Vivekananda who, in the 19th century, had the vision of an India in which there is a sharing of body and soul among Hindus and Muslims? What dismissive term would they use to describe him? How would saner Indians reassess Vivekananda as a man of our times?
There’s a long way to go for religious harmony.
But what did Vivekananda say? There is a wonderful chapter on ‘Mohammed and Islam’ in a book titled Teachings of Swami Vivekananda, which has a moving 30-page introduction by British writer Christopher Isherwoood. The chapter is a collection of quotes from a speech Vivekananda gave to an American audience.
This is what he says: “Mohammed – the Messenger of equality. You ask, ‘What good can there be in his religion?’ If there was no good, how could it live? The good alone lives, that alone survives… How could Mohammedanism have lived, had there been nothing good in its teachings? There is much good.”
“Mohammed by his life showed that amongst the Mohammedans there should be perfect equality and brotherhood. There was no question of race, caste, colour or sex. The Sultan of Turkey may buy a Negro from the mart of Africa, and bring him in chains to Turkey; but should he become a Mohammedan, and have sufficient merit and abilities, he might even marry the daughter of the Sultan. Compare this with the way in which Negroes and the American Indians are treated in this country (the United States of America)! And what do Hindus do? If one of your missionaries chances to touch the food of an orthodox person, he would throw it away.”
Compare this with the way in which so-called low caste people are still treated in India. Temples, restaurants, marriages, jobs are ruled by caste considerations. It is not surprising that these caste idiocies have now made the once-downtrodden very powerful vote banks. It’s the upper castes who now buy low caste certificates for their survival. Vivekananda had warned of this revenge of history. Vivekananda would be a Dalit and Muslim leader today.
As he told the Americans, “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does. If one of your American Indians becomes a Mohammedan, the Sultan of Turkey would have no objection to dine with him. If he has brains, no position is barred to him. In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the Negro can kneel side by side to pray.”
“It is a mistaken statement that has been made to us that the Mohammedans do not believe that women have souls…I am not a Mohammedan, but yet I have had opportunities for studying them, and there is not one word in the Koran which says that women have no souls, but in fact it says they have.” That would get Vivekananda a nationwide Hindu-Muslim women’s vote bank.
“Vedantic spirit of religious liberality has very much affected Mohammedanism. Mohammedanism in India is quite a different thing from that in any other country. It is only when Mohammedans come from other countries and preach to their co-religionists in India about living with men who are not of their faith that a Mohammedan mob is aroused, and fights.” Vivekananda is predicting here the activities of Pakistan’s ISI and other foreign mischief-makers who have been sponsoring terrorism in India.
“Practical Advaitism … is yet to be developed among the Hindus universally… Therefore we are 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…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.”
Pakistan too needs Vivekananda’s vision as much as India does. Pakistan is in deep trouble, with Muslims blowing up Muslims, Shias battling Sunnis, and both together fighting a military dictatorship. Pakistan needs to import democracy as well as Vedanta thought from India.
Religious fundamentalists will scream that this is incendiary talk and demand that Vivekananda’s books should be banned. Politicians and spy agencies will sponsor these protests. You can’t have Hindus and Muslims living together peacefully and sharing their ideas and festivals. What would happen to international power games, realpolitik cynicism, conflict resolution, and clash of civilisations?
Dilip Raote is is a senior journalist and writer