I am writing this column on Swami Vivekananda’s 160th birthday. Though Vivekananda passed away 120 years ago, his ideas and work continue to have a profound impact on us to this day.
Without going into the metaphysical and spiritual realm, Swami Vivekananda was the greatest influence on modern Indian nationalism, equalled only by Mahatma Gandhi. In particular, three of his messages stand out.
First, Vivekananda embraced all traditions, philosophies and conceptions of divinity as different forms of truth, and proudly proclaimed to the world and reminded us in India that ours is an inclusionary philosophy, not exclusionary. ‘Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti’ is the defining principle of Indian philosophy and practice. This eclecticism itself became the bedrock of nationalism.
Judaism entered India 2,600 years ago and since then the Jewish people have been able to practise their faith without persecution or hindrance; similarly Christianity flourished in India for 2,000 years, and Islam for over 1,300 years. All these faiths are not only tolerated, but also embraced by our society, and various belief systems and cultures have been seamlessly fused with our indigenous beliefs, ideas and practices. Vivekananda celebrated this synthesis and reminded the world and India of our unique blend of civilisations.
Second, he gave Indians self-confidence and dignity in a climate of deep-seated insecurity and humiliation due to centuries of oppression and subjugation. And, finally, he redefined the Hindu way of life, instilling a sense of the collective good and a spirit of public service, in place of the traditional Indian spiritual quest that sought individual salvation and focused on the relationship between the Atman and Brahman.
Vivekananda’s message and life were a source of inspiration to the youth of India, energising them in their quest for a proud, self-confident, united India transcending all barriers.
What would be Vivekananda’s message to us today; in particular, to the youth? First, he would emphasise the oneness of our society and remind us of our bonds of unity forged by common heritage and collective challenges. Transcending circumstances of birth and narrow domestic walls of caste, region, religion and language, he would emphasise our common dreams and collective future.
Second, Vivekananda would ask us to be proud of our glorious traditions and strong foundations of culture and civilisation. Strong family institution, willingness of parents to sacrifice for children, a sense of dharma or collective good transcending personal faith, a strong moral compass defining right and wrong, contentment and eclecticism are our strengths.
But he would also remind us that there are ugly features of our tradition – caste, superstition, oppression of women and bigotry – which need to be shed. He would urge us to synthesise the best of our traditions with the best of modernity.
Third, Vivekananda would instil self-confidence and pride in our youth. Self-confidence comes from the value a person brings to society; and education, skills and ability to create goods and services to fulfil the needs of society make a person valuable. He would therefore urge the youth to equip themselves with the skills necessary to grow and meet society’s needs.
Fourth, Vivekananda would teach us that the individual and society are inseparable. Every young person has a right to pursue her dreams and work to achieve a good life. But individual gain and public good have to be integrated, and one cannot be at the cost of the other. One does not have to ‘sacrifice’ personal growth for public good; both have to go together to be sustainable. What we need is not idolatrous patriotism but a sense of the community even as the individual flourishes. Fusion of individual goals with public good is the hallmark of a harmonious and great nation.
Fifth, Vivekananda would exhort us to integrate the present and the future seamlessly. Global experience has taught us that humanity’s short-term greed at the cost of ecological devastation is simply unsustainable. Similarly, within the nation, if we borrow and spend for today’s consumption, it is at the cost of future generations. No generation has the right to harm the unborn future generations by borrowing for today’s consumption. Transferring the burden to our children without creating assets for the future will only impoverish the next generation and hold us back as a nation.
Finally, Vivekananda would have rejoiced at the accomplishments of human society in the 120 years since his passing. Despite two world wars, two pandemics and many manmade catastrophes, human society has achieved spectacular progress. We have the technology, resources and ability to fulfil every human being’s potential and to eliminate all preventable disease and avoidable suffering. Philosophers throughout history dreamt of these goals. Vivekananda would inspire us to now use our technology and resources in full measure to create a world of abundance without poverty, and growth and opportunities without damaging the environment. In India, despite our late start and many systemic challenges, we are well-placed to catch up with our destiny in the next three decades. Fulfilling that destiny would be a fitting tribute to Swami Vivekananda.
The author is the founder of the Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter @jp_loksatta
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