Emancipation, a dream

Reflections

Emancipation, a dream

Over a 100 years ago, Swami Vivekananda travelled across India, observing a society divided by the “don’t-touchism” of caste, a land where the poor millions were betrayed by the more educated rich, and a country where women were neither given an education nor independence. It moved him to concrete action.

He was a monk, and had renounced the world to concentrate on attaining the highest spiritual realisation. Instead, he put aside all thoughts of his own personal goal and worked tirelessly for the last 10 years of his life for the betterment of the poor through education and emancipation of women. In doing this, he was extending the philosophical idea of vedanta, that “one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings”, to its practical application that “the soul has neither sex nor caste nor imperfection.”

It is here that we find the most powerful statement of equality between men and women, that gender is attached to the body and not the soul. In saying this, Swami Vivekananda also set the bar high for women, for he said that each person must work out their own spiritual growth or salvation, whether male or female.

The Indian civilisation has gifted the world some of the most inclusive and universal ideas about religion, and brilliant women such as Gargi have shared that intellectual contribution. Swami Vivekananda placed great emphasis on thought — “All knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind; the infinite library of the universe is in your own mind.” The mind that he spoke of was not limited to the male.

When he travelled to Europe and America, many women there were attracted by his message that “each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal... This is the whole of religion.” Three of these women were to help him raise the funds he needed for his work in India.

His “friend” Josephine Macleod recorded the impression he made on her — “He said something… instantly to me that was the truth, and the second sentence he spoke was truth, and the third sentence was truth.” Then onwards, she counted her age from the year she met him, 1895.

On his triumphant return from America, famous as the monk who spoke on behalf of Hinduism, “the mother of religions”, at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda set up Ramakrishna Mission in 1897. Here sannyasins would work in the name of Sri Ramakrishna to uplift the poor. He understood that women too might want to renounce the world, and prepared the field for the eventual creation of a separate monastic order for them, Sri Sarada Math, in 1954.

It is an irony that the very education that Swami Vivekananda sought for women does not teach us today about his ideals or principles, crucial to discovering the true purpose of human life. He believed education was the manifestation of perfection inherent in man, not the mindless collection of facts. Indeed, in attempting to make education ‘secular’, we have veered away from teaching those very fundamentals that lead us towards true secularism.

The Swami believed — “The idea of man is to see God in everything. But if you cannot see Him in everything, see Him in one thing, in that thing which you like best, and then see Him in another. So on you can go.” This linked to his central theme, “The ultimate goal of all mankind, the aim and end of all religions, is but one reunion with God, or what amounts to the same, with the divinity which is every man’s true nature.”

Swami Vivekananda showed us how to live in a bewildering, often irrational, world. “Stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny.” By saying this, he preached moral strength that came from understanding one’s own innate nature.

“The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.” More than a hundred years after his death, we are yet to achieve his vision.

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