In his third book in the quartet on Hindu identity and self-images, academic-author Jyotirmaya Sharma busts many myths around Swami Vivekananda. He comes across as a Hindu supremacist, and not so much a social reformist. Excerpts from an interview with Satish Padmanabhan:
The book seems to suggest that Vivekananda was a right-wing Hindu leader. Is that correct?
This book, like the previous two (Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism and Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India), is an attempt to delineate a genealogy of Hindu identity. In this context, Vivekananda provides the most influential restatement of Hinduism. His religious nationalism is the decisive influence behind Hindu nationalism. Also, unlike many writers, I do not distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva. For me, Hindutva is merely the politically dominant face of Hinduism today.
So the Sangh parivar appropriating him politically—for instance, Narendra Modi in the Gujarat elections recently—is quite valid then?
The Sangh parivar has only one ideology, and that is political expediency. The question of appropriation is complex. Vivekananda’s thought has been appropriated by others as well. I am more interested in the way in which Vivekananda provides the basis for a so-called official ‘Indian nationalism’ that transcends ideology and remains largely unquestioned. He is an icon for people who have little to do formally with the Sangh parivar but celebrate what they perceive of as his liberality and inclusiveness.
You say Vivekananda considered Islam and Christianity as mere sects and the larger ideal all of them merged to was Vedanta. So he wasn’t exactly inclusive and generous as his master Ramakrishna taught him to be?
No, he wasn’t. This idea of his inclusiveness and liberality is a powerful shared myth in our country but entirely based on a limited, partial reading of his works. Forget Islam and Christianity, Vivekananda wasn’t particularly generous towards many sects and schools of thought within Hinduism.
Vivekananda has always been projected as a big reformer but the book says he was the greatest champion of reinstating and furthering caste?
In my view, he was against untouchability, but for caste. So was Savarkar. The project was to create a single, seamless, undifferentiated and monochromatic Hindu unity with caste as the glue that holds this mythical unity together.
What are the other myths you bust about him?
The book is about Hindu identity and the myths that we have internalised as part of constructing a distorted self-image: the myth of the soft, mild, reasonable, non-violent, non-threatening, non-proselytising, non-converting Hindu. Vivekananda is the most decisive and influential intervention in creating this self-image.