June 28, 2020
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‘The Poor And Afflicted’: Vivekananda’s Many Gods

Much of the life-blood of our freedom struggle doesn’t conform to Nehruvian republican ideals. Swamiji’s life must be seen in its socio-political context.

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‘The Poor And Afflicted’: Vivekananda’s Many Gods

There is a scene from the late-’60s mushy and nationalistic Bengali film, Subhashchandra, that is worth recalling in a less innocent age. The moustachioed head of the local thana in Cuttack walks into the book-lined room where a teenage Subhas Chandra Bose is engrossed in his studies. Brandishing his baton menacingly, he glowers at the numerous photographs on the wall—including one of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the author of Anandamath, and one of martyr Kshudiram Bose, who was executed for killing an Englishman. The policeman then turns his disapproving gaze on Subhas. “You’ve overlooked one,” interjects the boy insolently and points to another wall. The camera focuses on a portrait of Swami Vivekananda. The policeman stares at the photograph intently. Then, pointing his baton at Vivekananda, he declaims: “That is the raja of all the revolutionaries. Whichever revolutionary we catch, his picture is with them.”

More than 65 years after Independence and with ‘official’ history being constantly reworked, it is both fashionable and obligatory to brush aside the inspirational importance of Swami Vivekananda to earlier generations. He was a sanyasi in saffron robes who was unabashedly committed to the propagation of spiritualism and national regeneration and who, at the same time, did not shy away from his self-identity as a proud Hindu. That such a man greatly inspired India’s passage to freedom may seem at odds with the puerile perception that contemporary Indian nationhood is based solely on universalist, secular and republican ideals. Thus, a complex past has become unwanted baggage that, if not discarded, is best left in storage. Unfortunately, what we were happens to be markedly different from what the champions of a spurious cosmopolitan modernity believe we are and, more important, should be.

To the left-liberal elites that have a stranglehold on the citadels of intellectual power, the ‘idea of India’ is governed by the broad acceptance of the Nehruvian consensus and adherence to what might loosely be described as ‘constitutional patriotism’. Anything which doesn’t fit into this neat scheme is deemed to be in conflict with the national ethos and, as happened to Vande Mataram, quietly relegated to the ante-room. Alternatively, awkward facets of an infuriatingly complex inheritance are sanitised, bowdlerised and, like balls of plasticine, made to fit any shape.

“The intelligentsia of my country”, Nirad C. Chaudhuri had written slyly in his Autobiography Of An Unknown Indian, “have always had the faith—which certainly is justified by the secular changes in our political existence—that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India.”

In 1993, just after the demolition of the Babri structure in Ayodhya, the then human resources development minister Arjun Singh had attached considerable importance to celebrating the centenary of Swami Vivekananda’s speech to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The focus then was on projecting the ‘orange monk’ as the epitome of inclusive religion, tolerance and egalitarianism—in fact, a man who anticipated the ‘enlightened’ secularism and even socialism of the Nehruvian order. The underlying agenda was to deny an aggressive BJP and Sangh brotherhood a monopoly claim over Hindu symbols. The project also had the blessings of ‘progressive’ historians and even the tacit nod of a Ramakrishna Mission which was engaged in a bizarre battle to claim ‘minority’ status by declaring itself to be outside the Hindu fold. The Supreme Court, mercifully, rejected that claim in 1995.

Two decades later, the enthusiasm for appropriating Swami Vivekananda for the good fight against the dark forces of bigotry appears to have lost momentum. Last year, as the evocative photographs in Outlook (January 21, 2013) reminded us, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi did something characteristically audacious: to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Swamiji’s birth, he packaged his pre-election tour of the state as the Vivekananda Yatra. Nor was this entirely a gimmick based on the fact that the Bengali monk and the Gujarati CM shared a first name. As someone who has been inspired by Vivekananda since his youth—he even sought to join the Ramakrishna Mission as a monk—Modi’s symbolism was not disingenuous. It was centred on broadly the same assumptions that made Vivekananda the inspiration for generations of Indian nationalists, particularly prior to 1947.

Vivekananda was a sanyasi committed to spiritualism and national regeneration. That such a man so inspired India’s passage to freedom is at odds with the notion that Indian nationhood is based on secular and republican ideals.

Three features of Vivekananda’s philosophy warrant special emphasis. First, unlike other Hindu religious leaders who made the quest for God a matter of personal salvation, Vivekananda enlarged the scope of his spiritual quest. It became co-terminous with a nebulously defined national service. “The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted,” he wrote, “let these be your God, know that service to these alone is the highest religion.” It was an invocation that, in the context of the times, was unmistakably revolutionary.

Secondly, Vivekananda was clear that what distinguished India from the materialist West was its attachment to a Hindu ethos grounded in spiritualism. Yet, he did not reject this-worldliness out of hand. In his study Europe Reconsidered (1988), historian Tapan Raychaudhuri argued that Vivekananda saw the West “as an admirable manifestation of rajas, manly vigour, a necessary step to higher things. Indians sunk in tamas, pure inertia and all that is brutish in man, had to emulate that quality first”. Vivekananda addressed a question that preoccupied middle-class India at the turn of the 20th century: what facet of the West should India accept or reject? Raychaudhuri suggested that Vivekananda “proposed a fair exchange of ideas, a synthesis based on national dignity”.

Finally, Vivekananda’s priorities for national regeneration were determined by the prevailing conditions in India, particularly the grim realities of political subordination. Despite his avowed defence of the principles of the Vedic caste system—one of the few things he had in common with Mahatma Gandhi—Vivekananda was unequivocal in his denunciation of the corrupted institution, particularly the rules of ritual purity that made Brahmins the oppressor and Shudras the victim. He clearly saw caste as a major impediment to the forging of a purposeful, united nation.

Added to this was his impatience with the physical inadequacies of a subject people and his overweening desire to contribute to the emergence of a muscular Hinduism which would not any more countenance servitude and humiliation. It would be fair to say that the lessons he drew from the Bhagvad Gita were radically different from those drawn by Gandhi.

Vivekananda was essentially a product of his times. He belonged to a period when the early infatuation with westernisation was yielding to a more nuanced understanding of the wider world that blended with the grim realities of India as a subject nation. Moreover, in his short life—he died at the age of 39—he spent five active years outside India fostering an understanding of the Hindu heritage of his country. Predictably, his attention was focused on projecting India’s innate strength rather than highlighting its many shortcomings. How he would have evolved had he lived to witness the political turbulence that accompanied the Partition of Bengal in 1905 is a matter of conjecture. Would he have retreated into a personal quest within the monastic order he created? Or would he have travelled in a more politically active direction? It is significant that most of his contemporaries believed his message was relevant in shaping public life.

It is tempting to dissociate Vivekananda from his context and see him through the prism of contemporary politics. This is precisely the underlying tone of Outlook’s sensational description of him as ‘The Hindu Supremacist’ that implicitly identifies him with a latter-day form of Hindu Fascism. This approach is in line with other recent interventions that have projected Vivekananda as the epitome of a regressive machismo.

Fortuitously, this attempted vilification of a towering symbol of Hindu pride may have unintended consequences. That Vivekananda was much more than yet another in the long line of eminent Hindu spiritualists preoccupied with personal salvation is obvious. By linking his life and teachings with the evolution of the political Hindu, his detractors may have unwittingly helped in locating him in the larger debate on the shape and future of an emerging India. After all, the liberal elite’s disavowal of everything ‘Hindu’ is not universally shared in India.

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