Today, as the nation celebrates the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, there's a greater need than ever to extricate his core philosophy from the spin given to it by the appropriators of his legacy. Vivekananda was not a votary of the militant Hinduism espoused by many of his contemporary flag bearers. He would have shuddered at the idea of Hindutva, for his was the voice of religious universalism and interfaith dialogue, and these twin doctrines continue to be the ideological bedrock of the Ramakrishna Math & Mission.
The doctrinal road map for Vivekananda was laid down by his spiritual guru, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who espoused the doctrine of "jato mat, tato path", which recognises the potential of all religions to act as means of attaining spiritual enlightenment. It is not coincidental that in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda lore, one of the most repeated life stories is that of the motherly love that Sri Ramakrishna's spiritual consort, Sarada Devi, showered on Amjad, a construction worker building her house in her native village, Joyrambati. She fed him when everyone in her family refused to do so and then cleaned his utensils. Amjad is one name I remember from the lectures I would attend in my teens at the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi.
At a time when Indians, whether Hindu or Muslim, were asserting their religious identity in a proto-nationalist way as a bulwark against colonial ideology, Swami Vivekananda used the all-embracing philosophy of Vedanta as a counter-point to the aggressive proselytism practised by Christian missionaries in India. Coincidentally, it was the same display of doctrinal aggression by the missionaries, which he had seen in Bhavnagar as a young adult, that had moved Mahatma Gandhi, in his later life, to understand the essence of Christianity though the works of John Ruskin, Henry Thoreau and Lev Tolstoy.
In his September 11, 1893, address to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda attained instant stardom in this august gathering of the tallest philosophers and religious leaders of his age when he underlined this deep-rooted belief in universalism that is central to the Hindu discourse. "I am proud," he said, "to belong to a religion that has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation that has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth."
He ended the short yet immortal address to humanity's conscience with these unforgettable words: "I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour 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." India needs to mull over these words, whose relevance remains ageless. In another address at the same Parliament, he narrated the story of the "Kupa Manduka' (Frog in the Well) to explain how the closed minds of religious bigots work.
And in his last address, he reiterated his central message: "It [the Parliament of Religions] has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: 'Help and not fight', 'Assimilation and not Destruction', 'Harmony and Peace and not Dissension'." In the nine years he lived after uttering those soul-stirring words, and being offered chairs at Harvard and Columbia (which he rejected as you'd expect a sanyasi to do), Vivekananda devoted his life to putting these words into practise.
For Vivekananda, who turned the universalist philosophy of Vedanta into a driver of social change, true religion taught people to recognise the divinity of all men and women. Service to the poor (daridra narayana seva, a term that Mahatma Gandhi also used), in the swami's mission, was the highest form of worship of this divinity. It was this belief that made him declare he was prepared even to spend the money he had raised for the construction of Belur Math to feed the famine-hit in Murshidabad in 1897 and then, in the following year, serve plague victims in Kolkata.
"I do not believe in a God who will give me undying bliss in Heaven, but who cannot give me bread in this world," he would say. To his brother monks who were worried whether the Belur Math would ever come up, he said: "We are sanyasis. We ought always to be ready to sleep under the trees and live on what we beg every day." Fortunately, Vivekananda was able to finance the relief efforts with public contributions and Belur Math came up, after his death, as a grand tribute to his ideal of inter-religious harmony. The temple incorporates the architectural features associated with the places of worship of each religion.
The makers of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya would do well to remember Vivekananda - and his remarks distilling the message of the life of Sita in a speech at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California, on January 31, 1900. "Sita," the swami said, "knows no bitterness. That is, again, the Indian ideal. Says the ancient Buddha, 'When a man hurts you, and you turn back to hurt him, that would not cure the first injury; it would only create in the world one more wickedness.' Sita was a true Indian by nature; she never returned injury."
Vivekananda's speech at a public meeting hosted in Madurai in his honour by his benefactor, the Raja of Ramnad, after his return from the Parliament of Religions, is as relevant today as when it was first delivered. Mentioning the religious revivalism that was taking place then, he said: "There is danger ahead as well as glory, for revival sometimes breeds fanaticism, sometimes goes to the extreme, so that often it is not even in the power of those who start the revival to control it when it has gone beyond a certain length. It is better, therefore, to be forewarned. We have to find our way between the Scylla of old superstitious orthodoxy and the Charybdis of materialism - of Europeanism, of soullessness, of the so-called reform - which has penetrated to the foundation of Western progress...
"We must also remember that in every little village-god and every little superstitious custom is that which we are accustomed to call our religious faith. But local customs are infinite and contradictory. Which are we to obey, and which not to obey? The Brahmin of southern India, for instance, would shrink in horror at the sight of another Brahmin eating meat; a Brahmin in the north thinks it a most glorious and holy thing to do - he kills goats by the hundred in sacrifice. If you put forward your custom, they are equally ready with theirs. Various are the customs all over India, but they are local. The greatest mistake made is that ignorant people always think that this local custom is the essence of our religion."
On this birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, let him be remembered as the messiah of tolerance - and as the savant who taught us to be good Hindus by not losing our faith in its assimilative philosophy.