Pride and Prejudice

Swami Vivekananda gave a few speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. These speeches still fill us Indians with a good deal of pride. I managed to locate an old recording of them on the Internet and cleaned it up a bit. Here it is for your listening pleasure.

The skeptic in me, however, will not let it to go without a critical self-examination. What exactly am I proud of? I would like to say his deep thoughts on the Hindu philosophy and his lucid expose on it. But the fact of the matter is, I was proud even before I heard or read the speeches. If you are proud as well, let me ask you this: did you actually listen to the whole speech? If you did not, what are you really proud of? By the way, I have the latter part of the speech (his paper on Hinduism) posted below, for your reading pleasure. One way or another, you are going to pay the price for your pride!

Swami VivekanandaI suspect my pride is a throwback to the colonial era, and the reverence of the associated foreign language that we somehow assimilated from our parents or grandparents. May be it is a bit more than that — may be it is that Swami Vivekananda managed to impress the heck out of a bunch of them, the colonial masters, which is something all of us want to do at some deep level. May be it is just his strong and fluent diction, and his command of the language.

If you see a dog walking on its hind legs, it’s not so much that it does it well, as that it does it at all. Is it appropriate for other dogs to feel proud of a dog that can demonstrate this alien trait? Are we doing something similar when we admire each other’s command of this foreign tongue? After publishing a column on Reading Between the Lines in a local newspaper, I got a phone call from a fan. Let’s put aside the feeling of creepiness in getting a phone call from a stranger on your cell phone; the gentleman (who sounded kind of old) was pleased with the what I wrote and how I wrote it. Now, thinking back about that call, I feel as though his admiration was also perhaps a remnant of our shared colonial past (though, in my case, the past was one or two generations removed). May be he felt that I had finally learned enough English to make an efficient clerk. This dog had finally mastered the art of walking on his hind legs.

Whatever its origin, this pride of mine has a flip side to it. It is the rise of the evangelical TV talk shows in India, and the instant nirvanas offered by new gurus. A while ago, I published a piece warning of the dangers posed by the modern gurus. While conceding that I may be prejudiced against them, I would like to draw your attention to this video where a guru is demonstrating the magical powers of a newly re-discovered ancient concoction, manufactured and sold by his nephew. A believer sees in this spectacle a genuine miracle, or at least a good, albeit hidden, reason for the guru to be doing this demo. I see only a bad reason. Instances like this video (and the live show I happened to have caught) fill me with the opposite of pride — shame. But then, what do I know — may be a hundred years from now, long after I’m dead and gone and forgotten, at least some of these modern gurus may be revered the same way Swami Vivekananda is now; though I wouldn’t count on it. In any case, I am pretty sure that their descendants will be a lot richer than mine. (This video where the guru himself performed the demo seems to have been removed for obvious reasons.)

Here is another such demo in a different context where nobody will have problem spotting the trick.

These videos and their message may have offended some of my readers, and for that, I apologize. When people invest their time and energy into spiritual endeavors, they do not want to be made aware of the negative aspects of their path, because seeing something negative in their pursuit is, in their view, tantamout to questioning their intelligence. This peculier resistance to truth also gets masterfully and cynically exploited by the new-age spiritual movements. I only want to say that I mean well, for some of those affected are people very dear to me.

And as promised earlier, here is the paper on Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda that he read at the Chicago conference.

Photo by Premnath Thirumalaisamy cc