Vivekananda and the ‘Other’

Tuesday, 4 March 2014 - 8:00am IST Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2014 - 12:24am IST | Agency: DNA
The saint and the humanist played a pivotal role in strengthening society’s intellectual borders

One way to assess Swami Vivekananda’s legacy of 150 years is through the concept of the ‘Other’, examining the way he responded to it. Classical Indian philosophical systems, despite their alleged politically incorrect views and practices, display great ingenuity and variety in dealing with the ‘other’. Arguments are merely instruments in debating with the ‘other’. The ‘other’ is larger than logic or arguments. So in the order of hierarchy, it is the ‘other’; ‘other’ as different; a debate is a process that establishes relation between one and the other to negotiate the difference; and argument along with logic become tools to assist in this intellectual task. For instance, Vedas and Upanishads or Brahmanism will be the ‘other’ to Buddha; subsequently, Buddhism will become the ‘other’ to Adi Sankara. However, the ingenuity of Vivekananda lies in dealing with a different form of ‘other’ that is not only different like the ‘other’ from within the Indian tradition but it is also from the outside, the West.  To explore this meant to lay out a comparative path between the West that is the outside ‘other’ and India.  

Western modernity that arrived in India disinherited its past and began with a tabula rasa  formulated by John Locke. Modernity in the place of its origin eliminated its internal ‘other’. Subsequently, it turned towards the outside societies like India to accomplish the same. Colonialism is an instance, a superficial one at that, of fulfilling this deep-seated psychological craving of modernity.  

However, modern Indian thinkers, in variation, undertook two important, though not often recognized onerous tasks: they too took the West as their other, thus claiming parallel parity; in addition, they recalled their pre-modern tradition. Thus posing a double threat to the projects of modernity and colonialism.  

There are two aspects when an ‘other’ from the outside enters: one is its arrival and the other is its reception. The reception can be one of combating that can result in either driving it out or surrendering to it. It can also be one of negotiation in which case it lies in between surrender and rejection of the outside ‘other.’ One could see this in the way a host receives a guest into their home. The guest is honoured, received inside, treated well, yet is not treated on par with the insiders. They are physically inside yet there exists a mental boundary that parks them outside. Thus, the site of receiving is equally significant.

Let us pay careful attention to the site of reception to assess the contribution of those like Vivekananda. Judith Brown, a Gandhian scholar writing about Mahatma Gandhi undermines the contribution of the Indian freedom movement by claiming that the British had already decided to leave India.  This in one stroke undermines the importance of the impact and importance of the Indian freedom struggle. Instead of either agreeing or contesting this claim, let us bring this new dimension of reception into discussion. The contribution of the Indian freedom struggle may not lie in driving the British out but in the way in which they were treated and received, and in the way India was reclaimed after they left. The difference in the strategy adopted by the nationalists in the freedom struggle has enormously, though indirectly and unconsciously, coloured the nature of this reclaiming.

In an interesting and creative way, modern Indian thinkers like Vivekananda did not allow an easy access to colonialism to eliminate the ‘other’ in India. Instead, they offered, though in varying success, creative combinations that had far-reaching, though not systematically claimed implications. This is evident in the incident narrated by Vivekananda’s brother Bhupendranath Dutta. According to Dutta, Haramohan who was Vivekananda’s classmate at the college of General Assembly’s Institution, Calcutta, reported the following incident:

One day our European professor was cross with the students. The students could not understand the state of trance referred to by Wordsworth. He banged the table, stamped the footstool with his boots and at last went out of the classroom in disgust. At this juncture I was going out of the classroom on some errand. But I saw Reverend Hastie, the Principal coming towards the classroom. So I returned to it and then heard Hastie’s lecture. He said, ‘Mr so-and-so says that the boys are stupid and do not understand Wordsworth and his trance. Perhaps he himself does not understand the poet. While concentrating on the beauty of Nature, Wordsworth had some experience of that ecstatic state.’ Then he concluded by saying that there was a man living in Dakshineswar who often experienced a state of bliss through the kind of trance referred to by Wordsworth. ‘You go and see him’. That was the first time that the students of the class heard about Ramakrishna.

A close scrutiny of this narration reveals several interesting and closely imbricating layers. Some of them are: there was a difficulty in explaining the ideas of trance in Wordsworth; while this is attributed to the Indian students from Calcutta by the teacher, the principal of the college nevertheless concedes perhaps the incompetence of the teacher in comprehending this idea, thus neutralizing the cultural variance as a factor that came in the way of understanding the poem. He instead suggests that the students go and meet Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar who frequently experiences a similar trance. This reveals how something the natives are internally ignorant of is known to the outsider from the West. The outsider, who in this case is a Reverend, a Christian, by acknowledging a person from another religion and bringing it to the notice of students acts as a catalyst thus alerting them of their amnesia of their surroundings.

While the Reverend meant to teach them Wordsworth he inadvertently contributed to the making of a phenomenon called Swami Vivekananda. However, recognizing this magnitude will be compromised if we do not take into consideration facilitators, in this case, the Reverend and in the larger case even colonialism.  Thus there is an imperative need to move away from wailing against the oppression of the ‘other’ and expend energy in strengthening the intellectual borders of one’s society so that the ‘other’ finds it difficult to enter. Those like Vivekananda can be seen as cultural and intellectual soldiers at the border of Indian culture. What they let in and what they ousted has to be judiciously evaluated.

The author  is professor of philosophy at the University of Hyderabad. His edited volume titled Debating Vivekananda: A Reader, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press

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