In a recent essay (Why Vivekananda would have opposed any Ramakrishna Mission collaboration with the BJP), Mahitosh Mandal points out how the Ramakrishna Math and Mission appears to be indulging in a dangerous alliance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, not least as the latter ramps up its efforts in advance of the 2021 West Bengal state election.

While acknowledging that the founder of the Mission, Swami Vivekananda, has for some time been co-opted by associations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Mandal is concerned to emphasise that any attempt to posit conformity between the Swami’s philosophy and the ideology of the BJP runs the risk of distorting core tenets of Vivekananda’s teaching. Above all, Mandal wishes to rescue Vivekananda’s “Vedantic approach” from any association with the chauvinist ethno-nationalism characteristic of Hindutva and its proponents.

The effort is worth making, not only to draw attention to the kinds of selective and opportunistic strategies employed by the BJP in promoting a Hindu rashtra, but also to raise alarms about the slippery slope down which present-day religious sampradays and other organisations like the Ramakrishna Mission may be led if they begin to promote their own interests by engaging in such symbolic trade-offs. As a pressing example, Mandal reminds us that the monks of Belur Math recently chose to send soil from their headquarters to be used in the foundation ceremony for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Would Vivekananda have supported such a decision?

Mandal reminds readers that without a doubt Vivekananda deployed the language of nation and religion in order to advance his case for Vedantic awareness and Indian pride. But Mandal also reminds us that Vivekananda did so while simultaneously reserving the right to speak in his own voice; he spoke for himself, nor for India. And he addressed the world. For these reasons, Mandal stresses that Vivekananda escaped the pitfalls of chauvinism and jingoism. Mandal insists Vivekananda’s “internationalism” bears remembering.

Additional reflection

I welcome Mandal’s argument but fear it rests upon premises that require additional reflection. Two ideas in particular bear further scrutiny. One is the idea that Vivekananda’s pluralist vision necessarily – and only – operated as a force for inclusion. The other is the idea that in the 21st century it still makes sense to rest arguments about the proper course for Indian social, political, and religious change on claims about the life and work of particular individuals, no matter how great their accomplishments.

I have been thinking of the latter question a great deal this year, as India celebrates the 200th birth anniversary of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar on September 26, a mighty social reformer and in some respects an intellectual and moral precursor to Vivekananda – who once claimed there wasn’t a North Indian of his generation on whom Vidyasagar’s shadow had not fallen. But no less than Vivekananda, Vidyasagar was a complex, thorny, and even conflicted individual. Celebrating his life in 2020 requires thinking through the “mass of contradictions” that made up the man, to borrow the observation of his contemporary Mahendralal Sarkar.

Which Vidyasagar is the one upon whose shoulders one would wish to rest the burden of carrying India forward at this juncture? The Brahmin proponent of Sanskritised Bangla? The high-caste male “saviour” of the “helpless” Indian woman? The cantankerous and solitary worker who saw only futility in the early attempts of his younger peers to form political organisations? Okay, enough. My point is not to cast aspersions on a figure whose contributions were enormous and whose shadow has truly been cast over modern Indian life.

Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions in September 1893.

Abandoning deference

My goal is rather to suggest that more than simply looking at such a figure in his historical context as a way to explain away his failings, we need to abandon the deferential posture of guru-vaad. After all, Vidyasagar himself once justified his criticisms of a respected pundit by quoting the Sanskrit adage, dosha vacya guror api. But beyond looking for faults, we need to interrogate the lives of individuals like Vidyasagar – and Vivekenanda – for what they reveal about the structures and patterns out of which our present has taken shape.

As great and memorable figures, they surely crystallise elements of their historical moment. But as crystals they can also be examined for the way energy passes through them, refracting and changing hue along the way. Where does India stand in respect to gender equality or the eradication of caste-based discrimination? Vidyasagar can help us open up these questions, but his example won’t clarify or resolve them. In some ways, for all his commitment to the projects of reform, he only helped perpetuate such dilemmas.

When thinking of Vivekananda, one needs to look at the very inclusivism and pluralism praised by Mandal and ask how it, too, helped propagate and enshrine some of the central elements within a wide range of Hindutva platforms. His inclusivism, as I attempted to argue long ago in Eclecticism and Modern Hindu Reform (OUP, 1999) had a shadow side. To see this, we might examine a metaphor applied to the Swami by his official biographers, for whom he not only represented India at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, but was himself a Parliament of Religions. Who better to represent India’s religious diversity?

‘Apotheosis at the Midway’

But wait. Vivekananda was not a Parliament, he was one man, and a strikingly powerful one at that, who skillfully deployed the Orientalist trope of the Indian wise man to gain a hearing in the West. Indeed, his status as Swami gave him an almost undemocratic enunciative power. His admirers in America may have also viewed him as an “apotheosis of the Midway” at Chicago (as Clara Burnham put it), but he knew the power of his own voice. When he defined Vedanta as the essence of Hinduism, it may have been in the name of inter-religious understanding, but it also effectively put other religions in their place.

Only pause and consider the image of a Parliament that dresses and speaks like a Hindu sadhu. One need hardly ask where that might lead. The way out of this dilemma is not to claim, as Mandal does, that Vivekananda would have had nothing to do with the BJP. Not only is that a claim we cannot prove, it risks looking away from the ways Vivekananda’s message and the Mission he founded were all intrinsically bound up with claims about the superiority of Hinduism, its generous embrace of other faiths, and its promise of security for all those who sheltered under its aegis.

That the monks at Belur chose to send soil to Ayodhya merely confirms one potential thread within such thinking. As such, it is safe to say many of Vivekananda’s claims have come to fruition – even if in more dangerous form – within the contemporary discourse of Hindutva. It is not enough to try to shield his memory from the politics of the present. To do so is to risk seeing those same patterns persist into the future.

Brian A Hatcher is Professor and Packard Chair of Theology in the Department of Religion at Tufts University, USA; his latest book is Hinduism Before Reform (Harvard, 2020).