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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.