Swami Vivekananda – The Key Thinker of Modern India

(This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2015 issue (number 17.2) of “Dialogue”, the quarterly magazine of Astha Bharati, Delhi, an organization to promote National Unity and Integrity.)

Need of the Hour

Indian thought is unique in the world. It has always allowed for rational, open-minded and deep discussions soaked in compassion and love for humanity, with the only objectives of “What is the truth?” and “What is beneficial to mankind?” The rich literature of India even from the days of the Rig Vedas reflect this. This legacy has been continuing unbroken to this day. The freedom of thought and expression in India has resulted in a huge diversity of philosophy, religion and worldview. There have been great towering geniuses who have appeared at regular intervals whose important contribution was to merge some of the main branches into a new channel. This helps the civilization conserve its energies and rejuvenates the society by making the cultural current deeper, wider, accommodative and more decisive.

One of the first known such stupendous effort was that of Veda Vyasa. He collected together the Vedic literature that was spread over different societies all over the Bharatavarsha. He classified them into Rig Veda (mainly poetry), Yajur Veda (mainly prose), Sama Veda (set to music) and Atharvana Veda (compendium of miscellaneous verses). He collected the folklore, stories, historical narrations, legends, genealogy, cosmology and customs from all over Bharatavarsha and sorted them into eighteen Puranas. He collected the various philosophical ideas in vogue during his time and put them all into a logical structure in the form of Brahmasutras. In gratitude to this great work done by Veda Vyasa, one day is celebrated every year in his memory as Vyasa Purnima or Guru Purnima.

About 2500 years after Vyasa, Buddha separated out the philosophical and moral teachings of the Vedic tradition and created a line of thought free from the traditional stories and rituals. Also, he taught everything in the common man’s language of the changed times. This got good acceptance among some scholars and kings. Around the same time, similar attempt was done by Mahavira. Buddhism found great acceptance outside Bharatavarsha also. But common man everywhere needed stories and rituals. The respective local stories and rituals were retained outside Bharatavarsha. A new set of stories and rituals arose around Buddha and Mahavira within Bharatavarsha.

About 1200 years after Buddha and Mahavira, came Adi Shankara. He took much of the philosophical and religious developments in Buddhism, Jainism, Tantra and other sects, and merged them back into the Vedic tradition and that resulted in a rejuvenated Hinduism. After this, Bharatavarsha faced various political and cultural invasions from various cultures outside. Also, previously marginalized and isolated societies within India came into close touch with the mainstream culture. All these resulted in a great upheaval. Several sects of various sizes came up. Some merged into other sects. Some vanished naturally without followers. Overall, it was a very active period.

About 1200 years after Adi Shankara, the Indian society needed one more consolidation of philosophies and ideas. A large number of practices were irrelevant to the new times. The best ideas scattered over various sects had to be collected together and put together to give a new direction to the society and culture. Also, modern science had brought in new ideas. Western thought had brought new ideas. Countless cultures outside India were swept off into museums by this onslaught by the sword and the pen. India was politically over powered by this Western onslaught. The land and people, which were the object of envy of the rest of the world for their enormous riches, was systematically plundered and reduced to abject poverty. There came huge gap between the extremes within the society also in all respects – financial, social, educational and cultural. The only thing left in the society was the legacy from its great thinkers. It was a crucial time for humanity. Would the great gems collected over several millennia by great thinkers of this land and culture be lost forever to humanity by this huge onslaught by alien cultures?

It was as the answer to this that Swami Vivekananda came into human history.

In the words of Netaji Subas Chandra Bose, “Swamiji harmonized East and West, religion and science, past and present. And that is why he is great. Our countrymen have gained unprecedented self-respect, self-confidence and self-assertion from his teachings.” Bal Gangadhara Tilak says, “It is an undisputed fact that it was Swami Vivekananda who first held aloft the banner of Hinduism as a challenge against the material science of the West. It was Swami Vivekananda who first took on his shoulders this stupendous task of establishing the glory of Hinduism in different countries across the borders. And he, with his erudition, oratorical power, enthusiasm, and inner force, laid that work upon a solid foundation. Twelve centuries ago Shankara was the only great personality who not only spoke of the purity of our religion… but also brought all this into action. Swami Vivekananda is a person of that stature.” Jawaharlal Nehru says, “Rooted in the past, full of pride in India’s prestige, Vivekananda was yet modern in his approach to life’s problems, and was a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present.”

Brief Life

Swami Vivekananda lived his early life in Calcutta, the then capital of British India. Coming from a traditional family, he grew up hearing stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata and of great Indian saints and kings from his mother. Exposure to Western education in school and college made him question everything Indian. During his college days, he was eager to know if anyone had seen God. His quest led him to Sri Ramakrishna, the saint who lived in the outskirts of Calcutta. Personal loving guidance of Sri Ramakrishna opened Swami Vivekananda to the knowledge and experience of God as per the Hindu tradition. Swami Vivekananda learnt Western religions, science and philosophy through school, college and on his own. He was a great admirer of Buddha also. By the time Swami Vivekananda was thirty years old, he had exposure to the best of the Indian and Western ideas. Professor J H Wright of Harvard University remarked later, “He is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”

After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda took sannyasa. He went around the whole of India, living with kings and poor, scholars and illiterates, monks and householders. Having seen India, he sat in meditation at the South-most tip of Indian mainland at Kanyakumari. His meditation was on rejuvenation of India. He came to a few conclusions: Religion is the core of Indian civilization. India’s role in the world is as the teacher of religion and philosophy. The common masses have been neglected for a few centuries. That is the cause of India’s downfall. The way forward is to give back strength to the masses. The immediate need is to alleviate the material poverty of the masses. Secular, cultural and spiritual knowledge have to be given to the masses. For this, an organization has to be established rooted in the tradition and modern in outlook.

Swami Vivekananda traveled to America and England to gather money and support for the Indian masses in return for the spiritual knowledge of India. He discussed Indian philosophy with the leading thinkers of his time like Paul Deussen, Max Mueller, Nikola Tesla and William James. He established Vedanta Centers in America and Europe. He established the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in India. Almost all the leaders of Indian Nationalism during and after his time were inspired by him. He got the ball of Indian Nationalism rolling, which eventually resulted in rejuvenation of the Indian society, political freedom, freedom from inter-sect disharmony, alleviation of caste discrimination and respect for Hinduism, Vedanta, Yoga, etc. in the world.

After the brief and impactful public life of less than ten years, Swami Vivekananda passed away at the age of thirty nine, leaving behind him a self-reliant organization and an array of leaders to carry on his work.

His Legacy

Swami Vivekananda wrote a few books and got them published when he was in America and England. They were published world-wide and became very popular soon after their publication. Many of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures were taken down in shorthand and were published. Many newspapers published reports of Swami Vivekananda’s lectures with excerpts. Many newspapers interviewed him and published the interviews. He wrote a number of letters to various people. They were carefully preserved by the receivers. Some people, with whom Swami Vivekananda had interesting conversations, noted down the conversations. Many of the admirers of Swami Vivekananda wrote down their reminiscences with him. All these form the literature available to access the thoughts of Swami Vivekananda.

The various accounts on the life of Swami Vivekananda show the kind of person he was. They show the troubles that he had to go through in life to achieve what he has. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda covers varied topics – history of India, culture of India and other countries, Indian philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, ideas to make Vedanta practical, comparative study of religions, cultures and societies, past glory of India, analysis of the cause of India’s downfall, guidelines to rejuvenation of India, etc.

Most of Swami Vivekananda’s message to the Indian people are contained in three collections: “Lectures from Colombo to Almora”, “Letters of Swami Vivekananda” and “Talks with Swami Vivekananda”.

Main Ideas

The main ideas of Swami Vivekananda with respect to India are given below:

India has been a great country both at the material plane and spiritual plane. However, the unique contribution of India to the world is the spiritual light. India’s role in the world is as the spiritual teacher – Jagadguru. When this is strengthened, India will become strong in all the other aspects like politics, economics, etc. So it is the duty of every Indian to study, understand, follow, develop and disseminate the traditional Indian spiritual wisdom.

Hinduism has two parts – the Shrutis and the Smritis. The Shrutis are eternal and applicable to all people of all times. They are supersensuous Truths revealed to the rishis that are recorded in the Vedas, particularly the Upanishad portion of the Vedas. The Smritis are practical implementations and stories for illustration of the ideas in the Shrutis. These are dependent on the people, society and the time. These will have to be changed as the time changes. Revamping the Shrutis has happened several times before and this does not change the core of Hinduism. This adaptability is itself a characteristic of Hinduism. So Hindus should not hesitate to throw away outdated and irrelevant customs and practices. They should stick to essentials and freely change the non-essentials.

Seeing the whole world and its living beings, especially all human beings as divine is the core of Hinduism. God lives in the heart of every living being. It is God alone that experiences the world and expresses Himself through all the living beings. Serving the living beings is serving God. The cause of downfall of India is because we treated the common man badly. The only way for India to rise is to give back the lost dignity to the common man. We should raise the economic, educational and social status of the common man. This service to man is the real worship of God.

The people of the upper castes have denied knowledge and have trodden upon the people of the lower castes for centuries. This is the cause of India’s downfall. Now, the former should put in all the effort to educate the latter and pass down the culture to the latter. The latter should put in all the effort to learn and imbibe the culture of the former, instead of complaining about the past. Complaining will not solve any problem. Once the latter have imbibed the culture and education of the former, they will be automatically accepted as equals.

Important Quotes

Here are some important quotes from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (CW), which every Indian should understand, imbibe and get inspired with.

Strength

We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act. CW  I  31

Men in general lay all the blame of life on their fellowmen, or, failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate, and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none has the praise. The wind is blowing; and those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is the fault of the wind? CW II 224

Say, ‘This misery that I am suffering is of my own doing, and that very thing proves that it will have to be undone by me alone.’ That which I created, I can demolish; that which is created by someone else, I shall never be able to destroy. Therefore, stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny. All the strength and succor you want is within yourselves. CW II 225

Whatever you think that you will be. If you think yourself weak, weak you will be; if you think yourself strong, you will be. CW III 130

Anything that brings spiritual, mental, or physical weakness, touch it not with the toes of your feet. Religion is the manifestation of the natural strength that is in man. A spring of infinite power is coiled up and is inside this little body, and that spring is spreading itself. … This is the history of man, of religion, civilisation, or progress. CW VIII 185

Work

Even the least work done for others awakens the power within; even thinking the least good of others gradually instils into the heart the strength of a lion. I love you all ever so much, but I wish you all to die working for others — I should rather be glad to see you do that! … Get up, and put your shoulders to the wheel — how long is this life for? As you have come into this world, leave some mark behind. Otherwise, where is the difference between you and the trees and stones? CW V 382-383

Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea alone. This is the way to success. CW I 177

Isn’t it man that makes money? Where did you ever hear of money making man? If you can make your thoughts and words perfectly at one, if you can, I say, make yourself one in speech and action, money will pour in at your feet of itself, like water. CW VI 455

Three things are necessary to make ever man great, every nation great.
(1) Conviction of the powers of goodness.
(2) Absence of jealousy and suspicion.
(3) Helping all who are trying to be and do good.
CW VII 29

Serve People

The watchword of all well-being, of all moral good is not “I” but “thou”. Who cares whether there is a heaven or a hell, who cares if there is a soul or not, who cares if there is an unchangeable or not? Here is the world, and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt. Forget yourselves; this is the first lesson to be learnt, whether you are a theist or an atheist, whether you are an agnostic or a Vedantist, a Christian or a Mohammedan. CW II 353

You cannot help anyone, you can only serve: serve the children of the Lord, serve the Lord Himself, if you have the privilege. If the Lord grants that you can help any one of His children, blessed you are; do not think too much of yourselves. Blessed you are that that privilege was given to you when others had it not. Do it only as a worship. CW III 246

After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth — God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. ‘Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed’. CW VII 247

This is the gist of all worship — to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples. CW III 141-142

In one word, the ideal of Vedanta is to know man as he really is, and this is its message, that if you cannot worship your brother man, the manifested God, how can you worship a God who is unmanifested? CW II 325-326

Serve India

This national ship of ours, ye children of the Immortals, my countrymen, has been plying for ages, carrying civilisation and enriching the whole world with its inestimable treasures. For scores of shining centuries this national ship of ours has been ferrying across the ocean of life, and has taken millions of souls to the other shore, beyond all misery. But today it may have sprung a leak and got damaged, through your own fault or whatever cause it matters not. What would you, who have placed yourselves in it, do now? Would you go about cursing it and quarrelling among yourselves! Would you not all unite together and put your best efforts to stop the holes? Let us all gladly give our hearts’ blood to do this; and if we fail in the attempt, let us all sink and die together, with blessings and not curses on our lips. CW III 461

I too believe that India will awake again if anyone could love with all his heart the people of the country — bereft of the grace of affluence, of blasted fortune, their discretion totally lost, downtrodden, ever-starved, quarrelsome, and envious. Then only will India awake, when hundreds of large-hearted men and women, giving up all desires of enjoying the luxuries of life, will long and exert themselves to their utmost for the well-being of the millions of their countrymen who are gradually sinking lower and lower in the vortex of destitution and ignorance. I have experienced even in my insignificant life that good motives, sincerity, and infinite love can conquer the world. CW V 126-127

India will be raised, not with the power of the flesh, but with the power of the spirit; not with the flag of destruction, but with the flag of peace and love … One vision I see clear as life before me: that the ancient Mother has awakened once more, sitting on Her throne rejuvenated, more glorious than ever. Proclaim Her to all the world with the voice of peace and benediction. CW IV 352-353

My hope and faith rest in men like you. Understand my words in their true spirit, and apply yourselves to work in their light. … I have given you advice enough; now put at least something in practice. Let the world see that your reading of the scriptures and listening to me has been a success. CW VII 175

For Further Reading

To know more about Swami Vivekananda and his Message to the people of India, here are some books to read:

  1. Life of Swami Vivekananda – By his Eastern and Western Disciples
  2. Lectures from Colombo to Almora
  3. Talks with Swami Vivekananda
  4. Letters of Swami Vivekananda
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