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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

Swami Vivekananda: An Iconoclastic Saint

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by Ajeet Jawed


Bengal has produced a galaxy of prophets, poets, philosophers and patriots who, by their rare intellect, devotion and dedication for their motherland and compassion for humanity, have made India proud. One amongst them is Narendranath Dutta, whom we all know as Swami Vivekananda. He was born on January 12, 1863 and died on July 4, 1902, at the age of 39 years, five months and 24 days. In such a short span of life, he immensely contributed to rousing Indians not only against the foreign rule but also for making a better world wherein all could live happily and in harmony without any discrimination and exploitation.

For progress, peace and spiritual develop-ment in the country, he exhorted Indians to adopt a scientific outlook and to pull off the wrap that had covered the real religion which teaches love and service for mankind. He regarded man as the creator of God and not God as the creator of man. This view of his was the outcome of his scientific outlook even towards God and religion. A graduate from Calcutta University, Vivekananda had a desire to see God face to face since his childhood. It was this desire which took him to Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and later to Swami Ramakrishna Paramhans whom he accepted as his guru and became a monk. However, he was disappointed as he could not see God despite reading scriptures, doing sadhanas and offering prayers. He told his fellow monks:’ ‘I am dissatisfied with everything; even talking to devotees has become distasteful to me. It seems that there is no such thing as God.’ His non-belief in the existence of God amazed everyone. He was a monk but sought proof of existence of God. Later in the USA, he boldly expressed his views before the believers: ‘How can we understand that Moses saw God unless we too see Him? If God ever comes to anyone, He will come to me. I will go to God direct; let Him talk to me, I cannot take belief as a basis that is atheism and blasphemy. If God spoke to a man in the desert of Arabia two thousand years ago, He can also speak to him today, else how can I know that He has not died?’

Like a scientist he believed in the law of evolution, that is, everything comes up from the lower kingdom. He refuted the theories given in the shastras that man and the entire universe was the creation of God. In his numerous statements he explained that man is the creator of God and not God the creator of man. His iconoclastic ideas caused a stir wherever he spoke. The orthodox cursed him and the common people, unaccustomed to such preaching, were astonished.

“Down with superstitions! Neither scripture nor God exists. Down with temples, with priests, with gods, with incarnations…God was born in the mind. God the Father, the Father of the universe…he is created by me in my mind.”

He openly said ‘priestcraft is the bane of India’ and challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins and advocated a rational approach in the matter of religion. ‘If a religion is destroyed by rational investigation, it was not a religion at all but a superstition.’ He further said:

‘Science and religion are both attempts to help us out of bondage; only religion is more ancient and we have the superstition that it is more holy.’

Referring to science and scientific discussions, he explained: ‘What is meant by science is that explanations of things are in their own nature, and that no external being or existence is required to explain what is going on in the universe. The chemist never requires demons or ghosts, or anything of that sort, to explain his phenomena. The physicist never requires any one of these to explain the things he knows. Nor does any other scientist. And this is one of the features of science that I want to apply to religion. In this religions are found wanting and that is why they are crumbling. Every science wants its explanation from inside, from the very nature of things; and religions are not able to supply this.’

He exhorted man to be the creator of his own destiny and not to depend on God for any help. He said: ‘We are the greatest God that ever was or will be… bow down to nothing but to your own higher self. Your own will is that answer your prayers.’

‘What can prevail over you? You are the God of the universe. Where can you seek for help? In your ignorance every prayer that you made and that was answered, you thought was answered by some Being, but you answered the prayer yourself unknowingly. The help came from yourself and you fondly imagined that someone was sending help to you.’

He struck at the very root of dogmatic and theological belief in a personal God in heaven: ‘What is the idea of God in heaven... God sitting up on a cloud. Think of the utter blasphemy of it…. These masses of foolish beliefs and super-stitions hinder our growth.’

‘In our country we go down on our knees before the man who reads Vedas and we do not care for the man who is studying physics. That is superstition.’ Reason and rationale should be the yardstick to measure everything including religion.‘There must be some independent authority and that cannot be any book but something which is universal; and what is more universal than reason?’ At another place speaking on the same theme, he declared: ‘Everything religion claims must be judged from the standpoint of reason…if one does not apply the standard of reason, there cannot be any true judgment even in the case of religion.’

TODAY in India, anti-conversion laws are being enacted to deny the individual freedom to change one’s religion but Vivekananda was a staunch opponent of any such restriction. Freedom was his watchword in the domain of religion. He stated that man should be allowed to choose his own religion. ‘One man should not force another to worship what he worships.’ So much so that he did not even approve parents to impose their religion upon their children. He said: ‘For instance, when I was a child, my father puts a book into my hand which says God is such and such. What business has he to put that into my mind?

‘What right has my master or society to put things into my head.... How many beautiful things which would have become wonderful spiritual truths, have been nipped in the bud by this horrible idea of family religion and so forth.’

Vivekananda toured all over the country preaching his ideas to his countrymen. At Kanyakumari he found his God. His God was not Almighty but helpless, oppressed and suppressed since ages. His God was the poor of all races and needed the services of Vivekananda and the latter decided to dedicate his life for the newly discovered God. He called them Daridra-naryana, a term later used by Gandhi. He said to himself: ‘We are so many sanyasins wandering about and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness…That those people are leading the life of brutes is simply due to ignorance.’

Castigating the religious authorities and the religion for the pitiable condition of the Indian masses, he said: ‘A country where millions of people live on the flower of Mahua plant and a million or two sadhus and hundred millions or so of Brahmins suck the blood out of these poor people…is that a country or hell? Is that a religion or the devil dance?’

‘I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth.’ ‘I do not believe in a God who will give me undying bliss in Heaven, but who cannot give me bread in this world.’

‘Let us throw away all this paraphernalia of worship—blowing the conch and ringing the bells and waving the lights before the Images…. Let us throw all the pride of learning and study of the shastras and all sadhanas and serve the poor.’

His ideas and assertions caused a stir not only among the orthodox but also agitated his gurubhai who confronted him that he was not preaching Shri Ramakrishna and instead of bhakti and sadhana, he was asking his disciples to go and work among the poor and the diseased. Vivekananda thundered: “What do you know? You are an ignorant man… What do you understand of religion? You are only good at praying with folded hands, ‘O Lord! How beautiful is your nose! How sweet are your eyes!’ And all such nonsense….As if He is such a fool as to make himself a praying thing in the hands of imbeciles.”

He further remarked: ‘Your Bhakti is sentimental nonsense, which makes one impotent. Who cares for Bhakti or Mukti? Who cares what the scriptures say? I will go into a thousand hells cheerfully, if I can rouse my countrymen, immersed in tomes, to stand on their feet and be men inspired with Karma Yoga. I am not a follower of Ramakrishna or anyone I am a follower of him only who serves and help others without his own Bhakti or Mukti.’

‘….So long as even a dog of my country remains without food, to feed and take care of him is my religion and anything else is either non-religion or false religion.’

He also said: ‘He who is in you and outside you, who works through all hands, who walks on all feet, whose body is all ye, Him worship and break all other idols.’

He asked the sanyasins and the youth to work for building a new India, a free India, an enlightened India devoid of domination or exploitation of the masses. He exhorted them: ‘Arise and awake, for the time is passing and all our energies will be frittered away in vain talking…Work as if on each of you depended the whole work. Fifty centuries are looking on you, the future of India depends on you. Work on.’

Vivekananda was not only a preacher; he lived every moment of his life to serve the Daridranarayana. In the summer of 1897 during a famine in the Murshidabad district of Bengal, Vivekananda’s disciples fed the suffering poor people for five months. In 1898 when plague broke out, Vivekananda put himself at the head of the relief work. Under his instructions, the students of schools and colleges organised themselves to inspect the houses of the poor and to provide relief. He ordered his sanyasin disciples to sell even the monasteries. ‘Sell it if necessary. We are sanyasins. We ought always to be ready to sleep under the trees and live on what we beg every day.’

He himself came to live in a poor locality to inspire courage amongst the people and cheer up the workers. His entire life was a supreme dedication for the cause of his countrymen. Although he could not accomplish his mission due to his untimely death, yet the path shown by him led many of our freedom fighters to combine the struggle for political liberation with establishment of an egalitarian society. The real tribute to him on his birthday would be to join together to accomplish his unfulfilled work.

The author is an Associate Professor, Satyawati College, University of Delhi.

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