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Swami Vivekananda: A legacy denied

By: Saurav Basu
Jan-17-2009
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Several newspapers editorial pages display a remarkable conspicuity in their absence of remembrance of Swami Vivekananda"s birth anniversary. In the same vein, political parties have remained averse to appropriating the man and his message unlike the passionate exhibition of their characteristic voyeurism during Gandhi, Nehru and his parivar"s anniversaries. A full page advert of the sports ministry celebrates National Youth Day without identifying with Vivekananda!

Probably, it is because Vivekananda"s "unapologetic Hinduism" cannot be straight-jacketed into "secular", "progressive" and "dalit emancipative" categories. The BJP whose prime ministerial candidate refers to Vivekananda throughout his exhaustive memoirs also show little recollection of the occasion, for the man who single handedly heralded the modernization of Hinduism and its representation and vindication on the world stage.

Does it mean Vivekananda is no longer relevant to the future of India? Was he a mere shooting star which has now faded into oblivion? Ramachandra Guha, a secular historian considers "behind every thinking Indian there is either a Marxist or a Gandhian". Vivekananda"s unique message has no place in the contemporary discourse of such thinkers; instead critics like Jyotirmaya Sharma believe Vivekananda"s discourse on "Hindu superiority" represents a dangerous "threat" to the "secular" fabric of the nation. Perhaps, it is out of such ideological pathology that Vivekananda"s message received absolutely no state support for its dissemination in Nehru"s India. The government of India in the 1950s under culture minister Humayun Kabir while commissioning the biography of over 100 nationalists and patriots curiously left out Vivekananda. Textbooks of India had Gandhi"s talisman but Vivekananda was reduced to a paragraph in 300 pages of Modern History. No national university was named after the man who encouraged J R D Tata to build the world acclaimed Indian Institute of sciences. No national football stadium or tournament has been ascribed to the man, who inspired Bengali boys to go and play football, the matchless spirit which was vindicated when a barefoot Mohan Bagan beat East Yorkshire to win the IFA shield of 1911.

The Ramakrishna Mission painstakingly carried his message through their meager resources even against mounting Communist threats which forced them to bowdlerize his critique of Mohammed from Bengali editions of Swamiji"s works. They have now published subsidized copies of his nine volumes complete works which can be at had for the price of the latest Jeffrey Archer thriller. But perhaps nothing but the extraordinary power and the divine acumen of his words is what makes Vivekananda"s stand out tall as a persistent youth icon. The Vivekananda community on "Orkut", a social networking site has over 1,50,000 members, surpassed only by a cricketer like Rahul Dravid or Bollywood icons with international appeal like Shahrukh Khan. Not surprisingly, you have Gavin Flood regrettably condescend that Vivekananda"s Hinduism is synonymous with the rapidly progressing "middle class Hindus" of today.

Vivekananda lived in an age when the response of a defeated nation was in the words of Ram Swarup, "trying to restore its self-respect and self-confidence through self-repudiation and identification with the ways of the victors." Vivekananda reprimanded those Brahmos who "for a few patronizing pats of their masters" spat on their own culture and indulged in self loathing. Vivekananda visualized in India an unmatched spiritual vision for humanity at large, and he realized political freedom alone was inadequate for its regeneration. Those who say Vivekananda was not a nationalist are nothing short of intellectually dishonest, for never was there a time when he considered himself as a subject of the British Empire. This is of course in stark contrast to Mahatma Gandhi who fourteen months after Tagore had resigned his knighthood belatedly returned to the Viceroy his Kaiser-Hind medal in the aftermath of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre after vainly waiting for Christian justice.

The fashionable critics of his today claim he was a "status quoits" in terms of caste and women"s issues although nothing can be further from the truth. Instead, Vivekananda found utterly objectionable the manner in which the social reformers of the day appropriated Western critiques of Indian culture. He refused to be one of those Hindus, who, having identified themselves with a conquering nation held the misery of their own people up to ridicule and contempt. Vivekananda rejected those destructive methods wherein an alien system was forcibly transplanted on an unwilling subjugated people through force of law and threat of punishment and in the process cut off their identities. He reasoned that "No nation is great or good because Parliament enacts this or that, but because its men are great and good..I do not believe in reform; I believe in growth. Theirs is a method of destruction, mine is that of construction" Vivekananda was again one who could appreciate the urgent need for integrating women with the mainstream by giving them agency. Women had to be empowered and educated, so they could take their decisions in their best interests uninfluenced by men. "Our part of the duty lies in imparting true education to all men and women in society. As an outcome of that education, they will of themselves be able to know what is good for them and what is bad, and will spontaneously eschew the latter. It will not be then necessary to pull down or set up anything in society by coercion." Also, few know that Vivekananda supported the women suffrage movement in the West, and also proposed training women in physical education and self defense. He implored some notable Hindu women like Sarala Ghoshal, the niece of Rabindranath to represent Indian womanhood on the world stage.

On the caste question, Vivekananda"s views were revolutionary and hitherto unknown. He rejected both the Marxist doctrine of "class struggle" along with the communitarian view of "class co-operation" and instead proposed Vedantic socialism for organic development. "Man must love others because all those others are Himself", Vivekananda created a new philosophical paradigm by stressing on the intellectual appreciation of conceptualizing the Advaitic absolute even in the relative phenomenon. The difference between the Brahmana and the Shudra being illusory eliminates caste conflicts and caste privileges without necessarily breaking social distinctions and allows nishkamma karma. The pernicious "reservation policy" of India which is based on Marxist concepts of "class antagonism" where a Brahmin and a Shudra only work respectively for the interests of their own castes is completely negated in the light of this higher Self affirming philosophy. Sadly, no political party in India has considered internalizing this vital message of Vivekananda in this age of divisive caste politics.

Vivekananda was the first Indian who impacted the West despite criticizing Christianity and asserting Hindu superiority. Unlike Gandhi"s irrationality in considering Western civilization to be a spurious antithesis of the pure Indian counterpart despite himself imitating the ideas of Christ, Rosseau and Tolstoy; Vivekananda cherished the values and achievements of both despite the influence of no foreign thinker on him. His influence on Sri Aurobindo who represents the last viable fusion of the East and the West is ample testimony to this fact. His vision in the words of Sri Aurobindo has yet to find fructification for; "the definite work he has left behind is quite incommensurate with our impression of his creative might and energy. We perceive his influence still working gigantically, we know not well where, in something, that is not yet formed, something leonine, grand, and intuitive, upheaving that has entered the soul of India."


Saurav Basu

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