125 years after Swami Vivekananda called Kerala 'lunatic asylum'

Swami Vivekananda’s tour of India was a journey that touched the soul of the country. He explained to the world the spiritual dynamism of India in a manner that only a philosopher could comprehend and put across. It is through Vivekananda’s words that not only foreigners but also Indians came to know how we got a distinctive and rich heritage, which are different from those in other parts of the world.


What Vivekananda told us

It was through Vivekananda that western geniuses like Romain Rolland and Paul Deussen realised that keeping alive the identity of India—the cradle of spirituality—is the need of the world. Margaret Noble of Ireland, who later came to be known as Sister Nivedita, described Vivekananda as “India solidified”. No other person studied and comprehended India in its totality and uniqueness as Vivekananda did. It was through him that even Mahatma Gandhi understood and imbibed the soul of our land. 

Vivekananda reached Kerala at the conclusion of his epoch-making tour of India that lasted two years. He set out for Kerala with some rough idea of the land which he had received from Dr Palppu. Vivekananda told Palppu, who had lamented the sad state of affairs in Kerala, two important things that need to be done. One, for any change to succeed in India, it must be based on spirituality. Two, instead of seeking help from the outside, we need to strive for reformation by centering on a spiritual leader from our land. Two things that came out of Vivekananda’s advice are: 1) any change that might occur by keeping spirituality away would be superficial, and 2) whatever be the social category, it will include those who possessed purity. And, this must be the reason why reformation movements in other lands cannot be compared with those taking place in India.

Introspection as a self-treatment

Kerala could be the only land that was so deeply affected by cultural invasion. Here, negation of identity and uniqueness of the ethnic culture co-existed along with ugly discrimination based on caste. This was why Vivekananda was forced to describe Kerala as a 'lunatic asylum' despite the fact that caste-based discrimination was rampant all over India. The people of Kerala, who could take in Vivekananda’s caustic criticism with an open mind and in the right spirit, made use of the ‘lunatic asylum’ observation as an opportunity and inspiration for introspection and self-evaluation. The 'self-treatment’ by making use of Vivekananda’s description of Kerala continues even today.

Vivekananda did not just leave Kerala after terming the place a 'lunatic asylum'. He designated one of his fellow saints Srimad Ramakrishnananada as the reform campaigner for south India. He also entrusted Sister Nivedita with the task of assisting barrister G.K. Pillai, who was sent to the British parliament to apprise it of the sad state of affairs in Malabar. At the Thousand Island Park,  Vivekananda spoke enthusiastically to the Americans about the good command of Sanskrit that women in Kodungalloor possessed. Vivekananda’s letters tell us how he met Chattambi Swamikal. Swami Nirmalananda, who reached Kerala to spread the message of Vivekananda following the footsteps of Swami Ramakrishnananada, was a great personality who devoted his life to the upliftment of Malayalis. Nirmalananda, born in Bengal, was instrumental in starting all over Kerala, Ramakrishna ashrams that became centres of social reformation. It was he who shaped strong reformist leaders like Swami Aagamananda. By declaring that devotees have no caste, Nirmalananda held together people from both the lower castes and the priestly caste.  

Idea of equality a timeless message

Even while advocating the concept of Adwaita (non-dualism), the people of Kerala indulged in preaching and practising untouchability and other social evils. Vivekananda described this as utter foolishness. To remedy this, one needed the wisdom to see the truth of equality. Through the discernment which one attains by recognising his own identity, he learns to give up all misunderstandings and embrace all fellow humans. Only by learning and practising this path to equality can we live happily and with a sense of security. 

The article was originally published in Malayala Manorama. The writer is editor of Prabuddhakeralam magazine published by Sri Ramakrishna Math.

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Topics : #Kerala

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