Swami Vivekananda galvanised a somnambulant continent into a new awakening


By Vishnu Makhijani

New Delhi– Swami Vivekananda held that religious truths are verifiable by the experimental method as are scientific truths as they were also predicated by experience except that they could not be measured in a laboratory and thanks to him, have now become the hallmarks of our religious life and discourse; indeed stirring a “somnambulant continent into a new awakening”, says a new book on the “modern monk” in “flaming robes”.

“Just as scientific truths are verifiable by the experimental method, Vivekananda claimed so are religious truths. Empiricism and rationalism…were the foundational principles of modern science. Vivekananda wanted to do something similar to religion; he wanted empiricism and rationalism to also underwrite religious truths and beliefs” – and succeeded, writes Makarand R. Paranjape in the extensively researched “Swami Vivekananda Hindusim and India’s Road to Modernity” (Harper Collins).

“To him, religious facts were also predicated upon experience, except that such experience could not be measured in a laboratory. Rather, it had to be measured in the laboratory of the spirit. In this sense, he was different from his predecessors, who were much more bound by tradition and scriptural authority,” writes, Paranjape, the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

It is because of “inspiring” leaders like Vivekananda that rationality, verifiability and experience “have become the hallmarks of our religious life and discourse. Vivekananda endorses rationality but does not make it the supreme epistemological principle. Rather, rationality gets mediated, moderated and in a sense, re-placed in the order of things, placed below gnosis or higher (re)-cognition of our identity with the supreme consciousness,” Paranjape writes.

It will have to be acknowledged that what Vivekananda accomplished “is to anticipate by nearly a hundred years the efforts of others religious figures such as the Dalai Lama to open up spiritual phenomena to scientific examination, thereby enriching both domains”, the author maintains.

Noting that what appears to be tradition has been reinvented in modern times and what is patently modern actually has its roots deep in the seabed of tradition, the book says that the “perhaps, the best exemplar of this is Swami Vivekananda himself, the modern monk in flaming robes who galvanised a somnambulant continent into a new awakening and quickened an ancient spiritual religion to reassert itself in a new manifestation”.

What needs to be remembered is that Vivekananda first espoused his philosophy at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago September 1893, an intervention “nothing short of momentous. It may be considered prophetic not just in terms of India’s impact on the West but also the future dialogue between civilisations”, Paranjape writes.

The message of the book is that Vivekananda, “despite all that is written about him, remains largely ‘unknown’ (to this date). That is because we are trapped in two contradictory modes of approaching him – irreverent scepticism on the one hand and worshipful adoration on the other,” Paranjape told IANS in an email interview.

Thus, “an intermedial hermeneutics is urgently needed to apprehend his achievements more meaningfully. Vivekananda is so important because he shows us a way to understand modern, Western civilisation without become enslaved by it; he also shows us a way to be modern without rejecting the best of our past. It is as if he shows Hindus and Hinduism the road to modernity without losing our identity or civilisational genius,” he added.

The present work builds on Paranjape’s “Penguin Swami Vivekananda Reader”, as well as a book titled “The Cyclonic Swami: Vivekananda in the West”.

Speaking about his research for the book, the author said he started taking a “serious re-look” at the monk’s life and work during his sesquicentennial celebrations in 2013-2014.

“I gave a series of papers on Vivekananda for which considerable original research was involved, particularly on topics such as “neo-Vedanda”, the “science-religion” dialogue, and Vivekananda’s contribution to modernity. I thought previous writers had not examined such issues sufficiently. They had also not focussed on Vivekananda’s literary accomplishments, especially his poetry, or his contribution to education or dharmic secularism.

To that extent, the book is a “combination of biography (and) a critical commentary/analysis on crucial aspects of Vivekananda’s life and work. It contains, as it were, the secret key to understanding the ‘unknown’ Vivekananda” and his attempt “to transform Hinduism into a mighty modern and plural living faith and India into a reawakened nation of strong and self-aware individuals”, the author noted.

The book concludes with a contrast between the memorials of Vivekananda and his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, on the opposite banks of the Hooghly river in Kolkata — both of which are treated with equal reverence by devotees to this day.

Vivekananda’s mortal remains are enshrined in a simple but elegant two-storey temple at Belur Math, itself a modern structure built in the last days of the British Empire, an eclectic mix of Rajputana and Eastern architectural styles — with neo-Classical and colonial flourishes thrown in.

Across the river is the more traditional temple complex of the Dakshineshwar Kalibari built in the second half of the 19th century. It was here that Sri Ramakrishna came as a temple priest and it became the permanent abode of the Ramakrishna Mission founded by his foremost disciple, Swami Vivekananda.

“It is that tradition and modernity that coexist in India without displacing or destroying each other. Without Ramakrishna, there would be no Vivekananda. But, paradoxically, without Vivekananda, there would also be little of Ramakrishna left in our times,” Paranajape concluded.

It goes without saying that rare are the residents of Kolkata — and for that matter, visitors to the city — who don’t pay obeisance at both memorials. (IANS)


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