& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflections on a Saturday afternoon…

150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda

At a recent lecture in Toronto, MJ Akbar said when Jawaharlal Nehru was asked by a western journalist what was his biggest achievement, he had noted the passing of the Hindu Code Bill. That India’s first prime minister should consider the empowerment of Hindu women a bigger achievement than India’s independence is indicative of the man’s true character. It also underscores the struggle within the Hindu society for social reforms.

(Read MJ Akbar's column on the subject Guardians of the pulpit)

That the mere passage of laws didn't (and doesn't) lead to any significant improvement in women’s status in the society is an altogether different matter.

Anyone familiar with 19th century social and political history of India will know of two very clear streams within the Hindu society – one which advocated that social reforms should be a priority, and the other section that resisted western-inspired and British-instituted reform measures. This section wasn't opposed to reforms. They wanted the reforms to be generated from within the Hindu society.  

That the Hindu society didn't (and doesn't) have any self-regulatory mechanism to have initiated this process is evident from the severe opposition Nehru faced during the codification of the Hindu personal laws.

Balwantrao Gangadhar Tilak (after Sant Dnyaneshwar and Shivaji Maharaj, the tallest Marathi manoos of all times, and after him Babasaheb Ambedkar and then Sachin Tendulkar?) belonged to the latter group that was opposed to British-led social reforms. 

His response to his gradual eclipse from public sphere in the late 1880s and the passage of the Age of Consent Bill in 1891 (which raised the marriageable age for girls from 10 to 12) was to launch the public celebration of the 10-day Ganapati festival in 1893 – the same year that Swami Vivekananda delivered the rousing speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Vivekananda didn’t belong to either school of thought although he was a strong advocate of social reforms based on inherent strengths in the Hindu society. And while Vivekananda was not directly involved with the political aspect of the freedom movement, the Ramakrishna Mission became a hotbed of extremist nationalists from 1880s onward.

It is difficult to straitjacket Tilak or Vivekananda. 

Today, more than a century later, both Tilak and Vivekananda divide Indians, with both the secular and the communal elements claiming them as their ideals. History is reinterpreted by both the groups to justify these claims. It isn't such a bad thing because it is only through revisionism that we uncover new and concealed facts about the past. 


Of course, there are innumerable quotes that can be reproduced to portray both Tilak and Vivekananda as votaries of Hindu nationalism. A contributing factor – especially in Vivekananda’s case – is the whole scale usurpation of his ideology and thinking by the Hindutva brigade. In Tilak’s case they don’t do so probably because Tilak’s collaboration with Jinnah in 1916 for the Lucknow Pact.

About Tilak, historian BR Nanada, has said, “(Tilak) has probably suffered no less at the hands of uncritical admirers, who have tended to present him not as a flesh-and-blood politician, but as a mythical hero. The image of Tilak as an uncompromising champion of swaraj, a reckless patriot hurling defiance at the mighty British raj, while the craven moderates lay low, does less justice to the subtlety, stamina and flexibility of a consummate politician who managed to survive the bitter hostility of the government for nearly forty years.”

About Vivekananda, academician Sabyasachi Bhattacharya has said, “Admittedly, there are indeed some passages in Vivekananda’ s writings where he speaks of the need to find the common bases of Hinduism and awaken the national consciousness among Hindus. But one or two such rare passages (usually occurring in addresses to meetings of a Hindu association or local community) are insignificant compared to the vast number of the contrary kind where he emphasizes the unity of all religions.” (Read the article here: Vivekananda)


On the 150th anniversary of Vivekananda, I read a number of newspaper and magazine articles on him and remembered reading Tilak’s meeting with him. (Read an interesting book excerpt: Dharma for the State

The two met at Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (CST) in 1892 when Vivekananda was an unknown sanyasi on a trip across India, and on his way to Poona. Tilak invited him to stay at his place in Poona, and was impressed by his knowledge of the Bhagawat Gita, and the similarity of their views on the core essence of Krishna’s message. Tilak himself was a scholar and in his Shrimad Bhagwadgita Rahasya forcefully advocated that the philosophy of the Gita is not renunciation because Krishna narrated the Gita to Arjun to motivate him into action. Vivekananda’s views on practical Vedanta are also similar.

Tilak has written about his meetings with Vivekananda.

Here is a passage: “Two or three years thereafter Swami Vivekananda returned to India with world-wide fame owing to his grand success at the Parliament of Religions and also after that both in England and America. He received an address wherever he went and on every one of such occasions he made a thrilling reply. I happened to see his likeness in some of the newspapers, and from the similarity of features I thought that the Swami who had resided at my house must have been the same. I wrote to him accordingly inquiring if my inference was correct and requesting him to kindly pay a visit to Poona on his way to Calcutta. I received a fervent reply in which the Swami frankly admitted that he was the same Sannyasin and expressed his regret at not being able to visit Poona then. This letter is not available. It must have been destroyed along with many others, public and private, after the close of the Kesari Prosecution of 1897.” (Read the passage here: Tilak-Vivekananda meeting)

They met again (either in 1886 or 1901) during a session of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta.

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