Swami Vivekananda, theirs or ours?

A close look at the Swami on his 153rd Birth Anniversary

In their systematic attempt to appropriate every important historical personality as a forefather of Hindutva, the myopia of jaundiced visionaries is evident. But selective counter-quotes will not help the secular cause either
Today, is the 153rd birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. And. the Indian prime minister, first and foremost a  pracharak of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS), began his early morning communications with the nation with tweets on the occasion. Vivekananda is one of the crucial figures that the Sangh has appropriated. The Vivekananda International Foundation that describes itself as an "independent, non-partisan institution that promotes quality research and in-depth studies" is in actuality affiliated to the  Vivekananda Kendra, a ‘charitable’ organisation set up by Eknath Ranade, a former General Secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) The Vivekananda Kendra is said to be one of fifteen important front organisations of the RSS, which derives its income from the Vivekananda Rock memorial also set up by Ranade.
Rewind to August 1993 and note the performance. In August of that year, nearly 23 years ago, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) sponsored the Global Vision 2000 in Washington. The meet was meant, ostensibly, to commemorate Swami Vivekananda's celebrated address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. But the stridency of the speakers did violence to the message of Universal Brotherhood delivered by the Swami a hundred and twenty three years back.
Here is what the main speakers said.  Murli Manohar Joshi: “We are committed to the rebuilding of a grand temple to Sri Ram in Ayodhya.” (to a loud applause). I saw the dream in the eyes of those young boys and girls and I knew that India would no more tolerate any symbol of subjugation or slavery. That was what we saw on December 6 (1992) – the most memorable day of my life." Uma Bharati, true to character, was more threatening and blunt. Pointedly referring to liberal Hindus who had responded to events of the previous year with anguish, she thundered: “To those of you who say you are ashamed to be Hindu, we want to tell you: WE are ashamed of YOU. After December 6, the tiger has been let out of the cage.” The occasion was a mere excuse. What mattered to the VHP was not the Swami's message but the fact that his appropriation could provide much needed legitimacy to the aggressive Saffron Front.
The symbol used then (and one that is still useful currency for the Sangh), was that of a towering historical figure, a man committed to Hinduism with a deep sense of spirituality who personified, in a sense, a rejuvenation of Indian self-confidence battered by colonisation and one whose thoughts laid the germs of the Hindu nationalist stream in the Independence movement.
But what was brandished at Vision 2000 by the VHP was not in any sense the philosophy of Vivekananda but an open celebration of it's own exclusivist, hate-ridden politics that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, deaths, rape and destruction.
Swami Vivekananda is not the only one subjected to this cavalier treatment by the Sangh Parivar. They’ve tried it before and since. With Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Shivaji, Dr. Ambedkar, Gautam Buddha, even with Gandhiji. The attempt is to grab prominent figures of Indian history, mythology and philosophy, selectively interpret their words and actions and project them as emissaries of a “Hindu nation” as only the Sangh Parivar sees it.

Views on Vivekananda
  • Swami Ranganathananda, president, Ramkrishna Mission, Hyderabad: “Swamiji was a dreamer of Hindu-Muslim unity.”
  • S. Gurumurthy, chartered accountant: “It is impossible to de-saffronise Vivekananda.”
  • Madhu Dandavate, socialist: “Vivekananda cannot be communalised.”
  • Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, editor, Al-Risala: “Vivekananda saw hope in our motherland through a junction of two systems, Hinduism and Islam.”

Secular responses to such efforts at misappropriation of the heroes of Indian history have been of two kinds. One has sought to tear away, through quotes and counter-quotes, from Vivekananda any element of Hindu chauvinism or superiority while belatedly acknowledging the secular thrust of his Spirituality. The other has merely scoffed at Indian civilization’s claim to tolerance and assimilation. Many problems beset both approaches. The first gets limited to a mere response to a Parivar-determined agenda with no attempt to shift the terrain of discourse and debate. The second, which shows scant knowledge of our own cultural heritage, fits well with the popularly flaunted stereotype of the “rootless”, West-oriented secularist. The latter has been regularly ridiculed by the saffron brigade for its inherent contempt and dislike of all things Indian (Read Hindu).
Noisy advocates of the Sangh Parivar have set themselves a crude, if simple, task. Once chosen, appropriated and “saffronised”, all discomforting or unsuitable (for Hindutva) aspects of our past leaders are glossed over in order to recreate a mythical Hindu tradition united in its distrust and hatred of Islam and Muslims.
Facts, however, do not fit well with Hindutva’s scheme of things. Sardar Patel projected as a protector of Hindu interests was, as Union Home Minister, staunchly against the state exchequer bearing the expenses for re-building the Somnath temple.
Soon after Independence, it was he, as Indian Home Minister, who wrote an anguished letter to the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Govind Vallabh Pant, urging him not to re-open the Babri Maslid dispute “while the wounds of Partition were still so raw.” But such details do not bother the saffron ideologues.
Some of Dr B R Ambedkar’s critical views on Muslims (and Islam) are today being crudely projected by pro-Hindutva writers in their desire to forge an all-Hindu unity. But they ignore his scathing views on the brutal inequalities within Hindu society and his life-long battle against it. What could be a greater show of protest against organised Hinduism than the mass conversion of thousands of Dalits led by Ambedkar to Buddhism, in October 1956?
For every passionate follower of Ambedkar there are as many stout proponents of the Gandhian approach. Many within the radical left circle have for long condemned Ambedkar as “pro-imperialist” because of his refusal to unconditionally support the anti-colonial movement. They fail to recognise the fact that the Dalit leader did not necessarily see liberation from the Hindu caste system and orthodoxy as a natural by-product of the anti-colonial struggle.
Ram is worshipped in the north, Ravana in the south. Which Asoka will we flaunt before the world today – the successful king who commanded the widest expanse of territory in ancient India through a series of wars on weak rulers? Or the anguished and lonely monarch who hit by remorse over the blood and gore caused by his ambition, renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism?
Must we worship one and shun the other? Must women of yesteryear, Mirabai or Razia Sultan, be any less regarded because they were women of their times typecast by history into the only two available roles – devoted lover or male-like ruler?
Do the literary works of Tulsidas and Shakespeare deserve any less mention because of their avowed male chauvinism?
The problem, in a sense lies in an inability to celebrate history. Selective approaches are not merely self-limiting but also reveal a shallow reading of man or womankind, the growth of civilization. In this instance of Indian civilization and history.
Above all, the strategy of the Sangh parivar is to push the average, peace-loving, religious and India-proud Indian against the wall. It is they who celebrate – however selectively and with a single goal in mind – our glorious history while the dry well of secularism has not much to offer to people. Well-orchestrated propaganda helps to drive home the point.
“The fundamental sanity of Indian civilization,” writes Romila Thapar in the first volume of The History of India, “has been due to the absence of Satan.” It is the very nature of this Indian being, unhampered by rigid notions of Good and Evil and able to regard other or unconventional mystical, aesthetic and intellectual traditions with benevolence, that perhaps results in his accommodative spirit.
Every historical figure, however tall, has also to be seen as a product of his or her times. Seen in this perspective, Vivekananda cannot be so easily pigeon-holed as “theirs” or “ours”. Why must we deny that even people who are not ritually-minded find participation in an aarti at the Ramkrishna Mission anywhere in the country peace-giving or soul elevating? Irrespective of his belief system, doesn't a non-sectarian individual experience something similar during a quiet service in a cathedral? Or, for that matter, while simply marveling at the architectural beauty of the Bada Imambara mosque in Lucknow?
Unfortunately one of the techniques of the Hindutva brigade is monopolizing of historical figures. In 1993, except the VHP-RSS brigade, the occasion of the centenary of Vivekananda’s Chicago address was largely ignored by ‘secularists.’ Similar other milestones of the Indian tradition are similarly left to the supremacists to grab. Does this not mean conceding the Indian cultural space to sectarian Hindus?
To remember Vivekananda and to acknowledge his contributions does not have to mean his deification. It in no way implies glossing over differences with aspects of his world-view.
The Swami, for example, viewed Hinduism as a spiritual reservoir superior to and vast enough to subsume all spiritual traditions. “This is the great ideal before us, and everyone must be ready for it – the conquest of the whole world by India – nothing less than that, and we must all get ready for it, strain every nerve for it. Let foreigners come and flood the land with their armies, her mind. Up India and conquer the world with your spirituality.”
But love (a synonym of spiritualism for Vivekananda) was his only weapon. “Ay, as has been declared on this soil first, love must conquer hatred, hatred cannot conquer itself. Materialism and all its miseries can never be conquered by materialism. Armies when they attempt to conquer armies only multiply and make brutes of humanity.” (Complete works, 33.276-77).
We may agree or disagree with Vivekananda. But how can we ignore that one of his greatest concerns was for the poor, downtrodden masses? “The one thing that is at the root of all evils in India is the condition of the poor. The only service to be done for our lower classes is to give them education, give them their lost sense of individuality. (Complete Works 4: 307-309).
Vivekananda’s commitment to the poor got translated into the Ramkrishna Mission, whose national network of volunteers are engaged in dedicated welfare and developmental activities even today.
Yet, the same Vivekananda supported the fundamentals of the caste system, even while staunchly opposing any notion of special privilege. “Caste in a natural order. I can perform one duty in social life and you another; you can govern a country I can mend a pair of shoes; there is no reason why you are greater than I because I can mend my shoes…. but there is no need to trample on my head… Caste is good. That is the only natural way of solving life. Men must from themselves into groups and you cannot get rid of that. Caste but no privileges.” (The Complete Works of Vivekananda, 3:245-46, 460).
We all may disagree. But denying one or the other aspects of the man is denial of a fact of history.
Eminent historian Sumit Sarkar says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. In an Occasional research paper Sarkar 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.
Other scholars like Jyotirmaya Sharma argue that Vivekananda’s views could lend itself to a pro-Hindutva interpretation. “Vivekananda’s interpretation of Ramakrishna is a simultaneous act of fidelity and distortion. In every instance, the skeleton of Ramakrishna’s thought is kept intact but the flesh and blood imposed on the skeleton often bear little resemblance to the original. In 1896, Vivekananda gave two lectures in America and England on Ramakrishna. At the outset, he confesses that he speaks on behalf of his Master, but the errors in interpreting the message are entirely his own. .. . What was the parity and equality of all faiths becomes “phases” of one “eternal religion” in the hands of Vivekananda."

Says Sharma, “It is worth marking that he calls them “sects” and not religions. But the overall tone and tenor is one of remarkable liberality. Now read the last line of the quote: “We must each have our own individual religion, individual so far as the externals of it go.” The plurality of faiths, then, is limited to the externals. Remove the externals and what will emerge is a universal faith defined by Vivekananda, based entirely on his reading of the Vedanta. The Vedantic ideal of Oneness and the Universal Soul would ultimately prevail. 

(Portions of this article have been archived from the cover story of Communalism Combat, A Disputed Heritage, September  1993)

1)   The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, originally published in 1907
2)   An exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda tradition (Occasional paper) Sumit Sarkar, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1993
3)   Cosmic Love or Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion, Jyotirmaya Sharma, Harper Collin


Hi-Jackers of history

As the Sangh Parivar was never part of our freedom movement, it has no hero who can be offered to attain legitimacy as a patriotic body. They have, therefore, been trying to usurp national figures like Bhagat Singh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi and others and project them as if they were members of the Parivar.
Now they have laid their hand on Swami Vivekananda. It is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that is celebrating the centenary of Swamiji's Chicago address in the US. His complete works, in eight volumes are before me and I am trying hard to find something in common with the Parivar’s ideology.
Guru Golwalkar, the parivars chief ideologue, in his Dheyasmriti says: “If you examine closely, you will find that Hindu religion is the only one that can be called a religion (dharma). The others are not religions at all.” Sita Ram Goel, his disciple, elaborates further in his book Secularism: Rashtra Droh ka Dusra Naam.
“It is a mistake to accept Islam as a religion. And this is the root of all other mistakes. Hindus in their ignorance have recognized Islam or Christianity or for that matter any other religion. This recognition has to be withdrawn. This is the first implication of the emerging national vision.”
Swamiji's vision was different: “If one religion be true, then all others must be true  … As different streams mingle all their water in the sea, so O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
The RSS has drilled into the minds of innocent children trapped in shakhas that Hindus in India were converted by force. Swami, Vivekananda questions this falsehood.
“Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammedans? It is no nonsense to say that they were converted by sword. It was to gain their liberty from the zamindars and the priests, and as consequence you find in Bengal there are more Mohammedans than Hindus amongst the cultivators, because there were so many zamindars there.” The main attraction of Islam, according to Swamiji was its message of equality and brotherhood.
Guru Golwalkar said Christians and Muslims must convert to Hinduism if they want their rights as citizens. Swami Vivekananda’s soul must be anguished as he had declared that religious unity cannot be achieved by the destruction of others.
“Brothers, yours is an impossible hope. Do I wish that the Christian would become a Hindu? God forbid! Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist become Christian? God forbid! All must assimilate the spirit of others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”
Ashok Singhal repeated in the US what he has been saying in India – that the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6 would be recorded in “letters of gold” and Hindus would not rest till the Ram mandir was built.
But what Swami Vivekananda said in the US in 1893 is true even today. “You erect churches (read temple in the present context) all through India. The crying evil in the east is not religion, they have religion enough . . . they ask for bread.”
It is hypocritical for anyone to own up Swami Vivekananda without disowning the teachings of Dr Hedgewar, Guru Golwalkar and fanatics like Ashok Singhal. The Sangh Parivar’s ideology has nothing in common with Swamiji, who spoke about the rise of Sudras and the downfall of Brahmanical Hinduism.
Courtesy: MIDDAY, Bombay, 1993.



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