A “rockstar”, an “angry young man”, “an ace at marketing” – these were some of the phrases used to describe Swami Vivekananda at a session entitled The Master: Vivekanand and his Teachings.
The panel featured Hindol Sengupta, Reba Som and Makarand Paranjape, all of whom have written about Vivekananda or his disciples. All of them also refused to put the spiritual leader on a pedestal. Instead, the discussion focused on everything from how astutely Vivekananda “marketed” his ideas to his “practical Vedanta”.
“When he addressed his American audience, Vivekananda never mentioned ritual, religion. He knew his audience,” said Reba Som who believes the “modern monk’s” ability to adapt himself to different audiences and cultures was a testament to his inherent modernity.
Sengupta agreed enthusiastically with this assessment. “When he was in America, he would travel in an open coach and because of his saffron robes, his perfect English, people thought he was a prince,” Sengupta said. “Vivekananda knew this drew people, and he used it as a ‘hook’ to attract them to his ideas.”
According to Paranjape, one of Vivekananda’s great achievements was to take Indian ideas to a new audience abroad, at a time when the country was under the yoke of colonialism. “This reversal of the colonial trend was a revitalization of the supine subcontinent,” he said. This prompted Sengupta to joke that Vivekananda was one of the first Bengalis to figure out that Indians would listen to you once you returned with a foreign stamp of approval.
Vivekananda’s modernity was his defining feature and the panel mentioned that he smoke and drank, and grew exasperated at the idea of putting any one, including his guru, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, on a pedestal. “The legacy of great thinkers like Vivekananda is that to be human is not to negate the divine,” said Paranjape. “It is we who censor and limit these great leaders.”
Vivekananda is held up as a youth icon — his birthday on January 12 is celebrated as National Youth Day — because of his focus on action.
“Apparently, when they were looking for a youth icon, a member of the selection committee suggested they zero in on Vivekananda because there was no portrait of him looking old,” said Paranjape. “Well, you see how cool he was? He managed what rock stars manage to do: die young!” Sengupta joked.
In an era where everyone tries to appropriate Vivekananda, a member of the audience had an interesting question: would the great leader lean towards the left, right, or to the centre?
“He would mix centre, left, and right, turn it into a football and give it a hearty kick,” Sengupta concluded.
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