Representing Swami Vivekananda: Some Issues and Debates
I intend to raise two issues in the paper, before I go on to discuss the impact of the life and teachings of Swami Vivekenanda (SV). The first issue has to do with how SV has been represented in the secondary literature on him. The second which, in a sense, arises out of the first, has to do with what constitutes a “fact” in a spiritual biography. I believe that confronting both these issues is necessary in order to have a clearer comprehension of the impact of SV on his world, both in the East and the West.1
Representing Swami Vivekananda
First of all, what do I mean by “represent”? I use the word in two main senses. The most obvious and therefore the primary meaning of represent is to describe, to re-present something or someone. The primary meaning of represent, as in the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests presence or appearance because, etymologically, represent goes back to the Latin esse or presence. To represent, then, is to describe or to offer a “likeness” of something. But the “likeness” may actually be an “unlikeness”; that is why, someone may exclaim that my idea of SV is quite different from yours. That is why every act of description is also one of interpretation. And there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. I think this is what Swami Tyagananda highlighted in his presentation when he said that “discovery is a two-track process” in which, on the one hand, “we discover places or things or people” but on the other hand, “we discover our own selves.”
The other meaning of represent is to stand in for, as when we speak of the House of Representatives. So to represent SV is also to stand for (or against) him. For example, in his name, a whole range of institutions and practices are established. For instance, there are societies, centres, schools, colleges, even residential layouts and roads named after him. Of these, some are of a general sort and may not signify anything more than a respect or reverence for SV, but others imply that they are the authentic owners or carriers of his legacy. It is the latter who, in effect, control the apparatus of perpetuating his memory. They are doing Swamiji’s work, as it were. On the other side are those who would seem to be doing not so much Swamiji’s work but that of “truth,” “science,” or “secular knowledge.” They call themselves historians, academics, intellectuals, critics, or whatever. Indeed, there is a competition between these stake-holders who generate competing interpretations. Sometimes, such differences even get consolidated into schools or traditions. Again, Swami Tyagananda referred to these two groups as devotees versus sceptics, those who see SV as divine as opposed to those who see him as only too human. Tyagananda-ji asked the important question of whether it was possible to take a new look at SV, one that would not only reconcile these two “schools” of representation, but actually rediscover Swamji for the present age.
For this to happen, I would argue that we have to come to terms with the crux of these two meanings of the word “represent.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, referring back to Karl Marx, encapsulated these two senses of the word as “portrait” and “proxy,” or to go back to the German terms, darstellung and vertretung respectively. Both ways of looking at SV are relevant to my own inquiry. This brings me to an important gesture at self-disclosure. My immediate purpose or prasanga to study SV was to edit a new, one-volume collection of his writings for a general audience. Such a project was exciting because most of the anthologies of Swamiji’s work are either by disciples and devotees or by those who are the flag bearers of his legacy. Moreover, many of these selections were for specific purposes or topics, such as SV on Women, on Education, on Hinduism, on India and her problems, on youth and so on. To try to do a selection independently was therefore a major challenge.
But any such project of (re)discovery can only happen through the available literature by and on him. In other words, all these anthologies, including the one I worked on, must rely on the only available edition of his Complete Works published in nine volumes by the Advaita Ashrama of the Ramakrishna Math. This is because scholars or anthologists cannot go to the actual sources, but have to rely on what is available through the official sources.
Let me present one example of the difficulty that this poses: the recently discovered letters of Swamiji to the Maharaja of Khetri, Ajit Singh. These letters, as we know, were found in the dusty files of the record room in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, which was then in the princely state of Khatri. Two of these letters were first published in the Times of India of February 24, 1999. The first is dated 15th February  and talks about SV’s encounter with a psychic, Chetty, an astrologer who predicts many things to SV, but also asks the latter to bless some vibhuti and give that to him. The letters were written without punctuation and had many other peculiarities (433). For instance, SV calls the Maharaja, not “Your Highness” but “your “High Up.” The year is not written in the letter, but we know from other sources that it is likely to be 1893. When Prabuddha Bharata reprinted the letters, they not only “corrected” the spellings and punctuation, but they changed the ending in the second letter of 22nd May  from “yours obediently” to “Yours in the Lord” (433).
Now one might argue that such changes are minor and insignificant, but from the point of view of accuracy, they would be hard to justify. Just how much to “correct” is a major issue in textual scholarship. While spelling may be modernised and punctuation inserted or standardised, even such minimally invasive sorts of alterations will change the flavour and savour of a text. We may never, for instance, know if SV was a good speller or whether his English “improved” with the years! There is a bigger epistemological issue at stake here, but I will come to them later. Right now we need to remember that it is possible, that there are many other existing errors and erroneous emendations in the Complete Works. Besides changes, there are also several omissions and deletions. I discovered these many years ago when I wrote a paper on SV’s letters. There are curious paradoxes in what the editors and publishers of these letters did to them. For instance, in one letter, SV says to the addressee: destroy this letter after you’ve read it or don’t show this letter to anyone. The letter is published with these words in it! This is an example of a certain kind of fidelity to the actual text of the letter even if it means a deliberate or inadvertent disobedience of Swamiji’s command. But there are innumerable instances in the published letters where ellipses suggest the omission of text. I was given to understand that matters of a private, controversial, or otherwise inappropriate nature were omitted because they were not considered suitable to general readers. Who took these decisions and for what reasons remains to be investigated. Unlike Jeffrey Kripal I am not at all suggesting that there is a secret in the deleted portions waiting to be discovered or even that some kind of deliberate censorship was applied to the letters. All I am saying is that what we do have is different from what SV actually wrote. Here is where both aspects of representation that I mentioned become crucial. Not only has Swamiji been presented to us in a particular way, but those who stand for him have exercised their right or power over how we might see him.
Swami Tyagananda has already alluded to the different genres of texts that make up the Complete Works. There are transcripts of his speeches, original writings and translations, summaries of talks, letters, poems, conversations, interviews, even newspaper reports. Clearly the last three cannot be considered the works of Swamiji himself—their authors are others people, those who summarized, transcribed, reported, or quoted him, as the case may be. Clearly, then, there are different kinds of texts involved here. The issue is one of the ontological and epistemological status of the documents on the basis of which SV is represented. That is, how do we learn or how do we cognise SV? What is the validity of the various sources of such knowledge? What methods do we use to evaluate its validity or credence? Before we have a system or method of addressing, if not answering such questions, our claims and counter claims on the message or thought or philosophy of SV will at best be tentative, if not altogether erroneous.
The Complete Works presents other difficulties. The arrangement is neither strictly chronological nor thematic. There is an order or a system of organization, but this is never clarified. The letters themselves occur in different volumes and in different series, as do poems, speeches, and other writings. Even if the order is chronological, there are different kinds of chronology: for example, the chronology of the works as Swamiji himself wrote them and, in contradistinction, the chronology of the discovery of the works. Thus, volume 9 is entirely composed of works that were not known when the earlier editions of the earlier volumes were being published. Another serious problem with the contents is the contexts or dates or even the exact occasions of the texts is not always indicated. For this we have to consult other sources, mainly the biographies of SV. But the problem is that the biographies themselves have been based, in large measure, on precisely these sources themselves. This difficulty gets compounded in the large number of anthologies of SV. In these, the Swami’s works are wrenched out of their specific contexts so as to make them eternal pronouncements, totally unrelated to space, time, or causality. For instance, SV may have said something on a particular topic, say, women, in a letter to a disciple. He may have said something else in a speech. He may have said a third thing in an essay that he published. Some of these comments may actually contradict each other. But not only are such contradictions removed, but the quotations sit next to each other in the anthology without any reference to where or when they first were written or spoken. The complexity or interpretive challenge of SV’s thought is thus flattened out; the ideas, taken out of their contexts, are turned into prophetic utterances. Many arguments or claims are based on these secondary or even tertiary selections and arrangements. Instead of the “real” thing, we have a pre-packaged, pre-cooked, even pre-digested SV, made easy, simplified, at times, rendered even into an “instant SV.”
My intention is not at all to criticise the Complete Works or the editors of the previous selections on SV. Far from it; those who have worked on such projects have often done so quite selflessly for years, rendering a great service to the reading public. Their books are products of their devotion and care. Lacking other sources, these are invaluable and without substitute for any serious scholar or student of SV. But, nevertheless, they leave scope for greater accuracy and improvement. The enterprise of Western scholarship is not only more competent, but much more open, at least in many cases. The result is a periodic updating and improvement in the methods and practices of textual scholarship. Textual scholarship, of course, if culturally embedded. In a culture such as India in which the most sacred texts, the Vedas, were never even written down to prevent them from being polluted and corrupted and where the classical texts and treatises were often composed in highly compressed, mnemonic verses, the expertise to deal with modern texts from a variety of sources is still limited. There is much that we have to learn and do to make the best use of our own resources and traditions. An enormous amount of dedicated textual work and scholarship are required before we can have a somewhat clear idea of even so recent a figure as SV. I might add that I also have nothing as such against various simplified versions of the master’s ideas, including the justifiably popular “Thus Spake” series which the Ramakrishna Math has been publishing. Each other these anthologies represent SV to different audiences.
The purpose of this lengthy account of some of the issues and problems that occur in any attempt to understand SV is to point out the prerequisites of a genuine and far-reaching re-evaluation. I believe that this can only happen after we have a better edition of SV’s works, and better biographical and textual sources at our disposal. In the meanwhile, the debates will centre on differing interpretations of already “known” data. It is to this that I shall turn my attention next. In this regards, I would argue that one’s positions reveal as much about one’s own values and prejudices as they do some facet of SV’s personality or life-work.
Here it is important to remember, as Swami Tyagananda pointed out, that most the biographies of the Swami are written from the point of view of SV’s importance to India and its people. He also suggested the need to write a new life to suit the globalised world that we inhabit today. I do hope that such a biography does get written, because that is indeed the need of the day. And yet, as an Indian, living and working in India, and preparing a selection to be published by an Indian publisher in India largely for Indian audiences, I cannot help observing that many of my own selections reflect this Indo-centric bias.
As many commentators have noticed, Swamiji’s message to the West was quite different from that to the East. When he faced the West, he spoke of the glories of Vedanta, trying to re-cast it as the foundation of a new universal religion. But when he faced his own countrymen and women, he was far more critical and exhortatory. He wanted not only to transform Hinduism but also Indian people, uplifting them from the morass of oppression, depression, ignorance, and darkness into which they had sunk. As he said repeatedly, what he saw in India was just tamas and cowardice masquerading as sattva or high philosophy. More than anything else, he abhorred the weakness of Indians, their lack of courage, dignity, and inactivity appalled him. The inertia, the atavism, and the quietism of the masses, an outcome of centuries of deprivation, violence, and incapacity produced an almost physiological reaction in him. But Vedantin that he was, somewhere in the soul of this defeated, even crippled, civilization, SV still saw a spark of life and hope. Like breathing life again into a comatose body, SV re-awakened and re-energized the pranamaya kosa of the very body of India. This dynamic aspect of the Swami’s work, perhaps, far exceeded all his other achievements. This is the dimension that is not immediately visible or available to those who approach his works from a purely intellectual or mental perspective. I mention this because I found myself moved most by those speeches of SV that he gave on his return to India after his more than three-year sojourn in the U.S. From Pamban, where he first landed after coming to the mainland from Sri Lanka, to Calcutta, where he made his way up in the space of a few weeks, SV had already presented not just a clear diagnosis of the ailment of India, but also the blueprint of its revival. Cosequently, my own representation of SV emphasizes his role as the creator of a new India, the visionary who gave a whole people the mahamantra of svaraj. I would even go so far as to argue that a major aspect of SV’s impact on the West was indirectly through his vision of a new India. SV influenced the West directly by giving it the new pohilosophy of Vedanta but he also influenced it indirectly by giving Indians a new sociology of India.
To sum up this section of my argument, I would suggest that SV’s impact on the West cannot be understood without engaging with the issue of how he is represented. This in turn requires a two-fold awareness of the sources of his life and work on the one hand, with an understanding of the limitations that they impose, and of the values and biases of the scholar on the other hand.
Spiritual vs. Historical “Facts”
Let me now briefly return to a question that I had raised at the beginning of this presentation: what constitutes and is recognizable as a “fact” in spiritual life? Or how important is literal truth in the representation of a religious figure? For instance, how important is it to know if during his parivrajika days SV travelled on foot, begging from door to door, or if he traveled, whenever possible by train, even first class? Did he stay anywhere and with anyone, or, were his preferred hosts people like himself, people he knew well—the Bengali bhadralok? Trivial in themselves, can such questions assume importance if certain larger claims are made about SV’s life and character based on their answers? Or, let us consider another set of questions. How important is it to know if SV smoked or not? Whether he ate meat, even beef, and drank wine? These questions are not new and were answered uncompromisingly by SV himself. And yet our tendency, especially in India, remains to sanctify and sanitize such aspects of a saint’s life. To give you another example, how often are we in India aware that Jawaharlal Nehru smoked? We hardly see pictures of him with a cigarette in his hand. Or that Sri Aurobindo himself smoked until the 1920s? Or, to take the issue one level higher, that J. Krishnamurti allegedly had a sexual relationship for many years with Rosalind Rajagopal, the wife of his one-time friend and close associate? Perhaps, such questions are ultimately irrelevant to the life and mission of the spiritual person being studied. But what they do affect, quite certainly, is our understanding, our concept of what constitutes a spiritual life. Unlike some critics, I would not say that that the public has a right to know. Not all kinds of knowledge are suitable to all people. For instance, in most cases, children do not need to know about the sexual life of their parents. But, I would also argue that if and when such knowledge becomes essential to a fuller grasp of spiritual phenomena, it can be made available to the adhikari. Indeed, personally, I deeply believe that when the sadhak is ready, whatever knowledge is required will be given to him by the very intelligence that informs his spiritual pursuits. Indeed, I would contend that "adhikara" as principle applies to both sadhaks and non-sadhaks. The latter may not accept it, but those who do (like the keepers of the legacy of a guru) must follow its dictates, thus being careful about what to divulge to whom.
These questions, as I have tried, to argue, are not necessarily about the “character” of a saint or master, but really about the character of spiritual life itself. My approach to them is that the spiritual life is not what some people consider it to be, sanitised, idealised, and stripped of all elements of what we call the human, the passionate, the sensual. Rather, the spiritual life uses all the powers and capacities that inhere within an individual in such a manner that they are directed to the higher end of self-perfection and self-mastery. As Swami Ramdas puts it, “Each individual has to draw upon all the latent resources of his or her existence in order to rise to the height of absolute freedom…” (3). In other words, a spiritual life is important not just for what it is, but for what it stands for, what it represents. In all, it represents the potential for divinity within that specific individual and within each human being. When we worship the Guru or a saint, we worship our own capacity for perfection. The spiritual master shows us what we ourselves can be one day. So, the sole spiritual fact that matters is that of transformation, the mutation from the human to the suprahuman. All the other details are of less importance. If that transformation or transcendence is denied, then there is little left of value in a spiritual life; it loses its special significance, becoming just another “ordinary” human life.
On this basis, let us now look at another kind of “fact” or “fiction.” For instance, how important is it to discover whether SV actually swam to the rock now named after him, and that he stayed there for three days and nights, meditating on the future of India? The origin of such claims is the first edition of Swamiji’s Life (1913) by his Eastern and Western disciples. Let us re-read the relevant passage: “He plunged into the ocean and in spite of numerous sharks swam across to the temple, his mind eager as a child to see the Mother. And reaching the shrine he fell prostrate in ecstasy before the Image of the Goddess” (vol. 2: 101). Those who wrote this version had not visited Kanyakumari and were quite ignorant of the exact location either of the temple or of the rocks. The only mention of this event in SV’s own writings occurs in a letter dated March 19, 1894, to Ramakrishnananda from Chicago, written in Bengali:
At Cape Comorin sitting in Mother Kanya Kumari’s temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many Sannyasins wandering about and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness.
SV clearly states that he meditated sitting in the temple, not on the rock to which he swam. Rajgopal Chattopadhyaya comments: “The story of his swimming the shark-infested waters was fabricated in the biographies…. Once started, however, it was impossible to get rid of the swimming episode. So modern biographies hold that he first worshipped the Devi and then went over to the rock.” In the latest edition of the Life (1979), this is how the same incident is narrated: “After worshipping the Mother in the temple, it was to this holy rock that the Swami wanted to go for meditation. But how could he go? He had not a single pice for the boatman. Without more ado he plunged into those shark-infested waters and swam across” (341).
Chattopdhyaya, to my mind, argues fairly convincingly that the probability of SV’s swimming across is small. Not only is there no mention of it anywhere in SV’s own letters or reminiscences, but the original claim in the 1913 Life seems to have been based on the erroneous location of the temple on the island, instead of the mainland. The distance from the tip to the island is two furlongs. The notion that he swam because he didn’t have the money to hire a boatman also seems to be implausible because his trip to Kanyakumari was sponsored by a Bengali gentleman, Manmath Bhattacharya, who accompanied him. Chattopadhaya points out that from 1889, SV suffered from rheumatism, so it was unlikely that he would have swum across. If so, then on what basis do the writers of the latest edition of the Life stick to the tale of swimming across? Apparently, they have three eye witness accounts. One of these witnesses even claimed to have swum across himself to take food to the Swami. Of course! SV not only swam across, but stayed there for three days and nights on a barren rock, it would stand to reason that he would need to be fed. Interestingly, it is nowhere mentioned if SV also swam back from the rock. Chattopadhyaya, of course, dismisses these witnesses either as unreliable or the whole story of witnesses itself: “All these stories of witnesses seeing him meditating for three nights and fasting seem concocted” (ibid). On the other hand, as Niveditaji of the Vivekananda Centre once challenged me, “Can you prove that he did not swim across? If not, there is certainly scope for the belief that he did.”
But, as in many cases, there are not only many kinds of truth, but at times, legends, myths, and fiction are more appealing and persuasive than facts. Indeed, one would need to invent a new category of fact to understand what happened. Let us call this the “poetic” fact to differentiate it from the “historical” fact. In the 1960s, perhaps, still unaware of the doubts cast on the swimming episode, Eknath Ranade campaigned all over India for funds to build the SV Rock Memorial on the island on which SV was supposed to have meditated but in actual fact he may never have even visited! Those who have visited that memorial know what a noble and heroic endeavour it was. With state support and donations from ordinary people more than rupees one crore was raised for the project. Inaugurated in 1970, the Memorial also has an adjoining campus of about 100 acres. Anyone who goes to visit it cannot but be impressed by it. Whether or not SV actually went to this rock, the Memorial stands to commemorate his visit. Though based perhaps on an error, there is no denying either its materiality or its capacity to inspire lakhs of visitors annually.
So which version is true? Which is a fact? I would simply say both are true, but in different ways. We know that in the last twenty years, the truth claims of history have come to be severely challenged. What passes for history is just another narrative, another sort of story, which is not much different from fiction in its use of words, metaphors, and linguistic figuration. It is also informed by a textuality that attests to its constructedness. Histories, in fact, resemble novels and other kind of fictional narratives. They too have a beginning, a middle, and an end; they have heroes and villains; the also have plots, characters, situations, settings, atmosphere, what is more they even have climaxes, reversals, denouements. On the other hand, as we all know only too well, myths, legends, novels, and other kinds of fiction are perhaps more “true” than facts. Even “science” which has scrupulously constructed itself over the last five hundred years so as to exclude any scope for error or inaccuracy, is itself not a fixed, unchanging essence. To say that “according to science” or “science says,” then, is an absurdity, because we need to specify which type of science, of what period, according to whom, and of what culture. The category of science is neither beyond time, space, context, and subject as is that of fact. For example, classical physics is a totally different kind of science from quantum mechanics. So is the case with the “fact.”
So, I would suggest that both the versions of Swamiji’s experience at Kannyakumari are “ture.” One is probably the historical truth—that he meditated in the temple on the mainland and did not swim across; the other, consequently, is a poetic or truth that many still believe and find inspiring. Does this mean that I consider that the two are unrelated? On the contrary, in modern times, it would be advantageous, in the long run, for the spiritual truth to have its roots in the soil of the physical or the factual truth. But from there, it may soar to any height that it aspires to. The two kinds of truth ought, ideally, to support and reinforce each other. That is why the issue of representation that I have been discussing is so crucial. That is why we need exacting, even “scientific” methods and expectations from our scholars. And yet, if and when, as is bound to be the case, these truths clash, we must allow for both of them to be valid in their own way.
To sum up, I would argue that a spiritual fact is a combination of a historical fact and a poetic fact. Usually, the latter two may go hand in hand, but when they appear to clash, we can have plural narratives which the historian or the sadhaka may each approach in his or her own way. Within the spiritual path, the bhakta, the jnani, and the karma yogi approach reality in different ways. This must apply even to SV himself. To say that one approach is the best would not be a sanatani position. To say that all are the same or equally true would not hold up to modern scrutiny. To be a modern sanantani, then, is to discover a new path to the truth that is SV, a path which is not only committed to finding the “truth,” but one which allows, even invites, many different versions of it, all the while retaining the privilege of choosing not just individually, but for larger collectives, what is the most suitable, persuasive, pragmatic, and therefore, true path. In the present case, I would say that I cannot be sure that SV actually swam across to the rock, but I am sure that I appreciate the Memorial which commemorates his visit to the southernmost tip of India. What the SV’s life stands for, what the Memorial stands for, cannot be controverted by his not actually have swum to the rock. The bhatka and the historian, in other words, do not necessarily have to be at odds. A good bhakta can be a good historian and vice-versa.
Impact and Significance
From a bare outline of his life, extraordinary as it was, it is impossible to form a notion of just how great SV’s influence or impact were. In a book that is otherwise unsparingly critical, Narasinga P Sil marks the astonishing power of the sheer splendour of SV’s personality. For instance, when Mrs Allan sees him for the first time, she says: “[He] seemed to me so big, as though he towered above ordinary mortals. The people on the street looked like pygmies and he had such a majestic presence that people stepped aside to let him pass by” (quoted in Sil 22). Or, to cite another example, Josephine MacLeod, one of most faithful and long-standing admirers, recorded: “The thing that held me in Swamiji is his unlimitedness. I could never touch the bottom—or top—or sides. The amazing size of him!” (quoted in Sil 23). As Romain Rolland in his Prelude to The Life of SV and the Universal Gospel, puts it: “his pre-eminent characteristic was kingliness. He was a born king and nobody ever came near him either in India or America without paying homage to his majesty” (5).
In his painstaking and exhaustive compilation, SV: A Comprehensive Study, Swami Jyotirmayananda quotes other well-known personages, some of whose views on Vivekananada bear repetition:
C. Rajagopalachari: “Swami SV saved Hinduism and saved India. But for him we would have lost our religion and would not have gained our freedom. We, therefore, owe everything to Swami SV.” (Jyotirmayananda 678-9)
Jawaharlal Nehru: “He was not a politician in the ordinary sense of the word and yet he was, I think, one of the great founders… of the national modern movement of India….” (ibid 679)
Annie Besant: “A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion-head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movement swift and fast—such was my first impression of Swami SV…. Monk, they called him, not unwarrantably, but warrior-monk he was, and the first impression was the warrior rather than of the monk…. Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own. … ‘That man a heathen!’ said one, as he came out of the great Hall, and we send missionaries to his people! It would be more fitting that they should send missionaries to us.’” (ibid 689)
K. M. Panikkar: “What gave Indian nationalism its dynamism and ultimately enabled it to weld at least the major part of India into one state was the creation of a sense of community among the Hindus to which the credit should to a very large extent go to Swami SV. This new Sankaracharya may well be claimed to be a unifier of Hindu ideology. Travelling all over India he not only aroused a sense of Hindu feeling but taught the doctrine of a universal Vedanata as the background of the new Hindu reformation…. It is SV who first gave to the Hindu movement its sense of nationalism and provided most of the movements with a common all-India outlook.” (ibid 279)
As some of these opinions affirm, SV’s greatest achievements include the reconstruction of Hinduism, the change of its image in the West, the starting of a movement of social and cultural regeneration, all of which were directly linked to the birth of Indian nationalism, which was taking place at that time. The key to all these contributions was SV’s modernization of Hinduism. Indeed, the Hinduism that he spoke about and expounded at the Parliament of Religions and, later, all over America was a new version, mostly of his own invention, of an ancient tradition. What he learned from Ramakrishna he tried to interpret in the language of modernity that he learned as a young English-educated Calcutta man. Instead of a pagan, superstitious, idolatrous, and barbarous set of rituals, customs, and practices, which is how Hinduism had been by and large perceived, not just by missionaries, but by a large section of the educated middle-classes of India, SV turned it into a rational, universal philosophy, freed from dogma and authority. He did this by making Vedanta the spine of new Hinduism, bhakti its heart, and the yogas its sinews. For the West, what he brought was indeed original and promising. As Ninian Smart says: “The universalist message of Swami SV and of his Master, Ramakrishna, genuinely represents a new departure in world religions—the attempt to make the highest form of Hinduism a world faith” (qtd. in Jyotirmayananda 182). He thus re-interpreted Hinduism not only to the West but to India. Essentially, his message was two-fold: when he faced the West, he was a teacher and practitioner of Indian spirituality; when he faced his fellow countrymen and women, he was a social reformer. As Tapan Raychaudhuri observes, “SV had a two-fold agenda which he had time to pursue for less than a decade: to preach an universalist spiritual faith based on the life of his master which he saw as the ultimate realization of the Vedantic truth, and secondly, to create a mass consciousness through service and education” (16).
In a reading of his selected letters, I had argued that SV’s reconstruction of Hinduism consisted essentially of four elements: a) non-sectarianism; b) anti-ritualism; c) religion in the service of humanity; d) Advaita as the future religion of thinking humanity (178-179). Such idea and his ceaseless propagation of them resulted in the creation of what Shamita Basu, in her book-length study, calls “dialogic Hinduism”:
It was dialogic in two senses: within the interior of the nation itself it sought to bridge the gulf between conservatives and the reformists, and in the context of Europe it sought to accommodate many of the Enlightenment values of rationalism, the spirit of scientific enquiry, and the tenets of universal literacy. (196)
Of course, SV’s message to the West was not always welcomed or well-received. On the contrary, it was often conveyed in the most hostile of circumstances. After his initial success, SV was regularly attacked and reviled by various Christian churches. Letters were written to his hosts and well-wishers, tarnishing his character, attempting to stop him from speaking. SV, with his outspokenness, exposed the fanaticism and falsehood of his detractors. Despite his great reverence for Jesus Christ, on whom he delivered some memorable talks, he was unsparing of the double standards and narrow-mindedness of some missionaries. For instance, in a lecture given at Detroit on 21st February 1894, he said:
One thing I would tell you, and I do not mean any unkind criticism. You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? To come over to my country to curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, and everything. They walk near a temple and say, "You idolaters, you will go to hell." But they dare not do that to the Mohammedans of India; the sword would be out. But the Hindu is too mild; he smiles and passes on, and says, "Let the fools talk." That is the attitude. And then you who train men to abuse and criticise, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, with the kindest of purpose, you shrink and cry, "Don't touch us; we are Americans. We criticise all the people in the world, curse them and abuse them, say anything; but do not touch us; we are sensitive plants." …
(Complete Works 8: 211-212)
No wonder, even two years later, when he returned to Detroit, on 3rd March 1896, he was greeted thus by the Detroit Evening News:
The Hindoo-Brahmin-Buddhist fad of an effete and rotten orientalism has run its course in the east, and it has been found that there is nothing in it… After all these eastern isms had had their say, there was a regular mania throughout the occident for the religions that had done little for the masses of their votaries but to make dirty, lazy beggars of them…He [SV] told not a single truth that does not form a stone in the foundation of our own western faith, but whenever Kananda [sic] said a pretty and truthful thing which may be heard from at Christian pulpits every day, he was applauded to the echo by the people who know so little about the religion of their own fathers that they actually thought that this brown-faced Hindoo was making a new revelation to them…. Kananda [sic] had come to be forgotten and his work had utterly perished with him. And he is back again! … His very presence is no compliment to the religious stability of Detroit.” (Burke IV: 17-18)
The record shows that he faced much of this hostility with silence, indifference, and rare counter-attacks. In one of his more effusive responses in a letter of 1st February 1985, he writes to Mary Hale, quoting Tulsidas, “when a great soul appears there will be numbers to bark after him” (Complete Works 5: 73).
SV was also quite scathing in his attack on the Indian society of his time. One of his most radical theses was that India had declined because of its neglect of women. “We are horrible sinners,” he says in his letter of 19th March 1894 to Swami Ramakrishnananda, “and our degradation is due to our calling women, ‘despicable worms,’ ‘gateways to hell,’ and so forth….” (Complete Works 6: 253). In the same letter he goes on to say, “ Do you think our religion is worth the name? Ours is only Don’t-touchism, only ‘Touch me not,’ ‘Touch me not….’ (ibid). In his letter to Alasinga Perumal, he is even more categorical:
So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them! I call those men who strut about in their finery, having got all their money by grinding the poor, wretches, so long as they do not do anything for those two hundred millions who are now no better than hungry savages!
(Complete Works 5: 58)
Such remarks frequently found in his lectures are included in this Reader too. From statements such as these, it would appear that SV had a complete programme for the regeneration of India. In his speech in Ramnad (included in this volume), he clearly spelt out the dangers before his fellow-Indians:
There are two great obstacles on our path in India, the Scylla of old orthodoxy and the Charybdis of modern European civilisation. Of these two, I vote for the old orthodoxy, and not for the Europeanised system; for the old orthodox man may be ignorant, he may be crude, but he is a man, he has a faith, he has strength, he stands on his own feet; while the Europeanised man has no backbone, he is a mass of heterogeneous ideas picked up at random from every source — and these ideas are unassimilated, undigested, unharmonised. He does not stand on his own feet, and his head is turning round and round. (Complete Works 3: 151)
Indeed, if SV had not died young, he may have come into more direct conflict with the British authorities. In a personal conversation on 16th November 2003, Swami Prabhananda, the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, said that there is sufficient evidence to show that he was under surveillance of the British for several years. His aim of decolonising India would have met with severe repression from the British authorities. Even a century later, however, the great task of freeing Indian minds from a subservience to the West has, however, not yet been fully affected.
As the authors of his Life summarize, SV’s agenda for India consisted of the following:
(1) the need to raise the masses, give them opportunities for all-round development ‘without injuring their religion’; (2) the need to remove untouchability; (3) the need for the well-to-do to assist the suffering millions; (4) the need to give women opportunities for proper education and self-improvement; (5) the need for the universal spread of the right kind of education; (6) the need to cultivate the material sciences; (7) the need for technological and industrial development; and, above all, (8) the need to give freedom to society for its onward movement.” (Vol. 1: 530-531)
Such a comprehensive programme articulated so clearly and consistently, was SV’s long-lasting contribution to the building of modern India. Before Gandhi, it was SV who integrally combined personal spiritual practice with a larger social responsibility, drawing the middle classes into the larger national struggle.
What made his “neo-Hinduism” special was SV’s insistence on making social service the vehicle of modernization. As Basu observes:
In the absence of social and economic justice, the only way of exhibiting the attributes of a rational society is through social service for the uplift of the underprivileged. ….[I]n a society under domination economic liberation can only come about through a form of rigorous social service, which he sought to advocate as the ultimate spiritual act. Rather than segregating the ancient society from the rest of the world, SV’s nationalism sought to ensure that a form of the Enlightenment was ushered in through the modern use of the Hindu religion which could enter into a dialogue with Western rationalism. (201).
According to her, this is what distinguishes SV’s dialogic Hinduism from “Brahmo scholasticism” and the “pastoralism of the revivalists” (196).
When we observe the various responses to imperialism and modernity, we see in SV a unique trajectory that neither rejects modernity nor accepts imperial domination. Unlike M. K. Gandhi, whose rejection of modern civilization may be considered “romantic,” or Jawaharlal Nehru’s scientific-secularist acceptance of it, SV shows a qualified acceptance of modernity along with a rejection of both materialism and imperialism. In this, the person who follows him closest is Sri Aurobindo. It was SV who first tried to synthesise the yogas in modern times; his treatises on Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga, were the early attempts in this direction. Aurobindo built on these in his own work, The Synthesis of Yoga where he refers to SV (6). Aurobindo, in turn, acknowledged the influence of SV on him, admitting that SV had “visited” him during Aurobindo’s incarceration in the Alipur jail.
That there was something quite unique in SV is attested to even by people who met him for just a few minutes. For example, Vivienne Baumfield shows the influence of SV on Sir Jamsetji Tata, the doyen of Indian industry and the founder of the Tata group. SV met Tata on a ship and asked the latter to help create men devoted to the sciences both “natural and humanistic” (207). Jamsetji, who acknowledged SV’s inspiration, went on to found the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. According to Baumfield, the phrase “Science and Sanskrit” encapsulates SV’s desire to bring together “the best aspects of both the traditional Hindu and Western systems of education” (194). SV’s scientific thought has received much attention at the hands of authors like Swami Jitatmananda, who has argued that SV anticipates some of the insights of Quantum Mechanics and New Physics.
One of the reasons that SV continues to appeal to so many diverse kinds of people is because he was so radical and unconventional. In his letter of Nov 1 1896 to Mary Hale, for example, he said, “I am a socialist not because I think it is a perfect system, but half a loaf is better than no bread. The other systems have been tried and found wanting. Let this one be tried” (Complete Works 6: 381). Some have used such statements to invent a new category of thought called “Vedantic Socialism,” attributing it to SV. Indeed, there have been several attempts, many of them serious and at considerable length, to argue that SV was a socialist (see for example, Biswas, Das Gupta, and Rao in Works Cited). The latest of these efforts is the booklet SV’s Message, edited by A. B. Bardhan, a veteran of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who claims to rescue Swamiji from fundamentalists and right-wing Hindus (see Roy 9).
SV’s social thought, gleaned from his numerous writings, has been the subject of considerable interest. For instance, in the aforementioned letter of Nov 1 1896 he outlines his theory of what Sri Aurobindo later so eloquently called The Human Cycle. SV speaks of the progressive shift in the rulers of the world, from the initial Brahmin phase to the now incumbent (some would say prevalent) Shudra period. Ideas such as these were later developed more extensively by P. C. Sarkar (Sri Anandamurti) in his notion of the Progressive Utilization Theory (Inayatullah 3-4).
I would even argue that SV was perhaps India’s first global citizen. No doubt, there were others such as Raja Rammohun Roy before him who had a similar breadth of outlook and cosmopolitan tendencies; indeed, Rammohun lived the last months of his life in England. But no one before him had lived and travelled so extensively in the West, especially in the United States. SV was thus bi-cultural in a very contemporary way—he could live with equal ease in two cultures and three continents. He is thus a crossover figure, much ahead of his times, but a precursor to many others who followed his tracks later.
Mary Louise Burke’s meticulous and exhaustive account of his travels in the West give us a picture of man who was both worldly and deeply spiritual in a complex way. For instance, during his stay at Ridgely Manor, he tried to play golf and greatly enjoyed chocolate ice cream (Burke IV: 120-127). Generally, he ate well, even smoked and drank, but always maintained his two vows of poverty and chastity. This is illustrated in Deussen’s account as SV’s “room mate” during their travels from Bremen to London in September 1896. “You seem to be a queer sort of saint,” Deussen said to him, “You eat well, you drink well, you smoke all day, and you deprive yourself of nothing.” He replied in Sanskrit: “I observe my vows.” “And what consists of your vows?” “They require me simply Kama Kanchana Viraha, to renounce sex and gold” (Burke IV: 283-288). Some critics have used such accounts to offer exaggerated accounts of SV’s inner and outer conflicts. Notably, Sil describes SV’s life as “the striving of an ambitious, idealistic, impulsive, and imaginative militant monk who envisioned, rather naively, a global spiritualization in the manner of a Napoleonic conquest” (25). In his attempt to demystify SV, he goes to the other extreme of considering his life’s mission a failure:
In the end his fantastic vision of Hindu India bearing the beacon of spiritual light to the world never materialized. The impossibility and impracticability of such a monumental undertaking finds a pathetic expression in his final confession of failure at the end of his diseased, tumultuous and troubled life…. (25-26)
He concludes that SV far from being “the herald of a brave new world of spiritual humanism” was actually “a tragic figure whose brief but tumultuous public life was spent contending with multiple tensions and conflicts….” (181).
Despite such attempts to “historicise” and debunk SV, his enormous power and dynamism have continued to inspire generations of Indians and Westerners. Apart from the Math and Mission that he founded, several other organizations and institutions have been set up in his name, supposedly to promote the causes that he stood for. Of these, one of the most remarkable is the aforementioned Vivekananda Kendra at Kannyakumari founded by Eknath Ranade. Whether or not SV swam to the rock on which Ranade built the impressive Memorial, the story of the latter’s construction is remarkable. The idea of a memorial was mooted in 1963 by the SV Rock Memorial Committee in celebration of SV’s 100th birth anniversary. Ranade joined the Committee as its Organizing Secretary. With untiring zeal and persistence, he secured the permission from the state and central governments, raising money through small donations of common people. Inaugurated in 1970, the Memorial has an adjoining campus of about 100 acres. Ranade also had in mind the building of a Vivekananda Kendra International, but died on the 22nd August 1982. Now, S. Gurumurthy and others are trying to fulfil his dream. While Ranade’s example may be exceptional, it is not unusual. All over India, there are schools, colleges, hospitals, roads, and residential colonies named after SV. In face of such overwhelming popularity and capacity to inspire, the notion that he ended his “career on a note of despondency and defeat…” and that “He ended his life not in delusion … but in disillusionment” (Sil 177) is hard to believe or sustain. All in all, an assessment such as Amiya Sen’s seems more balanced and plausible: “instead of typifying SV either as an ascetic or activist, reformer or conservative, patriot or prophet, it would be more reasonable to accept that he was perhaps all of these” (Sen 98).
It is reliably learnt, particularly from verifiable oral testimony, that after his great success in India, SV was under surveillance by British authorities. Had his work of nation building continued along certain lines, there is no doubt that the colonial government would have tried to check or arrest him. Though his ideas were about India’s spiritual resurgence, they pointed to, indeed required, its political independence too. In that sense, he was truly one of the founders of Indian nationalism. In a broader sense, the “work” that he embarked upon had many strands inextricably interwoven together; to separate, say, the political from the spiritual is thus not entirely feasible.
Fulfilling his own prophecy, SV gave up his body before he reached the age of forty. The (ongoing) story of the imagining of modern India, of which he was a key agent, is one of the most fascinating narratives in the history of humanity. The life and works of Swami SV are central to this story and those who wish to understand it. But a man like SV belongs not only to India but also to the whole world. As he himself proclaimed, “I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God”(Complete Works 5: 414). More than 100 years later that promise continues to be kept.
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