Swami Vivekananda’s relevance to Contemporary Economic Problems

When I was asked to speak at a forum to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda I began to wonder what I, as a hard core practitioner of the dismal science of economics, could say about Swami Vivekananda.  I would not have spoken if I had no chance to add value to the discussion, to use an economist’s jargon.  

After some thought, though, I realized that it was possible for me to add value. So, here is my short speech.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here to honour and pay tribute to Swami Vivekananda. It is my distinct pleasure and privilege to be associated with this effort to mark the 150th birth anniversary of his birth.  

Swami Vivekananda was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 12th January 1863 and died on 4th July 1902.  In this short lifespan of 39 years Swamiji straddled India and the World like a spiritual colossus – all this in a world without twitter, Facebook, Youtube, air transport, rail transport and telephone and telegraphic services, even electricity and running water! 

Yet his message rang loud and clear not just in India but in the US and Europe (which he visited) and even parts of the world he never visited. He may not be with us today but his message is reverberating even now as evidenced by this august gathering here at Australia’s premier university. The passage of time, if anything, has only enhanced his stature and his appeal. This is not because Swami Vivekananda was always right or complete (he was not) but because he through his work and words appealed and continues to appeal to something innate in all humans.  His message was delivered in a way that transcended the traditional limits of languages, cultures, space and even time.  

So much so that even today it is impossible to read Swamiji’s writings without getting inspired and stirred.  

His work and his deeds have had a profound and lasting impact, still inspiring many the world over and setting new standards by which people, organizations, societies and cultures need to evaluate themselves.

In this brief talk I would like to underscore and explain Swami Vivekanada’s lasting impact. Why is Swami Vivekananda relevant today and why will his relevance only grow over time?

At the time of Swamiji’s birth India was colonized and its economy was in absolute doldrums. 

When Rousseau wrote his famous lines “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” he was speaking of 18th century Europe but he might as well have been forecasting conditions in 19th century India when Swamiji was born.  Or, for that matter, when T.S. Eliot wrote his famous poem “The Wasteland” he might as well have been thinking of 19th century India.

I will give just a few indications of why this was the case.  In 1820 life expectancy in India was a mere 21 years whereas the West European average was 36 years. Between 1500 and 1820 India’s GDP per capita per year in 1990 international dollars actually dropped from 550 to 533. In contrast it was 1746 in 1998. 

Using the same unit of measurement, i.e., 1990 international dollars, Britain’s GDP per capita per year increased from 762 in 1500 to 2,121 in 1820 and further to 18,714 in 1998.

India’s society was stagnant, inward-looking, deeply superstitious and exploitative towards women and those at the lower end of the societal totem pole.  India was in a deep crisis socially, culturally and economically.  In her long history of several millennia India had seen many episodes of crises.   However, time and again India was able to produce outstanding men and women who helped society tide over these crises and spread India’s message of love, peace, service to humanity and tolerance.

However, the crisis in the 19th century posed an additional challenge.  The world was globalizing very rapidly.  In fact in terms of trade and investment flows (not the movement of people or information) the world was probably more globalized in the 19th century than it is today, certainly than in post-second world war 20th century. To be effective India’s messenger to the world would have to relate to the whole world, not just to Indians living in India.

Swmiji filled this very dark and almost hopelessly large vacuum.

 Inspired by his Guru Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa and his own spiritual awakening Swami Vivekananda realized that India’s political and cultural subjugation was merely a manifestation of India’s loss of confidence in herself and her own distinct identity.

At the deepest level Swamiji realized that India’s philosophical moorings were under attack as never before. Philosophy in India was not an idle quest unlike in the West where it aims at satisfying the desire or curiosity to know. Indeed, the root Greek word, philosophia stops at defining it as merely a “love of wisdom.” It is for this reason, I suppose, that all PhD’s, irrespective of discipline, are doctors of philosophy.


 However, for all its virtues and exalted status, wisdom is a function of the buddhi, a state or faculty higher than the mind, perhaps the intellect.

Professor M. Hiriyanna in his 1939 Indian Philosophical Congress lecture noted that in India, the corresponding word for “philosophy” is darshana, one of the meanings of which is “a system of philosophy.” Other meanings include “direct perception,” “observation,” “cognition,” and “realization.” It is from the first meaning that we have the six schools of Indian philosophy.


 

In India philosophic truth was sought for the light it may throw upon the ultimate significance of life, i.e., show reality for what it is. It is for this reason that philosophical exploration in India from the earliest times moved away from merely formulating a set of theoretical views of the universe and dealt in applying philosophic concepts to everyday life. This is also the Indian ideal of life.  This ideal was under attack and, indeed, in retreat and this retreat posed an existential threat to India’s ancient culture which, over the millennia, has contributed so much to world civilization.

Swamiji realized that addressing this was the first order of business if India had to be awakened.  


 

He also concluded that such awakening would yield rich dividends for the entire world. At the level at which he was working differences between peoples, cultures, societies and creeds were superficial.  

To quote Swamiji

“All differences in the world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.”

As you know there were two often complementary and sometimes competing trends in the reforms process in 19th century India. On the one hand there was the highly regarded work of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and others.  Roy lived from 1772 to 1833 and was an employee of the East India Company.

 His social reform involved, inter alia, legislation to curb some heinous practices prevalent at the time. This can loosely be termed “top down” social reform or “trickle down” social reform, as opposed to “bottom up” social reform. This has interesting parallels with the economics of poverty reduction. Some economists argue that economic growth is essential (to the point of being sufficient) for poverty reduction.  Just as a high tide will lift all boats so will economic growth make everyone better-off. To which the Nobel Laureate James Tobin had responded “not if the boats have leaks in them”.  Enabling the poor to take advantage of the opportunities provided by higher economic growth may also be necessary. This is “bottom up” economic reform.  

Swami Vivekananda, while warmly welcoming the initiatives by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was insistent that unless the individual was reformed to realize their innate spirituality this process would remain incomplete and, in due course, falter.  He was interested in reforming society by reforming the individual – you may want to call it “bottom up” social reform.  To quote Swamiji

“We are to take care of ourselves — that much we can do — and give up attending to others for a time. Let us perfect the means; the end will take care of itself. For the world can be good and pure, only if our lives are good and pure. It is an effect, and we are the means. Therefore, let us purify ourselves. Let us make ourselves perfect.”

This was clearly an intellectual as well as a strategic precursor of Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on the importance of means and not just the end. For Mahatma Gandhi India’s freedom was the end but non-violence agitation constituted the means.  And the means was extremely important.

Swamiji’s emphasis on “bottom up” social reform was also consistent with the principles of Vedanta and with the idea of enjoining spiritual, social and economic rejuvenation.  Healthy political transformation would follow.  Quoting again from Swamiji

“The great national sin is the neglect of the masses, and that is one of the causes of our downfall.

No amount of politics would be of any avail until the masses in India are once more well educated, well fed, and well cared for.”

It is important to note that although Swamiji talked of a “national or collective sin” he spoke only of human error.  To quote him again

 “The Vedanta recognizes no sin it only recognizes error.  And, the greatest error, says the Vedanta is to say that you are weak, that you are a sinner, a miserable creature, and that you have no power and you cannot do this and that.”


 

Whereas “top down” social reform presupposes the existence of a legal and institutional infrastructure to facilitate these changes, “bottom up” social reform can proceed regardless of these.  In India there is a well-established tradition of this. Thus, for example, while the Mahabharata lays down elaborate principles of governance (so-called Raj Dharma) for monarchies and republics it also lays down principles of self governance in societies without a government.  This required the citizens to be of a certain temperament and caliber, i.e., governance without a government could be achieved only by those who had imbibed the letter and spirit of “bottom up” reform quite significantly.  


 

The best that we economists have been able to come up with is “federalism without a centre”. However, whereas governance without a government existed in some societies during the time of the Mahabharata, the economist’s notion of federalism without a center is only a theoretical curiosum.   

Of course, modern societies cannot be organized solely along these principles.  It is pertinent to note, however, that while we have a growing plethora of laws circumscribing almost every human activity Swami Vivekananda’s “bottom up” approach has been relatively neglected.  At least in the economic arena this neglect has recently had almost cataclysmal effects for many people.

Permit me to illustrate this.  The effects of the global financial crisis are so fresh in our memories that many of us may have forgotten the accounting scandals in some key Wall Street firms in the early part of the last decade.  Despite very complex laws and regulations major Wall Street accounting firms were found to be fudging their books and this fudging could not be detected in time.  Because the global economy was then on a path of debt fuelled expansion, however, this episode was quickly forgotten and the unbridled pursuit of greed proceeded apace until it hit the hard rocks of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007-08.  As we all know the global economy has not fully recovered since then. 

The moral from this story is relatively straightforward. Even the most sophisticated legal, institutional and regulatory structures cannot prevent economic disasters until we take Swami Vivekananda’s “bottom up” approach much more seriously.

Herein lies the relevance of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings to today’s world.  The world has had too much of the “top down approach” and not enough of the “bottom up” approach reform.  However, we ignore the “bottom up” approach at our peril. Indeed, as recent experience has suggested, such neglect has had profound economic impacts with each economic crisis being worse than the preceding one.  So, this neglect has a cost – maybe not for every individual but certainly a collective economic cost.  For instance, unemployment rates remain unacceptably high in many OECD countries. In particular, youth unemployment is even higher (as much as 50 per cent for 15 to 24 year olds) in many parts of Europe.

Just think of what is happening to ordinary folks in the least developed countries! How much misery has been inflicted on ordinary people by ignoring “bottom up” reform!

To conclude Swamiji ‘s “bottom up” approach wanted to change the hearts of humans, not just their minds.  Indeed he wrote

 

 “The attempt to make children moral and religious by the teaching of moral and religious text-books is a vanity and a delusion, precisely because the heart is not the mind and to instruct the mind does not necessarily improve the heart.”

Yes, the brain can occasionally be an overrated organ!

In his address to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago Swamiji made clear that no religion or dogma had proprietary rights on the means to effect this transformation of hearts.  Indeed, he preached the essential equality of all religions.


 

Swamiji’s many writings and their practice through organizations such as the Ramakrishna Mission and others can even now serve society well in this task of transforming hearts.  As I have tried to argue in this lecture this task is essential not just for spiritual upliftment but also for our long-term economic prosperity.  

Ladies and gentlemen in Hindu tradition a person who becomes a sannyasin abandons the life that hitherto existed for them and even takes on a new name.

 They thus become “dwij” or twice born with a life before they became a sannyasin and a new one after becoming a sannyasin. In the case of Swamiji Vivekananda was the name given to him when he became a sannyasin.  Translated loosely “Vivekananda” means the attainment of supreme joy through the ability to discern, to differentiate  – good from evil, important from irrelevant and so on. Before he became a sannyasin Swamiji was called Narendra Nath. Again translated loosely this means “a king of humans”.  While, given his spiritual attainments, the name Vivekananda was very apt for Swamiji so was Narendra Nath. After all, to his many admirers all over the world he still is a king!

Thank you.

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