Soft Coroner

Published on January 12th, 2013

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Hijacking the Swami

Swami Vivekananda’s teachings are restricted to a few Hindus today – ironically, he believed in the goodness of all religions.
by Prashant Shankarnarayan | prashant@themetrognome.in

The situation – Today India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda

The observation: He was and probably still is the sole reason for a resurgence of pride in many Indians. Organisations across India are not only celebrating his 150th birth anniversary today but also commemorating the occasion by launching events throughout the year.

At the same time, it is unfortunate that these events are being looked upon as a ‘Hindu’ event commemorating a Hindu Swami. That is the biggest disservice one could do to a man who changed the way the world perceived India and its way of living. Swami Vivekananda has been hijacked by parties and organisations representing the Hindu way of life.

True, he was a practising Hindu or an Advaita Vedantist, to be specific, and everyone and his uncle knows that the Swami represented Hindusim in the Parliament of World religions in Chicago in 1893. But that is not his sole claim to fame. He was a Hindu who stood for the noble and according to him, workable, idea of a Universal Religion. As a non-religious and non-spiritual person, I have my reservations in accepting all that he preached, but the fact that he instilled a sense of pride in a race whose dignity was crushed under the yoke of foreign rule is what makes me look at him with sheer awe and respect.

That is why I cringe when I see Swami Vivekananda’s image on the stage of an RSS or BJP event. Not that they don’t have the right to display his image, but unfortunately they seem to be the only ones sporting it. And even the public seems to have accepted it. How I wish that his teachings were laid bare to every Indian and surely one would realise that he stood for the best and against the worst in every religion. He was a social reformer who fought against taboos, superstitions, medieval attitudes and religious extremism of every kind without losing out on his religious identity.

For instance, he mentioned that the excellence of Mohammedanism lies in the fact that Islam makes all its followers equal ,such that if an American Indian were to convert to Islam then even the Sultan of Turkey would dine with him without any objections. This is obviously an exaggerated example, but it clearly reflects that the idea of universal brotherhood that Islam stresses on was not lost on him. He further states that all the other aspects in Islam about heaven, afterlife, etc. are accretions indicating that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Cut to the present age. It seems that the bigoted Islamic extremists have taken a penchant to the latter aspect even as they wage a holy war against kafirs.

On Hinduism, he mentioned in his speech at the Parliament of World Religions that, “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.” Compare this with the rabid speeches of Hindu fundamentalists who threaten to persecute minorities, conveniently forgetting their past glory.

The ignorance about Swami Vivekananda is not restricted to rabble-rousing netas. I often see Internet trolls picking his statements randomly to defame minorities. This is utterly absurd because the opinion that one can generate after reading his works is that he has reserved the most scathing as well as the highest respect for every religion. He criticised the Hindus’ caste system as the forceful proselytisation by Islam. As he himself commented, “Nothing makes us so cruel as religion and nothing makes us so tender as religion”.

Just because I read some of his works doesn’t mean that I believe in everything he believed in. I have never been able to programme myself to believe in Karma or private revelations by God reserved only for a few prophets and such ideas. I personally don’t believe that one has to be religious or even spiritual to be a good human being, but in a predominantly religious society like India, the Swami still shines across as a lone beacon when it comes to injecting a sense of Indian pride.

And he derived his pride from an ancient culture that no doubt developed with the establishment of Advaita vedanta, Jaina, Buddhism, etc. but then later benefited from immensely significant contributions of Muslims, Parsis and other religions. He even said that its better to be an atheist than to be a religious fool.

Hindu leaders who misuse him as a poster boy for Hinduism are as much at fault as the Muslim clerics or other religious leaders who ignore his contributions considering him as just another Indian godman or baba. In a way, he was India’s first superstar. The first one who made the West stand up and take note of the lofty treasures that India had to share with the world. His idea of a ‘Vedanta Brain and Islam Body’ would bode well for us in an age when Hindu and Muslim panchayats are banning cell phones for women to prevent rape. We need someone like the Swami to help religious Indians retain the essence of their religion and flush out the nonsense. For the rest of us, rationality and science works just fine.

Prashant Shankarnarayan is a media person who is constantly on the lookout for content and auto rickshaws in Mumbai. ‘Soft Coroner’ tries to dissect situations that look innocuous at the surface but reveal uncomfortable complexities after a thorough post mortem.

(Picture courtesy geteasyway.com)

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