A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism

A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism

by Jyotirmaya Sharma


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In this third installment of his comprehensive history of “India’s religion” and reappraisal of Hindu identity, Professor Jyotirmaya Sharma offers an engaging portrait of Swami Vivekananda and his relationship with his guru, the legendary Ramakrishna. Sharma’s work focuses on Vivekananda’s reinterpretation and formulation of diverse Indian spiritual and mystical traditions and practices as “Hinduism” and how it served to create, distort, and justify a national self-image. The author examines questions of caste and the primacy of the West in Vivekananda’s vision, as well as the systematic marginalization of alternate religions and heterodox beliefs. In doing so, Professor Sharma provides readers with an incisive entryway into nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indian history and the rise of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist movement.
Sharma’s illuminating narrative is an excellent reexamination of one of India’s most controversial religious figures and a fascinating study of the symbiosis of Indian history, religion, politics, and national identity. It is an essential story for anyone interested in the evolution of one of the world’s great religions and its role in shaping contemporary India.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300197402
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/27/2013
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. He was a Fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in Uppsala, Sweden and his publications include Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism and Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India.

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Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism



Copyright © 2013 Jyotirmaya Sharma
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19740-2


Ramakrishna's One-Fourth

* * *

In 1901, Swami Vivekananda narrates a very significant story about himself and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The conversation, recorded in the diary of his disciple, Sharat Chandra Chakravarty, takes place in Belur Math a year before Vivekananda's death. The disciple asks after Vivekananda's health, who, despite various illnesses, had been travelling extensively. Vivekananda tells the disciple that his body might last for a few days more but he was determined to work till the end and die in harness. 'It is She who takes me here and there and makes me work without letting me remain quiet or allowing me to look to my personal comforts,' says the Swami. The 'She' alluded to here is Goddess Kali. He further reveals that a few days before Ramakrishna's death, 'She whom he [Ramakrishna] used to call "Kali" [the Goddess Kali] entered this [Vivekananda's] body,' and it was She who made him work relentlessly. Was this metaphorical, asks the disciple. No, replies Vivekananda and begins to tell the story of Ramakrishna and himself a few days before Ramakrishna left his body. Ramakrishna summoned Vivekananda and looked at him 'steadfastly', and, then, fell into a samadhi or trance. On seeing this, Vivekananda too felt 'a subtle force like an electric shock' passing through his body and soon lost what he calls outward consciousness. On regaining consciousness of his own body, he saw Ramakrishna crying. On being asked why he was weeping, Ramakrishna said to him: 'Today, giving you my all, I have become a beggar. With this power you are to do many works for the world's good before you will return.' It was this power, concludes Vivekananda, that constantly directed him to keep on working.

To say that the story of Kali entering Vivekananda's body, his trance, a weeping Ramakrishna's passing on his powers to him is dramatic would be a gross understatement. Coming directly from Vivekananda, it bears the unmistaken imprimatur of legitimacy. But it also serves to establish clearly the line of succession from Master to chosen disciple. Words and phrases such as 'works' and 'world's good', crucially embedded in the story, also seek to establish the credibility of the future 'improvisation' of the Master's faith that Vivekananda would eventually undertake. For the devout and the faithful, this account stands beyond doubt and reproach. Swami Nikhilananda follows this path of devotion and fidelity to a fault. In the introduction to the English translation of Mahendranath Gupta's Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita, he reproduces Vivekananda's version of the story verbatim. Ironically, the volume for which he writes the introduction has a less dramatic account of the same story. The narrator of the story in this instance is also Vivekananda but the listener is Mahendranath Gupta himself, who not only records the conversation but also directly participates in it.

The date of the conversation between Vivekananda and Mahendranath is 9 April 1887. Ramakrishna had died in August the previous year. After dinner, the two men, sitting in the garden of the Baranagore Math, began to reminisce about Ramakrishna. At one point in the conversation, Vivekananda says to Mahendranath that at Cossipore 'he [Ramakrishna] transmitted his power to me'. His interlocutor is already aware of the story and indicates so. What follows in the course of the exchange between the two is crucial:

Narendra: Yes. One day, while meditating, I asked Kali to hold my hand. Kali said to me, 'When I touched your body I felt something like an electric shock coming to my body.'

But you must not tell this to anybody here. Give me your promise.

M: There is a special purpose in his transmission of power to you. He will accomplish much work through you. One day the Master wrote on a piece of paper, 'Naren will teach people.'

Narendra: But I said to him, 'I won't do any such thing.' Thereupon he said, 'Your very bones will do it.'

Three elements stand out in this version of the story, a narrative separated from its 1901 telling by fourteen years. There is no mention, whatsoever, of Goddess Kali entering Vivekananda's body. The Kali in the story is Kaliprasad Chandra, later known as Swami Abhedananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna. Neither are any details of the actual transmission of Ramakrishna's powers offered. In an earlier conversation with Mahendranath on 25 March 1887, Vivekananda mentions Ramakrishna offering to exercise his occult powers through him and his refusal to accept any such thing. Between the conversations on 25 March and 9 April, an instance of Vivekananda going into deep meditation and samadhi is mentioned, but in both instances no direct transmission of occult powers occurs between Master and the chosen disciple. In fact, the burden of the 9 April dialogue shifts primarily to questions of Vivekananda teaching people and doing work.

While Ramakrishna had contempt for the idea of 'work' in the sense Vivekananda later sought to define and convey, a more detailed analysis of this tension between the two regarding the worth of work appears in the next chapter. What is equally intriguing, however, is Ramakrishna's offer to exercise occult powers through Vivekananda. Ramakrishna consistently believed that people who sought siddhis or occult powers were small-minded people. He held in disdain people who acquired powers that enabled them to cure illnesses, win court cases or walk on water. Neither did he approve of genuine devotees working towards such goals and dreaded acquiring them even for his own self. Had he got for himself occult powers, Dakshineshwar, he felt, would have been transformed into a hospital or a dispensary. To possess occult powers was troublesome. Once Hriday, Ramakrishna's nephew, egged him on to pray to Kali for bestowing Ramakrishna some occult powers. In his childlike gullibility, Ramakrishna did exactly that. Here is his account of the consequences of the prayer:

The Divine Mother at once showed me a vision. A middle-aged prostitute, about forty years old, appeared and sat with her back to me. She had large hips and wore a black-bordered sari. Soon she was covered with filth. The Mother showed me that occult powers are as abominable as the filth of that prostitute.

Ramakrishna resolved to pray henceforth only for pure love, not occult powers, 'a love that does not seek any return'.

Totapuri, the renunciate who had initiated Ramakrishna into sanyasa, taught him of the perils of possessing and holding siddhis through a couple of stories. A man in possession of occult powers was sitting on the seashore watching a great storm rising in front of him. This caused him great discomfort and so he decided to use his powers to quell the storm. A ship going full sail before the wind sank as a consequence of the storm's abrupt end. All the passengers on the ship died and the sin of causing their death fell upon him, resulting in loss of his occult powers. In another instance, God disguised as a holy man comes to a sage who has occult powers. God first encourages the sadhu to kill an elephant and then asks him to bring the elephant back to life. The sadhu manages to do both with the help of his siddhis. At this point, God, still in disguise, asks the sadhu what this act of killing and reviving the elephant had done for him. Was he uplifted by it? Did the act manage to help him realize God?

Having narrated these stories, Ramakrishna comes to the conclusion that occult powers lead to pride and pride makes an individual forget God. A true seeker prays only for pure love of God, just as Radha did and just as the gopis did. There is no motive or desire for possessing occult powers beyond pure love of God. In a subtle restatement of the idea of acquiring and possessing occult powers, Ramakrishna plays with the conventional meaning of the words 'siddhi' and 'siddha'. For him, siddhi was not one of the normally understood eight occult powers that one could acquire but attainment of one's spiritual goal. Following this, a siddha was one who has a firm conviction in the existence of God and in God being the sole instrument of all action. A higher category of siddha was one who had not merely seen God, but spoken intimately to God as Father, Son, or Beloved. To underwrite his rejection of acquiring and possessing occult powers, Ramakrishna would often quote Krishna's words to Arjuna: 'Friend, if you want to realize Me, you will not succeed if you have even one of the eight occult powers'.

If occult powers were instrumental in leading a true aspirant away from God and were comparable to the filth of a prostitute, it is incomprehensible why Ramakrishna would want to transfer his occult powers to Vivekananda. But the story of the transfer of Ramakrishna's powers to Vivekananda has acquired an indelible mystique in the popular imagination, especially so because the more familiar version of the story comes from Vivekananda himself. To quibble over its authenticity leads nowhere. But as a story, about Vivekananda and his Master, told directly to a disciple, and believed, absorbed and disseminated by other disciples and devotees, it remains a singularly important moment in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda corpus. And it is crucial in understanding the manner in which Vivekananda distanced himself from the central core of Ramakrishna's teachings, remodelled Ramakrishna and then sought to build his model of Hinduism on the basis of his radical restatement of Ramakrishna.

* * *

Every element that constituted Vivekananda's creation of Hinduism as religion lies embedded in this narrative and requires careful unscrambling. Firstly, there is the element of Vivekananda's tortured, ambiguous and fraught relationship with the figure of Kali. While Kali was central to Ramakrishna's conception of what constituted faith and his ideal of bhakti, Vivekananda's attitude towards her iconic status remained ambivalent. Next, there is the emphasis on 'work', and more significantly, the importance of 'work' for a sanyasi. Here, the sanyasi must not 'remain quiet' and must not look to his 'personal comforts'. Vivekananda not only seeks to restate the ideal of renunciation, but also attempts to redefine the role of religion in relation to the world. Another significant element is Vivekananda's unquestioned acceptance of the instance of Kali entering his body. As someone who rejected the prophetic and revelatory traditions within other religions and heralded his reading of Ramakrishna's Hinduism as scientific, this ready acceptance of Kali's entry into his body is surprising. While it is no surprise that Ramakrishna looked at him 'steadfastly' and fell into a trance, Vivekananda losing outward consciousness is unusual; Vivekananda had little sympathy for Ramakrishna's trances and often termed them as hallucinations. Also, having stated that 'She' whom Ramakrishna used to call Kali entered his body, he does not actually directly acknowledge Kali entering his body but equates that experience to a subtle force like an electric shock. Equally puzzling is why Ramakrishna, who was a sanyasi, would feel like a 'beggar' after having given his 'all' to Vivekananda. And having given his 'all', would Ramakrishna exhort Vivekananda to 'do many works for the world's good', especially when he consistently rejected even the slightest suggestion that a spiritual seeker and a sanyasi ought to have any role in directly alleviating misery in the world? Some of these questions require careful consideration for a better understanding of Vivekananda's definition of religion and his fashioning of Hinduism as religion.

Vivekananda was plagued to the end of his life by the question of Kali worship and its place in the religion that he sought to preach and disseminate. There was, indeed, an inherent tension between what Vivekananda preached and what he claimed to privately believe. Despite the fact that Kali had entered his body and was constantly pushing him to do good for the world, Kali's worship was not part of the religion that he preached to his disciples and audiences across the world. In a letter to Miss Mary Hale, dated 17 June 1900, Vivekananda is categorical in rejecting Kali worship as part of the religion he preached:

Kali worship is not a necessary step in any religion. The Upanishads teach us all there is to religion. Kali worship is my special fad; you never heard me preach it, or read of my preaching it in India. I only preach what is good for universal humanity. If there is any curious method which applies entirely to me, I keep it a secret and there it ends. I must not explain to you what Kali worship is, as I never taught it to anybody.

Kali worship, then, is reduced to a personal fad, a curious method, and a secret that is not to be shared with anyone. Nor is any explanation for nursing this secret fad to be entertained. More significantly, neither is Kali worship a necessary step in any religion that he preached or part of one that could be taught universally, nor is it something that could be for the good of humanity. But before Kali became his fad and secret, Vivekananda's relationship with the goddess was deeply fraught.

'How I used to hate Kali', Vivekananda recalls in a conversation with a disciple. He hated her and hated 'all her ways'. This was what he calls the 'ground of my six years' fight – that I would not accept Her'. The fight was with Kali and with Ramakrishna; any reconciliation with Kali would also mean accepting Ramakrishna. With Ramakrishna, the 'fight' lasted all the years Vivekananda had known him, between 1881, when he first met his future Master, and 1886, the year Ramakrishna died. Before going into the reasons for his initial hatred and eventual 'acceptance' of Kali, a word needs to be said about the dynamics that come into play between a Great Master and his disciples.

Vivekananda deified Ramakrishna but was never obliged to follow either his guru's life or thoughts. Following the example of charismatic religious leaders in the past and their devotees, Vivekananda used his adoration of Ramakrishna to justify his own reformulation of religion and of what he believed to be Hinduism. He continued to claim that all he did and said was in the spirit of Ramakrishna's teachings and represented the Master's essential spirit. He gave Ramakrishna's faith a theological face and a preacher's energy, shedding all the intricate complexity and intense religious emotion that is the hallmark of Ramakrishna's pure devotionalism. When challenged by his brother monks about altering Ramakrishna's faith, he often got enraged and indulged in what can safely be called petulant and self-righteous outbursts:

What do you know? You are an ignorant man ... Your study ended like that of Prahlada at seeing the first Bengali alphabet, Ka, for it reminded Prahlada of Krishna and he could not proceed further because of tears that came into his eyes ... You are sentimental fools! What do you understand of religion? You are only good at praying with folded hands, 'O Lord! how beautiful is Your nose! How sweet are your eyes!' and all such nonsense ... and you think your salvation is secured and Shri Ramakrishna will come at the final hour and take you by the hand to the highest heaven ... Study, public preaching, and doing humanitarian works are, according to you, Maya, because he said to someone, 'Seek and find God first; doing good in the world is a presumption!' ... As if God is such an easy thing to be achieved! As if He is such a fool as to make Himself a plaything in the hands of an imbecile!

Bhakti and the primacy of attaining God as outlined by Ramakrishna are to be brushed aside. But Vivekananda also seems to know God's mind and even God's distaste for imbeciles. The outburst above is not merely one where Ramakrishna's idea of bhakti in its pure devotional form clashes with Vivekananda's credo of study, public preaching and doing humanitarian work; Vivekananda's religious nationalism appropriates and refashions Ramakrishna beyond recognition:

You think you have understood Shri Ramakrishna better than myself! You think Jnana is dry knowledge to be attained by a desert path, killing out the tenderest faculties of the heart! Your Bhakti is sentimental nonsense, which makes one impotent. You want to preach Ramakrishna as you have understood him, which is mighty little. Hands off! Who cares for your Ramakrishna? Who cares for your Bhakti and Mukti? Who cares what your Scriptures say? I will go into a thousand hells cheerfully, if I can rouse my countrymen immersed in Tamas, to stand on their own feet and be men inspired with the spirit of Karma-Yoga ... I am not a servant of Ramakrishna, or anyone, but of him only who serves and helps others, without caring for his own Bhakti or Mukti!

Familiar themes of making Indians more manly, the significance of raising Indians from tamas and making them self-reliant are all present in this second outburst. What is more significant is also the outright rejection of any possible version of Ramakrishna other than Vivekananda's own. Romain Rolland cites witnesses to such frequent outbursts and says that after these fulminations, Vivekananda would go to meditate. After he emerges from the meditation, he tells his brother monks of his unfinished work for his motherland and his undelivered message to the world. In the same breath, he speaks of being a slave of Ramakrishna; he was someone who was doing Ramakrishna's work and Ramakrishna was tirelessly making him do his work. What was Ramakrishna's 'work'? Could Vivekananda really do Ramakrishna's work? Answers to these questions have been attempted below. Still crucial is the need to ask if the 'six years' fight' between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda ever resolved. Could any such reconciliation really happen without an acceptance of Kali?

Excerpted from A RESTATEMENT OF RELIGION by JYOTIRMAYA SHARMA. Copyright © 2013 Jyotirmaya Sharma. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface....................     ix     

Ramakrishna's One-Fourth....................     1     

Whose Society, What Religion?....................     117     

The Fly and the Syrup....................     191     

Index....................     285     

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