Since the beginning of the year, three incidents at Belur Math, the headquarters of Ramakrishna Math and Mission, have triggered alarm among some of the followers and devotees of Ramakrishna. These are the visit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Belur Math on January 12, the decision to send sacred soil from the Math for the foundation laying ceremony of the Ayodhya Ram temple in August and a social media rumor in recent weeks that Kripakarananda Maharaj, a senior monk of the Math might join the Bharatiya Janata Party and be its face in the 2021 state election in Bengal.
Given the trajectory of events, it is increasingly getting difficult to ignore the Ramakrishna Mission’s claimed involvement with the BJP. Has the political party, bent on saffornising the nation, finally roped in the saffron-clad representatives of Bengal’s most respected spiritual organisation, in spite of the strict rules for the monks of the order to abstain from politics?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its associates, the BJP and the Akhil Bharaitya Vidyarthi Parishad, have repeatedly projected the Mission’s founder, Vivekananda, as their icon. So it seemed only a matter of time before the name of Vivekananda’s organisation popped up as a potential assist for the ruling party, which is set to face a tough fight in the Bengal election. With some supporters of the Ramakrishna Mission anxious about the speculation relating to the organisation’s involvement with the BJP, it is important to ask a fundamental question: would Vivekananda, the Mission’s founder, have approved of any such collaboration?
Nation and religion
There are two keywords common to both Hindutva discourse and Vivekananda’s philosophy – “nation” and “religion.” Indeed, in a lecture entitled “My Plan of Campaign,” delivered in Madras, Vivekananda claimed that he worked all his life “for the cause of my religion and to serve our motherland”. However, the connotations of the two words, nation and religion, are completely different in the way in which they are used by Vivekananda – who was born Narendranath Datta – and Narendra Modi.
When Modi and BJP spokespersons speak of the “nation”, they mean a “Hindu Rashtra”. To them, “religion” refers to “Hinduism.” The BJP wants to build a nation for the Hindus, of the Hindu, and by the Hindus.
As opposed to this ideology of Hindu nationalism, Vivekananda advocated a Vedantic approach to the nations and religions of the world – his approach could be described as internationalism and religious pluralism. The rejection of chauvinism by Vivekananda can be found, for instance, in a letter to his famous disciple from Madras, Alasinga Perumal, in September 1895.
“As for me, mind you, I stand at nobody’s dictation,” he wrote. “I know my mission in life, and no chauvinism about me; I belong as much to India as to the world, no humbug about that. I have helped you all I could. You must now help yourselves. What country has any special claim on me? Am I any nation’s slave?”
These words indicate that had Vivekananda been alive today, he would have refused to being coopted by the BJP whose politics is defined by aggressive patriotism.
Spirit of universalism
In this context, it is worth remembering that the ideology of the Mission, mentioned on its website, is based on Vivekananda’s international focus. Its universalism is embedded in the organisation’s motto: atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha – for the salvation of our individual self and for the well-being of all on earth. This verse derived from the Rig Veda refers to the fact that the Ramakrishna Mission is meant to be an international organisation, dedicated to the liberation of the individual and the welfare of the world at large and not just India. The BJP’s seeming attempt to appropriate the Mission as a nationalist organisation stands against the tenets on which the organisation has been founded.
Vivekananda’s notion of religious pluralism is another point of contrast with Hindutva politics. A verse that reverberates through the works of Vivekananda is “ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti” – “that which exists is One, sages call it by different names”. This shloka from the Upanishads seems to have become the cornerstone of his thought. It promotes the idea of Advaita, and implies that although individuals (atmans) are different externally, the presence of a shared universal consciousness (brahman) in each of them accounts for their sameness.
This is why differences among individuals are to be accepted and respected – because this difference alone is what defines their distinctness. But otherwise, all of them are identical, being part of the same brahman.
This rather metaphysical notion was expanded by Vivekananda to an altogether different level. He promoted not only an acceptance of diversity of individuals but also of religions and nations. Indeed, Vivekananda and his dream project, the Ramakrishna Mission, promote diversity and consider all religions, nations, and communities to be equally valuable – both because, metaphysically, they are all in search of the absolute truth of existence and because, socially, they are, in their own ways, serving the world.
Surely, Vivekananda would not have approved of the Hindu supremacy and Islamophobia promoted by BJP.
In fact, Vivekananda repeatedly discarded the term “Hindu.” The people who lived by the river Sindhu had only one creed which is why all of them, according to him, could be brought under the umbrella term “Hindu.” But they eventually increased in number and embraced various creeds, he said. Given the plurality of faiths in today’s India, the term “Hindu,” Vivekananda claimed, is outdated and misleading. He wanted to replace it with “Vedanta.”
In a lecture on “Vedantism,” he stated, “I… would not use the word Hindu. … The other words which alone we can use are either the Vaidikas, followers of the Vedas, or better still, the Vedantists, followers of the Vedanta.” In fact, he carefully avoided including the name of his country or the term “Hindu” in the names of organisations he had set up. Only a blind follower of the BJP would believe that Vivekananda would have promoted Hindutva politics.
Hindutva politics is completely opposed to the ideals of Swami Vivekananda and the ideology of Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Instead of serving humanity as a whole and accepting diversity that Vivekananda had stood for, Hindutva ideologues are strongly bent on promoting Hindu supremacy, militant nationalism, and suppressing the plurality of voices.
The Vivekananda I admire would never have recommended a Hindutva force that, in the name of protection of the cow, murders Dalits, Muslims and intellectuals. He would never have agreed to be the face of a political party that proves its patriotism by demolishing the Babri mosque or rioting in Gujarat and Delhi. If the Ramakrishna Mission ever collaborates with the BJP, it would be turning the ideals of Vivekananda and the ideology of his organisation upside down. Vivekananda would never have approved.
Mahitosh Mandal is Assistant Professor of English at Presidency University, Kolkata. His email address is email@example.com.