Today India is celebrating the 155th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. Even after a century, his thoughts continue to inspire youngsters all over the world. This is the right time to take a look at Vivekananda's thoughts when religion, caste and nationalism are debated vociferously.
Swami Vivekananda's 'political view'- this proposition is in itself perplexing. Though he did not identify with a particular ideology, his views seem to have ideological manifestations though. Hence, his views pave way for numerous interpretations. Vivekananda, as a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhansa, was interested in realization of God; nevertheless, he did not confine himself to only spiritual life. He used his profound spiritual knowledge to infuse pride amongst fellow Indians feeling inferiority against the modern outlook western science and ideologies.
His first such attempt was the speech on Hinduism he gave at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, USA. As an Indian representative, he did not just spoke on the superiority of Hinduism, but also on its universalism. Also, in the same conference, he maintained that each religion should 'assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his 'individuality' and grow according to his own law of growth' (C.W.S.V., Vol.I, 1992: p.6).
Vivekananda's elucidations of Vedantic ideals many times emphasize secular thoughts. By the last quarter of 19th century, Islam and Christianity have had significant inroads in Indian social life. Furthermore, it was essential given the fact that India was not an exclusive mono-cultural land. Hence, he stated, "Wherever it is evil and wherever there are ignorance and want of knowledge, I have found out from experience that all evil comes, as our scriptures say, relying upon differences, and that all good comes from faith inequality, in the underlying sameness and oneness of things. This is the great Vedantic ideal" (C.W.S.V, Vol. III, 1992: p.193-94).
His understanding of 'Religion' is not the present day right-wing, conservative communal Hinduism which forms the basis for so-called Hindu nationalism. For him, religion is all encompassing thought. He discovered that 'all of religion is contained in the three phases of the Vedanta philosophy' (CWSV., Vol. V, 1992: p.82).
He applied the three phases of growth of philosophy- Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita and Advaita to not only sects and religions emerged in India but also Christianity and Islam, western and Semitic religions, respectively. Thus, these religions were brought in into the fold of Vedantic philosophy. He says, "The first stage, i.e. Dvaita, applied to the ideas of the ethnic groups of Europe, is Christianity; as applied to the Semitic groups Mohohannnedanism. The Advaita as applied in its Yoga-perception form is Buddhism etc. Now by religion is meant the Vedanta, the applications must vary according to the different needs.......other circumstances of different nations." (Ibid. p.82)
Swami Vivekananda's pragmatic vision for the country divided over diverse religions comes to the fore when he says, "For our motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam-Vedanta brain and Islam body is the only hope" (C.W.S.V., Vol. VI 1992, p.415-16), a vision which was relevant in the past and still holds significance at present.
His plethora of social and cultural views-with a spiritual base- in India surely makes one sceptical about his place in the frame of the political spectrum. Vivekananda after travelling all around the country felt pity about a socially degenerated state of the country. He criticized the Hindu orthodoxy tooth and nail. We are orthodox Hindus, but we refuse to identify ourselves with 'Don't-touchism'. That is not Hinduism: it is in none of our books; it is an unorthodox superstition which has interfered with national efficiency all along the line. (C.W.S.V.,Vol.V, 1992, p.226).
In fact, he had to face two challenges of that time: Firstly, the degenerated social conditions and secondly, the political rule of the British. His contemporaries have had adopted either rationalism or nationalistic ideas. Yet, he did not have any formal connection with nationalist or political movements (Thomas 1969, p. 14). However, foreign scholars find the influence of western ideologies in Vivekananda's thoughts. Swami Vivekananda falls into the category of 'real politic liberalism' (Harilela 1996: 272). Harilela has based his argument on the then political condition of British India.
He underestimated the political efficiency of the Indians against the British imperialism. He opines that British Imperialism was the most imposing, encompassing and centralized power that India had witnessed; opposition to it would need to be structured, systemic and unified. Furthermore, he added that India did not understand the power and practical efficacy of a political ideology as a weapon, not having had an experience of it and was not clear about how to create one.
He concludes that 'liberalism' was the logical, ideological recourse for Indians fighting against the British rule. However, some of its [liberalism] aspects were alien or unsuited to India, and hence the desperate struggle to Indianize it (Harilela, 1996: 272). But, what he didn't appreciate is the pragmatism of Swami Vivekananda for the successful interpretation of rationalism, nationalism hidden in Vedanta and his forthrightness in combining of Vedanta knowledge with western thought.
In addition, Vivekananda has had an appreciation for the humane aspect of Socialism. "I am a socialist not because I think it is a perfect system, but a half a loaf is better than no bread." (C.W.S.V., Vol. VI 1992: p.380-82).
Yet, he adhered to the view that "However, I believe that to classify Vivekananda's humanism and thought as socialism' is a grave misinterpretation and it will be my intention to argue against it; if it indeed needs to be categorized, it should be liberal'" (1996:274).
On the other hand, other argument shows that Vivekananda's nationalism was based on Vedic spiritualism, nevertheless he is a patriot (Thomas, 1969, p.14-15). But, Vivekananda knew that India was not a 'nation' because he felt that had India been a nation she would not have been invaded by a 'handful of foreigners'.
The historians of Hindu renaissance generally agree that Vivekananda was the first to introduce self-consciousness into Hinduism. The modern Hindu Renaissance becomes self-conscious and adolescent (Ibid 1969, p. 17; D. S. Sarma).
The lessons of Vedanta and the Bhagavad-Gita as he taught permeated the lives and activities of many a nationalist and thus Indian nationalism took a definite Hindu character to the dismay of some nationalists who wanted to keep religious revival and nationalism separate (Ibid.1969, p. 14-15).
We could say that Swami Vivekananda excluded himself from political movements of the time but had considerable influence on national sentiments. It is a formidable task to fix him any one ideology since he neither denounce socialism outrightly nor adhered to the superiority of Hinduism over other religions. But, he was a patriot intended to ignite the Indian consciousness was his priority. Hence, his plethoras of views allow political parties appropriate him according to their convenience.
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