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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 48, New Delhi, November 14, 2020

Vivekananda – The Secular Swami | Ashok Celly

Friday 13 November 2020, by Ashok Celly

When Vivekananda arrived on the Indian scene, the British rule was in its heyday and the Indians were in a state of utter despair. Even the average Englishman in India considered himself lord and master of the world and treated Indians like dirt. Awed and intimidated by the foreign rulers, the Indian masses seemed to have lost all self-eastern and felt condemned to a life of everlasting servitude.

Vivekananda a young man of great sensitivity and extra-ordinary energy felt he must do something to redeem the situation. Vivekananda who was steeped in Hindu philosophy in general and Vedanta, in particular, resolved to employ the message of Vedanta. It was typical of him to use the idealistic Hindu philosophy for pragmatic ends. For him, there was no division between the life of reflection and day-to-day existence.

He made use of the Vedantic belief that “all men and potentially divine (‘thou art that!)” and there is only one sin, i.e., “to think that you are a sinner” to rouse their spirits and dispel their gloom. It is hard to think of anything more reinvigorating than this.
But Vivekananda was by no means a Hindu chauvinist. True, he was proud of his Hindu heritage, but there was nothing insular or exclusive about it. The celebrated Chicago address is perhaps the most significant declaration of his liberal faith. Also, it created quite a stir and evoked tremendous response in a gathering sick of sectarian creeds. Vivekananda in his address had affirmed that “he was proud to belong to a nation which had sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.” Even the Jews had found a happy home in India.

Also, Vivekananda had the highest regard for Islam. He particularly admired it for its egalitarianism. He also showed a keen appreciation of the Muslim contribution to Indian culture. Tapan Raychowdhary the eminent historian paid a very handsome compliment to Vivekananda in one of his articles. He remarked, “…he was among the earliest nationalist thinkers to claim the Indo-Islamic as part of the Indian heritage.” The word ‘alien’ or ‘other’ didn’t form part of his lexicon, Vivekananda’s Hinduism with its breadth of vision and robustness is as different from the saffron brigade’s Hindutva as chalk and chuse.

However, Vivekananda’s love of his country and its wonderful heritage didn’t blind him to the flaws that had crept in Hindu society over the years. In fact, Vivekananda’s no-holds-barred assault on perverse or inane social practices reminds one of Kabir the Bhakti poet who was also a ruthless social critic.

Look at this for instance, “Think of the last 600 or 700 years of degradation when grown-up men have been discussing for years whether they should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether they should gargle five or six times. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our God is the cooking pot and our religion is don’t touch me ‘I am holy’….”. I suppose the saffronists will feel very uncomfortable with this aspect of Vivekananda’s thinking.

Finally, we shall get a very lopsided view of Vivekanand’s personality, if we don’t take cognizance of his extraordinary empathy for the poor. Departing radically from the traditional concept, he came up with a new and secular definition of Mahatma when he said/observed, “Him I call a Mahatma whose heart bleeds for the poor, otherwise, he is a Duratma”.

Vivekananda’s heart indeed bled for the poor. (In this he can be considered a precursor of Mahatma Gandhi). Even in the hour of his triumph at Chicago, his thoughts were with the poverty-stricken people of India and he lay on the floor crying over their misery. His empathy for the poor had its roots in his love of humanity. After his travels in India, he told his fellow disciples, “He had not found God, but he had learned to love human beings.” It seems love of mankind rather than of God was he destiny and also his mission in life. Here indeed was a swami with a difference – this-worldly, pragmatic and above all secular.

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