Vivekananda in Quandaries: A Late Nineteenth Century Titan’s Struggle with Ideas
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Young Narendranath was drawn towards religion under the influence of his devout mother, while debates and discussions at his liberal-minded father’s parlour made reason’s appeal overwhelming to him. (Swami Lokeshwarananda, 74) That appeal can only be thought to have increased following his exposure to the academic world. It is undisputed that, as an inquisitive young adult, he was in deep dilemma when in search of answers to his questions he sought recourse to the professors of his college, the Western-minded elite reformist club Brahmo Samaj and the company of the mystic-priest Sri Ramakrishna. But what I propose here in the essay is that – contrary to the view held by most of his devout followers who believe that in the company of the latter he was revealed the “ultimate truth” and that he preached it confidently thereafter – he remained sceptic to an extent and struggled amid conflicting ideas all through the rest of his life and had never shut the door to reconsideration and re-examination of his views from time to time. Although he confidently claimed that he was preaching what his master had handed down to him - the set of ideas which the noted historian Dr. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar later, borrowing from Hegel, termed "synthesis" (Majumdar, 35) - he was actually trying to give shape to the set of ideas received from his master while also dealing with ideas obtained from other sources.
At first, let us take note of the jarring differences within his own opinions concerning the caste system in India.
In the West, he, on many occasions, said that such caste distinction was quite natural and was found in all societies. To his foreign audience, he said that caste has ended competition, thus helping India survive for long, but it has “a great evil: it checks individuality”. (CWSV, III.401)
But at Kumbakonam, in his address, he asked people to broadcast the message of Vedanta and spare criticism of the ancient institutions of the country, however superstitious and irrational they are, because they have served some good in the past and “I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan and purpose so glorious as here. If caste is thus unavoidable, I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self-sacriﬁce, than a caste of dollars. Therefore utter no words of condemnation.” (CWSV, III.154) By caste of dollars he meant the Western convention by which an individual could reach a higher caste (or, class) if he became rich.
However, on the contrary, while conveying his plan of work for India, he wrote that India has suffered because caste has been passed on hereditarily, while Europe has progressed because, there, barriers have been pulled down and caste is determined by an individual’s actions. He urged Indians to break down every barrier in the way of caste and make the individual the basis of caste just as it happens in astrology. (CWSV, IV.284) He also wrote to Alasinga Perumal that despite all ravings of the priests, caste, having served its purpose, is presently filling India with stench, and can be removed by giving back to people their lost individuality. (CWSV, V.19-20)
At another point, he said that the Brahmins succeeded in acquiring Sanskrit and spirituality – the keys to power and prestige in India, while others were uninterested. They should, instead of fighting the Brahmins, learn Sanskrit and hone spirituality, and the problem will be largely solved. (CWSV, III.231) It will be resolved by “becoming the ideal Brahmin”, thus fulfilling the Vedantic ideal. (CWSV, III.153) But, elsewhere he maintained that according to the Vedanta, people are divine souls that have no caste. (CWSV, II.153)
All this, I hope, work in some way to show that his thoughts were often undergoing reconsiderations.
As regards women’s agency, he very expressly stated that women must be educated and the task of empowering them should be left to the discretion of the women. (CWSV, V.296) Men shouldn’t attempt to play God by determining how and to what extent women are to be empowered. (CWSV, III.190)
However, quite contrary to this classic liberal stance, he urged Indian women to remember that their ideals are but Sita, Savitri et al – examples of “chaste” women that patriarchy had conditioned into practising self-abnegation and serving the family. (CWSV, IV.479-80) He also advised that in women’s education, stressing “chastity” should be the foremost thing so that women, whether married or single, should not fear giving away their lives to save the ideal – chastity. (CWSV, V.296)
Now turn to his contradictory treatment of individual liberty. We find that he said that the caste system does harm inasmuch as it checks individuality. (CWSV, III.401) He preached that individuals are but indestructible, immortal souls, hence part of God, and, as such, must learn that they are free. (CWSV, I.11)
But, we see that he strongly believed in the idea that each nation has a national mission. The mission of Britain, or in fact of most western nations, is in politics: that of India lies in spirituality. (CWSV, III.103, III.243, IV.106, IV.118, IV.136, IV.371) It is unchangeable. If it changes, a nation dies. (CWSV, III.153) But, a little circumspection shall show that this is a bondage to the liberty of the nation on the path to choose what it wishes to perform. The nation is a collection of people. So, taking it further, it is a hindrance to the individual’s liberty of choice too.
As we saw above, he believed in an idea that each nation on the earth has a permanent mission which distinguishes them from others. Once the mission is forsaken, the nation dies, even if inhabitants of the land continue to populate it. (This theory, of course, also tends to take for granted the existence of nations from the beginning of civilization. However, that anomaly can be redressed, for the sake of argument, by substituting society for nation.) But, this still remains a problematic concept as it asks us to believe that no nation changes its basic character during its lifetime; either its mission is weakened only to be revitalized at the advent of a worthy motivator or the nation loses its mission permanently and is replaced by another.
Swami Vivekananda’s brother, Bhupendranath Datta, a leftist-revolutionary, wrote in his book, Swami Vivekananda: Patriot-Prophet that Vivekananda had expressed a view of history based on class, which is much akin to the Marxist perspective. Using the idea that at first, the Clergy rise to power, only to be followed by the Military/Royalty, the Capitalists and finally the Working Class, he said, using the Indian parlance, that “the world is in the third epoch under the domination of Vaishya . . . The fourth epoch will be under that of the Sudra” (Datta, 13) This perspective is evidently at odds with the national-mission theory.
We again find glaring contradictions when we read his predictions about the nature of government in future India. As said above, he foresees the rule by Sudras. New India – far more glorious than ever – shall rise from among the Sudras, the working class, he said. (CWSV, VII.327) (Datta, 13) Sudras of the world are rising; Indian Sudras too will rise following them. However, we know, he also said that the life of India lies in religion and all good that can be done to society need be done through religion. (CWSV, V.459-461) Giants in religion in India are equal to Parliament or Senate in the West. (CWSV, V.461) If this is so, how could the working class wield power as he had predicted?
As regards examining his ideas on Hindu Nationalism and Class Struggle, we may find the following helpful.
In a conversation with some young future revolutionaries of Dacca, he exhorted them to “[r]ead Bankimchandra [Chatterjee] and Bankimchandra, and emulate his Desha-Bhakti and Sanatana-Dharma”. (Datta, 334) Sanatana-Dharma, as it appears in Bankimchandra’s Anandamath, is a form of militant Hindu nationalism that views Muslims as the cause of ill who need to be driven away and thus confidence needs to be instilled in Hindus.
However, what immediately follows in the same conversation is his prediction of the rise of Shudras and asks the students to ensure their nourishment and well-being. (Datta, 334)
Thus at the same breath, trying to speak for a sophisticated militant nationalism to free India from colonial rule he set forth a right-wing communal ideology as an example to emulate. Nonetheless, he was more definitely speaking for a form of socialist class-politics, in which he put the caste-issue deeming it fit for the Indian context. Another point that requires a special mention here is that he had once openly called himself a “socialist” (Datta, viii), though he eschewed direct politics in his monastic life after a brief period of political engagement in his early youth. (Datta, viii-ix)
Thus, he embodies the late 19th century intellectual born in a colonised land, struggling hesitantly, preferring to keep his focus on the culture where an idea or a form of idea originated to the merits or demerits of it, while adopting from the diverse options available - orthodoxy, traditionalism, socialism, conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, Hindu revivalism, secular syncretism, chauvinism, puritanism, utilitarianism (which he strongly criticised, see CWSV, II.63-64), and many more which were themselves no monoliths and were changing all along. He not only tried to synthesize them in a heroic endeavour – and no doubt he received generous accolade for it – but also left many questions unanswered despite attempting to provide an all-answering meta-narrative that never fully materialised. His was not an absolute path maintained by confident assertions, but a sinuous course that he laboured all along to build with the knowledge he had received from different sources as well as his personal experience.
And finally, all the questions he was faced with and the answers he attempted to provide make him appear all the more a human being to us – fragmented, contradictory, amending and doubtful – rather than a distant ideal. No doubt it leaves him open to contradictory interpretations, more so in the polarised world of the present day, but again, that is a welcome thing as it keeps him alive and fresh all round.
Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda (CWSV), Advaita Ashrama, Clacutta, 1989, Print.
Datta, Bhupendranath, Swami Vivekananda: Patriot-Prophet, Nababharat Publishers, Calcutta, 1954, Print.
Swami Lokeswarananda, ‘Vivekbanir Uthsa o Goti’, Chintanayak Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Golpark, Calcutta, 1395 BS, Print.
Majumdar, Ramesh Chandra, ‘Acharjo Vivekananda’, Chintanayak Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Golpark, Calcutta, 1395 BS, Print.