed.” 


When the argument for a single universal faith had to be made strenuously, Vivekananda abandons even the “We must each have our own individual religion” rhetoric with alacrity: “There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One Infinite Religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways.” What, then, about the argument that promised to accommodate even twenty million or more sects in the world, even if this acceptance of plurality was only based on the acknowledgement of a multitude of external forms of religion? The above quote ends with the following sentence: “Therefore we must respect all religions and we must try to accept them all as far as we can.” The respect for other religions was, therefore, conditional. It depended on phrases like “so far as the externals of it go” and “as far as we can”. 

The refrain of not judging others and not being contemptuous towards other faiths occurs regularly within the Vivekananda corpus. It is also always invariably accompanied by the argument that differences are only of a degree and that there are people who are not as developed as “we” are. Differences and variations were only the “externals”, they were part of the phenomenal world. Invoking biological and naturalistic metaphors, Vivekananda argues that Nature always represents unity in variety, that “...through all these variations of the phenomenal runs the Infinite, the Unchangeable, the Absolute Unity”. What was true of Nature is also true for humans: “...the microcosm is but a miniature repetition of the macrocosm.” This is the reason, affirms Vivekananda, why no man’s faith ought to be disturbed. While this too sounds utterly reasonable, it also is part of the same trajectory where other faiths are limited and inadequate and require getting “hold of a man where he stands and giving him a push upwards”. Oneness, Absolute Unity and the necessary push upwards were possible, though, only if a set of preconditions were met and unambiguously affirmed. 

Vivekananda on casteism 

If India’s past had to become its future, especially if this past had anything to do with the ‘centre’ or ‘core’ of Hindu India’s life, namely religion, the question of caste had to be confronted. Another pillar on which Vivekananda’s mystique rests is his views on caste, especially his strong and vocal criticism of Brahmins and of untouchability. But even the criticism is not always categorical. For instance, he speaks of the Brahmins being good and moral, holding no property, but beset with one weakness. This was their fondness for power. They perceive themselves as “twice-born”, the sons of God, and view themselves as above all law and punishment. If his views on the Brahmins, at first sight, are ambiguous, even more perplexing are his pronouncements on the lower castes; he often calls them lower classes, thus, combining the ideas of caste and class. 

Vivekananda sought a fusion between races and tribes.... The common rubric used to club them he found in the term ‘Arya’.
Vivekananda finds efforts to designate caste as a religious institution deeply flawed. For him, all reformers, from the Buddha to Ram Mohan Roy, had committed this error and, as a consequence, tried to “pull down religion and caste altogether, and failed”. Having thus stated, he goes on to offer his views on caste that are often mistakenly held as examples of Vivekananda’s antipathy towards caste combined with his equally misunderstood liberality in wanting to do away with it: “But in spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallised social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to the people their lost social individuality.” 

The operative words and phrases here are “crystallised”, “after doing its service”, and “lost social individuality”, rather than “stench” and “removed”. A close reading of Vivekananda helps explain the meaning of these words and phrases, but also encourages a search for clues regarding the emerging contours of the unified version of “our religion”. To begin with, Vivekananda’s explanation of the idea of caste and its tried and tested virtues: 

“In Sanskrit, Jati ie, species,—now this is the first idea of creation. ‘I am One, I become many’ (various Vedas). Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active it must throw-out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies. Now the original idea of Jati was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste, and so it remained for thousands of years. Not even in the latest books is inter-dining prohibited; nor in any of the older books is intermarriage forbidden. Then what was the cause of India’s downfall?—the giving up of this idea of caste.” 

Caste helped one to express one’s Jati.... Its death too was an explanation for Vivekananda for India’s downfall.
Expressing one’s caste was freedom; its loss is what is alluded to as the lost social individuality that caste had for centuries engendered. As an institution that helped an individual to express his Jati, in its current state that institution and that idea had got crystallised, failed to produce variations and had died. Its death was also for Vivekananda an explanation for India’s downfall.

“The present caste is not the real Jati, but a hindrance to its progress. It really has prevented the free action of Jati, ie, caste or variation. Any crystallised custom or privilege or hereditary class in any shape really prevents caste (Jati) from having its full sway, and whenever any nation ceases to produce this immense variety, it must die. Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this: That India fell because you prevented and abolished caste. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not—caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste and we shall rise.”

Photo by Advaita Ashram

In practical terms, caste designated individuals to perform certain actions according to their natures, their prakriti. As long as they continued to perform those without locating their actions or varna-prescribed vocation in custom, privilege or heredity, caste functioned smoothly. So, the cobbler, the peasant and the sweeper, despite an education, will continue to do their jobs and do them even better as long as they got the sympathy of the upper castes. This, in sum, is Vivekananda’s argument till now. 

Vivekananda’s interpretation of Ramakrishna is both simultaneously an act of fidelity and distortion.
India was a mad confluence of races. Vivekananda wants to find a way of bringing about a fusion between races and tribes, especially so because he finds them to be unequal in culture. Similarly, a profusion of languages ought to have a common link. In Sanskrit, “a great sacred language of which all others would be considered as manifestations”, he located and found the most viable linguistic solution. The common rubric under which he attempts to club all the races and tribes was found in the term ‘Arya’. Even the distinction between Aryan and Dravidian was casually brushed aside as merely a philological one and not of race and blood. Once language and race were unified, the asymmetry between cultures had to be rectified: “Just as Sanskrit has been the linguistic solution, so the Arya the racial solution. So the Brahmanhood is the solution of the varying degrees of progress and culture as well as that of all social and political problems.” 

Once the supremacy and the primacy of the Aryan race were established, he could now readily pronounce Brahminhood as “the great ideal of India”. It was true that the degradation of Brahminhood and Kshatriyahood was prophesied in the Puranas; in the Kaliyuga, they claimed, there would only be non-Brahmins. Vivekananda regrets that this was becoming increasingly true, though a few Brahmins remained, and did so only in India. Any vision of bringing about order to the diversity of races and languages, then, can only be brought about by a superior culture. The Aryans, Vivekananda asserts, provided such a culture and this culture expressed itself through the caste system: “It put, theoretically at least, the whole of India under the guidance—not of wealth, nor of the sword—but of intellect—intellect chastened and controlled by spirituality. The leading caste in India is the highest Aryans—the Brahmans.” 

He says Ramakrishna made sense of contradictions in scriptures when actually he had little interest in scriptures.
References can be traced in Vivekananda’s works where he speaks about Brahmins and Kshatriyas as ideals rather than fixed or designated castes: “Whatever caste has the power of the sword, becomes Kshatriya; whatever learning, Brahman; whatever wealth, Vaishya.” He also describes caste as a status achieved or acquired, where individuals having attained the status of learning, wealth or sword worked towards preserving the privileges of that caste. Was it then possible for a Shudra to acquire learning and become a Brahmin? Vivekananda’s answer is emphatically in the negative: “If you want to rise to a higher caste in India, you have to elevate all your caste first, and then there is nothing in your onward path to hold you back.” The lower castes had to aspire, en masse, to rise to the level of a higher caste. It did not really matter whether caste was seen as an ideal or perceived as a social institution in operation. For Vivekananda, the rules to aspire for a higher status were already put in place by the Aryan and Brahmin superior culture inaugurated in ancient India. 

India’s ancestors had the Brahmins as their racial ideal. Vivekananda describes this ideal in terms of representing renunciation and spirituality. If a country were to be governed by men of such selflessness and spiritual excellence, no police, laws or even government would be needed in any way. Following this Platonist ideal, he quotes the Mahabharata to suggest that in the Satyayuga, there were only Brahmins. Their eventual degeneration led to proliferation of other castes. It was a cycle and there would come a day when everyone would return to these Brahminical origins. The law of the ancestors has to be obeyed: all races and castes must aspire to become Brahmins and attain the Brahminical ideal. It was a law not only for Hindus and Indians but for the entire world: to attain the brahminical ideal of non-resistance, calmness, steadiness, worshipfulness, purity and introspection. Cursing and vilifying the Brahmins are futile and fruitless, since bringing down what is already up is against the dictates of the Vedantic religion. Neither the Brahmin nor caste as an institution ought to be condemned or be subjected to reform. 

“I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan and purpose so glorious as here. If caste is thus unavoidable, I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self-sacrifice, than a caste of dollars. Therefore utter no words of condemnation. Close your lips and let your hearts open.” 

The Brahminical ideal of purity, culture and self-sacrifice was, at once, the caste ideal, the race ideal and the national ideal. Whenever Vivekananda condemns caste, he has in mind the economic and social idea of class privilege and exclusivity. Questions of power and its arbitrary use by the upper castes are relegated to the whimsical and naive belief that all human beings will unquestioningly accept the Brahmin ideal as the highest that Hinduism’s ancestors in India and Vedantic religion could offer. His fondness for caste, however, is total and not entirely innocent. Neither can it be supported by arguing that in glorifying the Brahmins and the caste, Vivekananda was only speaking of an ideal of spirituality and renunciation.

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