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Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur*
Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.
He was highly educated for his time but not exceptionally bright. He became a monk not out of any inner drive but as an escape from the poverty and a sense of helplessness. He had tremendous lust for life. He loved good food,comfort, literature and music.
He wanted to overcome his failures in the 'world of getting and spending' by a spiritual adventure. He invented a mission for himself and had the will to believe in it. He must have said to himself Horace's words,"I will not die ". His good looks and good English helped. The rest is history or mythology.
Vivekananda stood as much against Brahmo reformism as securalist liberalism inspired as it was by Mill and August Comte. Rammohun Ray, 'the first modern man,' envisioned a new India rejuvenated by the Enlightenment tradition.
Roy, a profound scriptural scholar, rediscovered Vedandatic transcendentalism to use it as a weapon in his fight against Hindu polytheism and all that went with it. He successfully campaigned to abolish the horrible custom of sutee or burning of Hindu widows.
He in actual practice was a deist who was for religion within the limits of reason. He abhorred celibacy and monasticism and believed that religion teaches us to live in harmony with Nature.
His followers, known as Brahmos, fought against the caste system and women's liberation. Shivnath Shastri wrote a reasoned polemic "Jatibhed" (1876) against the injustice of the caste system.
Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, another renowned reformist and educationist, was deeply perturbed by the miserable lot of the upper caste Hindu women, particularly widows, many of whom were sold to the brothels. His movement led to the enactment of the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act in 1856. Side by side, there was a development of political consciousness and a demand for more representation.
The young Naren Dutta was initially drawn to the Brahmo movement. But his moment of disillusionment came when he was dismissed from his teaching post by none other than Vidyasagar, who was the secretary of the Metropolitan School.
An anguished Naren became an enemy of the Reformation much in the same way Adolf Hitler became an inveterate anti-Semite after being sacked by his Jewish employer. He came to hate liberal ideas, dismissed women's liberation and defended the caste system.
Vivekananda's position in the caste hierarchy was dubious. He was a kayastha, who are shudras, but under the Raj enjoyed upward social mobility, and came to vie with Brahmins in every field. On their part, Brahmins saw him as a presumptuous shudra poaching in their spiritual preserve, particularly his impious attempt to interpret the Sacred Books.
Vivekananda was angry with these jealous Brahmins but always defended and glorified Brahminism with all its egregious hierarchy. Besides, without justifying caste, he could not have received the generous help of his feudal patrons. He wrote with much eloquence:
"I have seen castes in almost every country in the world, but nowhere is their plan and purpose so glorious as here. If caste is unavoidable I would rather have a caste of purity and culture and self sacrifice than a caste of dollars."
Needless to say the 'purity' and 'culture' belong to the Brahmin and self-sacrifice on the part of shudras. Vivekananda was an apologist and defender of this sanctified slavery which have kept the toiling masses down for millennia.
Elsewhere he writes , "Caste is good. That is the only natural way of solving life." He makes his position clear when he says, "I'm against leveling down caste inequalities. It is a salutary system. We must obey it .Not even one in a million understands what is really is."
However, under the impact of the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality, the shudras were coming to assert themselves, particularly in Bombay Presidency and the South. Jyotiba Phule wrote his seminal text "Gulamgiri" in 1885, presenting caste system as a slavery imposed upon the native inhabitants by the Aryan invaders.
Vivekanda exhorted the restive Shudras in a pontifical language, "To non- Brahmins my advice is -- wait, don't be so clamorous. Don't attack Brahmins all the time... Who prevented you from learning Sanskrit and acquiring culture?"
The best way to improve their condition is to learn Sanskrit ,the sacred language! Rammohun Roy, a great Sanskritist rejected Sanskrit as a dead language and considered learning the language ,a sheer waste of time .Curiously enough,Vivekananda who had only smattering of Sanskrit recommended it to Shudras as a means to raise their cultural standard.
Vivekananda was angry with jealous Brahmins but always defended and glorified Brahminism with all its egregious hierarchy
This same regressive attitude colours his ideas related to sexuality and gender. He had normal sexual drives, and it seems he struggled all his life to control it. The monastic ideal is based on the cruel repression of sexuality. Vivekananda made much of 'brahmacharya ' or total abstinence from sex with less-than-satisfactory consequences for himself as well for his followers.
He had a belief that a brahmachari attains almost divine attributes by retaining the seminal fluid and ultimately transforming it into grey matters in the brain. If one goes through his conversation with one of his disciples, one can only be highly amused:
"Chandibabu: Does it help one to control his sexual impulse if one wears a tight undergarment?
"Vivekananda: Hardly ever. Do you know once it was so strong that in desperation I sat on a brazier with live cinders to teach it a lesson? I was badly burnt and it took me quite some time to heal up the burns."

It reminds me of J Krishnamurti's real life story of a sudhu who castrated himself with a blunt knife to get rid of it once for all. So by rejecting Rammohun Roy's ideal of a spiritual life within family life, Vivekananda only made himself miserable .To overcome it, he struck a more defiant masculine pose which took its toll on his mental life.He bequeathed this abject fear of the feminine to his followers.
The monks of Ramkrishna Mission remain busy to protect themselves from 'lust ' and transform their valuable seminal fluids into overflowing grey matters. In order to protect their very sacred educational institutions from feminine invasion, they moved court and sought a minority status. All their educational institutions are male preserves, insulated from any feminine interaction. A noble achievement indeed!
Unlike the Brahmos or Vidyasagar, he was no enthusiast for female education. He wanted to see them as sacrificing mothers and sisters -- pure and dutiful but never as a beloved or an individuals pursuing their own ends.This led him to gloss over worst patriarchal tyrannies and oppressions before his Western audience and denounce those who were fighting against heavy odds to redress them.
Pandita Ramabai, one of the early feminists dared to call the bluff. Despite all this, he was far from the projected Hindutva icon who didn't hesitate to take beef to live frugally and considered playing football better than going to a temple. Despite the self-imposed asceticism, he loved to be surrounded by plump white women of wealth and refinement .He was humanist at war with himself.
Tagore in his novel "Gora" models the protagonist unmistakably after Vivekananda, a tormented Hindu fanatic, febrile, struggling desperately to resist love .At the end of the novel his world collapses but he is redeemed by love.
Vivekananda's last years were overshadowed by multiple maladies. This, however, did not lessen his appetite for good food, On the day he died at the age of 39, he had taken Hilsa fish, gourmet Bengali's ultimate delight to his heart's fill. It was a happy death.
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Source: Author's Facebook timeline

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Vivekanand's happy death at 39 with hilsa fish in his last meal reminds me an identical episode when India, a century ago, was invaded by plague, claiming at least five crore population. In 1921 J. T. Marten, ICS, the then Census Commissioner of India noted in his report, "The disease [plague] wrought great havoc amongst the aboriginals. When first attacked, many of them, especially the Santals, would sit in the sun with practically no covering on; then, when they began to feel worse,and to think that their life was likely to be short, they decided that it should at least be gay and took a good drink of liquor and a hearty meal of goat's flesh. This treatment is exact antithesis of that generally recommended, so it was inevitable that a great many cases amongst the aboriginals would develop into pneumonia and end fatally." Quoted by A. K. Biswas in UNDERSTANDING BIHAR, Blumoon Books, New Delhi, 1998, p. 25.

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