Inclusive vision

Book: Guru to the World: The Life and Legacy of Vivekananda
Author: Ruth Harris
Publisher: Belknap
Price:  ₹799

This nuanced and detailed account of the life and times of Narendranath Datta (1863-1902), better known as Swami Vivekananda, by a professor of European history at the University of Oxford has come at a time when the century-long target of achieving a Hindu rashtra by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is arguably at its closest.

Ruth Harris’ book on the saffron-robed ascetic, who inspired some of the most eminent thinkers across the world, including the likes of Sigmund Freud, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, to name just a few, goes far beyond the story of how the son of a Calcutta-based attorney made his famous and influential speech at the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions that fascinated audiences with teachings from Hinduism, Western esoteric spirituality, physics, and the sciences of the mind, advocating, in the process, a more inclusive conception of religion while expounding the evils of colonialism. The author also explains at length how one of his most prominent disciples, the Irish activist, Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita), disseminated his ideas in the face of much disdain for the wisdom of a "subject race".

Harris points out in the introduction to her book that Vivekananda “is often regarded as central to Hindu resurgence and has become linked to a populism that challenges the liberal global order.” Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party “has sought to bind Hinduism so closely to its definition of Indian identity and destiny, [that many] aspects of Vivekananda’s broad vision… have been obscured.” She suggests that making a direct link between the Swami with the current politics of Hindu nationalism, as writers like Jyotirmaya Sharma have done, “is both reductive and dangerously misleading,” and that Vivekananda’s legacy was more complex as were “his interventions in debates over spirituality, politics, nationhood and experience.”  

Towards the end of her book, Harris quotes Vivekananda’s remarks to his Muslim friend from Nainital, Mohammad Sarfaraz Husain, that is worth reproducing here: “… for our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam… is the only hope. I see in my mind’s view the future perfect India rising out this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.”

These are words that would surely not warm the hearts of the ardent supporters of the sangh parivar. Vivekananda claimed he was ‘apolitical’; and yet he taught his Western audiences about the humiliation of conquest and the brutalities of their civilisation. He linked radical activism with renunciation and urged his fellow Hindu monks to fight against colonial rule that had brought famine and plague to the country.

This is no hagiography for sure. Vivekananda coined the phrase, ‘daridra Narayan’ — the god that resides among the poor — which, together with Gandhi’s use of the word, harijan (the children of god), are both problematic in today’s India. The author contrasts and compares the two men, both of whom deplored Western civilisation and, yet, were so different in terms of their behaviour: for instance, Vivekananda, unlike Gandhi, loved meat and tobacco.

Harris’ book contains a wealth of material and is replete with anecdotes that demonstrate the importance of Eastern agency in the global circulation of ideas that remain relevant a century and two decades after Vivekananda’s death.

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