Saturday, November 19, 2005

Tolerance, acceptance and sympathy.

A SINGLE event helped create a timeless mystique around Swami Vivekananda. This was his address at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 11 September 1893. Even to this day, his address is seen by many as a turning point in Hindu re-assertion and revival. Contemporary votaries of `soft' Hindutva, from A.B. Bardhan to A.B. Vajpayee, swear by the spirit of his message in Chicago. Liberals, leftists and communalists are joined together in appropriating the legacy of Vivekananda as put forth in this address. What was so special about this piece of oration delivered to the `Sisters and Brothers of America'? In a masterful way, Vivekananda addressed three major concerns of nineteenth century India: Hindu identity, Hindu nationalism and an equal `dialogue' between Hinduism and other faiths.
At the outset, Vivekananda categorically asserted the pre-eminence of Hinduism by calling it `the mother of religions'. This claim of superiority rested on the fact that Hinduism was that religion which had taught, and continued to teach, the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. Not only did Hinduism believe in tolerance but it also accepted all religions as true. It had never persecuted, either with sword or pen, and, in fact had given shelter to persecuted sects. Its message was the surest antidote to sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism. In one deft stroke, Vivekananda defined Hinduism's equation with all other faiths: They were mere children in relation to the `mother of religions', and also were participants in an eternal seminar, where the `tutor' was Hinduism and the `tutees' were all other faiths...
Having dwelt on the theme of tolerance, Vivekananda now started taking other faiths to task. All other religions, asserted Vivekananda, suffer from the fatal flaws of faith in a Personal God, sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism. This assertion flowed from his formal definition of religion:
Religion is not talk, or doctrines or theories, nor is it sectarianism. Religion cannot live in sects and societies. It is the relation between the soul and God; how can it be made into a society? ... Further, all religions, with the sole exception of Hinduism, depended on the historical veracity of their founders or prophets. This invariably led to conflict. Tearing apart the prophetic tradition, he debunks the very motives of all prophets (with the exception of the Buddha). All prophets were moved by external motives to expect reward from the outside, meaning the material world. Their actions were not unselfish. Their language may have been highly evolved but their intentions were highly suspect...
It was against this background that Vivekananda proposed his theory of Hindu tolerance. It fits in uneasily with his earlier typology of all other religions, except Hinduism, as participants in a process of eventful perfection. The idea of Hindu superiority was also implicit in Vivekananda's attempt to propose such a theory. The first rhetorical step in positioning a theory of Hindu tolerance was, therefore, to refrain from judging 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, sense of duty and even our sense of utility. All religious conflicts arose from this propensity to judge others. If we indeed must judge at all, argued Vivekananda, then it must be `according to his own ideal, and not by that of anyone else'. It was important, therefore, to learn to look at the duty of others through their own eyes and never judge the customs and observances of others through the prism of our own standards. This was the very foundation upon which the edifice of tolerance stood. Hinduism, says Vivekananda, was built on a similar foundation, or to put it more correctly was the foundation itself...
Hinduism was the repository of such tolerance, acceptance and sympathy. The first step towards this admirable goal was to feel that oneness. Once this was accomplished, we would be able to transcend our limited phenomenal world and become immortal. Vedanta allowed this sense of oneness while promoting an infinite variety and variation in religious thought. Therefore the Vedanta lays down that each man should be treated not as what he manifests, but as what he stands for. Each human being stands for the divine, and, therefore, every teacher should be helpful, not by condemning man, but by helping him to call forth the divinity that is within him.
The lofty flights of Advaita were, therefore, of little help to Vivekananda in forgetting the past. History cast its shadow on the whole idea of oneness and fellow-feeling. Hindus must build churches and mosques in India, asserted Vivekananda, despite the hatred, brutality, cruelty, tyranny and the vile language of the Muslims and Christians. He hoped that such proactive love would ultimately win. Yet, Vivekananda could never take that all-important leap into rejecting sweeping racial and religious stereotypes. When he says Muslims, he meant all Muslims, and so with Christians. (The subtlety of the idea of rejecting English rule but not the English had to wait for more than a decade for Gandhi to formulate it.)

Vivekananda derived the idea of a common universal faith from Sri Ramakrishna. In a speech delivered in New York, and subsequently published under the title, My Master, Vivekananda speaks of Sri Ramakrishna's attempt to know the truth of all other faiths ... ... Vivekananda did not experience this oneness of faiths like Sri Ramakrishna. His attempt remained confined to the intellectual plane and lacked the intensity of living another man's faith with one's `whole heart'. Between Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, the disparity in method to arrive at the same conclusion made all the difference. Like Jesus, Sri Ramakrishna was after all the pure sort, unencumbered by history or context, but immensely rich in experience. Vivekananda was like Paul, the thundering sort, who had to spread the light quickly and effectively. He understood well that religion was not an intellectual activity but an act of realisation. But he was often impatient. Hinduism as a tolerant and all-embracing faith remained for him an aspiration, never an experience. Excerpted from Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, Jyotirmaya Sharma, Penguin Books India, Viking, Rs. 350.

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