Daunted by the nine volumes of his Complete Works, people often ask me what the best and briefest introduction to Swami Vivekananda’s life and work is. I am tempted to refer them to some of my own books on Swamiji, two of which, The Penguin Swami Vivekananda Reader (2005) and Swami Vivekananda: A Contemporary Reader, published by Routledge international ten years later, are actually selections from his writings. What about my latest offering, Swami Vivekananda: Hinduism and India’s Road to Modernity (HarperCollins, 2020)?
No. To be perfectly honest, in addition to being slightly modest, I would refer them to Swami Vivekananda on India and Her Problems. This slim volume of only 125 pages is an extraordinary anthology of his writings by Swami Nirvedananda. Originally published in 1925 by Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, founded by Swamiji himself, this compilation has run into several editions, but remains perennially relevant. Especially, when we see the direction India has taken under the stewardship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2014.
On Swamiji’s 158th birth anniversary, I find myself turning, once again, to this book for guidance and inspiration. Indeed, this book rests on a bookshelf right next to my desk in the office and I recommend it wholeheartedly to the youth of India, given today is also observed as “National Youth Day.”
The book starts with a very moving section on “Our Motherland.” Let me quote an excerpt: “If there is any land on this earth that can lay claim to be the blessed Punya-Bhumi, to be the land to which souls on this earth must come to account for Karma, the land to which every soul that is wending its way Godward must come to attain its last home, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards gentleness, towards generosity, towards purity, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and of spirituality — it is India.”
This ancient land, Bharat Mata, according to Vivekananda, is “indestructible.” He adds, “Its life is of the same nature as the soul, without beginning and without end, immortal; and we are the children of such a country” and that “Our sacred motherland is a land of religion and philosophy — the birthplace of spiritual giants — the land of renunciation, where and where alone, from the most ancient to the most modern times, there has been the highest ideal of life open to man”.
Our youth, for sure, should never forget this. What a great privilege it is to be born here and to have the opportunity to serve India.
The contents follow this initial chapter with quotations on topics such as “Present Decadence”, “Essentials for Regeneration”, “Education the Panacea for all Social Evils”, “Uplift of the Masses”, “Caste Problem”, “Uplift of Women”, and “Invigorating Cultural Life”. Just a glance at the sub-divisions of each chapter gives as a sense of just how relevant and topical, not to mention inspiring and progressive, Swamiji’s ideas are even a hundred years after the compilation.
Speaking of Swamiji’s significance, I am often asked, “What is the relevance of Vivekananda today?” I feel like replying, “Why should we be prisoners of relevance?” The work of rishis, sages, mystics, masters, and, indeed, the prominent makers of modern India is not only relevant to their times, or even to ours, but for all times. That is because they transmitted truths that are really timeless. It is up to us to re-read and re-interpret these truths in the light of our own necessities.
That is why I cannot help agreeing with Nirvedananda’s original editorial observation about Vivekananda: “His message is not for the hour, but for the age, not for the nation only, but for humanity. So far as India is concerned, his message is not meant for little bits of social or religious reform, but for a complete rejuvenation of her national life in all its phases.”
But for this “complete rejuvenation of national life”, we cannot afford to slip into fanaticism or narrowmindedness. Vivekananda warns us repeatedly against “Narrowing our outlook”: “We find that one of the causes which led to this degeneration was the narrowing of our view, narrowing the scope of our actions…. [This] has been the one great cause of this degradation of the Indian mind.”
In addition, laziness, lack of physical strength, suppression of women and lower castes, lack of faith in ourselves, lack of discipline, too much jealousy and selfishness, lack of organisational skills, lack of integrity in business, and lack of energy, spirit, and strength of will are listed as some of the causes of our downfall. Aren’t these still drawbacks in our national character?
The compilation has the famous quotation of Swamiji asking for more Rajas as a means to overcome the colossal Tamas or sloth that plagues us: “You will be nearer to Heaven through football, than through the study of the Gita. You will understand Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.”
Let me end with another extract from the book: “The Indian nation cannot be killed. Deathless it stands, and it will stand so long as that spirit shall remain as the background, so long as her people do not give up their spirituality.” For us to live up to Swamiji’s expectation is a tall order. But on his birthday, we owe it to ourselves and our nation, as the legatees of Vivekananda’s glorious deeds, at least to try.
The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.