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Swami Vivekananda: Social reformer or caste votary?

In Outlook, an excerpt from Cosmic Love and Human Empathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion by Jyotirmaya Sharma (Harpercollins):

If there is one phrase in the popular consciousness that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna, it is ‘Ramakrishna’s catholicity’. Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct the elements that constituted this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’. He used it to mean what he thought was Ramakrishna’s tolerance, generosity and inclusiveness in relation to other faiths while carefully glossing over the sources and influences that produced this ‘catholicity’. The continued use of the term has had a longevity independent of Vivekananda’s remoulding of Ramakrishna from a “religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic”, and continues to be used even to this day by perceptive and critical readers of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda story.

Faith is a creation and gift of god and it is beyond the jurisdiction of humans to tamper with it: “Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then god Himself will correct these errors…. If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.” Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide that they are right and all others are wrong. They think of faith in terms of winning and losing, where, invariably, they perceive that they and their faith alone have won and all others have lost. “But a person who has gone forward may be detained by some slight obstacle,” warns Ramakrishna, “and someone who has been lagging behind may then steal a march on him.” God’s ways are mysterious, and triumph and defeat too are in his hands.

If these are the foundations upon which Ramakrishna’s inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity rested, it is also true that there was a complete absence in the Kathamrita of a clearly articulated Hindu identity. Even less so was the idea of a threatening, antagonistic ‘Other’ in the form of Islam or Christianity. Sumit Sarkar is right when he says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. There is, however, one exception within the Kathamrita that causes a mild dissonance in our total and categorical rejection of the presence of a cohesive Hindu identity in Ramakrishna. It must also be said that this exception is vastly outweighed by the overwhelming evidence that points towards Ramakrishna’s radical rejection of differences, hierarchies and claims of superiority among sects and faiths. More:

His Inclusiveness Is A Powerful Myth’ Read interview with Jyotirmaya Sharma here.