“The goal is to manifest . . . Divinity . . . by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.” – Swami Vivekananda
What drives a very private man—one who has played his cards close to his chest—such as Narendra Modi? This is a critical question not only to 1.25 billion Indians, but to the world community. What underlies his thinking? Is Modi really a Muslim-basher?
Many consider Modi’s background with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to indicate that he believes in the primacy of Hindus and Hindu culture and the suppression of minorities. Many still look back in horror at the Godhra riots in 2002, when more than a thousand persons—a majority of whom were Muslims—died in intercommunity violence. However, a closer examination of Modi’s philosophical and cultural motivators would suggest a more inclusive worldview.
On entering Narendra Modi’s home or office, visitors are struck by bare, unadorned walls—except for pictures of Swami Vivekananda and some gurus—and Spartan living quarters. Modi’s office and desk are also reported as being sparse and uncluttered, a sign, some say, of mental discipline and executive dispatch.Two salient influences seem to have shaped the worldview and career of the Prime Minister of India: (1) the teachings of the 19th-century Swami Vivekananda and (2) being the product of a Gujarati caste with millennia of commercial experience and historic links to the Silk Road and international trade, exemplified by the travels of 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar Hsuan Tsang.
Photo of Narendra Modi standing before a poster commemorating the 150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. The quote, apparently, was composed by Modi.
Born in 1863 as Narendranath Datta to a learned Bengali family, Datta changed his name at age 30 to “Vivekananda,” which means “happiness based on enlightened wisdom.” Datta had early inclinations toward spirituality, as well as toward Indian nationalism. As a young man he linked with the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist movement that decried idolatry and saw common spiritual bonds that could unify an India that was fragmented across the diverse spectrum of Hindu gods and the patchwork of Indian states ruled by the British.
Vivekananda’s preaching has two main messages: First, that the multitude of Hindu deities, each of which may be favored by a certain subcaste, are merely the varied manifestation of one ultimate God; dogmas, rituals, and idols of various shapes are all but secondary details. Second, that the achievement of success is through mental discipline, purity, and abstinence; the way to achieve these goals is to
Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life—think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success; that is the way great spiritual giants are produced.
Many observers have commented on the fact that Narendra Modi, once he approves of an idea (or an investment proposal), will pursue it with singular focus and dispatch—and will expect execution of the proposal with the same zeal and speed from his subordinates, as well as from the bureaucracy as a whole.An irony is that the leaders and members of Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), could be uneasy with Vivekananda’s ideals. While espousing unity across the broad spectrum of Hinduism, Vivekananda would have been horrified at the militant Hinduism practiced by many BJP members and its allies, such as the Shiv Sena. Vivekananda’s vision was not just one of Hindu ideals, but also one of Indian identity. It included an India unified not just within the Hindu community, but one that also embraced other religions, including Islam. It remains to be seen how Modi—now that he has achieved the post of Prime Minister through the single-minded mental discipline espoused by Vivekananda—will be able to reconcile and restrain the sectarian and sometimes violent anti-Muslim tendencies of BJP members with the universalist ideals of his guru, who said
As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!
The Silk Road and Hsuan Tsang
The second and more inborn influence on Narendra Modi’s worldview comes from the fact that he was born a Ghanchi, a mid-level trading caste of oil pressers and grain sellers in Gujarat. Humble though his family may have been (Modi assisted his father in running a roadside tea stall), the Gujarati trading castes have had a long history of international links with Rome, Persia, and China. At one time during the Mauryan Empire, a Persian/Parsi was appointed governor of Saurashtra (part of today’s Gujarat). Mentioned by Pliny the Elder, Gujarati ports such as Barygaza (modern Bharuch) and Cambay were major entrepôts on the Silk Road, as well as centers of Buddhism. Chinese silks, Indian muslin (cotton), spices, and pearls harvested locally and from the Persian Gulf would be exchanged in Gujarat, which was a logical node at the northeasterly endpoint of the monsoon winds blowing from the Horn of Africa. All over India, Gujarati traders (often labeled “Banyas”) are still envied for their commercial acumen and entrepreneurship. Gujarat state has long been a welcoming node along a long shipping corridor connecting the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and China.
When Modi filed his election papers on April 24, 2014, in his brief speech he invoked the Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang (Xuan Zhang 玄奘 in Pinyin), who had visited Modi’s birthplace of Vadnagar twice during his visit to India, spanning from 627 to 643 CE. Hsuan Tsang’s visit to India was motivated by a quest for relics and original Buddhist scriptures in the country of that religion’s origin. He followed what were, by then, well-trodden international land routes through Central Asia over the Himalayas into India. Tsang, depicted below carrying a large backpack, started out from the imperial capital Chang An (modern Xian). Braving bandits, snows, and the Gobi Desert, he made his way through Bamiyan (in what today is Afghanistan) to reach India, where he spent several years going as far south as Kanjipuram in today’s Tamil Nadu. Modi’s birthplace was an important enough Buddhist monastic center for Tsang to have visited it twice during his 14-year sojourn in India.
By then, Buddhism was already in decline in India, although expanding strongly in China and East Asia. Narendra Modi’s invoking Hsuan Tsang’s name was an acknowledgment not only of India’s international trade links, but also a reference to Swami Vivekananda’s view of the central role of Buddhism in his universalist movement’s thought, as exemplified by Vivekananda’s lecture entitled “Buddhism, the Fulfillment of Hinduism” delivered in Chicago on December 26, 1893. Narendra Modi’s political base is known for its muscular version of Hinduism. While many BJP leaders have tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and actively denigrate Muslims, Modi’s own philosophical underpinnings and cultural roots may be far more inclusive. In his remarks at Udvada in Gujarat in 2011 to a group of refugees whose ancestors originated from Persia, Modi made a revealing remark that suggests a sense of introspection about his past, a healthy dose of humility and ecumenical inclusiveness:
I want the gifts of humata, hukhta, huvarashta—to think good thoughts, speak good words, do good deeds with mind, heart, and spirit—so that I may not make mistakes, not do harm to anyone.
Modi’s philosophy appears to espouse probity, discipline, forthright action, concern for all—including the poor, and an international pro-business outlook. If Modi can keep himself at arm’s length from the baser motivations of his supporters and party colleagues, and energize investment from companies both domestic and foreign, India could see a resurgence of high economic growth that can serve to fulfill the aspirations of the 30 million who reach the age of 18 and join India’s workforce each year.
 As quoted from James, W. The Varieties of Religious Experience inThe Works of William James, a project of Harvard University Press directed by a team of scholars, including Burkhardt, F., Bowers, F., & Skrupskelis, I. A similar quote is found in “Swami Nikhilananda” in Vivekananda: A Biography. Kolkata, India: Advaita Ashrama Publication Department, 1964.
Wikipedialists more than 300 deities, including sub-deities.
 McRae, J. (1991), “Oriental Verities on the American Frontier: The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions and the Thought of Masao Abe,” Buddhist-Christian Studies, 11: 7–36.
 Vivekananda achieved international fame from his lectures at the Parliament of World Religions and ecumenical gathering in Chicago in 1893.
 By the 19th century, the number of Buddhists in its country of origin was barely 100,000 souls. In 2010, according to the Census of India, 7.9 million Indians claimed Buddhism as their religion. It is conceivable that Modi was casting about for the support of Buddhist voters, but their minuscule numbers in a population of 1.25 billion scattered all over India, undercuts that theory.
 In Avesta, the ancient language of Persia prior to the 5th century BCE, the translation of the three words is “Good Thoughts,” “Good Words,” and “Good Deeds.” This phrase, spoken by Modi, is a foundational dictum of the Zoroastrian religion.
 Arnavaz Mama, “No Greater Honor,”Parsiana, May 7, 2011.
For the past 30 years, India has been governed by a series of raucous coalition governments. At least some of the caution, vacillation, and even backtracking on investment and taxation policies that have dismayed foreign companies contemplating foreign direct investment (FDI) in India can be attributed to this. At the federal level (as well as in many states), coalition viewpoints had to be accommodated, often leading to legislative paralysis and lack of policy clarity.
In my April 12, 2014 post What the Indian Election Means for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India, I described how India is a multicultural and multireligious pastiche, with more than 22 official languages (some say more than 780). Every religion on earth has adherents in India, although India’s 2011 census shows six major religions dominating. Even within Hinduism, which includes 81 percent of the population, the worldview varies depending on which of the 3,000 subcastes a person belongs to.
Democracy in India functions as a noisy forum for a thousand interests and viewpoints. Coalitions have been the political norm. Given India’s diversity, one party gaining a majority has been an unlikely event. However, in the 2014 election, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has been handed a rare opportunity—an outright majority, having captured 52 percent of the 543 lower house seats. With its coalition partners, Narendra Modi’s government will enjoy a comfortable 62 percent.
Under the previous Congress Party government, opening the gates to FDI and dismantling bureaucratic obstacles progressed well until 2008. The Indian economy grew at previously unprecedented rates of 7 or 8 percent annually. But after 2009, all reform came to a halt because of infighting among the ruling coalition, as well as the global slowdown. Each budget year saw backtracking and zig-zagging on taxation, industrial policy, and FDI policies, as well as hundreds of corruption cases. The slowing of economic growth to below 5 percent sealed the image of the Congress government as paralyzed, incompetent, and unable to meet the job aspirations of millions of new voters since 2009. Although India’s population growth has slowed, nevertheless as many as 150 million crossed the threshold from adolescence to adulthood in the last five years, during which time job creation has been inadequate.
The last five years also saw a number of well-publicized FDI disasters. Posco Steel of Korea would have made the largest investment in India to date, $12 billion, and Vedanta Resources based in London proposed FDI in the aluminum sector worth more than $8 billion. But both were torpedoed by regulatory and land acquisition snarls at the state level, with the federal government too weak to intervene. Tata Motors, part of the multinational Tata Group, had to withdraw from a partially initiated project to build Nano cars in West Bengal.
To the rescue came a decisive Gujarat State Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who induced the Tata Group CEO, Ratan Tata, to switch his investment to Gujarat. Regulatory clearances and land were obtained in less than one month’s time. This is only the latest illustration of investment flocking to Gujarat State because of a dynamic leader who cuts through bureaucracy and is widely regarded as a decisive, straight-arrow, no-nonsense, pro-business leader. While over the past five years the rest of India grew only modestly at 5 percent per year (still a growth rate that would be the envy of most other nations in today’s economy), Gujarat State grew at more than 10 percent annually—a remarkable achievement.
Narendra Modi (center) with the CEOs of India’s two largest business conglomerates (Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance Group is at the extreme left and Ratan Tata from the Tata Group is second from the right) with other foreign executives.
With a comfortable outright majority in Parliament, Narendra Modi has been handed a historic opportunity in Indian politics. His singleness of vision, unsullied resumé (except for serious allegations of an anti-Muslim animus), insistence on quick action, and ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape all bode well for investment in India.
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