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Envisioning 'Seva'

Swami Vivekananda

Envisioning ‘Seva’

Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service: A Study of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission

by Gwilym Beckerlegge; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp xiv + 292, Rs 595.


wilym Beckerlegge’s newest publication, Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service, is a continuation of his longstanding interest in the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, and it is in fact the second book on the Ramakrishna movement he has published with Oxford University Press – the first being The Ramakrishna Mission: The Making of a Modern Hindu Movement in 2000. Indeed, there are many references to the Ramakrishna Mission in the new book, and two chapters from the earlier work are reproduced in the later tome, albeit in condensed form. The present volume attempts to justify itself (a) by declaring that it focuses exclusively on the issue of organised ‘seva’ or service for humanity, and (b) by stating that it shows how the Mission’s commitment to organised seva has been shaped by complex and varied influences (p 6). There is certainly much discussion of organised service in the book, but many other interesting topics are directly or indirectly touched on, too, such as: issues of continuity, legitimacy and authenticity in the Ramakrishna movement; India’s relationship with broader global forces at the turn of the 20th century; the emergence of “modern” voluntary organisations; the relationship between organised seva, philanthropy and politics and not least, Vivekananda’s contributions to the construction of “Hinduism” and Hindu identity in the modern era.

Swami Vivekananda’s plans for providing organised and institutionalised service for India appear to date from 1892, though they took firmer shape in 1894 and were concretised with the establishment of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in 1897. The movement continued its service work after Vivekananda’s death at the young age of 39 in 1902, and it is still heavily committed to providing organised social service today. The 21st century Ramakrishna Mission has approximately 1,500 members and 150 centres, serving millions of Indians annually through a wide variety of activities in fields such as health, education, youth work, women’s issues, rural development, and relief.

Change and Continuity

The central question for Beckerlegge is the degree of continuity between the teachings and activities of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-86), his disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the Ramakrishna Math and Mission established by Vivekananda in the 1890s, and the ongoing seva work of the Ramakrishna Mission to the present-day. In other words, did Vivekananda’s interest in the service of humanity and his institutionalisation of organised seva in the Ramakrishna Mission represent continuity and commensurability with Ramakrishna’s vision and Hindu practices? And, by extension, has the continued emphasis on organised social service in the Ramakrishna movement since 1902 (and into the post-colonial era) been an authentic and legitimate exercise in the name of Sri Ramakrishna? It is clear from the outset of the book that Beckerlegge’s answer to these questions is “yes”. He believes in continuity: Vivekananda was justified and acted in good faith when he institutionalised service in Ramakrishna’s name, and the Ramakrishna movement’s commitment to service is thus authentic and legitimate.

Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service is in large part a defence of the Ramakrishna Mission’s long-standing commitment to organised humanitarian service. The book’s sources and acknowledgements show that Beckerlegge has a close attachment to the Ramakrishna movement, and this apparent bias is further highlighted in the introduction. Here Beckerlegge is critical of “outsider” scholars who posit discontinuity in the movement by arguing that when Swami Vivekananda institutionalised social service in the 1890s he deviated from the beliefs and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, and that Vivekananda was influenced more by new western modes of philanthropy than he was by his master (guru) or, for that matter, Hindu practice and belief. The author warns that such scholarship is too focused on the relationship between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and that arguments about radical discontinuity are tantamount to

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

being irresponsible since they can have a deleterious effect on current Ramakrishna devotees. Moreover, Beckerlegge is critical of “outsider” scholars for their obsession with Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, to the neglect of the longer history of the Ramakrishna movement. Yet, in this book at least, he paradoxically devotes seven of 12 chapters explicitly to these two figures. The only chapter that seriously considers the movement over the ‘longue durée’ is chapter two, ‘Service to Humanity’ (pp 27-66).

Beckerlegge does acknowledge the lacunae, ambivalence and ambiguity in the documentary record of Ramakrishna’s and Vivekananda’s perspectives on “organised service for humanity”, and the fact that Vivekananda seemed to distance himself from social service in the last few years of his life. He also discusses the factionalism that existed among Ramakrishna’s disciples after the master’s death, and the dissent about Vivekananda’s interpretation of Ramakrishna’s message. In addition, the material in chapter three, ‘Understandings of Seva and Continuity within the Ramakrishna Math and Mission’ (pp 67-77), indicates that members of the movement have consciously constructed a narrative that suppresses dissent and emphasises continuity with “legitimate innovation”. Notwithstanding these problems, Beckerlegge feels that there is enough evidence to argue that Ramakrishna was concerned about the material hardship of poor Indians, and that his recorded criticisms of philanthropy were really directed at the Brahmo Samaj’s supposedly selfish philanthropy – selfish because it sought material rewards for acts of service or giving. This, in Beckerlegge’s estimation, allows us to speculate that Ramakrishna was open to ‘sattvika’ humanitarian giving: disinterested charity with no expectation of reward, and no attachment to the fruits that come from the act of giving (pp 105-13). In this sense, Vivekananda had sufficient latitude and justification to “transform” (the word frequently used) Ramakrishna’s ambiguous sattvika ideal into a systematic and organised service for humanity carried out mainly by sanyasis (religious mendicants who have renounced the material world).

The book is perhaps more interesting when Beckerlegge turns from detailed (and at times tiresome) analysis of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda relationship to consideration of the complexities of the late 19th century south Asian and global contexts in which the Ramakrishna Mission’s “organised service of humanity” was started. Calcutta is generally portrayed as dynamic and distinctively cosmopolitan because of the port city’s receptiveness to global influences, particularly western influences, and the impact of British colonialism. Vivekananda was proficient in English and exposed to western thinking, including the Orientalist Indology of Max Muller and Paul Deussen, the philosophies of Comte, Schopenhauer and Spencer, as well as the ideas and practices of the Freemasons and Christian missionaries. In his early years he was also member of the Brahmo Samaj, the syncretic Bengali organisation that had engaged with Christian ideas and carried out philanthropy since the 1830s. As a result of these diverse influences available to him in colonial Bengal, Vivekananda’s religious perspectives were understandably eclectic. Of course, the bedrock of Vivekananda’s religion was Hindu, but here too he was notably attracted to more flexible Vaishnavite bhakti practices that were historically linked with Sufism, and he often referred to Buddhism. Moreover, Vivekananda was a sanyasi and was therefore free from many of the conventions governing the lives of caste Hindus. Beckerlegge could say more on this point, using the work of Peter van der Veer, for example, to argue that this sanyasi status gave Vivekananda more latitude to develop the creative religious amalgam that supported his vision of organised seva and, eventually, modern “Hinduism”.

Impact of British Rule

Ultimately, however, Legacy of Service argues that it was the social and political rupture caused by British colonialism that pushed Vivekananda to turn his eclectic body of ideas into a practice of organised service. The book points out the importance of Vivekananda’s travels in India in the early 1890s, when he came into direct contact with extensive Indian suffering caused by famines. Like other Indians during the 1890s, including nationalists, Vivekananda criticised the British for both the growing frequency of famine under the raj and the raj’s inadequate response, though he was critical of Indian elites as well. It was in this context that Vivekananda began to call for activist sanyasis to serve India and alleviate suffering, though such activism was not institutionalised till some years later, in1897.

Beckerlegge does well to point out the complexities inherent in the emergence of organised social service in India. He rejects simplistic explanations which either state or infer that Indian philanthropy was an imitation of “modern” developments in the west. In the end, his argument on this point is quite balanced and compelling: in founding the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda perhaps took some inspiration from Sri Ramakrishna, but he was really indebted to a rich blend of old and new Hindu practices that in turn borrowed from other religions, while also assimilating broader western and global developments in colonial Bengal. In this sense, the Ramakrishna Mission’s organised seva is “authentically” and “legitimately” Indian and Hindu, yet also innovative, cosmopolitan and global.

Global Dimension

The author’s attempts to explore the global dimension of Vivekananda’s religious and philanthropic innovations are interesting, but it is unfortunate that what is purportedly “global” is too often reduced to a binary relationship between “the west” and India. When the cosmopolitan and metropolitan aspect of Calcutta is discussed, for example, it is in terms of the dynamic influence of western ideas there (pp 17-18). But surely Calcutta, situated as it was in the Bay of Bengal, was also open to influences and exchanges in the Indian Ocean, and with south-east and east-Asian states? By the 1890s there were extremely interesting developments afoot in these states, and though Beckerlegge mentions Vivekananda’s brief stops in China and Japan while enroute to the US in 1893, they only receive a scant half page of attention (p 181).

Additionally, the emergence of organised and institutionalised “modern” philanthropy is vaguely described as part of “the globalising influence of modernisation” that occurred after 1850, when governmental and non-governmental bodies in various states began to realise that older, limited forms of personal or religiously inspired charity could not cope with changing social problems and needs (pp 6, 55-58). While it is true that there were important global developments in organised philanthropy between roughly 1850 and 1930, the difficulty in the analysis offered in Legacy of Service is threefold:

(1) global processes are again reduced to an exchange between “the west” and India;

Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006 (2) it subscribes to a “modernisation theory” which implies that all states must follow the same process of modernisation and development; and (3) it locates the source of that dynamic modernisation process in the west (pp 55-58, 149-50). Vivekananda and Indians are given some agency in terms of assimilating western influences, but they are often portrayed as trying to “anticipate” (pp 8-9) or catch up to a “modernity” defined according to a western paradigm. At one point, Beckerlegge claims that modern voluntary organisations dedicated to social service developed “initially in the west then more widely” (p 58). Later he is more nuanced when he suggests that Indians developed organised social service movements largely because of the new material context in the late 19th century, a process “which in many ways mirrored that taking place in the west” (p 150). Beckerlegge would benefit from reading newer scholarship on globalisation and modernity such as Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincialising Europe and C A Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914. He could then situate his discussion or organised seva within broader and more interesting processes of interactive, hybrid and multicentred modernity that were truly global.

The treatment of the emergence of organised social service within India is problematic as well, since far too much importance is attributed to Vivekananda’s seva initiative and the supposedly unique dynamism of Bengal. We are repeatedly told of the novelty and distinctiveness of Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission efforts, and there is only the slightest acknowledgement that there could be similar stirrings toward organised philanthropy in other regions or communities of India (p 192). While the work of Sikhs and the Arya Samaj is briefly discussed at a couple of points, there is no mention at all of the Servants of India Society, various seva samitis, the philanthropy of the Theosophical Society, and the growing number of social service leagues throughout India. Yet these new organisations, and the growing emphasis placed upon social service by existing bodies, were appearing rapidly in the 1900s and 1910s – at the same time that the Ramakrishna Mission was establishing seva ashrams in north India. Moreover, Indian and foreign contemporaries saw these as kindred organisations. It might be possible to argue that Vivekananda’s efforts in some way influenced other Indian initiatives, but the more persuasive argument would be that these were parallel developments with individuals throughout India actively involved in a much broader global process. It is also sad that Muslim charity is utterly dismissed in one sentence wherein Muslims are depicted as backward (p 17), even though, as Gregory Kozlowski and others have pointed out, there were considerable debates about the ‘waqf’ (trust or endowment used for charity) in the early 20th century.

Elements of Modernity

Furthermore, something needs to be said about how organised social service relates to associational activities and networks, the public sphere and civil society. On several occasions Beckerlegge does

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highlight the “modern” elements of the Ramakrishna Mission’s organised seva: institutionalisation and professionalisation, planning, scientific methodologies, effective fundraising, cooperation with government and other organisations, and public accountability. The problem, however, is that apart from a few comments regarding the Ramakrishna movement’s relationship with the colonial and postcolonial governments, nothing is said about how the Mission-related to the wider associational networks of India’s civil society in the 20th century. This needs to be addressed, and it would help clarify some of the book’s ambivalence about the correlation between voluntarism and politics. The Ramakrishna movement’s organised seva is at times presented as apolitical, but at other points it is implied that Vivekananda’s “legacy of service” was connected to growing Indian patriotism and nationalism in the last decades of colonial rule.

Even a brief discussion of civil society would have pointed out that virtually all organised philanthropy is in some senses political since it raises issues and questions of public importance that invite commentary on matters of governance and social inequity. This might be especially pertinent regarding the colonial period, but it is also true of the post-colonial era. It is interesting in this respect that Beckerlegge claims that the Ramakrishna Mission had a cozy relationship with Nehru’s government in the 1950s, because many other Indian voluntary organisations complained that the Indian state deliberately neglected them in favour of new government welfare schemes or foreign bodies such as the Ford Foundation. Perhaps part of the difficulty on this point is that Beckerlegge lists Nehru’s Discovery of India as evidence, with 1960 as the date of publication, when in fact Nehru’s venerable tome was first published before independence, in 1946 (pp 36-38, 65).

Legacy of Service does deliver on its promise to show how the Ramakrishna Mission’s commitment to organised seva developed in a dynamic context with a diverse set of influences, but it is not true that the book focuses exclusively on seva. The last two chapters, representing 70 pages (more than 25 per cent of the book), explore Vivekananda’s travels in the west between 1893 and 1897, and his growing preoccupation with practical vedanta. Beckerlegge provides an interesting analysis and he shows that Vivekananda’s practical vedanta really represented a shift away from “organised service for humanity” to questions of self-realisation and universal religion. Ultimately, these last two chapters chronicle Vivekananda’s contributions to the emergence of a simplified “Hinduism” that was increasingly identified with Indian nationalism in the 20th century. Moreover, this new Hinduism was developed outside of India and largely through a dialogue with western Orientalists and a western audience by a lower caste Bengali sanyasi.

This review would not be complete without identifying some technical irritants in Legacy of Service. Most importantly, the book badly needs a glossary – particularly if it wants to serve a non-specialist audience, as claimed on the dust jacket. Some Bengali and Sanskrit terms are given parenthetical definitions in the text, but a great many are not. A chronology of Vivekananda’s life would be useful, too, especially when readers come to discussions of his travels in India and globally during the 1890s. Lastly, it is odd and disconcerting that some “chapters” are nine or 10 pages long while others exceed 50 pages.

In conclusion, despite some interesting analysis and topics contained in Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy of Service, there are many problems with the book. Most fundamentally, it is difficult to justify two books on the subject of the Ramakrishna Mission with the same publisher within six years of each other. The basic arguments presented in this latest work will be familiar to those who know the impressive body of scholarship that Beckerlegge has already produced on Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna movement, including his 2,000 tome on the Ramakrishna Mission. Nevertheless, readers unfamiliar with Beckerlegge’s earlier publications will find Legacy of Service a useful book, and others may discover additional detail on certain points.



Economic and Political Weekly December 2, 2006

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