Anything that moves

Role model: How Vivekananda laid the foundation for India’s politics of sectarianism

The power of the Swami’s words is a double-edged sword

The reality distortion field created by Narendra Modi is so strong it leaves journalists incapable of simple arithmetic. There’s no other explanation for why websites and newspapers recycled Modi’s contention that September 11, 2017, marked the 125th anniversary of the speech Swami Vivekananda delivered at the parliament of religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893, although subtracting 1893 from 2017 gives you 124.

Narendranath Datta, like his near-namesake who now serves as India’s Prime Minister, wasn’t a stickler for historical truth. Near the beginning of that famed Chicago address he said, “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions.”

The most ancient order of monks? Now, what would that be? There is no organisation of which Vivekananda could have been a member that would classify among the world’s oldest. The order of monks to which he belonged was the one he founded himself, the Ramakrishna Order. Given that he established it four years after Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, it would have been more accurate for him to greet the audience on behalf of the youngest order of monks in the world, one still in the womb.

He followed up one historical fallacy with a second, the idea of Hinduism as the mother of religions. There was no strong evidence for this in 1893, and the idea has been comprehensively discredited since. Yet the chorus of “We are the oldest”, and, “We were the first” has only grown louder. Some kind of prepotence is measured out in years, to paraphrase a Beatles’ line.

There are other ways in which the two Narendras resemble each other. Like the foreign visits of Modi, Vivekananda’s speeches in the United States and other lands, well received as they were, created a far bigger impact at home than abroad. Like Modi, Vivekananda was a charismatic orator. Like Modi, he was attentive to his image and enthusiastic about being photographed. Everywhere he went, whether to Madras or London, he spent time in photo studios, posing in a variety of stances and costumes. Every change of headgear and hairstyle, from turban to high cap, from long hair with a centre part to the close crop of a mendicant, was recorded by the camera. I doubt if there’s any other Indian from the 19th century for whom we have such a wealth of portraits.

An interesting contrast to Vivekananda’s attitude was Gandhi’s method of tackling cameras. While he was not averse to being photographed, Gandhi avoided the unnaturalness of the pose by refusing to look into the lens. It’s remarkable, considering how many pictures there are of Gandhi, how few have him looking straight at the viewer. In two astonishing frames captured during the second Round Table Conference in London in 1931, everybody in the crowded room, including BR Ambedkar, has followed the photographer’s order to look first one way and then the other, while Gandhi alone looks entirely uninterested in the archival record. Gandhi and Vivekananda are the two thinkers Modi quotes most consistently, and in this respect as in virtually every other, he is closer to Vivekananda than to his fellow-Gujarati.

The Second Round Table Conference.
The Second Round Table Conference.

Vivekananda’s views

I have not pointed to Vivekananda’s fondness for his portraits in order to denigrate him. His physical appearance, like Modi’s, was far more impressive than that of Gandhi, so a little vanity is understandable. Few who read Vivekananda’s compelling Collected Works can fail to be fascinated by his mind and personality. His essays and letters are packed with insight, vivid description, honest introspection, and acute intelligence. They reveal vulnerabilities and dramatise his struggles with personal and philosophical demons.

Bengali friends tell me he wrote even more skilfully in his mother tongue than he did in English, which is saying a lot. The institution he established, the Ramakrishna Mission, has stayed true to its goals and kept up its worthy work for over a century, although he could guide it for just four years before his premature death.

The power of Vivekananda’s words, however, is a double-edged sword. When his thoughts are misguided, they become that much more dangerous. His disturbing view of Indian history is illustrated by a letter he wrote to his benefactor Ajit Singh, the Raja of Khetri, the man who funded his trip to Chicago and advised him to wear the robe and turban that became such a sensation.

In Vivekananda’s view, “the Hindu nation” or “the Hindu race” suffered, “a thousand years of slavery and degradation”, “at the feet of foreign conquerors”, “savages from Central Asia”. The idea of the Middle Ages as an era of Hindu slavery is a central tenet of Hindutva, and ignores developments in architecture, mathematics, the arts and music in those centuries, not to mention the Bhakti movement that swept East and North India, and the many contributions Muslims made to the nation’s cultural wealth. BJP leaders harp constantly on the thousands years of slavery theme, and I wasn’t surprised it featured in Modi’s tribute.

What chance is there for a tolerant polity to emerge from such a relentlessly negative account of the encounter between Islam and religions of Indian origin?

In his Chicago speech, Vivekananda said, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.”

The assertion that Hinduism taught the world tolerance is as dubious as the one nominating it mother to all religions. As for the truth of all religions, Vivekananda replaced the old distinction between true and false with one drawn from secular ideas of evolution and progress in society, a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Just as societies could not be deemed true or false but could be labelled undeveloped or developed, Vivekananda’s hierarchy placed Advaita Vedanta at the peak. In his scheme, all belief systems were equal, but some were more equal than others.

Contribution to Hindutva

Although he didn’t commit gross excesses of Raving Loony Hindutva History in the manner of Dayanand Saraswati, he did disseminate the false view that Hinduism was at its root deeply scientific. Buoyed by a meeting with the spiritually-inclined engineering genius Nikola Tesla, he wrote,

“Mr Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy…In that case the Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations. I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of the Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect union with modern science, and the elucidation of the one will be followed by that of the other.”

Vivekananda claimed that Hinduism was the originary faith; that it was uniquely tolerant; that it led to a nation that was uniquely committed to peace; and that it was congruent with science. These are all demonstrably false claims. Add to it his opinion that rule by Muslim kings meant servility and slavery for Hindus, and it is fair to conclude he either engendered or added his influential voice to most of the bedrock beliefs of Hindutva today.

In his brief Chicago address, Vivekananda lamented the fact that “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth.” Paradoxically, he laid much of the ideological foundation for the politics of sectarianism and bigotry in modern India. It is peculiarly appropriate that his celebrated speech on tolerance would be the subject of a nationally televised tribute by the man who represents the most dangerous strain of intolerance in India today.

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