Swami Vivekananda remains one of the most influential personalities of India and the modern world. Though vast changes have taken place in the country since the beginning of the twentieth century, his influence continues to increase over the years. In fact many of his thoughts appear to be more relevant today.
Swami Vivekananda is a great visionary, with a rare clarity on diverse aspects of human life. His intimate knowledge of the Indian situation, wide experience across different countries, deep understanding of the civilizational backgrounds and keen intellect gave him a unique opportunity to develop new insights on different subjects, including economics.
Indian economy during the time of Swamiji
The Indian economy was at its worst period during the times of Swamiji. Dadabhai Naoroji calculated that the national income of India during 1867-68 was 3.4 billion rupees for a population of 170 million, with a per capita income of just 20 rupees1. Comparison of per capita incomes of different countries revealed that India’s income was very low; ‘even the most oppressed and mis-governed Russia’ was much better and it was believed that India was ‘the poorest country in the civilized world 2.’
The European domination had made India, the nation with a long history of prosperity and superior achievements, a poor country. The agricultural, industrial and business sectors were destroyed. The replacement of the native education with the Macaulay system resulted in changing the entire course of education, apart from denying it to the larger sections of the society. The value based systems that governed the functioning of the society and economy since the ancient times suffered severe damages.
Swami Vivekananda’s insights into economic issues
Swami Vivekananda acquired a deep understanding of the Indian economy due to his first-hand knowledge of the issues as an itinerant monk covering different parts of the country. His experiences and interactions in the foreign countries provided him an opportunity to understand and compare the economic and social systems of different parts of the world.
Though Swamiji was not a student of economics in the narrow sense of the term, he was well-read in economics and was familiar with the works of political economists like John Stuart Mill. His expertise on economic concepts could be understood from the fact that he gave a lecture to the experts at the American Social Science Association in the United States on the ‘Use of Silver in India’ during 1893.
Swamiji proposed many new ideas in the field of economics at the global and the Indian levels. He emphasized the need for combing material prosperity with the spiritual values for the all-round development of people in different countries. When the western countries were accumulating wealth and involved in enjoying material pleasures, he told them clearly that it was necessary to imbibe higher principles for a meaningful life. The west is beginning to realize the meaning of his words only during the recent years, after suffering a lot.
The western economic ideas revolve around the materialistic aspects only. The economic theories and models that they were advocating over the years are proving to be failures. It is only now that they have begun to understand that life is a complex process of which economics is only a part.
Swamiji’s thoughts for the Indian economy encompass different areas that are crucial to the functioning of the economic system. He remains the one spiritual monk who emphasized the need for material progress of the society more than anyone else. This is the reason why he was called as ‘father of modern materialism.’3. He was not an arm-chair theorist, confined to standard sets of beliefs. His ideas cover diverse aspects necessary for the all-round development of different sections of people and the progress of the nation.
India’s downfall due to exploitation
Swamiji had a clear understanding of the background of the Indian and Western economies during those times. He was aware of the higher performance of the Indian economy till the eighteenth century. He was one of those who understood that the primary source of wealth of the Europeans was the Indian resources.
Swamiji noted: “Indian commerce, Indian revenue and all are now in the possession of the English; it is therefore that they are foremost of all nations now. …. That India, the India of the “natives”, is the chief means and resources of their wealth and civilization, is a fact which they refuse to admit, or even understand.4”
Detailed research studies during the recent decades prove the above statements. The noted economic historian Angus Maddisson has established the supremacy of the Indian economy at the global level since the beginning of the Common Era5. Economists such as Andre Gunder Frank reveal as to how the western historians were engaged in projecting a wrong image of the West over the years 6.
Wanted India to develop on her own
During those times, two noted economists Naoroji and Romesh Chandra Dutt were producing works and arguing that the exploitation of India should be stopped forthwith. Even at that time, Swamiji went many steps further and stated that India had to evolve her own economic policies for all round development without imitating other countries.
He was worried that the western countries were getting rich with the Indian resources, while Indians remained unaware of the opportunities. He said: “In this country of abundance, the produce of which has been the cause of the spread of civilization in other countries, you are reduced to such straits! Your condition is even worse than that of a dog ….. People of foreign countries are turning out such golden results from the raw materials produced in your country, and you, like asses of burden, are only carrying their load. The people of foreign countries import Indian raw goods, manufacture various commodities by bringing their intelligence to bear upon them, and become great. 7”
Inclusive economics was his vision
Swamiji’s vision of economics was concerned with the wholesome development of all categories of people in the country. He strongly advocated what the economists in the recent periods call as ‘inclusive economics.’ His priority was the removal of poverty and uplifting the poorer and downtrodden sections of the society. He wanted all sections of the country to progress. His emphasize was on the weaker sections and women. He underlined that education and basic facilities be provided to all.
Indian agriculture is unique
Basically India is an agricultural country. As a true visionary, Swami Vivekananda was fully aware of the importance of agriculture and noted that “Indians must not shy off from their unique characteristic of being an agrarian economy 8”. He wanted India to adopt modern scientific practices to improve agriculture. He was particular that the small farmers need to be encouraged.
His emphasis on agriculture remains true even in the present context, as about 60 per cent of the population still depends on agriculture and rural activities. We are witnessing as to how the neglect of agriculture after independence is resulting in suicides and the younger generations leaving farming activities. This is not good for the future of the country. India has inherent strengths in agriculture, which the other countries lack. Besides, there is no other nation in the world that is capable of feeding our population, which is one sixth of humanity.
Swami Vivekananda advocated the development of the industrial sector for economic progress. He gave much importance to the promotion of a vibrant industrial sector. He was clear about the nature of industrialization also. He wanted Indians to take steps to make the required items without depending on foreign countries. His discussions with Jamshedji Tata during his voyage to Chicago in 1893 reveal his vision for the development of the industrial sector. Swamiji’s emphasize on domestic production instead of imports has become very important for India now, as the country has been facing the heat at several fronts due increased imports in different sectors during recent periods.
Entrepreneurship and promotion of traditional works
Swamiji was aware that India could be built only by developing the entrepreneurial talents of people. Hence he encouraged self-employment activities at different levels. He was concerned that the art works of the village communities were neglected and wanted them to be taken up by those in towns. Swamiji underlined the need for the cottage and small scale units, as he was aware of the negative effects of the big industries.
Emphasize on Science and Technology
Swamiji emphasized the use of modern science and technology to solve India’s problems. He wanted India to develop into a scientific and technological power. In this connection it is necessary to remember that it was the suggestion made by Swamiji to Jamshedji Tata that led to the establishment of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science.
Swamiji wanted Indians to learn Western science and adopt them in India. He said: “With the help of Western science, set yourselves to dig the earth and produce food-stuffs – not by means of servitude of others – but by discovering new avenues of production, by your own exertions aided by Western science 9.”
India to be built on Indian methods
Swamiji was particular that India should be built on her own methods. In this context, he quoted Japan to admonish Indians who imitate the West. To quote: “There, in Japan, you find a fine assimilation of knowledge, not its indigestion, as we have here. They have taken everything from the Europeans, but they remain Japanese all the same, and have not turned European; while in our country, the terrible mania of becoming westernized has seized upon us like a plague. 10”
Swamiji was perhaps the first personality who suggested an Indian model of economic development, even when the country was under the colonial rule. Ghosh notes: “The uniqueness of the Vivekananda doctrine lies in the fact that whatever remedies it suggests for India’s economic, political and spiritual regeneration derives from Swamy’s practical experiences of life. He used to meet the common Indian’s directly whenever he went to different places. This made him confident that India has to develop an economic model for herself which will take the peculiarities of her social life into consideration.11”
India as the Jagat Guru
After the rise of the West in the global arena, the entire world was made to believe that their economic models are the only solutions for progress. Now after the global economic crisis during 2008, people have realized that the western ideologies cannot solve the basic problems even in their own countries.
Studies undertaken by experts at different levels during the recent periods clearly reveal that India need not follow the western models, as her fundamentals and functioning systems are unique. Many western scholars acknowledge that there is ‘the Indian way’ due to the peculiar social and cultural backgrounds of the country. 12 Our experience shows that India has failed to realize her full potential as the policy makers have been blindly following the western approaches.
As a pioneering thinker, Swamiji underlined the need to develop India on the national lines. He said: “My ideal is growth, expansion, development on national lines. 13” There is no doubt that if we frame our policies with the nation- centric approaches, India has the potential to emerge as the Jagat Guru, as Swami Vivekananda had envisioned.
1. Naoroji, Dadabhai, Poverty and Un-British Rule India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, New Delhi, 1996, p.II
2. Quoted in Bipan Chandra, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, Anamika Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 2004, p.17
3. Binoy Kumar Sarkar quoted in Santwana Dasgupta, Social Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkatta, p.459
4. Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Vol. VII, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, Sept.1992, p.358
5. Angus Maddison, The World Economy – A Millennial Perspective, Overseas Press ( India) Ltd., New Delhi, 2003
6. Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1998
7. Swami Vivekananda, op.cit., Vol. VII, p.145
8. Swami Gamvirananda quoted in Ghosh, Sarup Prasad, Swami Vivekananda’s Economic Thought and in Modern International Perspective: India as a Case Study, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkatta, 2010, p.53
9. Swami Vivkenanda, op.cit., Vol. VII, p.182
10. Ibid., p.372
11. Ghose, op.cit., p.526
12. Peter Cappelli et al., The Indian Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders are Revolutionizing Management, Harvard Business Press, 2010
13. Swami Vivekananda, op.cit., Vol. III, p.195
(The Vedanta Kesari, Vol.100, No.12, Ramakrishna Mutt, Chennai, Dec.2013, pp.605-619)