Reclaiming Vivekananda


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)

[courtesy : "The Hindu", 13.01.2013]

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

'Sisters and Brothers of America'

Swami Vivekananda

The text of Swami Vivekananda’s address, in response to the welcome extended to him at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, on September 11, 1893

Sisters and Brothers of America:

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “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.”

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.”

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

[Courtesy : “The Hindu”, 12.01.2013]

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features