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Secular, socialist: Recalling Swami Vivekananda’s message of tolerance

Recalling Vivekananda’s secular and socialist ideals on the 125th anniversary of his speech.

opinion Updated: Sep 11, 2017 13:55 IST
A sand sculpture commemorates Swami Vivekananda at Juhu Beach in Mumbai in January 11, 2017.
A sand sculpture commemorates Swami Vivekananda at Juhu Beach in Mumbai in January 11, 2017. (Pramod Thakur/HT PHOTO)

Swami Vivekananda’s message to India and the world at the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions is even more relevant in the present context, wrote Dr Nitish Sengupta in Hindustan Times on February 14, 1993. We republish the column, which portrays Vivekananda’s secular and socialist ideals, on the 125th anniversary of his speech.

The centenary year of the 1893 Chicago Parliament of Religions is an appropriate occasion to recall Swami Vivekananda’s message to India and the world, and to be amazed at how relevant it is even after a century. Vivekananda was just not a religious saint, but a Vedantic teacher propounding the concept of a universal religion; India’s first socialist, a firebrand nationalist and yet a true internationalist who was ahead of his time, a social reform activist, an educationist and, above all, a humanist who believed in the innate greatness of human beings. In his clarion call at the Chicago Parliament, he emphasised the fundamental unity of all religions deprecating the prevailing tendency to emphasise the greatness of one’s own religion and decry other religions. He urged followers of various religions to be true to their fundamental tenets, and not to emphasise “secondary details”.

One cannot but recall his stirring words, “The Christian has not to become Hindu or Buddhist, nor a Hindu or Buddhist to become Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the other, and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. Every religion has produced men and women of most exalted character. If in the face of this evidence, anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart.”

This Vedantic concept of eternal universal religion could not be the exclusive property of the Hindus. Believing in the unity of all mankind and the same God manifesting himself through all beings, he felt that Islam as a religion had gone the farthest in achieving this Vedantic concept of equality of mankind. “How I would long to see my India as an Islamic body with a Vedantic head (letter to a friend, Sarfaraz Khan).” Again, “If you are born a Christian, be a good Christian. If you are born a Hindu, be a good Hindu. If you are born a Muslim, be a good Muslim.”

For a generation which is troubled with the Ayodhya phenomenon, these are indeed very comforting words. Different sects fighting for the exclusive right to worship in different names of the same God is contrary to all that Swami ji stood for. Swami Vivekananda would have liked to see both Hindus and Muslims offer prayer to God --called by whatever name -- at the same place and in harmony, without disturbing each other.

“Advaitism” is the religion of the future enlightened humanity. Yet practical Advaitism which looks upon all mankind as one’s own soul was never developed among the Hindus universally. If any religion approaches this equality, it is Islam alone.” It was from the Vedanta again that several other strands of his thought evolved. He wanted the caste system to be completely eradicated, the poorer sections of the people to be given a fair deal and religion to be freed from priestly tyranny and vulgar ritualism. Man is an incarnation of God. If this is so, if God resides in every soul, there cannot be any high caste, any low caste, any master or slave. For a true Vedantist, there is no room for difference or special privileges on the basis of the accident of birth, no room for difference between nations. Just as a body where blood does not flow through all the limbs equally becomes diseased, the same with the society where large sections of the people are kept backward and deprived of basic facilities and education.

In his stirring words again, “Think of the last 600 or 700 years of degradation when grown up men have been discussing for years whether they should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether they should gargle five or six times. Our religion is in the kitchen.Our God is in the cooking pot and our religion is ‘don’t touch me, I am holy’.”

For him, the problem of the caste was a part of the greater national problem. To remedy this he suggested free flow of spiritual and secular knowledge among the masses of the people and free flow of opportunities so that all could see the evils of the caste system and resist the humiliation and exploitation. “Religion is neither in books, nor in intellectual consent, nor in reason. Reason, theory, dogmas, doctrines, books, ceremonies are all helps to religion. Religion itself consist of realisation.”

For a true Vendantic, all these rituals that the priests propagate were meaningless. “For centuries these priests had been doling out ditch water as religion overlooking the eternal fountain of Amrit that lies behind us. I consider the great national sin is the neglect of the masses and that is one of the causes of our downfall. No amount of politics would be of any avail until the masses in India are well-educated, well-fed and well-cared for. If we want to regenerate India, we must work for them. So long as millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who having been educated at their expense, pays no heed to them. I do not believe in a god who cannot give us bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven.”

These thoughts were forged in the course of his 14 years of travel on foot across India when he came to know hunger, starvation, shelterless living, the misery of the poor and also their ‘great potential’. His prescription was a programme of national regeneration in which education must play a major role. He addressed his appeals to three sections: the youth, the women and the lower classes. He demanded that the task of educating the younger generation should be taken over from the hands of the foreign rulers and from orthodox religious institutions and given to the society as a whole. Also, he considered it necessary that education should be patriotic, useful and that the achievements of advanced technology should be mastered by our younger people.

Again, he attached great importance to professional vocational training and to further education and informal education -- ideas which have become fashionable only just now after a century. Also, “spend no more money on the Brahmin’s education, but spend all on the Pariah.”

“Our aristocratic ancestors went on treading the masses of the country under feet till they became helpless, till the poor people nearly forgot that they were human beings. They have been compelled to be merely hewers of wood and drawers of water for centuries, so much so the most demoniacal and brutal arrangements culled from the crude ideas of hereditary transmission and other such gibberish from the western world are brought forward to brutalise and tyrannise over the poor.”

He, therefore, wanted the upper classes in India to forget their exclusive privileges and merge themselves with the masses. The new India, according to him, would arise “out of the peasant’s cottage, grasping the plough, out of the huts of fishermen, the cobbler and the sweeper, the grocer’s shop, from the oven of the fritter seller, from the factory, from the mart and from markets, from the forests, from hills and mountains.”

Vivekananda was by far the first in India to call himself a socialist. In his remarkable pamphlet “I am a Socialist”, he did not quite preach an armed struggle between the classes but surely, advocated a complete fusion of all classes and castes. According to him, the world having passed through the Brahmanic age, the Kshatriya age, and the Vaishya age, it was inevitable that the Shudras will take over. Few, at that time, understood the significance and value of labour and propagated their upsurge through education and mass upsurge. The state of a civilisation is to be judged by the way it treats its women. He also attached tremendous importance to women.

“If I get 500 motivated men, it will take me 50 years to transform India. If I get 50 motivated women it may take only a few years.” in his programme of national regeneration, he attributed tremendous significance to mass education, the education that is not religious in the conventional sense but both spiritual and scholarly, at the same time scientific and cosmopolitan. All the reform movements in India, in his opinion, failed to succeed because they were confined only to the 0.5% of the people, the upper class, and so long as that they are made to believe that they are born as slaves, hewers of wood and drawers of water. With all our boasted education of modern times, if anybody says a kind word for them, our men shrink at once from the duty of lifting them up -- these poor downtrodden people.

Not only so, but I also find that all sorts of the masses of the people were not transformed through education, these reform movements were bound to be confined to a very narrow base. Seeing the Roop Kanwar incident and the like, even in today’s India one cannot but endorse this assessment. Today, a century after the Parliament of Religions, it is important to recall Swami ji’s stirring message. He did not surely preach nationalism as such, but when he preached freedom, the need for emancipation from all bondage, and to be fearless against all oppression, including domination by foreigners, he surely laid the foundation of a great nationalistic movement that arose a few years after him.

Let us recall his words from his famous address at Lahore in 1897, “So give up being slaves. For the next 50 years that alone should be our keynote, our Mother India. Let all other vain gods vanish for the time from our minds. This is the only God.”

“If the generation that followed saw, three years after Vivekananda’s death, the revolt of Bengal, the prelude to the great movement of Tilak and Gandhi, if India today has taken part in the collective action of organised masses, it is due to the message from Vivekananda,” said Romain Rolland.

His chosen instrument for transformation was the youth. He wanted to organise a hundred thousand strong brigade of educated young men and women to “send them like waves all over India bringing comfort, morality, religion, education to the doors of the meanest and the most downtrodden.” These would be gigantic waves and nothing could resist these young people “with muscles of iron and nerves of steel inside, whose life is one of burning love, self reliance, meeting death face to face, if necessary.” That task remains unfulfilled even after a century. It is for our generation to fulfil this task and build a new India and a new world.