Professor of Sociology at JNU
Do you feel that millions are starving today, and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? — Swami Vivekananda
Unlike many liberal-left intellectuals, I am not apologetic about my engagement with Swami Vivekananda. This is the reason why I feel that it is important to speak of the Swami — the possibilities implicit in his spiritual trajectory, especially at a time when the naked politics of appropriation has led the Hindu Right to monopolise and thereby falsify him. On his birth anniversary, as I invoke him, I find three important insights which can prepare the ground for sharpening a spiritual critique of what goes on in the name of Hindutva politics.
What strikes me is his engagement with Ramakrishna, the ‘Master’ whose ‘touch’ made the young ‘university sceptic’ realise the meaning of the living presence of the divine. Ramakrishna, with his extraordinary simplicity and merger with the feminine shakti, was a great communicator. With a blend of Vedantic wisdom and metaphors derived from the everydayness of the world, he transcended the dry intellect of the urban class and scholarly knowledge of the scriptures, and radiated the ecstasy of love. Vivekananda was young, educated and a great organiser. Yet, despite his English education, modernist sensibilities, ‘missionary’ zeal and global trip, he could never forget the power of love — the union of all paths and faiths in the remarkably simple Ramakrishna’s spiritual ecstasy. Not surprisingly, his speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893, began with a wonderful note: As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.
My second point is related to the redefinition of religion he was known for. Neither the psychology of fear the priestcraft generates, nor the bundle of rituals that attach more importance to the externalities of symbolism rather than the inner quest — the religion he adhered to was qualitatively different. It was about strength, courage and fearlessness — the realisation of the infinite Self within the embodied existence. As he said, ‘love for yourselves means love for all, love for everything, for you are all one’. No wonder, he could say that not to believe in oneself is to be an atheist. And the celebration of this inner strength enabled him to inject the spirit of positive energy in the collective psyche of a defeated race, traumatised by colonial invasion, and broken by age-old inertia. It was only in that specific historical context that we could make sense of his plea for ‘man-making religion’ with ‘muscles of iron, nerves of steel and gigantic will’. We should not confuse it with a plea for hyper-masculine nationalism; it was essentially about the power of love overcoming weakness.
And finally, he was a champion of what he regarded as ‘practical Vedanta’. The Upanishadic realisation of the all-pervading Brahma, absolute, eternal and free from birth and death, enabled the Swami to bring religiosity closer to the realm of social activism. If our finitude is essentially a manifestation of the Infinite, we are all connected; and hence, as Vivekananda was trying to preach, the spirit of Vedanta has to be rescued from the caves and the forests, and brought to the social landscape inhabited by the ‘lower class, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler and the sweeper’. And instead of the ‘other-worldly’ quest for salvation, he sought to find an organic relationship between the spiritual quest and the compassion of a social activist. It was like rediscovering Bhagavadgita’s ‘karmayoga’ — intense and meditative engagement in the ‘Kurukshetra’ of everyday life.
It is obvious that a careful engagement with Vivekananda would convince us that there is no similarity between his religiosity and what is known as Hindutva, a totalitarian and violent ideology of nationhood centred on the construction of a homogenised Hindu identity with a tight boundary between the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, and the associated notion of ‘alien invaders’ as ‘enemies’ to be subject to perpetual stigmatisation. Vivekananda, too, spoke of the nation and its soul, and at times one could smell what I would regard as subtle ‘Hindu tolerance’ in his orientation to Islam and Christianity. But these occasional fluctuations notwithstanding, the religiosity that he was striving for to give a distinctive identity to our nation was not like what the likes of Golwalkar and Savarkar thought about. While for the champions of Hindutva, religion was robbed of its spiritual ecstasy, and reduced into a singular identity causing a mass psychology of war and victory over ‘others’, for Vivekananda it was about the life-affirming and potentially emancipatory practice: the union of wisdom, devotion and action.
Yet, a question remains: Why did the politics of Hindutva succeed in appropriating the radical monk? Perhaps after Gandhi and Tagore we failed to sustain an intellectual tradition capable of having a nuanced engagement with the spiritual domain. Gandhi with a splendid blend of the Bhagavadgita and the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ sought to spiritualise politics, and Tagore with his poetic sensitivity to the Upanishadic prayers saw religion as man’s ‘surplus’: something that can take us beyond the narrowness of utilitarian concerns. But then, the leftists, possibly because of some sort of scientism and economic determinism, failed to cope with the spiritual question. The Ambedkarites, with sole concentration on the emancipation of the Dalits, refused to see beyond the oppressive doctrine of Manu in Hindu traditions. Amid this discomfort, indifference or intellectual poverty, we allowed the Hindu Right to appropriate even a saint like Vivekananda. It was a great loss.
In these violent times, we must try to derive strength from Vivekananda’s practical Vedanta, Gandhi’s satyagraha and Tagore’s universalism, and evolve a sound politico-spiritual critique of Hindutva.