Vivekananda &c.

Palaniappa Palaniappa at AOL.COM
Sat Mar 21 18:22:29 UTC 1998

In a message dated 98-03-19 12:27:27 EST, zydenbos at BLR.VSNL.NET.IN writes:

<< V. is a figurehead for
 urbanised, Anglicised, well-to-do Indians who are partly alienated from
 traditional Hinduism. In rural India, as per my own observations, he is
 never more than a picture on a wall, 'the man through whom Hinduism
 conquered the world' and a protagonist in myths without substance, a
 writer the bulk of whose writings are read by none. (Sorry if this
 sounds crude or 'unscholarly', but I've already reached my third
 screenful.) Hardly anybody, besides the residents of Ramakrishna Maths
 and Hindutva ideologues, has any idea of what he stood for. >>

I agree with Robert Zydenbos on Vivekananda in general, but I would like to
add a note on zankara as well. My personal impression based on living in
Tamilnadu is that it is the upper castes (mainly Brahmins and Vellalas) who
have been admirers and knowledgeable about V. The percentage of these
followers in the general population is very very small. Even though,
Vivekanandar's biography "aRivukkan2alE aruTpun2alE" might have appeared in
Kalki, a Tamil magazine, the circulation of that one-time orthodox magazine
was so unrepresentative of the general population, that V.'s relevance for the
general population is insignificant. The Ramakrishna mission schools and
colleges are the only avenues of possible relevance for V.'s views w.r.t the
wider population. Even here, if the comments of my IIT friends who were
graduates of Vivekananda College in Madras (this was more than 20 years ago)
were correct, the distribution of students by caste was weighted towards upper
castes. (Of course, the government-mandated reservation of seats might have
resulted in some representation of other castes as well.) I think V. filled a
market need for self-assurance among newly urbanized elites moving from
mofussil areas into emerging urban areas.

Zydenbos had said, "(2) To compare V. to ;Sa:nkara looks rather absurd
(something like comparing Jerry Falwell to John Calvin)." For most of the
Tamil population, V as well as Zankara are equally irrelevant. As for Adi
zankara's intellectual genius, there is a segment of non-brahmin intelligensia
(here many atheistic as well as theistic people are included) who find his
views on zUdras abhorrent and abominable.

Commenting on Brahmasutra (1.3.38)  that zUdras are prohibited from acquiring
spiritual knowledge, zankara says, "The zUdras are not qualified for that
reason also that smRti prohibits their hearing the Veda, their studying the
Veda, and their understanding and performing Vedic matters. The prohibition of
hearing the Veda is conveyed by the following passages: 'The ears of him who
hears the Veda are to be filled with (molten) lead and lac,' and 'For a zUdra
is (like) a cemetery, therefore (the Veda) is not to be read in the vicinity
of azUdra'. From this latter passage the prohibition of studying the Veda
results at once; for how should he study Scripture in whose vicinity it is not
even to be read? There is, moreover, an express prohibition (of the zUdras
studying the Veda). 'His tongue is to be slit if he pronounces it; his body is
to be cut through if he preserves it....'"

If it is argued that he was just commenting on somebody else's sUtra, one can
see the qualifications he sets for a spiritual teacher in his upadeza sAhasri.
Here he says only a brahmaNa can be a teacher. He excludes even kSatriyas. So,
when some  insist that advaita is the ultimate concept of universality, and
zankara was its greatest exponent, one has to wonder what type of universal
vision they are talking about.

If the following questions by Zydenbos w.r.t  Vivekananda were to be raised
against zankara, I wonder what the answers might be.

<<Please answer these questions (if not in public, then at least for
(a) do you respect such a mentality / person?
(b) do you seriously expect me to respect such a mentality / person?
(c) should scholars respect such a mentality / person?>>

As for Vivekananda's statements, "Civilisations have risen in other parts of
the world... great ideas have emanated from strong and great races... India...
peacefully existed... when even Greece did not exist, when Rome was not
thought of, when the very fathers of the modern Europeans lived in the forests
and painted themselves blue", etc. etc. (from "FirstPublic Lecture in the
East").", one should probably look for its inspiration in  "On Liberty", the
work by John Stuart Mill (and his wife). (I remember reading in one of
Ambedkar's works that Mill's writings were popular among Indian nationalists
in the beginning of the 20th century.)

Talking about the despotism of Custom, Mill says, "This is the case over the
whole East. Custom is there, in all things, the final appeal; justice and
right mean conformity to custom; the argument of custom no one, unless some
tyrant intoxicated with power, thinks of resisting. And we see the result.
Those nations must once have  had originality; they did not start out of the
ground populous, lettered, and versed in many of the arts of life; they made
themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations in
the world. What are they now? The subjects or dependents of tribes whose
forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent places and
gorgeous temples, but over whom custom exercised only a divided rule with
liberty and progress."  J. S. Mill, retired as the Examiner of India
Correspondence for East India Company in England in 1858, the same year in
which his essay "On Liberty" was completed.


S. Palaniappan

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list