Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi And Nehru Were Not Islamophobic: A Reply To My Friend Saif Ahmad Khan [Part 1]

Posted on July 11, 2013 in Specials

By Karmanye Thadani:

My friend Saif Ahmad Khan has written a piece titled “Indian Icons Whose Perspective Of Muslims And Islam Will Shock You” alleging how these great national icons of India were prejudiced against his Muslim community, and I was surprised to see this, for I have no doubt about Saif’s secular, progressive and nationalist credentials. He has relied on some of the quotations of those historical figures, but has perhaps not seen many others. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that half-truths can prove to be more dangerous than lies. His biased piece has the potential to make Hindus lean towards being anti-Muslim and Muslims lean towards being anti-Hindu, and in the context of Indian Muslims, even make them lean in favour of being anti-national and help Pakistanis engage in anti-India propaganda. The counter-argument can be that the truth must be told, but this is a biased, one-sided picture of the truth, not the truth holistically.

The piece I am rebutting seems to suggest that only Muslims are victims of prejudice and it is inappropriate to blame Muslims for the partition of the country or for terrorism. Well, it is a fact that the Muslim League partitioned this country, and though Gandhi, Nehru and Patel made some errors of judgment, and the Hindu Mahasabha too had been responsible for fermenting communal hatred, the primary blame must lie on Jinnah. This is an interesting chapter of our history, on which I should perhaps dedicate another piece, but let me say this — the fact is that most Muslims then supported Jinnah’s Muslim League and only a minority supported the Congress, looking up to leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad.


And though I would like to believe that the Muslims in present-day India are mostly loyal to the country and I know for a fact that a very large number of them indeed are, I also know that there are many who are not (and some of these fellows burst crackers on Pakistan’s victory in Indo-Pak cricket matches, and the more extreme among them are members of terror outfits like the Indian Mujahidin, some of whom have been proved guilty and convicted in courts of law, and having said that, I equally strongly condemn mass murders of Muslims by Hindu extremists), something even their co-religionists concede; so, unfortunately, I cannot, as an Indian, accept Muslims in general “as patriotic citizens of the land without any scepticism” as Saif would like us to. Far too many Indian Muslims, including educated ones, are more concerned with the fate of the Muslim ummah than the fate of India, as is visible on online intra-Muslim discussion forums (though there are also far too many Hindus on similar forums hurling the crassest of abuses against Islam and Muslims, and their conception of loyalty to India only extends to this; they never discuss what’s right and wrong with our laws or economic policies) and it is, therefore, no wonder that hate-mongering Muslim politicians like the Owaisi brothers speak the language of concern for the ummah under threat from Hindus, Jews and Western powers.

As for terrorism, it is true that there have been non-Muslim terrorists in India and abroad, about whom I have written in some detail here, but for the acts of terrorism committed by Muslims, whether in India or abroad, the blame must indeed be put on those Muslim perpetrators (though not the entire Muslim community or Islam as a faith).

In this article and the next in this series, I shall deal with each of these personalities (barring Patel and Ambedkar as  I  accept his point of view on these two) cited by Saif one by one and clarify that he has mentioned half-truths.

Swami Vivekananda:

Saif concedes that Swami Vivekananda acknowledged that all religions were true in their own way. I may add to that, mentioning that Vivekananda’s Guru, Ramakrishna Paramhansa had been, for short periods, a practising Muslim and a practising Christian respectively, and declared that there was no difference in the essence of any of the global major religions. Saif complains of Swami Vivekananda’s quotation — “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.” Firstly, this statement was actually more in the context of Christian missionaries being propagated under British rule and their misrepresentation of Hinduism than having anything to do with Muslims, but in any case, it is understandable that in most cases, an apostate of any religion would tend to be an ideological enemy or opponent of his former religion. Nowhere has Vivekananda advocated social boycott of or violence against apostates. On the contrary, he was a firm votary of keeping one’s mind open to diverse schools of thought and loving all human beings.

Saif further complains that “Vivekananda did not even hold Prophet Muhammad in high regards”, quoting Vivekananda that he (Muhammad) was not a trained yogi, as though that itself becomes enough to certify one being prejudiced against a religion or community. It is entirely a matter of personal perception as to how much one admires a historical figure, and as we shall see later, there was indeed much that Vivekananda appreciated about Prophet Muhammad.

Many scholars, including Karen Armstrong, a very well-known admirer of Islam, have pointed out that each of the Abrahamic faiths (the Abrahamic faiths are Judaism, Christianity and Islam) claiming to be the only wholly true religion and the only one that can lead to heaven (going by the mainstream interpretation), has made the idea of ‘holy war’ based on fighting non-believers, though that aspect is nowhere preached by the faith, more palatable. This is the position Vivekananda adopted, and therefore, held that Hinduism is a superior religion, owing to its ecumenical pluralism and openness even to atheistic and agnostic schools of thought. This may not be seen as a very politically correct position to advance by some, but merely holding the philosophy of your religion to be superior to that of others does not imply that you despise other faiths or those following them, and if it does, then many if not most, of the ardently practising Muslims and Christians (and even Jews) would indeed be guilty of this charge, and a good many of them only see Hinduism as a religion of polytheism and idolatry, refusing to even so much as understand the religion any better. None other than Maulana Azad, a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity, while being Congress president in the 1940s, made statements asserting the superiority of Islam over other faiths, and even saying that it wasn’t a hereditary religion like Hinduism or Christianity, but that doesn’t in the least influence my judgment about him as a person.

Vivekananda did criticize the atrocities committed by Muslims upon non-Muslims historically (and Vivekananda mentions that this is what Islam had been reduced to in practice by many Muslim rulers, and that in spite of Islam advocating universal brotherhood, many Muslims did not extend this concept to non-Muslims), but has gone on to mention —

Nevertheless, among these Mohammedans, wherever there was a philosophic man, he was sure to protest against these cruelties. In that he showed the touch of the Divine and realized a fragment of the truth; he was not playing with his religion, he was talking, but spoke the truth direct like a man.”

The phrase “playing with his religion” implies perhaps a misinterpretation of the faith on the part of those exhibiting intolerance to non-Muslims. Vivekananda was full of praise for the Sufis who were liberal-minded, as also the emperor Akbar. In fact, Vivekananda was always open to appreciating what was good in other faiths, as the famous ‘frog in a well’ speech of his clearly demonstrates.

Also, Vivekananda had a tendency to cite the name of the religion and criticize it, but then, in the flow of the same speech, clarify that he was alluding to the religion as it was being practised as being negative and that he was not referring to the religion in its true doctrinal form, which was, in his opinion, positive.

Take, for instance, this remark of his on Christianity while in the United States – “With all your brag and boasting, where has your Christianity succeeded without the sword? Yours is a religion preached in the name of luxury.” This makes it seem that he is ridiculing Christianity as a religion for being without substance, therefore, the need to promote it by violence or material inducements. But, if we were to further see what Vivekananda has to say, he only blames Christians as people, not Christ. Here’s quoting what he went on to say subsequently in the same speech —

“It is all hypocrisy I have heard in this country. All this prosperity, all this from Christ! Those who call upon Christ care for nothing but to amass riches! Christ would not have found a stone on which to lay his head among you… You are not Christians. Return to Christ!” This was about Christianity. An even stronger example can be cited with reference to Hinduism! In a letter he wrote to a friend, he says —

“No religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism.” But what he says from his very next sentence onward makes it clear that he is not blaming the religion at the doctrinal level but what it has come to mean in practice. To quote — “The Lord has shown me that the religion is not at fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny…”

In the light of this, it becomes crystal clear that though his usage of language seemed to suggest that he was denigrating a certain religion (which could even be Hinduism depending on the context), it would subsequently imply that he was only criticizing the religion as people were practising it, not the religion in its canonical form.

That Vivekananda considered Islam a legitimate religion that deserved an honourable mention in the history of global theology is clear from this letter of his — “Now I will tell you my discovery. All of religion is contained in the Vedanta, that is, in the three stages of the Vedanta, one comes after the other. These are the three stages of spiritual growth in man. Each one is necessary. This is the essential of religion. The Vedanta, applied to the various ethnic customs and creeds of India, is Hinduism. The first stage, i.e., Dvaita, applied to the ideas of the ethnic groups of Europe, is Christianity, as applied to the other Semitic group Mohammedanism. ”

He was deeply impressed by the spirit of amity and fraternity advocated by Islam, which had been lost in Hinduism (the way it was being practised), owing to caste distinctions. To quote him, “Mohammed — the Messenger of equality. You ask, ‘What good can there be in his religion?’ If there was no good, how could it live? The good alone lives, that alone survives… How could Mohammedanism have lived, had there been nothing good in its teachings? There is much good.”

“Mohammed by his life showed that amongst the Mohammedans there should be perfect equality and brotherhood. There was no question of race, caste, colour or sex.”

In a letter he wrote to a friend, he mentioned in clear terms —

“…if ever the followers of any religion approach to this equality in an appreciable degree in the plane of practical work-a-day life, it may be quite unconscious generally of the deeper meaning and the underlying principle of such conduct, which the Hindus as a rule so clearly perceive – it is those of Islam and Islam alone…”

“For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope.”

“I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.”

If someone still believes that Vivekananda was against Islam or Muslims, then I really have nothing more to say. I rest my case!