Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Critique of Vivekananda’s Political Idiom

Dr Kuldip Kumar Dhiman


A paper published in:

The Philosophy of Vivekananda/edited by Rekha Jhanji. New Delhi, Aryan Books International, 2007, xx, 206 p., $30. ISBN 81-7305-320-0.



In the past hundred years, though Swami Vivekananda's role as a Hindu revivalist and social reformer has been duly recognised, his literary talents have not been given their due place. Vivekananda was a very versatile man — singer, saint, thinker, religious and social reformer, and a great orator and writer. He had a way with words, and he used his immense literary gifts to realise his spiritual and patriotic goals. This paper aims to study his political idiom, and its impact on the freedom movement.

A towering figure of the Indian Renaissance, Swami Vivekananda not only revived faith of an enslaved and demoralised people in their own religion, but also breathed in them a fiery zeal of revolution to fight the British rule.  There were other equally important figures like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Vidyasagar, Keshab Chandra Sen, Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo Ghose and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, but it was a combination of literary gift, robust oratory, and an impressive physique that made Swami Vivekananda the most inspiring icon of the freedom struggle. The revolutionaries of all shades had Bankim Chandra's Bande Matram on their lips and Vivekananda's clarion call 'Arise awake and stop not till the goal is reached' in their hearts. He successfully employed the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta to infuse the spirit of heroism in his countrymen who had resigned themselves to being slaves of the occupying forces. He strongly believed that first of all people had to be educated and shown what a rich past they have had. For achieving this goal, he made full use of his extraordinary literary skills that are evidenced in poems, essays, speeches, and letters. In his literary oeuvre he used imagery, metaphors, and similes from the epics, combining them with modern metaphors. The combination was highly effective and lethal.

Vivekananda's writings, speeches, and poems, published as The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (nine volumes), can be classed into two groups. The first is his work concerning Hindu scriptures, and the second about social and national matters. In both we just cannot not fail to notice the deft use of language. While he used a simple though formal style in his religious works, his speeches and poems dealing with socio-political concerns are written in a more robust style. Here he, at times, not only uses Vedic metaphors, highly poetic idioms and similes, but also a good deal of hyperbole and rhetoric often at the expense of consistency and accuracy. But that was expected, for most gifted public speakers know that to arouse sleeping 'leviathans', you have to first give them an ideology, and to do that you often have to exaggerate things in order to drive your point home.

A born versatile genius, young Narendranath Dutta, later Swami Vivekananda, was the very embodiment of the spirit of his times. Brought up in a traditional Bengali kshatriya household, educated at Presidency College, Calcutta where he was strongly influenced by Western thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and others, and of course his well-known spiritual guru Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa. It was a happy combination of these influences and an inborn talent for an impressive turn of phrase that made Vivekananda's language so powerful. We must appreciate that most of his speeches were delivered at a few moment's notice with no time to prepare or rehearse, yet words seemed to flow without effort. The Swami was a gifted writer and a poet who wrote in Bengali in his early life, and mainly in English in the later.

As if these talents were not enough, Vivekananda also had a pleasing countenance, impressive physique, and a strong voice. Going through his correspondence, and various press reports in the East as well as the West, Vivekananda emerges as a fairly tall and handsome man who stood out in a crowd.

We first take up his Bengali work in brief. But before that, we must take into account the milieu in which Vivekananda grew up and worked. The spark that started in the mid-nineteenth century was first called the Bengal Renaissance, but as the fire spread to all corners of India, we can call it the Indian Renaissance. At the time young Vivekananda, was getting his education, the Brahmo Samaj movement was in full swing, and reformers and thinkers like Raja Rammohan Roy, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Debendranath Tagore were transforming a decadent society with their attacks on orthodoxy. These men awakened Indians to Western ideas, democracy, science, and urged them to catch up with the rest of the world. At the same time, in order to instil self-respect in the masses, the reformers compelled them to take a renewed interest in India's glorious past, its religion and sacred books like the Vedas and the Upanishads, and of course the Sanskrit language.

The new-found interest in India's lost glory was such that writers, whether they wrote in Bengali, Hindi or any other language were trying to make their language as close to Sanskrit as possible. Although immensely influenced by India's ancient texts, Vivekananda was one of the first to use colloquial Bengali in his early writings (the flavour is missing in the English translation). As I do not know Bengali, I shall depend on leading academics and litterateurs to give us some idea of his prodigal literary gifts. Historian R.C. Majumdar says that Vivekananda's Bengali writings, apart 'from the rich store of thought and information contained in these, they are specially remarkable for the simple colloquial language in which they were written, at a time when a heavy Sanskritized style was the fashion of the day. It was the general  impression that serious topics could not be discussed in colloquial language. Swamiji showed in his articles that such a thing was possible.'[i]

The Bengali prose works of Vivekananda Paribrajak (Traveller) and Prachya O Paschatya (East and West) are actually a collection of his articles that appeared in the Bengali magazine Udbodhana. These were very popular, but some leading thinkers and writers of the day strongly criticised Vivekananda for using street language. Scandalised by such defilement of Bengali, Pandit Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar, the sub-editor of the weekly Hitavadi said in disgust that Udbhodhana was actually Udbhandana i.e. death by hanging of the Bengali language.[ii]  But Vivekananda stuck to his guns saying: 'Simplicity is the secret. My ideal of language is my Master's language, most colloquial and yet most expressive. It must express the thought which is intended to be conveyed."[iii] And though Vivekananda had a great admiration for Sanskrit, he knew that to awaken the masses, he had to address them in their own rustic tongue.                        

It was Rabindranath Tagore who first appreciated the new Bengali style introduced by Vivekananda by citing Prachya O Paschatya as a model for showing how colloquial Bengali can be made a living and forceful language.[iv]

We now take up his work in English, a language he learnt from Englishmen, and as a result spoke and wrote like them. His uncommon command of English was acknowledged by the English and Americans themselves. Evening News, August.29, 1893 reported that like 'all men who are educated in the higher Universities of India, Viva Kananda speaks English easily and correctly.'[v] A news report in the Chicago Record of September 11 says that the 'Hindoo is of smooth countenance. . . . His English is very good[vi]  While Daily Iowa Capitol of  Nov 28, 1893 remarked that the 'lecturer is an able, dignified and forcible speaker. His mastery of English is perfect, there being only the faintest indications of a foreign accent.'[vii] Some even commented upon his impressive voice.

As we look into his English prose, poetry, and speeches, one thing that first comes to our notice is that unlike his work in Bengali where he used a colloquial style, here he employed a more formal style, sometimes veering into pompous English. Vivekananda's lectures collected in book form entitled From Comombo to Almora gripped the imagination of revolutionaries. His thundering words — heaven is nearer through football than through Gita. We want men of strong biceps — stirred up their minds to rise against the occupying force. To the Awakened India, a poem written for Prabuddha Bharata  or Awakened India, in August 1898 gives us some idea of his poetic style and diction.

             Once more awake!

             For sleep it was, not death, to bring thee life

             Anew, and rest to lotus - eyes for visions

             Daring yet. The world in need awaits, O Truth!

             No death for thee!

             Resume thy march,

             With gentle feet that would not break the

             Peaceful rest even of the roadside dust

             That lies so low. Yet strong and steady,

             Blissful, bold, and free. Awakener, ever

             Forward! Speak thy stirring words.[viii]


Not having any literary pretensions, (some say he wrote in a meditative trance) Vivekananda gave a free reign to his imagination often writing in verse libre though he did employ iambic tetrameter, trimeter etc., but he was not consistent in rhyme or stanza pattern. In the use of language he tried to emulate the western masters like Keats, Shelly and Wordsworth. In most cases his religious poems appear to be thinly disguised patriotic poems. For instance, take these lines from Kali the Mother:


Who dares misery love,

And hug the form of Death,

Dance in Destruction's dance,

To him the Mother comes.[ix]


At times his poetic style spilled over his prose work. For instance, in a letter to Mrs. G.W. Hale from Detroit on 10 March, 1894, he wrote: 'If the Himalayas become the inkpot, the ocean ink, if the heavenly eternal Devadaroo becomes the pen, and if the sky itself becomes paper, still I would not be able to write a drop of the debt of gratitude I owe to you and yours.'[x] And Like a good awakener of conscience, he also instilled an urgency in his call to his 'brave boys': 'The work has begun well in India, and it should not only be kept up, but pushed with the greatest vigour. Now or never is the time.'[xi]

He tirelessly tried to drive the point home that there cannot be any growth without liberty for liberty is the first condition of growth.[xii] In The Song of the Sanyasin which he composed in 1895 in America, he once gain stresses the importance of freedom:


Strike off thy fetters! Bonds that bind thee down,

Of shining gold, or darker baser ore.

For fetters though of gold, are not less strong to bind;

Then, off with them, Sanyasin bold![xiii]


In order to be free the first step is education and material progress, we cannot talk about religion and other higher goals if the masses are starving. Vivekanada here goes back to the scriptures and uses the metaphor of the tortoise which is supposed to be the god of the stomach. 'Now understand what religion means. The first thing required is the worship of Kurma . . . Until you pacify this, no one will welcome your words about religion.'[xiv] Attacking glorification of poverty and overemphasis on spiritualism by Indians, he argued that there were about a hundred thousand  really spiritual men and women, but  for the spiritualisation of these, must three hundred millions be sunk in savagery and starvation? 'Material civilisation, nay, even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in a God, who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven! Pooh! India is to be raised, the poor are to be fed, education is to be spread, and the evil of priestcraft is to be removed. No priestcraft, no social tyranny! More bread, more opportunity for everybody!'[xv]

Vivekananda was aware that his speeches and writing could be seen by the British as seditious, but he wondered why nobody ever arrested him. He was prepared to go to any length to usher in the revolution, and at times he even expressed a great longing that the English government would arrest and shoot him. 'It would be the first nail in their coffin . . . . and my death would run through the land like wild fire.'[xvi] Having gone through his literature, it is clear that though he had renounced the world and become a monk, he felt that he could not sit by and watch his country raped by invaders. His immediate task was to overthrow the British rule.

Vivekananda stressed again and again that Indians had lost their freedom and become slaves, and because of our slave mentality, we have lost our manliness. At such a time spiritualism could only be a distant goal, our immediate effort ought to be to instill martial spirit in the masses so they could break their shackles and first become free. For this, he advocated aggression spiritual, material and even physical if something came in the way. A careful study of his correspondence shows that although he was merely laying the groundwork for the revolution through peaceful means, he was not opposed to using militant methods, he was prepared to use force if the need arose. In Swami Vivekananda: Patriot Prophet Bupendranath Datta writes that after his second tour of the West, Vivekananda told one Prof. Kanankkshya Mitra that 'what India needs to-day is bomb'.[xvii]

From Surendra Nath Sen's private diary we learn that when it was pointed out to him that instead of aggressive force, shouldn't he consider  the course of Radha love advocated by Chaitanya, he burst out: 'Look at this nation and see what has been the outcome of such an attempt. Through the preaching of that love . . .  the whole nation has become effeminate . . . . The whole of Orissa has been turned into a land of cowards; and Bengal, running after the Radha - prema, these past four hundred years, has almost lost all sense of manliness!' [xviii] He rued the fact that the refrain of Bengali literature for these four hundred years had failed to give produce poetry which breathes a true heroic spirit. Aghast at the state of affairs he cried out in verse: 'O Thou Lord of Gauri, O Thou Mother of the Universe, vouchsafe manliness unto me! O Thou Mother of Strength, take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness, and make me a Man![xix] 

Vivekananda was himself a regular at the gyms and wrestling akharas of Calcutta, he wanted his countrymen to do the same and become physically strong. 'A dozen of such lions will conquer the world, and not millions of sheep . . . .'[xx] To achieve this goal, he even encouraged young men to eat meat, for he felt that the idea of non-violence and vegetarianism had made Indians weak in body as well as spirit. Justifying it he said: 'Do you think that a handful of Englishmen could rule India if we had a militant spirit? I teach meat-eating throughout the length and breadth of India in the hope that we can build a militant spirit!'[xxi] He reminded his listeners that there was a place for struggle in the Vedanta, but not fear. 'All fears will vanish when you begin to assert your own nature. If you think that you are bound, bound you will remain. If you think you are free, free you will be.'[xxii]

The cause of our weakness in his opinion was that being a conquered race for centuries, Indians had lost Shraddha or faith in their our own selves. 'Strength is life, weakness is death. . . . It is by losing this idea of Shraddha that the country has gone to ruin. The idea of true Shraddha must be brought back once more to us, the faith in our own selves must be reawakened, and, then only, all the problems which face our country will gradually be solved by ourselves.'[xxiii]

As he did not actually use the bomb or the gun to overthrow the British, though he might have inspired others to do so, we see that he used a lot more potent weapon, that is his pen, and with what mastery. In order to appreciate his revolutionary idiom, we shall also as we go along try to grasp his religious and political ideas, for he used the former to achieve the latter. Religion in his opinion ought to be central to our lives, because in order to avoid degeneration and attain perfection, everything had to be done with devotion, even business and politics. India had lost its ancient glory because its people practised only rituals, not religion. Though he often stressed that all religions basically had the same teachings, he for reasons of his own believed that all other religions somehow owed a debt to Hinduism. Vivekananda saw it as his life's mission, to reawaken the masses and restore India's lost glory. This is because, according to the Indian tradition, whenever there is a decline of morals or when there is a social crisis, a yogi cannot just sit by and watch passively. He has to act in accordance with the times. He bemoaned the fact that Indians were concerned with their own personal salvation with utter disregard to their social responsibilities. He was the first modern Indian, says Amiya P. Sen, to challenge this traditional orientation.[xxiv] He believed that though there are various paths to achieve supreme bliss, at present times when Tamas is predominant, action was the need of the hour. 'Jnana, Bhakti, Yoga and Karma —these are the four paths which lead to salvation. One must follow the path for which one is best suited; but in this age special stress should be laid on Karma - yoga.' [xxv]

Vivekananda argued that at present in India, the quality of Rajas was almost absent as is Sattva absent in the West. Unless we overcame Tamas by Rajas, its opposite, we shall never gain any worldly good or welfare in this life or the next.[xxvi]  By putting action at least on the same footing as ascetic contemplation, Vivekananda seems to have not only departed from the negative work ethic of his Master but also implicitly suggested a fresh look at traditional (Hindu) value systems.[xxvii]

Vivekananda's analysis of socio-political history was that society is ruled in turns by the four castes. The priestly class assumes power first, and at such a time there is great intellectual activity. In this age  Sattava is dominant. This is followed by the supremacy of the Kshatriya caste which rules by the sword, and in this age Rajas prevails. Later Vaishayas begin to rule, as is the case in modern times, at such a time business flourishes and there is great generation of wealth. Finally, the Shudra class rules, that is the rule of the working class, at such a time Tamas is everywhere. We must here bear in mind that to Vivekananda the four castes were a kind of division of labour. A person belongs to a particular caste owing to the kind of work he chooses, not because of his birth in a particular caste. Thus, on his view, caste should not be made hereditary, it should change according to one's station in life. Even, the general composition of society changes in different ages, so does its dominant national character.

 'In the mighty course of time, the Brahmin and the other higher castes, too, are being brought down to the lower status of the Shudras, and the Shudras are being raised to higher ranks. Europe, once the land of Shudras enslaved by Rome, is now filled with Kshatriya valour. Even before our eyes, powerful China, with fast strides, is going down to Shudra - hood, while insignificant Japan, rising with the sudden start of a rocket, is throwing off her Shudra nature and is invading by degrees the rights of the higher castes.'[xxviii]

No matter which class assumed power and which guna prevailed, the first condition of life according to Vivekananda was freedom, freedom of the soul and the freedom of the body, without which everything else was meaningless. In his short life, that is what he tried to tell his people through his powerful language.


From dreams awake, from bonds be free!

Be not afraid. This mystery,

My shadow, cannot frighten me!

Know once for all that I am He![xxix]





Vivekanada was a yogi in true spirit. He was well-educated, well-versed in ancient scriptures and philosophy, was well acquainted with the arts and sciences, did selfless work for society, and all his life he was a model to others for he practised what he preached. Having had the talent to use language, he used it to further the two aims of his life, spiritual and political freedom of his countrymen. Thanks to his writings, speeches and poems, he very eminently achieved that goal, though it is not duly recognised.






The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (nine volumes); Advaita Ashrama , 1995

Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries; Advaita Ashrama

Selections from Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama 1957

The Life of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama

Datta, Bhupendranath; Swamy Vivekananda: Patriot Prophet; Navbharat Publishres 1954

Majumdar, R.C., Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review; Advaita Ashrama 1999, first published by General Printers and Publishers Private Ltd., 1965

Radice, William (Ed.); Swami Vivekananda and the Modernisation of Hinduism; Oxford University Press 1999

Rolland, Romain; The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel; Advaita Ashrama 1995

Sen, Amiya P.; Hindu Revivalism in Bengal: Some Essays in Interpretation; Oxford University Press, 1993.

Sen, Amiya P.; Swami Vivekananda; Oxford University Press, 2000.







Kuldip Dhiman,

Research Scholar,

Department of Philosophy,

Panjab University.


Phone: 9815551460

[i] Majumdar, R.C., Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review; Advaita Ashrama 1999, first published by General Printers and Publishers Private Ltd., 1965, p84

[ii] Dutta, Bhupendra; Swami Vivekananda Patriot Prophet; Navbharat Publishers 1954, p290

[iii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol . V, 1995, p259

[iv] Majumdar, R.C., Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review; Advaita Ashrama 1999, first published by General Printers and Publishers Private Ltd., 1965, p 85

[v] Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries; Advaita Ashrama, p51

[vi] Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries; Before the Parliament, Advaita Ashrama, p60

[vii] New Discoveries, Advaita Ashrama, Vol I, p200-202

[viii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p387

[ix] Selections from Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, p 617

[x] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IX, 1995, p13

[xi] In a letter written to Justice Sir Subrahmanya Iyer from Chicago, 3, January 1895; The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p371

[xii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p367

[xiii] Selections from Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama 1946, p613

[xiv] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p379

[xv] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, p368

[xvi] Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries; Advaita Ashrama, p34

[xvii] Datta, Bhupendranath; Swamy Vivekananda: Patriot Prophet; Navbharat Publishres 1954, p212

[xviii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p 345

[xix] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p480

[xx] Selections from the Math Diary; The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p315

[xxi] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IX, 1995, p404

[xxii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p286

[xxiii] From the diary of Surendranath Sen; The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p 332

[xxiv] Sen, Amiya P.; Hindu Revivalism in Bengal: Some Essays in Interpretation; Oxford University Press, 1993, p312

[xxv] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, V, 1995, p414

[xxvi] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p406

[xxvii] Sen, Amiya P.; Hindu Revivalism in Bengal: Some Essays in Interpretation; Oxford University Press, 1993, p320

[xxviii] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, IV, 1995, p468

[xxix] The Song of the Free; The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda; Advaita Ashrama, Vol, VII, 1995, p 164



govind paliath said...

Great post . . .Evidently you have put in a lot of effort into this and it shows.Keep up the good work!On a more personal not Vivekananda's writings are truly thought provoking and inspiring. Even now, whenever i find myself being overwhelmed by life's trials and tribulations, i read a few pages of his writings, and they never fail to provide me with a sense of calm and tranquility which enables me to tackle all obstacles with renewed vigour.

Pukhraj Singh said...

Beautiful article Dr.Dhiman. I had also read your review of Frits Staal's new book written for HT, and that is how I stumbled on this great blog. I am constantly amused and intrigued by the notion of cyclical domination of various castes which leads to the changing socio-political order. I am keen to know if there were other thinkers who espoused similar ideas? I know that Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar and Sri Aurobindo talked on similar lines.

Anyways, great to know that you're from Chandigarh. I currently reside here. Would be keen to know what local activities and groups you subscribe to; it would be a pleasure to catch-up with you face to face.


Vivek-Jivan said...

nice article

Vivek-Jivan said...

nice article