A global guru

Vivekananda defies all those who seek to define him based on their own narrow understandings and agendas.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni | Published:March 31, 2013 2:44 am

Something unbelievable happened in Kerala earlier this month. Top leaders of the Congress,CPM and BJP came together at a function in Thiruvananthapuram for the release of the book Swami Vivekananda and Prabuddha (Enlightened) Keralam,edited by P Parameswaran,a widely respected RSS ideologue. Sharing the dais with him were Congress leader and the state’s culture minister K C Joseph (“Kerala is getting more and more communalised and Swamiji’s message is more relevant today”),former chief minister and Kerala’s tallest CPM leader V S Achuthanandan (“Vivekananda was the first socialist of India”),and BJP stalwart O Rajagopal.

At a time when public discourse on just about any issue in India descends into a venomous verbal war between political opponents,such convergence of divergent ideologies certainly evokes hope that sanity hasn’t altogether vanished from this ancient land of ours,which always celebrated the virtue of dialogue to reduce discord. But then,only the most intellectually perverse and prejudiced can see Swami Vivekananda as a polarising figure. Swamiji,whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year,is one of those towering men of thought and action in modern Indian history who appeals to people across caste,creedal and ideological affiliations. Such is the sweep,depth and insistent inclusiveness of his philosophy that it unites not only the Indian society across its diversities,but also the entire human race across its still wider diversities.

Vivekananda defies all those who seek to define him based on their own narrow understandings and agendas. True,he was a Hindu revivalist. And what’s wrong in being a Hindu,Muslim or Christian revivalist,if by that is meant a sincere attempt to revive the best of Hinduism,Islam or Christianity? But was he a Hindu supremacist? Was his idea of India limited to Hinduism? No. An avid champion of secularism (understood as equal respect for all faiths),he extolled the greatness of Buddha,Jesus and Prophet Mohammed in words that came from the depths of his heart. In calling for Hindu-Muslim amity,he went to the extent of saying,“For our own motherland,a junction of the two great systems,Hinduism and Islam,is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife,glorious and invincible,with a Vedanta brain and Islam body.”

Vivekananda remains a thorn in the flesh of both those upper-caste Hindus who cling to the notions of caste superiority and also those anti-Hindu forces who have mounted a vicious,foreign-funded,proselytisation campaign to denigrate Hinduism as a legitimiser of caste-based injustice. This is because he was a social revolutionary who launched an assault on the evils of untouchability and caste inequality with a thunderous fury that made orthodox Hindus tremble. However,in doing so,he proudly invoked Hinduism’s own universally applicable canons of human equality and brotherhood,which populate the Vedas,Upanishads and other texts.

Vivekananda attacked two other ills in Hindu society which rattled its status quoists. He was scathing in his criticism of the social apathy of the rich towards the poor and of the injustice meted out to women. “In India,” he declared,“there are two great evils—trampling on women and grinding of the poor…There is no hope for the rise of that family or nation where there is no estimation of women or where they live in sadness.”

As a monk,Vivekananda’s spiritualism showed the deepest hue of saffron,the colour of renunciation and sacrifice. But few spiritualists have been as modern in outlook,and as strongly wedded to the spirit of science and technology as he was. He lauded Jamshedji Tata’s plan to set up a steel plant. He encouraged Tata to establish the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. He influenced many scientists,including Nicola Tesla,one of the greatest inventors of all time.Never one to walk the beaten path,he once advised a youth,“You’ll be nearer to God playing football than studying the Bhagavad Gita.”

In a life of only 39 years (1863-1902),this young warrior lit the flame of national pride and reawakening in India,which continues to enlighten and inspire people even today. But he was as much of an internationalist as a nationalist,a quality that is common to all the sages of humanity,ancient as well as modern.

Sadly,leaders of the Congress and UPA haven’t done much to raise the celebration of Swamiji’s 150th birth anniversary to a befitting level. As a result,Official India is reneging on its responsibility to honour a charismatic spiritual revolutionary,whose life and teachings can inspire idealistic youth around the world,transcending their racial,religious and ideological differences. In a small but significant way,Kerala has shown that it’s possible for people from diverse political backgrounds to come together on a common Vivekananda platform. At a time when India needs to unite its badly divided strengths,shouldn’t the Union and all state governments be doing this on a much wider scale,by organising big and small events in every corner of the country?

Also,since Vivekananda’s universalist message can do much to boost India’s soft power,what are Indian embassies and consulates around the world doing to propagate it? And shouldn’t either President Pranab Mukherjee or Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh be sharing the dais with US President Barack Obama in a grand commemorative event in America this year,jointly reiterating this Global Guru’s stirring call for inter-faith harmony,which he had given at the historic World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893?

(sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com)

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