The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Prophet of Modern India: A Biography of Swami Vivekananda By Gautam Ghosh, Rupa, Rs 395

September 11, 2001. The date marks a watershed in international politics. Ironically, September 11 also happens to be the date on which, more than a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda delivered the welcome address at the parliament of religious in Chicago and held his audience captive with his extempore speeches on Vedantic philosophy.

But this irony of history is swamped by an even more monstrous one — of Vivekananda being upheld today as an icon of Hindu revivalism. A commonsense reading of his lectures and writings makes it impossible to fit the monk into the Hindutva scheme of things. A lecture Vivekananda delivered in Chicago was titled, “Religion not the Crying Need of India”. In another speech, Vivekananda focussed on the flexibility of Hinduism which, from early times, had assimilated whatever faiths came its way. But never once did Vivekananda disown the Islamic heritage.

Another point Vivekananda emphasized was that Hinduism, unlike other religions, was not propounded by a single prophet but was built over time on the accumulated wisdom of many saints — a growth approximating the development of science. This thesis forms the basis of the “scientific” Vedanta philosophy.

From this theory stems Vivekananda’s conception of Adwaitabad or non-dualism which had a tremendous impact in a world beset by dissent and discord, religious and political.

A comprehensive biography of Swami Vivekananda, highlighting the nuances of his philosophy, has been a long-standing demand of readers sensible not to confuse him with V.D. Savarkar. Gautam Ghosh’s book meets this demand, but only partially. Ghosh is quite thorough in the way he catalogues events. He also makes sincere efforts to capture (albeit sporadically) the essence of Vivekananda’s philosophy. Sadly, Ghosh fails to put him in the modern perspective and to analyse how and to what extent Vivekananda’s “modernization” of Hinduism is different from the modernizing trend in contemporary India.

In his speeches, Vivekananda uses a deeply Hindu vocabulary. This has led to the erroneous notion that he is a neo-Hindu rather than a nationalist thinker. The way he castigated effete Hindu customs and the fake reformist zeal of his contemporary nationalists, and his call for the empowerment of the poor are often left out of consideration. As a biographer Ghosh should have addressed these issues.

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