Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

One thought on “Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

  1. Uttamam lekhanam.
    Vyaakaranasutravat etat lekhanam alpaksharam, asandigdham ca asti.
    Well written essay.
    Like a vyaakarana-sutram, this essay is short, unambiguous and to the point.

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