PROF. K. VENKATA REDDY
Swami Vivekananda is generally approached as a patriot-monk par excellence. He is simply credited with revealing the soul of India to the Western world. He is mostly regarded as a spokesman of Hinduism. The spiritual dimension of his personality seems to have obviously got the better of the social. It looks as though the “Vivekananda” was drowned under the heavy weight of the “Swami”.
Although he was a man of religion and meditation, Vivekananda was all for activity that would lead to increase in production and the removal of poverty. He always said with his Guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, that, “religion is not for empty stomachs.” He shocked people out of their self-complacency and plunged them into action. Thus, he influenced the course of life in modern India by stimulating the Rajasic qualities in the Indian people, and getting them to set about the task of betterment of their material conditions of life rather than get lost in a soporific religion that produced contentment with their existing life of poverty and degradation. In Vivekananda’s opinion, religion had to be the principal and leading force in implementing all social changes in India.
No doubt, Vivekananda took pride in the country’s inheritance from the past, but he was not an obscurantist revivalist with undiscriminating admiration for all that had come down from the past. To him, India meant the people and the people meant the masses. Removal of poverty, eradication of illiteracy, restoration of human dignity, freedom from fear, availability of spiritual and secular knowledge to all, irrespective of their caste and class and the ending of all monopolies, religious, economic, intellectual, social and cultural – all these formed a part of what he derived from his practical Vedanta or Vedantic socialism.
Through his re-interpretation of Vedanta, and his deep concern for the masses and their problems, Vivekananda gave the country a new lease of life. Raising his voice against colonial and feudal oppression, Vivekananda searched, at the same time, for an answer to the question of India’s historical destinies, of the ways and means of transforming it into a wealthy, strong and independent state. He insistently repeated that India could be roused and rebuilt with the help of small groups of enthusiastic patriots, strong and courageous with “muscles of iron and nerves of steel and gigantic wills”.
Though not in politics, Vivekananda did exert a visible influence on the political development and on the modern India that has emerged from this development. In a sense, he was politically far ahead of his time in the importance he attached to the masses, the indignation he displayed on their exploitation, the genuine concern he had for the uplift of women and the backward classes and, above all, in his strong desire for the country to get the benefit of Western science and technology for its development without falling into the trap of slavish imitation of the Western ways of life. The revolutionary ideas he propounded had a tremendous influence on subsequent political thinking and action in India, especially on the mass dynamism of Mahatma Gandhi and the socialistic ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Vivekananda was not against reforms, but he believed that India needed radical reforms. In his book, “On India and Her Problems”, he wrote: “Remember that the nation lives in the cottages. But, alas, nobody ever did anything for them. Our modern reformers are very busy about widow-remarriage. Of course, I am a sympathiser in every reform, but the fate of a nation does not depend upon the number of husbands the widows get, but upon the condition of the masses”. Vivekananda went a step further and said, “So long as millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor.” He sincerely believed that the only hope of India was from the masses, for the upper classes were physically and morally dead. He believed that a time would come when the masses would rise, throw off the dominance of the upper classes and establish their absolute supremacy.
With his own concept of Vedanta, Vivekananda gave the country the secularist ideal that now forms a part of the Constitution of modern India. It was he who first proclaimed on world platforms that all religions were but different paths that led to the same goal. His idea of secularism was, in fact, an advance of what is found in modern India. He wanted not just mutual tolerance but mutual respect and, what is more, mutual recognition of the basic truth that underlies all individual religions.
Vivekananda’s understanding of Vedanta made him a total opponent to the practice of untouchability. Denouncing, as he did, the practice of untouchability, Vivekananda anticipated, by several decades, the more effective campaign that Gandhi and Ambedkar carried on against this social evil. He found neither religious sanction nor secular logic behind the terrible practice of untouchability and he went all out to condemn it.
Vivekananda’s Vedantic socialism centres round his progressive ideas on education which are more modern than those of professional educationists who moulded the education of modern India. From the beginning of his mission, he stressed the importance of universal literacy as an essential condition for mass uplift and development. Furthermore, he had conceived of so many decades back what we now call informal education. Also, the credit for pioneering the programme of universal adult literacy should go to Vivekananda. He also laid great stress on industrial training and technical education which have now become a part of the educational system of modern India. What he wanted was man-making education. He believed that education should aim at developing the mind rather than stuff it with bookish knowledge. He wanted education to include all aspects of life, not only the intellectual but also the physical, social, cultural and spiritual, and lead to the building of character and the adoption of a fearless and self-reliant attitude towards life.
Though he laid great stress on the traditional values of chastity and family life for women, Vivekananda was totally against their subjection. While drawing attention to the prominent place occupied by women in intellectual field in ancient India, he blamed the priestcraft for relegating women to a backward position by denying them equal rights with men in education and in knowledge of the scriptures. He passionately pleaded for the extension of all educational facilities to women.
Vivekananda’s Vedantic socialism is also reflected in his endeavour to give India’s traditional religions a new orientation of social service. By establishing the Ramakrishna Mission, he gave an altogether new direction to the role of monks and Sanyasins in Indian society. As a result, for the first time in Indian history, we have the Hindu monks who do not isolate themselves from society, but actively concern themselves with its service and betterment. They have set up educational institutions, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and other social institutions for alleviating human suffering. They are also in the forefront in the work of relief and rehabilitation whenever the country suffers natural disasters such as drought, floods, cyclones and epidemics.
Thus, with his reinterpretation of Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda played a key role in the shaping of modern India. Socialism, secularism, mass uplift and mass power, abolition of untouchability, universal literacy, informal education, women’s liberation and inculcation of social service as a part of religious worship these constituted the quintessence of his “Vedantic socialism”. His sociological views played a positive role in the development of the patriotic and national self-consciousness of the youth of India. Vivekananda’s clamant call to the Indian youth – “Awake, arise, and stop not till the goal is reached” – is resounding all through India, rousing their social consciousness and kindling their damp spirits.