Swami Vivekananda and the Indian Renaissance

The following is an article I sent to my mother based on which she presented at one of her conferences. Do read.
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 The common perception of Swami Vivekananda as the religious leader who preached Hinduism to the West and established the Ramakrishna Mission in India is a very limited definition of the impact he had on the collective psyche of the common Indian. Besides his direct impact in adding steam to the Indian Renaissance, a large part of his thoughts and writings also affected the other stalwarts of the movement. While fathoming the entirety of his impact on the Indian Renaissance would be impossible, we will briefly explore some aspects of his influence in the following pages.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy is generally credited with ushering in the revolution. His numerous ventures that contradicted the prevailing religious opinion of right and wrong broke the stranglehold of the prevalent quasi-religion, the norms of society and its sole autocratic and arbitrary overlords. By the time Swami Vivekananda burst into the scene, the seeds of the renaissance were already sown, and it was up to him to take the mantle forward. Among the many direct contributions of Swami Vivekananda, three distinct ones stand out in shining glory unto themselves. To begin with, his outspoken protest against the evils of society steeped in tradition broke a lot of barriers. One of his speeches, on his way from Colombo to Almora delivered at the temple at Rameshwaram questioned the very roots of a lot of religious customs, and taught about practicing religion through deeds than through “big talk”. He said, “This is the gist of all worship - to be good and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary” [1] The text of that speech is set in stone on the walls of that temple today. Second, the founding of the Ramakrishna Mission as something not to preach religion but to render service to people was another path-breaker. All through his speeches, he called for the youth of India to step forward and help him rebuild India. And this organization became his tool to reach out to people and touch their lives - this left a legacy that wouldn't die out with his death, and helped turn the wheels of the renaissance for a long time since. Finally, on a global scale, he presented a new face of Hinduism and India as a whole to the Western world. By redefining the Orient as something beyond a place full of weird mystiques, elephants and snake charmers, he brought the philosophy of Indian life to the West. This fueled much more foreign interest about India and helped shape the environment for the renaissance to progress.

Another important perspective to look at Swami Vivekananda's contributions would be to examine the timing and historical context. In general, it is astute to date his appearance on the international and historical scene of the Indian Renaissance after his famous speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. In the lead up to this year, the British regime was trying to control an increasingly difficult larger India through some divides and some rules. On one hand, while Baluchistan, Burma and Assam were being brought under the aegis between 1862 and1887, the Indian National Congress was established in 1885. In the meantime, revolts were gathering storm in smaller princely provinces in India and Mahatma Gandhi was leading the Civil Rights Movement in South Africa [4]. The stage was set for a leader to come and inspire the populace, and to restore faith in the nation about our own strength as a collective.

After the historical address in Chicago and the tours afterwards, Swamiji's impact increased manifold. And again, in the context of the history of a nation in the making, this was the time when the iron was hot. Swami Vivekananda's speeches and works, among other things, gave rise to a sense of nationalism [5] in India. Bengal was partitioned in 1905, and yet in the same year Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese war which sent out the message across the world that powerful European nations could be taken down head on. At this time, during the early twentieth century all the way till the Indian independence in 1947, someone had set the spirits of the youth on fire all across the subcontinent. One man had called, “Lazarus, come forth!”

Perhaps even further-reaching were his works, thoughts, letters [2] and lectures. While direct disciples such as Sister Nivedita revolutionized society in their own way, a lot of people who had not directly met Swami Vivekananda also embraced his ideal in spirit and drew inspiration from him. When Roman Rolland met Rabindranath Tagore and wanted to know about India, he was told, “If you want to know India, read Vivekananda”. Revolutionaries of the Indian freedom struggle were often found with a pocket edition of Swami Vivekananda's works with them. Right from Bal Gangadhar Tilak who met him to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi who never met him in person, he would often be mentioned in their speeches or conversations. Ratna Ghosh calls Netaji “the true heir of Vivekananda”[3]. Swami Vivekananda showed the way for a lot of people to come about how to and where to critique existing belief, and therefore inspired so many other stalwarts of the revolution. His conviction of what he believed in infected many-a-mind to share that vision and carry the torch forward. In one of his letters, he wrote “Onward! I only tell you this, that whoever reads this letter will imbibe my spirit! Have faith! Onward!”[2] Swami Vivekananda's contribution to the Indian renaissance thus worked not just through him but through his instruments as well. He had proclaimed once that if he had a hundred youths having the character traits he wished they had, he could transform the world. Perhaps his vision included a world renaissance itself.

In conclusion, therefore, Swami Vivekananda left a tremendous impact in the history of not just the Indian Renaissance but the Indian nation as a whole. He influenced the course of the renaissance directly through his tours and the founding of the Ramakrishna Mission. Indirectly, his numerous writings and speeches have inspired countless other luminaries and men of action. We owe this man a tremendous debt for helping shape who and what we are today.



Bibliography

   1. Lectures from Colombo to Almora, 1933, Advaita Ashrama, Almora ISBN 81-7505-181-7
   2. Letters of Swami Vivekananda, 1960, Advaita Ashrama, Almora, ISBN 81-7505-062-4
   3. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Indian Freedom Struggle/edited by Ratna Ghosh. New Delhi, Deep and Deep, 2006, 2 Vols., xxvi, 574 p., (set). ISBN 81-7629-843-3.
   4. Gandhi, Mohandas. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. ISBN 0-8070-5909-9.
   5. Seal, Anil (1968). Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century. ISBN 0-521-06274-8.

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This is another placefiller, BTW -- another post coming soon

Comments

  1. Your blog has given me maximum information on Swamiji. Thanks Sudipto.

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    Replies
    1. I've recently launched a website - http://www.swamivivekananda.org.in/ on Swami Vivekananda with both article section and gallery along with a discussion forum...Check it

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  2. The hidden side of Swami Vivekananda with proof from his Complete Works, particularly his epistles (letters).
    200 blog posts on Swami Vivekananda.

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  3. The future mantra, welcome onboard. I liked your website - will be using it for a few weeks before I recommend to anyone else. And thanks for the compliments - I believe they pertain to the last post.

    Mampi, my sincere apologies for not replying for so long. I'm glad to be of help.

    YB, welcome to the blog! I had a look at your blog. I think you've taken things out of context here and there to construct material for your own blog. I too don't subscribe to everything he said to the letter, since (as Swamiji himself had said) rules must be adapted to the times. Also, on your blog I see that you do not cite the exact letter/speech so that it becomes difficult to identify the exact source. Doing so would help make a useful debate rather than simply quelling your attention-deficiency-disorder.

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