Yesterday marked the 150th birth anniversary of a remarkable individual. Swami Vivekananda, born Narendranath Dutta, who left an indelible impact on the cultural and the social history of modern India in spite of the fact that his life was tragically cut short at a very young age. In his youth he came under the spell of Ramakrishna Paramhansa who became his guru. Narendranath was thus reborn as Vivekananda in the garb of a sanyasi or a monk. He decided his mission would be to take the message of his master to the rest of India and the message of India to the world. Hence his most celebrated appearance at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. There he startled the gathering by his speech in which he condemned “sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism [that] have filled the earth with violence… destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair”. He extolled to the audience the virtues of religious universalism that had been articulated in the ancient Hindu scriptures. He emphasized to the gathering the importance of seeing the different religions as nothing more than different paths to one divinity. That message of Vivekananda has obvious contemporary relevance for both India and the rest of the world.
Closer home, after the death of his master, Vivekananda gave to his calling of a monk a unique dimension. The saffron robes of a sanyasi did not preclude for Vivekananda a complete immersion in the lives of the Indian people. Not for him the conventional other-worldliness associated with Hindu spirituality and asceticism. A principal pillar of the institution he built in the memory of Ramakrishna in Belur Math, across the river from Calcutta, was the idea of charitable public works. Vivekananda initiated the process of building up a school of monks who would work selflessly for the uplift of the poor and the underprivileged through education, healthcare and better nourishment. To the Hindu idea of tyaga Vivekananda added the Christian idea of charity. The building of an institution that has at its heart the notion of service was European and Christian. Vivekananda took the idea and gave to it an Indian ethos. The monk became an institution builder; monasticism was thus brought out of the cloister to serve the people; and Hindu spirituality was brought down from the Himalaya and out of the forests to be part of the lives of Indians and then others across the globe.
It is the fate of great men to have their message and mission misinterpreted by some of his followers. Vivekananda is no exception. Attempts have been made by Hindu fundamentalists to claim Vivekananda as one of their prophets. The address in Chicago and everything else he ever said and did stand as testimony that Vivekananda and his ideas stood far above all narrowness and fanaticism. He wanted to free his countrymen from poverty, illiteracy and superstition. The freedom from these would make Indians self-confident and proud. He preached the importance of work and this has fallen on deaf ears in Bengal as has his message of religious tolerance in Gujarat. In economic growth and economic backwardness, the message of a monk needs to be remembered and practised.