© 2014 Prof. Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers University
*An expanded version of this article was published in the June 21, 2014 edition of Parsiana—International Zoroastrian Community Magazine as a “Comment” under the title “What drives Narendra Modi? Hindu reformist Swami Vivekananda’s ideals and Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang have helped to shape the new Prime Minister’s worldview.” Click here for the PDF: What Drives Narendra Modi_Parsiana_2014-06-21.
This briefer version appears here with permission of the editor.
Narendra Modi—Newly Elected Prime Minister of India
© Farok J. Contractor, 2014
“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!