Myths about the Swami - Part I
This is the first of a two part article by Sri Arun Shourie (former editor of the Indian Express, Magsaysay award winner and presently Minister for Disinvestment) published in the Sunday on 31st Jan 1993.
Of course, he said, Hindus who became Muslims must be taken back into the Hindu fold. Otherwise our numbers will keep dwindling -- we used to be around 600 million by the reckoning of Ferishta, the oldest Muslim historian, now we are just 200 million. "And then", he continued, "every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more."
That is the new darling of the communists and secularists, Swami Vivekananda, answering questions put to him by the editor of Prabuddha Bharat. Not only what he goes on to say but the word he uses for the converts is bound to stick in the secularists� throat. "Again," says Swami Vivekananda continuing his reasons for accepting them back as Hindus, "the vast majority of Hindu perverts to Islam and Christianity are perverts by the sword, or the descendants of these. It would be obviously unfair to subject these to disabilities of any kind. As to the case of born aliens, did you say? Why, born aliens have been converted in the past by crowds, and the process is still going on..." (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume V, pages 233-4. In all subsequent references to these books, the number of the volume is given first followed by the page number.)
That is the trouble with rushing into the charge with a quotation or two, without immersing oneself in the thought and world view of the person. Not just the CPI and CPI(M), but a host of fellow-travellers, too, have suddenly alighted upon Swami Vivekananda as if he can be a handy instrument. They forget -- or at least would have us forget -- what they used to say about Ramakrishna and Vivekananda till the other day. If one were to just reproduce today what they used to allege about the relationship between the two, that would be enough to start a riot in Bengal. There are two other ways to weigh their sudden fondness for him.
The central premise of Swami Vivekananda�s entire life was that the essence of India lay in religion; that the religion of our people was the Hindu dharma; that this was not the just the lever by which India was to be reawakened, the truths the Hindu seers had uncovered were the goals to which that reawakened India had to be turned, and that these truths were that pearl of inestimable value which it was India�s mission to give to the world. Which red-blooded communist or secularist will own up to this credo? The other way to assess their quotation mongering is equally telling: before you launch on your hunt for serviceable quotation from the Swami, consider what he said on Islam. Considering that you suddenly find him to have been a man of such insight will you accept his views on that too?
The Swami on the Prophet
There is the embarrassment to start with that, unlike Jesus and the Gospels, the Swami never thought it worth his while to devote time to studying the Prophet�s life and teaching in any depth. When he recounts the life of the Prophet (see for instance, I. 481-3) it is in extremely simplistic terms: number of wives and all. His general view of the Prophet seems to be that the Prophet was an inspired but untrained yogi, and the Swami uses him as a warning. This is how he puts the matter in his treatise on Raja Yoga:
"The yogi says there is a great danger in stumbling upon this state. In a good many cases, there is the danger of the brain being deranged, and, as a rule, you will find that all those men, however great they were, who had stumbled upon this superconscious state without understanding it, groped in the dark, and generally had, along with their knowledge, some quaint superstition. They opened themselves to hallucinations. Mohammad claimed that the Angel Gabriel came to him in a cave one day and took him on the heavenly horse, Harak, and he visited the heavens. But with all that Mohammad spoke some wonderful truths. If you read the Koran, you find the most wonderful truths mixed with superstitions. How will you explain it? That man was inspired, no doubt, but that inspiration was, as it were, stumbled upon. He was not a trained yogi, and did not know the reason of what he was doing. Think of what the good Mohammad did to the world, and think of the great evil that has been done through his fanaticism! Think of the millions massacred through his teachings, mothers bereft of their children, children made orphans, whole countries destroyed, millions upon millions of people killed!... So we see this danger by studying the lives of great teachers like Mohammad and others. Yet we find, at the same time, that they were all inspired. Whenever a prophet got into the superconscious state by heightening his emotional nature, he brought away from it not only some truths, but some fanaticism also, some superstition which injured the world as much as the greatness of the teaching helped." (I. 184)
On The Book
The central claim of Islam, as of Christianity, is that it has been given The Book, that it alone has been given The Book, that therefore it alone possesses The Truth. That there was The Book- the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran- the Swami said had one effect; it helped the adherents to hold together. But apart from that the effect of The Book � whichever this happened to be � was baneful. Our communists will not find the Swami�s verdict palatable, not the least because the Swami�s words apply to them and the fetish they made of their Book just as sharply as to Islam etc.!
"One of the great advantages of a book," the Swami says, "is that it crystallises everything in tangible and convenient form, and is the handiest of all idols. Just put a book on an altar and everyone sees it; a good book, everyone reads. I am afraid I may be considered partial. But, in my opinion, books have produced more evil than good. They are accountable for many mischievous doctrines. Creeds all come from books, and books are alone responsible for the persecution and fanaticism in the world. Books in modern times are making liars everywhere. I am astonished at the number of liars abroad in every country." (IV. 44).
Moreover, the Jew, the Christian, the Muslim each has his own book. The Books are at variance. Each says his books alone are right. How is the contest to be settled? Surely it cannot be settled by using any of the Books themselves as the yardstick. It can only be settled by subjecting all of them to reason (I. 368, II. 335) -- the very procedure the faithful will not allow!
The Book itself is but a specific example: an instance of the claim to being the sole possessors of Truth. That is the central claim of every Semitic religion, of Islam most of all. Again I doubt if our communists will reproduce what he had to say about this claim, if for no other reason than because once again the words apply so very aptly to their own claim to being the sole possessors of The Revelation. Here it is:
"Therefore we at once see why there has been so much narrow-mindedness, the part always claiming to be the whole; the little, finite unit always laying claim to the infinite. Think of little sects, born within a few hundred years out of fallible human brains, making this arrogant claim of knowledge of the whole of God�s infinite truth! Think of the arrogance of it! If it shows anything, it is this, how vain human beings are. And it is no wonder that such claims have always failed, and, by the mercy of the Lord, are always destined to fail. In this line the Mohammedans were the best off; every step forward was made with the sword -- the Koran in the one hand and the sword in the other: �Take the Koran, or you must die; there is no alternative!� You know from history how phenomenal was their success; for six hundred years nothing could resist them, and then there came a time when they had to cry halt. So, will it be with other religions if they follow the same methods." (II. 369-70).
On Universal Brotherhood
The claim of Islam, as of every other Semitic religion right up to and including Marxism-Leninism, that it is the doctrine of Universal Brotherhood, the Swami punctures on this count: these religions talk of Universal Brotherhood even as they divide the world between believers and non-believers, not just consigning the latter to external damnation, but binding the believers to exterminate them altogether.
"The more selfish a man," says the Swami in words that the communists will certainly not quote, "the more immoral he is."
"And so also with the race. That race which is bound down to itself has been the most cruel and the most wicked in the whole world. There has not been a religion that has clung to this dualism more than that founded by the Prophet of Arabia, and there has not been a religion, which has shed so much blood and been so cruel to other men. In the Koran there is the doctrine that a man who does not believe these teachings should be killed; it is a mercy to kill him! And the surest way to get to heaven, where there are beautiful houris and all sorts of sense enjoyments, is by killing these unbelievers. Think of the bloodshed there has been in consequence of such beliefs!" (II. 352-2).
The consequence is inevitable. "Now", says the Swami, "we all shout like these drunken men, �Universal Brotherhood!� We are all equal, therefore let us make a sect.� As soon as you make a sect you protect against equality and equality is no more. Mohammedans talk of universal brotherhood, but what comes out of that in reality? Why, anybody who is not a Mohammedan will not be admitted into the brotherhood; he will more likely have his own throat cut. Christians talk of universal brotherhood; but anyone who is not a Christian must go to that place where he will be eternally barbecued." (II. 380).
The scorn Islam has for idol worship and the enthusiasm it has for smashing idols and temples meets with more than scorn from the Swami. Pratika and Pratima have a deep meaning, the Swami explains again and again. They are aids to gathering our wayward minds, devices for imbuing ourselves with higher attributes -- over the ages the idols are endowed with these attributes through lore, and tradition, and association, and then by contemplating the idols and attributes we imbibe them. The iconoclasts don�t just miss the significance of the idol. They become idolators of the lowest kind themselves.
People -- Muslims no less than others- find it difficult to worship the Spirit as Spirit. They therefore revert to the same forms of worship one way or another. But not having been taught, and not having reflected on the true and higher significance of the idol or mental image, they get stuck at the lowest level, at worshipping the object "in itself but not as help to the vision" (Drishtisaukaryam) of God", so that it remains "at best only of the nature of ritualistic Karmas and cannot produce either Bhakti or Mukti." (See, for instance, III. 61, 362; VI. 59-60) Worship of saints, worship of their graves (all entirely forbidden by the Prophet) are examples that the Swami often gives of Islamic idolatry, as in the following typical passage:
"It is a curious phenomenon that there never was a religion started in this world with more antagonism... (to the worship of forms) than Mohammedanism... The Mohammedans can have neither painting nor sculpture, nor music... That would lead to formalism. The priest never faces his audience. If he did, they would make a distinction. This way there was none. And yet it was not two centuries after the Prophet�s death before saint worship (developed). Here is the toe of the saint! There is the skin of the saint! So it goes, Formal worship is one of the stages we have to pass through." (VI. 60)
In view of such reversions the Swami scoffs at the claims of Christians against pagans and of Muslims against idolators. He puts all of them at par, saying that they are all at the same preliminary stage all must pass through. Here is how he puts it:
"All over the world you will find images in some form or other. With some, it is in the form of a man, which is the best form... One sect thinks a certain form is the right sort of image, and another, thinks it is bad. The Christian thinks that when God came in the form of a dove it was alright, but if he comes in the form of a fish, as the Hindus say, it is very wrong and superstitious. The Jews think if an idol be made in the form of a chest with two angels sitting on it, and a book on it, it is all right, but if it is in the form of a man or a woman, it is awful. The Mohammedans think that when they pray, if they try to form a mental image of temple with the Caaba, the black stone in it, and turn towards the west, it is alright, but if you form the image in the shape of church it is idolatry. This is the defect of image worship, yet all these seem to be necessary stages." (IV. 44-5).
Central teaching and consequence
Islam is the religion of peace, we are told again and again. Sufis -- their thought, their music -- are presented to us as the hallmark of Islam. That is certainly not the reading of the one our communists and secularists suddenly find so quotable.
"Why religions should claim that they are not bound to abide by the standpoint of reason," Swami Vivekananda writes, "no one knows. If one does not take the standard of reason, there cannot be any true judgment, even in the case of religions. One religion may ordain something very hideous. For instance, the Mohammedan religion allows Mohammedans to kill all who are not of their religion. It is clearly stated in the Koran, �Kill the infidels if they do not become Mohammedans.� They must be put to fire and sword. Now if we tell a Mohammedan that this is wrong, he will naturally ask, "How do you know that? How do you know it is not good? My book says it is�. " (II. 335)
It is not only philosophic among them who have objected to this thrust of the teaching, the Swami says:
"The mother recognizes her child in any dress and knows him however disguised. Recognize all the great, spiritual men and women in every age and country, and see that they are not really at variance with one another. Wherever there has been actual religion -- this touch of the Divine, the soul coming in direct sense-contact with the Divine -- there has always been a broadening of the mind, which enables it to see the light everywhere. Now, some Mohammedans are the crudest in this respect, and the most sectarian. Their watchword is: �There is one God, and Mohammad is his Prophet.� Everything beyond that not only is bad, but must be destroyed forthwith: at a moment�s notice, every man or woman who does not exactly believe in that must be killed; everything that does not belong to this worship must be immediately broken; every book that teaches anything else must be burnt. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, for five hundred years blood ran all over the world. That is Mohammedanism! Nevertheless, among these Mohammedans, wherever there was a philosophic man, he was sure to protest against these cruelties. In that he showed the touch of the Divine and realized a fragment of the truth; he was not playing with his religion, he was talking, but spoke the truth direct like a man." (IV. 126).
Little seems to have come of the remonstrations of the philosophers however. For in Swami Vivekananda�s reading, the influence of Islam was determined by its central teaching -- to kill or be killed in the war to bring peace to the world.
The Hindu more than others, and the Hindu priests more than ordinary Hindus, Swami Vivekananda recounts, became the targets of slaughter:
"To the Mussulman, the Jews or the Christians are not objects of extreme detestation; they are, at the worst, men of little faith. But not so the Hindu. According to him, the Hindu is idolatrous, the hateful kafir; hence in this life he deserves to be butchered; and in the next, eternal hell is in store for him. The utmost the Mussulman kings could do as a favour to the priestly class -- the spiritual guides of these kafirs -- was to allow them somehow to pass their life silently and wait for the last moment. This was again, sometimes considered too much kindness! If the religious ardour of any king was a little more uncommon, there would immediately follow arrangements for a great yajna by way of kafir-slaughter." (IV. 446).
History accordingly turned gory with the coming of Islam to India, the Swami says:
"You know that the Hindu religion never persecutes. It is the land where all sects may live in peace and amity. The Mohammedans brought murder and slaughter in their train, but until their arrival, peace prevailed. Thus the Jains, who do not believe in a God and who regards such belief as a delusion, were tolerated, and still are there today. India sets the example of real strength that is meekness. Dash, pluck, fight, all these things are weakness." (V. 190).