Ram Swarup At 100: The Greatest Hindu Thinker Since Sri Aurobindo
Among us lived a rishi. And he was born a hundred years ago.
Whether it is Dharmic Darshanas, global pagan revival, study of Western philosophies and theologies from Hindu perspective, study of language from Hindu framework or, resistance to monopolistic ideologies — Ram Swarup has gifted every aspiring Hindu with vision, values and tools for his or her search .
The globalised environment today has created both challenges and opportunities for local, natural cultures. Among such natural cultures and spiritual traditions, Hindu Dharma represents the largest and the longest-continuing traditions. In fact, Hindus are the last standing nation of such a natural culture and spirituality.
With predatory and monopolistic forces threatening such a theo-diversity-laden ecosystem as Hindu Dharma and society, how should Hindus respond?
How do Hindus interact with other cultures and be a blessing to humanity while being rooted in their traditions, and without insulating themselves?
The answer may well lie with the works of Ram Swarup, who should be considered and can be considered as the greatest Hindu thinker and seer after Sri Aurobindo.
In many ways, he carried forward the thinking and vision of both Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda into the future, meeting head-on the challenges of the present and showing the thinking Hindu the opportunities embedded in every challenge.
For many millennial ‘Hindutvaites’, Ram Swarup would be known as the mentor of Sitaram Goel.
The duo was like Sri Krishna and Arjuna in the dharma kshetra of life and rashtra.
Just as Sri Krishna is far more than the charioteer of Arjuna and Gitacharya, though that is a core dimension of the avatar, Ram Swarup was the mentor and guide of Sitaram Goel and the sattvic energy behind Voice of India, but he was also much more than that.
And it will benefit the Hindu society to go through these other dimensions of Sri Ram Swarup as his centennial celebrations commence this year. And with the Ram Swarup foundation, we will also understand and utilise the work of Sitaram Goel better.
In 1981, through Voice of India, he published The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods.
By any reckoning, this work should be considered a milestone in both study of religions and the study of languages.
Here, Ram Swarup takes linguistics to a different plane entirely. The magnificent view that Ram Swarup shows here is not partisan to any sectarian group of humanity.
Though he has limited his study to what he calls the ‘Indo-European’ languages, he points out that "if speech and meaning are deeply human phenomena and if they follow deeply-laid patterns of the mind and heart, then they must share certain common characteristics, however differently clothed, and certain truths must hold good for them all”.
Going through this book, one is immersed into the beauty of words and their meaning – where the perspective is deeply Hindu, and the phenomenon studied is universal.
The book has two parts. In Part-I, he explores how words are formed and what creates the relation between a word and its meaning.
The process of naming is complicated and deeply psychological. It operates at subconscious level. Different elements that go into making of a name – the referent, the sound, the meaning – all tend to coalesce in the mind so much so that it is difficult to separate them from one another. …The process of naming may also be too much forced or fanciful; it may not be keeping with the deeper wisdom of the mind.
What Ram Swarup talks about is an important aspect which educationists who are working to provide science and technical education in mother languages should pay attention to.
For example, in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Dravidianists’ have only one purpose in their attempt to create Tamil terms for science and technology; it is not taking the concepts to the child but to remove Sanskrit from the words they coin. But still, they must use the term 'kanakku' for mathematics which in turn is derived from Sanskrit gana and ganitham.
Similarly, 'botany' is 'thavaraviyal', which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit 'sthavara'.
Our tradition, from poet Kalidasa to sage Kumaragurupara, has handed over the relation between the word and the meaning as Shakti and Shiva and pure consciousness as the substratum from which the word and the meaning arise.
Sri Ramana Maharishi takes this further and hints at a roadmap for preserving linguistic diversity through this common spiritual matrix. In his famous Akshara Manamalai, he speaks of the non-dual union as the union of Azhaku and Sundaram – both being Tamil and Sanskrit terms for the same aspect: beauty.
In the Part-2 of the book, Ram Swarup studies the names of gods. Here, he shows how humanity reaches its greatest linguistic possibilities in arriving at the names of the divine. Language, through the names of the divine, becomes a tool to elevate human consciousness to reach more 'profound heights'.
The way Ram Swarup harmonises the spiritual elements in various traditions of the world is very important for every Hindu. He has provided a solid foundation for engaging in a proper dialogue with mutual respect for non-Hindu religions.
In discussing the names of the Vedic gods, he points out that all gods have multiple names and the knowledge of these multiple names is an important and holy knowledge.
Then he says:
In all spiritual traditions, there is something analogous to it. The God of the Jews has many names. … But according to Jewish mysticism, God has also a secret name which should not even be uttered. Therefore, the Jews simply called it ‘the Great Name’ or ‘the Great Precious Name’ or just ‘the Name’. … Islam too admits of God’s Names though it denies His Forms. But the admission receives a certain narrowing at the hands of the more orthodox and faithful. … Socrates presents this idea in the language of understanding. He proclaims the awe, mystery and unknowability of Gods and their names but also tells us how these are ultimately names of man’s own intentions and meanings. … According to Hindu thought too, the names of Gods are not names of external beings. These are names of the truths of man’s highest Self.
One can see how softly but sharply Ram Swarup creates a Hindu framework for the study of monopolistic religions – preserving whatever spiritual components they have and pointing out where the sublime truth is lost to rigidity inevitable to monopolistic theology.
His critique of the emergence of monopolistic rigidity traces it to Paul who represented "a passionate attachment to a fixed idea which is closed to wider viewpoints and larger truths of life”.
To him, this was more an ideology than a spiritual idea. From the very early days to the present, this had worked in aid of imperialism. If rigidity and closing minds to larger truths of existence plague monotheism "polytheism too is subject to the despiritualizing influence of externalizing mind”.
As against these two, he points out that the Vedic approach "gives unity without sacrificing diversity … a deeper unity and deeper diversity beyond the power of ordinary monotheism and polytheism."
Ram Swarup writes:
God transcends every one of His Names; He also lives fully and indivisibly in each one of them. In one Name we should be able to see all the Names; in one God, we must be able to see all the Gods; otherwise, our knowledge of a God and His Names is not sufficient. We must also be able to see that a God exceeds all his Forms and Names, individually and collectively. The heart of a God is an enigma.
Here is an interesting self-experiment for the inquisitive reader.
After reading the chapters on the names of gods in The Word as Revelation, one should read the science fiction short story ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’ (1953) by Arthur C Clarke.
It will be rewarding to see how Ram Swarup’s framework transforms the way the short story gets internalised.
Another must read is On Hinduism: Reviews and Reflections (2000). Published posthumously, the book has eight long essays and contains his very early writing on Hinduism.
Here is an example of the alertness and conceptual clarity of Ram Swarup. One of the essays is ‘Buddhism vis-a-vis Hinduism’, originally published in July 1958.
Impressed by this essay, Rajaji wrote the following in Swarajya (21 May 1966):
I read with great interest Sri Ram Swarup’s scholarly paper on the intimate connection, amounting almost to identity, between the Buddhistic philosophy and the Vedanta of the Upanishads. Hindu conformism sensed the danger lurking in a close identity with a school of thought which may well be misunderstood to be denial of God and soul. … Sri Ram Swarup’s paper explains how Hinduism saved itself from the dangers of its own philosophical dialectics through the cult of Bhakti and surrender. …
Ram Swarup responded to this much later in a detailed footnote when he was updating the essay for a new reprint.
[Rajaji] was a sage and a great spokesman of Hinduism. His views command our greatest respect. But I beg to make one clarification. Sri Rajagopalacharya agrees that there was a great affinity between the Vedanta and the Buddhist philosophy, but according to him Hinduism saw in it a danger at being misunderstood and identified with a school which denied God and soul; and it met the danger by developing the school of Bhakti and surrender. I believe Hinduism sensed no such danger and it did not panic into Bhakti and surrender because of any such danger. The fact is Bhakti and surrender even as a ‘school’ are older than Buddhism. … At no point there was any intention of keeping Buddhism ‘out of pale’. … [Hindus] protected Buddhism and defended it when it was threatened; they gave refugee to Buddhists when they were persecuted in Persia, Khurasan, Iraq, Mosul by king Gushtap and his descendants – in the same manner they are doing it at present to Buddhist Chakmas fleeing from persecution in Bangladesh.
The importance of this response cannot be overstated. The idea that Bhakti movement was a reactionary movement against Buddhism and Jainism is one of the cornerstones of colonial and Marxist Indology. It had been internalised by almost all scholars of Hinduism of that time. This continues to this day.
Well-meaning Hindu scholars too fell into this trap and spoke of Bhakti as a response to either Buddhist-Jain movements or Islamist invasion and persecution.
While Bhakti did allow a strong resistance movement against Islamist invasion, that was not its origin or motive. Nor did Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere emerge as a strategy or response to counter Buddhism.
Ram Swarup stands for eternity as the pioneering Hindu scholar, whose deeply penetrating Hindu insight identified this fallacy and cautioned students of Hindu Dharma against this.
Every aspiring young Hindu intellectual should also read his essay "Development in Huxley’s Thoughts: Hindu-Buddhist influences", which is also in this collection.
This essay, running to almost 40 pages, is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to study Hindu influence on the Western philosophical traditions, particularly in modern times.
Here is Ram Swarup’s analysis of Aldous Huxley’s critique of Christian art.
Despite non-representative Christian mystics like Eckhart, Tauler and Ruysbroeck, the profound inner mystic landscape and its elements could not find their expression in Christian art. Huxley observes that there is nowhere ‘equivalents of those Far Eastern Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who incarnate, in stone and print, the experience of ultimate reality.’
Ram Swarup, pointing out that Huxley stops here and does not get into the deeper cause, analyses further:
Christian artists were talented and innovative; they performed all the tasks set for them by their religion and fulfilled all its needs for what they were worth. … Similarly, they discovered important techniques like perspective and foreshortening by which they could portray the third dimension and render horizons and depth in space. … The fact is that Christian art failed at a deeper level. It failed not in execution but in conception and vision and this failure was at bottom failure of Christian theology in which mysticism is rudimentary and peripheral. … A deeper iconography needed the support of a deeper theology and vision. This explains why Christian art has no equivalents of Far Eastern Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as Huxley notices.
Another important work of his which too was published posthumously is Meditations Yogas, Gods, Religions.
In the essay, ‘Gods, God, Unity Unit’ which deals with the origin of Hindutva, some striking parallels between what Ram Swarup puts forth and the way some pioneering neuro-psychological studies look at the evolution of religions, have been shown.
Ram Swarup proves to possess a perspective which, in hindsight, was more scientific and holistic than that of the Western psychologists.
Whether it is Dharmic Darshanas, global pagan revival, study of Western philosophies and theologies from Hindu perspective, study of language from Hindu framework, literary criticism, resistance to monopolistic ideologies, Dharmic ecology – Ram Swarup has gifted every aspiring Hindu with vision, values and tools for his or her search.
It is amazing that a person could do all these in one life.
There was no Internet then. He neither sought nor had any cult following as many have and seek now. He worked in solitude, his writing was his sadhana, his tapas, his yajna – the fruits of which shall always be there for generations of seekers.
Thus, among us lived a rishi. And he was born a hundred years ago.
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