Swami Vivekananda, Indian Culture and the charge of Male Chauvinism
Yesterday (03-Jan-2013) scores of Indians were pained by the way ‘The Hindu’ presented an article of pop-psycho-social analysis by a sociologist by name Sanjay Srivastava. Titled ‘Taking the aggression out of masculinity’, the article in a typical western way of looking at Indian society finds Indian culture as deficient and thus contributing to the sexual crimes. The author makes the following diagnosis in the article:
A great deal of neglect of masculinity as an object of study lies in the celebratory ways in which we have tended to understand Indian nationalism which — in its reactions to colonial rule — produced a deeply masculine culture of modernity. … Colonialism did not, of course, invent Indian masculinities, but it did help to cement and highlight certain regressive tendencies within it. Swami Vivekananda’s masculine photographic-pose was only one aspect of the cult of masculinity encouraged and tolerated by nationalism.
Purporting to provide a historical context the author thus conveniently reduces the image of Swami Vivekananda not only as a ‘reaction’ to colonialism but also projects his image as a ‘cult of masculinity’ tolerated by Indian nationalism. This passing reference to Vivekananda is not an accidental reference or even a minor one but a well calculated one. So the editor highlights this point, lest it escapes the attention of the readers, by providing the famous photo of Swami Vivekananda taken at Chicago by his western admirers. The author then continues to present the Indian culture as almost pathologically masculine and ends with a rhetorical question:
Indian “family values” are contexts of a great deal of jingoistic celebrations about what is special about Indian society. Such jingoism keeps us from turning a critical eye towards what is genuinely rotten within one of the most basic units of social life. It keeps us from critically examining the masculine cultures that impact upon the relationship between genders. It is important for women and men to protest against the crime of rape. But, it is just as important to ask why such a large number of women have taken to celebrating the Karva-Chauth festival, and, why there has been no significant public examination of such rituals of male-worship.
But the author is blissfully oblivious of the fact that more than diagnosing the anthropological causes of sexual crimes against women in Indian context, what he has done is expose his own ignorance about Indian cultural life as well as his lack of knowledge of Swami Vivekananda and the contribution of Vivekananda movement to the immense empowerment of women in this land.
Swami Vivekananda and Women
There are varied opinions Swami Vivekananda has expressed about women empowerment. He stood for it. Nevertheless he never budged before the colonial attacks on Indian culture using the degradation of Indian women as only a tool to beat India. Carefully examining these two strands in his discourse one finds that while asserting (but not advocating) the reasons for certain gender-specific Indian practices, as a humanistic Vedantist Swami Vivekananda repeatedly emphasized his fellow countrymen to remove their shackles on women and let them free.
Let us take the case of chastity. Here Swami Vivekananda provides not a religious but a biological explanation for the ‘chastity’ of women. He says that the tendency of nature is to multiply the population, and the chastity of women helps that tendency. Therefore, being more anxious about the purity of women, than of men, every society is only assisting nature in the fulfillment of her purpose. (Complete Works, Vol. 5, p. 514)
One should note here that he universalizes this as a bio-social phenomenon. While the details may vary the idea that chastity has more to do with biological notions does find an echo in the thoughts of modern evolutionary psychologists deconstructing the notion of chastity. Susan Blackmore the Darwinian psychologist argues that chastity may well be to increase paternal certainty and cites her own example of how she was punished more severely for the same offence than her boy friend at Oxford as late as in 1970s. (Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 1999, p.128)
Here it should be noted that it was then universally held, even in the ‘progressive’ circles of Europe that woman’s only duty was to give birth to children and walk self-effacingly in the path of the husband. Jenny Marx for example wrote that the women’s destiny is to have children and claimed that any man could become a redeemer of a woman and present day women … were receptive to all things and very capable of self-sacrifice. Even Karl Marx found employment of women as a dehumanizing aspect of capitalism and found the ’employment of the mothers away from their homes’ a key feature in a new process where children suffered. (Mike Gane, The Communist Manifesto’s Transgendered Proletarians, pp.134-5)
It was in such a zeitgeist prevailing all around that the voice of Swami Vivekananda stands apart in breaking both traditional as well as colonial shackles on women empowerment. For all his glorification of traditional Indian womanhood before his western audience, Swami Vivekananda minced no words with his own countrymen, when dealing with the condition of women in India then. His vision of women empowerment was absolute empowerment – a Vedantic liberation of women. In 1901 just one year before his Samadhi, Swami Vivekananda even as he was recovering from ill health, very forcefully put forward his ideas on the subject in a conversation.
It is very difficult to understand why in India so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. … Writing down Smritis, etc., and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into mere manufacturing machines! If you do not raise the women, … don’t think that you have any other way to rise.
When a disciple suggested that scriptural writers suggest that knowledge and devotion are difficult of attainment to women, Vivekananda retorted forcefully:
In what scriptures do you find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion? In the period of degradation, when the priests made other castes incompetent for the study of the Vedas, they deprived the women also of all their rights. Otherwise you will find that in the Vedic or Upanishadic age Maitreyi, Gârgi, and other ladies of revered memory have taken the places of Rishis through their skill in discussing about Brahman. In an assembly of a thousand Brahmanas who were all erudite in the Vedas, Gargi boldly challenged Yâjnavalkya in a discussion about Brahman. Since such ideal women were entitled to spiritual knowledge, why shall not the women have the same privilege now? What has happened once can certainly happen again. History repeats itself. All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to women. That country and that nation which do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future. The principal reason why your race has so much degenerated is that you have no respect for these living images of Shakti. (Complete Works, Vol.7, pp-214-5)
Were all these words of Swami Vivekananda mere words or did they have any effect in the historical development of women empowerment?
Perhaps the readers of ‘The Hindu’ may not have to look beyond their own home state of Tamil Nadu for an answer. In modern social history of Tamil Nadu, the name Subramaniya Bharathi is intimately associated with the launch of the popular women empowerment programmes. In 1909 Bharathi dedicated the second volume of patriotic poems to Sister Nivedita – disciple of Swami Vivekananda. Bharathi’s wife Chellamma narrates how Sister Nivedita was virtually the Guru of Bharathi in making him realize the importance of women empowerment. According to her when Bharathi went to meet Sister Nivedita the latter enquired about Bharathi’s wife to which Bharathi answered that women played little role in social movements outside their houses and hence he did not bring her along. On hearing this Nivedita reprimanded him thus:
Son! Most men are ignorant and selfish and consider women as their slaves. But if even the few enlightened people like you too hold similar ideas and deny women their equal status and education how shall this nation attain social emancipation? … Ok! Bygones are bygones. At least here after instead of treating her this way, treat her as your own equal half and venerate her as Goddess in your own heart.
According to Chellamma, Bharathi accepted these words of Sister Nivedita as words of Guru and made his poetry a weapon for women empowerment. (Chellamma, Bharathi Chritram, p.38) The rest, as they say, is history and Tamil Nadu saw a very popular mass movement for women empowerment. In Bengal, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose paid the everlasting tribute to liberated womanhood in the realm of science, thanks to Sister Nivedita of Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition when he installed the statue of a woman with a lamp at the entrance of his institute. The great scientist wrote:
Entering the Institute the visitor finds to his left the lotus fountain with a bas-relief of a Woman Carrying Light to the Temple. Without her no light can be kindled in the sanctuary. She is true light-bearer, and no plaything of man. (Visvapriya Mukherji, Jagadis Chandra Bose, pp.57-8)
Thus at every dimension of the manifestation of Indian nationalism and culture during her struggle against colonialism of the rule and now in her struggle against the colonialism of the mind as exhibited by the article of Sanjay Srivastava in the Marxist newspaper ‘The (anti) Hindu’, one finds Indian culture and nationalism exhibit a deep understanding and unique manifestation of the Feminine.
Hindu festivals vary geographically and are gender specific over a gender continuum. Had the sociologist seen the Barani festival of Kodungallur, transgender festival at Koovagam just to mention a few, he would not have lettered a rhetorical question to reveal his cultural illiteracy. Now the question arises as to why such a mediocre article of pop-social anthropology presented in a newspaper that calls itself a ‘national daily’ with a hoary heritage.
Love for gender equality and an urge to remove gender abuse? Or is it merely to use the opportunity to take a pot-shot at Indian culture and denigrate it and one of its venerated contributors particularly on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary?
Just going through the article in the website of ‘The (anti) Hindu’ one noticed something interesting on the right hand side of the article flashed advertisements for ‘The Hindu’. On 11-12-2012 Tamil Nadu celebrated the birth anniversary of Bharathi who championed the empowerment of women. On 12-12-12 was the birth day of an actor who is the face of Tamil film industry that has a definite masculine orientation and commodifies female body to put it lightly. Now guess whose birthday celebrations the socially conscious ‘The Hindu’ group projected in its advertisements? One can leave it to the guess of the readers themselves.
Post script: A method in the madness of ‘Mount Road Mao’
This is not an isolated incident. The Chennai based regional English daily ‘The Hindu’, is today notoriously known as the ‘Mount road Mao’ for its unashamed and unabashed support of Chinese occupation of Tibet. Now for a few years the ‘Mount road Mao’ has been waging a war against Swami Vivekananda the fountainhead of Vedantic humanism and Indian nationalism. Thus a few years back we have in ‘Frontline’, which comes from the house of ‘The Hindu’, Meera Nanda attacking Swami Vivekananda, accusing him Sri Aurobindo and even Nehru of ‘their cardinal sin’ which according to her was that they ‘tried to appropriate for Hinduism’ modern scientific thought (Meera Nanda, ‘Postmodernism, Hindu nationalism and `Vedic science’, Frontline, January 03-06 2004).
Continuing this ‘spit and run’ method of attack, the mother dinosaur ‘Mount road Mao’ itself published another article by Meera Nanda titled ‘Calling India’s freethinkers’ (‘The Hindu’, 22-May-2004). In this article the ‘apologists associated with the Ramakrishna Mission and Aurobindo Ashram’ were accused of promoting an ‘occult’ dogma that has ‘deeply Hindu and Aryan supremacist overtones’. One can read ‘Breaking India’ for an elaborate analysis of the emptiness of Meera Nanda’s accusations against Swami Viveakannda as well as Indian cultural discourse on the synthesis of science and spirituality.
Thus wherever and whenever possible the house of ‘The Hindu’ is now engaged in a slandering campaign against Swami Vivekananda and the organization created by him. Perhaps it is not accidental that the nation of Mao launched its aggression on the nation during the birth centenary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda in 1963 and Mount Road Mao, which runs a magazine called ‘Frontline’ whose name is the same name as the Chinese Communist Party’s official magazine, has chosen 150th year of Swami Vivekananda’s birthday celebrations to make a cowardly attack on Swami Vivekananda.