Vivekananda, Gandhi, and the RSS (Frederick M. Smith, Fall 2014)

Contributed by Frederick M. Smith, University of Iowa

Several people have asked me off list to compile the sources reported and to summarize the very preliminary findings from my question last week regarding an apparent convergence between followers of Vivekananda, even Gandhi, and the RSS. I regarded these three as strangely matched bedfellows and wondered how to interpret it, if indeed my observations are valid at all. What I discovered is that Vivekananda, and even Gandhi, have been gradually appropriated into the culture of the RSS, and that this has been building for many decades. Also, however, mediate forces have emerged to both facilitate and transform this image. I was not aware, for example, that the well-known monument to Vivekananda found at the southern tip of India, at Kanyakumari, was constructed by the RSS in the late 1960s. (I visited it many decades ago and was not at that time aware of the politics involved in its construction.) For this and the activities of the Vivekananda Kendra regarding yoga, see Gwilym Beckerlegge, Eknath Ranade, Gurus, and J?vanvrat?s: The Vivekananda Kendras Promotion of the Yoga Way of Life,in Mark Singleton & Ellen Goldberg, Gurus of Modern Yoga, pp. 317-350 (OUP 2013). In addition to the citation in my original posting of the piece by Pralay Kanungo, seee his Fusing the Ideals of the Math with the Ideology of the Sangh? Vivekananda Kendra, Ecumenical Hinduism, and Hindu Nationalism, in Public Hinduisms, ed. John Zavos, et al. pp. 119-140 (Sage, 2012). This excellent volume is worth our attention.

I am also struck by the way new but mediate ideologies are influencing the body politic and sectarian affiliations. An example is the influence of Lingayat gurus in Karnataka who seem to draw from both sides, from their own space in the middle, as well as from local political arrangements. For this, see Aya Ikegame, The governing guru: Hindu mathas in liberalizing India, in Jacob copeman and Aya Ikegame, The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, pp. 46-63 (Routledge 2012). Her work is well worth following. I suspect that local configurations and affiliations are present in many states in India that most of us are unaware of.

John Cort reminded us of the posters and hoardings of a muscular macho Vivekananda in Gujarat as recently as this year, used as props by the BJP. Consistent with this, Adam Bowled noted, is a report in the Hindustan Times that the BJP government in Haryana has appointed Dinanath Batra to guide a committee of educationists in Haryana. The accompanying photo shows Dinanath Batra in an (his?) office with a statue of Vivekananda in the foreground.

Robert Zydenbos suggested we look at an in-depth chapter on Vivekananda in Hans-Joachim Klimkeit’s _Der politische Hinduismus_ (Harrassowitz, 1981), which, Robert says, is still the standard work in German on the subject. Robert also suggests that Vivekanandas appearance at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 has been overplayed by Hindu nationalists, at least from the European perspective. OK, go ahead, blame America 🙂

I agree with Pankaj Jain and everyone else that its not a good idea for scholars to reduce Gandhi or Vivekananda to any political agenda. Jeff Long emphasizes this point: We need to be careful to distinguish between these uses and the self-understandings of these figures in their respective contexts. Nevertheless, such noble aspirations have not prevented these appropriations from becoming a regular feature of political practice in India. I agree that the search for a new indigenous hermeneutic and epistemology is a worthy endeavor, but the primary thrust of the efforts I have encountered are preoccupied with rejectionist discourse coupled with the use of highly selective evidence with which to build their theories, compounded with insufficient deep knowledge of both texts and the history of intellectual debate in India (for the latter, see the vigorous and readable work of Larry McCrea).

Several people on and off-list brought to my attention Jyotimaya Sharmas recent book A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism (Yale University Press, 2013). but James Madaio does not believe that Sharma has adequately addressed how the right has diachronically appropriated figures like Vivekananda into their rhetoric and ‘mediascapes’, even as he demythologizes Vivekananda and neo-Vedantic inclusivism. Madaio notes, perceptively: It does not seem a coincidence that the (often impassioned) issue of who Vivekananda was is anachronistically caught up in the right’s (selective) appropriation of him and, in turn, the left’s intellectual critique.

TIm Dobe writes (off list):

Cassie Adcock’s work on the narrative of Hindu Tolerance and on the Arya Samaj approaches this kind of question from quite a different angle, pointing out how critiques of the rise of homogenised, semiticized etc. Hinduism often function as the foil for a pro-Congress “secularism” and tolerance. Framed between these extremes, the narratives we have often fail to attend other key dimensions of the historical context, such as critiques of untouchability in connection with shuddhi and the multiple and complex religious identities of figures who converted in and out of a variety of “communal” movements.

And suggest his own article: “Daya-nanda Sarasvat as Irascible R.s.i: The Personal and Performed Authority of a Text, in Journal of Hindu Studies 2011.4: :79100.

Among the more grisly accounts, Palianappan notes:

Jon Keune mentioned the common ground between Gandhi and Hindutva. For this, see Arundhati Roy’s introduction to the annotated edition of Ambedkar’s annihilation of caste:


Amod Lele refers us to his master’s thesis on the rise of state-sponsored Hindutva with Singapore’s Confucian experiments:

and his article, “State Hindutva and Singapore Confucianism as responses to the decline of the welfare state, in Asian Studies Review 28 (2004): 267-82.

Other sources that list members noted were:

Joe Alters Gandhis Body and his many works on yoga and Indian masculinity;

chapters 3 & 4 of Peter van der Veers Imperial Encounters, in which he discusses Vivekanandas rejection of muscular Christianity even if muscular Hinduism developed later;

Arafaat Valianis work on Gandhi, masculinity, and performative politics in Gujarat, Militant Publics in India: Physical Culture and Violence in the Making of a Modern Polity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011);

Anup Kumar points out that in spite of the high profile of the hard edge of Hindu nationalism, most Hindus still identify with a softer, gentler Hinduism, and that we are dealing with our own cognitive dissonance in face of the renewed focus on Gandhi by the BJP. Similarly, Raymond Williams reminds us that in the early decades of Indian immigration to the U.S., Vivekananda was extolled as the Indian spiritual exemplar countering western materialism. How times have changed!!