Revisiting Vivekananda


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ON 12 November 2020 Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the statue of Swami Vivekananda in the university named after Jawaharlal Nehru. In the same campus, less than 100 metres away, a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru had been installed many years ago. The newly installed statue stands taller than the other. One cannot miss the implicit symbolism of the event. The intent behind the overwhelming presence of Vivekananda in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus is to serve the dual purpose of supplanting Nehru (a favourite whipping boy of the current political regime) and his vision of a university as disseminating liberal ideas, by another figure who supposedly stands in sharp contrast to the former. I say ‘supposedly’ advisedly since the members of the Sangh Parivar, who think their vision of Hindutva is in line with what the Swami espoused are grossly mistaken.

In his book The Discovery of India Nehru gives fulsome praise to Vivekananda hailing him as a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present who ‘came as a tonic to the depressed and demoralized Hindu mind and gave it self reliance.’ It was obviously in the context of colonialism which had made Indians demoralized. Nehru further writes: ‘Vivekananda spoke of many things but the one constant refrain of his speech and writing was abhay – be fearless, be strong. For him man was no miserable sinner but a part of divinity; why should he be afraid of anything? If there is a sin in the world it is weakness; avoid all weakness, weakness is sin, weakness is death. That has been the great lesson of the Upanishads. What our country now wants are muscles of iron and nerves of steel, gigantic wills, which nothing can resist.’

Colonial discourse from the British Empire was replete with images of Hindus, as being weak and ineffectual who were devoid of any form of masculinity. In 1843, in an essay on Warren Hastings, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote about the ‘effeminacy’ of Hindus in dealing with Muslims in blatantly racist terms: ‘The dark, slender, and timid Hindoo shrank from a conflict with the strong muscle and resolute spirit of the fair race, which dwelt beyond the passes.’ Mark how he described the Bengalis: ‘Whatever the Bengali does he does languidly. His favourite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and though voluble in dispute. There never perhaps existed a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign yoke.’

In a conversation with one of his disciples Vivekananda is reported to have said, ‘Now it won’t do to merely quote the authority of our ancient books. The tidal wave of Western civilisation is rushing over the length and breadth of the country. It won’t do now simply to sit in meditation on mountain tops without realising in the least its usefulness. Now is wanted – as said in the Gita by the Lord – intense Karma-Yoga, with unbounded courage and indomitable strength in the heart. Then only will the people of the country be roused.’

Vivekananda believed that the Hindu faith had developed the spiritual at the expense of the material while the contrary took place in the western world. Yet it was possible to unite the materialism of the West with the spiritualism of the East since, for him, materialism and spirituality were complementary rather than antagonistic ideals. This, however, he insisted, did not imply a monolithic essentialism. The understanding of the West has to be viewed in positive terms for its scientific and technological advancement as well as for egalitarian ideals. In fact there existed an ‘other’ West of the transcendental thinkers such as Emerson and Thoreau in America and Ruskin in England. We need to align with it.


So the West was not all evil, and Vivekananda concedes that while India ought to, forever, remain teachers of the West in spiritual matters, ‘they will remain our teachers in all material concerns. Despite the veneer of calmness and balance of the Sattvic state, people in India were inert, lazy and sensual like stock and stone, immersed in inactivity brought on by Tamas. The West, in sharp contrast, was the very picture of enterprise, devotion to work, enthusiasm, a manifestation of Rajas in every which way. So my idea is first to make people active by developing their Rajas, and thus make them fit for the struggle for existence.’

Vivekananda admonished his countrymen with the words: ‘throw aside your scriptures in the Ganga and teach the people first the means of procuring their food and clothing, and then you will find time to read them. If their material wants are not removed by the rousing of intense activity, none will listen to words of spirituality.’ He does occasionally refer to the vicious cycle of desire and greed in the West, but subordinates it to an unequivocal approval of the activity, enterprise and the West’s power to ‘make the five elements play like puppets in their hands.’

Vivekananda’s vision of Hindu nationalism combined masculine nationalism (physical strength and martial qualities) with spiritual qualities. His speeches and writings consistently exhorted Hindu men to embrace muscular Hinduism and be a ‘man’ and thus break away from the colonial representation of Hindus as being effete. Construction of Hindu manhood as a combination of western manliness and Hindu ideals of spiritual power was his path towards a resurgent India.


Like Swami Vivekananda, M.S. Golwalkar, the most prominent ideologue of the RSS, emphasized masculinity in order to forge a strong Hindu national identity. Golwalkar challenged Indian men to rid themselves of fear and reclaim their virility and masculinity: ‘Let us shake off the present-day emasculating notions and become real living men, bubbling with national pride, living and breathing the grand ideas of service, self-reliance and dedication to the cause of our dear and sacred motherland. Such are the men who make history – men with a capital ‘M’.

Golwalkar’s nationalist rhetoric not only promotes physical strength as a counter to the 19th century British colonial construction of the effeminate Hindu, but also serves to exhort Hindus to rise up against the Muslim minority community. In We or Our Nationhood Defined, Golwalkar asserts, ‘Our Nation means, and independently of the question of majority, always must mean, the Hindu nation and nothing else.’

Both Vivekananda and Golwalkar sought to break away from the British colonial representation of Hindus by constructing alternative views of Hindu masculinity. Vivekananda’s notion of masculinity, which was grounded in Hindu spiritualism, was quite different from Golwalkar’s adoption of a hyper masculinity that valorized militarism and conflict. Hindutva in contrast with Hinduism is assertive and muscular.


In response to British colonial rule and the discourse it generated, Vivekananda’s rhetoric emphasized a form of Hindu masculinity grounded in spiritual principles and bodily discipline. Golwalkar’s rhetoric also emphasized Hindu male virility. But unlike Vivekananda’s inclusive construction of ‘Hindu’ to include Indian Muslims and other minority groups, Golwalkar’s rhetoric had parochial and xenophobic underpinnings. He not only sought to combat the British colonial stereotypes of Hindus, but also tried to create a powerful India comprising of strong, virile Hindu men who would be able to deal resolutely with the Indian Muslims whom Golwalkar perceived as an internal threat to the nation. One can find its contemporary resonance in the rhetoric of the extreme right in India.

In the construction of a Hindu nation, Golwalkar offers two options to Indian minorities, namely Muslims and Christians: they ‘must cease to be foreigners (embrace Hinduness), or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even full citizen’s rights.’ For Golwalkar, then, citizens who are not Hindus underneath are posited as betraying the nation itself.

Vivekananda’s project was unique in that it remained a social and political project – a social project to reform Hinduism and a political project to displace colonial suppression by mobilizing new groups into an institutionalized structure of Hinduism. In order to create this constituency, he reconstructed the principles defining Hinduism by creating a blend of two distinct traditions, the orthodox principles of Hinduism, incorporated in the earliest Hindu religious texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads, and the contemporary socially sensitive and reformist aspects within Hinduism.


Hindusim was a melange of religious sects before colonialism attempted to homogenize these diverse traditions. Hinduism did not affirm a single God, prophet, founder, church or one holy book. Its idea of God ranges from monism to dualism to polytheism. Its rituals range from the individual ‘dhyana’ (meditation) to the collective social ‘yagna’ (a ritual performance). At different times attempts have been made to codify and organize Hinduism around a specific deity or philosophy in terms of denominations like Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Sanatana, but it remained diverse.

The idea of Hinduism as a tolerant all-embracing and non-antagonistic faith was extremely crucial to Vivekananda’s project of restating Hinduism for the world at large. In his stirring address at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he advocated dialogues with all other faiths. According to Vivekananda we tend to reduce everyone else to the limits of our own mental universe and begin privileging our own ethics, morality and sense of duty. All religious conflicts arose from this propensity to judge others.

Vivekananda shared up to a point the19th century Bengali Hindu intelligentsia’s ambivalence in relation to India’s Islamic past but this ambivalence did not lead him to completely reject the Muslim contribution which would be an important ingredient of a self-conscious nationalism which necessarily integrated various communities, maintaining communal harmony for a unified resistance to the British rule. He would often advance the notion of ‘an Islamic body, and a Vedantic heart’ something that would be an anathema to hardcore Hindutva followers for whom the ‘Hindu body’ was sacrosanct and powerful in its own right and could not be contaminated by an alien element.

V.D. Savarkar’s narrow definition of Hinduism (adopted subsequently by Golwalkar) in terms of ‘rastra’ (nation) race and culture is diametrically opposed to Vivekananda’s much broader conception of Hinduism as a distinctive worldview that transcends ties of nationality, race and culture. Far from being a Hindu supremist his outlook was characterized by an openness to other cultures. Since he understood Hinduism in doctrinal rather than in ethnic terms he had no difficulty in embracing non-Indians such as Sister Nivedita into the Hindu fold. Like him Gandhi, an avowed Hindu, had among his closest associates Christians and Muslims. It would be rare to find such spirit of acceptance in the adherents of Hindutva.


Though the mystique and undeniable piety surrounding the figure of Vivekananda has been appropriated by the RSS and the BJP it, however, will always remain incommensurable, if not hostile, to any critical evaluation and reflection surrounding his ideas.



Chaturvedi Badrinath, Swami Vivekananda: The Living Vedanta. Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006.

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985.

Jyotirmaya Sharma, A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013.

M.S. Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined. Bharat Publications, Nagpur, 1947.

Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. 9 Vols. Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2013.

V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Bharti Sahitya Sadan, Delhi, 1989.