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Quest for Universal Religion - II The legacy of Swami Vivekananda

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November 2002: The present dispute over the legacy of Swami Vivekananda brings to mind the pre-battle skirmishes of the Mahabharata. As their armies prepared to take position at Kurukshetra, the warring cousins vied bitterly for the allegiance of their many common relatives. Once the polarisation was complete the stage was set for a war from which there could be no victors, only heart broken survivors. The quarrel over Swami Vivekananda should be a warning signal for a society with the epic consciousness of the Mahabharata. This futile dispute cautions us about degenerating into a fratricidal conflict in which all common ground and natural affinities are thoughtlessly disregarded. It also offers us an opportunity to pause and reconsider the nature of escalating tensions in society and seek new ways of transcending them. But this is possible only if we suspend the tug-of-war method. The search for ways out of the present darkness cannot be marred by a discourse that is implicitly premised on notions of perennial conflict. Besides, the dueling mode of 'debate' only legitimises that approach to human interaction and history which found expression in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Let us then, by an act of faith, mark the parameters of this discourse with a shared commitment to preventing Indian society from becoming an all-consuming battle field. Having done that we may also attempt to shun the methods and language of "use". Then the entry into Swami Vivekananda's world-view can be fittingly marked with these words of Sister Nivedita: "The 'purifying of the heart' connoted the burning out of selfishness. Worship is the very antithesis of use." Swami Vivekananda is significant a century after he lived and worked, precisely because of this struggle for 'Chittashudhi' which runs through his life and work. The value and meaning of these struggles tends to be minimized when Swami Vivekananda is attributed oracle-like powers or viewed through the haze of adulation as a certified national hero and patriot. He did, in part, fill many of these roles with a larger than life presence. But the best way to travel with him seems to be as companion - simultaneously questioning and trusting, irreverent and affectionate. I would like here to share a small part of my attempt to journey thus with Swami Vivekananda. Narendranath Datta started out in life as a doubting agnostic and grew into a devout servant of God. By the time he came before the world as Swami Vivekananda, the young sanyasi was both a 'jnani' and a 'bhakta'. Such a transformation is not uncommon. But in Narendranath's case it was marked by a rigorous commitment to synthesising reason and faith. All religion, he decided, "is going beyond reason, but reason is the only guide to get there." Even while he studied the Vedas with reverence Swami Vivekananda accepted only that part which agreed with reason. Thus even though he disagreed with much of Buddhist doctrine, the Buddha was the one person Swami Vivekananda revered above all others in human history: "Buddha never bowed down to anything - neither Veda, nor caste, nor priest, nor custom. He fearlessly reasoned so far as reason could take him. Such a fearless search for troth and such love for every living thing the world has never seen." Narendranath's eventual 'surrender' to Goddess Kali was preceded by an intense and bitter struggle. The essentially mystical experience did not contradict the Swami's commitment to reason. Eventually he explained it thus: "Religion is neither talk, nor theory, nor intellectual consent. It is realisation in the heart of hearts; it is touching God; it is feeling, realising that I am a spirit in relation with the Universal Spirit and all Its great manifestations." Swami Vivekananda's inner being remained ever faithful to this quest. But as a spiritual aspirant inspired by Buddha and guided by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, personal salvation could not be the central goal of his life. Thus his mission to demystify spirituality, free it from the shackles of priest-craft and make it accessible to people of all classes, castes and creeds. But Vivekananda was also an activist entangled in the worldly throes of history. It is this dimension of his mission that preponderates over our present. By the time Swami Vivekananda's wanderings across India culminated at Kanyakumari his sense of 'mission' was as multifaceted as his personality. While his moorings were in eternal principles, the worldly concerns of Swami Vivekananda were shaped by his times. Therefore, retrieving pure spirituality from the vast diversity of Indian philosophical traditions was not enough. As he traveled to America and saw nations on the move Swami Vivekananda felt the full force of changes and challenges posed by the modern era. He located himself between the religious tradition and those strains of an emerging Hindu middle-class that had begun to function entirely in the Western frame of knowledge. To the orthodox pundits he appealed that the contents of Hinduism be submitted to the test: "For this reason we must come out of the limited grooves of the past and take a look at the world as it moves onwards to progress at the present day. And if we find that there are customs which are impeding the growth of our social life or disturbing our philosophical outlook, it is time for us to advance a step by eschewing them." Likewise he could fall with 'thunder-bolt vehemence' upon those who spoke in a belittling manner of the 'the meaningless teachings' of the Vedic seers: "How dare you criticise your venerable forefathers in such a fashion! A little learning has muddled your brain. Have you tested the science of the Rishis? Have you even as much as read the Vedas? There is the challenge thrown up by the Rishis! If you dare oppose them, take it up: put their teachings to the test." Poised confidently at the cross-roads of divergent trends in Indian society, Swami Vivekananda set out to question the bigotry and prejudices of orthodoxy, as well as the crisis of self-confidence among the classes closely inter-acting with the West. He traced India's degeneration to its people's loss of faith in themselves. Over the years Swami Vivekananda elaborated a historical analysis of this decay which need not be detailed here. It will suffice to mention that he traced the roots of decay to ancient, pre-Buddhist times. Internally the Swami identified the need for a liberality which would allow both religion and society to breath freely and grow. Yet underlying the sharp critique were anxieties about Hinduism's ability to stand up in modern times, not only as a cohesive body of thought and practice but also as a distinct and confident member of the family of world religions. Thus he sought the common bases of Hinduism. Sister Nivedita, perhaps the most prolific and outstanding of Vivekananda's disciples, believed that his whole life was a search for the common bases of Hinduism. This search led Swami Vivekananda to identify two essential commonalities between the plethora of Hindu sects - the Vedas and belief in God as: "...the creating, the preserving power of the whole universe, and unto whom it periodically returns to come out at other periods and manifest this wonderful phenomenon, called the universe." The lecture (in Lahore), at which Swami Vivekananda elaborated this theme, also illustrated his tension between the universal and particular. At one point he said: "Ay, we often mistake mere prattle for religious truth, mere intellectual peroration for great spiritual realisation, and then comes sectarianism, then comes fight. If we once understand that this realisation is the only religion, we shall look into our own hearts and find how far we are towards realising the truths of religion." Swami Vivekananda applied this universal principle to the task of galvanising Hindus into a cohesive group, which for him was a move against sectarianism: "Then and then alone, all sectarian quarrels will cease, and we shall be in a position to understand, to bring to our hearts, to embrace, to intensely love the very word Hindu and every one who bears that name. Mark me, then and then alone you are a Hindu when every man who bears the name, from any country, speaking our language, becomes at once the nearest and the dearest to you." Was this not an exclusivist definition of what it meant to be a Hindu? Within Swami Vivekananda's own frame of thought it was not so. He was convinced that a 'true' Hindu would have to be above all sectarianism. For the Hindu ideal, Vivekananda believed, was not 'tolerance' but acceptance: "Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?" Therefore the Swami was firmly unforgiving about the intolerance and violence of all religions - whether it was Islam and Christianity's "conversions by the sword" or Brahmanical Hinduism's brutality to shudras. Just as he denounced the exploitative ways of Hindu priest-craft yet sought to reaffirm the 'ideal' of a Brahmin, Vivekananda denounced the violence of Islam and yet identified with the philosophic men within Islam who protested against the cruelties. Swami Vivekananda's life reflects the interface of Hinduism and Indian Islam at the close of the 19th century. Even a cursory account of his life, from childhood to sage and abbot of Belur Math, would illustrate the closely inter-linked social and cultural life of Hindus and Muslims. The Swami could enthrall his disciples by rendering the coronation song of Akbar "in the very tone and rhythm of Tansena." But his life also reflected how, even after a thousand years of co-existence with it, Islam was still seen as an 'outsider'. Vivekananda would speak of how "The sword had flashed, and 'Victory unto Allah' had rent the skies of India; but these floods subsided leaving the national ideals unchanged." Even while he resented the historical role of Islam, at certain periods of history, as an activist committed to revitalising not only Hinduism but the whole of Indian society, he saw the necessity for a more active give and take between Hinduism and Islam. He realised that it was easy to talk glibly about the Vedantic ideal of oneness of all beings. Hindu society had done this for centuries while also practising many forms of inequality and virtual apartheid. Thus Swami Vivekananda suggested that the Vedantic ideal of oneness needs a social body imbued with the spirit of equality and fraternity. And, in this respect, Islam had made greater strides. He wrote to Sarfaraz Hussain - described in The Life of Swami Vivekananda as "an Advaita Vedantist at heart" who became a disciple of the Swami and took the name Mohammedananda: "I believe it (Advaita Vedanta) is the religion of the future enlightened humanity...I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they maybe, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind...For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam - Vedanta brain and Islam body - is the only hope..." Yet some germ of anger with the 'invader' nagged Swami Vivekananda till late in his brief life. The destruction of temples bothered him and he struggled with this emotion. Then, writes Sister Nivedita: "He came back, in Kashmir, from one of the great experiences of his life, saying with the simplicity of a child, 'There must be no more of this anger.' Mother (Devi) said: 'What even if the unbeliever should enter My temples, and defile My images, what is that to you? DO YOU PROTECT ME? OR DO I PROTECT YOU?' (Emphasis in original.) "His personal ideal was that Sanyasin of the Mutiny, who was stabbed by an English soldier, and broke the silence of fifteen years to say to his murderer, - And thou also art He.'" That Sanyasin also embodied what was for Swami Vivekananda the Indian ideal - Sita, who knew no bitterness and never returned injury. Of course Sita does not become India's ideal because Swami Vivekananda believed so. Yet there must be more than poetic significance in the Swami's intense and rigorous life finding its centre in this ideal. On this note let us shift to the present day situation and travel to Mathura-Vrindavan. In January 1994, an assortment of left-wing activists and some members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) met at Vrindavan to attempt a dialogue. The meeting, called 'Samvad Prayas', had been planned several months in advance and originally included a much wider range of participants. Many people had withdrawn following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, and the unrepentant stand of the RSS and its affiliates, because there seemed no scope for dialogue. Others who condemned the destruction of the masjid and yet attended the meeting, went with a great deal of trepidation and came away with a deep sadness. Perhaps the visit to the temple known as Krishna Janmasthan will illustrate the nature of the problem. Just beside this relatively smaller temple stands a grand temple, five or six stories high, built perhaps in the last half century. Directly behind this towering edifice is a mosque of older vintage but nearly matching proportions. One of the younger RSS activists asked, with apparently genuine bafflement, why the sight did not bother me. On the contrary, I attempted to explain, it is for me a reassuring and enriching sight. But just as I could not understand the outraged sentiments of that young man, he could not fathom how I could view those adjacent houses of worship as a symbol of beauty and highly evolved cultural strengths. Like the unsuccessfully attempted 'Samvad Prayas' this exchange also demonstrated how, unresolved questions about the Hindu-Muslim equation in post-Partition India are not at the core of what ails us today. The threat of fratricidal conflict alluded to earlier, does not pertain essentially to Muslim-Hindu tensions, but to the self-destructive polarisation that seems more and more to pervade public discourse. It is in this context that Swami Vivekananda has become the focus of a bitter dispute between the proponents of 'Hindutva' on the one side and liberal, secular, democratic view point on the other. By a strange coincidence the destruction of the Babri Masjid has taken place in the centenary year of Swami Vivekananda's famous Chicago address. But those responsible for the action, a body of organisations affiliated to the RSS, also claim Swami Vivekananda as their hero. They seem indifferent to the tragic irony of how their vandalism in Ayodhya on 6th December has undermined the claim for peace and tolerance which Vivekananda made on behalf of Hindus at the Chicago Parliament of Religions. In a fragmentary way the RSS does conform to some of Swami Vivekananda's ideas about galvanising Hindus through dynamic organisation and service. But cultivation and legitimisation of communal hatred, which is implicit in the RSS world-view, was clearly not apart of the Swami's agenda. His dream for rejuvenating Hinduism was at its core an internal challenge of retrieving strengths - a return to intelligent spirituality cutting across the plethora of superstition and thoughtless repetition of ritual. The manner in which Swami Vivekananda linked the revitalisation of Hinduism with that of India as a nation is a contentious issue. How this indirectly contributed to the perception of the non-Hindu as, a sometimes offensive 'other', remains a question. However, the war of quotations involving Swami Vivekananda's works does nothing to help answer such questions or build an understanding of our past and present. Instead it further worsens the overload of tension in public life. This is partly because this quarrel is dominated by those who are using Swami Vivekananda for some narrow partisan interest. A genuine debate may offer ways of appreciating how the universal appeal of Swami Vivekananda offers possibilities of exploring common ground among different people who may have conflicting view points but not ruthlessly competing agendas. The urgency of this endeavour has been brought home not merely by the demolition of the mosque but by the active and tacit consent given to the demolition by a wide cross-section of people in different classes. In one sense Swami Vivekananda' s worst fears have come true. Such rampant and brutal sectarianism implies an erosion of spiritual values. And it is these values, Swami Vivekananda believed, which are the life-blood of India. Their decline would mean the death of the civilisation. However, the purpose of invoking Swami Vivekananda in the contemporary debate is not to serve as a voice of doom. Nor is there much point in going to him as an oracle. The importance of his life rests in how he grappled with various contradictory pulls. These were pressures genera led by the exigencies of India's struggle not only with colonialism but the multiple challenges of modernity. In this context Swami Vivekananda struggled simultaneously to retrieve the humanist strains of the tradition and socially and philosophically strengthen Hinduism for its encounter with the modern era. My reading of the Swami's works and those of his contemporaries is far too inadequate for a thorough understanding of this endeavour to reshape Hinduism and locate it in the 20th Century. I am merely suggesting that a genuine debate on Swami Vivekananda's life and world-view may enhance our understanding of forces that shaped our present and will help us grope our way out of the present darkness. This firstly demands a commitment to preventing a decline towards all-consuming conflict. This means exploring the spaces between the shrill and vicious propaganda of 'Hindutva' and the still largely silent disquiet among believers of the diverse layers of Hindu society. This will also mean that those of us who have never accepted the notion of 'injured Hindu pride' as an issue of contemporary relevance will have to concede the objective reality of this perception and attempt to understand why this remains a vulnerable sore. So far most anti-communal efforts have focused on the vested interests who have manipulated this perception of injured pride for narrow and short-sighted political gain. It is doubtful whether those who brazenly justify historical vengeance as a valid form of social mobilisation, can be engaged in a meaningful dialogue. But there is a vast body of people who may willy nilly support the rhetoric of 'Hindutva' without agreeing with the full agenda of its votaries. Perhaps Swami Vivekananda's works offer a common ground for dialogue between such people and those who altogether oppose the preoccupation with 'symbols of defeat'. The exercise could begin by addressing just one question. At the time of Swami Vivekananda's unexpected and overwhelming success at the Parliament of Religions, Indians celebrated the restoration of their pride and honour. In the context of the traumatic on-going encounter with Western colonialism, in the 19th century, this was understandable. There followed, in the next half century, a burst of creative energies and activities which seemed to imbue the society with a fresh vitality and self-confidence. That process, though far from complete, is an on-going endeavour. Why then are some Indians now feeling a need assert their pride by settling historical scores that add no creative, constructive worth to national life? How can the terms of discourse be altered to shift the focus inwards and seek reasons for needing an enemy, some 'other', who can be blamed for assorted failures of a civil society and state policy? (Concluded) Rajni Bakshi October 2002 Rajni Bakshi is a freelance journalist, and currently a contributing columnist with The Hindu. See more at: http://indiatogether.org/opinions/rbakshi/vanand/vanandII-p3.htm#sthash.2hikWcX0.dpuf