Swami Vivekananda is not a Sangh Parivar icon. Liberal-progressives allowed his appropriation

Is Swami Vivekananda an ally of the politics that seeks to reclaim our republic today? Or is he an ideologue of Hindu supremacy, a forefather of the RSS and the politics of what is presented as “Hindutva” these days?

A recent book has reopened this debate. Govind Krishnan V’s book, Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom makes a bold claim on its cover page —  “How the Sangh Parivar’s Greatest Icon Is Its Arch Nemesis”. The 485-page-long book substantiates the thesis that Vivekananda’s “thought stands in direct opposition to all the fundamental tenets of Hindutva, to its parochial concept of Hinduism, its insular nationalism and cultural conservatism, its authoritarian collectivism and anti-intellectualism.”

This thesis is not some academic quibble that might interest just the historians of ideas. The interpretative contest over Vivekananda is a political dispute about India’s present and future. Hence my interest in this matter, though I am not a Vivekananda scholar. Govind Krishnan manages to sustain this argument by delving deep not just into Vivekananda’s religious and social philosophy but also by placing them in the context of ideas prevalent in pre-nationalist India and the Victorian age of the West.

This timely book rescues the legacy of Swami Vivekananda for the most pressing political task — reclaiming the Indian republic in the face of the most insidious onslaught that it faces today.

Vacuum of cultural nourishment
Sadly, secular politics has wilted in the face of this challenge. Instead of discovering new ideas, tapping new streams and making new friends, the liberal-progressive camp has shrunk the catchment area of its cultural nourishment. Contrast this with the RSS-BJP. They have expanded their reach to recruit within their fold historical figures who they have little reason to claim as their own — Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jayaprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and even Bhagat Singh.

Capturing the ideological legacy of Vivekananda was much easier for the Sangh Parivar. Average modern educated Indians know little about Vivekananda except that he was the great orator who mesmerised the world at a convention held in Chicago. They relate to Swami Vivekananda largely through the inspiring image of a saffron-clad Hindu sanyasi that evokes intense but vague pride in being Indian and Hindu. That is all the RSS would like them to know.

They would be shocked to discover that while swamiji practised the monk’s vow of brahmacharya and non-acquisition of wealth, he was a regular and open smoker, a non-vegetarian who cooked and relished mutton dishes and had nothing but contempt for the physical activity of yoga. The Sangh Parivar’s hero had no patience for the drive to build new temples and nothing but scorn for the campaigns of gauraksha that turned a blind eye to poverty and starvation among human beings. Clearly, such a Swami hardly fits the bill as an icon for the Sangh Parivar.

Their misappropriation was made easy by the attitude of the liberal-progressive camp that ranged from benign indifference to active suspicion of Swami Vivekananda. More often than not it was silence or polite praise. But at times, the Sangh Parivar’s desire to own Vivekananda was matched by the secular camp’s attempts to disown him. Beginning with Prabha Dixit’s 1975 article, which held him responsible for providing “an ideological rationale to the politics of Hindu communal movements”, and culminating into Jyotirmoy Sharma’s 2013 book, A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism, there have been many attempts to portray Vivekananda as a Hindu supremacist and social conservative. These interpretations have been challenged earlier too, notably by Tapan Raychaudhury in 1998, G Beckerlegge in 2003 and Swami Medhananda (alias Ayon Maharaj) in 2020. Govind Krishnan’s book helps us to put such misreadings to rest.

Swami Vivekananda’s theory of universal religion provides the perfect philosophic basis for not just toleration of different religions but the need for and celebration of religious diversity.

Hindu, not supremacist
Swami Vivekananda was a believing and practising Hindu, a proud Hindu who thought Hinduism has something special to contribute to humanity. He stood up against the prevailing tendency in his time, among colonisers as well as educated Indians, to ridicule Hinduism. But that does not make him a Hindu supremacist.

Barring one instance (involving an intemperate reaction to Christian missionaries), he never said anything negative about any other religion. In fact, he used to carry the book The Imitation of Christ with him and his relation with Jesus Christ can only be described as devotion. As for Islam, Swami Vivekananda insisted that the decline of Indian society was due to its inequality and insularity, not to be blamed on Muslim invaders. He praised Islam for its practice of equality and brotherhood, for being the only religion to realise advaitism in practice.

What about Vivekananda’s belief that vedanta philosophy was superior to all other religions? Indeed, Vivekananda did place all religions in a hierarchy beginning with dvaita (dualism), going up to vishishtadvaita (qualified dualism) and culminating in advaita (non-dualism), which he considered to be the essence of Hinduism. Scholars like Medhananda argue that this was a passing phase in Vivekananda’s intellectual evolution and that his mature view was that all religions are different paths, one of the four yogas, to realise the truth.

Even if we discount this interpretation, it would be an odd thing to accuse a believing Hindu or Muslim or Christian of believing that his religion is true in a way that is special. For a Hindu to say so in the face of colonial cultural onslaught was an act of self-affirmation. And above all, this ‘superiority’ of Hindu philosophy was basically its ability to recognise the truth of all other religions. It would be weird to see this as religious supremacism.

So, like Mahatma Gandhi’s adherence to Hinduism or Maulana Azad’s devotion to Islam, Vivekananda’s propagation of Hinduism is perfectly compatible with the secular doctrine of non-domination of any religion over others and the ‘principled distance’ of the state from organised religions. Swami Vivekananda’s theory of universal religion provides the perfect philosophic basis for not just toleration of different religions but the need for and celebration of religious diversity.

A critic of caste inequalities
A similar misreading, if not deliberate distortion, presents Vivekananda as a defender of the caste system and Brahmin supremacy. Govind Krishnan devotes a long chapter to presenting and refuting such insinuations. A plain reading of Vivekananda’s remarks on caste shows that he makes a clear distinction between caste in a generic sense (as species) and caste as a system of social hierarchy. He defends the former as a universal expression of species diversity and rejects the latter as an irrational and unjust social arrangement that is and should be on its way out. As he put it: “Modern caste distinction is a barrier to India’s progress. It narrows, restricts, separates. It will crumble before the advance of ideas.”

Similarly, he uses ‘Brahmin’ in two different senses, both familiar in the Indian intellectual traditions — as an abstract reference to anyone who displays specified virtues and as a social group defined by an accident of birth. He upholds the former and denounces the latter for their failure to live up to the virtues expected of them. He went to the extent of saying that “Brahmin caste is erecting with its own hands its own sepulchre; and this is what ought to be. It is good and appropriate that every caste of high birth and privileged nobility should make it its principal duty to raise its own funeral pyre with its own hands.”

Vivekananda was no sociologist and his views on this subject suffer from ambiguity, evasion and inconsistency, but it would be mischievous to fault his intent. Vivekananda was among the early Indians, if not the very first, to talk about socialism. He was in touch with British socialist poet Edward Carpenter in London and the anarchist thinker Peter Kropotkin in Paris. Anyone who reads Vivekananda cannot miss a strong egalitarian streak running through his writings. He was among the earliest, uncompromising advocates of gender equality, a champion of women’s education and suffrage and a resolute critic of any discrimination against women on grounds of religion or tradition.

Semantics apart, what matters is that he was resolutely opposed to inequalities and injustice based on the accident of birth as defined by caste. For him, caste was a social — and not a religious — institution and thus was not essential to Hinduism. This may be opposed to Dr Ambedkar’s (though very close to Narayana Guru’s) reading, but that does not make him an apologist for caste injustice. In any case, it would be anachronistic to expect Vivekananda to discuss caste the way we do in the post-Ambedkar era.

Ideological weapon and guide
Overcoming anachronism and historical hubris is the real challenge for us in making sense of someone like Swami Vivekananda. It is all too easy for us to sit in judgement, trying to measure him by our contemporary standards of political liberalism, social justice and modernism. Even when we appreciate him, we seem to be saying “although he is religious, yet he appears to be rational … although he is devout Hindu, yet he is secular … although he is a defender of our heritage, yet he is modern.” There is something fundamentally wrong here. Not just because the standards we wish to hold him to were not prevalent during his time. Not just because thinkers like him made it possible for us to formulate the positions that we have arrived at. But above all, because we assume that the values that we hold today are a stable vantage point to assess the universe.

Vivekananda forces us to radically rethink our own assumptions. He invites us to confront the spiritual vacuum that characterises secular spaces, overcome rational superstitions about religions, reflect on how our modernity should be different from that of the West, rethink our relationship with Hinduism (and other religions) and experience what it means to be a devout believer and deeply secular.

Vivekananda is no doubt a powerful ideological weapon to attack the Sangh Parivar. It would be a pity however if we merely wield him as a weapon to be used selectively and not learn from him, to let his legacy be the torch that can point both outwards and inwards. Vivekananda can help us reclaim our republic, if only we are willing to reimagine the spiritual and cultural meaning of our republic. Could that be a Vedantic approach to forging a new Republic of India?