Re: Plea for help from 6th grader

Posted By Mani Varadarajan (mani@be.com)
12 Mar 1997 12:52:38 -0800

Ramakrishnan Balasubramanian <rbalasub@ecn.purdue.edu> writes:
> The smArtha-s in TN do not consider Swami Vivekananda
> or his movement as irrelevant. [...]
> Further the Ramakrishna Mission is hardly irrelevant. Rather, they have
> been doing signal service (at least from the smArtha point of view) by
> publishing various texts, veda-s, works of shrI sha.nkara and the
> quality of translations, printing etc are in general extremely good. Go
> to any smArtha household which practices even a bit of religion in Tamil
> Nadu. You'll find most households have their standard texts like
> vishhNu, lalita sahasranAma-s, sUktAni, rudram etc only from the
> Ramakrishna Mission.

There are three separate questions here:

(1) Whether the masses of common, non-urban, traditional Hindus
(who constitute the vast majority of Indian Hindus) find Vivekananda's
teachings relevant

(2) Whether Vivekananda's teachings accurately reflect the traditional
understanding of Vedanta

(3) Whether the Ramakrishna Mission today performs an important service

In my original article, I only addressed the first question, and
tangentially addressed the second.

Let me first address the third question. Without a doubt, the
Ramakrishna Mission performs an important and invaluable service
in India by publishing easy-to-read translations of traditional
religious texts; I use many of them in my own worship. As you
yourself point out, however, the publications the smArtas and other
brahmins look to are translations of traditional commentaries on
the Gita and Upanishads, printed editions of the Vedas, Sankara's
stotras, etc. I find it hard to believe that an orthodox smArta
will place Vivekananda's Voice of Freedom style writing and
speaking on the same pedestal as the sublime philosophy of
Sankara and his successors.

In other words, the relevancy to the traditional, non-alienated
smArta is the core text, not Vivekananda's smudging of the
text.

Let me next address the first question, that of relevance to
the average, non-elite Hindu. You may not realize this from
your position as an educated, English-speaking brahmin, but
the average Hindu never felt alienated from his or her religion
or culture and did not feel the need to be inspired by a
chicken-soup reformulation of traditional philosophy. I know
Vivekananda took Madras by storm after his return from America,
but who was his audience? Once again, the educated,
English-speaking elites of Madras who had an inferiority
complex about their religion.

Neither the traditional scholastic swamis in their monasteries
nor the average Hindu cared or needed much for this. From the
perspective of a traditional scholar, Vivekananda's unphilosophical
reformulation Sankara's Advaita Vedanta and careless, patronizing
attitude to other branches of Vedanta are not worthy of any serious
consideration. From the perspective of the average Hindu,
Vivekananda's message serves no purpose.

[For arguments' sake, let's assume that some smArtas and other
brahmins find Vivekananda and other neo-Hindu proponents relevant.
Brahmins constitute 2-3% of the population of Tamil Nadu, and
less than 5% of Hindu India as a whole. Only if the average,
temple-going Hindu is left out of the accounting does neo-Hinduism
become relevant in general.]

Finally, let me address the second question, that of the understanding
of Vedanta set forth by Vivekananda and his followers. My main
problem with the RK Mutt approach to philosophy is that they
are generally unscholarly and uncritical in their approach.
Their main goal is to make all Hindus feel good, at the expense
of faithfulness to the original philosophers themselves.

A perfect example is Swami Gambhirananda's translation of
the BrhadAranyaka Upanishad. The last section of the Upanishad
deals with rituals designed to ensure the birth of a son.
Sankaracharya, a serious philosopher if there ever was one,
comments on it as he would any other text of Vedanta. In
Gambhirananda's translation of the text and commentary,
he completely bypasses it, leaving only the Sanskrit text.
Why is this? Is he ashamed of what the Upanishad contains?
Why would he leave out what even Sankara did not?

A further example is Vivekananda's treatment of Ramanuja.
Time and time again, Vivekananda does an injustice to the
philosopher by misunderstanding his Visishtadvaita philosophy
and claiming that it is identical to a lower stage of
Advaita realization. Not a single Advaita philosopher
in the 1500 years before him has made such a claim, because
it does neither justice to Ramanuja nor Advaita. This
philosophical bungling has done far more damage than good.
Unity at the expense of honesty is not a worthy goal, in
my opinion.

These are two instances that jump to mind right now; there
are many others that I can cite with a little bit of research
where Vivekananda et al misunderstand and misinterpret
Advaita and other philosophies while purporting to present
their pristine truth.

Mani