India & Islam: How Swami Vivekananda’s Hinduism Relies on Religious Harmony

'A Vedanta Brain & An Islam Body' forms the crux of the Hindu monk's philosophy that can drive the future of India.

4 min read

(This was originally published on 30 December and is being reposted on the occasion of his birth anniversary.)

"For our own motherland, a junction of two great systems Hinduism and Islam—Vedanta brain and Islam body—is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye, future-perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible with Vedanta brain and Islam body.”

The above quote by Vivekananda has stuck in my mind since my undergraduate days when I first came across it in Pandit Nehru’s Discovery of India as a Gen-X Indo-Canadian trying to connect with his roots. Ironically, the Babri Masjid incident would occur shortly afterwards and burst the bubble about a previously-held consensus on secular pluralism inaugurated by Nehru.

Islam and Vedanta Are Meant To Support Each Other

This famous quote is part of a longer letter reply by Swami Vivekananda to a Muslim friend who had complained that the Swami was extolling Advaita Vedanta to the exclusion of India’s other long-standing religions, notably Islam. His famous reply implies that without the help of Islam through its emphasis on equality and philanthropy, Vedantic philosophy will not become a practical one to adopt for the average Indian and meaningfully contribute to India’s regeneration.

Hard-liners will, of course, reject this thesis. My polite rebuttal is that the broad suite of Vivekananda’s sayings already points in this direction, anyways. Moreover, his Hindutva admirers often isolate him away from his spiritual master—the gentle saint Sri Ramakrishna.

On the contrary, Vivekananda, all his life, preached an assertive Advaita Vedanta informed by the rich devotional experiences of his master which included those from Christianity and Islam.

The Ultimate God and the Non-Supremacy of Faiths

For Vivekananda, the everyday worship of the Hindus and that of the ‘semitic’ faiths, operate under a kind of hierarchy. An individual’s devotion to God as something entirely separate from the worshipper, is a necessary but first step to eventually realising in a way that can transform us that God is nearer and more expansive than anything we can personally conceive of and can only ever indirectly be captured in words and form.

The infinite, indescribable 'God of Vedanta' thus lies, at the top of this pyramid but this does not translate into Hindu political supremacy. He saw Vedanta as a way to address fanaticism within semitic faiths and within Hinduism – especially when the separation between human and God is emphasised to a fault and at the expense of self-realisation ie, my God is better than yours, and sits in a certain geographic or heavenly location, rather than seeking the same Divine within.

While he implies that Vedanta could benefit from adopting the spirit of charity and brotherhood (or sisterhood) from Islam, there is nothing wrong with him suggesting that Islam can also learn a thing or two from Vedanta’s broad metaphysics. This is not a major failure on the part of India’s Muslims, per se whom Vivekananda observed, as differing from those of other countries given their exposure to Vedanta, indirectly through Hinduism writ large.

Put in another way, this is not much different from Prince Dara Shikoh’s assertion in his influential Persian translation of the Upanishads (the Sirr-i-Akbar), that a study of the Upanishads as the “first” monotheistic scriptures, could only help Muslims to better understand the spiritual truths of the Quran and by extension to become better Muslims.


Making Vedanta Accessible to the Common Person

It is, however, unrealistic to expect the average Hindu or Muslim to curl up to complex scriptures like the Upanishads whether it’s a middle-class urbanite struggling to stay ahead of the competition or a poor villager struggling to survive and feed his or her family. While Vivekananda tried to simplify (and modernise) the Upanishads for the common person, he felt that Vedanta would never ‘hit the ground’ and transform India, unless the casteism, classism, and extreme poverty around him were also addressed in tandem of an ‘activist Vedanta’.

This is where he saw the social gospel of Islam and Christianity helping Vedanta to achieve its full potential: Vedanta’s comprehensive metaphysics needed to be supplemented by practical ethics that encouraged people to treat one another as equals and improve the world around them. This again does not imply another political hierarchy with a Hindu spiritual elite sitting at the top, and Muslims and Christians and Sikhs doing the humanitarian grunt work far below. Everyone is making a joint effort to advance shared spiritual and material objectives.

I realise that I may be oversimplifying Hinduism and Islam through this juxtaposition. Islam, of course, has its own profound philosophical traditions, some very akin to Vedanta.

And, likewise, Hinduism goes very much beyond Vedanta, and includes its own traditions of compassion and generosity. Yet no one religion can completely encompass all aspects of the religious experience. It is through the encounter between religions that latent traditions can be brought out more fully.

What Does Vedanta Mean in India’s Current Political Context?

This brings me to the politics of today's India where the Vedantic notion of a universal self residing within all of us is being pushed into the backdrop against the notion of a separate and threatening “other” called Muslims. Nehru’s Discovery of India was published in 1940 when the sparks of religious separatism were being fanned by a specific constituency of Indians. Is it futile to offer the same argument today, that Hinduism and Islam need each other to prosper?

In today’s India, Vivekananda would have reminded his Hindutva admirers that religions do not survive through architecture but through the spiritual exertions of individuals who parallelly improve the quality of life of their fellow citizens, regardless of religious background.

With that said, I will close with a final hopeful quote by Hans Torwesten, whose writings on Vedanta have helped to inform the premises of this article:

“But can we live in a world thus divided? True Advaita will probably become fully incarnate here on earth only when the impulse of Christian [or, Islamic] neighborly love and the infinite breadth of Vedantic mysticism have joined to transform the face of the earth."

(Rahil Khan is a federal public servant in Ottawa, Canada and someone who has had a longstanding interest in Indian history and religion.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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