Swami Vivekananda – Some personal reflections (Ceylon today Mosaic)

Ceylon today Mosaic (Colombo) 8 December 2013

Swami Vivekananda – Some personal reflections

by Martin Kämpchen

One issue irks me, let me clear it first.  I feel uneasy seeing the heroic poses in which Swami Vivekananda is routinely being depicted. It is meant to symbolise mental and spiritual strength, resolution, will-power to overcome obstacles and reach a spiritual and social goal. In Europe, particularly in Germany, we have seen too many persons who posed as heroes. I speak of Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and others. But their intention was not practical spirituality, rather it was war and destruction. I do not want to see Vivekananda near the iconic sphere that has been created by these evil geniuses. In today’s Europe the poses with which Vivekananda is being identified are seen with definite suspicion. They are out of tune with the modern 21st century mentality of Europe in which modesty and temperance in deed and appearance are seen as the virtues of political and social leaders. This incongruence is one significant reason why Vivekananda is not nearly as well-known and appreciated in Europe as is the case with M. K. Gandhi, Nehru, Aurobindo, and Rabindranath. It is also a sign of how far removed, in certain matters, even Westernised middle-class India is from the mentality of educated modern Europeans.

The celebrations for Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth-anniversary still lingering on, the Indophil world has turned to another icon of Indian culture, to Swami Vivekananda. While moving from one to the other, we realise with astonishment how close they were – and yet so far apart. Close they were in history, being born just one and a half years apart. They belong to the same era of colonial rule which also witnessed the first stirrings of freedom-minded Indians against that rule. This epoch saw the first Indians crossing the oceans to study or travel in Europe and return enriched. They returned also with a firmer conviction of the riches of their own country and the yearning to work for India, for her political freedom, her social purification from old evils and her appropriate projection on the international stage. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda went through that experience.

The distance between the two is being created mainly because Vivekananda’s life was only half as long as Tagore’s. This means that Vivekananda did not witness many developments in India and in the world which lend their character to today’s social and political scenario: the two World Wars, India’s Independence and the rise of democracy with its struggle towards a global community. Seen from this angle, Tagore is the more modern person of the two; he is closer to us by forty years, he is the one who can speak more directly to us because he has shared with us and reflected on our modern human condition.

Surprisingly, after having said this, it strikes me as an invalid statement. Why? In a radical way, Vivekananda reflects our modern consciousness even though his voice went silent over a century ago. Why is this so? Because of his extreme philosophical positions, his high-strung life, his superlative language. Throughout his short adult life he fought for the unification of naturally grown polarities and differences: for a synthesis of “East” and “West”, towards a unitary view of the various religions, for a merging of contemplation and action in a person’s daily life, for the cooperation of the poor and the rich towards an egalitarian society. For him the term “perfection” meant the vision of an ever more radical unity of the multiple diversities we see around us and within us. The most radical command Vivekananda gave to us on the level of practical life was: In the midst of the turmoil of a big city remain as calm and composed as if you lived alone in a forest. Alone in the forest live as active and busy as if you were in the midst of a crowd.

We all know of the sheer impossibility of fulfilling such visions in real life. All of us need a suitable atmosphere to prosper, as we are by nature open to external influences. We want compatible people around us, an inspiring landscape, good food along with good digestion, enough sleep and the right mood – only then can we be either fully active or fully contemplative. The exemplary person of Vivekananda’s conception, does not need all this. He is self-willed and emotionally, spiritually and mentally independent. He can be active and contemplative simultaneously.

This strikes me as modern because every modern man is exposed to this pull towards unity, to these convergent, centrifugal forces. “Globalisation” in its various forms is such a force. The formation of the European Union, the interlinking of the world economy; the refutation of geographical distance by our modern electronic communication systems – internet, telephony, skype, iphone; the staggering acceleration of flight traffic which allows us to move from one continent to another continent as we formerly did from our village to a neighbouring one. All these explosive, often ruthless forces striving towards unification seem to be mirrored in Vivekananda’s speeches. Did he foresee these forces approaching us?

Related to this modernism on the level of social life are Vivekananda’s personal characteristics.

What is modern about Vivekananda is exactly his vacillation between extreme positions, his nervous energy, his mood-swings which are so apparent in his letters, his desperation about the lack of strength and motivation among his fellowmen, his bursts of energy as well as of despair. This describes a man who was pulled into various directions simultaneously. Vivekananda wanted to change the world and went about it with a gigantism reminiscent of the grand schemes of our modern times: the United Nations, the Space programmes of the NASA, the CERN accelerator in Geneva, the modern Olympic Games, the business empires, the multinational corporations, the mega-banks which can make or break a country’s, even a continent’s economy. Similarly, Vivekananda visions were projected on such a vast canvas.

His emotional turbulence connected with philosophical and conceptual grandeur is the signature of our time. Our modern heroes are brittle and vulnerable. Despite themselves they reveal their weak side. Today, the extremes clash and coincide as they have never done before.

Today’s modern anxieties and contradictions have been elevated to a spiritual search by Vivekananda. The constructive side of this forcing together of opposites is for Vivekananda that he welcomed these baffling, endless possibilities of being and acting, the infinite possibilities to develop and progress that exist in our modern world. The man who is capable of making full use of all these possibilities represents the fulfillment of Vivekananda’s “ideal man”.

This grand design of unity forcing together various opposites has its precursor in Indian philosophical thought. One of the great gifts to humanity is India’s thinking and feeling in polarities – instead of in mutually exclusive contrasts. It is the “not only, but also”-approach. Indian thought nourishes that perplexing concept that something can be brown as well as blue, gentle as well as wild, happy as well as sad. There are no “either this or that”-solutions in our world.

By bringing together apparent opposites, Vivekananda has postulated his “gospel of strength”, for it indeed needs a hero’s strength to visualise, to realise and “keep together” within oneself and then act upon such all-encompassing unity in daily life.

Yet, we have already commented on the unreality of such a world-view as well. The strength that is needed to live such an all-encompassing unity can be derived only from the robust and indestructible faith in Vivekananda’s dictum that “each man is potentially divine”. In other words, it is not for human beings to gather such strength. We can only measure up to the standards set by Swami Vivekananda by acknowledging the distance between his ideal and us. One may come to the conclusion that living with Vivekananda’s standards in mind means being constantly reminded of one’s dwarfishness, of one’s failures. Has not Vivekananda himself worn himself out by trying to live up to his own ideals? This may encourage us to advance ever nearer to this ideal, but it may also make us feel dejected.

Reading Vivekananda, a German student of philosophy will spontaneously be reminded of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. His book Thus Spake Zarathustra describes a prophet-like figure who has retreated to a lonely mountain to spend ten years in meditation. Then Zarathustra went back to human society to teach them of the “Superman”. That is a concept of a man who reaches beyond himself, someone who pushes the limits of his ability and actions further and further afield.

As it happened with Zarathustra, this message of strength will necessarily bring us into a productive conflict with ourselves, with our society and with divinity. Expanding ourselves within, working among men with this message in mind and coming to terms with the divinity that resides in us, cannot but create enormous tensions in us leading, initially, to pain and agony. And that beginning may last a long time until we have overcome our smaller Self. It was the very same struggle Vivekananda must have gone through.

This message of strength will separate us from our families and the social groups to which we belong from birth. India is a family-centred country. She is much admired for her family values. Young people grow up very sheltered and cared for until adulthood. They are not being asked to show strength – but obedience; not strength – but devotion to the family; not strength – but supporting each other within the social groups they have been born in. Following the call of strength that Vivekananda sounds, demands a rift, a separation from this family sphere of mutual devotion. The man of strength for Vivekananda and for Nietzsche is an individual who stands alone.

We have with Vivekananda the beautiful and perplexing antithesis of unity and aloneness, of oneness and individualism. If we live according to Vivekananda’s concept, we bring the diverse forces that reign the world into a spiritual unity in our mind and spiritual life and, as far as possible, in society around us, yet at the same time we separate ourselves from family ties and social ties and all the cosy togetherness that we are used to and raised in.

Yet, I totally believe that moving towards such a, seemingly paradoxical, double-vision in life is the great need of the hour: We must shelter the whole world within us and dare to begin alone to make the world a better place. Tagore wrote these beautiful and famous song-lines: “If nobody comes when you call, go ahead alone! (ekla cholo-re!)” Tagore, too, knew that unless we begin on our own, alone, after having built up enough determination, nothing will change in society.

Looking around us, we see that there is such a great need for Vivekananda’s call for strength and courage because there is an all-round lack of it. Who from among the young men and women are able to reject employment to devote themselves to the needs of our less fortunate countrymen? Who of them are able to do it even in mid-life after they have already enjoyed a job and a family and the comforts of a middle-class life? – We all know the answer: There are very few. Who of us are able to go against the wishes of our family and elders to accomplish something which is truly meaningful, but which carries little social prestige? Who of us have the courage to develop our own ideas, our own priorities and activities apart from the ideas, priorities and activities of our family and social group? If the 150th birth anniversary celebration of Swami Vivekananda could bring the realisation to our young generation that they have to go it alone to achieve anything of special social and spiritual value, then these celebrations will have had a superb significance.

At the same time, we have to realise that Swami Vivekananda died prematurely when he had not yet been truly able to live and act out the ideals that he had formulated in his speeches.

He probably had achieved that spiritual unity within himself which he again and again spoke about. However, he was still so very much in the beginning of acting upon his vision, for giving a shape to it in real life. How much could he have achieved had he lived for eighty years, as Rabindranath Tagore did! I am convinced that had he lived a full life, he would also have attained that inward harmony and balance which he was still struggling to attain before his death.

Martin Kämpchen is a German scholar, writer and translator residing partly in Santiniketan (West-Bengal/India) and partly in Germany.

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