On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled the message of love and brotherhood that social reformer Vivekananda delivered at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Addressing a students’ convention in Delhi to mark the 125th anniversary of Vivekananda’s address, Modi said: “With just a few words, a youngster from India won over the world and showed the world the power of oneness.”

Polemical readings of Vivekananda either glorify or reject him. But it is perhaps more fruitful to read Vivekananda as someone who does not represent any specific ideological tendency, as a more contradictory and open figure among the diverse tribe of modern reformist Hindus.

On tolerance and refugees

Vivekananda delivered a five-part series of lectures in Chicago, the first of which was delivered on September 11. In this lecture, he equated pride with ethics. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance,” he said.

Compare this statement to the reaction in India in 2015 when writers and artists returned their state awards to protest against the growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country that had led to the murders of minorities and individuals opposed to Hindutva. The majoritarian reaction was full of ridicule. It was as if intolerance was the only mode of expression to force everyone into accepting that India is a tolerant country.

At the same venue on September 19, speaking of an ideal religion Vivekananda said: “It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise divinity in every man and woman [emphasis added].” Here is a firm endorsement of non-persecution in political rule.

In a lecture delivered at Ridgeway Gardens, England, possibly in September, 1896, Vivekananda demonstrated the cultural spirit of Hindus. He said: “The shrine of a Mohammedan saint, which is at the present day neglected and forgotten by Mohammedans, is worshipped by Hindus! Many instances may be quoted, illustrating the same spirit of tolerance.”

The differences between Islam and the heterogeneous forms of Hinduism never deterred a culture of shared reverence. Such gestures of generosity should make votaries of Hindu culture question the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 on grounds that it was built on what Hindus believe to be the birthplace of the deity Ram.

Vivekananda made another significant point. “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true [emphasis added],” he said. To accept all religions as true is not just a moral obligation, a matter of injunction, but an ethical obligation, a matter of sensibility. Toleration as a universal value is not enough to bridge the gap between people of different faiths. One accepts the legitimacy of another’s faith as much as one’s own. It is spiritual egalitarianism, where the ethical exceeds the epistemological.

At the Chicago conference, Vivekananda gave a striking reason for national pride. “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations [emphasis added],” he said. Offering examples, he spoke of how India sheltered “the purest remnant of the Israelites…which came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny”. He reiterated his pride in belonging “to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation”. Isn’t such a historical and ethical responsibility enough for India to offer refuge to the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar, and those driven out of Bangladesh?

Modi also tweeted on Monday that Vivekananda spoke of “the concept of ‘One Asia’” Can we achieve an Asian ideal by dividing refugees, and weighing persecution, along religious lines?

The Hindu in the well

In Vivekananda’s second lecture in Chicago on September 15, he narrated the popular tale of the sea frog and the well frog to illustrate a point made by the speaker before him on why people of different faiths should “cease from abusing each other”. Vivekananda then gave his own reason behind why such abusive tendencies persist in people of different faiths, against each other. “I am a Hindu,” he said. “I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world.”

By threatening left-liberal students, writers and activists, Hindutva nationalism in India is digging its own little well, where acceptance has been replaced by abuse.

There is a lot in Vivekananda to disagree with, but we need to make sense of his marked contradictions. Even though he held that caste was initially a “glorious social institution” that “should not go; but…only be readjusted”, Vivekananda fiercely attacked “caste-ridden…educated Hindus” whose “God is the kitchen” and “the cooking-pots”. Today’s nationalism, which pokes its nose into people’s kitchens and cooking-pots, would have earned Vivekananda’s scorn.

Octavio Paz in his book, In The Light of India, wrote how reformers like Vivekananda, critiquing Christian missionaries, ironically Christianised Hinduism. The deeper point is that any religious reform – by a Kabir, Gandhi or Vivekananda – is impossible without elements from other faiths.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.