Swami Vivekananda and his Humanism

Neha Dabhade

(Secular Perspective June 16-30, 2019)

Today we live in an India where religion and religious identity have prominence in public domain and influence public and policy matters. Be it the Citizenship Amendment Bill which seeks to give preferential treatment to some religions over some other or crimes like rapes or abductions which are given religious hues, religious identity is at the centre stage. Unfortunately, hatred, exclusion and hate crimes are perpetuated under the pretext of religion or religious symbols. Any social or political happening is seen through the lens of caste and religion. Moreover, the narrative that is most affected by religion in recent times is that of nationalism. The dominant political ideology in India treats some section of the society as second class citizens and undermining democracy. This ideology based on the ideas of supremacy and exclusivity often draws from Hindu religion and religious symbols selectively. In order to make this ideology acceptable to larger section of Indians and justify its supremacy, the supremacists often quote and misappropriate historical figures, icons and philosophers electively to suit their agenda. One such tall figure is Swami Vivekananda. We are witnessing a sharp shift towards majoritarianism. By revisiting figures like Vivekananda we retrieve sources that are redemptive and liberal.

Vivekananda was a thinker and philosopher born in West Bengal in 1863. He is an exponent of advaita philosophy.  His views were complex and shaped by the socio-political reality existing in his times. On one hand, the social decadence in the society replete with superstitions deeply troubled him and on the other hand, he was concerned with the British colonial rule. In this context, he wanted to reform the Hindu religion and also invoke pride and confidence in the Hindu society which was broken by orthodoxy and imposition of western ideas which the British claimed were superior. His greatest contribution is that he tried to provide a spiritual basis to nationalism at that time to achieve freedom from the colonial rule and also morally and socially uplift the Hindu society which as reeling under dogmas and superstitions.

Vivekananda was a nationalist- but his nationalism was inclusive and humane. He was moved and disturbed with the crushing poverty, ignorance, social inequalities he witnessed when he travelled the length and breadth of India. He wanted to invigorate the Indian masses by infusing nationalism with spiritualism- strength, sense of service and sacrifice.  He envisaged a spiritual goal for India. He said, “Each nation has a destiny to fulfil, each nation has a message to deliver, each nation has a mission to accomplish. Therefore we must have to understand the mission of our own race, the destiny it has to fulfil, the place it has to occupy in the march of nations, the role which it has to contribute to the harmony of races (Tyagi, 2015)”. His nationalism is based on humanism and universalism. It was not narrow or jingoistic. It led towards harmony and peace.

In order to achieve freedom from the British and retain this freedom he emphasized on ‘man-making’. He believed that a mere act in the parliament was not going to give India freedom. And freedom will be meaningless if Indians can’t value it or not ready for it. The people of India should be prepared for freedom. By man making, Vivekanada meant imbibing certain values through education to shape the students and children. These values should form the foundation of a strong character of the citizen and make a person a good human being. This human being should fight for emancipation.  Vivekananda viewed education as a tool to promote self reliance and universal brotherhood. This kind of education will help human beings to realize divinity in oneself b himself/herself. Thus this was a prerequisite for freedom and nationalism.

Often Vivekananda is accused of Hindu supremacy. He was a devout Hindu and sought the road of spiritualism to engage with nationalism. This is misappropriated by the Hindu supremacists today and they make Vivekananda a poster boy for divisive ideology. Vivekananda is selectively quoted to justify their agenda, memorials and organizations are built after Vivekananda and it is claimed that they carry out work on the lines of the teachings of Vivekananda namely, service, nation building and man-making. The supremacists project Vivekananda as a great icon of resurgent Hindu nationalism, a champion of Hindu superiority and a great defender of Hinduism vis-a-vis Islam and Christianity. This is far from truth.

Vivekananda recognizes and also desires the coexistence of different religions.  This is evident from his words at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He said, “Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity. I am not going just now to venture my own theory. But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the other, to him I say, "Brother, yours is an impossible hope."

The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: "Help and not Fight," "Assimilation and not Destruction," "Harmony and Peace and not Dissension (News18.com, 2017)."

Thus, he saw the same morals and values in all religions and also emphasized that religions can collectively grow if they learn from each other. The followers of all religions have produced good human beings of exalted characters; such was the influence of all religions. This message is significant and relevant for our contemporary society which is polarized along the lines of religions. Individuals are targeted because they follow particular religion which is looked down upon. Differences based on religious symbols and rituals are exaggerated and projected as irreconcilable thereby deepening the social fissures. But Vivekananda explains that all religions are same in essence but can have different symbols. In that he highlights that Hindu religion in particular has recognized this diversity and grasped this truth. He said, “Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognised it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas, and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat which must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry, he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realised, or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols--so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on

To the Hindu, then, the whole world of religions is only a travelling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures (News18.com, 2017).”

In fact he goes on to explain that the future of India is a harmony between Hindu religion and Islam. He wants an India with “Vedanta mind and Islam body”. This formulation implies a hierarchy which places the Vedanta in a superior position since the mind rules the body. The mind is suppose to control the body and is the epicenter of morals, feelings and reason. He appears more as patronizing and assimilating.  Nonetheless this formulation is inclusive. He goes on to elaborate on the same saying, “Whether we call it Vedantism or any ism, the truth is that Advaitism is the last word of religion and thought and the only position from which one can look upon all religions and sects with love. I believe it is the religion of the future enlightened humanity. The Hindus may get the credit of arriving at it earlier than other races, they being an older race than either the Hebrew or the Arab; yet practical Advaitism, which looks upon and behaves to all mankind as one's own soul, was never developed among the Hindus universally.

On the other hand, my experience is that if ever any religion approached to this equality in an appreciable manner, it is Islam and Islam alone. Therefore I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind. We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonising the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best. For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta brain and Islam body — is the only hope.

I see in my mind's eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda volume 6).”

Finally, Vivekananda’s teaching of service is the most powerful. His mission in life was service to the poor and the down trodden. He was thus known as the first Hindu missionary. His message was essentially of sacrifice and service to others, to serve others without distinction of caste, class and sex. He believed that in each being there was God and thus each being should be served with humility and especially the poor. Serving others fostered the spirit of humanism which was dear to him. Service to the needy was a practical necessity to Vivekananda since it led to nation-building and man-making. At the same time, at a spiritual level, it was a manifestation of the realization of dignity of human being. This underscores the importance he gave to human dignity. He wanted to challenge the selfish and self centric tendencies of the individuals which tended to exploit others. He was against all kinds of exploitation and would never justify exploitation of one class of society under the pretext of service.

Vivekananda and his philosophy can be summed up as necessarily humanistic.  At the risk of sounding simplistic, it can be said with conviction that Vivekananda wanted Indians to be good human beings first- generous, kind, loving, all embracing and dignified. He chose Hinduism and religion as a way to imbibe these liberal and universal values in Indians when they were fighting the colonial powers as well as caste system and bigotry in the country. His speech in Chicago got a standing ovation not because it was apologetic or polemic but because it demonstrated that religion finds its finest moment in the praxis of interfaith dialogue. At times, Vivekananda appears to hold Hindu religion in a position of superiority. But his message of inclusion and universal nature of Hinduism remain coherent and unwavering. His message of service to all and essential unity amongst all religions is a soothing balm for a society today grappling with fault lines pitting one human being against the other by invoking identities based on religion and caste. His idea of India and nationalism didn’t propagate hatred for others but urged Indians to be better human beings. This message is a sane voice in our contemporary phase of turmoil.


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism


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