Presidential address by Prof. M.L. Sondhi, Chairman, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, on the subject, “The Life and Message of Swami Vivekananda” at the Anniversary Day Public Meeting in connection with the celebration of the 131st Birthday of Swami Vivekananda on 17th January 1993, at the Ramakrishna Mission Auditorium, New Delhi.

Respected Swamiji and friends, we have today met under, what may be called, unusual circumstances. The 131st Birthday celebration of Swami Vivekananda is taking place in the Capital City of India against a backdrop of events in our country and in the world which challenge us all to produce answers. We are grateful to Swami Gokulanandaji for he was able to bring here a person well versed in the principles of management, a person who occupies a foremost place in education in our city and in our life and a member of this grand movement, the Sri Ramakrishna Movement, coming from the West. The way it has been organised and my response to it is in very personal terms because when I recollect in my own experience the Ramakrishna movement, there are various images which form in my mind, images which sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict and sometimes excite and sometimes leave a few uncertainties.

I remember, going to France and visiting the Ashram at Gretz, experiencing the atmosphere and learning from people there that there was a time when Swami Siddheswaranandaji presided as it were over the intellectual life of, one can say, France or even Europe. This in the sense that those who were seeking knowledge and finding problems in their own intellectual life came there, and he was able to connect them to that aspect of the Ramakrishna experience which is connected with the rural village life of India: - the metaphors of Kamarpukur, the lila of Sri Sarada Ma, the innocence of the countryside of Bengal. That is very relevant to an important aspect of French experience. France is an agricultural country, but is also a land of very high culture. As a matter of fact, when De Gaulle used to go to Canada or America, he would say, ‘daughter of Europe,” sometimes even in a condescending manner, but France has that quality.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Swami Gokulanandaji’s presence in Delhi at this time is very significant for all of us who live here. I think today there has been a balanced presentation, a certain atmosphere, a certain quietness, a certain discussion through which what is being pointed out to us in various ways is that in recollecting Swamiji’s memory and remembering his spiritual strength we have to understand the forces which he unleashed. There was something stagnant, something which had become as it were, covered with a lot of mass which he uncovered through proclaiming the principles of universal eternal religion, I think Dr. Nitish Sengupta gave us examples which present a certain insight into those statements which are very important if we are not to remain complacent or neglect the obvious deficiencies in the attention that we pay to social issues. At the same time I think it was extremely important that we should be reminded in the presentation which was made here by Shri Rameshwar Dayal that all this emerged in the context of the Guru-Sishya relationship through a natural discovery by Sri Guru Maharaj and Swamiji of whatever was that atmosphere, or that magic in Dakshineswar. It is very important to place them in a certain context and not to always look upon this as a discourse occurring only in terms of abstract concepts. I think it was very welcome for all of us to hear Brahmachari Sudhir Chaitanya relate our experience here, because that is what he did wittingly or unwittingly, to a wider dimension and to take us at least as far as California in order to, as it were, restore that sense of dialogue which has always been there in the Ramakrishna Movement. My memories go back to Swami Ghananandaji who was in dialogue with Arnold Toynbee. Earlier, he had read about the dialogue between Romain Rolland and all the Swamis who met him and conveyed to that wonderful European sage whatever was the experience in Dakshineswar. Again, I cannot help but recall Swami Nityaswarupananda who experimented with inter-cultural dialogue and created that excellent institution which exists in Calcutta. It is a monument to the genius of that Swami and the Ramakrishna Movement and it is really a place where cultural life has been maintained in Bengal at a time when there was very sharp, sustained and rather meaningless, ideological attack on the Ramakrishna Movement. Fortunately those who were attacking it, those who came to scoff have now remained to pray.

But it is not my purpose here only to recapitulate what the preceding speakers have said. I would crave your indulgence to frame certain questions which arise in my own thinking as a person who has been teaching peace studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. I often come across the problem of people devising simple solutions to problems of conflict. They may see a situation which is not very tidy, and say, ‘Let us dwell in harmony’. Unfortunately this does by itself improve the situation. I have a book called ‘Non-appeasement’ and I stand by it. If you appease the aggressor, you don’t necessarily buy peace, you actually suffer in the long run as was the experience of Europe after the appeasement of Hitler encouraged him to create a tremendous holocaust in Europe. Now, Swamiji is not a namby pamby figure even though there was a beautifully gentle side to his nature. He was deeply in love with India and that is why when Miss McLoad asked Swamiji, ‘Swamiji, how best can I help you?’ His answer was “Love India”. That would be a good answer for Indians to give to people outside. Instead of asking for IMF loans or World Bank help and so on and so forth, if one just says to people who come from outside, ‘Love this blessed land, it will help you and it will help us,’ that is enough. I think today if India remembers Swami Vivekananda and remembers him in the sense in which our speakers of this evening remember him, India will grow year by year in strength and world esteem, and I am afraid we have no other alternative but to grow in strength and world esteem. India is a giant airliner, which must fly at high altitudes; if we try to fly it at a low level, we will have a crash and harm many besides ourselves. Sister Nivedita wrote a book entitled “Aggressive Hinduism”. Aggressive Hinduism does not mean that you go outside this room and start bashing everybody who is not a Hindu. That is not aggressive Hinduism. What she meant by ‘aggressive Hinduism’ was what Swamiji meant by character formation. This is absolutely essential for if the Hindu does not bring out his character, he remains a rotten person to the core, very disturbing, mean, crafty, vicious, and deceitful. But through developing our Hindu character, through remembering Maryada Purushottam Ram, remembering Sita – and Swamiji said, ‘a culture which has even dreamt of Sita is a tremendous culture’ – so, as in war we need weapons, in social and cultural change, in social and cultural turmoil, we need innovative ideas. Otherwise we get caught in very malign conflicts which as I already mentioned cannot be avoided by mere exhortation.

I think we got many ideas today which are very relevant. One idea which I take from the last speaker is that you have to extend the idea of Asia-Pacific from here to Japan, from Japan to the United States, especially to the Pacific coast where California lies. This is where there is going to be spiritual currents and economic currents and therefore, it is very important that under Swamiji’s guidance this Mission should also start thinking of Asia-Pacific and that would mean, as Swamiji himself wanted, to evoke the Buddha nature. Remember, Swamiji said, “Bring back Lord Buddha into your life, bring back that compassion.” So, I think when we remember Swamiji today, we can also remember Gautama the Buddha, we can also remember wisdom-compassion and the awakening of that wisdom-compassion which will then really meet the challenge of violence and dehumanisation. You cannot meet the challenge of violence and dehumanisation by doing what some of us are doing these days, getting up in the morning and breast beating saying, ‘We are sinners, we are sinful, we have done great harm, India is in shame, we are all in shame.’ Well, that is not Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda said, ‘We are not sinners and never say we are sinners’. And the more we do this breast-beating right from our Rashtrapati down to the smallest peon, the more we make sure that we will do nothing about the situation; the situation will get worse and worse and worse. What we need, therefore, is Swami Vivekananda’s world view and I think we got today an example of it. We got an example from two perspectives because we got this example that there was a rabbi who did not know what he was talking about and Swami Vivekananda’s ideas help a person who was hearing the rabbi, to understand him better. In other words, we can understand the spiritual centre, we can understand the basis of morality in the West and we also got a very beautiful example given here of practical Vedanta.

We have this vast over-arching area for us today to contemplate. I think there can be many practical steps which come out of this. Swami Vivekananda’s world view brings a change in human self-awareness; I cannot but compare him to a person who belongs to a State from where I come, from Punjab – Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak’s emphasis on religion was basically ethical. Morality in the higher and more comprehensive sense lies at the core of Guru Nanak’s teaching. I have been a student in a Khalsa college and I have very great reverence for Sikh religion because it is not only the virtues which spread to the individual that Guru Nanak talked about or which touched the family, tribe or community, but those which embraced the good of the entire human race and many of you may be aware of this that the prayer which the Sikhs offer twice a day ends with these words: ‘By the grace of Nanak, may the spirit ascend to ever higher heights, may the general wheel descend on all creation by God’s creation.’ And if you read Swamiji – also please remember that Swamiji gave a beautiful lecture in Lahore when he went to Punjab, he greatly responded to the spirit of Punjab and he even pointed out that in Punjab, thanks to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, there was tremendous education given by the sadhus at that time. During that period the Sadhus really went out everywhere to educate the rural masses and that is why many of the principles of Vedanta were known, and I have Swamiji’s testimony for this, they were known to the common people, the housewives in Punjab and, therefore, I would suggest that there must be some ways in which this should be symbolic.

I had been sometimes to Thailand, Bangkok, and I have seen there people come and put a little flower and a little piece of incense to one of the statues placed outside. I do not know – I seek Swamiji’s permission to say that I think there is a beautiful statue of Swami Vivekananda on the high street here. Perhaps those of us who do not have the time to come into the shrine could pass by, place a flower or place an incense stick on Swamiji’s statue right here outside on the street. That would bring us to this closeness of Swamiji to the people and then if we are thinking of the ideas of reconciling Hinduism and Islam and all, I think another wonderful opportunity would be Jerusalem where you have the Christian, the Jewish and the Islamic religion all there. It would be a wonderful idea to establish a Vedanta Centre in Jerusalem. Swamiji once said, ‘I will put some ideas in London, they will spread to the whole British Empire.’ I think if we want friendship between Hindus and Muslim, we cannot get it by holding these so-called secular sammelans and peace marches, they result in nothing. They are just fraudulent activities which only irritate everybody. And these days when you write one editorial after another saying that Hindus are cursed people, the damned people, Hindutva is this, Hindutva is that, I do not think you are helping anybody because in this country you cannot stop Sri Ram from being worshipped; he will be worshipped whether you like it or not, but if you want to bring about closeness between Hinduism and Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, do it in Jerusalem, let there be a Vedanta Centre there where Islam and Christianity and Judaism exist; I think that would be a tremendous message to the whole world and make the city of Ayodhya a holy city – Build a temple there, build a mosque, build a synagogue, build a Church, build a Gurudwara – let us all build these things in Ayodhya and let Ayodhya be a place where that great vision of Sri Ramakrishna will be fulfilled, where he saw all the religions together, in that mystic experience he saw all of them there.

But to say that we must fight, and the Hindus are not by nature given to fighting, is not correct. It was a historical fact that they have been invaded and attacked from outside. Swami Vivekananda himself had that vision in Kshir Bhavani. He asked Mother: “Why was your temple destroyed?” Well, that is a question which somebody has to answer. Why have 3000 temples been destroyed? Why? Well, on account of fanaticism. Well, we do not want fanaticism again, but the answer would be again to go back to Swami Vivekananda – ‘It is good to be born in a Church, but it is very bad to die in a Church.’ Therefore, reasons theories, dogmas, doctrines, books, religious ceremonies – Swamiji said, all these are helps. Religion itself consists of realisation. I think the Ramakrishna Movement in fact today is the soul of India. If the Ramakrishna Movement becomes strong and energetic the all-encompassing of this energy of Hindutva which has been released, will be channelised. Energy by itself is not bad. Swami Vivekananda was a man who loved energy. What we should do, I think in the light of today’s discussion – it will be one of the most valuable discussions, is if we could bring together these perspectives from the point of view which Dr. Sengupta gave us, which is basically one of understanding of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings in its structural, in its architectural view which we got from the perspective of our Principal Rameshwar Dayal, which is one of building blocks of education of devotion, of service, of understanding, of comprehension and finally, the view which we did get from Br. Sudhir Chaitanya, which is one that the quality of work in the United States or in the West is very important and more important than the quantity. I think all these have to be put together today because we have a problem. Christianity which was a dominant paradigm in the West has moved away from the pacifism of Jesus because the Church had no practical value for that pacifism and the Church wanted to become a real power in social life and Pax Romana and Christ’s Gospel of Universal Peace were in conflict. St. Augustine when he said, ‘The City of God’, saw Rome as the Vehicle of Providence for the benefit of Christianity. So, the State and Church got united and that is still there. What has Hinduism to do in answer to this? Should Hinduism also become like that? Or should Hinduism differ there? It is a very practical problem. It cannot be wished away. You cannot just say that the Hindus are made or Hindus are foolish; the Hindus also have to survive and they have to survive with equal dignity. And I think the Ramakrishna Mission – I am not raising the question whether the Ramakrishna Mission is Hindu or the Ramakrishna Mission is another religion or the Ramakrishna Mission transcends all religions, but I know this much that in the nuclear cosmic age the relationship between politics, religion and war has to be seen almost in the terms in which only two people have seen this relationship. One was the German, Immanvel Kant, and the other is Swami Vivekananda because Swami Vivekananda and Immanval Kant tried to look upon this problem in very specific terms. Immanval Kant thought in terms of perpetual peace as an arrangement in which States could cooperate and move together the ideas of international community and pacifism and democracy. Swami Vivekananda has given us a larger idea, a map – a map where each one of us at his level can find the way and basically he wanted to use Indian spirituality and take the Indian spirituality from passive to active. So, I think today if we see this problem, we can only visualise a perspective which is made up of the following ingredients. Swami Vivekananda can help us to bring about the realisation of stable peace. Other perspectives in India will only lead to see-saw. He will give us strength, he will give us courage, but he will also give us a very peaceful India. Secondly, I think the perspective is in the more general question of the dangers which fundamentalism is producing in the world today. It is producing these challenges everywhere. The whole of the Middle-East, the States which have separated from the Soviet Union, even in the United States this fundamentalism is raising its head. Swamiji gives us a way to come out of the narrowness of religion without sacrificing that intensity with which the highest religious personalities have experienced whatever is their mystical feeling or their certainty of spiritual truth.

Thirdly and finally, I think the time has come when the Ramakrishna Movement itself has to become what Sri Ramakrishna himself perhaps will be able to perceive because there was a very interesting way in which Sri Ramakrishna evolved a method of education. After all, if the student is bright, you must give credit to the teacher. So, Sri Ramakrishna’s method of education was fantastic, it was experimental. It was always full of experiencing new possibilities. It was a way of thinking, it was a way by which he was able to continuously rearrange reality and the result was that a person who had been educated in that rather prosaic education system of Calcutta was suddenly lifted up into an area where education became very futuristic. And there was no question in the solutions offered by Swami Vivekananda later on that he would ever come down to hard mechanistic ideas. In other words, what Civics today may be attempting or what other disciplines may be attempting, but Swami Vivekananda at least is the product of a system of education which is so futuristic that it is mind boggling. So, the Ramakrishna Mission should, perhaps, try to establish a University – a University where we are free from the type of inhibitions we have in other Universities, but which could alone become what Gurudev Tagore’s Vishvabharati was meant to be, but anybody who is from Vishvabharati knows that it is in a terrible condition today. But perhaps in this year, if Swami Vivekananda could be seen as the prototype of a product of a new system of education, then he would get India restored to its due place as ‘Vishva Guru’ because this country has to again recover that property which it had – Takshila and Nalanda were giving a message to the world. We cannot achieve that by building dams and factories, India will not find its fulfilment except when it approaches this area of education and perhaps the time has come for the Ramakrishna Movement to very seriously take up this question of education, and I think what Swamiji has done today for us is to actually organise a kind of educational experience in which all of us have participated.

I have been deeply privileged to be here in order to Chair this function, but as I was inspired by the other thought, I perhaps spoke a little out of context and I crave your indulgence for that. Thank you very much.
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