by Uma Majmudar

One was a Hindu monk who looked like a prince, whereas the other—a British educated barrister turned politician—looked like “a half-naked fakir,” as Churchill described him deridingly. The monk in the princely garb was none other than Swami Vivekananda, who mesmerized Eastern and Western audiences not only by his magnificent looks and magnetic personality, but also by the forceful delivery of his universal message of Vedanta in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The half-clad man in the loin-cloth, despite his lowly peasant garb and poor physique, came to be revered around the world as Mahatma Gandhi—the saintly politician who set India free from the imperialist British rule by launching his most powerful weapon of nonviolent resistance, called, (satya: truth, agraha: insistence).

Before delving deep into their personal backgrounds and family influences, it will be worthwhile to first examine the nineteenth century colonial Indian national environment that shaped the thoughts and responses of both Vivekananda and Gandhi. If India, under the British raj, had lost her luster and pride of who she once was—a spiritually leading nation with a vibrant culture and rich civilization—the people of India, too, had become demoralized and depressed; wallowing in self-pity and a servile mentality, they had lost faith in themselves, in their country, and in their unique ancient religious heritage of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Succumbing to superstitions and bickering over petty rituals, caste-rules and restrictions, they had sold their souls, as if to the forces of darkness. Right around the corner, Christian missionaries were waiting in the wings, ready to pounce upon their weakened and vulnerable prey; they launched a deadly attack on Hinduism and began to convert the Hindus to Christianity. We will later examine Vivekananda’s and Gandhi’s individual responses to this nationwide demoralization and social-religious degradation. In addition to these national themes, we shall also examine their regional/cultural milieu which also contributed to the shaping of each one’s specific response.

Swami Vivekananda was born Narendranath Dutta (familiarly called “Noren”) in Calcutta on January 12, 1863, in an aristocratic and highly educated Bengali Kayastha (Kshatriya caste) family. Three generations of the Duttas had been lawyers and so also was Noren’s father Vishwanath Dutta, an attorney of Calcutta High Court, who was known for his liberal religious and social outlook. Noren’s mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, being deeply pious, practiced austerities, prayed often, and read and recited passages from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other sacred texts of Hinduism. In the book, Swami Vivekananda On Himself, Vivekananda says, “my father and mother fasted and prayed, for years and years, so that I would be born.” [1] The Duttas were Shiva-bhaktas or devotees of Lord Shiva. Vivekananda recalled that when he was too mischievous as a young boy his mother could quieten him only by pouring cold water over his head while chanting “Shiva, Shiva, Shiva!” Besides being deeply religious, his mother was also intellectually inclined and participated in most family religious discussions. Later in her life, when her son had become well known as Swami Vivekananda, she accompanied him on a pilgrimage to many holy cities in India. With deep gratitude the Swami acknowledged, “The love which my mother gave to me has made me what I am, and I owe a debt to her that I can never repay.”[2] Having received from his father a strong intellectual and academic heritage, the boy Noren read voraciously on a wide variety of subjects including various sciences, religion, poetry, music, and philosophy both Eastern and Western.

Very early in life, Noren displayed a keen spiritual and scholarly interest in the ancient Hindu scriptures. Not just a bookworm, Noren proved to be equally adept in sports, in music—both instrumental and vocal—and in art and oratory. Unmistakable were his childhood gifts: a questioning mind with a rebellious spirit, a sharp memory, a thirst for knowledge, and a way with words. But above all he was deeply passionate about all things spiritual such as meditation and even renunciation of the world. As a young boy, Noren’s biggest ambition was to become “a wandering monk” when he grew up.

Six years younger than Vivekananda, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in a Gujarati Vaishnava family on October 2nd in 1869 in the small seacoast city of Porbandar in the Kathiawar peninsula in western India. Three generations of the Gandhis had served the local Indian princes as their Diwans (prime ministers) under the British Raj; and so also was Mohandas’ father Karamchand Gandhi, a Diwan, of both Porbandar and Rajkot states successively. The child Gandhi grew up listening to stories of the extraordinary bravery and fiercely independent spirit of his grandfather, Uttamchand Gandhi, known in the family as Ota Bapa. His father Karamchand Gandhi (Kaba for short) had earned a reputation as a man of incorruptibility, impartiality, and practical political acumen. “He had no education save that of experience;” however, “his rich experience of practical affairs stood him in good stead in the solution of the most intricate questions and in managing hundreds of men,” wrote his son Mohandas Gandhi in his Autobiography.[3] With no religious training, Kaba Gandhi was the kind of Hindu who frequently visited temples, listened to religious discourses (katha-varta), and joined in prayer chanting and group singing (bhajan-kirtan).

Mohandas or “Moniya” was the youngest and most beloved of all the sons of his mother Putliba (ba: mother) and Kaba Gandhi. Although Vaishnavism of the Vallabhacharya tradition was Kaba Gandhi’s family religion, Putliba freely observed her own faith of the Pranami sect which was a judicious blend of Vaishnavism and Islam. In addition, she also practiced some of the most austere Jain religious disciplines including severe and frequent fasting, limiting her intake of food, or giving up certain foods on religious holidays and during certain sacred months. Gandhi was brought up by this deeply religious and self-denying mother whom he adored, emulated and revered not only as a child, but also as an adult . Thus, if politics was in Gandhi’s blood from his father’s side, deep piety, moral scrupulosity, and an enormous capacity for austerity (tapasya) with joyful self-denial were the qualities he imbibed from his mother’s living example. By his own admission, Mohandas, as a young boy, was excruciatingly shy and not particularly scholarly or talented. He had, however, a moral bent of mind, an extremely conscientious nature and an innate love for truth, which would go a long way in the making of the Mahatma.

Both Vivekananda and Gandhi were very much aware of the social, moral and religious degradation of their country in the late nineteenth century. Even before them, the great Hindu reformists, Raja Ram Mohan Roy—the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, and Dayanand Saraswati—the founder of the Arya Samaj, had taken revolutionary steps to introduce drastic reforms such as widow remarriage, the abolition of child marriages, and of the custom of “suttee” (in which a widow was encouraged, and sometimes even forced, to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband). These reformists were pro-Western iconoclasts who would have nothing to do with age-old Hindu customs, superstitions, rituals and social/religious taboos. Both Vivekananda’s father and grandfather were Brahmo-Samajists, but Vivekananda being an independent thinker, thought of a more creative way to purify Hinduism from within itself. Although he loved and cherished Hinduism, he did not hesitate to denounce some of the upper caste Hindus’ inhuman treatment of the lower caste Hindus (shudras); he disapproved of what he called, their “don’t-touchism,” which Gandhi would later censure as the vice of “untouchability.” Criticizing organized religion, he thundered, “If you want religion, enter not the gate of any organized religion.”[4]

What Vivekananda stood for was the essence of Hinduism, its Vedantic/Upanishadic message of the inherent divinity of man, the unity of all existence, and the validity of all religions as different paths to the same spiritual destination of truth, peace, and harmony. This most eloquent disciple of Shri Ramakrishna (Self-realized mystic and sage of Calcutta in the 19th century) delivered his Guru’s message from the East to the West and boldly declared,

“Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas, or sects, or churches, or temples; they count little compared with the essence of existence in each man which is spirituality; and the more this is developed in each man, the more powerful is he for good. (Eric Hammond in Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda)[5] To him, religion was meant to unite and uplift all people and set them free.

Like his spiritual predecessor, Swami Vivekananda, Gandhi also loved and cherished Hinduism; but neither of them followed his tradition blindly. As Bhikhu Parekh observed in Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, “though Gandhi valued tradition, he was not a traditionalist.” (1989, p. 23.) Born into Hinduism, both remained within their tradition but only as “critical traditionalists” (ibid.), who rejected whatever was irrational, inhuman or obsolete in Hinduism, such as fatalism, ritualism, sectarianism, rigid caste rules, outdated customs and superstitious beliefs or practices. Both Vivekananda and Gandhi rethought and revitalized their religion not only to purify it from within, but also to make it more contemporary so that it can withstand and cope with the new challenges of a changing world.

Once, during the mid-1920s, the great Indian scholar-philosopher, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, interviewed Gandhi and asked him, “What is your religion?” Gandhi answered, ““My religion is Hinduism which, for me, is the religion of humanity; and it includes all the religions known to me.” In response to another question, from the American journalist and historian Will Durant, about “what help—if any—religion gives you,” Gandhi said, “Religion not in the conventional but in the broadest sense helps me to have a glimpse of the Divine Essence. This glimpse is impossible without full development of the moral sense. Here religion and morality are, for me, synonymous terms.” (Young India, 3 April 1924) Again in Young India (21 October 1927), Gandhi gave more specific reasons for “why I am a Hindu,” implying thereby why he chose to remain a Hindu. His response below represents his thoroughly reasoned approach to Hinduism:

“I have found it to be the most tolerant of all religions… Its freedomfrom dogma…gives a votary the largest scope for self-expression. Not being an exclusive religion, it enables the followers of that faith not merely to respect all the other religions, but…to admire and assimilate whatever may be good in the other faiths. Non-violence is common to all religions, but it has found the highest expressionand application in Hinduism…Hinduism believes in the oneness not of merely all human life but in the oneness of all that lives.”[6]

Although Vivekananda and Gandhi come to the podium from two opposite platforms —one of religion and the other of politics—the contents of what they said and the message they conveyed are not antithetical at all. As a Hindu monk in saffron attire, Vivekananda electrified Western audiences at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago by teaching them the pure, distilled wisdom of Vedanta. Fast forward to the 1920s when Gandhi, even under the guise of a politician, wielded his most powerful spiritual weapon of satyagraha against the British imperial rule. To Gandhi, his use of satyagraha, both in South Africa and India, was more than a mere political technique or a tactical strategy. The whole edifice of satyagraha stood upon three spiritual pillars: truth, nonviolence, and self-suffering. Truth was the end, nonviolence the means, and self-suffering was a self-purifying discipline.

In the same vein, “freedom” to Gandhi was more than an external political transfer of power; it was meant to be internal freedom which must be earned by self-effort and preserved through spiritual self-discipline. He explained his concept of “swaraj” or “self-rule” in Young India (November 1928): “The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion of the inward freedom…and that is the correct view of freedom, our chief energy must be concentrated upon achieving reform from within.” Gandhi referred to the Bhagavad Gita—his “spiritual dictionary”—to find an explanation of who is truly liberated: “One who is free from fear, illusion, and ignorance, free from cravings, possessiveness, and egoism—that one finds peace in self-awareness of the infinite spirit (Ch. 2, 71-72). Thus, Gandhi used politics, but only as his practical work-field or karma-bhumi, to practice spirituality. He saw no dichotomy between politics and religion. As he wrote in Harijan:

“I do not regard my life as divisible in so many watertight compartments…it is one organic whole; all my activities spring from the same source, namely, my passion for and vindication of truth and non-violence in every walk of life, be it great or small” (Nov. 21, 1932)

Vivekananda, in contrast, shunned politics. This is evident from his vehement declaration on 27 September 1894 in Boston: “I am no politician or political agitator, I care only for the Spirit—when that is right, everything will be righted by itself.”[7] He forewarned his listeners and followers that “no political significance be ever attached falsely to my writings and sayings.”[8] Although the Swami gave no reasons for his dislike of politics or for his non-participation in anything political, we can still suggest three underlying reasons which seem to be logically understandable: first, Vivekananda’s own perception of his role as a sannyasin; second, his views about the politics of his time; and third, his unexpressed but not unlikely wish to protect his newly founded Ramakrishna Math and Mission from corrupt political influence or interference.

Let’s discuss each of these in more detail. First, in seeing his role and place exclusively as a sannyasin, Vivekananda seems to have followed in the footsteps of the proverbial sadhu (mendicant) who must sever his ties to the world and all worldly affairs. Renunciation and detachment being the hallmarks of a sannyasin, Vivekananda drew a “Lakshman-rekha” (an inviolable line of demarcation) between sansara (world) and sannyasa (renunciation of the world). Second, his decision not to enter politics could also be attributed to his “moral anxiety about organized politics,” as Amiya Prasad Sen observed.[9] He may also have been disappointed in the Indian National Congress (as would Gandhi years later) for its apathy toward the masses. Thirdly, his avoidance of politics could have been a “defensive strategy to safeguard the newly founded Ramakrishna Math and Mission from police and bureaucracy.”[10] Yet what is noteworthy is that his aversion to politics never stopped the Swami from plunging wholeheartedly into humanistic and public service projects, as we shall discuss later.

To expand on a previously made point, India under the British Raj had fallen into a deep coma; she was barely breathing and had lost everything—her individuality, her vigor, her vision, and pride in her own ancient spiritual heritage. Far worse, she had accepted her fate and totally given up even her desire to live again and to break free from foreign bondage. Likewise, the natives of India had also become impotent with fear, self-doubt, and self-pity; their backs were bent and their spirit broken. But then entered Vivekananda to shake them up and wake them up with these spirited words:

Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; you are not matter, you are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.”[11]

These inspiring words of the Swami have gone down in history as a spiritual elixir with which he tried to revive the latent strength and power of the soul. Far from being other-worldly, the Swami was down to this earth; being a practical Vedantist, he exhorted the lethargic youth of his time “to be men” and “to be strong.” He gave them this message of the karma yoga of the Gita:

“Be men, be strong, and work, work and work…! Our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards… You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita… You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.[12] Yield not to unmanliness, O son of Pritha!”[13]

If Vivekananda shook up his fellow-Indians from their deep slumber by his inspiring words, “arise, awake, and stop not till you achieve your goal,” Gandhi achieved the same result, but in his own unique way. He gave them a new, nonviolent, political-spiritual weapon of satyagraha (introduced earlier) to fight against both the enemy outside and enemy inside. It was not that the Indian political arena in the early 20th century was barren before Gandhi arrived from South Africa in 1915. Many respected leaders like Tilak, Gokhale, B. P. Pal, and Aurobindo had already begun their battle against the British for India’s independence via constitutional methods, but to no avail. Despite their ability and sincerity, they had lost touch with the Indian masses—their problems, their poverty and their exploitation by the rich landlords and by the British.

“But then came Gandhi, like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru.[14] What is even more remarkable is what Nehru said further about Gandhi’s charismatic effect: “like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds.”[15] Like those leaders, Gandhi too was a politician, but of a different kind. He knew the heart, the pulse, the pain and the problems of his people whom he called “the dumb Indian masses”—dumb not in the sense of lacking in intelligence, but dumb as being helplessly driven like animals. Gandhi loved them, lived like them, and identified with their pain; he walked their walk and talked their talk. Dressing like the poorest peasant, he travelled through the length and breath of India on foot or in third-class trains. But most importantly, unlike other leaders of his time, he listened to their tales of woe, understood their pain, and showed them a way out of their misery, exploitation, and servility. Like Vivekananda, Gandhi also exhorted his fellow-Indians to stand up and fight, but to do so only nonviolently. Being a karma-yogi, Gandhi taught them by example, how to be fearless and free through nonviolent courage and by suffering for truth.

To Gandhi, nonviolence was infinitely superior to violence. He firmly believed that eye for eye and tooth for tooth was the law of the jungle; violence against violence would never solve the problem, it would only perpetuate it. So he devised a powerful spiritual strategy of nonviolent resistance based on truth to combat untruth, injustice, oppression and aggression of any kind — whether physical, psychological, or verbal. It could be used by an individual as well as by a group of people, and by the powerless against the powerful—be that an individual, an institution, or a government. “The idea was not new,” said Gandhi, it was as old as the hills!”

But several things distinguish the Gandhian style of satyagraha:

One, nonviolence was never used until now on such a mass scale as a tool of resistance in the social, religious or political field.

Two, satyagraha to Gandhi was not passive resistance; it was an active force of love and good will toward the enemy, based on moral persuasion.

Three, it was not the nonviolence of the weak, because to be physically strong enough to retaliate and yet choose not to retaliate required a superior kind of courage and a deeper faith in the power of truth.

Four, one must be willing to suffer and even die for truth.

Five, persuasion, dialogue, and negotiation being at the heart of satyagraha, it aimed at conversion and not coercion of the enemy.

Six, nonviolence was an article of faith to him, and not a mere political technique.

Seven, satyagraha was based on his unflinching faith that love is stronger than hatred, fear, and anger, and ultimately truth shall always triumph. (satyameva jayate).

Both Vivekananda and Gandhi were passionate about serving the needy and the poor, the pariahs of society—the out-castes and the outcasts, the exploited and illiterate masses. Each of them set an example by going into the villages to feed, clothe and educate the needy and the hungry. Vivekananda inspired the youth to go into the slums to distribute free medicine to the slum-dwellers and to teach them simple rules of nutrition, sanitation and personal hygiene.

Gandhi said, “For me the road to salvation lies through incessant toil in the service of my country and through that of humanity.” And in order to serve humanity, he said, “I want to identify myself with everything that lives. In the language of the Gita, I want to live in peace with both friend and foe” (Young India, March 4,1924). As Judith Brown observed, “He was a singular type of politician who was prompted by ideals and beliefs more than pursuit of power.”[16] She continued, it is “the interplay between an inner spiritual and intellectual life and the outer world of politics and social work that makes Gandhi such a dynamic and interesting figure.”[17] Thus, though involved in politics, Gandhi was not “a career politician;” he was a true bhakta at heart—a man of devotion and prayer as well as a man of action. Neither a jnani (man of Knowledge) nor a sannyasin (monk) like the Swami, Gandhi was a sansari (a family man) who lived like a sannyasin; politics was only a “vehicle of moksha (freedom)” (Bhikhu Parekh’s phrase) to seek and find God in and through human service. In Gandhi’s favorite hymn, “Vaishnava Jana,” the Gujarati saint-poet Narsinh Mehta describes a “Vaishnava” as “one whose heart melts at the sufferings of others,” to which Gandhi would add, and goes out to do something to alleviate it.

That Vivekananda and Gandhi were on the same wavelength regarding human service is evident from what the Swami said: “I believe in God, and I believe in man. I believe in helping the miserable;” and he added even more emphatically, “I believe in going even to hell to save others.”[18] As if forecasting his younger protege’s deep identification with the poor, the Swami declared, “I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth. I have nothing whatever to do with ritual or dogma; my mission is to show that religion is everything and in everything”[19] Religion was the summum bonum of his life; there was nothing that fell outside the banner of religion. To Vivekananda, the watchword of religion must be acceptance and not exclusion; real religion will be inclusive, accepting, and respectful of all religions.

Charismatic in their own distinct ways, Vivekananda and Gandhi influenced countless people—both men and women—all around the world. Coming to America in 1893, the Swami became a pioneer—the first spiritual ambassador from the East to spread the message of Vedanta to the West. The founding father of many a Vedanta Center and Society in America and Europe, Vivekananda also “manufactured some swamis” (as he put it) to run those centers. Speaking and travelling extensively through out the United States and through England and Europe, this trailblazer left a long trail of friends and followers everywhere. Those whose lives he touched and transformed included Josephine MacLeod, Sister Christine, Sister Devamata, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), S. E. Waldo, Eric Hammond, Ida Ansell, Haripada Mitra, Sundaram Iyer, Kamakhya Nath Mitra, and the swamis—Sadashivananda, Bodhananda, Vimalananda, Suddhananda, Abhedananda, and many more.

The Swami’s listeners invariably commented on his powerful eyes—flashing like lightning yet kind and serene—a yogi’s eyes. And those who heard him once could not stop coming back again and again, such was the magic of his thrilling voice with its rich intonations and sonorous sweetness. The Swami’s command over English, his diction, and the transformational power of his spiritual message —even one of these could have been enough, but here was a complete package including the power of his personality, his voice, his message and his spiritual serenity—which altogether left an indelible imprint upon the hearts and minds of his listeners, changing their lives forever.

The women disciples of the Swami mentioned his child-like quality which awakened their innate “motherliness.” If the Swami’s child-like guilelessness brought out the motherly quality in women, it was the “motherly quality” of their Bapu (Father) which made Gandhi’s women disciples open up their hearts to him and confide in him. They felt loved, heard, and secure around their beloved Bapu who was like a “Ba” (mother) to them.

That both Vivekananda and Gandhi exerted a tremendous positive influence on women is evident from the large number of their Western and Indian women disciples. Vivekananda cared deeply about improving women’s subservient social status through education; he entrusted this important task to no one else but Sister Nivedita, urging her to open a special school for the women of India. He had more faith in women’s self-motivation than in men’s to accomplish anything better and faster. As he stated unequivocally, “With 500 motivated men it will take me 50 years to transform India, with 50 motivated women it may take only a year.”[20]

Like Vivekananda, Gandhi also valued women highly as the very embodiment of shakti (spiritual power), having a greater capacity for love, endurance and suffering for truth. “Gandhi’s most distinctive contribution, namely, satyagraha itself, was a fruitful union of both feminine and masculine traits.”[21] (in Majmudar, 2005, 192). It combined both—the powerful male drive for action and pugnacity to fight for principles, and the finest feminine Indian ideals of conquering by self-suffering love and self-restraint.” Not only that many women participated in Gandhi’s satyagrahas, but some women like Sarojini Naidu and his own wife, Kasturba, even led some of the satyagrahas.

“Gandhi was the most charismatic Indian leader of the twentieth century as Vivekananda was of the nineteenth,” says B. R. Nanda[22] (68). His charisma, however, was not dazzling like that of his predecessor; Gandhi could not impress anyone by his voice, oratory, appearance, dress, style or by his personality. His was the charisma of a powerful yet gentle soul, an imperfect but transparently honest man, as weak and vulnerable as any ordinary human, who rose above the ordinary by his relentless striving for perfection, purity and truth.

The man who became known to the world as “Mahatma” (Great Soul) was not simple; he was complicated and full of polarities, as E. Stanley Jones, observed:

He was a meeting place of East and West, and yet he represented the soul of the East; he was an urban man who became a voice of the peasant masses; he was passive and militant, and both at the same time; he was ascetic and the servant, he was mystical and practical … the man of prayer and the man of the spinning wheel. He combined the Hindu and Christian in himself … He was serious and playful, he was the person who embodied the cause, the cause of India’s freedom.[23]

And yet, “one of the secrets of Gandhi’s strength was holding in a living balance his strongly marked antithesis.”[24]

Another quality that endeared Vivekananda and Gandhi to their followers was their lighthearted playfulness and sense of humor. Saying that he never believed in a long face, the Swami poked fun at himself and added, “Look here, a sadhu should look like me, fat and jolly!” In Gandhi’s instance, while he was in London to attend the Second Round Table Conference in 1931, he was invited by the King to have tea with him in the Buckingham Palace. Never minding the bitter winter of London nor the grand occasion, Gandhi, clad only in his half-dhoti and a chadar, proceeded to meet with the King. On his way, some journalists asked him: “Well, Mr. Gandhi, don’t you think you are somewhat under-clad?” “Well,” Gandhi quipped, “the King has enough clothes on his person for both of us!” (modified from Ahuja )[25]

The relentless schedule of the Swami’s lectures throughout America and Europe during the years 1893-96 and again 1899-1900 completely broke down his health, and before even his 40th birthday, he left this world on July 4th—his beloved America’s Independence Day—in 1902. In almost four decades, he delivered to the world his profound message of Vedanta, that each one of us is potentially divine and that the goal of our life is to realize our true nature which is Divine and that the whole of existence—animate as well as inanimate—is One. As early as in the 1890s, Vivekananda was the first to talk about interfaith harmony, peace and universal spiritual brotherhood, far before it became absolutely necessary for the survival of mankind in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Vivekananda and Gandhi may not have seen eye to eye on the subject of politics, but they were deeply connected at the core in their devotion to their motherland, and in their sincere concern for and service to the millions of India’s miserable masses. Both of them were passionately patriotic, but their patriotism was not confined within the narrow walls of nationalism; their nationalism, being inclusive, implied internationalism. Vivekananda and Gandhi came to breathe new life into the lungs of their listless mother, India, and to rejuvenate the spirit of her children with the message of the Bhagavad Gita to “stand up and fight!” Gandhi fought, however, in his own unique way with the mightiest moral-spiritual weapon of satyagraha, based on nonviolent courage and adherence to truth.

Had Vivekananda lived to see Gandhi’s satyagraha (first used by Gandhi in South Africa in 1906), would he have accepted Gandhi’s version of “nonviolent courage?” Had the two great spiritual leaders met, what would they have said to each other? Who would have convinced whom? We may keep conjecturing about what we do not know, but what we do know is that notwithstanding their differences regarding politics and the definition of “courage,” both emphasized the importance of selfless service to the needy as the sine qua non of religion.

For both Vivekananda and Gandhi, religion was not confined within the narrow boundaries of the rules and rituals, customs and caste-restrictions of one’s own sect or creed. They believed in that religion which underlies all religions—of the universal human yearning for connecting with the Transcendental Being, whether known as the impersonal Brahman of Vedanta or as personal God called Ishwara, Allah or Christ. Both were ardent seekers of Truth—Absolute as well as relative in the practical world. Even though Vivekananda did not enter politics, being a practitioner of practical Vedanta he stood at the crossroads where religion intersected with politics through the service of humanity.

To the Swami as well as to Gandhi, nothing can be divorced from religion because religion was “the essence of existence in each man which is spirituality” and in this broad sense, it had nothing to do with dogmas and doctrines, with rituals and ridiculous argumentation over which is the correct direction or position for worshipping God. Swamiji, the great visionary, exhorted his countrymen to show by their lives that religion does not mean words or names or sects, but that it means spiritual realization.

Both the Swami and Gandhi considered religion to be the prime essence, the very lifeblood of the nation as well of all life—the aim of which was to realize God as Truth. In these inspiring words, the Swami said, “The best way to serve and seek God is to serve the needy, to feed the hungry, to console the stricken, to help the fallen and the friendless, to attend upon and serve those who are ill and require service.” (Sundaram Iyer in Reminiscences)[26] Gandhi could not have agreed more. Thus, the Monk and the Mahatma saw eye to eye in finding a common medium to serve God through serving the least of God’s children. Vivekananda called them the “Daridra-Narayanas” (daridra: poor, and Narayana: God, meaning the poor as God-incarnate), and whom Gandhi called “Harijans” (Hari: God, and jana: people) or “the beloved people of God.”


Other Sources:

Parel, Anthony J., Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony (Cambridge, University Press, 2006).

Sister Nivedita. The Master As I Saw Him. (Calcutta: Udbodhan, 2001).

Swami Lokeshwarananda. Ed., World Thinkers on Ramakrishna-Vivekananda (Calcutta: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1983). • • •

[1] Swami Vivekananda On Himself (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama. 2006), 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Gandhi, M. K., Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948), 12.

[4] Harold French, in Minor, Robert Neil, Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavadgita (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1986), 138.

[5] Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1983), 291.

[6] Nanda, B. R., In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 21.

[7] Vivekananda on Himself, 171.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Puri, Bindu, Mahatma Gandhi and His Contemporaries (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2001), 190.

[10] Ibid.,191.

[11] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 1 (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1986), 11.

[12] CW, Vol. 3 (1984), 242.

[13] CW, Vol. 4, (1985), 110.

[14] Nehru, Jawaharlal, Nehru On Gandhi (U.S.A. The John Day Company, 1948), 14.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Brown, Judith M., and Parel, Anthony, The Cambridge Companion to Gandhi (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 4.

[17] Ibid., 260.

[18] CW: Vol. 5 (1989), 52.

[19] Ibid., 202

[20] Nanda, B. R., In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 67.

[21] Majmudar, Uma, Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 192.

[22] Nanda, 68.

[23] Jones, E. Stanley, Gandhi: The Portrayal of a Friend (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983) 7.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ahuja, M. L., Glimpses of Some Great Indians (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1997), 9.

[26] Reminiscences, 87.

UMA MAJMUDAR, a member of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, teaches courses on religion at Spellman College. She received her Ph.D from Emory University with a specialization in Gandhian studies, and is the author of Gandhi’s Pilgrimage of Faith: From Darkness to Light. Email:

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