By S B Upadhyay
January 10, 2016
In the 19th century, India was in a state of ferment in the realm of ideas. This was particularly the case in Bengal where the English impact had been the longest. Initially, some among Indian intellectuals were rather more receptive to Western ideas, even though they did not altogether jettison their tradition. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) argued that religion should be subjected to intellectual and rational scrutiny.
The Brahmo Samaj, founded by Roy, emphasised on reason as the touchstone for religious creeds. However, by the late 19th century, a strong reaction against Western ideas had emerged and various orthodox organisations began agitating against measures which they believed to be prejudicial to Hinduism. The aggressive attitude of the utilitarians and some Christian missionaries further hardened the ideological resistance even among those Bengalis who were most favourable to English education and the English way of life.
As the time progressed, Indian intellectuals sought to aggressively assert the superiority of indigenous traditions, particularly Hinduism. The influence of Brahmo Samaj and other reformist organisations was on the decline. It was in this situation that Vivekananda sought to negotiate with and reconcile the contrary ideas. He was among the greatest exponents of creative ideological adaptation of both tradition and modernity.
Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendranath Datta in an English-educated and prosperous family of Kolkata on 12 January 1863. His parents were quite progressive and liberal and encouraged young Naren to acquire universalistic and rationalist thinking. Naren was an extremely brilliant student who immediately attracted the attention of his teachers and peers due to his phenomenal memory and grasp of subjects. The family had planned that he would go to England to study law after his graduation. Meanwhile, influenced by charismatic leader Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-84), Naren became thoroughly involved with Brahmo Samaj in 1880. This helped him to acquire rationalistic ideas and grounding in Upanishadic philosophy.
Many of Sen’s ideas were to remain with Vivekananda when he formulated his own thoughts on society and religion. In 1881, when he was in his BA, Naren met Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, born as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay (1836-86), which later helped to change his life forever. Initially, however, he was baffled by Ramakrishna’s somewhat eccentric behaviour as well as his non-modernist orientation. But, after the death of Keshab Chandra Sen in 1884, Naren revived his association with Ramakrishna.
Another important factor behind this renewed association was the great influence of the novel Anandamath (1882) by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894) in which the figure of the sanyasi (the renouncer) and the militant against foreign rule had become fused. It fired the imagination of youth in Bengal and elsewhere to take the vow of sanyas in the service of their motherland, and to protect her from outside aggression. Some of these men changed their names and post-fixed it with the term ‘ananda’ as the sanyasi fighters in the novel had done.
Many of these were also influenced by the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. These young men lived a spartan community life and discussed Western philosophies along with Vedanta. Naren was Ramakrishna’s most favourite (and later most famous) disciple who was declared by the sage himself to be his spiritual successor. Although many young men had changed their names earlier, Narendra changed to Swami Vivekananda just before he was to embark on his journey in May 1893 to attend the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in July 1893.
The wandering monk
But that was a later development. Now, after the death of Ramakrishna in 1886, Narendra undertook a journey of India and met a lot of people, from the masses to princes. In December 1892, he reached Kanyakumari where he finally concluded that rather than wandering and teaching metaphysics, the sanyasi should spread education and try to improve the condition of the masses. He was quite sure to find some devoted young people in every town of India who would be ready to travel to the villages for social work, but getting money was the problem.
He, therefore, decided to go to America ‘to earn money myself, and then return to my country and devote the rest of my days to the realisation of this one aim of my life’. On 11 September 1893, he delivered his most famous address from the platform of the World Parliament of Religions. For more than three years, until 1897, he spent most of his time in the United States and England, giving lectures on various themes related to religion. It was during this period that he became extremely famous as a spiritual leader both in India and abroad.
In this speech, Vivekananda strongly emphasised on Hinduism as a religion of tolerance. Sri Ramakrishna was an inspiration in this regard who had stated: ‘There is a pond with three or four ghats — Hindus call what they drink jal, Muslims pani, the English water. He is called Allah by one, God by others; some say Brahma, others Kali, still others Rama, Hari, Jesus or Durga’. Following this, Vivekananda declared — ‘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 nations of the earth.’ He warned that ‘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 civilisation and sent whole nations to despair’. But he was confident that all this would pass and ‘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.’
Vivekananda strongly believed in the statement of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, that one could reach the same goal through different paths. This idea had been unique to post-Vedantic Hinduism, strongly advocated by Bhagavad Gita. Neo-Hinduism, in the wake of Vivekananda, revived this idea to demonstrate the openness and catholicity of Hinduism which supposedly proved its inherent superiority.
Vivekananda insisted that there could not be ‘the same law and the same rule for all. That is a great mistake; education, habits, customs, laws, and rules should be different for different men and nations, in conformity with their difference in temperament’. He, therefore, advocated that no nation or people or community should impose its will upon others in the false belief that only its own ideas were applicable in all circumstances.
In order to put forward his thought, Vivekananda had to fight on two fronts — firstly against the criticism of Christian missionaries and many Europeans directed at Hindu religion and society, and secondly against the conservative Hindu reaction which tried to justify many superstitious and orthodox practices. Vivekananda believed that although it was desirable to shield the Indian society from undue Western influences, it was neither possible nor desirable to make it impervious to modern ideas. Thus, he formulated three important ideas which would transform the Hindu tradition in the time to come.
Service, first & foremost
His most important innovation was to combine sanyas or spiritual renunciation with social service. Vivekananda was the first important Hindu philosopher to integrate the ideal of renunciation with the ideal of charitable work. For him, renunciation of the world was not the real option because wherever one went, one is likely to encounter problems. Thus, to remain in the world, to involve in social service and carry on the good work without expecting any reward for it were the surest paths to salvation. He emphasised the idea of karmayoga in this context. He also redefined karma as ‘social service’ and jnana as ‘a message of strength and strenuous effort to help others’.
Serving the poor was the most important message of Vivekananda, and to put his ideas into practice, Vivekananda and his fellow sanyasis established the Ramakrishna Mission and the Belur Math which would carry forward his mission to eliminate poverty, illiteracy and disease. The idea of social service or seva was now to be adopted more generally by the Indian nationalist movement, particularly exemplified by the establishment of Servants of India Society by G K Gokhale in 1905, Seva Sadan by Ramabai Ranade in 1908, and then most famously various organisations by Gandhiji.
Related to this compassion for the poor was Vivekananda’s concern for the misery and alienation of the so-called lower castes. He stressed on the importance to incorporate them into the mainstream. Vivekananda clearly showed his intense dislike of the ‘don’t touchism’ of Hindu caste system and held it responsible for the decadent state of India. He exhorted Hindus to abandon such ideas and practices if they wanted to survive the momentous changes taking place all over.
Vivekananda exhorted his fellow Indians not to forget that ‘the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers’. This new Hindu identity, proposed by him, authorised each individual, without discrimination of caste, class and gender, to have equal access to religion. He radically re-interpreted the Marxist theory of proletarian revolution to predict that there would be a revolution in society in the wake of ‘the rising of the Shudra class... when the Shudras of every country... will gain absolute supremacy in every society.’
His third important endeavour was to integrate Hindu religion with modern science. In this quest, he learnt from Max Muller’s similar attempt with regard to Christianity. Vivekananda believed that ‘the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside... (should) be applied to the science of Religion’.
This quest of Vivekananda had a background. Although the Hindu society, over centuries, faced enormous challenges and adapted to them in its own ways, the challenge which it faced in the wake of colonial domination was radically new and most important of them all. During the 19th century, one of the most important challenges before the English-educated intelligentsia was to align Hinduism with the modern scientific and rationalistic ideas.
One of the important steps in this direction was by Bankim Chandra who formulated a modernistic, cogent and rationalistic defence of Hinduism against hostile Western ideas about Hindu religion and tradition. Vivekananda also made strenuous efforts to argue that Rajayoga had a scientific basis as it was based on observation. He claimed that the true religious experience was not based on blind faith but on sensory experience which was verifiable, and even the realisation of God can be through direct perception.
Vivekananda was among those few thinkers in 19th-century India who sought to modernise and nationalise Hinduism. For him, Advaita philosophy was the key to handle both these issues. It would retain tradition and fuse it with modernity. Even though he was critical of secularisation of life under the influence of the West and insisted that society should be filled with spiritual values, his religion contained various features which modern thinking demanded. It was tolerant, rational, liberal, and socially oriented. Yet, it could be considered as a legacy of the past, a bright aspect of Indian tradition.
Vivekananda always insisted that India had a great past and, therefore, Indians had no reason to feel inferior to anybody in the world. Mathematics, philosophy, art and, above all, spirituality were all very developed in ancient past which had positioned India on the top in the hierarchy of nations. This gave an opportunity to Indians to put her back as the spiritual leader of the world. The syncretic Hindu identity fashioned by Vivekananda on the basis of Advaita paved the way for the nationalisation of Hinduism.
Although Vivekananda and his followers distanced themselves from organised politics, their ideas and work strongly helped in the formulation of a society-centric nationalism cutting across the divide of caste, class, sects, language, region and community. Moreover, their project of regeneration of Indian (particularly Hindu) society was taken up by various organisations and individuals at different times. However, it is important to note that although Vivekananda was interested in the regeneration of Hinduism and the realisation of its spiritual strength, both against evangelical Christianity and modern Western ideologies, his was not an ideological plea for the creation of political Hinduism or a Hindu nation. His basic interest was in Hinduism as a syncretic religion which would be universalistic and would serve as the spiritual centre for all other religions.
Although he respected all religions, Vivekananda considered Advaita Vedanta as existing at a higher level of philosophical abstraction. He considered it superior to Bhakti, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, and even to the Vedic religion which was suffused with rituals and sacrifices. He argued that Advaita was ‘the only religion which agrees with, and even goes a little further than modern researches, both on physical and moral lines... and that is why it appeals to modern scientists so much... Advaita was the only way to save India from materialism... Shankaracharya... made it a rationalistic philosophy.’ It is on this Advaita philosophy that he tried to place Hinduism.
Vivekananda believed that the West was material while the East was spiritual. The materialism of the West was destroying morals and endangering social values. In this situation, the East, particularly India, must come forward to reform the things both in India and the world over. But although he accepted and further developed the idea of a divide between the West and the East, the figure of Vivekananda represented a confluence of East and West.
Vivekananda died at an early age of 39 on July 4, 1902. But he had made a great impact on Indian thought and society and revolutionised the idea of Hinduism.
S B Upadhyay teaches History at Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.