Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speech at Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s Belur Math in West Bengal has reportedly not gone down well with Ramakrishnites. The Math was jubilant on Modi’s visit, graciously hosted his night stay in its premises, relaxed its rigid convention by allowing the monks to join the photo-op session with the prime minister. Yet, this bonhomie apparently ended with the Math’s discomfort as Modi, by invoking divisive politics in his speech, allegedly violated the sanctimonious Math’s apolitical code.
For Modi, the solemn space of the Math and the symbolic occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s Jayanti were strategically significant to send a political message to the protesting youth across the nation opposed to the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). However, Modi’s ‘ephemeral’ political overstepping was seen by Ramakrishna devotees as violation of the ‘eternal’ and inclusive ethos of the Math.
Modi’s overstepping the Laxman Rekha of the Math needs further elaboration, contextualisation and explanation. To be fair, Modi’s speech started with a sombre, nostalgic and non-political note. He paid glowing tributes to Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi and Vivekananda, recalled his intimate connection with the Math, sought blessings from the monks, adored the energy and spirit of the young disciples and exhorted them to come forward to serve Bharat Mata. He had struck the right note and the monks were anticipating that Modi would continue with Vivekananda’s inspiring personality, patriotism and contributions; surprisingly, Modi changed tracks.
First, he recounted government policies for youth like digital India, demonstrating a campaign hangover. Then, he fired salvos against the ‘misinformed’ and ‘misguided’ youth, who were protesting against the CAA on the streets across the nation. He loudly emphasised that the objective of the CAA was only to grant and not to snatch anyone’s citizenship.
In Modi’s calculation, the attack on the protesting youth from the sacred space of Belur Math would carry more sanctity, authority and legitimacy at a time when he faces serious political challenges to his leadership and policies. Vivekananda’s iconic status and patriotism would help him delegitimise and discredit the rationale of the current youth protest. Modi also claimed in his speech that adoption of the CAA was the fulfillment of Mahatma Gandhi’s wishes; Modi’s invocation was understandable as the protestors had by and large resorted to the Gandhian method of non-violent civil disobedience. Modi certainly did not anticipate that monks of the Math, though refrained from issuing formal criticism, would express displeasure on the ground of politicisation of the Math’s apolitical space.
The Sangh, Ramakrishna Mission and Vivekananda
First, Modi has been no stranger to the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Vivekananda remains an ideal for every swayamsevak, and he was no exception. Moreover, while an adolescent, he wanted to join a monastic order, but was advised against it by a Gujarati monk, who asked him to concentrate on public service instead. Modi became an RSS pracharak and climbed the political ladder with great success.
Being at the pinnacle of political power, he perhaps mistook Ramakrishna Mission as another Hindu sect vying for state patronage, and hence would not object to his transgression. Modi’s rationale is justified as many celebrated Hindu sects and spiritual leaders overtly and disgracefully run after his regime to secure patronage and material benefits, from land grants to tax exemption; some even prefer to become political partners fueling his propaganda machine.
No doubt, Ramakrishna Mission needs state support to facilitate its service mission, yet it remains committed to the inclusive and selfless legacy of Ramakrishna and the dignity, aura and pride of Vivekananda. And unlike many counterparts, it has eschewed political ambition, consciously distanced from partisan politics, quietly pursuing the spirit of spiritualism and service.
Second, Modi has been well aware that the Sangh-Math relationship goes back to the days of Golwalkar. As recorded, Golwalkar ran away from Nagpur to become an inmate in the Ramakrishna Ashram at Saragachhi in the 1930s, where he was initiated by Swami Akhandananda, an active supporter of Vivekananda’s idea of service.
After a short stay he returned to the RSS on the advice of Akhandananda. The Math left a deep imprint on Golwalkar and inspired him to conceive the Vivekananda Memorial at Kanyakumari; he entrusted Eknath Ranade, an astute pracharak, to execute the project. The RSS wisely did not make a unilateral decision and Ranade did not overstep; he continuously liaised with the Mission and first secured its approval and support before initiating the project. The mission became a great succession for the Sangh Parivar.
Pracharaks like Ranade are an extinct species in the RSS today and most aspire to tryst with direct politics, particularly since Modi was elected prime minister and placed many pracharaks at various echelons of state power. Narendra Modi is obviously not expected to be a Ranade, yet he should have been sensitive to the fact that ‘eternal’ Ramakrishna Mission values its autonomy, moral authority and would not bend before ‘ephemeral’ political power for material advantage. An austere, unassuming and persuasive Ranade may be able to win the heart of the Math, but the Math will not be willing to entertain opulence, arrogance and transgression by anyone, howsoever powerful he may be.
The master and the disciple
Third, despite his association and interest, Modi overlooked the complexities and nuances of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Order. As well documented, the master – the inspirator, and the disciple – the founder of the Order, came from different traditions. The master, a great messenger of Bhakti, was mystic, rustic, quiet and pure, who disseminated the message of a universal, plural, eclectic religion emphasizing on catholicity (yata mat tata path all forms and paths are valid) and equality of religions. The disciple, an English-educated, urban, modern, well-off, greatly exposed to a much larger world, and an activist Sanyasi, who played the role of a ‘Hindu missionary’ and described Hinduism as the ‘mother of all religions’, thus emphasizing on the superiority of Hinduism.
However, despite such ‘inversion’, Vivekananda always aspired to attain salvation (moksha) following his master’s feat. Hence, the objectives of both master and disciple remained the same, though the methods might have been different. Despite apparent contradictions, Ramakrishna Mission retained the spirit of the master as its core and remained fiercely inclusive, even allowing Muslims and Christians to join the order.
Modi knows that though the monks wear saffron, they are fundamentally different from the brotherhood of the RSS. The Math is guided by the eternal wisdom of Ramakrishna:
“A lake has several ghats [bathing places]. At one, the Hindus take water in pitchers and call it “jal”; at another, the Mussalmans take water in leather bags and call it “pani”. At a third the Christians call it “water”. Can we imagine that it is not “jal”, but only “pani” or “water”? How ridiculous! The substance is one under different names, and everyone is seeking the same substance; only climate, temperament, and name create differences. Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely realize Him!”
This wisdom, which comes from Ramakrishna’s religion, philosophy, humanism and deep experiential knowledge, leaves no room for sectarianism and bigotry. Modi’s personal life might have been shaped by the ideals of renunciation. But commitment to identity politics takes him away from the true essence of renunciation—selfless service, toleration and inclusion—which define the core identity of the Ramakrishna mission.
Pralay Kanungo is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU.