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You may have come across the above portrait of Swami Vivekananda. Other than the odd spelling of ‘Hindu’, this image of Vivekananda defines who he was. Swamiji was courageous, but not arrogant. He had his own vision but kept it within reason. He strived for ‘God-realization’ (his definition of God being different from the personal deity concept) but worked for empowering man (and woman) at the same time.

It has been 150 years since the birth of Vivekananda. Nearly 111 years have elapsed since he left us. Yet, we need his teachings more than ever.

Just some of his quotes –

What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless.

Who makes us ignorant? We ourselves. We put our hands over our eyes and weep that it is dark.

Desire, ignorance, and inequality—this is the trinity of bondage.

The idea of privilege is the bane of human life.

Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern. Society has to pay homage to Truth or die.”

If superstition enters, the brain is gone. Superstition is our great enemy, but bigotry is worse.”

There was also a TV show about Vivekananda and the youth broadcast recently stressing his ideals for today.

However, it seems to me that polemicists of Vivekananda are cropping up everywhere including within Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). This is highly unfortunate. Instead of contemplating the teachings of Vivekananda and how he exemplified them, we are bickering about how he believed in ether (which is now no longer accepted in science), whether he espoused jati-bheda or casteism (a clear no) or how he was not a ‘pure Vedic personality’.

Some of these criticisms are true, of course. He was wrong about ether. So were scientists of his time. He tried to say that akasha as mentioned in the Vedic scriptures is something existent in the Universe that gives form and combination to every ‘object’. Was he wrong about this? Judge for yourself. Perhaps he was. Does that make him an irrational person prone to promoting pseudo-science? No.

Consider this. Aristotle gets mentioned for making ‘contributions to science and philosophy’ but wasn’t he wrong about so many things like spontaneous generation and also, ironically, ether? Yet no introductory text in biology or physics in the west can do without mentioning him. I am not implying that Vivekanada was a scientist, but just try telling your European or North American friend about Aryabhatta or Sushruta and all sense of appreciation for ancient science is lost. Forget the west, some Indian writers write scathingly about opening museums on ancient Indian science and attack ancient Indian scientists whose insights have been falsified by modern science, all the while ignoring the Wests’ appreciation for ancient Greeks who made the same errors! This starry-eyed fascination for the west while condemning one’s own culture is rampant among Indian youth. The West appreciates its own ancient thinkers, but Indians are somehow made to feel ashamed if we appreciate that our ancestors made efforts to understand astronomy, medicine or anatomy. Some of it is our own fault. We over-emphasize the contributions of our ancients.

Indians have to learn from this partiality. Although our ancients are given the short end of the stick when it comes to credit, we should not take our frustration to extremes by advocating that our ancients were right and that modern science is somehow ‘infantile’ and will eventually realize what Aryabhatta and other Rishis had proposed. However, again I apply Vivekananda’s own philosophy to get over this “Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern. Society has to pay homage to Truth or die.

The West appreciates its own ancient thinkers, but Indians are somehow made to feel ashamed if we appreciate that our ancestors made efforts to understand astronomy, medicine or anatomy. Some of it is our own fault. We over-emphasize the contributions of our ancients

Coming back to my original topic, the other criticism I have seen is with calling Vivekananda casteist. This is false, especially when we read what he had to say towards the end of his life.

As for the critcisms from arya samaj. They are right in saying that Vivekananda was not a ‘pure Vedic personality’. So what? He preached a philosophy that transcends the Vedas. How can he be a Vedic personality, then? If we keep identifying ourselves with these myopic labels, we will never achieve peace, precisely why Vivekananda’s teachings are still relevant today. I could go on and on.

My final point is that Vivekananda broke the sannyasis vow of not leaving the country. This vow was put in place by some ‘Vedic personalities’ so that people don’t get influenced by outside cultures. Vivekananda however not only was uninfluenced but in turn he was the one who influenced the people of other cultures. If anyone else can do that, let every sannyasi break this vow (or not make it in the first place) and let the world give birth to many more Vivekanandas.

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