MAINSTREAM, VOL LI, NO 29, JULY 6, 2013
Swami Vivekananda — A Masiha of the Masses
The following article is being published on the occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s one hundred and eleventh death anniversary on July 4. On January 12 this year we had observed his one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary.
Nineteenth century India produced a number of eminent men and women who with their exceptional intellect and wisdom enriched different aspects of Indian life. The most important among them was Swami Viveka-nanda who in a short span of life, which lasted less than forty years, stirred the entire country as none had done before. His love for his mother-land and compassion for the masses made him a legend in his lifetime. Hundred and eleven years have elapsed since the Swami went to his rest, and every year that passes is bringing fresh recognition of his greatness and widening the circle of appreciation, especially amongst the youth.
He was not a saint in the traditional sense of the term; he was a saint in action, a modern saint against shunning the scientific and materialistic outlook. He did not believe in renunciation of the world but in making it a better place to live in with dignity for everyone. The whole life of the Swami was a saga of his relentless efforts towards this direction. ‘Arise, awake and stop not till you have reached your goal’ was the mantra that the Swami imparted to his countrymen. The goal he set before them was not only the achievement of political freedom but also social and economic emancipation. Unlike other saints, he did not offer prayers to the Almighty for his own salvation but sought salvation of the poor. In the poor he found his God and referred him as Daridranaryana. He decided to dedicate his life in the service of his Narayana who was helpless, oppressed and suppressed since ages. ‘May I be born again and again and suffer thousands of miseries so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God that I believe in, the sum total of all souls…my God the poor of all races…Him worship, the visible, the knowable, omnipresent; break all other idols.’
He exclaimed: ‘Ye ever trampled labouring masses of India! I bow to you.’
‘I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth. However, sublime may be the theories, however well spun may be the philosophy—I do not call it a religion.’ And ‘I call a Mahatma [great soul] whose heart bleeds for the poor, otherwise he is a duratman [a wicked soul].’
Lamenting over the helplessness of the poor people, he said: ‘Oh my heart ached to think of what we think of the poor, the low in India. They have no chance, no escape, and no way to climb up. The poor, the low, the sinner in India have no friends, no help, they cannot rise… They sink lower and lower, every day, they feel the blows showering upon them by a cruel society… They have forgotton that they too are men.’
‘Our aristocratic ancestors went on treading the masses of our country under foot, till they became helpless, till under their torment the poor people nearly forgot that they were human beings. They have been compelled to be merely hewers of wood and drawers of water for centuries, so much so that they are made to believe that they are born as slaves…’
Admonishing the aristocracy for their false pride in birth and ancestry, the Swami said: ‘However, much you may parade your descent from Aryan ancestors and sing the glories of ancient India day and night, and however much you may be strutting in the pride of your birth, you, the upper classes of India, do you think you are alive? You are but mummies thousand years old… and it is you who are the real walking corpses… you represent the past tense… you are the void, the unsubstantiated nonentities of the future. Denizens of the dreamland, why are you loitering any longer?... why do you not quickly reduce yourself into dust and disappear in the air.’
Blaming religion for the pathetic state of the poor, the Swami boldly declared: ‘…No religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion, as Hinduism.’ He also castigated the priest for giving too much emphasis on spirituality and shunning material civilisation. He said: ‘We talk foolishly against material civilisation. The grapes are sour. Even taking all that foolishness for granted, in all India there are say a hundred thousand really spiritual men and women. Now, for the spiritualisation of these, must hundred millions be sunk in savagery and starvation? How was it possible for the Hindus to be conquered by the Mohammedans? It was due to the ignorance of the material civilisation. Even the Mohammedan taught them to wear tailor-made clothes.’
‘Material civilisation, nay, even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in God who cannot give me bread here, giving eternal bliss in heaven.’ And ‘first bread, then religion. We stuff them too much with religion when the poor fellows have been starving. No dogma will satisfy the craving hunger.’
The greatness of the Swami lies not only in his compassion for the poor but in suggesting the ways and means for the construction of a new India devoid of all kinds of exploitation and racial discrimination. He was a well-read man and had himself seen and observed the functioning of liberal democracy in America and other Western countries during his travels. Exposing the real face of the Western democratic system, the Swami explained: ‘The wealth and power of the country are in the hands of the few who do not work but manipulate the work of the millions of human beings; by this power, they deluge the whole earth with blood. Religion and all other things are under their feet; they rule and stand supreme. The Western world is governed by a handful of Shylocks. All these things that you hear about-constitutional government, freedom, liberty and parliaments—are but jokes.’
Vivekananda proclaimed himself to be a socialist and suggested a socialist system for independent India. He said: ‘I am a socialist not because I think it is a perfect system, but half a loaf is better than no bread.’ He declared: ‘Let this be tried—if for nothing else, for the novelty of the thing. A redistribution of pains and pleasure is better than always the same person having pains and pleasure.’
He declared that the future belongs to the masses: ‘When the masses will wake up, they will come to understand your oppression of them and by a puff of their mouth you will be entirely blown away!’
He wanted the upper classes of India to forget their exclusive privileges and merge themselves with the masses. ‘Let new India arise out of the peasant cottage, grasping the plough; out of the huts of the fishermen, the cobbler and the sweeper. Let her sprung from the grocer’s shop…let her emanate from the factory, from marts and markets. Let her emerge from grooves and forests, from hills and mountains…’
As Vivekananda was a monk, it was not possible for him to work openly among the masses. Besides, he was also aware of the ever watchful eyes of the intelligence forces. Hence, he chose his young sanyasins and youth to carry out the work of raising the downtrodden and to work out the transition towards a socialistic state. Using religious terminology the masses were to be awakened and organised. In his letters and lectures, he emphasised the need to work among the poor. ‘Where should you go to seek your God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak Gods? Why not worship them first? Why go to dig a well on the shores of Ganga?’
He questioned monks: ‘But what have we, several millions of sanyasins, been doing for the masses? Teaching them metaphysics? That is all madness…’
‘If you want any good to come, just throw your ceremonial overboard and worship the living God, the Man-God—every being that wears a human form…Neither it is work to cogitate as to whether the rice-plate should be placed in front of God for ten minutes or for half-an-hour that is called lunacy. Millions of rupees have been spent only that the temple-doors at Varanasi or Virindavan may play at opening and shutting all day long! Now the Lord is having His toilet, now he is taking His meal, now He is busy in something else… And all this, while the living God is dying for want of food, for want of education….. Let some of you spread like fire and preach this worship of the universal aspect of the Godhead.’
‘If you seek your own salvation, you will go to hell. It is the salvation of others that you must seek… and even if you have to go to hell in working for others, that is worth more than to gain heaven by seeking your own salvation… Believe me, from the shedding of our life blood will arise gigantic, heroic workers and warriors of God who will revolutionise the world.’ His feelings were expressed in the poem ‘The Living God’:
‘He who is in you and outside you,
Who works through all hands,
Who walks on all feet, whose body is all ye,
Him worship and break all other idols
Ye fools! Who neglect the living God,
And His infinite reflection, with which the world is full,
While ye run after imaginary shadows,
That lead alone to fight and quarrels, Him worship, the only visible! Break all other idols.’
Admonishing the educated youth of India, the Swami said: ‘You are thinking yourselves highly educated. What nonsense have you learnt… taking some university degrees, you consider yourselves educated! Fie upon you!... What is the goal of your education? Either a clerkship or being a roguish lawyer or at the most a deputy Magistracy…What good it will do to your country at large? Open your eyes and see what a piteous cry for food is rising in the land of Bharata, proverbial for its wealth!... Is there not water enough in the sea to drown you, books, gowns, university diplomas and all?’
He explained to them: ‘I consider that the great national sin is the neglect of masses, and this is one of the causes of our downfall. No amount of politics would be of any avail until the masses in India are once more well-educated, well-fed and well-cared-for. They pay for our education, they build our temples, but in return they get kicks. They are practically our slaves. If we want to regenerate India, we must work for them.’
He diagnosed that the root cause of all ills was illiteracy and illiteracy was due to poverty. Hence he exhorted his young followers to reach out to the masses and educate them. ‘Now if the Mountain does not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the Mountain. If the poor boy cannot come to education, education must go to them.’ The poor should be given scientific and secular education.
He was so keen and enthusiastic to spread education among the masses that he had chalked out a plan in this context. In a letter to his disciple, he wrote: ‘I am born to organise these young men; nay hundred more in every city are ready to join me; and I want to send them rolling like irresistible waves over India, bringing comfort, morality, religion, education to the doors of the meanest and the most downtrodden. And this I will do or die.’
He asked the youth to awaken the ‘Sleeping Leviathan’, that is, the masses, who when that was realised would blow out oppression. Masses require new ideas and the duty of the youth should be to ‘put the chemical together, the crystallisation comes in the law of nature. Our duty is to put the ideas into their heads, they will do the rest.’ He travelled to different parts of the country and everywhere roused the youth saying that they had a duty towards the nation which lived in the cottage. ‘Who cares whether there is heaven or hell, who cares if there is a soul or not, who cares if there is an unchangeable or not. Here is the world and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt. Forget yourselves; is the first lesson to be learnt, whether you are an theist or an atheist, whether you are an agnostic or a Vedantist, a Christian or a Mohammedan.’ ‘Do not wait to cross the river when the water has all run down. You must have a hold on the masses.’
So much was his concern for the masses that he often rebuked the youngsters for neglecting the masses and focusing only on the political aspect. Once he got infuriated at a gentleman from Punjab who came to hear his spiritual lecture. In those days Punjab was near famine. Instead of giving a lecture on religion, Vivekananda spoke on ways and means of providing relief to the suffering masses. To the visitor it was a wasted visit. When he expressed his resentment, Vivekananda told him angrily: ‘Sir, so long as even a dog of my country remains without food, to feed and take care of him is my religion and anything else is no religion or false religion.’
He did not only preach, he lived every moment of his life to serve the Daridranarayna. His compassion transmitted to his disciples too. In the summer of 1897 during famine in the Murshidabad district of Bengal, Vivekananda’s disciples dedicated themselves in providing relief to the suffering people. In 1898 when plague broke out Vivekananda, himself came to live in a poor locality and served the victims. His disciples, including Sister Nivedita, were seen cleaning the streets of the plague affected localities.
During his last days, many students from schools and colleges used to visit him at his Belur math to hear his lectures and to pay obeisance. He would burst like a hurricane on his audience. None could escape his magnetic influence and fiery zeal. Numerous students gave up their studies and followed the path carved out by their hero. Many Swamis of the math too dedicated their lives to accomplish the task assigned to them by their master. Within three years of his demise, Bengal witnessed a revolutionary movement in which the youth participation was prominent. No wonder during raids in school and college hostels, the government found photographs and copies of Vivekananda’s lectures in almost every room. His compassion for the masses made him the precursor of all the Left movements in India. Under his inspiration, the youth joined different streams of the freedom movement and kept on making revolutionary efforts to liberate the country and to organise and awaken the masses. Unfortunately the dream of the Swami still remains unaccomplished. The befitting tribute to his memory on July 4 would be to work for and strengthen the forces that are striving to establish a casteless and classless society devoid of any kind of discrimination and deprivation.
The author is an Associate Professor, Satyawati College, University of Delhi.