At a time when Hindu zealots are using even religious observances to whip up hatred against Muslims in particular, a re-reading of Vivekananda can provide welcome relief
“The various religions that exist in the world, although they differ in the form of worship they take, are really one… All are true, for, if you look to the real spirit, the real religion, and the truths in each of them, they are all alike.”
So spoke Swami Vivekananda, one of the stars of Hindu philosophy who was a passionate opponent of aggression in religion and a great exponent of universal religious unity. At first glance, one may be tempted to ask what can be new about whatever Vivekananda has said. At a time when Hindu zealots are using even religious observances to whip up hatred against Muslims in particular, a re-reading of Vivekananda can provide welcome relief.
Vivekananda spoke the words above at Sialkot during his travels during the British era to Punjab and Kashmir which also took him to Rawalpindi, Murree and Jammu. “We should think of God always,” the Swami told his listeners. “Hatred is a thing which greatly impedes the course of Bhakti.”
Vivekananda and religions
Quarrels about religion, he underlined, arise from the thinking that one alone has the truth and whoever does not believe it must be a fool. Although a Hindu monk, Vivekananda was at peace with various religions. “In every religion there have been men good and able, thus making the religion to which they belonged worthy of respect, and as there are such people in every religion, there ought to be no hatred for any sect whatsoever.”
Do those who wield swords and play loud music while massing around mosques during Ramzan to provoke and harass Muslims know this? Were they aware that Vivekananda would have never approved what they were doing?
“We accept all religions as true.” Vivekananda uttered these immortal words in his now famous speech on September 11, 1893 at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, a speech that was to bring him great laurels. He warned that sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. “They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.”
The Swami was bitterly opposed to Christians embracing Hinduism or Hindus or Buddhists becoming Christians. In other words, he was against religious conversion. Speaking again at the Parliament of Religions but on September 27, 1893, he insisted that holiness, purity and charity were not the exclusive possession of any church. “If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart.”
Vivekananda made it clear that it will boomerang if you hurt anyone. At the Twentieth Century Club at Boston, he called for allowing an “infinite variation in religious thought and not try to bring everybody to the same opinion”.
The monk touched upon hate again while dwelling on the greatness of the Gita at San Francisco on May 29, 1900. “If loving your own people means hating everybody else, it is the quintessence of selfishness and brutality, and the effect is that it will make you brutes.” Don’t we see this happening today in India? Indeed, he warned that organized religions was “a hundred times more evil than good, because they stop the growth of each one’s individual development”.
Religion is the tie and unity of humanity, he told another gathering also at San Francisco. “We are all Christians; we are all Mohammedans; we are all Hindus, or all Buddhists.” If Vivekananda had spoken these words today, some may have accused him of “appeasement”!
Addressing a gathering in California on Lord Krishna, he said: “There is a great deal of similarity between the lives of Jesus and Krishna… There are a great many similarities in the New Testament and the Gita.” Later, in the San Francisco Bay Area, Vivekananda underlined that the ancient message of Krishna was one harmonizing the ideas of Buddha, Christ and Mohammed.
Vivekananda was clear that for all the devilry that religion was, it was not at fault per se. “No religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burnt witches… What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion; and if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?”
The Hindu, the monk said in an undated speech, was free to worship the Incarnations of all the countries. “The Hindu can worship any sage and any saint from any country whatsoever, and as a fact we know that we go and worship many times in the churches of the Christians, and many, many times in the Mohammedan mosques, and that is good. Why not?”
Muslim, Hindu faults
Vivekananda was critical of the intolerance of hardline Muslims, whose watchword is “There is one God, and Mohammed is His Prophet.” He went on: “Everything beyond that not only is bad, but must be destroyed forthwith; at a moment’s notice, every man or woman who does not exactly believe in that must be killed; everything that does not belong to this worship must be immediately broken, every book that teaches anything else must be burnt.”
But he added in the same breath that wherever there was a philosophical man among Mohammedans, “he was sure to protest against these cruelties”.
Vivekananda was equally critical of Hindus for throwing filth into rivers and accused Hindus of weaknesses “notwithstanding our grand philosophy”.
The Hindu rightwing may use Vivekananda as a mascot but the saffron-clad monk was no zealot. For him, any religion that preached and practiced hatred was not worth it. Re-reading some of his speeches in today’s troubled times will help sharpen one’s understanding of political Hindutva.
Title: 25 Greatest Speeches of Vivekananda; Publishers: FingerPrint Classics; Pages: 319; Price: $9.99
(The reviewer is a veteran journalist)