Swami Vivekananda: The Builder of Modern India

Vivekananda dispelled myths about Hinduism among westerners and removed the social evils of India.

By Prof. Naresh Dadhich

Swami Vivekananda (12 January 1863 – 4 July 1902), born Narendranath Datta, was a chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a religious leader in 19th-century Bengal.

Swami Vivekananda attained popularity after his Chicago address at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. In the address to the world parliament of religions, where representatives from all religions across the world were present, he successfully explained and defended the greatness of India as a country and the richness of its culture and religion to the western audience. He was applauded for his eloquence, clarity, and affirmative faith in Hinduism. It was a first of its kind challenge to western dominance of ideas and religion. He passionately dispelled the misgivings about Hinduism and India that were being spread by the vested interests of an orthodox section of western scholars and imperialists.

While National Youth Day in India is observed on his birthday, 12 January, and the day he delivered his masterful speech at the Parliament of Religions, 11 September 1893, is celebrated as “World Brotherhood Day”.

Vivekananda was the modern exponent of Vedanta. He interpreted Vedanta in his own way. For him, God lives among humans, and serving humanity is the only way to reach him. Later, Mahatma Gandhi also professed that God lives in humanity. So, the social work for eradicating poverty or removing illiteracy, or empowering women is all the work of Vedanta. This Vedantic socialism is the foundation of our socialism as later accepted by the nationalists.

Swami Vivekananda aptly figures in the series of ‘Builders of Modern India’ started by the publication division of the Government of India. Vivekananda (1963-1902) worked in the last quarter of the 19th century. The formation of national consciousness in India had begun by this period and Swami Vivekananda contributed significantly to the process. Vivekananda was not simply a spiritual preacher but was also an inspiration for an entire generation. That is why he is still remembered with respect. His many progressive ideas and acts make him unique in modern Indian history. He was the first saint who firmly defended and advocated Indian religion on foreign soil, thus, rightly hailed as the patriotic saint.

Vivekananda argued that Vedanta is not simply a philosophy or a strand of knowledge, but a practical philosophy that can guide us in our daily life. It propagates equality among human beings as a strand of Brahman (God) that resides in everybody. To him, the country meant the people and the people meant the masses and to serve the masses is the true religion. It is our duty to translate this spiritual equality into socio-economic equality.

Vivekananda wrote texts on Yoga and of all the Yogas (sat, raj and tam), he preferred the raj yoga. He believed in action and not just in contemplation. He talked about the common man in that era when no one was talking about the masses. He urged the masses to rise above petty interests, caste structures, poverty, and illiteracy.

Although Vivekananda did not participate in politics of his time and never made political speeches attacking British rule, he vigorously worked for the upliftment of the common man from orthodoxy, poverty, and ignorance. He was not satisfied with segmented development. He argued for a total transformation of society into an egalitarian society. Vivekananda used to say, “one ounce of practice is worth 20,000 tons of big talk”. What the country needs is more practice than an abstract philosophy.

Vivekananda was one of the first Indian thinkers to accept the essence of secularism i.e. equality among religions. He argued in the assembly of representatives of world religions in 1893 that all religions were but different paths that led to the same goal, so religions should be treated with equal respect. He did not believe in the superiority of one religion over the other. He did not want to create a sect based on his interpretation of Vedanta. He firmly believed that the idea of secularism was inherent in Hinduism.

He was a great patriot. He praised and defended the Indian faith at a time when Indian morale was at its lowest ebb due to dominant western propaganda. With his fiery speech in Chicago and praise everywhere after that, Vivekananda emerged as an icon of Indian pride in the west. And in this sense, he was a precursor of today’s nationalists. In his speeches and writings, he often evoked India’s ancient culture and religion without becoming either revivalist or obscurantist. He wanted Indians to get the benefit of western science and technology for national development without blindly imitating the western lifestyle. He urged Indians to be united by common interest and not through their caste or regional or language identities. He fiercely opposed the practice of untouchability and firmly believed that untouchability or any discriminatory treatment to the so-called untouchables was not part of Hinduism.

Vivekananda had his own original ideas on education. From the beginning, he stressed the importance of universal literacy, which in his opinion was an essential condition for the development and upliftment of the masses. Recognizing the difficulty for poor children in rural areas in taking regular classes by leaving their work, Vivekananda advocated informal education for them. He perceived the open education system for those who could not afford regular education and, thus, was a pioneer in thinking about it. He pioneered the idea of industrial training and technical education, which has become a part of the education system in modern India. He did not believe that education meant acquiring information only. He wanted education to include all aspects of life, including physical, cultural, and social. Education should help in character building and preparing to lead a fearless life.

Vivekananda was a firm believer in the equality of men and women. He, for the first time in modern Hindu tradition, established a ‘Math’ for women sanyasis and, thus, breaking the orthodoxy in Hinduism. He pleaded for women’s education to make them self-reliant and free. He was for the extension of educational facilities, both secular and spiritual, to all women. He said that we should educate our women and leave them to themselves and then they would tell us what reforms were necessary for them. He argued that the Hindu religion does not prevent women from being educated and that the ancient texts mention that the universities were equally open to girls and boys. He stated that the best thermometer to judge the progress of a nation was how it treats its women.

Vivekananda’s most important institutional contribution in modern Hinduism is the establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission and Ramakrishna Math. The mission carries out extensive educational and philanthropic work in India and abroad and the Math teaches Advait Vedanta and Yoga. These institutions are governed by the monks of Ramakrishna Math. It is for the first time in the modern era that monks of the Hindu faith have not isolated themselves from the society to live for personal salvation but are actively engaged in the service of society by imparting not just spiritual knowledge but also spreading education to all without discrimination of caste, class or creed. They have set up hospitals, dispensaries, and other institutions for preventing human suffering. They are at the forefront in relief and rehabilitation when the country suffers natural disasters such as drought, floods, and cyclones.

The establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission is his greatest institutional contribution to the building of modern India. It is one of the cleanest, respected, and resourceful Hindu organizations working in India and abroad. Swami Vivekananda will always be remembered for his patriotic, unselfish humanitarian and spiritual work.

(Prof. Naresh Dadhich is Former Vice-Chancellor, Vardhaman Mahaveer Open University, Kota, India. He retired as a professor from the Department of Political Science, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.) Take with mug shot

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