On 12 January, Swami Vivekananda’s 157th birth anniversary was observed in different parts of the country as the national youth day. Formal celebrations and customary speeches will serve no purpose unless we introspect and seek to carry forward the torch left by him. Vivekananda was a towering colossus ~ an epic hero of modern times. Rooted in the past, he was refreshingly modern in his thinking and scientific in his outlook. This gives his thoughts an irresistible appeal to our modern minds.

First and foremost, he was a prince among the patriots with unbounded love for his country and countrymen. To him, India was a holy land and the very dust of India was holy, a place of pilgrimage. Sister Nivedita, his ardent devotee, said, “Not a sob was heard in the country that did not produce an echo in his responsive heart”. After his historic address at the Parliament of Religions (1893), he virtually conquered the souls of many American men and women, which in turn, kindled great interest in India and Hinduism. No other religious leader before him was treated with so much respect and honour in 19th century America.

Vivekananda put Hinduism on the map of the world and asserted the eternal glory of India. Well known historian K M Pannikar called him the “New Shankaracharya” ~ unifier of Hindu theology. With his vast erudition, superb oratorical power and tremendous inner spiritual force, Swamiji’s thundering oration in the Parliament of Religions mesmerised the audience. He introduced Hinduism as a “mother of all religions” ~ a religion that taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. Stressing the spirit of tolerance, which distinguished Hinduism, he said “We believe not only in universal toleration but also accept all religions as true.”

Swamiji will be particularly remembered in world history because he virtually initiated what Dr CEM Joad called the “counter-attack from the East”. In the dim past, Indian missionaries travelled to South East Asia and China, preaching Buddhism and Hinduism and then a thousand years later, Vivekananda was the first Indian leader who made an impression outside India.

On his return to India, he received a hero’s welcome wherever he went. A victorious general would have envied such a response. In India, his mission was to arouse the nation from the vicious grip of lethargy, torpor and superstition, and instil into his countrymen new sparks of life. He advised the youth of the country to develop strength and manliness. He asserted that strength and manliness are the message on every page of the Upanishads. Freedom was never to be attained by the weak. Eminent scholar Will Durant said that he preached to his countrymen a more virile creed than any Hindu has offered since the Vedic times.

He also gave a new turn to monasticism by stressing that service to suffering human beings was the highest form of service to God. Many of his brother monks who sought salvation through meditation and penance were against this idea of social service, but Vivekananda could convince them that their duty was to serve others as the visible manifestation of God. This was the kernel of Ramakrishna’s teachings. According to Romain Rolland, the French biographer and savant, this conversion of the brother monks from the individualistic to the universalist idea of religious life was one of the greatest triumphs of Vivekananda.

Swamiji was also deeply stirred by the sorrow and sufferings of Indian women. He ardently believed that India would always remain in darkness and degradation till women were educated, uplifted, and equipped to play their rightful role in society. He contrasted the condition of Indian women with their American counterparts and expressed righteous indignation in a long letter written to a brother monk from Chicago. He said, “We are horrible sinners and our degradation is due to the way we have treated our women. Our women are like Divine Mother incarnates and I shall die in peace if I can raise a thousand such Madonnas.”

Nowadays, many champions of Hindutva swear by the name of Vivekananda, but the important fact should not be forgotten that he was not a sectarian monk or a missionary of Hinduism. He was perhaps “the strongest Hindu challenge to what Hindus have turned their religion into.”

He believed and preached divinity in man and was an ardent admirer of the equality and brotherhood of Islam. He envisaged that India could reclaim its greatness by combining the two great systems ~ Hinduism and Islam, that is Vedanta brain and Islamic body. One of his disciples, who accompanied him on one of his voyages, describes how thrilled Vivekananda was when the ship touched Gibraltar and the Mahomedan lascars threw themselves on the ground before him crying “the Din” “the Din”.

Admittedly, Vivekananda was against any form of insularity or xenophobia and urged his countrymen not to become frogs in the well. In an angry letter to his beloved disciple Perumal Alasingha (27 October 1894) he wrote: “No man, no nation can hate others and live. India’s doom was sealed the very day the Hindus invented the word ‘mlechhas’ (untouchables).”

Swamiji was not just the patron saint of India but a noble citizen of the world. His strident patriotism was enriched and ennobled by love and a quest for salvation of mankind. “He was”, said Romain Rolland, “the personification of the harmony of all human energy”.

The writer is Senior Fellow Institute of Social Sciences, former Director General, National Human Rights Commission and former Director, National Police Academy