A pair of eloquent eyes, a gaze that fixes you while not being quite intimidating, arms folded across the chest in a gait that oozes confidence and a face radiant with self assurance that comes from knowledge – As a young child I would keep staring at the calendar that carried a picture of the brahmachari in his saffron robe. He did not quite look like any other sadhu to me. He stood apart. While his face beamed with warmth, his posture was rather self assertive and perhaps even defiant. His attitude seemed a curious blend of the humility of a sadhak and the dynamism of a rebel. It was my grand mom who first told me about Swami Vivekananda, a man who went to Chicago to spread the message of universal fraternity that pervades the philosophy of Hinduism. I was told how in the absence of resources, this man went without food for days and had to spend his nights in discarded fruit crates and yet he did not give up. He knew he must establish the supremacy of the Indic scriptures and no adversity could have deterred him.
Son to an affluent father, who nurtured his interests in literature, philosophy and religious studies; a prodigy who amazed his teachers at Scottish Church College of erstwhile Calcutta; a freemason and then an active member of the Brahma Samaj, who would later go on to point out the advantages of idol worship – The metamorphosis from Narendranath Dutta to Swami Vivekananda makes for an interesting reading but then that is a much known history and I don’t intend to retell that here. Instead I shall share my experience of reading Karma Yoga, a book by Swamiji that inspires me and is particularly relevant to our times.
Arranged in eight neat and short chapters, Karma Yoga is a compilation of lectures delivered by Swami Vivekananda during his rather short stay at Kansas City, in the last decade of the 19th century. Through this lecture notes, Vivekananda comes across as a teacher who could explain the most complex issues in the most lucid manner possible. His simplicity marks his sincerity.
Here he points out that according to the Vedanta, all our miseries have their seeds concealed in our pursuit for pleasure. All of us seek pleasure from life without quite understanding that it is the attainment of knowledge that should have been our aspiration. We repel pain while not realizing that it is both pain and joy that shall build our character. More often than not the hardships of life make us aware of our own strengths and what is knowledge if it is not an arrival at self knowledge? Swamiji elucidates that while we think of knowledge as getting to ‘know’ something new, in actuality it is just a ‘discovery’ of something that was always already there in our mind. Our experiences as well as our readings are only impetuses that incite this inward enquiry. Ideas presented here, border on psychoanalysis, which suggests that whatever we do is ultimately a projection of our own psyche. Swami Vivekananda goes on to say that Karma or action or work is that ‘blow’ incurred upon the soul that shall make it aware of its own power and knowledge. The malady of our time lies in the absence of karma. While we can access facts faster now, actions that would impel introspection are seldom pursued. With the ready availability of information, we assume that we have become knowledgeable, but we pay no heed to self discovery and hence remain shrouded in ignorance.
He further points out that that who thinks there is but one truth is a fool. Our philosophy is not about maxims, what is sin under certain circumstances can be an act virtue in some other circumstances. He illustrates this with an example. While non resistance is seen as an exalted merit in our culture, not to resist because we of our cowardice is a transgression. A person who does not believe himself and his own nation cannot believe in God. He must defend himself and offer resistance before he defends his God. Had we been able to emulate these words there would not have been problems before us. But we have chosen the easier way out, which is to remain indifferent.
As we face ideological bankruptcy, Swami Vivekananda’s words could have been our source of inspiration, but at the risk of sounding like a cynic, I must that this shall not happen. Last May it was Tagore’s sesquicentennial birth anniversary. While there were celebrations all around, very few made their effort to go back to his works and read and I fear Swami Vivekananda too shall share Tagore’s plight. Well, will it not be the best tribute paid to him if we all start reading him and thereby get some succour at these hours of intellectual barrenness?