Swami Vivekananda stood for unity and harmony of all religions to pave the path for justice-based progress
Although Swami Vivekananda's views have always been important for us, they have become even more relevant in these times when right wing forces have been trying to disrupt unity, harmony of religions
Although the message of Swami Vivekananda has always been important for us, its great relevance has increased even more in these troubled times when powerful right-wing forces have been trying to disrupt unity and harmony of various religions.
Today on January 12, as we celebrate the birthday of Swami Vivekananda as National Youth Day, it is important to recall what he spoke in his famous speech at the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893.
"I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth."
He further said, "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendent, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now."
As a counter to these trends, Swami Vivekananda held forward the alternative view of tolerant religions which are happy to accept each other. He said, "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal tolerance, but we accept all religions as true."
In the same speech, Swami Vivekananda recalled a hymn which he said he had repeated since childhood, "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee."
Ridiculing those who have an isolationist and exclusivist view of their religion, Vivekananda said, "If anyone dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart."
He said the world needs a 'death-knell of all fanaticism' and of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen."
Swami ji concluded his famous Chicago speech by saying that on the banner of every religion it should be written, "Harmony and Peace and Not Dissension."
In place of the intolerant attitude of religions which placed any one religion in opposition or rivalry to others, Vivekananda emphasised service of other human beings and other forms of life as the basis of all religions.
Pranab Mukherjee, former President of India wrote in a review of Swami Vivekananda's work, "Service to humanity is service to God was the main principle of his gospel to social service."
Swamiji said, "After so much tapasya and austerity, I've known that the highest truth is this: He is present in all beings. These are all the manifested forms of Him. There is no other God to seek for. He alone is worshipping God who serves all beings."
While Swami Vivekananda has made many-sided contributions to philosophy, education and other important areas, the essence of his message is that of universal love, the harmony of all religion, selfless service of the distressed, removal of injustice and exploitation and getting rid of all forms of obscurantism and superstitions to pave the way for progress.
Another essential and related aspect of Swamiji's message which is increasingly relevant is that he drew a clear relationship between retardation of national development on the one hand and the neglect of weaker sections and women on the other hand.
In a review of Swami Vivekananda's ideas and contributions, the President of India Pranab Mukherjee has said, "Swamiji concluded that the real cause of India's backwardness was the neglect and exploitation of the masses who produced the wealth of the land... He (Vivekananda) held the neglect of the masses and the subjugation of women to be the two causes of India's downfall."
Therefore his first message to educate sections particularly youth was to serve the poor and the neglected people. He went to the extent of saying, "So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them."
Not many people know that Swami Vivekananda even wrote a pamphlet titled 'I Am A Socialist’.
Swamiji was ahead of his times in not only emphasizing on the education of women but also encouraging them to decide their priorities of social reform. He chastened some overreaching men in strong words, "Educate women first and leave them to themselves, then they'll tell you what reforms are necessary for them. In matters concerning them, who are you? Swami Vivekananda rejected the idea of "writing down smritis and binding them (women) by hard rules."
It is clear that the essence of the message which Swami Vivekananda was trying to spread was that the harmony and unity of all religions should pave the path for justice based progress. Social justice for him included ending caste discrimination as well as gender discrimination. Instead of using religion to spread hostility against others or to retard social progress, he emphasized on spirituality and ethics which will strengthen human character and capabilities to contribute to progress with justice.
It is well known that he was deeply distressed by the poverty of his country and the deep distress suffered by people under colonial rule, and so he was looking for ways and means of strengthening the ability of people and particularly youth to contribute to the progress of the country. It is with this spirit that he approached religion and spirituality and gave a message of harmony and unity of religions and deriving great moral and ethical strength from proper interpretation of scriptures. His message to society for completely avoiding the path of sectarianism and narrow divide and for promoting inter-faith harmony to link it further with justice and equality based social progress has great relevance for our times.
Views are personal
(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His latest books include Planet in Peril, Man Over Machine and When the Two Streams Met (Freedom Movement of India).)