[The Message of Swami Vivekananda by Dr. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, Vice- Chancellor, University of Madras, is largely based on the illuminating address delivered by him at a public meeting held at the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi in March 1954. Published in Prabuddha Bharata June 1954]
Though Swami Vivekananda may be a historical ﬁgure to many, to me he is more than a memory, for I had the privilege of listening to him in the epoch-making days of our renaissance when the Swamiji addressed the students in Madras on their problems ahead. I have visited the many Ashramas founded by the Swamiji, in various parts of India and abroad, and especially the Ramakrishna Math in Madras. I have also associated myself with many devotees of the Ramakrishna Mission. Here I shall deal with the message which Swami Vivekananda left for the common man, the man steeped in worldly affairs,–the message that he gave to his countrymen to help them to conduct them- selves efﬁciently in whatever station in life they were placed,— social, political, economical, and spiritual. His message is meant for all time and for the whole world, and it is needed much more now than at any other time. He was a man of vision and his message has unfolded itself more and more as time has rolled on.
His ﬁrst and foremost message was the doctrine of toleration. In the opening address at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago he thrilled the vast audience by addressing them not in a cold and formal way but with a touch of human intimacy as ‘Sisters and Brothers’, thus for the ﬁrst time establishing the international companionship of human beings. He pointed out in glowing terms the imperative necessity of tolerance amongst people adopting different faiths. He brought out the unique fact that in India alone was to be found a continuous record of tolerance so helpful to civilization. As he said, here in India the Hindus have built and are still building churches for the Christians and mosques for the Mohammedans. He said that the world had to learn from India not only toleration but universal acceptance, universal sympathy. As the different rivers, taking their rise from different mountains, and running straight or crooked, at last come to the ocean, so the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to the same goal — This was how the Swami emphasized the ideal of tolerance, quoting a Sanskrit verse.
Swami Vivekananda had a prophetic vision of the future of India. The opening words of his famous speech at Ramnad in I897 have this prophetic ring:
‘The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last. the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us, — away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were, from peak to peak of the in- ﬁnite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work, India, this motherland of ours,— a voice is coming unto us, gentle, ﬁrm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awakening. Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awakening, this motherland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can resist her anymore; never is she going to sleep anymore; no outward powers can hold her back any more; for the inﬁnite giant is rising to her feet’.
Due to repeated foreign aggression and consequent social apathy, India had lost faith in herself and in her inherent strength. But he boldly proclaimed that there was no room for any pessimism whatsoever. If only we recapture our faith in our religion and in our- selves, he said, we could work out the spiritual conquest of the world. He strongly rebuked those who spoke that India had no stamina. She had the greatest spiritual strength which can be restored to each one of us if only we have faith in ourselves. He exhorted everyone to arise, awake, and stop not till the goal was reached. It was this great call which was fully endorsed in our days by Mahatma Gandhi who recaptured this faith and dreamt of freedom and galvanized the nation in a struggle as a result of which we achieved our political independence. Swami Vivekananda quickened the soul of India and Mahatma Gandhi canalized its forces to achieve national liberation.
Swami Vivekananda was a true social reformer. When confronted by critics about our social evils, his reply as to their eradication was constructive. Referring to the destructive methods of the reformers of the day, he said:
‘To the reformers I will point out that I am a greater reformer than any one of them. They want to reform only little bits. I want root-and branch reform. Where we differ is in the method. Theirs is the method of destruction, mine is that of construction. I do not believe in reform; I believe in growth. . . . Feed the national life with the fuel it wants, but the growth is its own; none can dictate its growth to it’.
Pleading for a calm and dispassionate view on the subject of our social evils and the methods to tackle them, he continued,
‘Evils are plentiful in our society, but so are there evils in every other society. Here, the earth is soaked sometimes with the widow’s tears; there, in the West, the air is rent with the sighs of the unmarried. Here, poverty is the great bane of life; there, the life-weariness of luxury is the great bane that is upon the race. Here, men want to commit suicide because they have nothing to eat; there, they commit suicide because they have so much to eat. Evil is everywhere, it is like chronic rheumatism. Drive it from the foot, it goes to the head; drive it from there, it goes somewhere else. It is a question of chasing it from place to place’.
Evil and good are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. If we have one, we must have the other; a billow in the ocean must be at the cost of a hollow elsewhere. Therefore. ‘Why condemn?’ asks the Swamiji, and proceeds, ‘We admit that there are evils. Everybody can show what evil is, but he is the friend of mankind who ﬁnds a way out of the difficulty’.
Putting the problem in a clear focus, the Swamiji said:
‘The whole problem of social reform, therefore, resolves itself into this: Where are those who want reform? Make them ﬁrst. Where are the people? The tyranny of a minority is the worst tyranny that the world ever sees. A few men who think that certain things are evil will not make a nation move. Why does not the nation move? First educate the nation, create your legislative body, and then the law will be forthcoming. First create the power, the sanction from which the law will spring. The kings are gone; where is the new sanction, the new power of the people? Bring it up. Therefore, even for social reform, the ﬁrst duty is to educate the people, and you will have to wait till that time comes’.
Thus Swami Vivekananda advocated social evolution instead of revolution and he called his method ‘root-and-branch reform’.
Swamiji had a message on the subject of idolatry. Idol worship was talked of in the closing part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century by foreigners and by western-educated Indians in terms of disparagement. Swamiji gave a ﬁtting answer to this shallow criticism which proved un- answerable. He said: ‘If such Ramakrishna Paramahamsas are produced by idol worship, what will you have the reformer’s creed or any number of idols? . . . Take a thousand idols more if you can produce Ramakrishna Paramahamsas through idol worship, and may God speed you. Produce such noble natures by any means you can’. He pointed out that idolatry is rampant in other religions as well. He said that ‘if God is represented in any beautiful form, or any symbolic form’ as the Hindus do, it is awfully bad according to the Jewish notions; it is sin. ‘But if He is represented in the form of a chest with two angels sitting on each side, and a cloud hanging over it, it is the holy of holies. If God comes in the form of a dove, it is holy. But if He comes in the form of a cow, it is heathen superstition; condemn it’. Swami Vivekananda condemned such a narrow and fanatic view. It is the faith behind a worship and the inspiration it produces that are signiﬁcant and not the image or symbol in itself.’ By this criterion, image worship has proved itself to be a nursery of spirituality at all times. I have to warn particularly the educated men of our day in this connection, that they learn this message of Swami Vivekananda, lest in their zeal for reform they take away from the people the faith that sustains them.
Swami Vivekananda had already forestalled the problem of the Harijan community. To his mind, every man and woman, and everyone, was equal in the eye of God and there was no room for any differences. He did not like the idea of superiority and inferiority usually associated with philanthropy. We cannot help anyone, he said, we can only serve. It was a privilege given to us to serve the needy. Sri Ramakrishna had demonstrated this spirit of humility in service through his love for the untouchable whose house he had cleaned. The poor, the sick, etc. need not thank us but we should thank them for being given the opportunity to serve. It is the greatest privilege and gift of our lives that we are allowed to serve the Lord in all these shapes. Let us serve and leave the rest to God. ‘To work you have the right and not to the fruits thereof’, is the exhortation of the Gita. There should not be any inferiority or superiority complex involved in service. We have to do service as a form of worship.
Swami Vivekananda was the great teacher of the synthesis of all religions. The world is one spiritually. Whatever religions are followed and whatever the manner of worship, the same goal is reached, which is the ocean of bliss. All rivers lead to the ocean, whatever the shapes they assume or paths they follow. It is want of understanding of the underlying unity of all faiths that has been responsible for mutual suspicion and hatred. It must be realized that whatever the religion or mode of worship, the faith behind all is the same. This is the ideal of the synthesis of all religions which he preached so eloquently and fervently. Swamiji was a great patriot and he has deﬁned the virtue of patriotism in memorable words:
‘I believe in patriotism, and I also have my own ideal of patriotism. Three things are necessary for great achievements. First, feel from the heart. . . . Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of gods and of sages have become next-door neighbours to brutes? Do you feel that millions are starving today and millions have: been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? . . . Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? Have you done that? That is the ﬁrst step to become a patriot, the very first step, ~. .. You ~may feel, then; but instead of spending your energies in frothy talk, have you found any way out, any practical solution, some help instead of condemnation, some sweet words to soothe their miseries, to bring them out of this living death? Yet that is not all. Have you got the will to surmount mountain-high obstructions? If the whole world stands against you, sword in hand, would you still dare to do what you think is right? Have you got that steadfastness? If you have these three things, each one of you will work miracles’.
And in this form and ﬁeld of national work, declared Swamiji, there is no scope for the vice of jealousy. There should not be jealousy between patriots, even as between worshippers in a temple. There can be no precedence in patriotism, even as in Worship. But he was pained to note that we have been awfully jealous of one another. It is a kind- of slavery, he said, and should be avoided. ‘Everyone wants to command and no one wants to obey’, he remarked, and added, ‘First learn to obey. The command will come by itself. Always learn to be a servant and then you will be ﬁt to be a master‘, In this patriotism each has a part to play, high or low, rich or poor, leader or follower. If one has done his part well, it is enough. Let him do best what is allotted to him. If jealousy clings to us there can be no true leadership or patriotism.
Swamiji also demonstrated clearly the need for the appearance of great teachers and incarnations if India was to live. Great personalities are born time and again to fulﬁl the Gita saying ‘I will come whenever virtue subsides’. It is remarkable that so many great Avatars had appeared in the East and founded religions and carried all light, knowledge, and civilization from the East to the West; this is the verdict of history, though we, in modern times, wrongly feel that civilization came to the East from the West. This however does not mean that we were or are the repository of all wisdom. Every nation at sometime or other has something to contribute to the good of the world and something to take from the world for its own good. Take all the good in the world, wherever it may he found, and assimilate it for the welfare and development of your nation- was the Swamiji’s message. ‘Give and take is the law’, said he. This is a message for all times and especially in these critical modern days, when tensions are great within the body politic of each nation and between nation and nation. Mahatma Gandhi came in our times with a similar message. Such a message alone can undo the mischief of creating and exasperating jealousy and suspicion between nations. Bombs are not the way to peace, but touching the heart of man and changing him to ways of love and co-operation is the only way to achieve peace. The message of Swami Vivekananda, with its emphasis on toleration and universality, faith and service, is urgently needed today to sustain civilization and world peace.