Today is 9/11 2020. Normally we remember 9/11 for terrorist attack on America in 2001by some fanatics who destroyed twin towers in New York and assaulted other places. 9/11 associated with India's history is more sublime and constructive. On this day on 9/11, 1893 Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. On this day in 1906 Mahatma Gandhi started his first Satyagraha in South Africa. Swami Vivekananda's short and profound 9/11 speech stirred the Americans and he cast a spell on them and later through his numerous lectures on spirituality and Vedanta made deep impact on their minds. It is instructive to revisit his ideas in the context of rebuilding India in twenty first century and addressing multiple challenges confronted in many spheres.
Spirituality and Economic Empowerment of People
He described himself as a socialist and combined in his persuasive approach the deep understanding of Vedanta with thorough knowledge of modern science. Repeatedly he talked about addressing the issue of widespread poverty prevailing in India and linked his visit to America in 1893 for finding methods and means to ameliorate economic conditions of people by lifting them from poverty. He linked spirituality with entrepreneurship and in doing so he aimed at enabling people to earn their living, get access to education and maintain good health. In fact on his return to India after his triumphant trip to America a disciple asked him to deliver speeches on spirituality and Vedanta for the benefit of Indians in the same manner he did for Americans in America. Swamiji with his sensitive understanding of Indian society and problems of people declined to deliver speeches on spirituality to vast masses of Indians who were poverty stricken and deprived of education, health facilities and many other basic necessities of life. He said that instead of giving lectures on religion and spirituality all those who have renounced the worldly life and remained wedded to Vedanta should move from village to village and teach people the methods and means of doing some business, engage in trade and commerce and earn their livelihood. Swamiji remarked that failure on the part of monks and sanyasis to do so would be negation of spirituality and Vedanta. He described the people of India, riddled with poverty, illiteracy and numerous other deprivations, as "sleeping leviathan" and asserted that by educating people to become entrepreneurs for their empowerment the monks would raise the levels and standards of the masses for regeneration of India. His exhortations to young men to work for others are worth quoting. He said, " INDIA WANTS NOT LECTURING BUT WORK — THE CRYING PROBLEM IN INDIA IS POVERTY — YOUNG SANNYASINS TO BE TRAINED BOTH AS SECULAR AND SPIRITUAL TEACHERS AND WORKERS FOR THE MASSES". The emphasis he laid on spiritual and secular aspects needs to reiterated for negating the calculated attempts to devalue secular dimensions of governance and life.
The Ramakrishna Mission he founded on 1st May 1897 is wedded to the goal of transmission of spiritual values and at the same time contribute to human development based on practical spirituality sublimely enshrined in the articulation, ‘Jiva is Shiva.
It makes no distinction of people based on faith or any other identity and reaches out to them for rendering self less service for their spiritual and material advancement. So it is this life affirming spirituality which remained central to the vision of Swami Vivekananda and it is of critical necessity for addressing the challenges of nation building in twenty first century. Today when religion, spirituality and spiritual values are being distorted and misused by vested interests to promote hatred and violence Swami Vivekananda’s vision and his shining example of stressing on acceptance, tolerance, harmony and reconciliation of diverse faiths is a categorical imperative.
Swami Vivekananda's Vision in the Context of Pandemic
At a time when the COVID pandemic has caused the collapse of health, economic and human security and there is a planetary crisis engendering havoc, the vision of Swami Vivekananda for dealing with epidemic assumes greater significance. In fact the leadership traits derived from his vision needs to be imbibed by all those entrusted with responsibilities to manage the pandemic which is going out of control in India and number of daily infections and deaths is creating new world records.
On 29th April, 1898 he wrote to Miss Josephine MacLeod that if the plague came to his native city he was determined to make himself a sacrifice and he felt that that was the better way to Nirvâna than pouring oblations to all that ever twinkled. Even before plague broke out in Calcutta in 1898 he drafted a Plague Manifesto. It brought out his ardent desire to save life from the epidemic, prevent its spread and put an end to it. Such a manifesto stands out in the annals of humanity as a rare initiative taken by a monk to alleviate human suffering in face of health disaster caused by plague.
That Manifesto originally drafted by Swamiji in Bengali and Hindi was distributed to people for empowering them with basic information and values to boost their spirit and save themselves from that scourge. It asked people of Calcutta to fall back on the Ramakrishna Mission at that time of crisis posing danger to health, human and economic security. The Manifesto appealed to people, “Brother, if there is no one to help you, then send information immediately to the servants of Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna at Belur Math. There will be no dearth of help that is physically possible. By the grace of the Mother, monetary help will also be possible.” That empathy, humanism and service embodied in the aforementioned para is evocative of exemplary leadership humanity needs to address the global pandemic caused by novel Corona virus.
The Plague Manifesto drafted by Swami Vivekananda began by establishing kinship of monks of Ramakrishna Mission with the suffering people. The very first two paras of it offers lessons for twenty first century world which in face of pandemic of gigantic proportions is falling into fault lines caused by religion, nationality, race, sect and ethnicity and intensifying cleavages which come on the way of unity and solidarity so essential to face the Corona disaster. It is worthwhile to reproduce those paras.
“ We feel happy when you are happy, and we suffer when you suffer. Therefore, during these days of extreme adversity, we are striving and ceaselessly praying for your welfare and an easy way to save you from disease and the fear of an epidemic.
If that grave disease — fearing which both the high and the low, the rich and the poor are all fleeing the city — ever really comes in our midst, then even if we perish while serving and nursing you, we will consider ourselves fortunate because you are all embodiments of God. He who thinks otherwise — out of vanity, superstition or ignorance — offends God and incurs great sin. There is not the slightest doubt about it.”
Those two paras made it clear that he and brother monks of Ramakrishna Mission became plague warriors ready to sacrifice life to save victims of the epidemic whom Swami Vivekananda hailed as the embodiments of God.
Apart from remaining firmly with the suffering humanity in the trying times of epidemic Swamiji gave a call for action which constituted a gospel and practical blue print for maintaining cleanliness and hygiene to protect people from plague. His exhortations summed up in few paras of the Manifesto are worth quoting here.
“Come, let us give up this false fear and, having faith in the infinite compassion of God, gird our loins and enter the field of action. Let us live pure and clean lives. Disease, fear of an epidemic, etc., will vanish into thin air by His grace.
Always keep the house and its premises, the rooms, clothes, bed, drain, etc., clean.
Do not eat stale, spoiled food; take fresh and nutritious food instead. A weak body is more susceptible to disease.
Always keep the mind cheerful. Everyone will die once. Cowards suffer the pangs of death again and again, solely due to the fear in their own minds.
Fear never leaves those who earn their livelihoods by unethical means or who cause harm to others. Therefore, at this time when we face the great fear of death, desist from all such behaviour.
Through that manifesto he appealed to people not to be actuated by rumors and assured that all those who would be treated in the hospital of the Mission would find a conducive atmosphere where their religion, caste and other identities would be honored.
Such a provision sounds so contemporary for our time when some bigoted people try to blame a community or sect for spreading corona infection and even some others are denied to earn their livelihood and get access to treatment in the name of faith.
The sensitivity and humanity embodied in the words of the manifesto that, “There will be no lack of effort in treating the afflicted patients in our hospital under our special care and supervision, paying full respect to religion, caste and the modesty (Purdah) of women” deserve to be the guiding spirit for practical action to deal with corona pandemic without taking into account religious or caste affiliations of the victims.
The Manifesto clearly stood by the poor and forlorn and categorically affirmed, “Let the wealthy run away! But we are poor; we understand the heartache of the poor. The Mother of the Universe is Herself the support of the helpless. The Mother is assuring us: “Fear not! Fear not!”
Such a stand of Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission in the trials and tribulations caused by plague epidemic in 1898 assumes deeper significance for countering COVID pandemic of twenty first century world.
During the plague of 1898 sister Nivedita played a stellar role in serving people and moving in the streets of the city, distributing papers urging people to maintain cleanliness and hygiene and getting involved in many activities to prevent further spread of the epidemic. Her manifold and selfless work in the plague stricken Calcutta endeared her to the people and she became an angel of mercy. Swami Vivekananda instructed Swami Brahmananda of Belur Math to open a separate plague account and asked him to pay 100 Rs. to Sister Nivedita immediately for plague work and credit that money to the said account. Such a vision of creating a separate account to deal with the epidemic bears significance for our time when the COVID pandemic is accelerating. The leadership traits of Swamiji in this regard is of enduring relevance.
To stem the COVID spread and interrupt infection plethora of measures have been taken by the Governments across the world. In India also several steps and protocols have been prescribed. It is instructive to note that the Chief Minister of Odisha Shri Naveen Patnaik appealed to people on 13th March 2020 not to spit in public places. He gave the reasoning that spit is the source of spread of novel coronavirus and so requested people to eschew spitting pan. Later spitting in public places has been made an offence in Odisha. Several other State Governments have taken similar measures.
It is worthwhile to note that Swami Vivekananda while stressing on covering sweets and food items from flies which often carry germs of cholera and plague quoted Manu who prohibited spitting even into water. However, he regretted that people instead of progressing by following such ancient prescriptions were marching backwards by putting filth in the rivers.
He invoked high idealism and inspired people to lay down their lives to serve and save life of others from disasters. He wrote, "Go, all of you, wherever there is an outbreak of plague or famine, or wherever the people are in distress, and mitigate their sufferings. At the most you may die in the attempt — what of that? How many like you are being born and dying like worms every day? What difference does that make to the world at large? Die you must, but have a great ideal to die for, and it is better to die with a great ideal in life. Preach this ideal from door to door, and you will yourselves be benefited by it at the same time that you are doing good to your country. On you lie the future hopes of our country."
Such leadership qualities of Swamiji who was ready to sacrifice his own life to protect people from epidemic of plague constitutes a shining example worthy of emulation when we are confronting COVID pandemic and resultant disasters of multiple dimensions.
Swami Vivekananda on Elections and Corruption
One important point in the context of rebuilding of India is the eradication of corruption. It is now proved that our growth and development is retarded because of increasing levels of corruption. Swami Vivekananda explained the phenomenon of corruption in the context of vote politics in Europe. He opined that because of pursuit of vote by politicians in Europe there was naked bribery, dishonesty and corruption in streets of those countries of that continent. Now in twenty first century India rising crisis of corruption is attributed to huge expenses being incurred by politicians and political parties during elections. This has been clearly stated in the fourth report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission on "Ethics and Governance". The Association for Democratic Reforms has filed many public interest litigations seeking directions from the Supreme Court to deal with the menace of corruption arising out of vote politics which was flagged by Swamiji in 19th century India. It is, therefore, important to invoke Swami Vivekananda in the backdrop of our arduous effort to eliminate corruption from electoral process for the purpose of rebuilding India.
Rebuilding of India gets hampered by patriarchy which does not accord equal right and opportunity to women. It is insightful to note that Swami Vivekananda stressed on women's rights and their empowerment as an essential precondition for the regeneration of India. In doing so he was upholding the cause of gender equality which is now defining the discourse of development and sustainable development the world over.
Defeat of forces representing sectarianism and fanaticism.
Across the world and in India there is alarming spread of hatred and violence in the name of religion. Swami Vivekananda in his historic Chicago speech reminded that "sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendent fanaticism drenched the earth with blood of innocents" and hoped that the bell that tolled to announce the commencement of the World Parliament of Religions would become the death knell of fanaticism. Exactly hundred and three years after such pronouncements of Swamiji America became the victim of fanaticism when twin towers in the USA were attacked and destroyed. We in India are facing the same situation caused by sectarian forces from within and without. Swami Vivekananda's statement that India needed Vedantic brain and Islamic body combines two faiths for nation building. Such composite approach is needed to provide composite solutions to nation building which often is wrongly seen from the perspective of one culture or one faith.
It is fascinating to note that Vedantic Approach of Swami Vivekananda was mentioned by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when he wrote in his famous paper Basic Approach that eventually a Vedantic outlook would provide solutions to many challenges of modern civilization. Dr. B.R.Ambedkar in his essay on "Annihilation of Caste" prescribed that India required a religion based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity and such a religion would derive sustenance from Upanishads. So what we find is that both Prime Minister Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, builders of modern India, stressed on Vedantic approach which was prescribed by Swami Vivekananda. Such wholesome approach can be derived from Swamiji's worldview to fashion India's destiny in twenty first century to serve the cause of people of our country and humanity at large.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.