Does the ancient Hindu religion have the life-essence to survive, giving answers to the questions posed by the new world?
Does that hallowed and sacred culture have the spine and bones to stand upright, head held high, in the face of Western knowledge and astounding feats [of modern science]?
Does Veda-Vedānta possess that elevated spirit of inherent goodness to remain afloat in the torrent of scientific powers, striking with belligerence, wave upon wave?
Forty years ago [c. 1893], the whole world was asking these questions, as was the Hindu world. At that point, if Swami Vivekananda had not stood up to boldly face these questions and respond with, “Yes!” “Indeed!” “It does!” – roaring the answers with such firmness, his voice reaching the ears of the world – there is no doubt that Hindu society could not have shown even the [little] new energy and consciousness that it does today; it would have collapsed into an even deeper slumber and fallen into decrepitude. In this world, the strength of one—whether it is that of an animal or of a society—doesn’t remain static; one moment isn’t like the next. Strength must be increasing, or reducing. Prior to Swami Vivekananda’s time, a great suspicion—a morbid fear of death—had struck the heart of Hindu society. He gave people the assurance that there was no reason to be afraid and that their fears were unfounded; he revived the self-confidence of the Hindu society, paved the way for its rise in strength, and extended its lifeline.
As a secondary consequence of his remarkable feat of increasing the lifespan of his own (Hindu) society, other religions received a great favour from Vivekananda: they could no longer consider the ‘alien’ vaidika (adherent of the Vedas) to be dead and gone. All these other religions yet have numerous questions to ponder upon and several philosophical ideas to learn. In these areas, they can benefit from the Hindu worldview – thus Vivekananda cautioned other religions, paving the way for their self-exploration and self-examination.
The Swami was not a blind devotee of the Faith, being merely satisfied with showering lavish praise on the Vedas and Vedānta. So what if the philosophical concepts in the Vedas are akin to the legendary Meru-parvata (Mount Meru); so long as the lives of people who claim to tread the Vedic path resemble the stagnant water rotting in a moss-covered pit, their very existence is endangered – this is something Vivekananda never forgot, never concealed. After a thousand years of constant attack and beating, the body of Hindu society is replete with scars, blisters, injuries, and deformations; much dust and dirt have accumulated. Under the deplorable illusion that all this is part of its ancient wealth, it clings on to this with reverence in a firm embrace. If it continues to sit rigidly in this state, its health will further deteriorate and in due course it will destroy itself. Hindu society must awaken from its deep slumber of tamas (deluded lethargy); it must open its eyes and see the world around; it must exercise its limbs and move about with vigour; it must abandon the notions that inactivity is serenity, dilapidation is reverence-worthiness, and old-age is sacredness; it must wash its pus-filled wounds; it must discard all its dirty linen; it must throw open the windows and doors, welcoming into its house the fresh air and bright light from outside. This is the path to a meaningful, fulfilling life. Through the course of his travels, Swami Vivekananda didn’t hesitate one bit in showing that the whole of the society needed a massive overhaul. Just as he was enthusiastic about illuminating the greatness of sva-dharma (one’s inner nature, innate temperament) he was also the forerunner in demonstrating the defects and weaknesses of sva-samāja (one’s own society, own community).
The prerequisite qualification for this pioneering task was not merely scholarship in Sanskrit, not merely eloquence in English, not merely reverence and love for dharma, but a combination of all these strengths; in addition to these, a few more abilities were necessary. Foremost among them was a decisive wisdom rooted in dharma and the manly courage of a braveheart that comes along with such decisive wisdom. Swami Vivekananda by nature was a prodigious talent. His intellect could traverse at the speed of lightning; at one instance it could playfully dive to the bottom of the ocean; at another instance it could soar high above mountain summits like a bird; at other times it could flow like a gentle breeze over grassy plains. A rapier-like sharpness, a jovial light-heartedness, fitful obsession, leisurely serenity – such were the qualities of that great mind. He had methodically studied Sanskrit vyākaraṇa (grammar) and tarka (the science of logic in ancient India). Similarly he had a deep and wide-ranging knowledge of English literature, history, science, and philosophy, which he had minutely analyzed and internalized. Befitting his mastery over these dual knowledge systems, he had the skill of oratory, with words flowing like an impetuous river; complementary to that persuasive rhetoric, he had a powerful voice that shook the hearts of listeners; a charismatic, noble, and majestic physical frame; a fine connoisseurship and sense of humour along with an intuitive understanding of the pulse of the people; sweetness of singing that melted the hearts of listeners – all this came together in Swami Vivekananda. And the crowning glory to all these wonderful qualities was the grace bestowed on him by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Paramahamsa was one who had experienced brahman; a glorious personality; a jīvanmukta (one who has realized the Ultimate while being alive). He was endowed with divine vision. It was due to his grace that Vivekananda was able to obtain in the palm of his hand the great secrets about the true nature of human life, the nature of the divine, and the fundamentals of dharma. For him, Vedānta did not become a garment that he would don from the outside; it became the breath that constantly moves about within. The various states of life, the relationships between the individual life and the world, the various refinements necessary for life – these subtleties are fundamental ideas to all religious systems; Vivekananda was able to obtain unequivocal knowledge about all these aspects as a result of the grace of his guru, who granted him the strength to know himself. Vivekananda’s teachings to the world did not arise from a library of books, but from constant hearing of the words of great masters; it came from his personal, inner experiences; it came from a blossoming of his inner self – just like a flower blossoms on a plant, of its own accord. That’s the reason it is filled with the sound of life, a life-illuminating brilliance, and a strength that invigorates life.
Although Vivekananda was a saṃnyāsi (ascetic), he never displayed disdain towards worldly life. This world belongs to the lord; this life is divine; therefore, we must show respect and reverence in matters of life; don’t abuse life; live with courage and fortitude, live with brilliance, live with a smile on the face – such are the life-enriching, enthusiastic sounds that emanate from the kettle-drum of Vivekananda and reverberate for all time.
It is the biography of such a remarkable personage that our Sri Puttappa has captured in this book. His words are those natural to a poet. In his bhāva-prapañca (emotion-universe), the bhakti-gopuras (towers of devotion), the garland made from the waves of the enthusiasm-flood, and the rāga-cchāya (passionate shadows; melodic suggestions) of the golden-red dawn are all personified in his words. Needless to say, just as the readers have been deeply satisfied with his other writings in Kannada, this work too will bring them much joy. May his pen never be subdued; let the ink within never fade.
Translator’s Note: DVG wrote this short piece in 1932 as a foreword to Rāṣṭrakavi Kuvempu’s biographical work on Swami Vivekananda. ‘Kuvempu’ is the nom-de-plume of Kuppali Venkatappa Puttappa (1904–94), a renowned poet, essayist, novelist, and critic of Karnataka. He is widely regarded as the greatest Kannada poet of the twentieth century. We’re publishing this piece on the occasion of Swamiji’s hundred and seventeenth death anniversary.
Thanks to Aṣṭāvadhāni Ganesh Bhat Koppalatota for clarifying the meanings of some of the complicated words as well as to Jayasimha K R for getting me to translate this piece and for reviewing the translation with great care.