Swami Vivekananda, the monk who transformed India

The truth about Vivekananda is that he doesn’t quite fit our ideas of either a holy man or a sanyasi.

 |  5-minute read |   11-01-2017
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I am not sure, to start with, if “monk” is the right word for Swami Vivekananda, whose 154th birthday falls on January 12. Monk means “solitary” etymologically, but I suspect it is really linked to muni and mauna, both venerable and ancient Sanskrit words.

New order

The Swami in question was neither solitary, though he did spend lots of time wandering about on his own all over India before his spectacular debut on September 11, 1893, at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Nor was he silent or particularly quietist. His Complete Works extend over nine volumes, though he did not live to be 40.

Though he founded a new order of monks named after his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda was one of the most active and energetic men of the latter part of the 19th century.

The truth about Vivekananda is that he doesn’t quite fit our ideas of either a holy man or a sanyasi. This, indeed, is the point of a brilliant new book on him by Hindol Sengupta, The Modern Monk. One of its chapters is actually called the “Monk Who Smoked.”

Hindol, the author of the bestseller, Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You, is one among the increasingly visible and assertive group of younger Indians who are upending the received dogmas of the Left-liberal establishment. In the process, they also interrogate the platitudes of their own parents and the faith of their ancestors.

swbd_011117092855.jpg Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The special quality of Hindol’s book is not just his resistance to uncritical piety, but in the “intimate quality” of his writing on Vivekananda. The clue to that special feel is in his own account of Daniel Boorstin’s rereading of Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

For Boorstin, Gibbon’s masterpiece wasn’t as much a great book as an “intimate” book: “By this I mean a book that has something personal to say to us today.” It would not be out of place to compliment Hindol in the same coin: his book on Vivekananda also has that intimate texture somewhat missing in other accounts on Vivekananda.

No doubt this has to do with his own struggle to come to terms with the overwhelming presence of the Swami in his life. From his very childhood, in a family of Ramakrishna devotees, Hindol continuously faced pressure to become a joiner, even find a suitable “match” in the extended circle of devotees.

What Hindol succeeds in doing, and this is what makes his effort all the more admirable, is to break out of that indoctrination to come to terms with Swami Vivekananda on his own. He does so not by reiterating and heaping hagiographical praise on the leonine Swami, but by struggling with his own faith and Vivekananda legacy in the world.

Larger than life

The result? A much more authentic and finely realised portrait of a man who has become so much larger than life. I also congratulate Hindol for being an unapologetic, modern Hindu; there is none of the pseudo-secular varnish or apologetics that characterises many a tepid admirer or critic.

Being Hindu for Hindol, however, doesn’t mean being fanatical or stupid; owning up to one’s identity and celebrating whatever is good about it do not preclude him from pointing to its failings, including caste hierarchies, as he does, also following Vivekananda. Coming back to the Swami who crossed the oceans and stirred the soul of three continents, what we must remember, even revere, is how Vivekananda transformed India. He taught us no longer to be weak or helpless but to rouse our innate strength as immortal souls.

No wonder, his favourite quotation from the Vedas was uttisthatajagrataprapyavarannibodhata. He himself translated it as: “Arise, awake, stop not till the goal be reached.” Actually, the original exhorts us to seek out the higher knowledge from elevated persons.

Vivekananda was one of the founders of modern India. He instilled a new self-respect and enthusiasm in a defeated and moribund society. Weakened by 1,000 years of foreign rule of which the worst was probably British colonialism, we Indians were destitute and dispirited. It was Vivekananda who roused us with the mantra of self-awakening. His message of practical Vedanta was simple: know that each soul is divine; try to realise divinity in this life itself and transform society in the process.

He actually demonstrated this in his work in the United States and Europe, where he achieved so much worldly, not just spiritual success.


We must also learn from Vivekananda’s experience not to be anti-Western. There were wonderful helpers in the West, especially in the United States, without whom the phenomenon that is Vivekananda might not have come about. Indeed, without their recognition and support, he would have been treated no better than a coloured Asiatic as some hotels where he sought — and was denied — accommodation considered him.

It is this liberal and open-minded West, receptive to new ideas, that India should continue to partner in this new phase of its self-confidence and self-assertion. India, as I have said elsewhere, is a uniquely “self-centred” civilisation. We are neither “God-centric” like the Abrahamic people, nor “man-centric” like the moderns. We have tried, from the earliest times, to search for and understand the nature of the Self.

We have concluded, time and again, that each of us is non-separate from the same power and energy that birthed the cosmos.

This Vivekananda showed us once more, when we were at our lowest ebb. For this we owe him our homage and gratitude.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Also read: Let Swami Vivekananda be remembered as the messiah of tolerance



Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is poet and professor, JNU.

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