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Swami Vivekananda and a civilisation in resurgence: Remembering the monk on his 155th birth anniversary

Narendranath Datta was, even for his time, was a very unusual man. In the twenty-first century, whose precursor he barely lived to witness, civilisation has become an axis of contestation; it is accepted, and not only understood, that civilisation is a political idea which Europe employed to rebrand its imperial pursuit of colonialism as a cultural crusade against savage, barbaric civilisations.

In India, this took the shape of a somewhat different image – that of the fallen civilisation, whose depredations were its barbarism in need of Britannic civilisation. Datta, however, was the first to speak of civilisations in light of the two that impinged so greatly on his philosophical world, the spiritual East and the dynamic, progressive West – to have done so in the nineteenth century is as unprecedented as it appears.

Datta, or as we now call him, Swami Vivekananda, may not have lived for long, but it is evident that his ideas have outlasted his atypically short life. Prime Minister Narendra Modi frequently cites Vivekananda as a source of inspiration, lauding the monk for breathing life into a moribund civilisation and thus igniting the serene flame of resurgence "after thousands of years of slavery", a faithful reiteration of Vivekananda's representation of India's Islamic past.

 Swami Vivekananda and a civilisation in resurgence: Remembering the monk on his 155th birth anniversary

File image of Swami Vivekananda. belurmath.org

Many organisations and political groups use the swami in their rich tributes, and for the young among them, such as the ABVP, 12 January has become the National Youth Day. One is not quite sure why that could be, but it is apparent that Vivekananda still lives. To answer this question is to remember this modern monk and his encounters with civilisation, pertinent in so far as India today attempts to understand and articulate its civilisation against the shadow of the West.

Datta was born in Calcutta in 1863 to a family of diverse religious and philosophical inclinations. It is rarely known, let alone acknowledged, that there is a great pre-history to the making of the monk and that much of it is antithetical to the ideas that Vivekananda would subsequently develop and embrace.

He was deeply influenced by the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, a faction of the Brahmo Samaj, whose cardinal attempt was to fashion a Hindu faith and society in strict consonance with the prototype of Christianity. Indeed, there was a considerable identitarian fluidity in the period as conversions to Christianity were widespread, offset in some cases by a waapsi to Hinduism, as Keshab Chandra Sen dramatically made, establishing the Nava Vidhan.

Datta read JS Mill, Immanuel Kant, JS Mill, even Friedrich Hegel in the period, coming to be influenced by Herbert Spencer's meditations on education. Although he was lauded for his intellectual rigour and genius, this, in the bare history of ideas, was unexceptional in reference to what Vivekananda would later go on to do – the colonial encounter forced on the nineteenth-century intelligentsia a sentiment of civilisational inferiority against the West and a related, simultaneous desire to facilitate the work of colonialism by urging the emulation of the West, even in matters of faith.

Much of it took the form of the movement for social reform in general and Sen’s Band of Hope in particular, identifying evils like Sati and even 'drinking and smoking' as civilisational depredations against a forgotten ancient glory. In this period, Datta came to locate himself in the intellectual trends of monotheism and European transcendentalism, premised on ingenious modern readings of certain monumental texts that were dubbed to be India's sacred texts in line with the Bible, especially the Upanishads.

Vivekananda's meeting with Ramakrishna, a chance event presaged by the former's interest in the meaning of the 'trance', would fire his passion and imagination like the universalism of theological ideas never could. Much of what Ramakrishna was, or did, militated against the dogma that had been the intellectual root of Vivekananda's world.

If Vivekananda preferred, even needed, the simple and settled comfort of language and words, Ramakrishna only had silence to offer, stressing that language, and by extension modernity, were imperfect instruments of understanding the world and approaching the otherworldly.

Vivekananda came to reconsider his own inclination of lampooning idolatry, aligning his religious life with Ramakrishna's dazzling, even maddening mysticism for the great goddess, Kali. Ramakrishna seamlessly drew many like Vivekananda to his attraction, offering a private world of love and intimacy beyond the Kali Yuga that the British had brought on the Bengali middle class, initiating them into modern ideas that were both tantalising and tyrannically stifling. This is what Sumit Sarkar has suitably called the regime of chakri-bhakti, and there appears little reason to contest it.

Contrary to conventional views on the subject, it was the death of Ramakrishna that inaugurated the making of Vivekananda, so radically, albeit apologetically, as he would depart from the ways of the master without recourse to the Brahmo ideas that he had left behind.

The one encountered at the Parliament of Religions in September 1893 is not only a different person but a phenomenon emblematic of many of the nationalist trends of the period.

Although he came from intellectual origins in social reform and later, into Ramakrishna's idea of recourse to the private realm of bhakti away from the public realm of colonialism, it is at the parliament that Vivekanand would come into his own intellectual being. This is often ignored, sometimes deliberately in emphasis on the monk's role in nationalism, that his words were for a specific audience and this audience was the West – Dipesh Chakrabarty has argued that Vivekananda's charm was most perceptible particularly among those that the West had marginalised within its contours: women, homosexuals, even vegetarians.

To this audience, Vivekananda presented a public Hinduism in its modern making, geared both towards revivalist trends of the period and nationalist self-assertion that would have to be, given its material inferiority, civilisational and therefore religious in nature. This was an unapologetic Hinduism, unlike the religion of social reform, which could gather even the confidence to assert its theological superiority to the materialism of Abrahamic religious traditions.

Vivekananda was deeply moved by the Upanishadic injunction – ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti (that which exists is one, only called by many names), but also keen in emphasising that Hinduism was the mother of all religions and that his particular tradition, Vedanta, which he was endeavouring to present as Hinduism, was the oldest of all traditions.

Vivekananda was very prominent, but representative of a larger trend of constructing Hinduism as religion – monolithic, monotheistic, and bound by a non-duality between God and Man, positing serving mankind as serving God itself. This was a difficult task in a social fabric fractured by caste and sectarian divides, and in understanding this task, Vivekananda called for a militant, masculinist Hinduism that had to revitalise not only a religion but an entire civilisation.

Is Vivekananda relevant? His relevance is debatable, but that he is prevalent is incontestable. Vivekananda, without perhaps intending, supplied the premise of much that would be Hindutva later in his times and ours. Hindutva is not only a religious pursuit, but the political assertion of a civilisation – always identified with the religious community known as the 'Hindus' – awakening from a historical slumber after 'centuries' of subjugation.

While Vivekananda's other was the West, Hindutva's other is the Muslim. For this reason, if Vivekananda is read, perhaps his present, postcolonial appropriation will not be so seamless.

This is illustrated in two instances, and it is with these that we must end. In Sharatchandra Chakravarty's Swami-shishya samvada, we find a preacher of the cow-protection movement – who would today be known as the gaurakshak – meeting Vivekananda to ask for donations to the cause.

Vivekananda asks if they had done anything for their 'brothers and sisters' suffering in the terrible famine in central India, and when told that they serve mother cow and not humans reaping their karma, remarked: "Yes, that the cow is our mother, I understand: who else could give birth to such accomplished children?"

At a time when the aforesaid terrorise in the portentous name of the cow, this is an injunction to revisit, as is Vivekananda's own meditation at an extirpated temple, supposedly by 'Muslim invaders'. Vivekananda feels a wave of fury, promising the goddess of the temple that the assault would be avenged.

The goddess, in sublime serenity, came to his mind, eloquently asking: "Well, if you must; but who are you to save me?" If religion becomes a political cause against a particular religious community, as it so often does, then Vivekananda is not only prevalent but also relevant in addressing its many contradictions – he is, then, in very different ways, a thinker of and for our times.

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Updated Date: Jan 12, 2018 13:32:12 IST

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