One vision, many nuances

Essays that deconstruct the complex and contentious issues that Vivekananda wrestled with in a short life of 39 years

Published - November 17, 2014 11:11 pm IST

DEBATING VIVEKANANDA — A ReaderEdited by A. RaghuramarajuOxford University Press, YMCA Library Building,  1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1,195.

DEBATING VIVEKANANDA — A ReaderEdited by A. RaghuramarajuOxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1,195.

These are difficult times for the Indian polity. The nerve-racking oscillations Indian democracy has witnessed post-1990s, coinciding with perhaps the most active phase of economic reforms the country has seen since Independence, has wittingly or unwittingly thrown up larger issues concerning national identity, religious fundamentalism, liberalism and secularism.

A better stage cannot be set to revisit some of our most influential modern thinkers and social activists, not as mere hagiography but with some amount of dispassionate objectivity and a reasonably critical outlook. The latest expansive work on Swami Vivekananda — a collection of essays edited by A. Raghuramaraju, distinguished Professor in Philosophy at the Central University of Hyderabad, seems one such timely arrival like a Diogenes lantern.

But Prof. Raju’s objective is not to set out another doctrine of cynicism that Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, was identified with. Rather, by putting together 19 critical essays by erudite scholars, including some personal reflections on Swami Vivekananda, Prof. Raju has unfolded a refreshingly open-ended template to discuss modern Indian thinkers in a historical setting and informed by the best analytical trends that have enriched humanities, from history, literature, political science, comparative religion, philosophy, sociology to feminist perspectives.

As he says in his Introduction, “The essays collected in this volume on Swami Vivekananda have a two-fold task: to arrive at a rigorous evaluation of Vivekananda as emerging from different debates and to take stock of what is available. While the former is the long-term objective to strive for, that sets the norm, the latter turns our attention to the existing resources. The volume oscillates between the two frames.” The entire book, with extensive footnotes and references to each article by various authors and which range a time-span of over a century, sticks to this promise of retaining the “debate” format. This is because, as Prof. Raju contends, “debate has an enduring philosophical value”, more so when it is placed before a reading public in a modern democracy, where old-world loyalties do not act as a constraint on individual’s ‘freedom and reason’.

A European professor during Vivekananda’s college life (he was known as Narendranath then) was “cross with the students”, for they could not understand the ‘state of trance’ referred to by poet Wordsworth. He was fuming when the Principal, a Rev. Hastie, walked in to share something about the poet and the ‘ecstatic state’ Wordsworth experienced while deeply looking at Nature. And then Hastie extolled the students to go and see a “man living in Dakshineswar who often experienced a state of bliss through the kind of trance referred to by Wordsworth”. “That was the first time, the students of the class heard about Ramakrishna,” recalls Bhupendranath Dutta in his ‘Patriot Prophet’. Haramohan, Narendranath’s classmate, had narrated that incident.

This anecdote drives home how one contingent ostensive definition, in trying to define a concept like ‘trance’ or ‘ecstasy’ later turned out to have momentous consequences for the protagonist of this great debate and much of modern India itself. It was Vivekananda’s discovery of Sri Ramakrishna that paved the way for the disciple storming the world later with a ‘Practical Vedanta’ with multiple social, cultural and political ramifications.

From Brajendranath Seal, Vivekananda’s classmate, who watched “with intense interest the transformation that went on under my eyes,” Bal Gangadhar Tilak playing host to ‘a Swami’ in 1892 in Pune — before he left for the famous Parliament of World Religions at Chicago — even without knowing that he was the same sanyasin Vivekananda who made waves later, to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru recalling from a “remarkable letter written to a Moslem friend (dated Almora, June 10, 1898)” wherein Vivekananda refers to “our motherland, a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body — is the only hope,” the vignettes are touching, humane introductions to the man.

Nehru alludes to Vivekananda once describing himself as a “socialist, not because I think it is a perfect system, but half a loaf is better than no bread.” Preaching the ‘monism of the Advaita philosophy,’ Nehru stresses how Vivekananda yearned for Yoga manifesting its scientific underpinnings, and how India had fallen because of the narrow confines of caste.

The next 16 well-researched essays that follow crack the bewildering complexity of several contentious issues that a unique monk had to wrestle with in a short life-span of 39 years. Be it articulating a new national identity for India with her roots in ancient but multiple religious traditions — he once said ‘Vedantin’ as a harbinger of a universal religion is more appropriate than the word ‘Hindu’—, or the impact of western philosophical/ cultural influences on ethical issues like Schopenhauer and Charles Darwin; the rationalism of the ‘Brahmo Samaj’ slowly changing Bengali middle class mindsets in fighting an ossified orthodoxy, or intra-religious contestations and the need for harmony; the transition from a contemplative to an active mode to liberate the poverty-stricken Indian masses; above all, inspiring the Ramakrishna Math and the Mission, founded in his ‘Guru’s name, to combine altruism and compassion with spirituality, debating Swami Vivekananda has any number of nuances as the breadth of his vision allowed for.

It is this multiplicity of perspectives that logically disallows any kind reductionism in understanding a great thinker and humanist like Swami Vivekananda. This is all the more relevant when issues like religious fundamentalism and secularism are intensifying our glare at those who seek to appropriate his pro-activism for their narrow political/ideological ends.

While some scholars say Vivekananda’s viewscould lend itself to a pro-Hindutva interpretation, historian Sumit Sarkar in a brilliant paper draws attention to how Vivekananda at the pinnacle of his radicalism had said, “forget not that the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers.” Today’s reality may be far from that ideal, but still “enough of the original catholicity” of the Ramakrishna Mission survives to this day, “to keep it — so far away from the contemporary politics of aggressive Hindutva,” Sumit Sarkar adds. The debate continues and Prof. Raghuramaraju’s intellectual assembly comes as an immense addition to that process as a philosophical treasure trove.

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