Vision of a modern-day sage
Rekha Jhanji

Swami Vivekananda: The Living Vedanta
by Chaturvedi Badrinath. Penguin Books. Pages 452. Rs 375.

Swami Vivekananda: The Living VedantaThis is an interesting book on Vivekananda, it attempts to bring into focus the relationship between the life and the thought of this unique sage of modern India. It is the product of research into Vivekananda’s life and thought. The author has done a deep study of Vivekananda’s letters and other writings to give an exposition of the relationship between his life and his spiritual journey. He has tried to bring out the existential dimension of Vivekananda the man and not the icon.

Vivekananda gave a new meaning to Vedanta. He saw it as living in terms of living relationships. He brought out in his person the true meaning of the oneness between the self and the other. The author sees him as an embodiment of true Vedanta. He brought to a world full of hatred and violence, born of religious absolutism its deeper meaning, the inherent unity of all being.

The author holds that despite all the knowledge about Vivekananda’s thought and mission, very little is known about Vivekananda the man. He maintains that not until Swami Vivekananda is felt contemporaneously will he be ever understood in the fullness of his being. He says: "You don’t simply read a man like Vivekananda. In reading him you meet him. And if you don’t meet him and feel him contemporaneously, you can understand a little of the meaning of what he is saying." The author states that this book is neither strictly a biography of Vivekananda nor a study of his philosophy. It is written in the hope that through it the reader will meet Vivekananda; and in meeting him, meet also his or her own self.

The book gives one a clear vision of the journey of Swami Vivekananda from his life as Narendranath and his spiritual journey with the help of his Guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Narendranath inherited his passion for truth from his mother Bhubaneshwari Devi. The story of Vivekananda’s life is inseparable from Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his own mother Bhubaneshwari Devi. We would not have known about the details of Swamiji’s life without the works of Marie Sister Gargi and Pravrajika Prabhddhaprana of Sri Sarada Math. It is through them and not in his lectures alone that one meets the living Vedanta.

The author states that in all human lives there is an interplay of history and transcendence and in a man like Swamiji’s life it was more so. This tension generated a division in his self as history began to trouble him more and more. The author has cited several letters of Vivekananda that give one an idea of this tension between his work and his quest for eternal peace. He had a mission rooted in history of his times but it also transcended all history and touched the deepest longings of the human soul. He was concerned with both and thus spoke two languages—the language demanded by history and the language beyond history.

In all his teachings, Swami Vivekananda taught that it was the renunciation of the self, and not of things, which was the highest renunciation. He knew only too well that many of those who had renounced the world, and had taken to ochre robes as a declaration thereof, were also among the most egotistic and selfish. They had not yet renounced the self. He had, on the contrary, intimately known many married men and women in whom he had seen true holiness because through marriage, they had renounced the self.

He did not accept the idea that religion was the cause of the degradation of Indian people. True religion always elevates humanity. However, he was critical of hypocrisy that only tries to project an image of religion to cover one’s selfish ends. The author has done a deep study of Vivekananda’s letters and other written works to give an exposition of the relationship between his life and his spiritual journey. Reading this book one gets a clear vision of Swamiji’s life as an embodiment of vedantic vision of universal love. Swami Vivekananda did not have simply a deep understanding of Indian philosophy, he was also quite familiar with western philosophy. Through his association with Sara Bull, he got acquainted with some of the well-known contemporary thinkers like William James, Santayana, and Josiah Royce. In his life he tried to blend the best ideas from both the East and the West.

Badrinath has clearly succeeded in making one meet Vivekananda through this book. It has such details of his personal life and attitudes that one gets the feeling as if one has actually known him. One feels charged by Vivekananda’s energy while reading it. Vivekananda embodied love for humanity. He did not expel anyone from his company even if they hated him or spread scandalous canards about him. His grace and love for all his associates never diminished. Despite the anguish generated by it, he worked till the very end, for he believed that it is better to wear out than rust out.

The book is worth reading for anyone interested in seeing the existential journey of one of the most original thinkers of modern India.