Was the blue-eyed boy of global Hinduism a saint or a sinner? Was he, as believed by most practicing Hindus, a great social reformer, who had reinvigorated the sagging prospects of the religion, and thereby the nebulous nation under the clutches of the British imperialists, or was he, as academic-author Jyotirmaya Sharma forcefully asserts, a Hindu supremacist, who had sown the seeds of modern, virulently xenophobic, Hindutva ideology?
There can never be a simple answer in terms of a yes or no to this huge and perplexing question. Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion, Sharma’s third book in his multi-volume analysis of the origins and self-images of the Hindu identity (if there’s any, there are perhaps many), comes to us at a potent time, when the Hindutva ideology, which was consigned to political wilderness since the Congress-led UPA government occupied the seat of power in Delhi in 2004, has found a fresh lease of life under the corporatised supervision of Narendra Modi. To launch a scholarly assault on one of the founding fathers of political Hinduism, is therefore, more than a mere coincidence, given that India, and the transnational Hindus, have been busy celebrating the Swami’s 150 birth anniversary.
The chief tenets of Sharma’s argument are these — one, Vivekananda ‘restated’ and ‘reconfigured’ Hinduism, a mishmash, un-amalgamated, variously sourced, quasi-textual, ritualised and performance-dominated belief system into a cohesive but distinctly exclusionist super-religion that favoured ‘dharma’ (duty) and ‘karma’ (work ethic) over mystical solipsism; two, Vivekananda, in order to become the globally-renowned guru and enunciator of the East, twisted the preachings of his spiritual master, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, whose ‘catholicity’, indicating a generosity towards other religions and investment in the metaphysical playfulness with the divine, was remodeled from a ‘religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic’, thus, in effect, ‘distorting’ what the latter had to say; three, citing religion to justify existing caste hierarchies within Hinduism; and four, creating the template for a resurgent Hindu India, which would be European in structure but Hindu in spirit and religion.
While it is true that Vivekananda gave the myth of the effeminate and impotent Hindu a powerful dose of religion-inspired work vigour, this strain of imperialist Protestantism in his ideas had much to do with the volatile times when he lived and traveled learning and unlearning the uses and abuses of the Hindu corpus of thought. Late 19th century had ushered in a spiritual crisis, not just in India, which was in any case under foreign thumbs, but in Europe itself, which was engulfed under a cosmic cloud of moral and ethical void, precipitated by excessive greed and rapacity of global colonialism. The European Indologists, such as William Jones, Colebrooke, Schlegel and Max Muller, looked eastwards to understand Hinduism as both a field of study, but also, as a possible solution to fertilise Europe’s spiritual wasteland. Yet, somehow, their Orientalist scholarship contributed further to the political diminution of India.
In order to reinvent India, Vivekananda needed a potent elixir, a potion to recover the ‘righteous republic’, to borrow a phrase from Ananya Vajpeyi’s lexicon. Secular, liberal humanist values, although favoured by majority of the anglicised Indian intellectuals and elites, for Vivekananda, had hitherto failed to suitably energise and enthuse the Indian millions. However, the Western work ethic, consecrated and sublimated in the form of imperial capitalism and their superior military prowess, had ignited the Swami’s reinvention of India. A political India, a revolutionary India, according to him, perhaps had to distance itself symbolically from the centuries of Mughal rule, ostensibly because the dynasty had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the British during the Revolt of 1857.
The farther the symbol of unity exists in the chronology of events, the more attractive is its lure for a people. It is probably for this reason that we have the Ashok chakra in our national flag, and not an emblem from the historically proximal times of Akbar the Great. Such arbitrariness of choice, albeit, have their political expediencies. Vivekananda’s restatement of religion is, therefore, perhaps more complicated than a simple belief in Hindu supremacy. Nervertheless, it’s a good time to revisit his legend and grapple with the guru.