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Updated: January 12, 2013 10:36 IST

Reclaiming Vivekananda

Gopalkrishna Gandhi
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Swami Vivekananda
Vintage Vignettes collection
Swami Vivekananda

He was a thinker of thinkers. His lively engagement with India’s problems makes him a social philosopher. He must not be reduced to a preacher in ochre. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes:

HIS eyes hypnotise.

Now that is a schoolboy rhyme.

But there is that ‘something’ about them.

They do not let you go. They out-see you.

His words do the same. They startle you, they out-think you. They do that by their sheer confidence. One might say, by their conceit. And, by their unexpectedness, their frankness, their contrariness.

He once said that by his outspoken-ness he had ‘emptied out whole halls.’ Think of someone who draws people, like bees to a honeycomb and then does the opposite as well — smokes them away.

But that is how Swami Vivekananda was.

He spoke the language of the Vedas but not as others spoke them. He chose his own verses and breathing his own passion into them, gave them new, contemporary meanings. He then shared them, pristine with entranced listeners.

Old truths sounded new when coming from Vivekananda. New truths acquired in his hands the ring of ancient sanction.

He talked of India as did others of his generation, but not like they did. He spoke neither to valorise nor to ridicule his motherland. When he held the lamp of his mind to them, old characterisations of India acquired new meanings, and new dimensions of an ancient land emerged as if from nowhere.

In 1863, the year he was born, the welts left by the Great Uprising were yet hot and hurting. So, this son of Kshatriya Bengal could have become a patriot of the extremist, warring kind. But no, he said. ‘Nationalism of a purely agitational pattern cannot carry us far.

In 1885, when he was twenty-two, the Indian National Congress was inaugurated with fanfare. So, nationalism of the public-speaking kind had also opened to young Naren for adoption. But Naren was not meant for patterns pre-laid for him. ‘Without the necessary preparation what is the use of just shouting in Congress?’ he asked.

And then, revealing his natural bent, his true calling, he added, ‘…with patriotism must be associated a real feeling for others… We must not forget that we have to teach a great lesson to the world… religion and philosophy…’

Vivekananda was on an inner journey. But that was not going to be an individual journey. India was too crowded with people and problems for him to be left alone.

By his lights he had ‘seen’ Kali. Not once, but time and again.

Vivekananda loved to sing. And he sang rapturously. There is the Bangla song, Kalipada Neel Kamale, Shyamapada Neel Kamale. Close your eyes listening to it, and you will imagine Vivekananda intoning it.

Each one of his listeners thought he was speaking or singing for her, him.

That was not wrong.

They thought he was speaking their minds.

There they were not right.

Hindu orthodoxy saw in him the harbinger of a revival. Its pundits were in for a shock. ‘I accept all the religions… Can God’s work be finished? Must it not be a continuing revelation?’ And to their stupefaction, added ‘Difference is the first sign of thought… I pray they multiply until at last we have as many sects as human beings…’

In 1890 he set out travelling to learn. His lore preceded him everywhere, defeating his attempts at masking his identity. Maharajas feted him, farmers hosted him. The Maharaja of Mysore expected to see a mendicant in the swami. He was not disappointed. But this mendicant was of a different kind. When the Maharaja asked him to choose from an array of gifts, the costlier the better, the Swami chose two — a tobacco pipe and a cigar.

He was not patronising tobacco. He was puncturing sanctimony.

He has let his hope outstrip his insight in one important matter. He said to Nivedita the era of obscurantism was over. It is anything but. Worse, it is now co-opting him.

More people worship God-men in India today, more fear totems and observe taboos, are held captive by superstition and tied down to hollow ritual than ever were before. They should know that Vivekananda called ritual ‘the kindergarten of religion’.

The intersect of religion and politics is occupied by ‘yatras’ which invoke Vivekananda, the greatest of all yatris. Politicians heave him onto their raths. They thieve his truth to feed their untruths.

They offer him for worship, and bask in his glory.

They have figured that Vivekananda worshipped is Vivekananda forgotten, Vivekananda enshrined is Vivekananda enchained, Vivekananda co-opted is Vivekananda encashed.

Sri Ramakrishna had said of him, ‘He will teach…’ That spiritual genius knew his disciple.

His co-opters would prefer his cut-out images now to preach. They know their self-interest.

Teaching is about imparting knowledge. Preaching is about increasing the size of the flock.

Vivekananda, the world-renouncer was also a world-inhabiter. In America, after a talk on God, throngs of women jumped barricades to get near him. Watching the spectacle a lady said ‘Well, my lad, if you can resist that onslaught you are indeed God’.

Vivekananda was not God, thank God.

He was human. And he was fallible.

His statements on who is a Brahmin and what Brahminism means, are not among his liberating utterances. His observations on caste are hugely problematic. Some of his views on womankind are, today, unacceptable. His comments on slaves and slavery in America invite long editorial scissors.

Between Vivekananda co-opters and Vivekananda nay-sayers is Indian society which has made an icon of him. Sri Ramakrishna, Srima Sarada and Swami Vivekananda make a lovely trio.

All three – the Hindu Right, the Left and the public at large – are depriving themselves.

They are denying themselves a golden opportunity to delve into the mind of a great mystic, an equally great thinker.

I believe if Vivekananda had lived longer he would have seen how times are a’changing and given us trajectories, ancient and new, to travel on. I also believe he would have let Time influence his own thinking and alter some of his intellectual positions. He who questioned Sri Ramakrishna, his guru, would have had to take some hard questioning himself. But all that was not to be.

Vivekananda was a mystic of mystics. His spiritual intelligence makes him an Indian sage, not a mascot.

Vivekananda was a thinker of thinkers. His lively engagement with India’s problems makes him a social philosopher. He must not be reduced to a preacher in ochre.

Our intellectually anaesthetised, politically conditioned and philosophically unadventurous times need his gaze and those eyes to startle us into life again.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of West Bengal. His tribute was commissioned by The Hindu on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda)

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A great article about a great man who drew a road map for humanity and India.

Vivekananda's statements were reflective of the purity of his mind, and his

from:  Rebbapragadda
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 05:21 IST

Why did The Hindu commission Gopalakrishna Gandhi to write on Swamiji on
the occasion of 150th anniversary ? Is he a known Vedantin or one
belongs to Ramakrishna Math ? Swami Vivekananda is not infallible but
his stature in the history of modern India is much greater than Mahatma

from:  swaminathan
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 03:16 IST

After his triumph at the World Religious Conference in Chicago, Swamiji invited thousands of Calcutta people and distributed Sacred Threads to the first three varanas and asked them all to chant Gayathri mantra atleast a hundred times daily. He said Indians have forgotten their true Vedic culture as it came under the grasp of a few which proposed untouchability and superstitions. How many of us are still following this great rebirth with a simple thread nowadays?

Proud to be an Indian for this country has given birth to such a great soul.

from:  Trivikram
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 22:31 IST

Its great to read such an article-with-a-difference on Vivekanand; one
that neither "godifies" him, nor arrogantly pooh-poohs him. It is high
time that Vivekananda, who is fast becoming a mascot of fanatic forces
in India, is "reclaimed" before he is misused. The onus for this
largely lies with the RKM.
It is also essential to have objective studies of the man i.e. how is
own thoughts evolved and the contexts in which he spoke about
different things to different audiences. Most importantly, we must
stop accepting him as the "last word" on every topic. As the
accompanying 1897 interview also shows, his ideas were very messy on
the caste system. It is quite likely, as GK Gandhi has pointed
out,that they would have evolved for the better if he had lived. The
social evolution of India was/is a continuous process of improvement,
and Vivekanand was an important contributor to that. Like all giants,
there are things to learn and also not-to-learn from him.

from:  anirban mitra
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 19:24 IST

Swami Vivekananda was not a mere thinker as it is made out to be in the write up.He was a man of action. He started the Ramakrishna Math and Mission which has now various centers all over India and abroad. They are doing yeoman service to the humanity here in India and also outside India. They do not seek publicity and hence unless you take the trouble of visiting their centres or website you will not come to know of their work.
It is not easy to understand Swami Vivekananda for the simple reason that he was not an arm chair critic or opinion giver. As he himself declares, his work is that of construction and not destruction; that of growth not reform. He continues to inspire millions through his words and deeds even today.

from:  Venkatesh
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 18:14 IST

Some liberals will rethink their devotion if they really read "all" he
actually said and wrote. For example: A quote from Vivekanda's letter
to Mary Hale in 1897....
"You didn't write anything about Dharmapala, his goings and doings. I
am much more interested in him than in Gandhi.
I land in a few days at Colombo and mean to "do" Ceylon a bit. There
was a time when Ceylon had more than 20 million inhabitants and a huge
capital of which the ruins cover nearly a hundred square miles!
The Ceylonese are not Dravidians but pure Aryans. It was colonised
from Bengal about 800 B.C., and they have kept a very clear history of
their country from that time. " - Vivekanada

from:  Venkat Srinivasan
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 13:07 IST

This writeup appals me. How lightly it dismisses the issue of caste or his "utterances"
on women. Barring one sentence the article is a eulogy that shows deep love for
Vivekananda knowing very well his ideology and today what he represents.
Mystic of Mystics and Thinker of Thinkers!

from:  Anandi Purushottam
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:12 IST

Kudos to the author, truly well laid article counting what was
mesmerizing about Vivekananda, at the same time how some of his views
are at odds with changing times. One thing I notice is that, He is a
great source of inspiration for many, specially to imbibe self
confidence and strength of character. But what can be a true tribute at
this juncture? we should change with the time, avoid chauvinism,
extremism, allow differences of opinions, ideas and liberate ourselves,
we have responsibility to create environment where every one of us can
think rationally and follow equality, humanism and see that principle
of natural justice prevails.

from:  BSajjanar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:11 IST

"There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan. We have only to raise them without bringing down anybody. And this has mostly to be done by the Brahmanas themselves... "-on brahminism (I believe the swami shed clarity betwn caste and varna)

"There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved"-on women

If these were the foundational views of the Swami why the author thinks that these we not acceptable and liberating. However I do totally accept the Humans are fallible, and the swami was both hijacked and abandoned.

from:  S THEJHAS
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 12:01 IST

Indeed he was not infallible as no mortal can ever be.I differ with the writer in relation to Swami's attitude towards Brahmins and women.To Swami a Brahmin is one who has gone above all worldly attachments,selfless from within,pure at heart and not merely by birth.He opposed selfish priest craft throughout his life which was quite liberating.As far as women are concerned ,he indeed said that a woman should be like Sita but at the same time he urged every man to follow the ideal of Ram.As far as time influencing his thought process is concerned,it is important to state that he believed in an ideal called Advaita VEDANTA which mainly deals with the Noumenal world and infinite Atma,beyond the realm of phenomenal existence whereas time is a phenomenal attribute.However I don't deny that it could have happened otherwise and Vivekananda could have influenced the thought processes of the coming generations and reshaped future India.Thanking you with all the regards.

from:  Sayak Shome
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 11:26 IST

"His statements on who is a Brahmin and what Brahminism means, are not
among his liberating utterances. His observations on caste are hugely
problematic. Some of his views on womankind are, today, unacceptable.
His comments on slaves and slavery in America invite long editorial
scissors." This article.
From the above, I learn that Swami Vivekanand entertained very controversial views on Brahminism, caste and women in India! I wish someone writes in detail of them as these are the KEY issues of the day! For most of the Young India, he is just one of many forgotten religious figures of the past!

from:  Yamaka
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 08:38 IST

Totally agree with this analysis. Swami Vivekanand was a true social
philosopher, thinker and practical man in our history.

from:  Jigar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 05:31 IST

One should expect better of Gopal Krishna Gandhi than to utilize every
possible opportunity even the anniversary of Swami Vivekananda to pour
opprobrium over his political rivals!! If spreading the good words of a
philosopher for teaching moral values to the youth is sinful then we
should burn all our books teaching us Gandhian ideals and boycott all
the campaigns held for the same.

from:  Piyush Tariyal
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:49 IST

I had had the privilege of listening raptly to the mesmerizing effect of Swamiji upon
the audience by my father in law, who had attended meetings addressed by Swamiji.
Your commissioned article by Mr.Gopalkrishna Gandhi echoes those words.
Amazing. Is not it?

from:  Soundararajan Srinivasa
Posted on: Jan 12, 2013 at 02:39 IST
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