Living with the other – a lesson from Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy is vital to this moment because he can inspire us to reach out to the “other” in a spirit of restoration and reconciliation
Swami Vivekananda had spoken just the first five words of his opening address, at the famous Chicago gathering in 1893, when the audience rose to its feet in a thunderous applause. “Sisters and brothers of America” was all he said. There is no better way to remember and honour Vivekananda, on his birthday (today is his 161st birth anniversary) or any other day, than to celebrate his call for bandhutva, a much richer word than fraternity.
But today, do we experience Swamiji’s repeated appeal for bandhutva (brotherhood) as a challenge, a difficulty? Or is it an inspiration for living with differences creatively, that we can actually act on? In our times, there is not only the proliferation of hatred and hate crimes. There is the additional problem of those who oppose these crimes, hating the hater!
Swami Vivekananda’s voice echoes across a century not only because of his innumerable quotable statements. He is a living presence because he openly shared his own inner struggles on the path of bandhutva. Unfortunately, these struggles remain invisible to those who only know Vivekananda as an ever-present statue across India. The depth of his legacy has also been obscured by the fact that he is admired, and quoted, both by those who are afflicted by communal animosity and those who crave communal harmony.
This contrast is what first drew me towards Vivekananda’s writings 31 years ago. The demolition of the Babri Mosque in December 1992, and the horrific communal violence which followed, happened in the centenary year of the Chicago address. When I first sought refuge in the collected works of Swami Vivekananda all I could see were two opposing sides in a tug of war — like armies on a battlefield vying for dominance. On the one side were those who celebrated the demolition of the Babri Mosque as an act of valour that restored Hindu pride. On the other side were those who condemned the same action as an act of desecration driven by vengeance and hatred.
Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy is vital to this moment because he can inspire us to reach out to the “other” in a spirit of restoration and reconciliation. We can begin by asking if we are indeed caught in a tug-of-war? What if, in reality, we are in the midst of a manthan, a churning? I am not invoking here the imagery of the mythic “samudra manthan” between the devas and asuras (gods and demons). Although that myth is imbued with many subtle complexities, it is commonly perceived as a tug of war in which the devas won. The churning I refer to is an inward process we all experience — that swirl of competing emotions and diverse dimensions of our own “self”. Such a churning is not about winning or losing but knowing yourself deeply and clearly.
A tug of war in society is often about one identity group or interest group trying to be victorious over some “other”. In comparison, churning within a samaj (society) is about recognising and processing competing impulses in ways that enable all to evolve and grow. This can be a process of discovering more about yourself by understanding the other. Vivekananda continues to inspire because his life itself was a kind of manthan — because he was constantly processing the turmoil of impulses and counter-responses. For example, he felt anger at the destruction of Hindu temples in the past. But he overcame this anger, he did not allow it to drive him or cloud his vision of the future. More importantly, he knew that the restoration of Hindu pride depends not on settling old scores but on fostering a society in which there is dignity and justice for all. For Vivekananda, Sita is the ideal of India because she never harmed the one who injured her.
Vivekananda’s processing of competing emotions remains precious for us today because it had the firm spiritual, philosophical and moral anchor of Advaita — which we too can draw upon. One way in which he sought to put this into practice was to urge us to take a person from where they stand and see how they might go forward from there. Swami Vivekananda often said this in the context of a person’s spiritual journey or lack thereof. I have understood this appeal to apply in all those situations when we feel that someone, some “other”, is taking a wrong stand — one that we deem to be “backward” or unhelpful both for that individual’s own well-being and for those around them. It is easy to condemn and reject the perceived backwardness or toxicity in the “other”. It takes effort to look the roiling hatred in the eye and recognise the fear lurking beneath.
Each one of us has to choose. Do we see the other’s vulnerability in combative terms, as a weak point to strike? Or do we approach the other with the possibility of a shared quest for freedom from fear? It does not matter what levels of public life and political competition this may or may not be possible. As individuals and as groups within the samaj, we are all free to strive for this freedom. It can move us one step closer to sharing Swamiji’s confidence that:
“Love never fails, my son; today or tomorrow or ages after, truth will conquer… Believe in the omnipotent power of love.”
Rajni Bakshi is the founder of the YouTube channel Ahimsa Conversations and author of ‘Vivekananda and Our Times: The Journey from Fear to Love’, to be released in February. The views expressed are personal