Is Swami Vivekananda important? To some, he is an apostle of Sanatana Dharma, a stalwart for the ‘Eternal Philosophy’ who led the Indian renaissance from centuries of hibernation. To others, mainly from the Left, he is a right-wing Hindu reactionary who attempted to disguise India’s backwardness and Brahminism with unscientific spirituality. It is possible that his celebrated address at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893 did not have the effect that has been claimed by his apologists. For in those days, one did not go ‘viral’, nor had a marketing strategy for social media or Twitter handles with a huge following and likes. But it is definitely true that he had a greater impact on the Indian psyche and our self-confidence and belief in our own culture and darshana. His own letter about the event mentions that there were more than ‘five to seven thousand in the audience’. That seems to be a significant number. If we look at his tireless efforts in reaching out to the West, it does appear that he was able to create an awareness about the Indic civilization and values in Europe and the US. To me, it seems like the beginnings at the Gangotri, where drop by single drop, a glacier melts to gather eventually into the vast Ganges that nourishes almost 500 million people in its plains today. We were thirsting for any kind of relevance or recognition, relegated to the dust-heaps of history by the white sahibs. He stood up to them. Spoke in their own language with authority and conviction. Agreed that they had something great about their civilization but we had something greater. More importantly, he stood up for Sanatan Dharma, without compromising on its core principles. Fearlessly. Evoking our own truths and greatness. If one looks at him objectively, he does not seem to be a reactionary. After all, he was hardest on our own laziness and superciliousness, our own institutions such as casteism, gender bias, ritualism and social structures and our own refusal to grow and learn. He broke our taboos and, we are told, even asked an aspiring youth to play football and eat meat so that he could be strong and manly. So that we would stand for ourselves by discovering who we are. Whenever I think of Swami Vivekananda, I see the image of a lion roaring in the jungle. But this was a lion who also worked hard and wrote, travelled, lectured, taught, mentored. He met tremendous resistance, more from our own pundits and fossilized leaders. And yet, he was tireless in his efforts to awaken us. This, to me, is his biggest contribution to India. When I was growing up, I did not study him much. I was more influenced by Sri Aurobindo, J Krishnamurthy and Maharishi Ramana. Even now, I find him hard to read and it is true that I am inspired more by his vision than his writings. He had a dream that was at once ancient and modern, eternal and radically new. He was a true Indian in outlook, world-view and thought, and yet, he was global and truly inclusive. In reading about him in a new book by Makarand R Paranjape, I realize how much we owe to him. There is so much we did not know about the Swami and are still learning. For example, his meeting with Nikola Tesla, the great scientist, and their discussions about prana and akasa which Tesla quoted years later marveling at the Indian understanding of the cosmos. Or Swamiji’s meeting with Jamsetji Tata and their initiative to establish an institute of science in India. Makarand has shared some new insights about India’s first spiritual-activist with well-researched documentation. We need more such scholarly works about our great leaders and teachers in this world of alt-news and fake feeds. Makarand, an educator, poet, essayist and litterateur, has explored the character of Swami Vivekananda with sympathy, objectivity and careful review of information about the foremost exponent of Hinduism. It is critical that we understand the true depths of Sanatan Dharma, free of fundamentalism, and yet not devoid of intensity and clarity, by studying Swamiji. For today, the very significance of our dharma and truth is being questioned and challenged once again. It seems to me that even though Swami Vivekananda is gone and not fully appreciated even now, his dream about a great and advanced India continues. We are part of the unfolding of that dream, whether we realize it or not. Perhaps in this manner, Swami Vivekananda has created what we are today. To aspire for purity and wideness and heights like him, to live a life burning with that vision, would be our greatest homage to our first modern Rishi. Who spoke in English, held discussions with Western women and men, smoked and travelled in liners and was thoroughly modern in outlook. And yet, so ancient at the same time, that he defied his age and time. It seems to me sometimes that we are still catching up to Swamiji’s grand vision. As only subliminal characters in a dream who have yet to wake up. To discover the trail he blazed literally, in a short life and a shorter public career.
A recent article in a national newspaper titled ‘Covid Fight: Govt system in front, private hospitals do the distancing’ has highlighted that the large-scale battle with Covid in India is being fought by Government hospitals and health institutions. Two-thirds of the hospitals beds and 90% of the ventilators in India are privately owned and yet they are handling less than 10% of Covid patients in the country. It is as if a firefighter were preparing to fight a conflagration and was only allowed to mobilize a highly restricted amount of poorly maintained equipment and material and poorly trained personnel. Calls have been made from various sections of media and leadership to nationalize all private health care enterprises in India immediately. And yet, this is not an optimal solution. The Covid epidemic has only brought to light the extremely neglected state of health care in the country and the slow deterioration of every medical institution. In my opinion, fixing this diseased health care system requires a comprehensive approach that would be consistent and systematic and not knee-jerk. A wider, non-partisan and disinterested discourse is needed involving the various sections of the system. Yet, bold reforms are needed. Some, though not all, interventions could be among these: Strengthen medical schools and graduate medical education (GME): Education has deteriorated even from the days I did medical school. We had great teachers who were dedicated and caring and drilled the knowledge in us, rigorously and sometimes painfully. Unfortunately, now the students are focused on preparing for multiple-choice questions for entrance exams and do not gain the clinical experience and expertise that is critical for any doctor. Teachers are busy with their own private practice and students are missing out on the most essential aspect of learning. This is not just in India. I recently taught a group of residents from various parts of the world; none of them knew how to hold an ophthalmoscope. I had to take a class on just how to hold the instrument properly and learn how to look in the eye of a patient. Better screening and aptitude tests before students are admitted to educational institutions might be considered.Strengthen primary care: Primary care is looked down upon; specialists are in high demand. The basics of engaging a patient are forgotten; how to listen, diagnose, ask, talk, examine are not emphasized. Primary care providers are paid less and have little influence in the care of their patients. Without a strong network of primary care, perhaps like in Cuba, we will not be able to provide quality, reduce costs and create a strong bulwark against such epidemics in the future. Better community and public health, education, nutrition, hygiene, sanitary services, clean water and air, and public safety are essential. The end-point is health; everything affects our inner and outer states of equilibrium or homeostasis. Enhance rural care: Rural health is in shambles. Doctors do not like to live in the villages. Basic services are not available. Ambulance and trauma services are minimal. The referral process to secondary or tertiary system is disconnected and uncoordinated. Perhaps a Rural Health Corp can be constituted to ensure health care to our villages. Or doctors can be incentivized to live and practice in the villages. Support Ayush: The indigenous systems of health care should not be shunned. They should be encouraged and integrated with the vast network of health care practitioners in the county. Ayurveda, yoga, unani, naturopathy, siddha and homeopathy can be effective if used appropriately and in the right hands. Medical tourism can be encouraged with the help of Ayurveda and yoga hubs across the country for wellness and chronic conditions. The goal eventually should be use to the concept of holistic health and ‘svasthya’ to reach an optimal state of individual development where each person’s true potential is allowed and facilitated to grow and reach its utmost fulfilment. Improve and expand government hospitals: Just like ‘Make in India’, we should have ‘Treat in India’. The politicians, senior bureaucrats and leaders need to get treatments in India. This is the only way they will take health care seriously and work towards improving it.Remove politics and commercial interests from health care: Big pharma and lobbyists need to be extricated from the health care system. The insidious problem of kickbacks, referral fee and cuts needs to be resolved if any meaningful reform is envisaged. This is the true virus; Covid is only a symptom. Enhance emergency and trauma service: A comprehensive approach to this is needed including education, traffic reforms, better roads and railways, ambulance services and trained transportation and evacuation personnel, and advanced trauma centers. Advanced facilities for research: Indians needs to become self-reliant in this field. Our research facilities are anemic and dilapidated. We need to bring the best scientists to the country and establish a culture of academic excellence and research. When we are talking about being ‘aatma nirbhar’ we need to do so in maintaining our state of wellness and ‘aarogya’.Use of technology: As information technology grows, medical education, rural health care, medical record keeping, primary care, urgent health care, research and diagnostics can be improved. Telehealth, extended reality, artificial intelligence, Internet of things, advanced data analytics, nanotechnology, cryo-technology, and genetic interventions and therapeutics can selectively increase the reach and improve the skills of our workforce while improving quality and utilization of services.Reform Insurance: Ayushman Bharat focused on an incidental approach to treatment; the next step should be towards prevention, improving population health while reducing waste, improving metrics and patient and provider education. The money spent on Ayushman Bharat which is mostly going to private entities might be better spent on public health care and rural health care systems. The entire nation has been mobilized on a warfront. It is the time when our neglect of education and health is addressed on an emergent basis. Without the backbone of a strong health care system no country can be truly advanced. And if India needs to reach a GDP of 5 billion by 2024-5, this might be the most efficient and effective way to do so. A great nation needs a very healthy population.
When do you know that a nation’s soul is dead? When it can look at falsehood with full awareness and call it truth. When do you know that a leader has sold his soul to the Devil himself? When he can look at the night staring him in the face and call it day. India is at such a crossroads. The moment when it can look at itself and call things as they are. Yatha bhootam darshanam. To see things as they are. To state a fact. Is the first step towards freedom. Perhaps the only one. There was a time when India could do it. That was the secret of its civilization and magnificent achievements in culture, arts, literature, science, medicine, music, architecture, commerce, communities, philosophy. The golden bird was not made of a metal. But something else that was an aspiration and a realization. Today the hour of reckoning is here again. To not state a fact. Because it is inconvenient to say so. Out of fear. Or favor. Due to considerations. Is falsehood. Greater than the one that has been perpetrated. And the last religion is Truth. India has always stated That. Testified to That. There is no other religion. At least for India. “They carried the virulence.” Across the length and breadth of the country. Across the globe. They defecated in wards. Ran naked in front of women who were their nurses, who were trying to heal. They filled bottles with urine. As infectant. They carried the virulence. With pride. With insouciance. With conviction. With faith. Fact. They prayed to God to infect the ‘other’. They invoked the Highest to hurt the ‘nonbeliever’. Fact. The soul-keepers of the nation are silent. The aiyars. Tharoors. Roys. Mehtas. Fact. We have found the real covid. And it is in us. Well, as a doctor, let me state it. If for nothing else, my own repentant soul. At the risk of annoying others. While my friends are endangering their lives in the trenches. Giving their all to fight on our behalf. Dying by the dozen. We throw stones at them. We call them names. And it is ok. Fact. We justify it. We call it a mistake. An honest one. We call India intolerant. Hundreds of writers and artists must have returned their awards due to this virus, I am certain. The virus that is in our hearts. When we have made our tolerance itself a perversion. A fetish. A means to hide from our own dishonesty. Fact. I have only one question now. What would China do? The paradox of paradoxes that I have to look up to someone else to find out who I am. Would they have blamed the administration for the lapse? The authorities for the snafu? Equated operational failure with spiritual hypocrisy? Would we like to be tolerant to falsehood? Would we like to state that every religion is flawed and we should spread harmony? Peace. Our discourse has been corona-ed. Our tolerance for the virus is itself covid. Is there any way to awaken the soul of India now? To adhere to Sat, the Truth? To state it for all to hear. And perhaps, even listen? Can we say this as an Indian? Free of division in our heart, yet with calm and clarity? Can we accept this as human beings with a basic sense of decency towards each other? Otherwise, do not expect the doctors and nurses to lay their lives for you. Do not expect them to use one mask for a week exposing all their loved ones to your virulence. What standards remain for them to aspire to? To fight for? All else is immaterial. In the battle for the soul of a nation, this is the real dharma-yuddha. If we can be together in seeing our falsehood, then our soul might still live. Then there is the thread, the ray of light which we can follow towards the End. If not, our soul is dead. And we must accept this too. State it the way it is. Without screens. Perhaps this might be our only chance. Our path to redemption. Fact.
Someone has to call it the way it is. Let me do it. As a doctor. As a lover of India. As one who has great Muslim friends to whom I am loyal and indebted. I risk annoying them. But if I do not, I will be doing them a great disservice. Every country has a TJ moment. Which defines its future for the next few centuries. America had the Civil War. Russia had the revolution. Germany had WWII. India has its covid moment. When she should realize who she really is. But, first things first. Let us stop sweeping things under the rug. Let us face things upfront no matter how painful they are. Let us agree to call a tablighi a tablighi. This is not about being secular. Or diplomatic. Or walking on left-liberal egg-shells. Or being an alt-right reactionary. This is about humans. And health care. And the law. And basic sense and concern for others. This is about protecting each other and being my neighbor’s keeper. Let us agree that this is unconscionable. And condemn it unequivocally. We do not need a Nasiruddin Shah or Owaisi or Ramchandra Guha to save our conscience. We do not even need a Dattatreya Brahmin doing Shiva Bhakti with a janeu on. Nor do we need an LK Advani to take us on a rath yatra to build a temple. Or a Bhagavat katha. The temple this time is here. It is our ground. It is our people. And we have allowed it to be desecrated. Where are the officials who allowed it? Why are they not suspended? Why is the leader of the Jamaatis not being tried for attempted murder and sedition? Why is TJ not proscribed and banned as an organization? This is one time I would advocate for the Old Testament proscriptions to be applied against them. The Sharia for Sharia! Where are the Muslim leaders? To stand up to this disgusting congregation of virulent carriers of God-knows what kind of denomination. I think we have created a group of entitled people who have been coddled, appeased, sucked-up-to for the sake of politics and special interests. They are rude, crude, arrogant, uncivilized, an abomination. It is time for India to reject them and their untruth. No matter what religion you belong to, we will not tolerate this desecration. Whether it be Nizamuddin Markaz or Shirdi temple assembling against the law and, more importantly, common sense and decency. Whether it be in the name of religion or some political hack with his cronies sloganeering Corona to go back. Who will enforce these standards? As always, it is something that moves silently among people, as a wave, as a will. When collectively we choose to reject what is false and distorted or disharmonious. It is time for India to awaken. And realize its soul. And discard what is munaafiqat and fitna. What is tamasik. What is asat. Tablighi or not tablighi – that is the question. Recommended for further reading:
An Approach and a Paradigm A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the President of India, identified five important areas to transform India from a developing country into a developed country: education and health care, agriculture, information and communication, infrastructure and critical technology. He traveled around the world and presented his vision for the future of the country. I feel this is a very good start for a conversation on how India can be developed and transformed not only as a developed nation, but as a leader of the world. To my mind, a country can be approached as one would an organization or even as an individual. If that can be tentatively agreed upon, I find Maslow’s pyramid useful to talk about the holistic development of the organization or the nation. While I say this I am aware that a nation-state is a relatively modern phenomenon and that India is a relative new-born in terms of political independence. India as a civilization is perhaps the oldest surviving one on earth. As Iqbal poignantly noted, ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece could not sustain their original inspiration and unifying idea. Perhaps only China can be said to be sustaining somewhat its original civilization in some ways today. Be that as it may, let us proceed with our exercise. If we apply the five layers of Maslow’s pyramid we can see it thus, moving from bottom to top: 1) Physical (security): This would be the most primal need of the country, not only externally but internally. That also means a structure of protection for its citizens and ensuring basic justice equally to all. 2) Higher Physical (infrastructure, utilities and necessities): These would entail an infrastructure of roads, highways, ports, airports, waterways, storage facilities, housing, rural and urban development, water and food supply, waste management, internet and broadband, etc. 3) Social and Psychological Development: As gross or sthoola needs are met, one moves to the subtle body of the nation. Here one would place health and education, development of natural resources in a recyclable manner, development of a civil discourse, communication and information systems along with learning management systems, etc. 4) Cultural and Individual Development: Here the individual is optimized, advanced, facilitated and given the environment so that his or her highest potential can be fulfilled. Civil discourse evolves to transparency, society develops a character and integrity, a deep-rooted civic sense and togetherness, higher technical advancements made available and researched with world-class systems and education, advanced disaster recovery and a state of physical and psychological health is achieved. 5) Self-Actualization: Every nation has a soul, as Sri Aurobindo pointed out. This is when the highest possibility of the nation, its guiding principle, its fundamental ‘idea’ begins to manifest as a reality and truth, its ritam. Here the leaders are awake to the nation’s soul and responsive to its people selflessly and consciously. Such a society becomes creative in tackling its challenges and turns its failures into opportunity, looks towards a wholesome and comprehensive transformation of every element of its constitution, secular or spiritual. Innovation becomes the norm and enterprise is organic. Citizens are happy, anandmaya, and there is a quiet but egoless pride or gaurav in one’s existence. Here, one has perhaps moved to what is called the kaarana, the causal nature of one’s existence, one’s svabhaava and svadharma, or what I call the core. 6) Self-Transcendence: Maslow, in his later years, modified the apex of his pyramid, inspired by Indian spirituality. [Having met our basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid, having worked on our emotional needs in its middle and worked at achieving our potential, Maslow felt we needed to transcend thoughts of ourselves as islands. We had to see ourselves as part of the broader universe to develop the common priorities that can allow humankind to survive as a species. — Robby Berman] Every state or nation has an underlying theme. We see this when we study Greece or Rome or Japanese culture. Same applies for India. While India may be defined as not one nation but many nations that are joined by a deep oneness, a connection that defies the intellect, it is also clear that many Western institutions cannot be imposed on our civilization without being India-genized. The parliamentary democracy is one such institution where mobocracy or illiterocracy or corruptocracy has replaced meritocracy and sapio-cracy. Our present education is another that does not bring out our natural genius. Same for our health care and rural and urban development along with architecture and leadership development. While this model is not fool-proof or perfect, I find it Indian in the sense that it mirrors that Upanishadic concept of three layers of our being, the gross, the subtle and the causal. Or, if we drill down further, we have five bodies, the annamaya or physical, the pranamaya or vital, the manomaya or mental, the vigyanamaya or higher or super-mental and the anandamaya or blissful. Each body needs proper attention, care and expression. But it is by realizing the highest and deepest body that our superficial or gross layers reach fulfilment and completion, poornta. This then is my hypotheses, which should be openly critiqued and beat up. Perhaps in doing so we will realize that no single leader of the nation can single-handedly change us or elevate us. The potential lies in each one of us and until we are corrupt, selfish, petty and ignorant, we shall fail in being transformed. Then no Kalam or Modi can help us and we do not deserve them. It might be well to remember that if any layer is compromised at any time, the whole nation or society no matter how elevated shall revert to it immediately. For example, when Uttar Pradesh was taken over by goonda-raj recently, there could be no talk of self-actualization or even a proper psychological or social discourse. The whole state reverted to a very basic survival mechanism where girls could be molested in daylight and goons could threaten shopkeepers for belonging to the wrong religion. Or when the Manmohan Singh government was wracked by one corruption scandal after another, there could be no consideration of citizen being anandamaya or vigyanamaya. If physical security is attacked then all talk of evolution to higher layers collapses. For India to truly reach its self-realization, it will need to realize the spiritual in secular, the highest actualization in the external. No layer of development can be eschewed or ignored. India cannot retire in a post-Buddhistic phase of looking the world as dukkha-samsara or maya. It will need to undergo an integral transformation if it is to find its natural place in the world order. Pariksith Singh is a practicing doctor, entrepreneur, writer, poet and philosopher and is the patron and co-founder of Satyameva.