“So are my words spirit and life; they will burn their way into your brain and you will never get away from them!” said a certain charismatic young monk more than a hundred years ago. Today, more than a hundred years later, his words have permeated across India and set fire to thousands across our land. Practically in every village in this country chances are that we will find at least one charity named after him. What is about the vision of Swami Vivekananda that drives so many people to strive for a higher and more selfless life?
It’s important to understand the context and time in which Vivekananda lived. India was then a conquered civilisation, reeling under centuries of foreign rule. It had just lost its first war of Independence. The global perception of India was at its nadir, with it being considered a backward land teeming with superstitions. It was during this period of civilisational insecurity, that Vivekananda gave his thundering message of faith in oneself, strength, courage and empowerment. “Strength is felicity, life eternal, immortal . Weakness is constant strain and misery; weakness is death.” he said. What was that strength that he spoke of? “Teach everyone his real nature, call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, purity will come and everything that is excellent will come, when this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.”
This message of strength and courage, this message of the infinite potential of the self within every human being is the cornerstone of Vedanta. The genius of Swami Vivekananda lay in making this intensely practical, empowering everyone to live up to their highest possibilities to lift themselves up by their own inner strength. His vision was of man making, of men with “vigour in the blood, strength in the nerves, iron muscles and nerves of steel” who would verily be gods on earth. “First, let us be Gods, and then help others to be Gods. Be and make” was his central message.
Vivekananda firmly believed in that the principles of our civilisational principles were not some antiquated relic of the past, but were vital in directing the course of India’s future, that India as a civilisation must inform India as a nation. At the same time, he was no revivalist, but sought ceaselessly to work from first principles. In his bold and open embrace of science and modernity with a firm rooting in civilisational ideals, he set a template for India in the contemporary world. India, to him, was his very life breath. When asked, on how he felt about India on returning from his tour of America, he said “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; it is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!” Sister Christine, a disciple of Swami, says “Our love for India came to birth when we first heard him say the word, “India” in that marvellous voice of his. It seems incredible that so much could have been put into one small word of five letters. There was love, passion, pride, longing, adoration, tragedy, chivalry, Heimweh, and again love.” His intense love for India inspired thousands of young men to take up the struggle to liberate India from alien rule. His works were found in the hands of hundreds of freedom fighters, prompting the British government to consider banning his works. Leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore sought and found tremendous inspiration in Swamiji’s works. Gandhiji went on to say that reading Vivekananda has increased his love for India a thousand-fold.
Swami Vivekananda’s love for Indians and his message of practical Vedanta combined into the glorious ideal of Daridra Narayana Seva – of perceiving the innate divinity in the poor and considering their uplift as the highest worship. He expressed this in forceful terms saying: “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every person a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them!” To him, Tyaga (renunciation) and Seva (service) were the national ideals. His aim was to flood this land with thousands of young men, sincere to the backbone, manifesting their infinite potential and offering themselves selflessly in the uplift of everyone around them. This vision of societal uplift has inspired countless people across generations to offer their lives in service.
Vivekananda asked for utter dedication to one idea, to the point where nothing else matters. Only then could true impact be achieved. “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life—think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success”.
The depth and clarity of thought and the profundity of his vision, both for the individual and the nation has the potential to transform and give meaning to our lives. The best way to remember and honour Swami Vivekananda would be to imbibe his message of man-making to perfect ourselves and serve others by helping them strive for their perfection. Let us be gods and make gods. Be and make.
Written By – Shyam Krishnakumar. He is a research associate at Vision India Foundation, New Delhi and a member of Anaadi Foundation, Coimbatore. His areas of interest include Indian culture, spiritual traditions and the Indian Grand Narrative