Reclaiming Vivekananda


Gopalkrishna Gandhi


He was a thinker of thinkers. His lively engagement with India’s problems makes him a social philosopher. He must not be reduced to a preacher in ochre. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes: Lead Comment

IS eyes hypnotise.

Now that is a schoolboy rhyme.

But there is that ‘something’ about them.



They do not let you go. They out-see you.

His words do the same. They startle you, they out-think you. They do that by their sheer confidence. One might say, by their conceit. And, by their unexpectedness, their frankness, their contrariness.


He once said that by his outspoken-ness he had ‘emptied out whole halls.’ Think of someone who draws people, like bees to a honeycomb and then does the opposite as well — smokes them away.

But that is how Swami Vivekananda was.

He spoke the language of the Vedas but not as others spoke them. He chose his own verses and breathing his own passion into them, gave them new, contemporary meanings. He then shared them, pristine with entranced listeners.


Old truths sounded new when coming from Vivekananda. New truths acquired in his hands the ring of ancient sanction.

He talked of India as did others of his generation, but not like they did. He spoke neither to valorise nor to ridicule his motherland. When he held the lamp of his mind to them, old characterisations of India acquired new meanings, and new dimensions of an ancient land emerged as if from nowhere.

In 1863, the year he was born, the welts left by the Great Uprising were yet hot and hurting. So, this son of Kshatriya Bengal could have become a patriot of the extremist, warring kind. But no, he said. ‘Nationalism of a purely agitational pattern cannot carry us far.

In 1885, when he was twenty-two, the Indian National Congress was inaugurated with fanfare. So, nationalism of the public-speaking kind had also opened to young Naren for adoption. But Naren was not meant for patterns pre-laid for him. ‘Without the necessary preparation what is the use of just shouting in Congress?’ he asked.

And then, revealing his natural bent, his true calling, he added, ‘…with patriotism must be associated a real feeling for others… We must not forget that we have to teach a great lesson to the world… religion and philosophy…’

Vivekananda was on an inner journey. But that was not going to be an individual journey. India was too crowded with people and problems for him to be left alone.

By his lights he had ‘seen’ Kali. Not once, but time and again.

Vivekananda loved to sing. And he sang rapturously. There is the Bangla song, Kalipada Neel Kamale, Shyamapada Neel Kamale . Close your eyes listening to it, and you will imagine Vivekananda intoning it.

Each one of his listeners thought he was speaking or singing for her, him.

That was not wrong.

They thought he was speaking their minds.



There they were not right.

Hindu orthodoxy saw in him the harbinger of a revival. Its pundits were in for a shock. ‘I accept all the religions… Can God’s work be finished? Must it not be a continuing revelation?’ And to their stupefaction, added ‘Difference is the first sign of thought… I pray they multiply until at last we have as many sects as human beings…’

In 1890 he set out travelling to learn. His lore preceded him everywhere, defeating his attempts at masking his identity. Maharajas feted him, farmers hosted him. The Maharaja of Mysore expected to see a mendicant in the swami. He was not disappointed.

But this mendicant was of a different kind. When the Maharaja asked him to choose from an array of gifts, the costlier the better, the Swami chose two — a tobacco pipe and a cigar.

He was not patronising tobacco. He was puncturing sanctimony.

He has let his hope outstrip his insight in one important matter. He said to Nivedita the era of obscurantism was over

. It is anything but. Worse, it is now co-opting him.

More people worship God-men in India today, more fear totems and observe taboos, are held captive by superstition and tied down to hollow ritual than ever were before. They should know that Vivekananda called ritual ‘the kindergarten of religion’.

The intersect of religion and politics is occupied by ‘yatras’ which invoke Vivekananda, the greatest of all yatris. Politicians heave him onto their raths . They thieve his truth to feed their untruths.

They offer him for worship, and bask in his glory.

They have figured that Vivekananda worshipped is Vivekananda forgotten, Vivekananda enshrined is Vivekananda enchained, Vivekananda co-opted is Vivekananda encashed.

Sri Ramakrishna had said of him, ‘He will teach…’ That spiritual genius knew his disciple.

His co-opters would prefer his cut-out images now to preach. They know their self-interest.

Teaching is about imparting knowledge. Preaching is about increasing the size of the flock.

Vivekananda, the world-renouncer was also a world-inhabiter. In America, after a talk on God, throngs of women jumped barricades to get near him. Watching the spectacle a lady said ‘Well, my lad, if you can resist that onslaught you are indeed God’.

Vivekananda was not God, thank God.

He was human. And he was fallible.

His statements on who is a Brahmin and what Brahminism means, are not among his liberating utterances. His observations on caste are hugely problematic. Some of his views on womankind are, today, unacceptable. His comments on slaves and slavery in America invite long editorial scissors.

Between Vivekananda co-opters and Vivekananda nay-sayers is Indian society which has made an icon of him. Sri Ramakrishna, Srima Sarada and Swami Vivekananda make a lovely trio.

All three – the Hindu Right, the Left and the public at large – are depriving themselves.

They are denying themselves a golden opportunity to delve into the mind of a great mystic, an equally great thinker.

I believe if Vivekananda had lived longer he would have seen how times are a’changing and given us trajectories, ancient and new, to travel on. I also believe he would have let Time influence his own thinking and alter some of his intellectual positions. He who questioned Sri Ramakrishna, his guru, would have had to take some hard questioning himself. But all that was not to be.

Vivekananda was a mystic of mystics. His spiritual intelligence makes him an Indian sage, not a mascot.

Vivekananda was a thinker of thinkers. His lively engagement with India’s problems makes him a social philosopher. He must

not be reduced to a preacher in ochre.

Our intellectually anaesthetised, politically conditioned and philosophically unadventurous times need his gaze and those eyes to startle us into life again.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of West Bengal. His tribute was commissioned by The Hindu on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda)


Raise the masses slowly up, raise them to equality’

Vintage Vignettes collection Swami Vivekananda


Swami Vivekananda spoke about religion, rituals, caste and the education of the masses in an interview he gave The Hindu on February 6, 1897, during a train journey from Chingleput to Madras.


What made you go to America, Swamiji?


Rather a serious question to answer in brief. I can only answer it partly now. Because I travelled all over India, I wanted to go over to other countries. I went to America by the Far East.


What did you see in Japan, and is there any chance of India following in the progressive steps of Japan?


None whatever, until all the three hundred millions of India combine together as a whole nation. The world has never seen such a patriotic and artistic race as the Japanese, and one special feature about them is this, that while in Europe and elsewhere Art generally goes with dirt. Japanese Art is Art plus absolute cleanliness. I would wish that everyone of our young men could visit Japan once at least in his lifetime.


Is it your wish that India should become like Japan?


Decidedly not, India should continue to be what she is. How could India ever become like Japan, or any nation for the matter of that? In each nation, as in music, there is a main note, a central theme, upon which all others turn. Each nation has a theme: everything else is secondary. India’s theme is religion, Social reform and everything else are secondary.


Therefore, India cannot be like Japan. It is said that when ‘the heart breaks,’ then the flow of thought comes. India’s heart must break and the flow of spirituality will come out. India is India. We are not like the Japanese, we are Hindus. India’s very atmosphere is soothing. I have been working incessantly here, and amidst this work I am getting rest. It is only from spiritual work that we can get rest in India. If your work is material here, you die of diabetes.


What is your idea about the results of the Parliament of Religions?


The Parliament of Religions, as it seems to me, was intended for a ‘heathen show’ before the world, but it turned out that the heathens had the upper hand, and made it a Christian show all around. So the Parliament of Religions was a failure from the Christian standpoint, seeing that the Roman Catholics, who were the organisers of that Parliament, are, when there is a talk of another Parliament at Paris now steadily opposing it. But the Chicago Parliament was a tremendous success for India and Indian thought. It helped on the tide of Vedanta, which is flooding the world. The American people — of course, minus the fanatical priests and churchwomen — are very glad of the results of the Parliament.


What prospects have you, Swamiji, for the spread of your mission in England?


There is every prospect. Before many years elapse, a vast majority of the English people will be Vedantins. There is a greater prospect of this in England than there is in America. You see, Americans make a fanfaronade of everything, which is not the case with Englishmen. Even Christians cannot understand their New Testament, without understanding the Vedanta. The Vedanta is the rationale of all religions. Without the Vedanta every religion is superstition, with it everything becomes religion.


What are your views with regard to the Indian masses?


Oh, we are awfully poor, and our masses are very ignorant about secular things. Our masses are very good because poverty here is not a crime. Our masses are not violent. Many times I was near being mobbed in America and England, only on account of my dress. But I never heard of such a thing in India as a man being mobbed because of peculiar dress. In every other respect, our masses are much more civilised than the European masses.


What will you propose for the improvement of our masses?


We have to give them secular education. We have to follow the plan laid down by our ancestors, that is, to bring all the ideals slowly down among the masses. Raise them slowly up, raise them to equality. Impart even secular knowledge through religion.


But do you think, Swamiji, it is a task that can be easily accomplished?


It will, of course, have gradually to be worked out. But if there are enough self-sacrificing young fellows, who, I hope, will work with me, it can be done tomorrow. It all depends upon the zeal and the self-sacrifice brought to the task.


But if the present degraded condition is due to their past Karma, Swamiji, how do you propose to help them?


Karma is the eternal assertion of human freedom. If we can bring ourselves down by our Karma, surely it is in our power to raise ourselves by it. The masses, besides, have not brought themselves down altogether by their own Karma. So we should give them better environments to work in. I do not propose any levelling of castes. Caste is a very good thing. Caste is the plan we want to follow. What caste really is, not one in a million understands. There is no country in the world without caste. In India, from caste we reach to the point where there is no caste. Caste is based throughout on that principle. The plan in India is to make everybody Brahmana, the Brahmana being the ideal of humanity. If you read the history of India you will find that attempts have always been made to raise the lower classes. Many are the classes that have been raised. Many more will follow till the whole will become Brahmana. That is the plan. We have only to raise them without bringing down anybody. And this has mostly to be done by the Brahmanas themselves…


What are your views, Swamiji, in regard to the relation of caste to rituals?


Caste is continually changing, rituals are continually changing — so are forms. It is the substance, the principle, that does not change. It is in the Vedas that we have to study our religion. With the exception of the Vedas, every book must change. The authority of the Vedas is for all time to come; the authority of every one of our other books is for the time being.


For instance, one Smriti is powerful for one age, another for another age. Great prophets are always coming and pointing the way to work. Some prophets worked for the lower classes, others like Madhava gave to women the right to study the Vedas. Caste should not go, but should only be readjusted occasionally. Within the old structure is to be found life enough for the building of two hundred thousand new ones. It is sheer nonsense to desire the abolition of caste. The new method is evolution of the old.


Instead of frittering away our energies on ideal reforms, which will never become practical, we had better go to the root of the evil and make a legislative body, that is to say, educate our people, so that they may be able to solve their own problems. Until that is done, all these ideal reforms will remain ideals only.


Do you think Hindu society can successfully adopt European social laws?


No, not wholly. I would say, the combination of the Greek mind represented by the external European energy added to the Hindu spirituality would be an ideal society for India. For instance, it is absolutely necessary for you. Instead of frittering away your energy and often talking of ideal nonsense, to learn from the Englishman the idea of prompt obedience to leaders, the absence of jealousy, the indomitable perseverance and undying faith in himself.


What relation, Swamiji, does ritual bear to religion?


Rituals are the kindergarten of religion. They are absolutely necessary for the world as it is now; only we shall have to give people newer and fresh rituals. A party of thinkers must undertake to do this. Old rituals must be rejected and new ones substituted.


Then you advocate the abolition of rituals, don’t you?


No, my watchword is construction, not destruction. Out of the existing rituals, new ones will have to be evolved. There is infinite power of development in everything: that is my belief. One atom has the power of the whole universe at its back. All along, in the history of the Hindu race, there never was any attempt at destruction, only construction. One sect wanted to destroy, and they were thrown out of India; they were the Buddhists. We had a host of reformers — Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhava and Chaitanya. They were great reformers, who always were constructive, and built according to the circumstances of their time. This is our peculiar method of work. All the modern reformers take to European destructive reformation, which will never do good to anyone and never did…


… The progress of the Hindu race has been towards the realisation of the Vedantic ideals. All history of Indian life is the struggle for the realisation of the ideal of the Vedanta through good or bad fortune. Whenever there was any reforming sect or religion which rejected the Vedantic ideal, it was smashed into nothing.

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Ahead of Lok Sabha election, government plans to woo Muslim with interest-free banking institutions


 K. Rahman Khan (left) and D. Subbarao

Minority affairs minister K. Rahman Khan (left) and RBI Governor D. Subbarao.

With as many as nine states going to polls this year, and the biggest electoral battle of them all, the Lok Sabha election , to follow suit, the UPA government is working overtime to woo the Muslims. Over 15 crore community members will soon be able to avail the benefits of “interest-free” Islamic banking institutions without coming in conflict with their religious code.

Senior banking officials confirmed to Mail Today that the Ministry of Minority Affairs and the Reserve Bank of India are working out modalities for “establishing Islamic banking institutions to benefit the community without tinkering with the Islamic code of belief on banking”.

Earning or paying interest on a financial saving is prohibited in Islam. However, faced with a situation where Rs.5,000 crore are lying idle in nationalised banks without earning any interest on it as it has been deposited by the community members, who control assets worth US $1.5 trillion in the country (in Kerala alone, it is pegged at above Rs.40,000 crore, according to a 2005 estimate), there is a feeling growing among the Muslims to explore “vehicles of financial instruments which can facilitate interest-free financial products, including loans, for the community’s benefits”.

It is learnt that a recent exchange of letters between minority affairs minister K. Rehman Khan and RBI Governor D. Subbarao in December has given a new push to the issue, hanging fire for want of requisite changes in the existing banking laws. The RBI has been insisting that to make it possible, an amendment is required in the Banking Companies Regulation Act, 1949. This was conveyed to the finance ministry recently after Khan raised the issue with the RBI governor through a letter, dated December 5, 2012. The RBI chairman wrote his reply on December 14.

A senior official said: “Khan asked the RBI to first introduce some financial instruments as a pilot and the first step forward to avoid the situation where an amendment is required in the Banking Regulations Act. He also said, for this purpose, a committee can be constituted by the RBI or the minority affairs ministry to examine the possibility of such financial vehicles through which interest-free banking can be introduced in the country to benefit the Muslim.”

Khan is learnt to have cited that due to the Islamic belief on interest, “a large number of Indian Muslims are deprived of investing their savings in an organised sector and availing the financial resources for their own economic benefit”.

Islamic bankingThousands of crores in interest is kept in suspended accounts as believers of Islam do not claim it.

Thousands of crores earned in interest is kept in suspended accounts as believers of Islam do not claim it. The assets controlled by Muslims are estimated to be US $1.5 trillion and is growing at 15-20 per cent. The money is lying idle, which if invested in profit-sharing basis and utilised judiciously, can have a major impact on the Indian economy.

Khan wrote further: “I have been receiving several representations from the community and it is appropriate time to facilitate the Muslims with a financial system, where they can deposit their saving in accordance with their faith.” Islamic banking is prevalent in countries like Hong Kong, UK, US, Malaysia and Singapore.