As an individual greatly enthused by the life and labours of Swami Vivekananda, this is a book that I have eagerly awaited and indeed, it is doubly rewarding that I should now also be among its reviewers. One of the important features of this book, though not immediately apparent, is that this is a compilation put together by a scholar trained in philosophy, not the social sciences. It is the philosophical perspective that sparkles in the editor’s introduction and offers at places, subtleties of argument and judicious insights that could not have been as natural for a historian such as me.
Structurally, there are two broad parts to this work: the editor’s introduction, brief yet crisp, is followed by a selection of essays or articles nineteen in number. The latter, in turn, are thematically arranged into seven sections, each carrying multiple essays. The sections are as follows: ‘Extent and Limits of Impact’ in which are included essays by Brajendranath Seal, Jawaharlal Nehru and Prabha Dixit; ‘Practical Vedanta’, including essays by Paul Hacker, Wilhelm Halbfass and Krishna Prakash Gupta; ‘Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’ including essays by Sumit Sarkar and Carl Olson; ‘Secularism’ including (two) essays by Krishna Prakash Gupta, Nirmal Mukherjee and Ashish Nandy; ‘Fundamentalism’ that includes essays by Nemai Sadhan Bose and Jyotirmay Sharma; ‘Woman’, which has essays by Indira Chaudhuri and Vrinda Dalmia and ‘Science’ with an essay each by Dermot Killingley and Anantanand Rambachan respectively. A good number of essays included here, I imagine, are already well known, especially to scholars of politics, philosophy and culture and their reproduction here does indeed create possibilities of fresh and enlivening debate. Debating Vivekananda strongly suggests that the debate around the enigmatic Swami may not close very soon.
While there is every reason to commend the editor on this project, I could not always agree with his selections or the criteria employed for selection. Apparently, the framework adopted here is of two kinds and operates on two levels. Thus, Sections IV (Secularism) and V (Fundamentalism) come closest to what may be termed a visible argumentative framework for the important reason that the authors cited here directly engage with one another or with the general substance of the debate. This is not the case, however, with Section I where the critique by Prabha Dixit (which I first read in the 1970s as a young researcher) has little or no bearing on the general drift of arguments made by Nehru and the philosopher, Brajendranath Seal, whose writings are also included in this section. This and other sections carry names of those whom the editor somewhat dubiously calls ‘participants’ in the debate—dubious because it is only the editor that has quite tenuously placed them in the framework of debate. It occurs to me that this is a problematic category because it at once opens up the doors to just about any number of selections, calls for greater care with selections and a far more explicitly stated statement of purpose. Three eminent critics whose work certainly ought to have been included in this collection are: Niranjan Dhar, Nrisingha Prasad Sil and Rajagopal Chattopadhyay. I am prepared to testify to the fact that between them they demolish the mainstream discourse on Vivekananda more effectively than did Prabha Dixit.
In this work, the editor has set himself a two-fold task: a rigorous evaluation (or is it re-evaluation?) of Vivekananda emerging from different debates and to ‘take stock of what is available’ (p. xi). I am afraid that Debating Vivekananda does not quite do justice to the latter if only because a work of this nature is bound to be selective and for a number of reasons too as I can imagine. For one, there may be difficulties with obtaining copyright clearances; there could be constraints of size too that the marketing departments of publishing houses are never oblivious of. Hence, rather than claim to offer us ‘what is available’, it would have been more realistic to admit that there were limiting factors that practically eliminated the prospects of offering readers the full fare. This book is a spacious mansion which has generously opened its doors to visitors but somehow failed to host many.
Contrary also to the editor’s claims (p. xiii) some of the matter that originated as mere ‘self-expression’ did later acquire the quality of a debate. Here, a case in point would be the emerging differences on our understanding of the neo-Hindu discourse and of Vivekananda’s place within it. This issue, incidentally, is relegated to only an endnote (#4, p. xxvi). I refer here to the debate that ensued in the 1990s between Professor Tapan Raychaudhuri and this reviewer on the historical import of the term ‘revival’. While Professor Raychaudhuri was of the view that the term ‘revival’ ill fitted Hinduism as a religion that was never ‘dead’, I had quipped that it was the dying that could be revived anyway and not the dead. The fact that the term revival was persistently and selfconsciously used by historical actors themselves also led me to attach some importance to it. I have also continued to disagree with Professor Raychaudhuri’s assertion that Vivekananda had ‘nothing to do with society or polity’. To the best of my belief, the issue of whether the Swami was essentially a patriot or a prophet or if these categories are at all mutually exclusive, constitutes one of the fundamental debates around the life and work of Vivekananda and perhaps deserved some more space. Finally, I am naturally disappointed at the editor’s freezing this debate in the early 1990s which overlooks the copious literature on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda produced in the last two decades. A continued engagement with the debate would have revealed how it has grown and proliferated over the years.
Choices of essays too and their clubbing together have not always been appropriate or felicitous. Personally, I found the inclusion of Sumit Sarkar’s essay in Section III somewhat indefensible. For one, this brilliant essay which has been widely read and commented upon, essentially hinges on textual deconstruction and reformulating the social history of colonial Bengal and Vivekananda, as it occurs to me, was somewhat marginal to this project. If therefore, it was the editor’s intention to bring forth the dynamic interface between Sri Ramakrishna and his favoured disciple, he had at least two more contributions to choose from: the pioneering and very insightful article by Nrisingha P. Sil that appeared in Numen some years back and the more recent one by me (‘Between History and Hagiography: Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna’, 2009).
Since it is also the editor’s intention to generate new thinking and reflection on Vivekananda and contemporary India, let me briefly revisit a few old and familiar articles in passing. In Essay #11, Ashish Nandy argues that when compared to Vivekananda, Rammohun Roy criticized Hinduism on ‘rationalist grounds’ (p. 292). I would be rather persuaded to say that the Raja was trapped in one of the puzzling dilemmas of the day: the tendency to view religion as the site for all social and cultural change as against a very instrumentalist view of religion. I also doubt if, as argued by Nandy, it was Vivekananda who introduced hierarchy into Hindu metaphysics (p. 293). There is already ample evidence of this in the late medieval work, Sarvadarshan Sangraha by Madhvacharya. The essays by Indira Chaudhuri (with which I have been familiar for long) and Vrinda Dalmia were insightful and invigorating, bringing new questions to mind. For one, were Sarala Ghoshal and Sister Nivedita the only exceptions to Vivekananda’s conservatively exclusionary discourse on women (p. 399)? There is, after all, also the case of Sarada Debi (wife of Ramakrishna) whose intervention Vivekananda often had to seek to legitimize his various missions including the historic trip to the West. As someone currently researching Nivedita, I could also say that in terms of this very discourse, she was actually less of an exception than commonly believed. Finally, there is the matter of the Swami’s persistently maintaining that women had to solve their own problems rather than allow men to decide or work for them. The intriguing quality about this statement is that it is capable of being understood in very radically different ways and to me at least, Vivekananda’s intentions in this instance are far from clear.
In his excellent introduction the editor makes two points of enduring value. First, there is the observation on how, when compared to the situation in India, modernity in the West has been exclusionary of the premodern. It is in colonial India that the two were found to coexist, an experience which may not be aptly or adequately understood through the use of western heuristic categories. Second, this work also urges us not to be facile with our postulates or assumptions when examining the impact of the West on the Indian mind. Pre-modern India was not bereft of indigenously generated dialogues and debates and these too could be as transformative as was the case in early modern India when the West began to throw new moral and material challenges before the Indian mind. In putting together this work the editor quite modestly assumes the role of a ‘compiler’; little does he realize that his critical interventions in the ongoing debate, however briefly put, leaves behind several signs of an engaging authorship.
Amiya P. Sen is currently Heinrich Zimmer Chair at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg.