What Vivekananda valued
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Anniversaries are important. If they do nothing but dent the massive historical amnesia we have about how we became what we are, they will have served their purpose. Vivekananda does have a pride of place in the massive transformation of Indian self-consciousness. He was, to use, Auden's phrase, a whole climate of opinion, an object of admiration for figures as diverse as Gandhi, Tagore and Bose. There is the sheer force of his personality and the power of his words. There is also something deeply elegiac about the intellectual journey he crafted. There is of course the Vivekananda, the by-no-means-unthinking disciple of Ramkrishna Paramahansa. But there is the wandering monk, studying the Ashtadhyayi in Jaipur, Vedas in Porbandar, Latin theology in Goa, conversing with William James at Harvard. There is the extraordinary juxtaposition: Jamshedji Tata and Vivekananda on a ship talking about the establishment of an institute of science. Jamshedji writing to him to be its brand ambassador, as it were. India has progressed in many ways. But not in intellectual ambition. Almost all our great figures appear to us monumentalised, precisely because we are incapable of comprehending the rich and diverse intellectual soil that nourished them.
Vivekananda was central to many of the intellectual undercurrents that made modern India possible. He was the progenitor of projects central to modern Indian identity. The claim that without removing hunger and ignorance of the masses, no national regeneration would be possible now seems commonplace, even if unconscionably unfulfilled. But he shifted the central question of India's future to the removal of poverty and ignorance with unprecedented rhetorical power and force. Ignoring poverty and education was the highest form of treason.
He made possible a radical criticism of tradition, without making tradition despicable. Few describe the savagery of Indian society with as much bluntness as he does. The greatest indictment of priestly power was it made the poor forget their own humanity. No social structure is religiously sanctioned; societies are products of the operations of power and necessity. This then paved the way for the centrality of a very modern political vocabulary centred on freedom, individuality and equal opportunity. The great abomination of poverty was that it crushed individuals. His advice to the Congress party, "let them (the masses) have full meals, they will work out their salvation."
The third achievement was to recast the modern Indian project as the creation of an alternative universality. The legitimacy of the Indian enterprise would forever be measured by the fact that it was tethered to values: a theological openness, toleration in the highest sense of the term and pluralism. He directed India towards a liberality by reminding us that it was god's job to protect us, not ours to protect our gods. The distinction of Indian nationalism was precisely that it never saw the nation as the highest embodiment of value. With the condescension of hindsight it is too easy to dismiss this project as either disembodied idealism, or worse still, an assertion of Indian superiority. But embedded in it was the radical idea that India means nothing if it is not going to be a source of alternative values. There is a recognition of pluralism, but not one that sacrifices truth. "We want to lead mankind to a 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, the Koran." Whatever one may think of this project, the idea that each tradition could reach to some place outside itself, by working through all traditions, was a sign of intellectual ambition that is now all but lost.
Again, in hindsight, Vivekananda has been read as progenitor masculinity in politics; and he has certainly been appropriated that way. His claim that "for our motherland, a conjunction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam — Vedanta Brain and Islam Body is the only hope" has been tirelessly misinterpreted. This quotation is prefaced by two striking claims "Practical Advaitism, which looks upon and behaves to all mankind as one's own soul, was never developed amongst the Hindus." And "if any religion approached equality in any appreciable manner it was Islam and Islam alone." The reference to Islamic body is not to an ideal of power; it is to the central idea of equality.
Vivekananda was an unabashed defender of equality of opportunity: "If there is inequality in nature, there still must be equal chances for all." He prophesises the empowerment of the backward castes, and his castigation of untouchability was second to none. Yet, like Gandhi, he could not convert an anti-untouchability programme into a genuine anti-caste programme; indeed the abstraction with which he can sometimes talk of caste led him to underestimate just what a scourge it was.
In a strange way, his political thought is incomprehensible without unpacking two categories: abhaya (fearlessness) and aparigraha (renunciation). Indeed what is common to the non-Marxist understanding of equality in the Indian tradition is precisely that equality might not be possible without individuals practising some form of renunciation. For the root source of inequality is excessive attachment and a will to dominate. And the only means to address inequality therefore, is to shape ourselves in a certain way. But this tradition could not quite bridge the gap from equality as an ethical ideal to a political and economic one.
The other point of distance between us and the tradition that Vivekananda represented is this. While the social question was central for them, they did not reduce all thought to the social question. There was still something of genuinely divine reality to be accessed, a higher form of knowledge to be comprehended. While we all pay due homage to that aspiration, we can barely understand what that might mean. For all its limitations, Vivekananda underlying sensibility was open, self-confident and governed by the belief that humanity needs wider circles of identification to transcend narrow identities. But this is not a message we are yet ready to comprehend.
The writer is president of Centre for Policy Research, Delhi