Swami Vivekananda: Monk who never stopped loving his mother
If his life was unconventional, its traces could be found in his childhood itself.
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On the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in 2013, there was a lot of hue and cry when academician Jyotirmaya Sharma came up with a book arguing that the monk’s inclusiveness was nothing but a splendid myth. “He was,” thundered the author citing his speeches and historical references, “a Hindu supremacist, and not so much a social reformist.”
Reading Sharma’s book, on its own, his arguments make perfect sense. But when one places it alongside Hindol Sengupta’s The Modern Monk, which explores the monk in a more personalised manner, the former’s arguments start falling like a house of cards. Analysing Vivekananda the Monk without acknowledging Vivekananda the Man would be akin to five blind men examining an elephant. Some of his speeches and writings may cursorily have sectarian/nationalist fervours, but when one looks at his life in totality, any such confusion dissipates. For, here was a man who rebuked a Sanskrit scholar to “first do something for those who are dying of hunger, then come to me for a discussion on Vedanta”. Vivekananda would take on religious leaders for turning Hinduism into “don’t-touchism” and believed people would be “nearer to heaven through football than through the study of Gita”.Photo: Indiatoday.in
Hindol further busts the supremacist argument by vividly showcasing that Vivekananda was a living epitome of Vedanta who believed in the divinity of the entire being and not just the humans, and thus it would be gravely inappropriate to charge him of being anything of that sort. The author mentions at least two incidents when Vivekananda let the caste system, an institution he otherwise defended so passionately, go up in the smoke - quite literally by puffing. First, when the young Narandra, as he was called then, smoked from hookahs assigned for different communities and declared that they didn’t taste differently. And the second time as a sannyasin when after realising the folly of his initial trepidation he enjoyed smoking with an untouchable in Vrindavan.
If Vivekananda’s life was unconventional, its traces could be found in his childhood itself. The author shows how as a kid he would “break all rules mandated for the life of a holy man”. He was so naughty as a child that his mother would often complain: “I asked Shiva for a son like the God himself, and he has sent me one of his poltergeists.” He was a mischief-monger par excellence. He used to smoke. And he was just about average in studies. The book reveals how in the university entrance exam, the man who enthralled the world with his knowledge of English and History could get in the two subjects 47 and 45 per cent respectively.
The high point of the book, however, is the introduction of King Ajit Singh of Khetri who, according to the author, “completes the triad of relationships, along with those with his family and Ramakrishna Paramhansa”, in Vivekananda’s life. By giving Ajit Singh his due, the book amends the historical injustice being meted out to the man who helped carve the Swami out of Vivekananda by not just financially helping him in visiting America, but also advising him to take on the famous saffron robe that made him stand out in the West. The king died young, just a year before Vivekananda’s demise -- and the two were almost of the same age at that time.
The other fascinating section is Vivekananda’s relationship with his mother. Here his life was similar to Adi Shankara who broke the cardinal renunciation rule by looking after his ailing mother just before her death, despite acrimonious protests from his relatives. Vivekananda too could never take his mother out of his mind, often seeking out money from friends and followers to bail her out of financial hardships. Vivekananda’s concern for his mother at the height of his spiritual standing not only humanises him but also redefines the meaning of the monkhood. He didn’t shun the world to gain the after-world.
If this unconventional attitude made Vivekananda popular across the world, it also made him unpopular back home. This explains why, as Bengali writer Sankar writes in The Monk As Man, two high court judges not just refused to preside over a meeting organised to mourn Vivekananda’s death in 1902, but also one of them said that “if Bengal had a Hindu king, Swami Vivekananda would have been hanged”. The hostility can be gauged from the fact that the Swami’s colleagues found it difficult to raise funds to erect a small temple over the site where he was cremated. The work could not begin before 1907, and it took more than 17 years to finish.
One wonders what would have happened had Vivekananda lived longer. He could have redefined the politico-cultural sphere in the country by challenging the Right, the Left and the so-called Centre. The monk, after all, was too revolutionary to be confined within the boundaries of one ideological realm. Herein lies the success of Hindol who could effectively explore the multifacetedness of Vivekananda as very few have done. Sankar is an obvious exception.