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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Vivekananda and his Vedantik values

Vivekananda and his Vedantik values

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The 'nation' is celebrating the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekananda. He is presented an icon of youth though he passed away at the young age of 38 suffering from over 30 odd diseases though he travelled across different parts of the world and gave lectures about 'Indian Culture'. The 'iconic' and masculine photograph of Vivekananda in the saffron robe suites all the status quoists in India as despite his 'radical' speeches and writings, Vivekananda called to return to 'Vedas' and tried to find answers in the religious textbooks. He interpreted Hinduism in the most liberal way such as its faith in 'multiculturalism' and respecting diverse traditions. He was influenced with Buddha yet felt that Buddha's path was of individual Nirvana without any comprehensive struggle but the fact remain that Buddha remain the biggest icon of India even when the mainstream brahmanical media does not accept that, it is a fact that Buddhism has grown world over, respected as well as accepted while Vivekananda's own thoughts have never been accepted by those who claim to follow him at the moment.

There is no doubt that Vivekananda has often critiqued the Brahmanical system and condemned its belief of untouchability yet he could not challenge the supremacy of Vedas and Manusmriti. He interpreted them according to his own beliefs and understanding. He reminded Indians of the 'great' cultural legacy of Vedanta and talked of equality of human beings. He addressed various issues concerning our society and made his own reflections. Unfortunately, he could neither develop a people's revolt against such practices nor he guided the destiny of people like many others did.

Vivekananda's philosophical traits are full of contradiction but the most reactionary came from his view on women. Many in India are trying to portray him as great believer of gender equality but his ideal Indian woman is 'Sita' who 'obey' her husband and was committed to her family. He questioned the western feminist movement terming that there the women dresses like men and he could not accept that. Delivering a lecture on Ramayana in California in the year 1900 Vivekananda said,'

'This is the great, ancient epic of India. Rama and Sita are the ideals of the Indian nation. All children, especially girls, worship Sita. The height of a woman's ambition is to be like Sita, the pure, the devoted, the all-suffering! When you study these characters, you can at once find out how different is the ideal in India from that of the West. For the race, Sita stands as the ideal of suffering. The West says, "Do! Show your power by doing." India says, "Show your power by suffering." The West has solved the problem of how much a man can have: India has solved the problem of how little a man can have. The two extremes, you see. Sita is typical of India — the idealised India. The question is not whether she ever lived, whether the story is history or not, we know that the ideal is there. There is no other Paurânika story that has so permeated the whole nation, so entered into its very life, and has so tingled in every drop of blood of the race, as this ideal of Sita. Sita is the name in India for everything that is good, pure and holy — everything that in woman we call womanly. If a priest has to bless a woman he says, "Be Sita!" If he blesses a child, he says "Be Sita!" They are all children of Sita, and are struggling to be Sita, the patient, the all-suffering, the ever-faithful, the ever-pure wife. Through all this suffering she experiences, there is not one harsh word against Rama. She takes it as her own duty, and performs her own part in it. Think of the terrible injustice of her being exiled to the forest! But Sita knows no bitterness. That is, again, the Indian ideal.

So, his ideal Indian woman suffers and do not question the wrongs like Sita. Can such perceptions be ideal for today's India which is changing? Will a woman lose her 'womanhood' if she dressed 'western attire'?

Vivekanand's 'historical' speech at Chicago in 1893 was aimed at presenting Indian civilization as the 'greatest' civilization of the world. In fact, Indian civilization for him was Vedantik civilization and in a way, it was his presentation of 'shining India'. He spoke against all evils but suggested that Vedanta has every answer to these evils ignoring deliberately the vast history of war for religious supremacy in India and how Buddhism was sought to be destroyed by the powerful Vaidik priests and their promoters. He said,'

'Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now? But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.'

In fact, his beliefs on Vedantism were stronger than anything else. In a letter to Mohammed Sarfaraz Hussain, on June 10th, 1898, he explains what can make India a strong country.

'Therefore I am 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. We want to lead mankind to the 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 and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.

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'

He believed that a universal religion of oneness can build by taking 'good' from everything. He acknowledged Islam's work for equal society and spirit of sacrifice and commitment but at the end he focused thoroughly on Vedantik 'brain'. Will any one accept that position of accepting the brahmanical supremacy?

Similarly, Vivekananda has been very forthright on caste question. He spoke about untouchability and condemned it the biggest curse but he felt that all those who are following it were never really following the Vedas or true Hinduism.  In his work 'India and her Problems' Vivekananda even justify caste.

'Caste is good. That is only natural way of solving life. Men must form themselves into groups, and you cannot get rid of that. Wherever you go there will be caste. But that does not mean that there should be these privileges. They should be knocked on the head. If you teach Vedanta to the fisherman, he will say, "I am as good a man as you, I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me, as you have in you." And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all; let everyone be taught that the Divine is within, and everyone will work out his own salvation. The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of India'.

Further he says

'To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes - which is sinful - use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done. Why do you not become Sanskrit scholars? Why do you not spend millions to bring Sanskrit education to all the castes of India? That is the question. The moment you do these things, you are equal to the Brahmana! That is the secret power in India.'

It is ironical that Vivekananda never ever questioned the Manusmriti and Vaidik tests which justify caste system and gender discrimination. Yes, he was a more sophisticated version of imposing those age old rigid values on us. Today, attempts are being made to make him as an icon on us so that we continue to perpetrate the caste system. Those who claim to follow Vivekananda must at least respect what he said about Islam and caste system but the fact is that his own followers have obliterated these facts from their lives. None is interested in what he said on caste system and untouchability. The problem with them is that they use Vivekananda as part of their 'shining' India campaign and not to introspect on their fault line and develop a movement. People like Narendra Modi consider Islam as the biggest challenge contrary to the thoughts of Vivekananda. Till date there is not a single movement against untouchability and caste system by the caste Hindus. He want the others to follow Brahmins rather than fighting with them or questioning the religious values of that time.

The irony of Vivekananda is that unlike Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and other icons of social justice, who questioned the very legitimacy of the religious texts of Hindus, Vivekananda became a counter revolutionary, a revivalist of brahmanical propaganda. He talked about injustices, caste hierarchy and untouchability but ultimately wanted to establish the supremacy of Vedas which were the fountainhead of discrimination. The absurdity of his arguments that the Dalits should study Sanskrit and become Brahmins can be found that not a single major temple in India has non Brahmin priests. And Dalit students even today face discrimination in studying Sanskrit and we have case studies for that. Vivekananda's most superfluous argument was that you can make a fishermen a 'brahmin' but leave alone fishermen, we cannot find a single Kayastha becoming Brahmin despite their being very 'knowledgeable'. Caste in India cannot be changed and is decided before you are born. It is surprising that Vivekananda has not spoken the ideological bankruptcy of the brahmanical scriptures. He never spoke as why Manu Smriti violates basic principles of justices. Instead he tried to justify them.

Even today, when political parties vie each other to fight and claim his legacy, Vivekananda means little to all those who were victim of brahmanical caste system and his views on ideal Indian womanhood are simply parochial and outdated. He is definitely a respected figure and reminded Brahmins and high caste Hindus their duties towards the most marginalized communities but if had questioned even on a single occasion the legitimacy of Shastras, he would have become a 'revolutionary' and the renaissance that he wanted would have happened during his life time. Alas, his views will only strengthen the fundamentalist forces in India and will take it further backward as no society can grow on these fictitious 'granthas' that legitimize discrimination and violence. Modern India will only strengthen when secular values of humanism and plurality with equitable distribution of power as well as opportunities to grow for every citizen of this country. 

Vidya Bhushan Rawat
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