Arguably, the greatest achievement of Swami Vivekananda, one of the most celebrated icons of modern India, was the reconstruction of Hinduism. This he accomplished by reforming the religion in India and changing its image in the West. Indeed, the Hinduism that Vivekananda expounded at the Parliament of World's Religions in Chicago was a new, progressive version of an ancient tradition, devoid of the superstitions and distortions with which it had come to be associated. He revolutionized Hindu faith traditions by turning them into a repository of rational, universal philosophy. This book tries to get to the heart of Swami Vivekananda's legacy and his relevance in the contemporary world. It examines hitherto lesser-known aspects of Swamiji's life and work including his contributions to practical Vedanta, universal religion, science-spirituality and inter-religious dialogue, dharmic secularism, educational philosophy, poetry, and, above all, to the problem of Indian modernity.
Despite the abundance of literature available on him, Swami Vivekananda is still not understood adequately, remaining somewhat of an enigma. A fresh reading of the life and times of the Swami by someone who has studied him closely, Makarand R. Paranjape's detailed, thought-provoking account shows that in Vivekananda's visionary thoughts lay the seeds of the creation of a modern India. This book reclaims Swami Vivekananda's stature as a pioneer of contemporary Hindu thought and nationalism.
Makarand Paranjape is currently Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. He has been professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, since 1999. His recent books include Debating the Post Condition in India, Cultural Politics in Modern India, The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito, an Indo-Brazilian book of poems. Makarand is currently a columnist for the Print and Mail Today
I HAVE FELT THE PRESENCE of grace in the writing and completion of this book. Several of these chapters were drafted during Swami Vivekananda's sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations. I participated in the commencement of the official commemoration in March 2013 at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, where the then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, himself did the honours, presenting a paper in the conference that followed. As it happened, I also participated in possibly the last of the official programmes a year later, in February 2014. It was held in the city of the Swami's birth, Kolkata, at an institution established to carry forward his work and message, the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Gol Park. Through these 150th anniversary celebrations, I met and listened to many distinguished scholars and devotees of Swamiji. Together, we engaged in an endeavour to better understand the life, work and legacy of Vivekananda. No wonder, today, as I see the finished manuscript before me, I am filled with a sense of wonder and gratitude. Without all these fortunate and fortuitous convergences, how could I possibly have finished this project?
Yet, looking back over these five years, I am convinced of something quite contrary to what might be expected consequent on being so engrossed in the life and works of this extraordinary individual. After attending so many events, symposia, conferences, and listening to scores of eminent speakers, besides reading nearly every book or essay on Vivekananda, I came to a rather unexpected conclusion. We have to contend with the very real probability that we may have still not understood the Swami adequately. That is because, with our limiting habits of thought and mind, we tend to convert if not reduce Vivekananda to a dimension that is much more comprehensible, palatable or manageable to us. Vivekananda, in other words, still remains somewhat of an enigma, even as we keep rehearsing and regurgitating what we know about him already. In fact, one of the alternate titles of this book could be 'The "Unknown" Vivekananda'.
In my view Vivekananda remains 'unknown' if familiar for three reasons. First of all, the actual store of information and knowledge about him has not significantly increased in the last few decades. The new, corrective edition of his multi-volume Complete Works, in the making for many years, is still not out. At the same time, his papers, in custody of the Ramakrishna Mission, are not yet accessible to the public. When it comes to the secondary material on Vivekananda, once again, we notice that very few new readings or interpretations have emerged. What has, barring a few exceptions such as Hindol Sengupta's refreshingly readable The Modern Monk (Penguin, 2016), changed considerably is the massive increase in the publicization and politicization of Swamiji's life and legacy, to be expected with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as India's ruling party For Hindutva cadres, Vivekananda is an object of reverence, if not an iconic poster persona. In addition to his traditional constituency of devotees belonging to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement, many others in India now swear by him. But such zeal and adulation does not take kindly to a critical engagement with his life and work. On the other hand, purely secular, intellectual academics, too, remain quite impervious to certain aspects of Vivekananda's mind and method. Given our already entrenched ideological prejudices and belief systems, not to mention our intellectual interests and investments, it is hard for most of us to take a fresh look at the life, world and work of this extraordinary monk.
Here, I would venture to add that like his own mentor, Sri Ramakrishna, and some of the other extraordinary figures of his times, Vivekananda was definitely a mystic, even if he is regarded almost exclusively as an activist. He deliberately set out to attain `higher' states of consciousness. What is more, he committed himself to the lifelong arduous meditative and spiritual practices or `sadhanas' to attain them. He also tried to lead not only his disciples, but also vast sections of humanity (whom he addressed through his speeches and writings) to similar realizations. We must acknowledge that one of the key challenges before us is how to take cognizance of those extraordinary states and planes of consciousness, even as we uphold the norms of reason and intellect in our approach to his larger-than-life personage. Our imperative is, thus, to mediate between an unthinking adulation and devotionalism, on the one hand, and an unblinking and overly reductive rejection of the spiritual dimension on the other. In addition, we must take into account the inordinate politicization of his life. These challenges bring us to the heart of Swami Vivekananda's legacy and his relevance in the contemporary world.
That is why, in my view, the 'known' Vivekananda should not interest us that much. Instead, it is the 'unknown' Swamiji who still beckons to us from across the gulf of these 150 years. To exceed our limits of understanding, to reach the heights and depths of experiencing our true selves, to strive to attain `samadhi' or super-consciousness is what he tried to communicate to us throughout his short, dazzling life. Besides, of course, the complete social, cultural, economic and political transformation of India that he strove to initiate. Moreover, since these two aspects are deeply, even inextricably, interconnected Vivekananda remains lesser known than we think. This book, dwelling on the isthmus between the two, makes a case for why we must continue to strive to come closer to Vivekananda. In doing so, we will try to value and experience what he really was trying to convey. Perhaps if we try hard enough we may also have glimpses of that higher consciousness, whose elevating and uplifting touch he was trying to establish on the common ground of colonized and colonial India. To explore afresh the possibility of engaging with him seriously, then, is also be touched by the radical and transformative power of his life and teachings.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Brahma Sutras (77)
Yoga Vasistha (81)
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