How shoddy scholarship is used to bash Swami Vivekananda

Last Updated: Sun, Jan 20, 2013 13:17 hrs

It seems to be the season to bash Swami Vivekananda. 

First, it was the Hindu, which published a derogatory piece by Sanjay Srivastava who dubbed Swami Vivekananda as the poster boy of "aggressive Indian masculinity," which he claimed shaped the attitudes of Indian men towards women, which he averred, was responsible for the rising incidents of rape in the country. 

And now Outlook magazine's latest cover story, pompously titled Dharma for the State, an excerpt of a book by a certain Jyotirmaya Sharma. The piece certainly has scholarly pretensions but on closer reading, is nothing beyond a cheap polemic whose sole purpose seems to be to sling mud against Swami Vivekananda.

Is it a mere coincidence that the spate of anti-Vivekananda pieces is appearing around the time of his 150th birthday? Besides, the endeavor of trying to demean one of India's iconic figures is nothing new. Just as Indian academics, journalists, filmmakers, and artists blindly imitate the West, the anti-Vivekananda champions have perhaps taken their cues from Jeffrey J. Kripal's vulgar Kali's Child (published in 1995), which posits that Swami Vivekananda and his guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa shared a homosexual relationship. 

Predictably, this book was lauded by the usual suspects on the Left both in the U.S. and worldwide. Other books and articles deriding the Swami followed in India, most notably led by Meera Nanda. Jyotirmaya Sharma is another late entrant into a field, which shows the promise of growing into a cottage industry of its own right.

The first thing we notice about Sharma's piece is the dense prose and the constant back-and-forth to make a point. But here's what we get after separating the wheat from the chaff: 

First, Swami Vivekananda distorted Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's message of "inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity," "the complete absence...of a clearly articulated Hindu identity, [and] the idea of a threatening, antagonistic 'Other' in the form of Islam or Christianity," and second, his supposed upholding of Brahminical superiority. 

But more dangerously, we cannot help but feel that Jyotirmaya Sharma is attempting to cut the Ramakrishna away from Vivekananda by painting the latter as a distorter of the former's "true" message.

The various quotes from Vivekananda that's peppered throughout Sharma's piece are merely incidental. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda runs into a few thousand pages. We can pretty much pick up anything selectively from such a vast corpus and "prove" anything about the Swami. 

Arun Shourie, in his excellent two-part essay (Part onePart Two), Myths about the Swami explains how this works:

That is the trouble with rushing into the charge with a quotation or two, without immersing oneself in the thought and world view of the person... The central premise of Swami Vivekananda's entire life was that the essence of India lay in religion; that the religion of our people was the Hindu dharma... the truths the Hindu seers had uncovered were the goals to which that reawakened India had to be turned, and that these truths were that pearl of inestimable value which it was India's mission to give to the world. 

Which red-blooded communist or secularist will own up to this credo? [Emphasis added]

The last question provides the clue to Sharma's polemic against Swami Vivekananda. Here's how Sharma condemns the Swami for taking precisely this view:

...Vivekananda . considered only Hinduism to be worthy of the epithet 'religion' and thought of Islam and Christianity to be merely sects.

According to Sharma, this is a distortion of Ramakrishna's inclusive view of Islam and Christianity. But let's explore Sharma's sources and the authenticity of his scholarship. He relies almost exclusively on Ramakrishna's Kathamrita or the Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

The first thing we need to recall is the fact that Ramakrishna was illiterate. He never wrote anything down. The Kathamrita was almost entirely recorded by an ardent devotee named Mahendranath Datta. Also, the work doesn't contain everything that Ramakrishna ever said. It was recorded whenever Datta had the time to visit Ramakrishna, and whenever the latter was in a mood to talk. 

What that means is that Sharma bases his entire piece on piecemeal information. This, apart from concealing several crucial facts.

First, all Guru-bhais of Swami Vivekananda - Swami Abhedananda, Ramakrishnananda, Sivananda, Brahmananda, and Sharadananda unanimously accepted Swami Vivekananda as the most deserving disciple to carry Ramakrishna's message to the world. 

Second, Ramakrishna had himself declared that Vivekananda was his best disciple and told him, "I've given you everything I have and am now a fakir possessing nothing." 

Third, Sharada Devi, Ramakrishna's wife, too accepted this fact and gave complete authority to the Swami and his Ramakrishna Mission endeavor. 

Fourth, Jyotirmaya Sharma wants us to believe that he knows better about Ramakrishna based merely on textual research and selective reading than Swami Vivekananda who spent years with the Master.

Therefore it stands to reason that if Jyotirmaya Sharma criticizes Swami Vivekananda, he also criticizes Ramakrishna. It is to mask this that he resorts to the allegation that the Swami "distorted" Ramakrishna's true message. Indeed, if Ramakrishna was the aphorism, Vivekananda was the commentator and exponent par excellence of his Master's message. 

However, the real ire of Sharma is rooted in the Swami's unequivocal championing of Hindu revivalism and his enduring status as a towering icon even today. 

We wonder why that in itself is undesirable. Aren't Hindus entitled to have a voice of their own?

Equally misleading is Sharma's claim that while Ramakrishna attained the same spiritual goal through Islam and Christianity, Vivekananda claimed that these religions are inferior to Hinduism. In which case, one needs to ask this question: do the adherents of those faiths accept Ramakrishna as a pir or a saint worthy of worship?

Further, Sharma also commits a shocking, factual blunder by claiming that the term "Sanatana Dharma" is a "politically charged neologism." The term "Sanatana Dharma" has a history of at least 3000 years. It appears variously in the Manusmriti (esha dharmah Sanatana), and in the commentaries of saints and scholars like Adi Shankara. 

We wonder how Jyotirmaya Sharma concluded that it is a "neologism" much less a political one.

And these are just tiny samples that expose Sharma' shoddy scholarship. Just one more example will suffice: he relies on the discredited theories of race and the mythical Aryan-Dravidian divide to "prove" how Swami Vivekananda supported Brahmin supremacy. Indeed, according to Sharma's own reading, the Swami was in favour of "jati," a concept completely different from the colonial construct of "caste." Yet, he equates jati with caste, revealing his motivated attempt to tarnish Swami Vivekananda.

In the end, if we go by Jyotirmaya Sharma's piece, we wonder whether Swami Vivekananda had even a mili-ounce of goodness in him. This perhaps is the only goal of Mr. Sharma's cheap polemic to begin with.

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