Speaking at the 125th anniversary of Prabuddha Bharata, a monthly journal of the Ramakrishna Order a few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Swami Vivekananda’s approach had guided India during the pandemic. It was an acknowledgement of the great patriot-saint’s inspiring legacy to the building of modern India.
Vivekananda’s personality was so magnetic and his work so phenomenal that different groups of people have used, rather appropriated, him for their own purposes. It is therefore essential to understand his contributions to India and the world in proper perspective.
Trained as a monk by his mystic guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, he nevertheless moved out of the cloistered environs of a religious math to venture into the din and bustle of a poverty-stricken India and an industrially advancing west. Vivekananda’s mission was two-fold: a) to awaken a weakened and dispirited India under colonial rule to its true potential, and b) to carry India’s lofty philosophical ideas and spiritual legacy to the western nations.
To achieve the first goal, Vivekananda travelled across the length and breadth of the country to discover the real India. He came in contact with the rich and the poor, the high and the mighty and the common people. And what left him distressed was the crushing poverty and misery of the masses. In the midst of despair, he also saw hope – of awakening his countrymen to their infinite possibilities, by spreading education, particularly for women, and empowering the poor.
The Prime Minister highlighted Vivekananda’s two-fold approach to empower the poor: first, taking empowerment to the poor if the poor themselves cannot go to empowerment; secondly, giving ideas to the poor, opening their eyes to what’s going on in the world around them so that they are able to work out their own salvation.
Modi did not, however, dwell on Vivekananda’s approach to achieve his second goal. In the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, in his historic speech, described by the American poet Munro as “human eloquence at its highest pitch”, Vivekananda emphasised the importance of inter-religious harmony. In his own inimitable words, “If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will be infinite like the God – it will preach and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike, which will not be Brahminical or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these and still have space for development”.
More significantly and perhaps anticipating what was likely to happen later, he went on to add, “It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise divinity in every man and woman and whose whole scope will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own true, divine nature. Offer such a religion and all nations will follow”.
While the concept of universal religion has remained a dream, intolerance is very much a reality in several countries including our own. It did not take long after Vivekananda’s untimely death in 1902 (he was only 39) for the Hindu-Muslim conflict to take shape, beginning with communal electorates in 1909, ultimately leading to partition of the country on the basis of religion. The wounds caused by the unprecedented violence and migration of people across borders continue to fester even after 70 years.
Feelings of animosity and hatred between different communities seem to be manifesting in new forms of conflict. Forcible conversion vs love jihad, holy cow vs cow slaughter, desecration of places of worship in neighbouring countries and terrorist activities in the name of religion. One act serves as a provocation for another, further fanning the flames of communal passion. Countries beyond the Indian sub-continent are not free from such problems in some form or the other. How do we address these problems which have emerged as a heady brew of religion and politics?
Religion and science
While seeking answers to such questions, Vivekananda’s approach to religion and science, which can be condensed into three strands of thought, is illuminating:
1) Religious pluralism: Realising that a universal religion was not a practical solution, Vivekananda preached religious pluralism, describing different faiths as different paths to attain the same goal; He presented Hinduism as a religion that believed not only in tolerance but in universal acceptance. Thus, every individual and every community can pursue their own religion without disrespect to the beliefs of others. This is precisely what freedom of religion guaranteed in our constitution means.
2) Rational approach to religion: Religion and faith are normally seen as opposed to each other. Vivekananda was the first religious leader who advocated a scientific approach to religion. He exhorted the youth not to accept anything blindly without questioning. In trying to apply the scientific method to religion, he sounds strikingly modern. No wonder, he attracted large audiences in US which included scientists like Nikola Tesla.
3) Faith in science: Vivekananda was greatly impressed by the material progress made by western nations because of modern science and technology and wanted India to learn science and organisation from the west while offering them our spiritual knowledge. He is said to have influenced Sir Jamshedji Tata, whom he met on a ship, in the idea of setting up the Indian Institute of Science. The Ramakrishna Mission which he founded and has grown into a huge organisation rendering selfless service, is an example of his own organisational skills which he seemed to have learnt from US and Europe.
Vivekananda tried to modernise Hinduism ridding it of superstitions, casteism and the stranglehold of priesthood by proclaiming that each soul, irrespective of class, caste and creed, is potentially divine and “the goal is to manifest this divinity within”. Can the Prime Minister, who carries his inspirer’s original name of Narendra, inspire his partymen and countrymen of all faiths to give up bigotry and dogmatism and lead us to a truly Awakened India?
(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Govt of Karnataka)