THIS year we celebrate Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary. He was among those few social reformers who put the poor man on the centre stage. He thought that the best way to break the decadence of Indian society was to impart education to the common man. The common man would rise once his hypnosis of fatalism and meek acceptance of fate had been removed. This task of education required money and organisation. That was not easily available in India. Thus he approached the West for money.
Swamiji repeatedly states that the decline of India was due to its priests having abandoned the ideal of voluntary poverty and ascetism. They became materialist. They hypnotised the poor into slavery in order to capture the wealth of the country for their own consumption: “The one thing that is at the root of all evils in India is the condition of the poor. Priest-power and foreign conquest have trodden them down for centuries, and at last the poor of India have forgotten that they are human beings” (Complete Works, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 4.362).
Swamiji’s wanted the monks to impart education to the poor. He felt that once the minds of the poor were liberated they would be able to resist the tyranny of foreign powers which was responsible for their poverty. I agree with Swamiji. Economic exploitation and mental slavery are the twin pillars on which poverty thrives. A mentally agile people are more likely to rise and resist economic exploitation and stop the country’s wealth being indiscriminately exported. Swamiji recognizes the fact of India’s wealth being exported: “India is restless with the thought of how to face this specter of hunger. The draining of the best resources of the country by the foreigners, the unrestricted exports of merchandise and, above all, the abominable jealousy natural to slaves are eating into the vitals of India” (5.380). Swamiji recognizes that economic exploitation by the British was the root cause of India’s poverty. But, at the same time, he puts greater importance on the self-deprecation of the common man of India.
Reason is that the Indian people will be able to rise against the Western hegemony only if their self-esteem can be raised. Economic exploitation had made our people poor. They could not think beyond their needs of daily bread. This non-thinking attitude, in turn, prevented them from organising and confronting the British. The route to break this vicious cycle was to impart education to the people.
Swamiji approached the people of the Western countries for money for starting educational institutions in the country. But he was aware that this should not lead to succumbing to Western airs of superiority. Swamiji recognized that no country could become strong by following others: “But you must not depend on any foreign help. Nations, like individuals, must help themselves” (5.108). He castigated Indians for looking to the Europeans for salvation. He said that some of our countrymen “have become thoroughly Europeanised both in external habits and in ways of thought and ideas.
(They) are continually praying to the Europeans to save them—’we are degraded, we have come down to the level of brutes; O ye European people, you are our saviours, have pity on us and raise us from this fallen state!’” (5.444).
Swamiji calls the Western people Asuric: “They are the children of the great hero Virochana!” (6.448). Again: “Now, to understand the East and West, we cannot do better than interpret the Hindus as the sons of Devas and Westerners as the sons of Asuras” (5.471).
He says that the Western people are a civilization of shopkeepers, they only worship the dollar and gold and that they were ‘Shylocks’ (3.158, 3.433, 4.199, 4.361). The challenge was how to break this gridlock. Indian people were poor and uneducated. Western people were Asuric. Swamiji’s strategy was to take money from the Asura for spreading education in India. The spread of education would uplift the minds of Indian people and kill that same Asura who gave money for their education.
Clearly, therefore, Swamiji did not approach the Westerners with a feeling of inferiority or as a beggar. Quite the contrary he approached them with a feeling of contempt. He would have liked not to approach them at all if education could be spread without their assistance. However, the compulsions of poverty forced him to make a strategic compromise with the enemy, if one may say so.
India raising herself would require that Indian leaders assert their nationalism. The immediate point of action should be the reformation of the degenerate rulers and businessmen of India. It was necessary to raise dharmic rulers and to get them to liberate the minds of the people. But Swamiji did not find such rulers in India. Consequently, he travelled to the West to raise money for education.
Swamiji was clear that material prosperity and spirituality had to go together. He recognized that India was a great mercantile civilization: “From time immemorial India has beaten all other countries in the point of fertility and commercial industries¼ Most people are ignorant of the extent to which the opulence of ancient countries like Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome depended on Indian commerce” (7.357). Ayodhya and Lanka were not ‘poor’ cities. The spiritual discourse of Sage Vasistha in Ayodhya was given in an ambience of prosperity and strength. Swamiji wanted to rebuild this tradition of strong economy with strong spirituality. The grand cities of the Indus civilization bear witness to this statement. Thus he wanted to blend economic development with spiritual pursuits.
But Swamiji did not try to rebuild Indian politics and business by removing the degenerate rulers, priests and businessmen. It seems he thought that they were beyond reform. Hence, he left the degenerate Indian rulers, priests and businessmen aside and focused on imparting education to the masses. Perhaps he thought that a new breed of leadership will emerge from the grassroots. He was not enamoured of the mainstream educational system that produced clerks subservient to the British Raj. He sought to build a parallel structure of reaching the education to the poor.
The model espoused by Swamiji was to take money from Asuric Western countries; use that money to spread education in India; and hope that educated Indians would rebel against the economic exploitation of India by the Asuric West. Success of this model hinged critically on India not getting overly influenced by the Western mores in the taking of charity. Swamiji recognized that taking charity weakens the receiver. In a letter written in 1898 he said, “I see very well that my policy is wrong… I always lost sight of the demoralizing influence of charity on the receiver” (8.454). This statement is of momentous importance. The lesson for us is to be especially careful in taking foreign contributions to rebuild India in any form whatsoever.
Argument is made that Swamiji did not go to the West to seek alms or aid or to beg. He engaged in an exchange of spiritual learning for wealth. This would amount to ‘selling’ spiritual knowledge. One cannot think of Swamiji doing this. It seems to me that he was trying to impart spiritual education to the West so as to lift their consciousness and build pressure within their societies for a just approach to poorer countries. He was trying to spread the spiritual message in the West while building our economy with our own efforts. His seeking funds was a temporary compromise.
Another argument is made that that we should engage in global economic exchange rather than hide ourselves in a closed economy just as Swamiji interacted with the world. The view is fully endorsed. But we must not confuse between an equality-oriented globalization with a beggary-oriented one. The correct method would be to engage in global trade without seeking aid or foreign investment. Trade can be undertaken between equals but investment invariably carries the stigma of a rich investor investing in a poor country. I do not think there can be equality here.
The leaders of modern India are bending backward to accommodate the interests of the West. Instead of strengthening Indian economy our leaders are running after foreign investment and aid. In the process they are weakening India from the inside. The present day leaders invoke Swamiji’s receiving money from the West as a justification of their own action. They ignore that Swamiji’s main thrust was to liberate India from illiteracy and numbness of the mind. His limited interest was to raise money for this noble cause. Present day leaders should not be allowed to hide behind Swamiji’s actions to justify their own misdoings.
Swamiji has been misrepresented to justify present Indian rulers continuing to look to the West for the amelioration of poverty. It is time that we get out of this dependence complex on the West and raise an economically and politically strong India. It is only then that Swamiji’s aim of giving spiritual education to the West will be achieved.
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