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.