National heroes of India-stalwart political leaders or acclaimed writers are often made to engage in a competition of sorts nowadays by the party ruling at the Centre. Its proclivity is to make sectarian distinctions among national icons and to co-opt some of them into its ultra-rightist fold, often distorting the intellectual legacy of the figures co-opted. Thus, B R Ambedkar, the maker of our Constitution and the pioneer of the anti-casteist movement was recently made to grapple with the Father of the Nation, with the upshot that the former now stands taller, quite literally, than the latter. Likewise, the classic Bangla litterateur Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya has been found to be more ‘nationalistic’ than Rabindranath Tagore, who forfeited British knighthood in solidarity with his countrymen and composed our national anthem.
One of the most contestable co-options by the ruling party camp has been that of the spiritual leader and patriot Swami Vivekananda, who is being projected as the pioneer saint of the ideology of Hindu supremacy or ‘Hindutva’. As anyone moderately familiar with the life, writings, speeches and actions of Vivekananda would know, nothing can be more erroneous-and unjust-than this perception of his legacy. The broad humanism and the global religious amity that Vivekananda preached and strove for all his life were poles apart from the cold bigotry of ‘Hindutva’. Indeed, if the Hindutva brigade ever makes an effort to understand the true spirit of Vivekananda’s life and work it would recognise in him not a friend, but a foe. For, it was against all narrowness and fanaticism that Vivekananda’s religiosity positioned itself: it were the inclusiveness and tolerance inherent to Vedic Hinduism-as opposed to the sectarianism characteristic of ‘Hindutva’-that Vivekananda espoused and preached.
True, Vivekananda was the chief force behind the revival of Hinduism in the late nineteenth century and it was largely because of his efforts that Hinduism got global attention as a major world religion. But, we have to remember also that the religion the Swami spoke for was the ancient Vedic Hinduism-“a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”-and which, therefore, is a far cry from the narrow, dogma-ridden, Islamophobic set of structures called ‘Hindutva’. Vivekananda’s Hinduism, in fact, was vastly different even from our everyday ritualistic Hindu religion-with its numerous gods and goddesses, its casteist exclusions, and its petty superstitions. It was the pure essence of classic Hinduism-based on the philosophy of Vedanta-that Vivekananda championed. In his famous inaugural address to the World’s Parliament of Religions (September 11, 1893) he projected the Hindu religion as one based on the perception of oneness between the human self and the Absolute spirit of the universe or Brahma. Accordingly, he preached the equivalence of all religions as means to realise the inner divinity inherent to all men and women, and he preached service to mankind as the truest service to God. To convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, or to denigrate religions other than Hinduism were none of his aims. Rather, his objective, as he put it in his address at the final session of the ‘Parliament’ at Chicago was “to smooth the friction of religions” (Chicago, Sep 27, 1893).
What distinguishes Swami Vivekananda from many other religious-spiritual leaders of the world is his emphasis on service to humanity as a means both of human fulfilment and the uplift of the soul. The fervour with which he espoused this ideal, in fact, took him from pure spirituality to a throbbing empathy for the suffering, poverty-stricken masses of colonial India, leading ultimately to the founding of the ‘Ramakrishna Mission’. This Mission, as we know, is still among the foremost organisations in the country engaged in genuine humanitarian work.
From 1888 to 1893 Vivekananda travelled extensively throughout the country, making friends with kings and commoners alike, and observed with pained sensitivity the poverty, the illiteracy, the hopelessness amid which the multitudes lived. Thereafter, he took it upon himself to enthuse the youth of the country to work for the betterment of a lot of ordinary Indians. Even from abroad, from the USA and Europe, he constantly enjoined upon his brother monks to work for the education and material uplift of the common masses of the country, especially those in the villages. To him, this was the primary duty of those dedicated to Hinduism: the mere observance of fasts, worship and meditation-the rituals of religiosity-were of no value to him if this noble human duty was neglected.
It is because of his passion for the welfare of his suffering countrymen, and his zeal for the resurgence of national pride that Vivekananda came to be perceived as a stalwart leader of Indian nationalism at a time when India was in the throes of a racist, exploitative foreign dominion. Again, we need to note that his nationalistic fervour-which was impelled by a desire for India’s progress-was vastly different from the reactionary, Hindu-majoritarian ‘nationalism’ now reigning over the country. His kind of nationalism never made any sectarian distinctions among his countryfolk along the lines either of creed or of caste. Indeed, he can be viewed as the first Indian icon, ahead of Ambedkar, who came out strongly against the inequities of the Hindu caste system. He urged his fellow monks as well as the young people of the country to perceive Indians of all castes and creeds as kinsfolk and to work tirelessly for the betterment of their condition.
Today, as we mark the 156th birth anniversary of the learned philosopher monk with the spirit of an activist, we need to remember and seize upon his message of religious tolerance, social inclusion, and service to the needy. His intellectual and human legacies-his writings, his speeches, and his organisation-should bring home to us the crucial distinction between the inclusive, tolerant Hinduism he espoused and the dogmatic, hate-filled ‘Hindutva’ that now runs amok in the country. Only when we are clear on this distinction would we be immune to the pernicious influence of the religious fundamentalism that ‘Hindutva’ stands for; only then would we be able to resist the co-option of religion into petty politics. Today, when the world is under the dominion of an ascendant far-right that threatens to destroy the ethos of liberal democracy, we in India should revive our cultural heritage of inclusiveness and tolerance and show the world that we dare to be different. Swami Vivekananda’s legacy should be one chief locus of this revival of past glory-the glory of a tolerant, inclusive, diverse India. Let us exorcize the ghost of ‘Hindutva’ with the purifying winds of Vivekananda’s broad, humanistic Hinduism; let us arise from our stupor and stop not until the goal is reached.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.