A variety of activities is in the offing to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s immense contribution to the making of India as a nation. The occasion: the 150th birth anniversary of Swamiji. Seminars, workshops, publications and such other means to perpetuate his memory and assess the significance of his contribution form part of the celebrations. Strangely, at the forefront of this celebration are the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its front organisations. Strange because Vivekananda hardly had anything in common with the sangh parivar, except being Hindu by birth.
Devoted Hindu, not communal
The ideology of the sangh parivar is rooted in religious hatred and Swamiji stood for social harmony and inter-faith dialogue. There can be no meeting point between these two. Yet, the Hindu fundamentalists trace their lineage to the neo-Hindu movement of which Vivekananda was the central figure. None of his observations on Hinduism, unless taken out of context, seems to give credence to the proposition that he had a communal outlook. He was a devoted Hindu, passionately involved in bringing about cultural and spiritual welfare of the people. He indeed realised that changes were necessary but he was unhappy about the course the reform movements had followed. He decried the primacy ascribed to caste in concepts and practices of social reform movement. Any attempt to find a solution, he believed, “was a difficult task, because religion had become rigid and inflexible,” on the one hand, and obscurantist and superstitious, on the other.
It is only in the light of early reform movements — their success, failures and limitations — that Vivekananda’s quest for a resurgent India could be assessed. By the end of the century, almost all early movements had lost much of their vigour and following. The decline in the reform atmosphere paved the way for the emergence of a powerful spiritual leader. This void was filled by Swamiji, by initiating a movement, based on individual worship in place of collective –congregational worship which Ram Mohan Roy and his contemporaries had favoured. The organised religious reform movement was an anathema to him, although he himself started one, though of a different order, which was based on compassion, social service and humanitarianism.
Vivekananda’s plan of action was not limited to the religious realm. He was equally sensitive to social and economic issues. In other words, Hindus should strive towards a total transformation and inclusive growth. Caste is omnipotent in Indian society but he discarded it without any hesitation. He had observed the working of the Brahmo Samaj and that experience seems to have coloured his general attitude to all reform movements. By the time Vivekananda came on the scene, except in a few pockets like Kerala and Punjab, reformation had lost its vitality. He believed that reform had already run its course. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the religious movements had almost vanished, even if popular religion was on the ascendant. To the Indian middle class which formed the social base of these movements, he had choicest epithets: “cursed by the wheels of divisions, superstitious, without an iota of charity, hypocritical, atheistic cowards,” etc.
This is not to argue that Vivekananda did not recognise the importance of the contributions of the middle class in creating an atmosphere of reform. Instead, he took great pride in what the Brahmo Samaj had already accomplished in the social and religious life of people.
Spirituality alone was not the only concern of Vivekananda. He spent a major part of his life travelling, which undoubtedly influenced his world view. He was particularly sensitive about poverty and the inhuman caste practices. He prophesied that, one day, the Shudra would rule. The stark reality of caste oppression in Kerala made a lasting impression on his mind.
The process of Indian reformation had three facets. The first was a liberal modernising phase in which reformers like Ram Mohan Roy attempted to change some of the traditional practices. The second was a rejection of all that was alien to society, and an attempt at indigenous mode of modernisation. The third was to build an alternative model of modernity which would embrace the traditional and the modern. The path chosen by Vivekananda was the third. The first group was that of the reformers for whom he had undisguised contempt, dismissing them as babu reformers. The conservatives and traditionalists formed the second group. The members of this group were mired in superstitions and ritualism. Swamiji’s method of reform was not merely advocacy of reform, but also through constructive social work.
The central idea in the life and teaching of Vivekananda was religious universalism. In the eyes of those who believed in universalism, there was no difference between the followers of different religions. All religions are universal — equal and true. Vivekananda, however, argued that in Hinduism, universalism found ideal articulation. And was hence a leader in spiritual matters. Equally important was his notion of social service for which he set up the Ramakrishna Mission. The mission gave an entirely new ambience to reform.
The popular and academic perceptions of Vivekananda’s role are highly influenced by his famous speech at the World Congress of Religions and the religious discourses he delivered during the extensive tours he undertook in India. In his highly applauded speech at the Congress, he tried to highlight the universalism inherent in all religions and then to demonstrate that it was best exemplified in Hinduism. Such a position was derived from his belief in Vedanta which, he argued, transcended the limits of any particular religion or cultural tradition. “Truth, alone is my god; the entire world is my country,” maintained Vivekananda. Thus he tried to reconcile his understanding of universalism with the Hindu philosophical system. His perhaps was the most creative understanding of universalism. Because he argued that all religions were universal and that there was no superiority of one over the other. He said “every religion is an expression, a language to express the same truth, and we must speak to each other in his own language.”
‘Language of Ramakrishna’
His language was not the language of puritanical Hinduism but “the language of Ramakrishna. Let Hindus call it Hindu religion — let others similarly name it (what they like). Does our master belong only to India?” asked Vivekananda. India’s degeneration is the result of the narrow attitudes that he argued against. Any beneficial outcome is impossible unless these are destroyed. The idea of religious universalism which preached that all religions are true, and not that there is truth in all religions, was central to the thought of every reformer, both Hindu and Muslim. He was not advocating reform which he perceived as a worthless preoccupation of the alienated English educated middle class. He did not expect anything tangible from this class. They were “crushed by the wheels of caste divisions, superstitious, without any iota of charity, hypocritical, atheistic cowards.”
He had nothing but contempt for this class which formed the social base of reform. The implication of this critique was that he made a clear break with the past efforts at reform from the time of Ram Mohan Roy. The alternative he envisioned was social change, to be effected through education and social reform. That is the reason for his initiative for the formation of the Ramakrishna movement which organised its activities in the field of education and social service.
Finally, did Hindu revivalist movements gain from his ideas? Unfortunately, they did. But if he were to be back in contemporary India, it is most unlikely that it would be in the communal camp.
(K.N. Panikkar is a former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)