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In this article Makarand Paranjape raises two issues and then goes on to discuss the impact of the life and teachings of Swami Vivekenanda (SV). The first issue has to do with how SV has been represented in the secondary literature on him. The second which, in a sense, arises out of the first, has to do with what constitutes a “fact” in a spiritual biography. The author believes that confronting both these issues is necessary in order to have a clearer comprehension of the impact of SV on his world, both in the East and the West.
In their excellent comments to this article, Debashish, Rich, and Angiras point out its relevance to the issues surrounding the publication of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo.
I: Re-presenting Swami Vivekananda
First of all, what do I mean by “represent”? I use the word in two main senses. The most obvious and therefore the primary meaning of represent is to describe, to re-present something or someone. The primary meaning of represent, as in the Oxford English Dictionary, suggests presence or appearance because, etymologically, represent goes back to the Latin esse or presence. To represent, then, is to describe or to offer a “likeness” of something. But the “likeness” may actually be an “unlikeness”; that is why, someone may exclaim that my idea of SV is quite different from yours. That is why every act of description is also one of interpretation. And there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. I think this is what Swami Tyagananda highlighted in his presentation when he said that “discovery is a two-track process” in which, on the one hand, “we discover places or things or people” but on the other hand, “we discover our own selves.”
The other meaning of represent is to stand in for, as when we speak of the House of Representatives. So to represent SV is also to stand for (or against) him. For example, in his name, a whole range of institutions and practices are established. For instance, there are societies, centres, schools, colleges, even residential layouts and roads named after him. Of these, some are of a general sort and may not signify anything more than a respect or reverence for SV, but others imply that they are the authentic owners or carriers of his legacy. It is the latter who, in effect, control the apparatus of perpetuating his memory. They are doing Swamiji’s work, as it were. On the other side are those who would seem to be doing not so much Swamiji’s work but that of “truth,” “science,” or “secular knowledge.” They call themselves historians, academics, intellectuals, critics, or whatever. Indeed, there is a competition between these stake-holders who generate competing interpretations. Sometimes, such differences even get consolidated into schools or traditions. Again, Swami Tyagananda referred to these two groups as devotees versus sceptics, those who see SV as divine as opposed to those who see him as only too human. Tyagananda-ji asked the important question of whether it was possible to take a new look at SV, one that would not only reconcile these two “schools” of representation, but actually rediscover Swamji for the present age.
For this to happen, I would argue that we have to come to terms with the crux of these two meanings of the word “represent.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, referring back to Karl Marx, encapsulated these two senses of the word as “portrait” and “proxy,” or to go back to the German terms, darstellung and vertretung respectively. Both ways of looking at SV are relevant to my own inquiry. This brings me to an important gesture at self-disclosure. My immediate purpose or prasanga to study SV was to edit a new, one-volume collection of his writings for a general audience. Such a project was exciting because most of the anthologies of Swamiji’s work are either by disciples and devotees or by those who are the flag bearers of his legacy. Moreover, many of these selections were for specific purposes or topics, such as SV on Women, on Education, on Hinduism, on India and her problems, on youth and so on. To try to do a selection independently was therefore a major challenge.
But any such project of (re)discovery can only happen through the available literature by and on him. In other words, all these anthologies, including the one I worked on, must rely on the only available edition of his Complete Works published in nine volumes by the Advaita Ashrama of the Ramakrishna Math. This is because scholars or anthologists cannot go to the actual sources, but have to rely on what is available through the official sources.
Let me present one example of the difficulty that this poses: the recently discovered letters of Swamiji to the Maharaja of Khetri, Ajit Singh. These letters, as we know, were found in the dusty files of the record room in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, which was then in the princely state of Khatri. Two of these letters were first published in the Times of India of February 24, 1999. The first is dated 15th February  and talks about SV’s encounter with a psychic, Chetty, an astrologer who predicts many things to SV, but also asks the latter to bless some vibhuti and give that to him. The letters were written without punctuation and had many other peculiarities (433). For instance, SV calls the Maharaja, not “Your Highness” but “your “High Up.” The year is not written in the letter, but we know from other sources that it is likely to be 1893. When Prabuddha Bharata reprinted the letters, they not only “corrected” the spellings and punctuation, but they changed the ending in the second letter of 22nd May  from “yours obediently” to “Yours in the Lord” (433).
Now one might argue that such changes are minor and insignificant, but from the point of view of accuracy, they would be hard to justify. Just how much to “correct” is a major issue in textual scholarship. While spelling may be modernised and punctuation inserted or standardised, even such minimally invasive sorts of alterations will change the flavour and savour of a text. We may never, for instance, know if SV was a good speller or whether his English “improved” with the years! There is a bigger epistemological issue at stake here, but I will come to them later. Right now we need to remember that it is possible, that there are many other existing errors and erroneous emendations in the Complete Works. Besides changes, there are also several omissions and deletions. I discovered these many years ago when I wrote a paper on SV’s letters. There are curious paradoxes in what the editors and publishers of these letters did to them. For instance, in one letter, SV says to the addressee: destroy this letter after you’ve read it or don’t show this letter to anyone. The letter is published with these words in it! This is an example of a certain kind of fidelity to the actual text of the letter even if it means a deliberate or inadvertent disobedience of Swamiji’s command. But there are innumerable instances in the published letters where ellipses suggest the omission of text. I was given to understand that matters of a private, controversial, or otherwise inappropriate nature were omitted because they were not considered suitable to general readers. Who took these decisions and for what reasons remains to be investigated. Unlike Jeffrey Kripal I am not at all suggesting that there is a secret in the deleted portions waiting to be discovered or even that some kind of deliberate censorship was applied to the letters. All I am saying is that what we do have is different from what SV actually wrote. Here is where both aspects of representation that I mentioned become crucial. Not only has Swamiji been presented to us in a particular way, but those who stand for him have exercised their right or power over how we might see him.
Swami Tyagananda has already alluded to the different genres of texts that make up the Complete Works. There are transcripts of his speeches, original writings and translations, summaries of talks, letters, poems, conversations, interviews, even newspaper reports. Clearly the last three cannot be considered the works of Swamiji himself — their authors are others people, those who summarized, transcribed, reported, or quoted him, as the case may be. Clearly, then, there are different kinds of texts involved here. The issue is one of the ontological and epistemological status of the documents on the basis of which SV is represented. That is, how do we learn or how do we cognise SV? What is the validity of the various sources of such knowledge? What methods do we use to evaluate its validity or credence? Before we have a system or method of addressing, if not answering such questions, our claims and counter claims on the message or thought or philosophy of SV will at best be tentative, if not altogether erroneous.
The Complete Works presents other difficulties. The arrangement is neither strictly chronological nor thematic. There is an order or a system of organization, but this is never clarified. The letters themselves occur in different volumes and in different series, as do poems, speeches, and other writings. Even if the order is chronological, there are different kinds of chronology: for example, the chronology of the works as Swamiji himself wrote them and, in contradistinction, the chronology of the discovery of the works. Thus, volume 9 is entirely composed of works that were not known when the earlier editions of the earlier volumes were being published. Another serious problem with the contents is the contexts or dates or even the exact occasions of the texts is not always indicated. For this we have to consult other sources, mainly the biographies of SV. But the problem is that the biographies themselves have been based, in large measure, on precisely these sources themselves. This difficulty gets compounded in the large number of anthologies of SV. In these, the Swami’s works are wrenched out of their specific contexts so as to make them eternal pronouncements, totally unrelated to space, time, or causality. For instance, SV may have said something on a particular topic, say, women, in a letter to a disciple. He may have said something else in a speech. He may have said a third thing in an essay that he published. Some of these comments may actually contradict each other. But not only are such contradictions removed, but the quotations sit next to each other in the anthology without any reference to where or when they first were written or spoken. The complexity or interpretive challenge of SV’s thought is thus flattened out; the ideas, taken out of their contexts, are turned into prophetic utterances. Many arguments or claims are based on these secondary or even tertiary selections and arrangements. Instead of the “real” thing, we have a pre-packaged, pre-cooked, even pre-digested SV, made easy, simplified, at times, rendered even into an “instant SV.”
My intention is not at all to criticise the Complete Works or the editors of the previous selections on SV. Far from it; those who have worked on such projects have often done so quite selflessly for years, rendering a great service to the reading public. Their books are products of their devotion and care. Lacking other sources, these are invaluable and without substitute for any serious scholar or student of SV. But, nevertheless, they leave scope for greater accuracy and improvement. The enterprise of Western scholarship is not only more competent, but much more open, at least in many cases. The result is a periodic updating and improvement in the methods and practices of textual scholarship. Textual scholarship, of course, if culturally embedded. In a culture such as India in which the most sacred texts, the Vedas, were never even written down to prevent them from being polluted and corrupted and where the classical texts and treatises were often composed in highly compressed, mnemonic verses, the expertise to deal with modern texts from a variety of sources is still limited. There is much that we have to learn and do to make the best use of our own resources and traditions. An enormous amount of dedicated textual work and scholarship are required before we can have a somewhat clear idea of even so recent a figure as SV. I might add that I also have nothing as such against various simplified versions of the master’s ideas, including the justifiably popular “Thus Spake” series which the Ramakrishna Math has been publishing. Each other these anthologies represent SV to different audiences.
The purpose of this lengthy account of some of the issues and problems that occur in any attempt to understand SV is to point out the prerequisites of a genuine and far-reaching re-evaluation. I believe that this can only happen after we have a better edition of SV’s works, and better biographical and textual sources at our disposal. In the meanwhile, the debates will centre on differing interpretations of already “known” data. It is to this that I shall turn my attention next. In this regards, I would argue that one’s positions reveal as much about one’s own values and prejudices as they do some facet of SV’s personality or life-work.
Here it is important to remember, as Swami Tyagananda pointed out, that most the biographies of the Swami are written from the point of view of SV’s importance to India and its people. He also suggested the need to write a new life to suit the globalised world that we inhabit today. I do hope that such a biography does get written, because that is indeed the need of the day. And yet, as an Indian, living and working in India, and preparing a selection to be published by an Indian publisher in India largely for Indian audiences, I cannot help observing that many of my own selections reflect this Indo-centric bias.
As many commentators have noticed, Swamiji’s message to the West was quite different from that to the East. When he faced the West, he spoke of the glories of Vedanta, trying to re-cast it as the foundation of a new universal religion. But when he faced his own countrymen and women, he was far more critical and exhortatory. He wanted not only to transform Hinduism but also Indian people, uplifting them from the morass of oppression, depression, ignorance, and darkness into which they had sunk. As he said repeatedly, what he saw in India was just tamas and cowardice masquerading as sattva or high philosophy. More than anything else, he abhorred the weakness of Indians, their lack of courage, dignity, and inactivity appalled him. The inertia, the atavism, and the quietism of the masses, an outcome of centuries of deprivation, violence, and incapacity produced an almost physiological reaction in him. But Vedantin that he was, somewhere in the soul of this defeated, even crippled, civilization, SV still saw a spark of life and hope. Like breathing life again into a comatose body, SV re-awakened and re-energized the pranamaya kosa of the very body of India. This dynamic aspect of the Swami’s work, perhaps, far exceeded all his other achievements. This is the dimension that is not immediately visible or available to those who approach his works from a purely intellectual or mental perspective. I mention this because I found myself moved most by those speeches of SV that he gave on his return to India after his more than three-year sojourn in the U.S. From Pamban, where he first landed after coming to the mainland from Sri Lanka, to Calcutta, where he made his way up in the space of a few weeks, SV had already presented not just a clear diagnosis of the ailment of India, but also the blueprint of its revival. Cosequently, my own representation of SV emphasizes his role as the creator of a new India, the visionary who gave a whole people the mahamantra of svaraj. I would even go so far as to argue that a major aspect of SV’s impact on the West was indirectly through his vision of a new India. SV influenced the West directly by giving it the new pohilosophy of Vedanta but he also influenced it indirectly by giving Indians a new sociology of India.
To sum up this section of my argument, I would suggest that SV’s impact on the West cannot be understood without engaging with the issue of how he is represented. This in turn requires a two-fold awareness of the sources of his life and work on the one hand, with an understanding of the limitations that they impose, and of the values and biases of the scholar on the other hand.