Earlier this month I visited New Delhi’s Ramakrishna Ashram for the first time. What drew me there was the exhibition on the life of Swami Vivekananda (a.k.a., Narendra Dutta, 1863-1902). The exhibition, inaugurated a few months ago by the Dalai Lama, celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of the saffron-clad monk who is India’s Great Man -“second only to Ghandi,” as I was told more than once. Compared to most other historical exhibitions I have seen in this country, “Vivekananda: A Prophet of Harmony” is tip-top, as measured by functioning A/C and lighting fixtures, savvy graphics panels, contemporary wallpaper posters, new dioramas, and an interactive exit quiz intended for schoolchildren. Plus it’s relatively crowded. Over the course of an hour or two I spent there on a Saturday morning I counted a couple of university students (probably taking a short study break from the nearby library), a few senior citizens, half-dozen sadhus (among them, two Europeans and an Indonesian), and one large middle class family visiting the capital city from Tamil Nadu. “You must see the film,” said the moustached paterfamilias to me.
His reference was to “9/11: The Awakening,” a 15-minute computer-animated piece on a speech Vivekananda gave on 11 September 1893 at the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago, which was held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition. Starting with a scene straight out of The Titanic, the film depicts the monk’s transoceanic crossing, and how he bowed to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, before taking the podium. “Sisters and brothers of America,” Vivekanada’s opening line, is known to every educated Indian person, but “the speech” in the short film appears to take from multiple speeches the monk gave in Chicago, including the second (“Why We Disagree,” September 15) and the third (“Paper on Hinduism,” September 19) are the richest. By all accounts, Vivekananda’s discourses on religious tolerance and unity, mutual recognition, India, and Hinduism were a big hit (it suffices to consider the tumultuous applause he received multiple times from the audience of 4,000 – or 7,000 if you include the overflow halls of the Art Institute). Chicago treasures these memories today. A stretch of the Michigan Ave (at Adams St) is now the honorary Swami Vivekananda Way and a statue of the saint, taller than the one at Delhi’s RK Ashram metro station, adorns Chicagoland’s premier Hindu temple in Lemont.
According to the standard historical narrative, Vivekananda was the first Indian/Hindu thinker to introduce Hinduism and the Indian/Hindu understandings of tolerance, peace, and justice to Anglo-America and the European continent – ideas that would “conquer the world,” as he would put it (“It is my ambition to conquer the world by Hindu thought – to see Hindus from the North Pole to the South Pole”, 1897). The Chicago speeches and other overseas interventions carried by the swamiji established a number of inter-civilization bridges, both big (the global spread of Vedanta philosophy and yoga) and small (Nikola Tesla’s vegetarianism, celibacy, and a possible re-consideration of the mind-body problem). Vivekananda’s speeches and writings, the narrative goes, “awoke” India from its slumber (“For the next fifty years let Mother India be your God. Serve your country as you would serve God, and India will awaken”, 1897). His “modernized” version of the Indian/Hindu thought inspired “social reform” at home, while helping raise awareness about India’s anti-colonial struggle abroad. No less important, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission (now the main publisher of his writings) and the Vedanta Societies , which continue to spread his teachings to this day.
Different Vivekanandas, Different Indias
One needs not be an India expert to infer that the life story of the Great Vedantin constitutes usable history or, indeed, histories. Recently, Pranab Mukherjee, the president of the Indian Republic, stated that Vivekananda’s teachings ought to be spread across the world, especially the idea that the educated rich have a social responsibility towards the uneducated poor. The president quoted a line that appears on a number of government and non-government websites dedicated to the sage: “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them” (the source appears to be a letter to a friend and student, which he wrote in 1894 in Chicago). The quote can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it generally chimes with Vivekanada’s calls for more social work, which he grounded in the Indian/Hindu ideal (specifically Brahmin, but for him embodied in the Buddha) of selfless devotion and community service. Messages like these are of course familiar and symbolically powerful not just in India, and can thus be framed as flying beyond ideology and partisan politics. Mukherjee’s Vivekananda operates in precisely this way (notwithstanding a dose of certain Bengali pride perhaps) Here, the monk’s personal wisdom and reputation serves to nudge the politics of the day in desired directions, which in post-liberalization India – and Mukherjee is one of its fathers – means paying ample lip service to mass education, social reform and equality. Vivekanada’s message – complex and contradictory as it was, especially on this subject – is therefore reduced to a slogan that can best be appreciated at the most abstract level (the take-home point being that “the president, too, recognizes that the sage saw the future in ways that many of his contemporaries could not” or something liked that).
Though he is regularly mobilized in official and officious ways, a single, consecrated Vivekananda does not exist. In India, the year 2013 will be full of Vivekanada, and I will be curious to see how the story of the swamiji unfolds in contemporary political debates. Although many of his teachings can be said to be in line with what later became the Republic’s socialist tradition  – a tradition that is codified in the constitution– Vivekananda has so far proven far more serviceable to India’s political Right than to the Left. Portraits of the swami have adorned BJP offices and paraphernalia for years, and this branding effort is still going strong. In the Gujarat assembly election that took place in December, Narendra Modi, who was subsequently reelected as the state’s chief minister, ran a campaign road-show titled the Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra. The same road-show will probably go national if/when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) moves to field Modi as its candidate in the 2014 election.
In most right-of-center appropriations, Vivekanada is a religious, philosophical, and national figure at once. Having been invoked as an avatar of a “resurgent” or “assertive” Hinduism for decades, the swami is one of the public faces of the Hindutva movement, which basically exalts a more narrowly Hindu Hindustan. Here, the quintessential Other is Islam, and the role of the reader is to mobilize Vivekanada against it. This is of course a simplification, but there is no doubt that the idea and practice of Hindutva operates in direct opposition to past and present Muslim Indias. BJP’s historical if not political cousin is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant organization that has spearheaded Hindu-first nationalism while pushing a revered but narrow reading of Vivekananda since the 1920s. What its spokespersons like to contend is that Muslims (as well as Sikhs and other religious groups) in India are really civilizational/cultural Hindus. The proposition is simple, and familiar across time and space: to be “of India” one must be Hindustani – those who like hyphens, hybrids, and such need not apply. Again, one needs not be an expert in South Asian politics to conclude that the general idea here is to minimize the place of the Islamic (Sikh, Buddhist etc.) identity in the Indian state and nation.
And what is the liberal response? Vivekanada is the subject of what some view as an iconoclastic new book by Jyotirmaya Sharma titled Dharma for The State (I’ve read excerpts in Outlook, the 21 January 2013 issue, see above image, but not the actual book). According to Sharma, the swamiji’s regard for pluralism and universalism was skin-deep, as evidenced in the way he dismissed Islam, among other religions, as a “sect” in no way equal to Hinduism. These views, Sharma observes, may have been airbrushed from the received record, but they have nonetheless shaped Hindu nationalism for over a century. More importantly, these views are being built into a growing Hindu majoritarianism within the Indian Republic, whose secular leaders always talk softly but nevertheless carry a big stick pointed at excessive “communalist politics” of a certain kind. The swami’s preference for the Vedanta, Sharma suggests, was at least partly driven by a collective need for a version of “soft” Hinduism that could legitimately claim to subsume other religions, including India’s Islamic traditions. So viewed, Vivekanandian philosophy becomes a blueprint for state-sanctioned Hindu imperialism with a friendly human face (look at that cover page again).
Assorted intellectuals from India’s political and cultural Left have long argued that the good swami should be approachable as a mortal (Sil provides a great discussion of this history, which goes back to the 1970s). But disagreement and debate is bound take place even among the most reflective of reviewers. Indeed, if Vivekananda is the face Hinduism, then he is the face of one of the most complex and venerable cultural, social, political etc. traditions on the planet that can be manifested in ways that are at once universal and racist, egalitarian and casteist, emancipatory and conservative and so on. The creators of sensationalist cover pages like the one that appeared in Outlook know this all too well: how Vivekananda relates – or ought to relate – to India’s political liberation and its subsequent political development remains a Big Question, and one that will not be settled any time soon. For every out-of-context line on, for example, the Mohammedan yoke, Vivekananda has another on the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood and unity (“our motherland is a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body” being the most famous and the most debated) and two more on the promise of perennialism in which no single religion is ever perennis (from one of the Chicago speeches: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We not only believe in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true”). The same can be said about many other topics the swami addressed, which is why a single reading of Vivekananda cannot remain regnant for too long.
The International According to the Good Swami
In the world of multiple Vivekanadas, is there a place for Vivekanada the international theorist? A prolific writer who has spent a good portion of his adult life travelling and lecturing abroad (in the U.S. alone, he spent more than three years in total) is bound to have left behind written thoughts on how the international and global society hangs (or should hang) together, right? Well, wrong – unless I am missing something, in which case I hope the readers will help me (my readings so far are disappointing to me probably because I don’t know where to look or, indeed, how to read Indian political thought). Vivekananda appealed for a spiritual turn on a global scale, which would ostensibly be led by monks like himself (in addition the individualistic search for union with god, the role of the monk was social service or seva directed at all of humanity). Politics in the “traditional” sense appears mostly absent from this vision, or at least mostly derivative from spirituality (which makes it “traditional” in an entirely different sense, of course). Here’s a quote from his 1897 lecture at the Madras (now Chennai) Ice House (now Vivekanandar Illam), which Kalpana Mohapatra (Political Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda) regards as one of the monk’s most internationalist speeches: “I do not mean to say that political or social improvements are not necessary, but what I mean is this that they are secondary here and that religion is primary.”
The religion that Vivekanada invokes, or said to invoke, appears to be a set of spiritual beliefs held by all of humanity. A children’s book I picked up at the ashram (Irene Ray and Mallika Clare Gupta. The Story of Vivekananda, Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1970 ), puts it thus:
The idea that everything in the universe exists within one universal spirit is really a very simply idea, and it is an idea that may be found all over the world, in ancient times and in modern times. In India, this idea was taught very clearly and in great detail in the Upanishadas. There it was called ‘the science of the Spirit’ because people studied it and experimented with it, just as modern people study and experiment with the physical sciences….[Vivekananda] took this idea and applied it to the modern world. He said that in particular it must be applied in modern western countries and in modern India. Both, he said, would have to put this idea in practice, but in different ways.
What is also interesting is that Vivekananda did not directly deal with colonialism, despite spending an enormous amount of time comparing the fortunes and misfortunes of India versus those of the West. He never defined “East” and “West,” but he did maintain a remarkably consistent we-are-different-but-equal perspective throughout, while calling for the universal sisterhood & brotherhood as the ultimate stage for human civilization. So politics is not entirely absent, even in the first meaning of the “traditional”. Here’s that children’s book again:
Swamiji foresaw the great interchange between East and West that is taking place at the present time. This interchange would lead to a complete world civilization. Civilization, he said, would be only be complete in the world when India gave the world the marvels of spiritual things, and, in exchange, received from the world the marvels of modern science.
This “civilizational” political philosophy can be regarded as a critique of a hierarchical and Eurocentric view of the world that was pervasive at the time in cities like Chicago or Calcutta (now Kolkata), but also as an endorsement of globalization and unity around a common “science of the Spirit.” India’s spirituality can help offset the excessive materialism of the West, while Western technology and institutions can help alleviate abject poverty and other ills of the Indian and more broadly Eastern societies. And yet, what is remarkable here is that the monk offered few or no reflections on the state or empire. Mohapatra suggests that Vivekananda accepted that the universal sisterhood & brotherhood nevertheless depended on peace and cooperation among “national societies” (he did, in my reading, treat nation and race as interchangeable), and not simply individual themselves, but this is at best implicit. Indeed, his disengagement with the state – that most traditional of all traditional political themes – is probably the main reason why most standard reviews of Indian political thought skip Vivekananda altogether (by standard I mean Verma’s Studies in Hindu Political Thought and Its Metaphysical Foundations  and Appadurai’s Indian Political Thinking Through the Ages ). There are, however, exceptions. In his Foundations of Indian Political Thought , V.R. Mehta observes that Vivekananda’s Modern India in fact explicitly addresses state power by analyzing the relationship between the decadence of the upper class/caste establishment and corrupt government [3.. The argument goes like this: while freedom can be achieved only from within, it does help for individuals to have modern, indigenous and, indeed, decentralized political institutions; ostensibly, the same principles could help achieve an Indo-Western synthesis for the benefit of humanity overall.
The following interpretation is going to sound even more Eurocentric than the above, but Vivekananda’s musings on globalism/internationalism in Modern India and elsewhere reminded me of Romanticism, especially the early German and Scottish sort. This, I learned later, may not be a coincidence. The RK Ashram exhibition explains that the swamiji voraciously read Percy Bysshe Shelley and other great Romantic poets as well as that he was interested in the scepticism of David Hume. So could it be that Vivekananda’s political philosophy contention owes something to this tradition as well? The biographies suggest as much, as does the overall intellectual environment of the so-called Bengali Renaissance that socialized the swamiji in important ways (for one, it was upon the advice of a British teacher and, more contentiously, after reading the European Vedantists that Narendra Dutta became a swami under Ramakrishna Paramhansa). So what could this mean? According to Frederick Beiser (The Romantic Imperative, 2006), more than a few German Romantics were attracted to quasi-religious discourses – pantheist ideas on comprehensive unity, for example – chiefly because those enabled them to launch politically radical arguments on equality or ecumenism (which also suggest that there is no clear dividing between Romanticism and the Enlightenment). On a quick reading, there are several strong parallels here. For one, both Vivekananda and Romanticists privileged the individual and human freedom against the potentially corrupting social and political institutions. Next, they both argued that human emancipation might be a simple function of good morals, authenticity, and missionary zeal, rather than a product of organized religion or the state. Next, they both argued that reason and religiosity could and should co-exist, as well as that the universe was ultimately unknowable. The latter realization might have its pitfalls at first, but it leads to liberation (one museum wallpaper poster suggests that after reading up on philosophical agnosticism, Vivekananda was “beset with a certain dryness and incapacity for the old prayers and devotions”). These parallels are only superficial, but do note that that Vivekananda proved especially popular with American Transcendentalists.
Viewed from the perspective of IR, Romanticism offers a counter-textbook take on the international. The idea that the personal, the local and the global all bleed into each other or the critiques of the state, nation and empire that can be found in much of contemporary IR owe a lot to Romantic and neo-Romantic imaginations. What Romantics offered was no shortage of means to understand social and political phenomena in a global context and from a perspective of some universal human condition. Vivekananda, if he be reduced to a “mere” (European?) Romantic, saw the world to be humanly constituted and articulated more-or-less sympathetic visions of disparate cultures as well as of intercivilizational bridges. In fact, it is only a small stretch to construct yet another Vivekananda: a theorist of creative tensions among different religious traditions – as well a few agnostic and atheist ones – that have been essential to the development of Indian/Hindu thought on the supernatural (see Amartya Sen’s preface to K.M. Sen’s Hinduism).
In IR discourse, the label of Romanticism has been applied to the schools of thought that posit emancipation as their goal (see, for example, Cynthia Weber’s “Why IR needs theory/practice debates” ), but it is worth recalling that there can be many different manifestations of Romanticism in IR. Consider two discourses on the collective identity of the present-day Indian Republic or, as Kanti Bajpai calls them, “strategic orientations” (see his “Indian Conceptions of Order and Justice: Nehruvian, Gandhian, Hindutva, and Neo-liberal” (a chapter in Rosemary Foot, John Lewis Gaddis, and Andrew Hurrell, eds., Order and Justice in International Relations, 2003). In my reading of Bajpai’s schema, Vivekanada’s vision is most clearly reflected in, and reproduced by, the Gandhian strategic orientation. The notion that the individual’s conscience is or should be the driving force for all human interaction, from the level of the village to the international system, would fit Vivekanada’s Chicago speeches as would a certain ambivalence towards formal political institutions in Modern India. Then we have the constantly reoccurring ideals of non-violence and tolerance as well as agrarianism, which also very much accords with early Romanticism.
But recall from above that for Vivekananda “religion is primary.” This also smacks of early Romanticism, but there might be more. In Bajpai’s schema, another one of alternative strategic orientations in India is Hindutva or political Hinduism. This discourse imagines the state as an agent of civilization: the Indian Republic is but a current manifestation of the ancient “Hindu” civilization. Civilizations are plural and pluralistic, and may even be pacific with each other, but they nonetheless compete with each other for influence. And the unique power of Hindu civilization has to do with the power of Hinduism and its ideas regarding universality, tolerance, equality and ecumenisms. Rahul Sagar’s “The Hindu Nationalist View of International Politics,” (a chapter in Kanti Bajpai, Saira Basit, V. Krishnappa, eds., India’s Grand Strategy, forthcoming) explores this strategic orientation further by interrogating the writings of Vinayak Savarkar (1893-1996) and Madhav Golwalkar (1906-1973). The Hindu nationalist school, argues Sagar, can be regarded as a composite of the realist tradition in international theory and the good old exclusionary nationalism and chauvinism. The Savarkar-Golwalkar theorization of international politics led to the following proposition: the greater the “martial spirit of the people” and “national cohesion,” the greater the nation’s power in the international politics. As Sagar notes, this theorization was based on a selective reading of contemporary classics, and this included Vivekananda’s calls for a more masculine Indian/Hindu: “I want men with muscles of iron and nerves of steel.”
Parallels can be drawn between Romanticism and international theories inspired by muscular, militarist nationalism, but what ultimately connects them are certain fascist ideologies of rule in the era of mass racialized politics. Golwalkar’s statement that “without a strong patriotic heart no amount of arms and ammunition will save the country” (cited in Sagar) could have been just as easily Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s. Sagar helpfully points out key tensions between Realpolitik and the idea that “men are most willing to fight when they believe they are defending their religion (Savarkar in Sagar’s paraphrase),” thus adding a realist twist to standard liberal critiques of Hindu nationalism. In brief, vigorous identity politics meant to build martial spirit and cohesion at home actually undermines the ability of the state to project its power abroad, including leadership by example, as well as attract foreign capital and labour (the Vivekananda of the Gandhian school would certainly subscribe to the first part of this argument). Sagar’s critique is refreshing, and contributes to critical explorations of various fascist moments (for the lack of a better phrase) from the perspective of realist political thought as well as the so-called “conservative liberalism” (here I am thinking, completely incoherently, of everything from Randall Schweller’s internal critique of “bold expansionism” in his Unanswered Threats to a couple of articles by Jef Huysmans to Nicholas Rengger’s chapter on Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt in Duncan Bell, ed., Variations on a Realist Theme to The Tragic Vision of Politics by Richard Ned Lebow to Robbie’s chapters on Weber and Morgenthau in his German Thought and International Relations to Michael C. Williams’ “end of IR theory” paper). The development of political realism, especially the various advice-to-the-prince discourses drawn from IR theorizations of realism, must thus be viewed not only as a “necessary” response to various types of Ghandianism but also to radically right-wing (read: Schmittian) rejections of putative Romantic fantasies of universality, tolerance, and peace. And this necessity may be said to have emerged form the very nature of modern politics, and the way that mass culture threatened the self-appointed gatekeepers of ideas on Realpolitik.
Yoga & IR
There is another Vivekanada moment in ir/IR, which I can’t help but mention at the very end. It has to do with yoga, that “most significant contribution of Indian culture to the world” (Sharma and Sharma, Indian Political Thought, 1996, p.170). Arguably, Indian yoga conquered the world by way of America, and it was Vivekananda who got the Americans hooked during his New York sojourn in 1895. His free yoga classes in Manhattan opened the door for the mostly U.S.-based work of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda twenty or so years later, as well as, still later, that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The new yogis moved yoga away from its putative Indian/Hindu roots and towards more abstract ideas and practices of “unity” – the unity of man and the supreme being, the unity of science and religion (recall the “science of the Spirit”), the unity of mind and body, the unity of all religions, and so on (I say putative because such a thoroughly globalized phenomenon like yoga cannot be said to belong to a single tradition, and even within pre-colonial India it a composite of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, and other traditions… And in the case you are wondering, the image below is of an actual defence industry ad).
Yoga is now a global, multi-billion dollar industry, but commercialization did not completely erase its traditional science. Consider “International Peace Project in the Middle East: The Effects of the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field,” a paper by David W. Orme-Johnson, Charles N. Alexander, John L. Davies, and Wallace E. Larimore that appeared in Journal of Conflict Resolution back in 1988. The paper evaluates an “experiment” set up around the idea that human beings are connected on the level of the “unified field.” So can meditation cause peace? The authors say yes: all being equal, the more people practiced Transcendental Meditation (in Jerusalem), the greater the quality of life in different West Asian locales (measured by indices made up of crime rate, traffic accidents, fires, the stock market…and the number of war deaths in Lebanon). This paper, as well as the wider research program on the so-called Maharishi effects, has received no shortage of attention over the years (Orme-Johnson helpfully lists most relevant critiques and rebuttals here), including among seasoned IR-ists. In his 2010 APSA paper on “Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis,” Phillip Schrodt revisits his original critique of Orme-Johnson et al to illustrate the pitfalls of confusing statistical and experimental controls (“We know this is wrong but we forget it is wrong”), but the 1988 debate is remarkable for going well beyond the said controls and into a debate about the nature of the international being and the validity of knowledge. Not sure what Vivekananda would say about what many regard as IR’s own Sokal Affair, but he would probably be more than happy to engage in a long philosophical discussion on what exists in the world and what doesn’t – and how we might know the difference for sure.
 Vedanta is a subset of Hinduism that foregrounds the unity of all religions (“there are many different paths to the same mountaintop,” explained one Ramakrishna disciple to me), but the secondary literature tells me that Vivekananda’s Hinduism drew on Advaita, which is a subset of Vedanta. How this particular Hinduism relates to perennialism, universality, Sanatan Dharm, etc. are scholastic subjects, and the only thing I take from this literature is the broad use of the term philosophyto capture the back-and-forth between religious and secular thinking. I also use the clunky phrase Indian/Hindu because Vivekananda used these two terms interchangeably (this is from Amiya Sen’s biography of the swami).
Next, I’ll never be able to figure out caste relations, but from what I’ve read in the standard biographies and critiques (Sen’s as well as those by Shailendra Dhar, Chattopadhyay Rajagopal, and, especially, Narasingha Sil. I am also relying on the 1993 SOAS conference proceedings edited by William Radice [and published in 1988]) it appears that contemporary Bengali Brahmins rejected Vivekananda on a number of occasion and for a number of reasons, including his descent-based credentials (another trans-cultural moment: rather than being an official representative of some Hindu order, he joined the Chicago parliament on the recommendations of a Harvard professor of classics and an Indian friend on the organizing committee). From what I’ve read, Vivekananda’s views on caste were as “tense” as those of many turn-of-the-twentieth century Indian/Hindu modernizers. While he argued against untouchability, he hesitated to do the same with respect to the caste system itself (compare to Ghandi, as discussed by Bhikhu Parekh in Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, 1989, and also note that Vivekananda may have been the first to use the term Dalit). Plenty of tension and hesitation characterizes his stance on the dogma and practice of Brahmin male privilege, which was made even more complicated by the fact that the swamiji’s most ardent Western followers were female. (Sister Nivedita, a.k.a. Margaret Noble, to use the best known example, is described in one of a children’s book on the swami: “a learned lady with great courage. Just like the great women of India, Sister Nivedita wanted to know about God…She dedicated herself to India and served the people of India for the rest of her life.”)
 And was he really a socialist? I recently came across a collection entitled Swami Vivekananda Studies in Soviet Union published in 1987 by the Ramakrishna Mission. This volume’s modal answer is “no.” On what Vivekananda means in today’s post-liberalization India, see the cover page sections in Frontline, January-February 2013.
 In Indian Political Thought (1996), Urmila Sharma and Sanjeev Kumar Sharma identify several political themes in the monks’s writings, including his take on the Kantian freedom, but without going into in-depth discussions.