Govind Krishnan V

The RSS and the Sangh Parivar claim Vivekananda as an inspiration; Vivekananda is most important in the Sangh’s pantheon of cultural figures. However, Vivekananda had no influence on the RSS in its formative years when it developed its political ideology of Hindutva, or in the years immediately following Independence.

The Sangh’s public adulation of Vivekananda seems to have begun in the sixties. He was presented as both a patriot and a glorifier of Indian culture and Hinduism. The Sangh tried to create greater recognition for a more Hinduised, nationalistic Vivekananda.

A watershed was the movement led by the RSS and the VHP to install a Vivekananda memorial in Kanyakumari. The Tamil Nadu government was not keen, so the RSS was able to build a movement out of the Vivekananda memorial, making it into a national cause. They distributed lakhs of leaflets with quotations from Vivekananda, in the process impressing on people’s minds an association between Vivekananda and the Sangh. Having garnered support from across India, the RSS eventually got the memorial as well as a Vivekananda Kendra built.

This allowed the RSS and its Sangh affiliates to forge an association in the popular mind between them and the figure of Vivekananda, giving the RSS’s claim of representing Hinduism legitimacy. Vivekananda was already part of the national consciousness in the sixties. With their tireless efforts to further iconise his image, the Sangh not only took credit for doing something for Hinduism, but also gained the legitimacy of association with one of modern Hinduism’s most revered and admired figures.

The history of a civilisation and the history of its dominant religion must necessarily overlap. Vivekananda’s idea of a decline in Indian national life reflected in his views on Hinduism and its evolution. Vivekananda, unlike Hindutva’s key thinkers, nowhere expresses the idea that Indians had a sense of political nationality before the arrival of the British. He, however, seems to have extended the notion of nationality to include the cultural substratum on which political nationalism and the idea of a nation take root, and it is in this sense that he talks of the Indian nation and its life since the Vedic ages.

There is no doubt of the fact that Vivekananda held Hinduism in the very highest esteem as a religion. He was proud to be a Hindu in an age when Western colonial discourse held Hinduism in contempt. He self-identified with the tradition of its spiritual gurus and part of his life mission was to regenerate Hinduism and give Hindus self-confidence. He was passionate about this cause and often exalted the spiritual greatness of the ideals of Hinduism in the most lyrical manner.

But that is where the similarity of the historical Vivekananda with the Sangh’s picture of Vivekananda ends. For what is nowadays widely forgotten or ignored is that Vivekananda was also a sharp and at times even harsh critic of contemporary Hinduism. What Vivekananda valued was what he considered the essence of Hinduism, which was constituted by the experiences of a line of spiritual mystics over the centuries; and the Vedanta philosophy expounded in the Upanishads, the metaphysical portion of the Vedas. Following the tradition of Vedantists like Shankara, Vivekananda considered the rituals and ceremonials of Hinduism to be devoid of any spiritual value.

Worse, an obsession with ritualism had, in his view, led to the moral decay of Hinduism. This ritualism, fused with notions of purity and those of caste, drew forth Vivekananda’s unalloyed scorn and anger.

When he disembarked in Tamil Nadu after his first visit to the West, he received a welcome from the Hindus of Shivaganga. In his address to them, he remarked:

“Think of the last six hundred or seven hundred years of degradation when grown-up men by hundreds have been discussing for years whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether the hand should be washed three times or four times, whether we should gargle five or six times. What can you expect from men who pass their lives in discussing such momentous questions as these and writing most learned philosophies on them! We are neither Vedantists, most of us now, nor Pauranikas, nor Tantrikas, we are just ‘Don’t touchists’. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our God is the cooking-pot, and our religion is, ‘Don’t touch me. I am holy.’ If this goes on for another century every one of us will be in a lunatic asylum.”

The idea that the modern Hindus’s religion was in the kitchen was one that Vivekananda expressed several times as a rebuke to disciples and devotees, especially when he encountered narrowness of the mind and conservative attitudes. In a letter to Alasingha, he exclaimed, “You (Hindus), have no religion, your God is the kitchen, your Bible the cooking-pots.” In an interview given to the Madras Times on his return from the West, Vivekananda made the same kind of remark about the Hindu religion having got into the kitchen. “The present Hinduism is a degradation,” he added.

Excerpted with permission from Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom, How the Sangh Parivar’s Greatest Icon is its Arch Nemesis, Govind Krishnan V, Aleph Book Company.
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