“There were many good things in the ancient times, but there were bad things too. The good things are to be retained, but the India that is to be, the future India, must be much greater than ancient India.” – Swami Vivekananda
India is now going through a momentous phase of transition. While we race to catch up with a world being connected seamlessly through digital technology, we can find new ideas and new ideologies bombarding us from all sides. It is at times like this that we need to pause and ask ourselves whether we are going in the right direction and at the right pace. We need to explore as a nation whether we are building our future based on the lessons of our past or are getting caught up in the mindless pursuit of mere economic growth. This is also the time for us to revalidate the relevance of the message of Swami Vivekananda and his vision for India. Vivekananda dreamed of seeing Mother India in all her glory on the resplendent throne where she rightfully belonged. If we are to go beyond the romance of this statement, we first need to understand where we are today and what the challenges are ahead of us. We also need to understand where we were in the past and what lessons we can learn from the rich history of our culture and civilisation.
India of Today: The whole country is agog with the excitement of change. Everyone seems obsessed with our growing visibility around the world and is increasingly focusing on economic growth and the trappings of visible development. We seem to be overlooking the fact that despite this constant progress and growth, 50 per cent of children under five years of age suffer from undernutrition1. While on the one hand we are making rapid strides in space and defence technology, on the other hand a large part of our rural population still lacks basic amenities, including clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. 37% of our young people drop out of school by the time they reach the tenth grade. Gender and caste inequities are very real and distressing. Despite all our scientific attainments, close to 75% of our graduating youth lack employable skills. What we are building today in our children and youth is mere cognitive growth and not the overall social, emotional, and spiritual evolution of a balanced person. As a society, we are seeing a rapid erosion of our social capital, with visible manifestations of trust deficit, lowered interdependence, and vanishing reciprocity. Monetisation has become the metric of human success and attainment, while other dimensions of human achievement are getting marginalised. While one can argue that the benefits of our growth will trickle down and most of our citizens can indeed aspire to a better life, we need to recognise the challenges ahead of us.
The Challenges Ahead: India’s progress is going to be determined by how well we can manage three major challenges facing us. The first is the increasing intolerance that we are seeing and the growing reality of religious fundamentalism. Religion has now become a political tool. Not a day passes without evidence of this threat in some part of the world or the other – whether it is India, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan, Egypt, or the United States. The second major challenge that is becoming more evident is growing economic inequity. The gap between the rich and the poor is the widest in our recent history. The top 10% of Indians generate and control more than 75% of India’s wealth, while the bottom 20% are generating and controlling less than 1%. The increasing economic tensions are having social ramifications, and outbursts of violence are no longer the exception. The third major issue is the manner in which technology is rapidly disrupting everyday life, manufacturing, and services. This makes demands on our youth to acquire skills that are not easily available and that are out of the reach of most of our rural population. Our ability to resolve these vexatious issues will eventually determine whether we are able to place India on the world stage and give our people the life that they deserve. What can we do to confront this reality and find realistic and pragmatic solutions? It is here that the message of Swami Vivekananda and his plan for building India’s future give us a solution. Swamiji strongly believed in learning from our past in order to build our future. While he was a romantic lover of everything Indian, he was also pragmatic enough to identify the ills that we had accumulated over the years and that had to be mercilessly discarded.
Our Rich and Hoary Past: An objective assessment of the India of the past in multiple dimensions demonstrates how advanced we were as a society. The work of the English economic historian Angus Madison conclusively proves the wealth of our nation from the beginning of the Christian era up till 1600 CE. He mentions how the Indian civilisation, with its enormous intellectual, trading, and manufacturing capacity produced 35% of global GDP and was possibly the richest country in the world during those 16 continuous centuries. It was also during this time that India contributed the binary system and the concepts of algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Metallurgy and the chemical sciences were far advanced, and knowledge of astronomy, physics, democracy, and political science was at its peak. Apart from the sciences of the ‘external’, Indian scriptures were rich in their understanding of the ‘internal’. From psychology to spirituality, our thinkers made contributions that the rest of the world had yet to discover. One can safely say that this was the glorious era of Indian civilisation. The focus was on increasing the human and social capital of India. This obviously resulted in enormous economic benefits.
The Way Forward: Swami Vivekananda strongly believed in the control of man’s inner nature in order to ensure the optimal utilisation of resources and efective functioning in the external world. He could see how a colonised and conquered India had lost her moorings, and he felt the urgency to rebuild her human and social capital. Swamiji understood that a full expression of human potential would happen only when man constantly expanded his physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capabilities. Only then could he have the capacity to lead and sustain his life. He understood that ‘education’ had to go beyond mere schooling and result in the expression of the inner perfection already inherent in man. He could also relate physical growth to mental and emotional growth. He asked young Indians to make their biceps stronger before embarking on the study of the Gita. For him, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence were as critical as social intelligence for man to progress and grow. He gave a new meaning and dimension to the pursuit of spirituality by making it practical and socially pragmatic. His call to serve the God in man as a means of spiritual evolution is possibly the most practical means of connecting man’s inner nature with the outer world. Swamiji’s message of working for the poor and the marginalised and the call for inner evolution and not an outer revolution further strengthens this argument. His thoughts on organising people and building institutions reflect the emphasis he placed on social capital. He knew that a country could not be built on sand and that democratic institutions can be created and sustained only by people of mettle.
And what India needs today is to revisit this concept of building a complete man, who can in turn create and manage institutions and thus build a great country. We need people with the qualities of compassion, humanism, a spirit of enquiry, humour, mindful existence, positive thinking and the intent to be good and do good. Imagine a nation that is led by a type of humankind that is responsible in its consumption, respectful of all of nature’s creation, constantly striving for both internal and external peace, harmony, and good will. Such a country would be wonderful indeed, where sharing and caring would be second nature to humankind and the mad rush to acquire everything for just oneself would be a thing of the past. Imagine such a nation where these self-evolved humans are interconnected and live with the awareness of mutual trust, interdependence and reciprocity! That is the social capital that India badly needs if it wants to stop hurtling towards self-destruction. India now needs a new narrative that talks about creating and expanding this human and social capital based on Swamiji’s vision. Sustainable development will then not be a mere slogan or a fashionable statement that is talked about, but a practical and realistic attempt to build this New India. In that new vision for India, development will be seen in terms of increased security and liberty for communities and individuals. This means that people will have the political space to voice their problems and choose the solutions that best represent them. Dominant players in development – whether they are the government, or civil society, or the corporate world—will then take the time to listen to people with respect and provide them with the platform to articulate their just and legitimate aspirations.
India needs to become a pioneer in translating this vision of development into concrete reality, where the rule of law is the norm rather than the exception, where no Indian will go hungry, where human rights are not a mere slogan but a way of life, where democratic participation is not a fanciful aspiration but an everyday expression of citizenship, and where food, nutrition, livelihood, infrastructure, education, health care, and religious freedoms are not mere political promises but entitlements of an empowered citizenry. This is the India that Swami Vivekananda spoke of—and the India that we need to create.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Vol.6, p, 318
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