Swami Vivekananda: A Hindu Supremacist?
Outlook is at it again. It has unleashed a camapign of calumny against India’s most venerated spirtual icon Swami Vivekananda, exactly at the time when the nation is celebrating his 150th birth anniversary. In a conclusively titled cover story ‘Hindu Supremacist’, the magazine published excerpts from a book on Swami Vivekananda by Jyotirmaya Sharma, a left-propagandist and visceral Hindu hater masquerading as an objective scholar.
Sharma’s hatchet job on Swami Vivekananda started much earlier. Reviewing his 2007 book on Guruji Golwalkar which was given a paranoid title ‘Terrifying Vision’ (Penguin Viking), Christophe Jaffrelot, another visceral Hindu baiter from France, affirmed Sharma’s assessment of Vivekananda thus:
Vivekananda’s respect for pluralism was largely a façade because his tolerance was presented in terms of some universalisation of the self: Hinduism is so “tolerant” that it can accept every religion… in its fold. Hence the very abstract definition of religion promoted by Vivekananda who had not selected the Vedanta just by chance: “All other religions of the world are included in the nameless, limitless, eternal Vedic religion.” Vivekananda, therefore, added to the Hindutva ideology a benign face, which presents Hinduism as an all-encompassing and, therefore, hegemonic creed.
In the excerpt published by Outlook, Sharma twists the words and their meanings to suit his own design of presenting Swami Vivekananda as an intolerant exclusivist wearing the garb of an outwardly tolerance. Let us take a specific example of such a gross misinterpretation:
When the argument for a single universal faith had to be made strenuously, Vivekananda abandons even the “We must each have our own individual religion” rhetoric with alacrity: “There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One Infinite Religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways.” What, then, about the argument that promised to accommodate even twenty million or more sects in the world, even if this acceptance of plurality was only based on the acknowledgement of a multitude of external forms of religion? The above quote ends with the following sentence: “Therefore we must respect all religions and we must try to accept them all as far as we can.” The respect for other religions was, therefore, conditional. It depended on phrases like “so far as the externals of it go” and “as far as we can”.
It baffles one how this ‘rhetoric’ when read with ‘alacrity’ negates Swami Vivekananda’s ‘the argument that promised to accommodate even twenty million or more sects in the world’? To negate the twenty million sects, which actually Swami Vivekananda identifies with individual and national religions, the one ‘Religion’ which he proposes should be based on some exclusivist dogmas. But if one reads what Swami Vivekananda states about the One Religion also has the adjective ‘Infinite’ – which Sharma ignores so that he can present that as another sectarian religion what Swami Vivekananda calls the ‘One Infinite Religion’. Far from the way Sharma presents the idea of a universal religion by Swami Vivekananda was radically different and inclusive to the maximum. In his lecture titled ‘The Ideal of a Universal Religion’ Swami Vivekananda leaves no room for any ambiguity much less the ‘supremacist’ tendencies invented by Sharma:
What then do I mean by the ideal of a universal religion? I do not mean any one universal philosophy, or any one universal mythology, or any one universal ritual held alike by all; for I know that this world must go on working, wheel within wheel, this intricate mass of machinery, most complex, most wonderful. What can we do then? We can make it run smoothly, we can lessen the friction, we can grease the wheels, as it were. How? By recognising the natural necessity of variation. Just as we have recognised unity by our very nature, so we must also recognise variation. We must learn that truth may be expressed in a hundred thousand ways, and that each of these ways is true as far as it goes.
According to Sharma the exclusivist of Vivekananda manifests through the usage of words such as ‘phases’ which he uses to demote other religions as mere stages towards his own:
…Vivekananda learnt from his Master that all religions in the world were phases of one eternal religion. Notice the dexterity with which the word ‘phases’ has been added and introduced. What was the parity and equality of all faiths becomes “phases” of one “eternal religion” in the hands of Vivekananda.
But what Swami Vivekananda means by phases are not like stepping stones towards yet another sectarian religion. In his 1900 lecture Swami Vivekananda says:
Each religion, as it were, takes up one part of the great universal truth, and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying that part of the great truth. It is, therefore, addition; not exclusion. That is the idea. System after system arises, each one embodying a great idea, and ideals must be added to ideals. And this is the march of humanity. … Our watchword, then, will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only toleration, for so-called toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live? I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedan; I shall enter the Christian’s church and kneel before the crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhist temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the heart of every one.
The twisting of meanings indulged in by Jyotirmaya Sharma, falls flat at every point exposing Sharma as a malicious campaigner against Hinduism and examining his claims when done through the original works of Swami Viveakannda only proves that Vivekananda’s ideas of Universal Religion, an inclusive one that recognizes the diversity of religious experiences and their deeper unifying nature, are becoming more and more relevant in the modern world we live today.
Swami Vivekananda a Caste Votary?
‘Yes’ says Sharma. He quotes the following passage from a letter written by Swami Vivekananda on 3rd January 1895:
Now, take the case of caste — in Sanskrit, Jâti, i.e. species. Now, this is the first idea of creation. Variation (Vichitratâ), that is to say Jati, means creation. “I am One, I become many” (various Vedas). Unity is before creation, diversity is creation. Now if this diversity stops, creation will be destroyed. So long as any species is vigorous and active, it must throw out varieties. When it ceases or is stopped from breeding varieties, it dies. Now the original idea of Jati was this freedom of the individual to express his nature, his Prakriti, his Jati, his caste; and so it remained for thousands of years. Not even in the latest books is inter-dining prohibited; nor in any of the older books is inter-marriage forbidden. Then what was the cause of India’s downfall? — the giving up of this idea of caste.
He then quotes from the same letter the following:
The present caste is not the real Jati, but a hindrance to its progress. It really has prevented the free action of Jati, i.e., caste or variation. Any crystallised custom or privilege or hereditary class in any shape really prevents caste (Jati) from having its full sway, and whenever any nation ceases to produce this immense variety, it must die. Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this: That India fell because you prevented and abolished caste. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not—caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste and we shall rise.
And from these now Sharma draws his conclusions:
In practical terms, caste designated individuals to perform certain actions according to their natures, their prakriti. As long as they continued to perform those without locating their actions or varna-prescribed vocation in custom, privilege or heredity, caste functioned smoothly. So, the cobbler, the peasant and the sweeper, despite an education, will continue to do their jobs and do them even better as long as they got the sympathy of the upper castes. This, in sum, is Vivekananda’s argument till now.
The question that is to be asked is when Swami Vivekananda differentiated the present day concept of caste with what he considered was the ancient original concept of Jati – was he suggesting that ‘the cobbler, the peasant and the sweeper, despite an education, will continue to do their jobs’? The answer can be seen already in the words of Swami Vivekananda Sharma quoted and emphatically in the words from the same passage he left out – both rejecting his thesis that Swami Vivekananda supported the birth-based continuation of caste occupations. This is what Sharma left out which presents the entire case in a very different light:
Therefore what I have to tell you, my countrymen, is this, that India fell because you prevented and abolished caste. Every frozen aristocracy or privileged class is a blow to caste and is not-caste. Let Jati have its sway; break down every barrier in the way of caste, and we shall rise. Now look at Europe. When it succeeded in giving free scope to caste and took away most of the barriers that stood in the way of individuals, each developing his caste — Europe rose. In America, there is the best scope for caste (real Jati) to develop, and so the people are great. Every Hindu knows that astrologers try to fix the caste of every boy or girl as soon as he or she is born. That is the real caste — the individuality, and Jyotisha (astrology) recognises that. And we can only rise by giving it full sway again. This variety does not mean inequality, nor any special privilege. (Emphasis added)
So in the chopped off passage what Swami Vivekananda means by caste is very clear – the individuality. Sharma thus provides an excellent case of ‘suppressio veri and suggestio falsi’ often indulged in by limousine liberals who inhabit a section of Indo-phobic English media in India. And the reader should be cautioned against Swami Vivekananda’s reference to astrology. He says that the astrology recognizes the fact that a child’s caste is his or her individuality. While endorsing this idea of recognition of an individual’s individuality, Swami Vivekananda has rejected astrology as ‘sign of a weak mind’.
What is important here is that it was the democratic social system of United States of America which Swami Vivekananda shows as the example for the real manifestation of the ancient idea of ‘Jati’ – which is complete rejection of birth-based imposition of any profession considered exalted or defiled on any individual by customs or traditions. Even in the very quote which Sharma shows as proof for Vivekananda’s adherence to birth-based caste system, Vivekananda states that both inter-dining and inter-marriage should not be proscribed and no privilege be given to any section of the society.
In other words Swami Vivekananda stood for complete annihilation of caste system. He simply wanted Jati to become a psychological phenomenon for the individual to decide his relation to the society based on his individuality and the society should be democratic enough to allow full manifestation of this individual variation in the society to contribute to the welfare of the society and the individual.
In August 1889 in a letter to Pramada Das Mitra an orthodox Hindu from Varanasi Swami Viveakannda questioned the stand of Sankara himself on caste and wrote:
The doctrine of caste in the Purusha-Sukta of the Vedas does not make it hereditary–so what are those instances in the Vedas where caste has been made a matter of hereditary transmission? The (Sankara) Acharya could not adduce any proof from the Vedas to the effect that the Shudra should not study the Vedas. He only quotes Tai. Samhita, (VII.i.l.6) to maintain that when he is not entitled to perform Yajnas, he has neither any right to study the Upanishads and the like. But the same Acharya contends with reference to Vedanta-Sutras, (I.i.l) that the word Aw here does not mean “subsequent to the study of the Vedas”, because it is contrary to proof that the study of the Upanishad is not permissible without the previous study of the Vedic Mantras and Brahmanas and because there is no intrinsic sequence between the Vedic Karma-kanda and Vedic Jnana-kanda. It is evident, therefore, that one may attain to the knowledge of Brahman without having studied the ceremonial parts of the Vedas. So if there is no sequence between the sacrificial practices and Jnana, why does the Acharya contradict his own statement when it is a case of the Shudras, by inserting the clause “by force of the same logic”? Why should the Shudra not study the Upanishad? (Emphasis added)
In May 1897 Swami again wrote to Mitra, and now he concluded:
The Smrithis and Puranas are productions of men of limited intelligence and are full of fallacies, errors, the feelings of class and malice… the conviction is daily gaining on my mind that the idea of caste is the greatest dividing factor and the root of Maya; all caste either on the principle of birth or of merit is bondage. Some friends advise, “True, lay all that at heart, but outside, in the world of relative experience, distinctions like caste must needs be maintained.” . . . The idea of oneness at heart (with a craven impotence of effort, that is to say), and outside, the hell-dance of demons–oppression and persecution… I am a Shudra, a Mlechchha, so I have nothing to do with all that botheration. To me what would Mlechchha’s food matter or Pariah’s? It is in the books written by priests that madnesses like that of caste are to be found, and not in books revealed from God.
Such was the idea of Swami Vivekananda regarding caste: a scheme of harmonizing the individuality of the individual with the welfare of society based initially on merit and later corrupted to hereditary and today existing purely as the greatest obstacle to the progress and unity of Indian society and spiritual emancipation of the individual. As a system as a social institution as it exists today and as it existed in the day of Swami Vivekananda, he declared clearly where he stands with relation to it in no unclear terms: The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta.
Aryan and Brahmin in Swami Vivekananda
Now Sharma takes up the Aryan question:
The common rubric under which he attempts to club all the races and tribes was found in the term ‘Arya’. Even the distinction between Aryan and Dravidian was casually brushed aside as merely a philological one and not of race and blood. Once language and race were unified, the asymmetry between cultures had to be rectified: “Just as Sanskrit has been the linguistic solution, so the Arya the racial solution. So the Brahmanhood is the solution of the varying degrees of progress and culture as well as that of all social and political problems.” Once the supremacy and the primacy of the Aryan race were established, he could now readily pronounce Brahminhood as “the great ideal of India”. It was true that the degradation of Brahminhood and Kshatriyahood was prophesied in the Puranas; in the Kaliyuga, they claimed, there would only be non-Brahmins. Vivekananda regrets that this was becoming increasingly true, though a few Brahmins remained, and did so only in India. Any vision of bringing about order to the diversity of races and languages, then, can only be brought about by a superior culture. The Aryans, Vivekananda asserts, provided such a culture and this culture expressed itself through the caste system: “It put, theoretically at least, the whole of India under the guidance—not of wealth, nor of the sword—but of intellect—intellect chastened and controlled by spirituality. The leading caste in India is the highest Aryans—the Brahmans.”
Swami Vivekananda did not have the advantage of data from archaeology and genetics to completely and decisively reject the notion of race and invasion. Yet he was totally uncomfortable with the idea and was quite sure that humanity was an admixture of many races and what goes by the name Aryan itself was not a ‘pure’ race but an admixture of two grand linguistic groups. He dismisses both the biological basis of racial categories and birth based superiority of any caste. If the ‘the so-called craniological differentiation’ finds ‘no solid ground to work upon’ in India, then the ‘super-arrogated excellence of birth of any caste in India’ is equally ‘a pure myth’. Swami Vivekananda also condemned those who wanted to cut themselves off from the masses of India on the basis of European race theories.
In Sharma’s presentation, the Brahmins, an endangered minority of the Aryans are to bring ‘order to the diversity of races and languages’. He presents as if Swami Vivekananda meant the ‘Brahmins’ to the Master select of a Master race. However what Swami Vivekananda meant was entirely different. After rejecting the idea of blood based division existing in India, Swami Vivekananda considers the proof of Brahminhood on anyone claiming to be Brahmin, as democratization of the Brahminhood:
Then anyone who claims to be a Brahmin should prove his pretensions, first by manifesting that spirituality, and next by raising others to the same status. On the face of this, it seems that most of them are only nursing a false pride of birth; and any schemer, native or foreign, who can pander to this vanity and inherent laziness by fulsome sophistry, appears to satisfy most. Beware, Brahmins, this is the sign of death! Arise and show your manhood, your Brahminhood, by raising the non-Brahmins around you-not in the spirit of a master -not with the rotten canker of egotism crawling with superstitions and the charlatanry of East and West-but in the spirit of a servant. For verily he who knows how to serve knows how to rule.
What Swami Vivekananda presents then is a far-cry from a Master select few of a Master race but a democratization of a spiritual idea.
Sharma then makes even a wilder claim:
Was it then possible for a Shudra to acquire learning and become a Brahmin? Vivekananda’s answer is emphatically in the negative: “If you want to rise to a higher caste in India, you have to elevate all your caste first, and then there is nothing in your onward path to hold you back.” The lower castes had to aspire, en masse, to rise to the level of a higher caste. It did not really matter whether caste was seen as an ideal or perceived as a social institution in operation. For Vivekananda, the rules to aspire for a higher status were already put in place by the Aryan and Brahmin superior culture inaugurated in ancient India.
What Swami Vivekananda meant, was something altogether different and radical. Very definitely an individual Shudra or Dalit making himself to the level of Brahmin or Kshatriya had happened. Swami Vivekananda was aware of that. But that had not benefitted the upliftment of the downtrodden community itself. Swami Vivekananda observed:
By this very qualitative caste system which obtained in India in ancient days, the Shudra class was kept down, bound hand and foot. In the first place, scarcely any opportunity was given to the Shudra for the accumulation of wealth or the earning of proper knowledge and education; to add to this disadvantage, if ever a man of extraordinary parts and genius were born of the Shudra class, the influential higher sections of the society forthwith showered titular honours on him and lifted him up to their own circle. His wealth and the power of his wisdom were employed for the benefit of an alien caste — and his own caste-people reaped no benefits of his attainments; and not only so, the good-for-nothing people, the scum and refuse of the higher castes, were cast off and thrown into the Shudra class to swell their number. Vasishtha, Nârada, Satyakâma Jâbâla, Vyâsa, Kripa, Drona, Karna, and others of questionable parentage were raised to the position of a Brahmin or a Kshatriya, in virtue of their superior learning or valour; but it remains to be seen how the prostitute, maidservant, fisherman, or the charioteer class was benefited by these upliftings. Again, on the other hand, the fallen from the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, or the Vaishya class were always brought down to fill the ranks of the Shudras.
It should be remembered here that Dr.Ambedkar rejected the conversion to Christianity for two important reasons one was that it was an alien religion (‘Converting to Buddhism is like changing rooms in the same house but converting to Christianity is like going over to another house.’) and another was that it would only provide solution for the individual but not to the entire community. And the real mischief that Sharma indulges here is when he states what Swami Vivekananda wanted was that ‘the lower castes had to aspire, en masse, to rise to the level of a higher caste‘. On the contrary what Swami Vivekananda wanted was that the suppressed castes –Shudras and Dalits- should arise as a class to take on the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the society.
Even here far from arrogating to those who called themselves Brahmins the right to recognize other communities as Brahmins, which would have been the case had an individual Shudra or a Dalit wanted to claim Brahminhood, Swami Vivekananda proposed a solution that was altogether radical and would have made the very foundation of socially stagnant caste system crumble if materialized into practice:
Let us suppose that there are castes here with ten thousand people in each. If these put their heads together and say, we will call ourselves Brahmins, nothing can stop them.
Taking all these together the context becomes very clear that when Swami Vivekananda spoke of entire communities acquiring Brahminhood rather than the individual that would administer effective death knell to the socially stagnant caste system. Further Swami Vivekananda identified himself with the Shudra and the Dalit – in the face of the attacks of orthodoxy on him.
Thus at every point in the excerpt provided, the maligning campaign of Jyotirmaya Sharma actively abetted by Outlook magazine falls to the ground on empirical examination.
So what is the game plan in maligning Swami Vivekananda?
But what is more important is the uncivilized and untruthful campaign of hatred unleashed on one of the founding fathers of Modern India. It was Swami Vivekananda’s unique interpretation of Upanishadic teachings that paved the way for a great unleashing of the forces of national liberation and social emancipation. It is not an accident that Dr.Ambedkar emphatically traces the spiritual roots of social democracy to the monism of Upanishads whose unrealized potential for social liberation Swami Vivekananda was the first to realize and announce. Dr.Ambedkar says:
Democracy demands that each individual shall have every opportunity for realizing its worth. It also requires that each individual shall know that he is as good as everybody else. Those who sneer at Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahma) as an impudent Utterance forget the other part of the Maha Vakya namely Tatvamasi (Thou art also Brahma). If Aham Brahmasmi has stood alone without the conjunct of Tatvamasi it may have been possible to sneer at it. But with the conjunct of Tatvamasi the charge of selfish arrogance cannot stand against Brahmaism. …this theory of Brahma has certain social implications which have a tremendous value as a foundation for Democracy. If all persons are parts of Brahma then all are equal and all must enjoy the same liberty which is what Democracy means. Looked at from this point of view Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for Democracy than the doctrine of Brahma. To support Democracy because we are all children of God is a very weak foundation for Democracy to rest on. That is why Democracy is so shaky wherever it made to rest on such a foundation. But to recognize and realize that you and I are parts of the same cosmic principle leaves room for no other theory of associated life except democracy. It does not merely preach Democracy. It makes democracy an obligation of one and all.
When charging Hindus that they never realized the potential of this concept of Brahman for social democracy both Swami Vivekananda and Dr.Ambedkar condemn Hinduism for this gross neglect almost in the same language and tenor. Dr.Ambedkar continues:
… we have on the one hand the most democratic principle of Brahmaism and on the other hand a society infested with castes, subcastes, outcastes, primitive tribes and criminal tribes. Can there be a greater dilemma than this?
One can almost hear the same voice In his letter to Alasinga dated 20th March 1893, in which Swami Vivekananda wrote:
No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism…. religion is not in fault, but it is the… hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Pâramârthika and Vyâvahârika.
David L Gosling, a Cambridge scholar and author of the seminal work ‘Religion and Ecology in South East Asia’ states that Vivekananda’s interpretation of karma-yoga as the basis for this-worldly action which was central to his teaching paved the way for Gandhian ethics.
Swami Vivekananda himself would have welcomed a merciless rational discussion of his ideas and criticisms. However the slandering of Swami Vivekananda that is being indulged in by a section of English press, known for its antipathy towards anything Hindu, should be seen for what it is. It is not a scholarly study or healthy criticism in the spirit of free thinking and reason, nor in the spirit of equality and fraternity but it is an attack and hate propaganda against the foundations that hold this nation together and which have helped much more constructively, and much more holistically in empowering the masses of India without endangering them to totalitarian ideologies and predatory expansionist exclusivist belief systems.