IN A FASCINATING STUDY of Jacques Derrida’s, ‘Religion without Religion’, John D Caputo points out a truth that quite often remains contentious, if not totally forgotten: ‘One is always working inside a tradition or the institutions founded upon them; it is not possible to work elsewhere, to collect a check without a bursar or controller.’1 Doubtless this is irrefutable. But then, in studying Vivekananda today, we have also to reckon with the fact that whether it is tradition or modernity, the new can be drawn from the residue of another tradition, residue that surfaces in unexpected incarnations. From this phenomenon arise challenges from both the ‘changing’ milieu and its ineradicable bases. ‘Religion without religion’, for me, would imply religion with its impact and regulatory powers on the four basic motivations of human life: ethics, economics, enjoyment, and enlightenment, besides its spiritual aspects. Obviously, these are the traditional purusharthas but with different nuances and resonances as, here, translated into English.


Universal Interfaith Harmony

Vivekananda went to America not as a prospective immigrant but, as we realize now, an incipient prophet of harmony and peace, enhanced with the radiant, revitalized experience of the truths of major religions embodied in and exemplified irrefutably by his great mentor, Sri Ramakrishna. The young Narendra was not a piously submissive chela. He was a fiery challenger of faith-based claims to Truth. And he met the one who affirmed the truths of spiritual experience not quoting texts like a pandit but exemplifying them in every aspect of his life.


Above all, let us recall that on the eve of voluntarily and gently stilling his body into the great Void, Sri Ramakrishna gifted all that he garnered and lodged in his body, mind, and spirit to his beloved disciple Narendra. And in turn the recipient, relentlessly and readily, enriched the world consciousness with the knowledge and wisdom that are required as unquestionable channels for enlightenment. For every major or minor challenge, secular or sacred, evident in the ethos he faced, he had the unique art of transforming them into channels and choices of immense potential. In a situation where the colonial regime, rooted in the ruthless agenda of a company floated purely for profit and pleasure, Vivekananda bored holes through the hard granite of allegedly impregnable intentions of that company and eventually of the empire.


In a revealing insight, Vivekananda himself told about what his stay in the US resulted in. He confided to John Henry Wright, Professor of Greek studies at Harvard, that ‘his stay in America had taught him a great deal. He said he worked on and out of a new way of life: that the practical living in America had brought his old problems before him in a new light.’2 In fact, besides Professor Wright we learn that ‘all of these philosophers’ who met Vivekananda, ‘had earlier come in contact with Classical Vedanta’ (177). Was that ‘contact’, intellectual understandings, what Swamiji himself had and nothing else of Vedanta? Here comes the difference: ‘Sara [Bull] introduced them to a living exemplar, one with whom they could carry on a dialog about modern issues. Vivekananda spoke to them expressing the ancient philosophy in the current idiom’ (ibid.). It is in this context that Vivekananda pointed out the need to ‘address the entire spectrum of human experience if it was going to continue as a legitimate force, and evolve and mature’ (ibid.).


The kind of ethos Vivekananda faced when he went to the US was one of mixed, if not of a totally chaotic, perception of India. One can call it the oscillating pendulum between the atheistic Ingersoll and the smug confidence of a young nation evaluating every other nation in terms of its own criteria of growth and development. Even today this tendency continues. Individuals like Perry Anderson, who, like parrots caged in their own frame, go on sputtering that India is not a ‘nation’ at all. Let alone the concept of nation, for India watchers we do not even have history, only legends and myths. As recently as 2013 Amartya Sen tells us that we have glory—thank God—but, alas, it is uncertain—perhaps if Nalanda University alumni start coming out, the glory would become certain. Even as Vivekananda admired the Americans’ pragmatism, as Marie Louise Burke has rightly noted, ‘he foresaw great turmoil and tumult in the coming age; he anticipated gigantic worldwide problems that would have to be faced and solved, and he knew that men strong to the depths of their being could stand up to these problems and not be overcome.’3


The glorious and the gory coexist, engineered by imbalances. Marie Louise Burke, a meticulous scholar who has given us a vast account of Swamiji’s life in the US, and Perry Anderson from California, who rubbishes the very identity of India as a nation—both embody one of Vivekananda’s tenets: ‘The very basis of our being is contradiction, … everywhere we have to move through the tremendous contradiction, that wherever there is good, there must also be evil, and wherever there is evil, there must be some good, wherever there is life, death must follow as its shadow, and everyone who smiles will have to weep, and vice versa. Nor can this state of things be remedied.’4


Concerning this inextricable duality, one can also cite the paradox of Chicago: the city that was the centre of Vivekananda’s emergence as a world prophet has also the University of Chicago, which publishes some of the most offensive books on Hinduism, particularly on Tantra. But then, the University of Chicago has now a Vivekananda Chair! Therefore we have to accept all this with Vivekananda’s philosophy of practical life: every challenge is a choice, a channel to harness what is enriching, not enfeebling to our being.


The context now is the enthusiastic, often euphoric, response to Vivekananda. Enthusiasm that goes to the extent of dressing up selected youngsters like so many modern Vivekanandas! Of course, some scholars shy to write about him directly, others feel so overpowered that they bring out studies, individual or anthologies, without little concern for editing. Invariably, the emotions of reverence far outweigh analyses of relevance and its pragmatic potential. In short, we have jesting Pilates as also jeering debaters—debating without understanding.


But one very important present-day ‘change’ is to shed the usual, unexamined, load of adherence to the Western—mostly Euro-American—paradigms of human development. Once we regretted the word, and plight of, ‘untouchables’. Now we adopted, some scholars feel, a strange ethic: studies from the hermeneutics of the West are ‘untouchables’, you cannot even touch them to know whether they really exist or are mere ‘phantoms of the tell-tale brain’—in the catchy words of neurologist V S Ramachandran’s books—constructed as universally valid frames of irrefutable relevance to all cultures and societies. In essence, the hermeneutics is like Caesar, impeccable above any questioning or suspicion.


We seem, however, to have woken up to these recurrent assumptions that pass as ‘truths’. In his essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, ‘The Challenges to the Social Sciences in the 21st Century: Some Perspectives from the South’, Aditya Mukherjee has noted the paradox that ‘when the various disciplines of the human and social sciences, such as history, economics and political science evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the present developing world was under colonial rule and European ideological hegemony held sway in most of the world. The human and social sciences in this period remained largely Eurocentric.’5 This ended, it seems, with World War I.


Going further (and in spite of the 20th century being called ‘the American century’) Professor Mukherjee, says, ‘Human society from the ancient period to the present, thus, continued to be often viewed, understood and interpreted in Euro-centric western ways. The 21st century will have to face this challenge and recover and forefront alternative voices.’ More ambitiously, ‘Notions of what constitutes identity, development, progress, scientific achievement, secularism, nation, justice, ethics, and aesthetics have to be widened to incorporate the much wider human experience’ (ibid.).


Though Professor Mukherjee does not, understandably, mention religion as such, many of the agendas he hopes to get widened can be found in Vivekananda’s life and works. And without any self-conscious apologies, our intellectuals may accept reasons why religion matters and needs in-depth study if it comes from the West. In a workshop on ‘Thinking Ethics’ in Geneva in 2005, the group concluded that in the areas that engage our serious attention for checks and balances, religion occupies the first place. The other areas are business, the military, science, and the media. More explicitly, in her note on ‘Ethics and Consciousness’, Christene Wicker says: ‘Respect for religious diversity and engagement with people of various faiths will be an essential ethic of the future. Bible classes that might once have been taught as part of a liberal arts education must be replaced with interfaith ethics. This is not to say that the distinctiveness of each faith system ought to be compromised.’6


Vivekananda had long ago experienced this vision as a fact. He articulated memorably: ‘We must grow according to our own nature.’7 Not gdp growth alone, with or without measurement, but growth in ‘harmony and peace’. In short, not sahana, patiently tolerant, but samarasya, the coexistence of the dialectics of contradictions—yet retaining the ability to function.


Human Will to Conquer

Benoy Kumar Sarkar, the Bengali scholar and one of the most prominent intellectuals of the 1930s who was inspired by what used to be called the ‘Ramakrishna-Vivekananda complex’, observed that, ‘It is not Nature, region or geography that in the last analysis determines man’s destiny. It is the human will, man’s energy, that recreates the topography and natural forces, humanize the earth and spiritualizes the geography.’ 8 Citing this, in his study of ‘Germanism in Colonial Bengal’, Andrew Sartori says that Sarkar ‘would thus explicitly identify the technical and economic creations of the industrial era as directly “spiritual” expressions of the “human will to conquer”.’9


This is a perception that Vivekananda inculcated and empowered others with: ‘What we want is progress, development, realization. No theories ever made man higher. No amount of books can help us to become purer. The only power is in realization, and that lies in ourselves and comes from thinking. … The glory of man is that he is a thinking being.’10


What are the challenges Vivekananda faced and later fashioned into channels of perennial, integrated art of living in harmony? In his early life he experienced the comfort of a loving family with undoubted affluence. But he tasted the harrowing poverty that human treachery engendered. Relationships with former friends proved futile. Even faith in God floundered. The channel of marrying into a rich family, restoration of familial comfort, was open but never seized. His outstanding intellect and learning did not help him procure a job. And even when his Master assured him that the Divine Mother could come to his rescue when approached sincerely, what he tried, the very idea of asking never surfaced—instead he asked for viveka, vairagya, and bhakti.


The amazing phenomenon that later manifested in him was that of Shakti, power, which was so palpable that when Lillian Montgomery, who was not a devotee, heard Swamiji’s public speeches in 1900, expressed:
Swami Vivekananda was so entirely different from anything that we had known in America. I had heard all my life, it seemed to me, of power and repose, and the first time I had seen it was in the presence of Swami Vivekananda. And it all came as such a surprise, because I wasn’t prepared for it. … Power seemed to emanate from him. … It seemed to me that there was an ocean of consciousness back of Swami Vivekananda, and in some way it focused and flowed through his words … there was a purity, and an intense power, such a power as I think we have never seen—that I had never seen, and I don’t expect I will ever see it again. It seemed to pour from an infinite source, and it was perfectly calm, perfectly reposed.11


The explication of this ‘power’ is a challenge to consciousness studies, as also a component of brain research. The Oxford Companion to Consciousness states: ‘Consciousness expansion, or extended awareness, is a rather broad concept, usually referring to certain states of consciousness in which either the self or the space seen around is greatly enhanced or enlarged. These states can happen spontaneously in mystical experiences, they can be achieved deliberately through practices such as yoga, prayer, meditation, and sensory deprivation and they can be induced by taking drugs.’12 Moreover, ‘the ultimate expansion of consciousness can occur in spontaneous mystical states in the form of a complete loss of self and resulting oneness with the universe. In this state there is no individual awareness; rather, one’s previously separate self seems to have merged with everything else.’ And Black more cites William James who pointed out, ‘such mystical experiences are difficult or impossible to describe and come with a sense of passivity or surrender in the face of what seems to be true knowledge or insight’ (ibid.).


In his massive, meticulous study on Zen and the brain, James H Austin points out that ‘paradigm clash’ prevents scientists from taking up altered states of consciousness seriously: ‘Altered states of consciousness do seem subversive enough to threaten many people’s prejudices. Indeed, the few scientists who work in this general area tend to be defensive about their research, because much of it still has to gain scientific respectability.’13 In short, they are consigned to the multivocal catch-penny word ‘subjective’. Vivekananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutra, especially on his experience of kundalini, if carefully put together should enrich without challenging the current quantum of research—perhaps we may get the complete picture of brain and consciousness.


No Academic Doctrine

Decolonizing the impact of the dialectics of these two phases of Western societies was Swamiji’s greatest achievement. Yes, he renewed Hinduism from two blocks: its social imbalances and its mythological and ritualistic hangover, which he renewed by emphasizing the practical dynamics of spirituality. Sister Nivedita has put it: ‘His doctrine was no academic system of metaphysics, of purely historic and linguistic interest, but the heart’s faith of a living people, who have struggled continuously for its realization, in life and in death, for twenty-five centuries.’14


Nivedita’s mention of ‘pure linguistic interest’ points to the related issue of Swamiji’s choice of English to cast the Sanatana Dharma as a universal practical method. At a time when English was a tool of entrenched colonial interests, including evangelism, he made it the deliberately chosen and dexterously sculpted medium to establish the ancient spiritual truths of India as an enduring testament of global reach. Moreover, his spoken texts—as Harriet Monroe called them ‘peaks of human excellence’—recall, though in English, the classical tradition of orality in textual formation. This was a different kind of renaissance, based on harmony of cultures, languages, and religious, and of course faiths. While the oriental scholars had their own agendas—comparable to the evangelists’—with English as the medium, Vivekananda did not see English, as some of our intellectuals see, as ‘the lie of the land’, used by ‘the intimate enemy’ as a powerful ‘mask of (colonial) conquest.’ Swamiji saw it as ‘the greatest gift of Goddess Saraswati to India’, in the words of Rajaji. If we recall that before his very first electrifying address to the Parliament of Religions, he prayed to Goddess Saraswati, the Sanskrit and the English linguistic resonances effortlessly coalesced to create an instant experience of harmony. English ceased to be the other’s tongue, and Swamiji used it to constitute no less than a New Testament of Global interfaith harmony.


Swamiji said that ‘by Vedas no books are meant.’15 They are revelations, through transcendental states of consciousness, of the truths that underlie creation. In the same vein it can be said that Swamiji’s works are not books as such, they embody insights, revelations effortlessly fusing the motifs of Shruti and Smriti texts. Perhaps the apparent corruption of consciousness evident in many fields today is the collapse of what Luce Irigaray identifies as loss of logos: ‘The house of language has become a kind of tomb to which it is necessary to give back the semblance of life. The closure of the logos, of the world, calls for contraries, oppositions, conflicts.’16 Discussing love and hatred, she says: ‘The logic of Western culture ends in a substitution of representation for perception’ (9). As Dr Radhakrishnan puts it, Vivekananda is ‘a spokesman of the Divine Logos .’17 The Logos has now manifest evidence in books like Philip Goldberg’s American Veda, which traces the fascinating story of how Indian spirituality captured the West.


This absorption is evident in many ways. At present yoga sustains an annual six-billion dollar industry. This of course reflects the business ideal. Juxtaposed with this is its amazing ‘accessibility’, an impact that Ann Louise Bardach has noted: ‘Vivekananda held the conference’s 4000 attendees spellbound in a series of showstopping improvised talks. He had simplified Vedanta thought to a few teachings that were accessible and irresistible to Westerners, foremost being “all souls are potentially divine”.’18 His prescription for life was simple and perfectly American ‘work and worship’. Yet, it is inevitable that like tantra, yoga too oscillates between the spiritual and the bizarre psychological—meditation revolutions without natural evolution of consciousness.


Does spirituality or some of its aspects figure among entrepreneurs? Is there an impact of Vivekananda? We do not know for certain. But the general awareness of rampant corruption in many forms may have made many aware of spiritual modes of taming it. A recent article in Harvard Business Review highlighted prayer and its related issues. To the question, ‘What do entrepreneurs pray for?’ the answer was: ‘Unfortunately, we don’t know the content of their prayer. Are they asking for energ y, insight, success? They’re exposed to a lot of uncertainty and risk than the rest of us, so maybe they feel the need to pray more. Perhaps the pressure of starting and running a business to put food on the table heightens their spiritual longings.’ And if religion is dismissed or discouraged at the office, ‘that could mean missing out on significant sources of employee engagement and dedication.’ The research shows that in this regard congregations ‘really emphasize work and worship’. In effect, all these constitute the challenge to people’s spirituality.19


If this trend has to deepen and intensify, it requires, both in India and other countries, an education able to instil what Vivekananda crystallized memorably as ‘harmony and peace’. In India there are institutes that incorporate these motifs in ‘soft skills’. But a synthesis of harmonious learning with English language skills has been done by Lisa Morgan. ‘Harmonious Learning : Yoga in the English Language Classroom’20 is an essay with a scope that, though based on physical culture and hatha yoga rationale, goes beyond into areas connected with harmonious living. Learning to live harmoniously through understanding Vivekananda could be in tune with the current pedagog y of ‘teaching as understanding’ in an integrated way—do our secular policies allow Vivekananda enter the government pedagogic portals, as it happened in the 1950s in Andhra University with the life of Swamiji in Telugu prescribed as a text for degree classes?


Swamiji’s emphasis on social reform is well known. And the former citizens on the margins are no longer there. They have achieved a unity that is a welcome, powerful transformative phenomenon. A recent study of Dalit literature highlights that they achieved ‘a pan-Indian unity’ through ‘telling stories, the English language, and translation’. English is considered ‘a casteless language’. As Rita Kothari says, ‘as far as the English language is concerned its ideological potential to “translate” the Dalit life from fatalism to an identity of rights outweighs considerations of its distance from Indian reality.’21 Whatever the nuances, Vivekananda performed the miracle of ‘crossing the seas’ as also co-opting English as his medium of a quantum of literature incredible in its sweep and range.


We now enter an area that is, in many ways, complex, if not controversial. This is the debatable issue of Vivekananda and the political dimension of a society. Transparently, he cautioned that his followers should keep off politics, and insisted in filling the land with spiritual ideas. It may make us assume that the Vivekananda phenomenon inoculated itself from all political dimensions. True, but there is a far more comprehensive truth behind. Perhaps a clue we can locate in the incident in which Sri Ramakrishna became the Kalpataru, bestower of whatever the devotees present desired ardently. Not all opted for enlightenment. There were those who desired literary renown and other things. What Sri Ramakrishna surely wanted to give may not have many takers. The freedom to choose whatever one wanted does not make spiritual enlightenment primary. In fact, Swamiji once said that religion meant real religion to very few.


To put it more specifically, economic gain, social status, and so forth also need fulfilment. But freedom to choose in such a context, implies that the ends, of what is known as, nihshreyasa, ultimate goal of life, remain subordinated to abhyudaya, worldly prosperity. In today’s society secular growth displaces spiritual orientations. So, freedom as spirituality and ethics will get sidelined by affluence and the freedom to enjoy it. In a democratic society imbalances are as real, as the gdp—accessibility syndrome shows. Therefore, Vivekananda’s freedom was inclusive of the political aspect, without being privileged. It is religion without any of its authentic dimensions put in practice.


Political matters do exist, but their negative aspects have far more effect than their positive. ‘Power’ has a connotation of going with corruption, and ‘absolute power’ much more. The antidote to this, if at all recognized and absorbed, is the freedom one obtains from ethical and spiritual orientations. Swamiji emphasized these orientations as an unfailing check to corrupt power. The situations that exist now, with unchecked materialism of enjoyment backed by consumerism, demand such freedom. The inner Being and its ethics are totally unknown, and even when
known are dismissed as puritanical.


As a true socialist—a self-described identity—Swamiji held: ‘Liberty of thought and action is the only condition of life, of growth and well-being. Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must go down. Caste or no caste, creed or no creed, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution which bars the power of free thought and action of an individual—even so long as that power does not injure others—is devilish and must go down.’22


Institutionalizing Tyaga and Seva

While Gandhiji ‘sacralized’ the Dalits as Harijans and Dr Ambedkar ‘constitutionalized’ their rights in the wake of independence, Swamiji ‘institutionalized’ the pragmatics of tyaga, renunciation, and seva, free service. This move of Swamiji may appear as immune from political phenomena, but citing the above two passages Dennis Dalton says: ‘In a broad sense, Vivekananda has often been rightly called a great inspiration of the Indian nationalist movement, as well as of the leading political thinkers of twentieth-century India. He may also be seen, in a more particular sense, as the pivotal influence behind one theme of modern Indian political thought, the idea of freedom.’23

The Ramakrishna Order is an instance of freedom evolving naturally into a vital institution of tyaga and seva run according to Vivekananda’s inspiration. But a more striking example is Vivekananda’s non-interference with the evolution of women’s spiritual freedom to opt for tyaga and seva. If Holy Mother is the exemplar of tyaga and seva, it evolved naturally into the institutionalizing of those motifs in Sarada Math.


Here we notice the emergence of making social well-being, economic empowerment, and other related areas as indispensable components of tyaga and seva. While Vivekananda made these integral to spirituality, there is still some hesitation to accept this. But with the advent of a neo-liberal market economy and outsourcing, the model of an affluent society establishes itself firmly. In fact, the Bhagavadgita—Swamiji linked it to ‘biceps’—is identified as a source for political thought in action.


C A Bayly is forthright in his comment: ‘The revival of the tradition of Vedanta, notably through the life and works of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, posed the possibility of a new form of social and political renunciation and so raised again the issue of the extent of one’s duty to society.’24 While this is true, there is also an increasing trend on the part of such approaches to raise the argument that men like Gandhi, Aurobindo, and Tilak derived their ‘requisite in souciant confidence’, as Ananya Vajpeyi calls it, to handle traditional texts like the Gita from exposure to Western modernity.25 And it is asserted that ‘there no longer, existed the entire edifice of traditional learning with its scholastic, religious, and popular authority to provide any kind of structured and systematic access to the recondite texts’ (ibid.). While this is a problematic area that needs more space, for Vivekananda more than for Gandhi, ethical ideas are not just ideas but also guides for practice of spiritual unfoldment, with political freedom not marginalized.


All these issues raise important questions, for example, if the primacy of spiritual growth was the fulcrum of whatever Vivekananda spoke or did. If this is bypassed, the result will be understanding him only in terms of debating. And debate is bound to be polemical. There lies the potential for deviation into, again, the academic notions of the West remaining as primary as they do now. Can Vivekananda be saved from Western hermeneutical interpretations given their alleged irrefutable primacy now ?


I am aware this is an inconclusive ending. But the one thing that I cannot resist from mentioning is that the few studies that venture to mention Vivekananda show familiarity with his characteristic imperative ways. What needs to be done is to evolve a comprehensive map of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda hermeneutics. This is sustained by their lives and, in Swamiji, his Complete Works and other sources. The young scholars working within the broad Western cultural and structural paradigms need to look at these issues with a new inwardness and openness, especially to Vivekananda.


(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)



1. John D Caputo, Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1997), 183.
2. Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana, Saint Sara (Kolkata: Dakshineswar, Sri Sarada Math, 2002), 176.
3. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda: Prophet of the Modern Age (Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2009), 27.
4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.97.
5. Aditya Mukherjee, ‘Challenges to the Social Sciences in the 21st Century : Some Perceptions from the South,’ Economic and Political Weekly, 14 September 2013, 31.
6. Thinking Ethics: How Ethical Values and Standards Are Changing, ed. Beth Krsna (Delhi: Viva Books, 2006), 10.
7. Complete Works, 3.219.
8. Benoy Kumar Sarkar, ‘The Expansion of Spirituality as a Fact of Industrial Civilization’, Prabuddha Bharata, 41/5 (May 1936), 413.
9. Andrew Sartori, ‘Beyond Culture-contact and Colonial Discourse: Germanism in Colonial Bengal’, in An intellectual History for India, ed. Shruti Kapila (New York: Cambridge University, 2010), 82.
10. Complete Works, 2.336.