In several ways, the life and work of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) mark the historical process of India rediscovering herself in modern times. These are also emblematic of the ways in which a tradition modernizes or creates alternative forms of modernity. Today, as the nation celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the Swami, it is only apt that we critically reflect on his life and legacy.
Generally speaking, his contribution to India and to the larger world may be summed up in four ways. First, in modern India, it was Vivekananda who first emphasized that our everyday lives would become more meaningful only when spiritualized. It was in this spirituality that he re-discovered, as it were, India's message to herself and to the world. For Vivekananda, this spiritual self-realization led to people more fully realizing their own potentialities. Especially in the context of a colonized society like that of 19th century India, this was tantamount to men and women locating greater self-belief in themselves.
The human soul being free, suggested Vivekananda, more than compensated for the loss of political freedom.
Second, even though the Swami rejected political praxis and Westinspired social and religious reforms, his essential message was the empowerment of the people: through education, collective thought and action but above all, realizing he underlying unity of all human existence. In the Hindu tradition, ascetic detachment from the world had been criticized even before Vivekananda but it was he who first actively joined the idea of individual renunciation to committed social service. In this sense, he gave new meaning or signification to the very idea and institution of sanyas.
The Ramakrishna math and Mission is today, an active embodiment of this legacy.
Third, there is the love that Vivekananda consistently exhibited for the socially marginalized and oppressed. He could be equally at home in poor homes and princely quarters, be sumptuously hosted by the rich and the powerful and also share the coarse chapatti of a scavenger or share the hookah with a cobbler. It is he, who even before Gandhi, reinvented and effectively used the older religious idiom of God especially residing in the lowly and the poor (daridranarayan).
Vivekananda anticipates Gandhi in yet another aspect and that lies in his prioritizing social amelioration to political work. In this sense, his critique of the Indian National Congressrepresenting only a handful of privileged men anticipates later day criticism. Like the Mahatma again, he insisted on first closely acquainting himself with the people of India before he launching any schemes of social or political work. Through this he hoped to understand pressing contemporary problems, to energize a nascent nationhood and to restore to man, his innate dignity and selfconfidence. 'Man-making, as it has been often said, was Vivekananda's first mission.
This, I find, has some contemporary relevance inasmuch as the Swami's project absolves the state from invariably taking the first step towards bringing education, enlightenment and progress to the common man. In his perception, the movement had to originate in the common people and benefit such themselves. Vivekananda always insisted on grass-roots reforms, not agendas imposed from above of which the common man had little or no understanding.
Fourth, it was the Swami's consistent desire to bring back India's pride of place in the assembly of nations, as a civilization which, notwithstanding momentous historical changes, had yet retained subterranean threads of commonness and unity. At the same time, like his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda fully believed in universality, cosmopolitanism and compassion. As he saw it, mutual kindness and compassion between man and man was more important than that coming from a distant God.
The Buddha was his ishta (favoured ideal), he once admitted, for he was so readily compassionate towards fellow-men.
It is quite usual to have polarised perceptions of Swami Vivekananda either as a patriot or a prophet. Apparently, this is based on the commonplace assumption that at least in the Hindu world view, politics and religion are two distinct, unbridgeable worlds. I would say, however, that his life and work belie such polarization. Vivekananda took patriotism out of its political confines and vested it with larger possibilities and meaning.
Similarly, he took religion not to be some private feeling or idiosyncracy but that which was socially committed and responsible. Freedom for him was really a larger concept; it had more to do with the freeing of the mind than the body. The Swami pinned his faith in individuals, not institutions and hence chose a path that was silent, indirect, organic. One can only hope that the more enduring aspects of his life and work continue to inspire us in the days to come.
(The writer is a professor in the Department of History & Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)