In the charged political atmosphere of today's India with its raging culture war between liberals and Hindu nationalists, old icons are constantly exhumed and reinterpreted from different ideological viewpoints, as can be expected.
One of those controversial personalities is Swami Vivekananda.
A 19th century Hindu monk, he is regarded by some as a moderniser who helped Hindus gain a renewed sense of pride in their religion as an enlightened philosophy at par with the world's best. By others, he is seen as a dishonest interpreter of Hinduism and an apologist for some of its negative aspects, such as the caste system.
I'm going to look at Vivekananda afresh, from a personal and empathetic point of view. This is not to say that I am going to agree with his worldview or message, just that I will show that his approach to Hinduism was understandable given the circumstances that he was in.
Vivekananda and I
Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta in 1863, exactly a hundred years before I was, but the environment in which he grew up was markedly different from what I experienced in my childhood. There were some similarities, of course. Both of us were born into relatively well-to-do Hindu families, with well-educated fathers (my mother was also well-educated), and both of us were fortunate enough to receive a good education, acquiring fluency in the English language along the way.
But the similarities ended there. I was born in an India that had been free of foreign rule for 16 years. The constitution of independent India was deliberately secular, and the prevailing philosophy as taught in schools reinforced the idea that all religions in the country were equal. It was not considered inferior to be a Hindu, and neither was it considered superior. All religions were considered equal but different.
The prevailing environment could not have been more different during Vivekananda's childhood. India was under the rule of a foreign colonial power. All authority figures when he was growing up were either British, or Indians profoundly influenced by Western philosophies, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Keshab Chandra Sen. The prevailing attitude towards the Hindu religion was not that it was equal-but-different, but that it was significantly deficient in a number of ways.
Hinduism, in both its philosophy and its practice, was being critiqued from more than one angle. Christian theologians had been propounding the view that idolatry and polytheism were inferior beliefs, and this view had been accepted to varying degrees by various Indian thinkers of the time. Simultaneously, unjust Indian social practices, such as the harsh treatment of widows and the widespread practice of untouchability, were highlighted as backward aspects of the Hindu religion.
When I imagine looking at the world through the eyes of a Hindu boy born into that environment, I can feel a certain defensiveness about my religious identity, which I did not feel growing up in the India that I experienced.
What would I do if I were Narendranath Datta? Remember that, as an educated person, I would be constantly interacting with Western and Western-influenced people, and so I would not have had the convenient option of retreating into my own community, pretending that the non-Hindu world did not exist. I would be constantly reminded of my (inferior) Hindu identity.
I can see only two possibilities in that situation.
One option would have been resignation, to go through life passively, with a permanent feeling of inferiority.
The other option would have been surrender, to convert to Christianity or publicly adopt a philosophy that would be considered enlightened by that society.
To his credit, Narendranath Datta took neither of these paths. He neither resigned himself to an inferior status, nor did he surrender his cultural identity to adopt a foreign one. He chose a third path, which was to reinvent his own identity so that it became respectable in the Western-dominated society he lived in.
I think that's admirable. But how did he do that?
Let me pause to reflect on an incident from my own childhood.
My experience as a social outcast
When I was in primary school in Bangalore, sometime in Year 4 or Year 5, I was out in the playground at recess, along with a few others from my class. I saw that some of the students were pointing at something on the ground, and standing back at a respectful distance. I followed their gaze and saw a small garden lizard, not more than a couple of inches long. It was simply sitting on the ground with its head raised, not moving, just blinking and twitching its tail a bit. The other students were standing back in a circle, in what I interpreted to be fear.
In my desire to be seen as a hero, I did what I'm deeply ashamed of today. I moved forward and stomped on the poor animal with my shoe, crushing it to death. I then stepped back triumphantly and looked at the others, expecting admiration for my bravery.
I was shocked and dismayed at their reaction. They recoiled from me, and I quickly gathered the reason. They were not condemning me for my wanton cruelty towards a harmless animal. Rather, they believed that I had committed a sin because that particular type of lizard had some superstitious significance for them. They were drawing back from me, not because they saw me as cruel, but because they saw me as cursed.
In that moment, I keenly felt the sting of social ostracism. I think I ran to a nearby tap and washed my hands. I remember that two girls ran up to me and touched me with the leafy branch of a plant, then withdrew.
I sensed that I had committed an act of ritual impurity, and that I would have to be ritually purified in order to be socially rehabilitated.
I realised even then that tackling my peers' superstitious belief head-on would have got me nowhere. It would not have served my immediate interest (which was re-acceptance into the community) to argue that their notions of ritual purity and impurity were irrational. I therefore instinctively adopted a different strategy.
In Improvisational Theatre or Improv, the fundamental rule is never to contradict what your fellow actor says, but to agree with it and build on it. My strategy to deal with my social ostracism was similarly not to challenge its basis but to accept it up to a point, and then railroad it along a direction more friendly to my interests.
So this is what I said to the crowd around me:
"It's all right. I've washed my hands and touched the green."
I've washed my hands and touched the green.
I knew I was "bullshitting" even as I said it, but I realised that I could only fight superstition with superstition. I could not hope to debunk it. So killing a lizard was a sin. Fine. But I washed my hands and touched the green. That washed away my sin and purified me.
I think my explanation partly convinced them. I don't remember what exactly happened after that, but there was no permanent ostracism. Things went back to normal fairly quickly.
So that's how I dealt with a situation where I felt defensive about myself when society looked at me as someone who was somehow deficient or inferior.
The Vivekananda strategy
I can therefore empathise with the strategy that Vivekananda followed in order to rehabilitate himself with honour into a society that was otherwise critical and judgemental of his Hindu identity.
First, to blunt the Christian theological opposition to idolatry and polytheism, he dusted off one of the schools of Hindu philosophy, namely Advaita Vedanta, to argue that Hinduism too, at its core, postulated a single, formless deity called the Brahman, or Supreme Consciousness. He explained away both polytheism and idolatry by positioning them as 'aspects of divinity'. In his retelling, polytheism and idolatry were not sinful, but merely harmless ways to make an abstract concept concrete enough for ordinary people to comprehend. At its core, Hinduism was really no different from Christianity!
Second, in the spirit of Improv, he accepted the criticism of Hinduism's many social ills, but only up to a point. He joined in the condemnation of some of them, such as the poor treatment of widows.
I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow's tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan's mouth.
But he railroaded criticism of others by accepting them only as failures of contemporary Hindu society, not of the Hindu religion itself.
This is what many of his critics today call out as dishonesty. Vivekananda claimed that caste in Hinduism was much more benign as a concept than how it was applied in practice. He made it seem like caste was an egalitarian division of labour which had unfortunately been interpreted as a hierarchy of superior and inferior human beings. He claimed that a single person could belong to all four castes depending on what they were doing.
Take a man in his different pursuits, for example: when he is engaged in serving another for pay, he is in Shudrahood; when he is busy transacting some piece of business for profit, on his own account, he is a Vaishya; when he fights to right wrongs, then the qualities of a Kshatriya come out in him; and when he meditates on God or passes his time in conversation about Him, then he is a Brahmin.
He referred to the scriptural concept that the three Gunas, or inherent qualities, were determinants of caste, but here he cleverly projected the view that anyone could attain the status of any caste by merely manifesting the requisite guna.
As there are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas — one or other of these Gunas more or less — in every man, so the qualities which make a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra are inherent in every man, more or less. But at times one or other of these qualities predominates in him in varying degrees, and it is manifested accordingly.
This interpretation is patently false, as a careful reading of the Bhagavadgita will readily show. There is no scriptural basis to believe that gunas are capable of changing a person's caste on a minute-by-minute basis, as Vivekananda implies. On the contrary, gunas are held to determine one's caste upon one's rebirth, and not before. A person's caste is fixed at birth and cannot be changed. Further, since the gunas are ranked from best (Sattva) to worst (Tamas), the castes that correspond to them are also ranked in a moral hierarchy - Brahmin (Sattva), Kshatriya (Rajas), Vaishya (a combination of Rajas and Tamas), and Shudra (Tamas alone). And as a further corollary, since one's birth in a caste is determined by the gunas one had exhibited in a previous birth, those born into a lower caste must have been bad people in their previous birth, not to be pitied or uplifted, but to be condemned and kept down.
[For clarity, "caste" above refers to the four broad varnas alone, and not to the myriad jaatis under them.]
It's clear that Vivekananda was bullshitting to make himself and his religion look better, in the face of social criticism. It was a clever combination of cherrypicking, deliberate misinterpretation, and projection of indefensible injustices as latter-day social corruptions of an otherwise benign philosophy.
But as I said before, I can entirely empathise. Faced with an analogous situation, I readily took recourse to dishonest narratives to rehabilitate myself into respectable society, so I can hardly cast the first stone at Vivekananda.
And there rests my defence.
I cannot help but compare and contrast Narendranath Datta with his partial namesake Narendra Modi. I believe both of them are examples of cultural insecurity. One disguised his insecurity with philosophical posturing. The other has turned it into a narrative of Hindu victimhood, and exploits it for political gain.
A secure Hindu in today's India should be able to accept legitimate criticism of their religion, in the light of modern humanistic thought, and drive reforms without being defensive. Casteism and misogyny are obvious elements in Hinduism crying out to be jettisoned. Of course, superstitious beliefs are another obvious target, but that could be seen as a bridge too far, since the path of rationalism may result in the abandonment of the religion altogether!
[Also read my blog post "The Three Hinduisms".]