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  Books   03 Sep 2023  Vivekananda’s Hinduism valued human agency, rejected doxa

Vivekananda’s Hinduism valued human agency, rejected doxa

Published : Sep 3, 2023, 9:13 am IST
Updated : Sep 3, 2023, 9:13 am IST

Vivekananda was outspoken regarding his thoughts on notions of purity

A cigar-smoking monk, Vivekananda broke with stereotype. Well-versed in music and a polyglot, he was physically strong and good at various sports. (Image: DC)
 A cigar-smoking monk, Vivekananda broke with stereotype. Well-versed in music and a polyglot, he was physically strong and good at various sports. (Image: DC)

This is a meticulously researched book that underlines the necessity of recasting historical figures — and their thoughts and ideas — in the light of the knowledge available in contemporary times in order to gauge their relevance. Why should one read this book?  More importantly, why should Vivekananda’s life, times and philosophy be discussed today?

The answer to this would be that, given Vivekananda’s views on (organised) religion, cow slaughter, religion spawning violence, confusing myth with history, and so on, he presents a case for rationality within the domain of religion itself. His philosophy is as much a potent weapon against religious fundamentalism and Hindutva as it were as it was in its own time. And he remains a strong advocate of plurality and democracy in the India of today that has seen the de-intellectualisation and hijacking of religion for political ends in recent times.

A cigar-smoking monk, Vivekananda broke with stereotype. Well-versed in music and a polyglot, he was physically strong and good at various sports. He found instances in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata of the taking of meat by Rama and Krishna, and of Sita Devi vowing meat, rice and a thousand jars of wine to the river-goddess, Ganga. He himself was known to eat meat and serve mutton that he cooked himself, as well as advising Hindus to eat meat.

More than delivering a spiritual message at the parliament of religions in Chicago, what he considered his real mission was to seek help from America in the agricultural and industrial technology sectors so that India could make material progress.  Apart from this of course, his lifelong effort was to spread the teaching of the Vedanta (which he held to be more meaningful than the Vedas) and his belief in Advaita.

Vivekananda was outspoken regarding his thoughts on notions of purity, and the professed ideals as against the reality of caste discrimination drew his ire. He was equally blunt about what he thought of Hinduism’s treatment of women. He exhibited regard for Christ and Christianity and respected Buddha and Islam. What he believed in was a common humanity and he was completely indifferent to religious identity, focusing only on the divine in human beings irrespective of their faith. An example is his worshipping of the daughter of a Muslim boatman as Goddess Uma. As also his initiation of a Muslim into sanyas and conferring upon him the name Mohammadanand.

He could see mistakes of the past with clarity and critique Hinduism just as he would any other religious system. Spending extravagantly on rituals when so many were languishing in poverty seemed to him nothing less than blasphemy; this to him was not spirituality but lack of basic human empathy leading to moral decay.  He opined that the reason for the decline of spiritual values in our country was not foreign invasions but erosion of human values. Far from looking upon Hinduism as a monolithic structure that needed to be resurrected to its past glory, he wanted for the essence of Hinduism to be followed and thought that faith should be dynamic and borrow from other faiths all that is good. His appreciation of Emperor Akbar can be viewed in the light of this belief.  Also to be remembered is that Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda’s guru, practised both Christianity and Islam in his spiritual quest.

The fact that the RSS has taken Vivekananda up as its icon through an extremely and rather conveniently narrow reading of his life, thought and actions is rather ironic. So much of Vivekananda’s philosophy and beliefs go diametrically against what the Sangh idealogues profess. Golwalkar’s views on the place of the individual and individual agency, for instance, are not only polar opposites to our Constitution but also Vivekananda’s own beliefs in the freedom of the individual.

For Vivekananda, the ultimate goal of human expression was freedom, and he clearly sees social liberty and spiritual liberty as complementary to each other, as both being expressions of that same principle of freedom. His attitude towards the scriptures, holy men, and sacred sites of Hinduism, too, was informed by this principle. He considered them merely as means to achieve spiritual realisation, not ends in themselves. He wanted us to revisit our relationship with Hinduism, and other religions as well.

Similarly, his idea of a universal religion is premised on the philosophy of not simply toleration of different religions but the need for and celebration of religious diversity.

It is impossible to miss the strong egalitarian streak running through his writings. He strongly advocated gender equality, women’s education and suffrage and was an outspoken critic of discrimination against women on grounds of religion or tradition. He was quick to point out the spiritual vacuum that characterises secular spaces, wished us to overcome superstitions and be rational, and reflect on how our modernity should be different from that of the West. For him, there was no contradiction in being a devout believer and being deeply secular at the same time.

The book is divided into three parts — life, ideology, and historical context; Hinduism, the Sangh, and the West; Vivekananda’s philosophy.  The (mis)appropriation of Vivekananda by the Sangh and the way in which he has been utilised for political gains through selective and often misinterpreted attributions to his thought and philosophy can be offset by a reading of this book which, through extensive references to Vivekananda’s writings and speeches as well as accounts of his contemporaries, offers a clear picture of the celebrated monk, placing him in the context of his time and additionally, making him relevant to the present.  

This is a book that needs to be read closely and widely, especially in these troubled times.

The reviewer, Malati Mathur, was a professor of English. She is an award-winning translator who translates from and between Tamil, Hindi and English.

Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom
By Govind Krishnan
pp. 484; Rs 999

Tags: book review 2023, mahabharata, ramayana, swami vivekananda