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  • The Missionary Sannyasi and the Burden of the Colonized: The Reluctant Alliance between Religion and Nation in the Writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902)
  • Rini Bhattacharya Mehta (bio)

The subject of this article is the political philosophy of the reformist Hindu ideologue Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902). Using contemporary postcolonial theorizations of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century religious nationalism in India, I examine the strategic correlation between individual spirituality and social responsibility/commitment in the select relevant writings of the sannyasi, who hated any political categorization of his work.1 Swami Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta) traveled to the United States in 1893 to participate in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago and, after his well-known “Chicago address,” attained fame almost overnight. In the charged context of high colonialism of the late nineteenth century, the figure of Vivekananda became (and has remained) a highly valued cultural product: catering simultaneously to the West’s search for the Eastern exotic and the East’s need for Western recognition. Vivekananda had a strange relationship with the nascent Bengali/Indian nationalism of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Tapan Raychaudhuri describes him as “an unquestionably patriotic Indian whose primary concern in life was articulated in a context peculiar to the Hindu tradition: it had nothing to do with society or polity.”2 Though Raychaudhuri’s comment glosses over the strident connections between the so-called Hindu tradition and “society or polity,” it provides an accurate glimpse into Vivekananda’s characterization of himself. However, in the current Indian and global context of Hindutva, or “political Hindu nationalism,” Vivekananda’s politics of an apolitical, a-national, and universal religion makes an interesting component. For, not only does his rhetoric of “regeneration” and “empowerment” often overlap with the nationalist rhetoric of the same, but India’s colonial subjection and exploitation by the British as the cause of the miserable state of Indian society is a forceful recurring point in his lectures on Hinduism. Does Vivekananda then need to be read as a forerunner of the twentieth-century Hindu [End Page 310] nationalists who claimed Indian nationhood in the name of Hinduism? Was his vision of the universalization of Hindu monism a drive toward Hindu (political) hegemony? What did his Hindu universalism represent within the confines of the longest-lasting colonial power in modern history, and what would it come to represent in the heterogeneous political reality of India? These are the issues I explore.

Introduction: The Nation's Saffron Beginnings?

Three years before the inception of the Indian National Congress and four decades before Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966) constructed Hindutva as a political discourse, an unusual confluence took place between the Hindu ideal of sannyas (mendicancy) and upper-caste Hindu militant bourgeois patriotism. It happened in a Bengali novel, Anandamath (The Abbey of Sacred Bliss; 1882) by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, the first significant Bengali novelist.3 The two previously disparate ideas of sannyas and militancy fused into an imaginative unity and formed the very basis of Bengali and later Indian nationalism, retaining the recessive Hindu ideal germane in secular Indian nationhood. The idea of a group of upper-caste Hindu men—celibate, muscular, and fiercely ideological—who worship their country as their mother and a goddess, found a permanent place in the nationalist imaginings almost immediately. The santans (children of the mother/goddess/land) of Anandamath, based remotely on the sannyasi-rebels and the Marathi rebel Basudev Phadke, verbalized and followed a new and eclectic philosophy centered on the notion of a Hindu community. Though the militancy of the santans in the novel was directed more vehemently against the Muslims than it was against the British, it was possible for Bankim’s Bengali readers to accept Anandamath as a nationalist text, notwithstanding the exclusive character of the nationalism it projected. The mantra “Bande Mataram” was adopted, for instance, by both the defenders of “Hindu-Muslim unity” during the Swadeshi movement and the separatist Hindu nationalist parties like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers’ Organization). The induction of select, mostly elite “Hindu” doctrines and ideals into direct political thought and action became naturalized rapidly. The most portrayed and at times caricatured figure of the early-twentieth-century...