What would Swami Vivekananda say if he were here among us and could observe the brave new world we’ve created since he passed away in 1902?
This is a presumptuous and highly speculative question. It presumes that we know Swamiji so well that we can predict what he would think about any given subject. And since we don’t know him that well, it’s impossible to do that. But if we’ve studied his life and teachings and observed his thought patterns, it’s possible to hazard a few guesses. I’m going to hazard a few guesses—and they might all be dead wrong.
Those who have read about Swamiji’s life will know that, when he arrived in the United States in 1893, he was greatly impressed by its high level of technology, its efficiency, its dynamism. Later he became more aware of the evils that lurked beneath the surface. He criticised the crass and shallow materialism that pervaded American life.
Both trends have escalated since 1893. American technology is now even more advanced—and so is its shallow materialism. Worse, America has exported both, so that now both its technology and its materialism are found almost everywhere.
In Swamiji’s day, most long-distance travel was by train and steamship. Now we have automobiles (even self-driving ones!), international jetliners, and rockets. Journeys that took weeks and even months in the past by land and by sea now take only one or two days by air. We’ve been to the moon. We’ve sent probes to Mars. We have technological marvels that Swamiji could not have dreamed of. We have the computer! The iPad! The smartphone! The Internet! Facebook! Selfies! Twitter! And an app for every purpose.
I think that, in general, Swamiji would applaud all these material advances. They make our lives easier and more comfortable, and thus give us more free time to devote to religious practices and service to humanity.
But they all have a dark side. With the computer come viruses. With the Internet come Internet addiction, cyberbullying, and a thousand online scams. With Facebook comes a quantum leap in narcissism, facilitated by selfies. I’ve heard that some people take photos of what they had for lunch that day, and post them on Facebook. Imagine that! The entire world is dying to see what you had for lunch today! It’s well known that the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth is the ego. Facebook, together with selfies, represents the greatest victory of the ego since the invention of the mirror.
So I think that Swami Vivekananda would applaud our advances in technology, but would laugh at some of the uses we put them to. And it’s for sure that he would wonder what we’re doing with all the free time these modern marvels have given us. Do we indeed devote more time to our religious practices and serving humanity? Not so you’d notice it. Instead we waste it watching television, surfing the Internet, texting our friends about trivia, and posting selfies on Facebook.
When it comes to religion, I’m afraid that Swamiji would be dismayed by the current situation. The Pew Research Center has found that in the rich and developed countries, religious commitment, as measured by church attendance, is in decline. It still flourishes in the poor and undeveloped countries. Worldwide, uneducated people tend to embrace religion; educated people turn away from it. This generalisation suggests that, in our brave new world, piety correlates with poverty and unbelief correlates with affluence. But this is nothing new. Ages ago, Jesus Christ declared, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 18:25)
Given this situation, what are religious aspirants to do? The contemporary world calls us old-fashioned and obsolete; the jet-setters laugh at us. The onrushing avalanche of materialism—of cynicism, superficiality, and greed—is flattening everything in its path. Religious aspirants have no choice but to do what we’ve always done: be strong, stay true, and stand fast. But get out of the path of the avalanche and let it sweep past. Sri Ramakrishna remarked that the world is like the curled tail of a dog—you can’t change it. Try to straighten the tail, and as soon as you let go, it will snap back into its original shape.
We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves; and changing ourselves is what religion is all about. If we are true aspirants, we have no choice but to stick to our guns no matter what follies may engulf the world. That means remaining true to the essentials of religious practice—prayer, japa, meditation, scriptural study, singing of bhajans, keeping holy company if we can find any—and trying to serve the Shiva in every jiva as best we can.
There remains the question of what Swami Vivekananda would think of present-day India and its people. I’m not an Indian, and I don’t know India or its people well enough to say. Swamiji declared religion to be the very backbone of India, and his great fear was that Indians would forsake religion for politics. But aside from an aggressive nationalism, the real competitor with religion in India today is not politics. It is the lure of technology, and the secular mindset that goes with it. In ages past, Indian boys wanted to be sadhus. Now they all want to be computer geniuses and start up their own companies.
If Swami Vivekananda were to address the Indian nation today, he might say something like this:
‘Children of India,
‘You are heirs to a great religious tradition. In your veins flows the blood of the Vedic rishis, the sages of the Upanishads: Satyakama and Shvetaketu, Narada and Nachiketa, Gargi, Maitreyi, and Yajnavalkya. You are heirs to the Buddha, Mahavira, Patanjali, and the great acharyas, Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva. Yours too is the legacy of later saints: Jnaneswar, Tukaram, Kabir, the Alvars, Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, and legions of others whose names are unknown.
‘Be worthy of them! Do not exchange the diamonds they have given you for cheap beads of glass! Do not do, say, or even think anything that would make them ashamed of you. Having inherited such a noble tradition, be noble yourselves. Always act in such a way that Mother India will smile with pride and proclaim to all the world: “These are my children!”’
Source : Vedanta Kesari, June, 2019