For the last one year, we have seen unprecedented enthusiasm on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. There have been great changes in the perception of social values over these 150 years. Two world wars were fought over different continents. India achieved its long cherished independence and there was a dramatic upheaval in society in the era of liberalization in the 1990s. We thus need to look back and ask ourselves now — what have we inherited as a legacy from Vivekananda to be able to remember him at this distance in time?
An interesting incident may be recounted in this context. Vivekananda once turned down a request for donation from a welfare association devoted to the protection of cows. To him, serving human beings severely affected by famine and drought was an immediate necessity; the saving of cows was of less importance in comparison. Although Hinduism had aimed at the highest equality of man through its scriptures, caste division was creating great havoc in day-to-day practice. The Brahmins had monopolized the practice of rituals and demeaned the lower castes. With the gradual influence of Western education, there had been an awakening of the men from the lower castes and the iron grip of the Brahmins was loosening with time.
Stressing on the basic equality of human beings, Swamiji spread the message of Vedanta, which declared the divinity of the human kind. This positive message of strength must be manifested through tremendous amounts of energy in the execution of work. Proper execution of one’s own duties can lead to a purification of the mind and the clarity of vision. For Vivekananda, the motto was of incessant work for an unselfish purpose: “It is better to wear out than to rust out.”
His own life of only 39 years was a manifestation of unusual energy and will power. He laid much stress on the concentration of mind. For him, proper education should involve the disciplining of the mind and not merely stuffing it with information. The ideal teacher helps the student manifest the knowledge embedded within, he does not import it from outside. The concentrated mind of the student can easily absorb different thoughts and contribute originally to the development of knowledge.
The concept of nationalism and the thought of India being a single, unified country found clear expression in the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, delivered in the last part of the 19th century. India was then a vast landscape fragmented into a number of native provinces. The British had consolidated their regime after suppressing the mutiny of 1857 and were regularly collecting taxes from the native kings of the country. A central rule was not prevalent in the country and each native king had a set of laws within his respective state. The leaders of the national party, the Congress, were all educated in Western methods and had little connection with the vast rural population spread across the country.
Vivekananda travelled across a large part of the country after the demise of his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, in 1886, visiting thereby the different native provinces in what was then British India. This parivrajaka (itinerant) life brought him in contact with the common people and helped him understand the real spirit of the masses — behind the external appearance of poverty, economic deprivation and caste divisions. To him, India was the motherland of the highest pronouncements in religion and philosophy. It was this wealth which had indeed sustained the country through the vicissitudes of history.
In the eyes of Vivekananda, Indian culture has a uniqueness. If justice and liberty are the keynotes of the national life in other countries, religion is the keynote of Indian culture and society. The independence given in this country to the practice of religion has led to a great advancement in religious ideas, resulting in a rich variety of sects and philosophies. This development in the field of religion is India’s contribution to world culture and thought.
The setting up of Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 by Vivekananda was a result of the desire to propagate the basic tenets of the religion of Vedanta. He imbibed Western methods and understood the need for a permanent organization for the purpose. Ramakrishna had said earlier that religion was useless for empty stomachs. Vivekananda thus tried to alleviate the sufferings of his countrymen and asked the members of the Ramakrishna order to serve the hungry and the afflicted. The doctrine of Practical Vedanta, advocating the service of god in man, became the philosophical basis of this new organization.
This philosophy of unselfish work has its root in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna exposed this idea to a despondent warrior, Arjun. In this book, Arjun, a reluctant fighter in the battle of Kurukshetra, was asked to give up unmanliness and cowardice and perform the duty allotted to him. On the grounds of Kurukshetra was uttered the most sublime message of unselfish work — “To work you have the right but not to the fruits thereof.”
Vivekananda expounded the gospel of the Gita afresh in the 19th century. Karmayoga is to be practised not only by the householder grinding away with his daily work but also by the recluse living in the monastery. The monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, under the direction of Swamiji, thus plunged themselves into different kinds of services — medical, educational and the like.
Swamiji preached the message of the Upanishads. For him, the theme of fearlessness resonates in the scriptures. The authors, with great courage, assert that the human being is not merely the body or the mind; he is the pure effulgent soul which neither prospers nor decays. The realization of this truth leads to the highest morality and ethics. Different kinds of works are necessary, philosophically, for cleansing the mind and removing ignorance. One’s image is reflected clearly in a mirror. Similarly, the atman is manifested clearly in the mind when it is purified by unselfish work and the veil of avidya (ignorance) is removed.
The youth of the country are in need of a national hero who can ignite their imagination to sacrifice for a lofty ideal, irrespective of political leanings. Such a hero can be found in Swami Vivekananda. Born in the second half of the 19th century, he has transcended the narrow corridors of time to be a beacon light to the youth of India in present times.