Thursday, December 27, 2012

Vivekananda: Essence and Significance


Dr. Anirban Ganguly 
(Associate Fellow, VIF)

In a few days time Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary celebrations shall be launched all over the country. Behind the grandeur and colour of every commemorative celebration lies the deeper truth of the significance of the personality or the event. At times, amidst the clash of cymbals, the sound of trumpets, marches and speeches the essential symbolism of the occasion or the personality gets submerged, while it may not be the case on this occasion, the event nevertheless offers an opportunity to delve into the essence of Vivekananda’s life and action and to internalize its essential significance and message. The essence of such commemorations then must necessarily lie in that collective internalization.

At a time when cynicism gains periodic ascendancy and faith in the sublime receives repeated jolts, it is instructive to see that Vivekananda’s mission, against great prevailing odds, was that of ‘Man-making’ – it was ‘his own stern brief summary of the work that was worth doing.’ And in the span of a short and action packed life he did just that, ‘laboriously, unflaggingly, day after day…playing the part of Guru, of father, even of schoolmaster, by turns.’

In his renunciation – as the ‘archetype of the Sannyasin’ – Vivekananda exuded a cardinal difference from the norm. His renunciation had a dynamic dimension to it. While he often exclaimed, burning with renunciation, ‘Let me die a true Sannyasin as my Master did,’ he seemed to have equally embodied the spirit of the ‘ideal householder’ – ‘full of the yearning to protect and save, eager to learn and teach the use of materials, reaching out towards the reorganization and re-ordering of life.’ In his dynamic Sannyasa Vivekananda displayed an eagerness to ‘see the practicability of modern science developed among his own people’ with the ‘object of giving [them] a new and more direct habit of thought.’ Such eagerness, when communicated to some of the leading men of action of the day did have the desired catalyzing effect. Jamshedji Tata (1839-1904), for example, recalled the Swami’s suggestions given to him while on a journey to the West and, inspired, wrote back to him with a new vision of scientific research in India, asking the ‘cyclonic-monk’ to lead the movement:

I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels.


I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read. It seems to me that no better use can be made of the ascetic spirit than the establishment of monasteries or residential halls for men dominated by this spirit, where they should live with ordinary decency, and devote their lives to the cultivation of sciences – natural and humanistic… (23rd November, 1898)
Living at a time ‘when men were abandoning the old’ and unquestioningly turning their minds away from their civilisational fundamentals, Vivekananda, while being fearless of the new’, continued to remain an ‘ardent worshipper of the old.’ For him, it was the nation’s ‘own life, proper to her own background’ that would eventually act as the fountain of regeneration. ‘India must find herself in Asia, not in shoddy Europe’. She would find life in her ‘own life…not in imitation.’ It was from ‘her own proper past and environment that she would draw inspiration.’ While it was true that the ‘future would not be like the past, yet it could be only firmly established in a profound and living reverence for that past.’

Such a conviction led Vivekananda to ‘persistently, pertinaciously’ try and discover ‘the essentials of national consciousness.’ And in this quest of his, no ‘smallest anecdote, no trifling detail of person or custom, ever came amiss to his intellectual net’, he was certain that a ‘still greater future’ had to be ‘built upon the mighty past.’ The meaning of his Sannyasa then was to ‘reassert that which was India’s essential self, and leave the great stream of the national life, strong in a fresh self-confidence and vigour, to find its own way to the ocean.’

Faith and invincibility were the other keynotes of his life. When the Indian intellect stood subjugated, when her traditions stood denigrated and a sense of weakness and confusion overshadowed the national psyche, here was a man ‘who never dreamt of failure. Here was a man who spoke of naught but strength.’ To many a close observer he seemed ‘supremely free from sentimentality, supremely defiant of all authority’ refusing to ‘meet any foreigner save as the master’. To an ‘Englishman who knew him well’ the Swami’s ‘great genius’ lay ‘in his dignity’, it was ‘nothing short of royal.’ In an age when the prevailing perception of India was that of a perpetual receiver of Western enlightenment, the Swami was firm in his conviction that ‘the East must come to the West, not as a sycophant, not as a servant, but as Guru and teacher.’ His cry was always unsettling to conformists of the age: ‘We are under a Hypnotism! We think we are weak and this makes us weak! Let us think ourselves strong and we are invincible.’

The central deity of his adoration and spiritual identification, however, was India. To a generation of the Indian intelligentsia who grew up on and propounded the notion of an externally inspired and evolving Indian unity, Vivekananda came as a mighty nonconformist. To him the ‘idea that two pice postage, cheap travel, and a common language of affairs could create a national unity, was…childish and superficial.’ He laughed at such facile explanations of Indian unity and argued instead that ‘these things could only be made to serve old India’s turn if she already possessed a deep organic unity of which they might conveniently become an expression.’ His stand came, not from a mental assessment of that unity but rather from a profoundly empirical experience of it. For ‘something like eight years’ Vivekananda had ‘wandered about the land changing his name at every village, learning of every one he met, gaining a vision’ of the land that was at once ‘accurate and minute as it was profound and general.’ It had enabled him to firmly grasp and absorb the uniting dimensions of this vast land.

But his perception of this unity was not merely meant for articulation or verbal explication; he lived and was an embodiment of this ‘diversity in oneness’. Through his intimate interactions and ceaseless travels he had learnt, ‘not only the hopes and ideals of every sect and group of the Indian people, but their memories also.’ He held the entire land, her traditions, her people, their ways and their sense of the past, as it were, in his soul, and radiated that national unity, which the superficial eye of the curious Orientalist or ‘Anglicised native’ failed to see:
A child of the Hindu quarter of Calcutta returned to live by Ganges-side, one would have supposed from his [Vivekananda’s] enthusiasm that he had been born, now in the Punjab, again in the Himalayas, at a third moment in Rajputana, or elsewhere. The songs of Guru Nanak alternated with those of Mira Bai and Tanasena on his lips. Stories of Prithvi Raj and Delhi jostled against those of Chitore and Pratap Singh, Shiva and Uma, Radha and Krishna, Sita-Ram and Buddha. Each mighty drama lived in a marvellous actuality, when he was the player. His whole heart and soul was a burning epic of the country, touched to an overflow of mystic passion by her very name.
As an indefatigable defender of his land and his people, Vivekananda was perhaps second to none. Never did his zeal falter when it came to defending and presenting India to the world at large. Portrayed often as an uncompromising critic of a stagnant India, the Swami was equally one of her most ardent and articulate worshippers and standard bearers. When the national mind wallowed in a tendency of habitually issuing cringing-apologia, Vivekananda on the contrary firmly felt that ‘nothing Indian required apology.’ And if anything Indian seemed ‘barbarous or crude’ to the ‘pseudo-refinement of the alien’, he sprang to the defense and ‘without denying, without mimising anything his colossal energy was immediately concentrated on the vindication of that particular point, and the unfortunate critic was tossed backwards and forwards on the horns of his own argument.’ On such occasions there was ‘no friend that he would not sacrifice without mercy…in the name of national defence.’ To Vivekananda, ‘everything Indian was absolutely and equally sacred’, India for him, as he once said, was the land to which ‘must come all souls wending their way Godward!’

He demanded such an adherence to India from all those who came to him, especially the Westerners, ‘Remember’ he told them, ‘if you love India at all, you must love her as she is, not as you might wish her to become.’ It was this ‘firmness of his, standing like a rock for what actually was, that did more than any other single fact…to open the eyes’ of a vast multitude to ‘the beauty and strength of that ancient poem – the common life of the common Indian people.’

Singularly absent from Vivekananda’s nature was the denominational sense of exclusivity; he was at ease among adherents and practitioners of all faith. Being himself ‘the exponent of Hinduism’ he would stretch out whenever he found ‘another Indian religionist struggling with the difficulty of presenting his case’ and sitting down would write ‘his speech for him, making a better story for his friend’s faith than its own adherent could have done!’ Behind the denominational variation he clearly perceived standing ‘the great common facts of one soil; one beautiful old routine ancestral civilisation…’

But what attracted most, all those who saw and followed him closely was his ceaseless and immediate responsiveness to everything concerning India, and his supreme faith and confidence in the destiny of this land, ‘no hope but was spoken into his ear, - no woe but he knew it, and strove to comfort or to rouse.’ He seemed to hold in his ‘hands the thread of all that was fundamental, organic, and vital’; he seemed to know ‘the secret springs of life’ and to understand ‘with what word to touch the heart of millions’, and above all such knowledge gave him a ‘clear and certain hope’ when it came to India. He ‘never dreamt of failure for his people…to him India was young in all her parts’, to him the ‘country was young’ and the ‘India of his dreams was in the future.’ He was firm in his conviction that despite all passing appearances the ‘great deeps’ of India and of her people would forever remain ‘moral, austere and spiritual’, it could not be otherwise. And her ancient civilisation meant for him, simply, the ‘inbreeding of energy through many a millennium.’

Like the religio-cultural, the socio-political too strongly attracted and interested Vivekananda. In his expressions of concern for India, this aspect often distinctly flowed out through his talks, conversations and letters. The mighty urge to see India liberated, self-reliant and spiritually conscious and vibrant continuously occupied his being and he attempted to work this out not as a politician, but as a ‘nationalist.’ He ‘was no politician: he was [rather] the greatest of nationalists’ and therefore to him the ‘destiny of the people was in their own soil, and the destiny of the soil was no less in its own people.’

The essence and significance of Vivekananda lay in that: an unwavering nationalist who offered an epochal and liberating vision for his land and his people. 

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