Swami Vivekananda, the celebrity Hindu monk, had charmed many people in India and in other countries with his eloquence and charisma in his own lifetime as well as in the century that followed. But he had become so mythified in the last hundred years that we have lost the young man who rebelled against moth-eaten orthodox and against Brahmo Samaj reformists. He was the angry and restless young man who understood the power of science and technology and modern civilisation, and who was ready to defend Hinduism from its Western detractors. He was in his 30s when he became famous in India and in the United States, and he achieved many things by appealing to a lot of people. So can the young in India of 21st century rediscover the young man who was a newsmaker 120 years ago?
We have to go beyond the panegyrics that his admirers, ironically Hindu rightwingers, who portray him as a defender of eternal Hinduism. That makes the liberals and others quite uncomfortable because they do not know what to do with a man who spoke about the principles and virtues of a religion that was entangled in a web of superstition, cruelty and injustice.
He defended Hindusim from its critics from what he believed to be was a mockery of the religion. He explained the rationale of worship of idols, the basis of much popular Hinduism, and he understood the psychological significance of rituals and symbols in religious practice. But he did not overlook the problems inherent in the Hinduism of his day.
He challenged the orthodox elites not by pooh-poohing their beliefs as superstition, but by going back to the religious texts and speaking about them in a new way. He hated “touch-me-not-ism”, a pungent phrase he used to describe the inhuman treatment of the Dalits in the Malabar of his time. His popular saying that a man is nearer to God while playing football than reading the Gita shows his impish Bengaliness.
He did assume that Hinduism is a superior religion because of its inherent tolerance and its ability to absorb the ideas of modern science. He also understood the virtues of love and compassion as preached by Christianity. He did not pay enough attention to Islam but he would have discovered himself the sublime aspects of that religion as well.
If we are to rediscover the real young man that Vivekananda was then one has to be prepared to accept that he was not a superman, he was not always right and he did not know many things either about Hinduism or Islam or Christianity. Vivekananda would have loved to be challenged and criticised because he had enough strengths in him to accept criticism. As the peripatetic monk he observed and was moved by the goodness of people in the countries he visited. There was this melodramatic incident when he knelt and wept before a streetwalker in Cairo, which compelled the woman to call him a man of God.
He was the monk who renounced the word, but he did not believe in deprivation and he was moved to the depths of his heart by the poverty he saw around the country and the spritual and moral depravity it causes. In an emotional moment — he did not fight shy of his emotions — he called himself a socialist, and he understood the imperatives of equality and justice. He felt that unless India got rid of superstition and poverty, she could never be free.
It can be seen that this young man became a national icon though he did not accept the political principles of nationalism as it emerged in European history and as it was being used by the Indian nationalists of his day. He tried to show that universal moral principles should be the foundation of societies. He was respectful of the Western Indologists like Max Mueller and Paul Duessen who wrote extensively about the Vedas and the Upanishads, visted them and wrote affectionately about them. He was a Hindu partisan in a broad sense of the term, and partisans of other religions would find useful hints in his polemics about religion.
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is editorial consultant with DNA