Towards 150 years – remembered fragments – remembered loitering

It is imagination which has taught man the moral values of colour, shape, sound and perfumes. At the begining of the world, imagination created analogy and metaphor. Imagination dissolves all creation. Remassing and reordering her materials by principles which come out of the depths of the human soul, imagination makes a new world, even a new realm of sensory experience. And as imagination has created this world (one may say this, I think even in a religious sense), it is appropriate that the same faculty should govern it…..Alan Resnais

How does it feel to go back to Swami Vivekananda’s political writings and perform them as a spoken word piece (In Transit: a meditation on Swami Vivekananda’s writings, his political musings, thoughts on ecology and the necessary idea of loitering), amongst different school and colleges in Chennai as a part of Prakriti Foundation’s Tree of Life festival-2012? As my second commissioned piece for this festival, it was like both going back to and starting a fresh journey. To pay tribute to one of the greatest socialists and Marxists of such times, anywhere in the world… I think the idea of taking a spoken word performance centred around the political and ecological underpinnings of Swami Vivekananda to campuses as a part of an outreach programme was spot on and a very important intervention by the curatorial instinct of Ranvir Shah.

Spot on at a time, when the chief minister of a state in India (read Narendra Modi in Gujarat) decides to wear a Swami Vivekananda- like dress and mimic a pose in a vernacular daily. Or even the widespread feeling in various liberal (and not-so-liberal) spaces about Vivekananda as a Hindutva icon. It is important to re-discover the rebel inside Vivekananda. And like the rebel in Gandhi (though both were politically and tactically different), we tend to mix up Hindutva as a right-wing idea and Hindu being a philosophical discourse (yes, discourse and a state-of-mind much more than being either ritual, religion or ritualistic religion).

As an artist, I think theatre is the only religion that I know (would like to know and choose to know)…but I also see no reason in not calling Bhakti poet or Sufi composers as important political thinkers… sometimes….and maybe all the time…much more political than avowed Marxists,socialists, atheists, non-believers, nihilists and many other such of similar tribe. For me, Tukaram, Kabir, Bulle Shah, Lalon Fakir is up there with Marx, Julius Fuchik, M.N.Roy and Antonio Gramsci…all of them jostling for a mindspace that has to be inclusively owned and not exclusively controlled. Whosoever exercises that control: the majority or the fringe or the fashionable in-between.

The seventh edition of Tree of Life festival (with Swami Vivekananda as one of the fulcrums along with a series of events on recycling), is an important pointer as to why untiring efforts like this to explore different shades of great minds must continue. Unabated. All the time. …Common possession of the necessaries for production implies the common enjoyment of the fruits of common production; and we consider that an equitable organisation of society can only arise when every wage system is abandoned, and when everybody, contributing for the common well being to the full extent of his capacities, shall enjoy also from the common stock of the society as to the fullest possible extent of his needs….Pyotr Kroptokin’s ‘Anarchist communism: It’s Basis and Principles’

A few years back, while walking along Chennai’s Marina Beach, had this great surprise in store. On my walk towards the Madras University (founded in 1857), I came across this building with an unusual name: Ice House. Inside the house, to my surprise (and delight) was an important exhibition on Swamiji’s life and times. This was the place, where he stayed between February 6 to February 14, 1897, after his return from the West, Europe and Sri Lanka (where he spoke in Colombo, Anuradhapura and Jaffna) sojourns.

During this 9-day stay in Chennai, Swamiji gave five major public lectures (Victoria Hall-two lectures, Pachaiyappa Hall, Circus Pavilion and Triplicane Literary Society) before he set sail for Kolkata, aboard SS Mombasa. These five lectures, constitute, some of the most important dialectical flow of understanding Swamiji’s philosophy. According to Romain Rolland, these were the most important lectures given in India. One may or may not agree with his ideas about inundating a land with spiritual ideas before importing the idea of socialism but we have to understand that the same person said: Look upon every man, woman and everyone as God. And the crux can’t be simpler. To put it in one word: Serve. Apart from institutions that are related to him, there is also the unsung contribution of the legendary Alasinga Perumal. Without Alasinga Perumal Swamiji may not have made the trip. Alasinga, literally, begged door to door to raise money for the trip. One of the finest publications on the ideas of Swamiji, ‘The Vedanta Kesari’ (began as ‘The Brahmavadin’ in September 1895) owes it origins to the untiring efforts of Alasinga Perumal.

Why are we discussing Swami Vivekananda in Chennai in such detail? Simply, because, the entire Chicago addresses and Swamiji’s subsequent stay in the West for the next three-and-a-half years including America, England, France, Italy and Egypt would not have been possible if the Triplicane Literary Society (a place where he came back and gave another landmark address titled ‘The Work Before Us’) had not nominated him as their representative to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

One of my earliest memories of reading Swami Vivekananda’s collected works is page 505 of the volume 8 of the tome. He says: “I was Jesus and I was Judas Iscariot…” For a moment you are dumbfounded. Standing near the edge of his mortal life, he can still take life with a pinch of salt. He can still rebel and not take his rebellion too seriously… and still admit that much needs to be done. After his stay in the West and Europe, when he came back to India, Swamiji faced severe barbs. Attacks on his personal integrity, attacks on his intentions, attacks on his conduct, attacks on his world view, attacks on his philosophical stance… yet he remained steadfast. He replied to each of this insinuation with service and continued to attract disciples from all over. Not through knee jerk reactions or to go on a clarifying binge, but through silently continuing his activities with an unmatched dignity and a sense of unwavering commitment towards the poor.


Because he rose above dogmas and debated on the state of the world more as a philosopher who wanted the political meaning of spiritual and the spiritual meaning to the political and as a result kept building a bridge between these two apparently opposite polarities. “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor, who having educated at their expense pays not the least heed to them… I am a socialist, not because it is a perfect system, but because I believe that half a loaf is better than no bread.” These two sentences were not said one after another. Yet at different times, they reveal a lesser discussed, yet a much important aspect of one of the most important political theorists of any time. Swamiji, was, is and will never be only about religion and figureheads. He would be a man remembered for his practical approach to spirituality and for instilling a rationale that would constantly look at the humane cost of a human problem.

Much like Tagore’s meeting with Narayana Guru in Kerala (at the Sivagiri Mutt in Varkala in 1922); Swami Vivekananda’s meeting with Pyotr Kropotkin in Paris in 1900 is hardly discussed. The core of these meetings, I would like to believe (and believe) is to explore the distinctiveness of different shades of opinion, however, diverse they are or they might look to be. Look at these lines by Kropotkin written as the concluding observation in ‘Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution’ in 1902: “In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.”

And now let us examine these lines from Swami Vivekananda’s oeuvre: “Our aristocratic ancestors went on treading the common masses of our country under foot, till they became helpless… till under this torment the poor, poor people nearly forgot they were human beings….Our mission is for the destitute, the poor, and the illiterate peasantry and labouring classes; and if after everything has been done for them first, there is spare time, then only for the gentry.” I would find a sense of convergence in these lines. The former by one of the founding fathers of the political praxis of anarchism and the latter by a lifelong spiritualist who refused being pigeonholed as a marketable exotic Hindu saint by reaffirming: “Do you mean to say I am born to live and die as a caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, theistic coward that you find only amongst the educated Hindus?”

Infact, what we constantly gloss over is the fact that that The Parliament of Religions took place in Chicago between September 11 to September 27, 1893. During this period, he gave a number of lectures both at the Main section and also at the Scientific section, three of these landmark lectures were on the dates of 9/11(opening session), 9/19, 9/20 and 9/27 (final session). If one were to compile, every recorded word that he spoke during this fortnight, what would emerge is a collage of thoughts that talks about a kind of spirituality which is interlinked with issues of need, greed, poverty and upliftment. His speech on 9/20 clearly stated that it was bread and not religion which Indians stood more in need.

And this is point that we purposely overlook. So as to paint, Swamiji, as a convenient Hindu icon. We forget to read (or choose not to read) his concluding lines in ‘State, Society and Socialism’ where he says: “The difficulty is not that one body of men are naturally more important than another, but whether this body of men, because they have the advantage of intelligence, should take away even physical advantage from those who do not possess that advantage. The fight is to destroy that privilege.”

Neither spirituality nor socialism can be boxed into easy paradigms. Or even be separated that easily. They are not even antonyms or colliding pieces of idea-fragments. These facets always work hand-in-hand across the lowest common economic platforms where the havenots, have-beens, yet-to-be, have-been-dismissed and the have-been-glossed. They work concurrently amongst those who are trying to retrieve the last remain morsels from the dustbin of the supermarket perched at one end of the parking lot or maybe at the pavement outside. And that is the core of this discussion, Swamiji as a political rebel. As a practical spiritualist. Both at the same time. Even if your political reading and spiritual understanding is at loggerheads with one another. As a person who pops up in a discussion between Leo Tolstoy and Czech revolutionary, Jan Massyryk and was referred to by the former as one of the greatest philosophers of modern India. We would like you to look at Swamiji as a revolutionary of ideas, as a brilliant travel writer (try his book ‘Memories of European travel’), an important theorist try (‘Caste, Culture and Socialism’) or a public speaker of rare candour (‘Lectures from Colombo to Almora’) and of course, a pioneering ecological thinker who kept invoking the basic central idea of compassion… that encompasses the trees, the roots, the branches, the animal planet and the human beings trying to make sense of both the scientific and spiritual multi-verse (‘Living at the Source’, ‘Karma Yoga’ and ‘Thoughts on the Gita’). It is in that realm of ideas we need to discover the re-discovery of Swami Vivekananda.

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