I made him speak at Oxford!

Swami Rangandananda,till  now the president of the Ramakrishna Mission had passed away recently. Born  in the Kerala village of Trikkur, near Thrissur in 1908,the swami had  very impressive life, starting as a humble young boy to reach the top and emerge as a scholar, speaker and philosopher.Why I write about him here is that I knew him,off and on, as I myself went to a Ramakrishna Mission school in Coimbatore where he was a frequent visitor. I knew him also in Kolkatta as I was a student in Santiniketan and again I was a frequent visitor to the Vivekananda Culture Centre of which he was  the moving spirit.

Once I remember to have gone there and found myself attending a very interesting lecture delivered by one Tagore (the name I forget),the  talented Tagore family members were all  very distinguished in different fields of arts and culture,this Tagore in his flowing silks, was a brahmo exponent.The Tagores were brahmos and in a way I should say I myself was greatly influenced by this doctrine, as this was much propagated by Raja Rammohan Roy to Rabindranath Tagore himself. Our weekly prayers at the brahmo ‘mandir’ was a special experience for us, students, with the Sanskrit texts read and the Rabindra sangeeth  sung so beautifully by students.In fact,I became a semi-Bengali in my love for Rabindra sangeeth and the very artistic and spiritual environment that prevailed there.

Now,as readers may not know the many little details of the life of Vivekananda and how he was drawn to Ramakrishna and also how after his successful Chicago visit,the father of Rabindranath,a great brahmo himself, asked Vivekananda to join the brahmo movement. Also, Vivekananda, being a kayastha,was boycotted by the brahmins and the man who presided over the reception to Vivekananda’s reception was not a brahmin.The brahmin opted out at the last moment! Such was the prejudice,Vivekananda faced in his own state and all that must have added to his radicalism.(I have earlier dealt with  about Vivekananda’s many unknown aspects when I reviewed a book that was edited by the historian,Tapas Roychoudhary on the centenary of the Chicago speech).

The point here is that I see in many of the  latest books put out on Vivekananda there are some historical descriptions. This is not to my liking. Also I see some undesirable developments  when the Rama krishna Mission pleading for its separateness from the mainstream Hinduism in a court of law. Even in my own Rama krishna Mission establishment, the founder the late T.S.Avinashilingam’s  name and memory is played down.This pains me and after he passed away I haven’t entered the premises!

Now, there is an event of some significance involving  Ranganadananda. When the Government of India sent him on a lecture tour outside India he came to Oxford and I was a student there. As a Ramakrishna Mission man and also as I was at that time the President of the Oxford university Indian students Association, it fell to me to arrange a meeting for the swami. My college, New College at that point of time housed some of the best  brains in philosophy. Some of the ancient chairs in philosophy, like the Wykeham chair) were instituted and attached to my College. William of Wykeham  who founded the New College in 1379! He was a bishop and a chief minister to the king then.There was Professor A.J.Ayer, the most famous of the lot. Ayer  was at his prime. Then, there was his own teacher and tutor and the predecessor in the same chair, namely, Prof.H.H.Price.There was my own philosophy tutor, Anthony Quinton (now Lord Quinton).

In fact, H.H.Price lived in the room just above my own large rooms. It was all a very relaxed and spacious time and we, students, were allotted very large ancient rooms, my sitting room itself was quite a large one,as you will find the old five star hotels. My bed room was attached separately and I had a servant,a whiteman,to make my bed and attend to my needs.New College was one of the richest Oxford colleges and thus I was in great spirits! I saw Prof. Price in his room,his room was full of books,a whole wall was stacked with books and he was using a small aluminium ladder to reach out his books! He was a bachelor,as it was the customs those days,the scholars devoted their whole life to the pursuit of knowledge.Price had written, as far as I know,only three books. But each book created a philosophical change of profound historic significance.I read  the books like textbooks and I remember his minute definitions of words like meaning, intention, perceptions,sense data etc.Price was mild mannered,typical Englishman,very self-deprecating and self-effacing.He welcomed me with a smile and I explained to him the swami in the town and my intention to make the swami speak on Indian philosophy and would he mind presiding over the meeting?”No,not at all.It would be a delight..”

I arranged a  small hall and at the appointed hour I found the hall full.I introduced the speaker and the time limit and also said there would be questions from the audience after the speech. Ranganadananda made an impressive speech. Very oratorical,  very fluent speech and at the end of the speech everyone seemed very  happy.Then cane the questions.When Price asked a question, you should know how the English would he speak, very slow, very tentative and very sceptical the way the questions are framed. Some curious things happened.  Whenever Prof. Price framed his questions, before he would finish, the swami would dismiss him half way and would go no to give his “parrot-like” set answers! This and this type of sure fire answers in an atmosphere of scholarly enris……………. didn’t go well with the listeners.  I tried once or twice to intervene to ask the swami to wait for the questioners to finish their points of veiw. But the swami won’t have anything of that sort. Here was an Indian speaker who got his arguments almost by heart and would not have any interrruptions to have his say in a mechanical manner.

In fact, it was like Dr.S.Radhakrishnan who too was said to have spoken his speeches in a very fluent and very impressive oratory. But what I want to convey here is that at Oxford, specially  philosphy in my time was called “linguistic philosophy”A.J.Ayer’s, Language,  Truth and Logic” was a bible to us, students, it went into several editions and even now it is a popular book. Then, there was also my other professor of philosophy, whose book, The Concept of Mind, was another bible. Each word has to be explained and explained in infinite length and in Oxford philosophy was taken as the most serious subject for great many interpretations and discussions. The philosophy faculty was also the largest.

In such an atmosphere, I found the swami’s speech  did make an impact and he found out it was so. In fact, after the speech ended in Prof. Price not having an opportunity to present his thoughts left the swami not happy with me too! I didn’t meet him afterwards and he stayed with another Indian student and when some years later when I read his travels, he writes of Oxford but doesn’t mention me or the meeting in the way I would have wanted.

Here I want to mention that we Indians, or the most educated, imagine that our Advaita Vedanta is the ultimate exposition of truth. But this assumption has few takers in the world of philosophy, more so in the Western philosophical circles. The British are very clever people. If they know they don’t like your talk, even then, they woud give a patient hearing and at the end of the speech,they woud say a simple”Thank you” and leave you at that! I remember  a housefull meeting of the Polish economist, Oskar Lange, a big name at that time, speaking on Communist economic planning. My own professor, Sir John Hicks (he later won the Nobel Prize for economics) presed over the meeting. As expected, the Oxford economists didn’t make head and tail of what Lange was speaking about! But there was pin drop silence for the whole hour.At the end of the speech,Sir Hicks stood up  and ended the meeting by saying: “Thank you Prof.Lange”!

There are certain thoughts I like to share with readers.In the Western learning tradition there is this growth of knowledge from diverse sources, the sciences, philosophic and religious enquiries. History doesnt stand still. More so the history of ideas. Unfortunately, in India there is no realisation that Indian thought also has to move with the times.The great degree of secularisation of society is not reflected in the activities of our philosophers, scientists and religious foundations.

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