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PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Prose Style of Swami Vivekananda  





               The Prose Style of Swami Vivekananda



               Prof. U.S. Rukhaiyar

               (Continued from the previous issue)



     Antithesis and Balance



     Vivekananda has made fine use of antithesis and balance: ‘When I eat food, I do it consciously; when I assimilate it, I do it unconsciously’; (6) ‘Nature is trying all around to suppress us, and the soul wants to express itself’ (4.240); ‘The lower the organism, the greater is its pleasure in the senses. … The higher the organism, the lesser is the pleasure of the senses’ (4.242); ‘It is better to die seeking a God than as a dog seeking only carrion’ (7.45); ‘Gifts of political knowledge can be made with the blast of trumpets and the march of cohorts. Gifts of secular knowledge and social knowledge can be made with fire and sword. But spiritual knowledge can only be given in silence like the dew that falls unseen and unheard, yet bringing into bloom masses of roses’ (3.222). In the last passage, mark the harsh sounds that suggest harsh action. It is to be noted that herein the contrast in sense has been suggested through contrast of sounds.






     We have earlier taken note of Viveka­nanda’s use of the paradox. Some more appropriate examples may be cited: ‘To be religious, you have first to throw books overboard’ (4.34). And again, in a similar vein: ‘But, in my opinion books have produced more evil than good. They are accountable for many mischievous doctrines’ (4.44).


     Followers of all religions say that God is one. But the books of different religions differ in details. Followers mistake the details for the essence and forget the substance of religion. It has rightly been said that more blood has been shed on account of differences between religions than anything else. Perhaps it is this that led Swift to observe: ‘We Christians have just enough religion to hate, but not enough to make us love, one another.’ (7)


     Vivekananda says: ‘Liberation means entire freedom - freedom from the bondage of good, as well as from the bondage of evil. A golden chain is as much a chain as an iron one’;8 ‘The gods did not create man after their type, but man created gods’ (2.325); ‘Good and evil have an equal share in moulding character, and in some instances misery is a greater teacher than happiness’ (1.27). There is no need to mention that these paradoxes are not only witty but also contain great truths.



     Indignation, Sarcasm, Irony



     Vivekananda has also made use, though sparingly, of indignation, sarcasm and irony. For indignation, we may look at the following: ‘So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them’(5.58); ‘They ask us for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion; it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics’ (1.20). And further: ‘If one of our countrymen stands up and tries to become great, we all try to hold him down, but if a foreigner comes and tries to kick us, it is all right’ (3.300). Note the sarcasm in the following: ‘Before we can crawl half a mile, we want to cross the ocean like Hanuman!’ (3.301).


     For irony we may look at the following: ‘Well has it been said that the masses admire the lion that kills a thousand lambs, never for a moment thinking that it is death to the lambs’ (2.65). Stronger is the irony in the following passage: ‘And in its (spirituality’s) place will reign the duality of lust and luxury as the male and female deities, with money as its priest, fraud, force, and competition its ceremonies, and the human soul its sacrifice’ (4.348). Here Vivekananda has used the mock-epic device by pairing the trivial with the sublime, a device common in Dryden and Pope. Here satire contains a strong caution. It is free from the contempt of Dryden, the hatred of Pope, the disgust of Swift or the devastation of Voltaire and Rabelais. That may be because Viveka­nanda’s belief in the essential divinity of man forbids him to ridicule man outright; Viveka­nanda is not an ironist or satirist but rather a religious humanist.






     Vivekananda makes frequent use of interrogation. This helps him in arousing the curiosity of the reader as also in inviting his participation in the deliberations. ‘By what power is this Akasha manufactured into this universe? By the power of Prana’ (1.147). It is to be noted that the words akasha and prana have been left untranslated into English, because neither ‘sky’ nor ‘life’ can cover the rich connotation of these two Sanskrit words. This shows his awareness of the nuances of language. ‘Can religion really accomplish anything? It can. … Take religion from human society and what will remain? Nothing but a forest of brutes’ (3.4); ‘Is man a tiny boat? … Is there no hope? Is there no escape?’(1.10); ‘What is the foundation of society? Morality, ethics, laws. … What is marriage but the renunciation of unchastity? The savage does not marry. Man marries because he renounces’ (4.243). Such interrogations serve several purposes: first, they make the tone informal; second, they arouse the curiosity of the reader; third, they add force to the statement.






     Vivekananda uses repetition to stress his point. In his famous Chicago speech of 11 September 1893 he repeats ‘I thank you’ three times in a paragraph of seven lines. And he begins the next paragraph with ‘My thanks’. In that paragraph he says ‘I am proud to belong’ three times and ‘I am proud to tell you’ once.


     Look at the force of all and extinct in the following passage: ‘Shall India die? Then from the world all spirituality will be extinct, all moral perfection will be extinct, all sweet­souled sympathy for religion will be extinct, all ideality will be extinct’ (4.348). It gives an impression of waves rising upon waves.






     Vivekananda often uses verbs to literally suggest action. ‘They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair’ (1.4). All four finite verbs used above are stressed. They suggest the intensity of the acts. ‘Work incessantly, but do not do slave’s work. Do you not see how everybody works? … Work through freedom! Work through love!’ (1.57). Here all the verbs are in the imperative and stressed. The repetition of the word work suggests persuasion or exhortation. ‘Fight and reason and argue; and when you have established it in your mind that this and this alone can be the truth and nothing else, do not argue any more; close your mouth’ (3.27). These lines combine a biblical simplicity with a persuasive tone. The imperative mood has been very effectively used to communicate powerful ideas.






     Vivekananda is also alive to the need for sweetness in language. This he creates by several means, chief among them being alliteration and assonance. But he also uses harsh sounds, when called for, to suggest harshness of action. For the alliteration of k we may note the following: ‘calm the qualms of conscience’ (1.292); of l: ‘lust and luxury’ (4.348); of s: ‘sweet-souled sympathy’ (4.348); and of w: ‘weep and wail’ (2.357).



     It is to be noted that Vivekananda has an awareness of euphony and cacophony too. Perhaps that is why he uses soft sounds when he has to suggest a good thing and harsh sounds when he has to suggest evil. Since sympathy is a virtue he uses the soft s, but when he has to suggest ugliness he uses a harsh sound instead. For example: ‘dashed down’ (1.10) in the passage already cited; ‘Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism’ (1.4), where most of the words are polysyllabic and jarring; ‘Gifts of political knowledge can be made with the blast of trumpets and the march of cohorts’ (3.222), where the sounds are almost onomatopoeic; ‘One single soul possessed of these virtues can destroy the dark designs of millions of hypocrites and brutes’ (5.127), where the virtuous single soul has the s sound whereas dark designs, hypocrites and brutes show their harsh character by their very sounds.






     Assonance refers to the similarity of vowel sounds, and Vivekananda’s prose uses it to generate poetic effect. For the assonance of the e and ei sounds we may look at the following passage: ‘The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration’ (1.4). For the assonance of the a:i ai and ju sounds: ‘The soul will go on evolving’ (1.10). For the assonance of a:i ai and ju sounds: ‘Why waste valuable time in vain arguments?’ (3.27). This line also contains the alliteration of w and v sounds. For the assonance of i sound: ‘ideality will be extinct’ (4.348). The last three words are contiguous and this creates a greater degree of harmony.


     But the matter does not end there. It is generally believed that short vowels like i and u suggest nearness and long vowels like a: and e:, distance. A good craftsman uses them accordingly. When Keats wants to say that the song of the nightingale leads the listener to a (naturally distant) fairyland, he uses long vowels to say it: ‘Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ Similarly, de la Mare opens his poem ‘Arabia’ as follows: ‘Far are the shades of Arabia.’


     Vivekananda is also alive to this artifice. When he exhorts the youth to march ahead, he uses long vowels, and towards the end longer ones, that too contiguously, a feature that suggests marching a long distance: ‘Have faith in yourselves, great convictions are the mothers of great deeds. Onward for ever! Sympathy for the poor, the downtrodden, even unto death - this is our motto. Onward, brave lads!’ (5.30).


     Let us look at the following passage: ‘In Sri Ramakrishna there has been an assemblage of ideas deeper than the sea and vaster than the skies’ (7.411). It shows a masterstroke of craftsmanship. ‘Deeper than the sea’ suggests a vertical movement and so the sound i: suits it. Shelley uses this sound in the third verse of his ‘West Wind’: ‘Thou/For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers/Cleave themselves into chasms.’ The west wind is to go deep into the ocean and so there is cleave with the long vowel i:. And when it goes deep it will create a chasm, which has the long a:. Similarly, ‘vaster than the skies’ in the given passage, by the use of the long a:, suggests horizontal expansion or extension.


     Such felicitous use of sound effects suggests that Vivekananda had a very high degree of awareness of sound - alliteration, assonance, euphony, cacophony, long and short vowels, and so forth - as also of how to use them appropriately.



     Rhythm, Harmony, Cadence



     One of the most remarkable qualities of Vivekananda’s prose style is its fine rhythm, cadence and harmony. Northrop Frye has classified rhythm into prose rhythm, poetic rhythm and associative rhythm. The fact is that none of these three is ever found in its purity. Each gets mixed with another and one or the other predominates at one time or another. Vivekananda generally uses associative rhythm, which sometimes turns into poetic rhythm and sometimes into prose rhythm. Associative rhythm is the common conversational rhythm. The illustration of rhythm, cadence and harmony calls for a longish citation. The famous Chicago address illustrates several of the aforesaid features:


     Is man a “tiny boat in a “tempest, ‘raised one moment on the “foamy crest of a ‘billow and dashed down into a ‘yawning ‘chasm the next, rolling ‘to and ‘fro at the ‘mercy of ‘good and ‘bad actions - a “powerless, “helpless wreck in an “ever-raging, “ever-rushing, “uncompromising ‘current of ‘cause and ‘effect; a “little moth ‘placed under the “wheel of cau“sation which ‘rolls on “crushing everything in its way and “waits not for the “widow’s tears or the orphan’s cry? The ‘heart sinks at the idea, “yet ‘this is the law of Nature. ‘Is there no ‘hope? ‘Is there “no ‘escape? - ‘was the ‘cry that ‘went up from the “bottom of the ‘heart of ‘despair. It ‘reached the “throne of ‘mercy, and “words of ‘hope and conso’lation ‘came down and ins’pired a ‘Vedic sage, and he “stood up before the world and in ‘trumpet voice proclaimed the ‘glad ‘tidings: “Hear, ye ‘children of im“mortal bliss! even “ye that re”side in ‘higher s’pheres! I have ‘found the ‘Ancient One who is be“yond ‘all ‘darkness, ‘all de”lusion: knowing Him a“lone you shall be ‘saved from death “over a“gain (1.10).


     The first thing that strikes us here is that the movement of the lines looks like that of waves on the ocean going up and down, now moving this side, now that, mixing with other waves, and taking new shapes. This has additional significance here since the context is also of a boat sailing in the sea. It may well be said to be an example of the fusion of feeling and form, one of the essentials of good creative art. The allocation of stress, as indicated by the markings, differs from sentence to sentence. It does not have the regularity or monotony of regular accent, metre or rhyme but yet it has a natural rhythm. In the very first sentence, the first stress is on the fourth syllable, ti, and the second on the ninth syllable, tem, that is, at a separation of five syllables. Then it is on raised, which comes after a gap of only one unaccented syllable. Next there is an alteration of single stress and double stress, the more important words having double stress as the markings in the passage suggest. But the two contiguous words dashed down both have double stress. This enhances the effect of dashing, d being a hard sound. Further, in the stress pattern, tiny corresponds with tempest. Their size and sound also suggest the difference in their nature and power. Another subtle effect to be noted in the first few lines is the assonance of e and ei in tempest, raised, moment and crest, of ou in boat, moment, foamy and billow, and of i: and i in foamy and billow.


     Thus, several of the contiguous syllables are stressed, some of them strongly and with only a little gap of unstressed words. For example, ‘powerless, helpless wreck in an ever-raging, ever-rushing’ produces a visual impact of waves. It is an example of phanopoeia (visual effect). Thus uncompromising densifies the ever-raging and ever-rushing current of cause and effect. The addition of helpless densifies powerless. is an example of personification and carries a spiritual overtone. All three words end with ‘-ing’. This creates melopoeia (auditory effect). James Sutherland, in his book. On English Prose, says: ‘Prose, it may be said, should be heard and not seen.’ Somerset Maugham also, in his book The Summing Up, says: ‘Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.’ Thus, these two together stimulate logopoeia (intellectual or emotional associations that have remained in the receiver’s consciousness in relation to the actual words or group of words employed).


     We may look at the cadence - the rise and fall of the following units inflected at ‘rolls on’ and ‘waits not’: ‘… which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widow’s tears or the orphan’s cry’. All three effects are there in just one sentence. The sentence is long but not clumsy: it does not have too many clauses, either coordinate or subordinate.


     It may not be out of place here to say that Aurobindo’s prose, though it has several virtues, often lacks the ease and flow of Vivekananda’s. Let us take a representative passage from Aurobindo: ‘In the right view both of life and of Yoga all life is either consciously or subconsciously a Yoga. For we mean by this term a methodical effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the potentialities latent in the being and a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos.’ (9) The cluttered clauses in the second sentence of the passage make it a bit clumsy.


     To revert to the passage we have been discussing, we mark that the first long sentence is followed by a very short one: ‘The heart sinks at the idea, yet this is the law of Nature.’ This suggests the feeling of the heart being arrested by the law of nature. The length of the sentences mimic the fall of a wave and its breaking up into smaller parts. Next, there is a rising movement, and that in short bursts: ‘Is there no hope? Is there no escape?’ Soon the interrogative turns into the assertive. Doubt is raised so that hope may soothe it, and so it does.


     Vivekananda prefers to give his sentences monosyllabic endings, in general. But monosyllables need to be handled with care. Their merit lies in imparting emphasis, but their excessive use makes for jerky prose, as it often does in Carlyle. As has rightly been said, ‘The monosyllable is one of the characteristics of English as compared with the classical languages, Greek and Latin, and is used chiefly for emphasis. … Fullness of sound is also valuable because monosyllables not only arrest attention by emphasis but also retard the movement of the sentence, thus causing the attention of the reader to linger over them.’ (10) It seems Vivekananda was aware of this. It can be seen even in the passages quoted in this article that he succeeds in laying emphasis by giving monosyllabic endings to his sentences. The entire corpus of his prose shows a preference for monosyllables. But, when called for, Vivekananda makes generous use of polysyllabic endings too. This variation makes for a better rhythm. Saintsbury rightly says that ‘variety’ is the principle of prose rhythm. (11) Prof. Elton also says that in good prose ‘cadences’ do not appear as a fixed system (as do rhymes in poetry) because this would induce expectancy and tend to make the composition metrical. (12) Though Vivekananda had no formal training in these subtleties of art, yet his genius and intuition seems to have known it more thoroughly than so many professed practitioners of this art.


     Thus we find sound matching sense, rhythmic rise and flow, controlled cadence, and harmony created by various linguistic devices, all harmonized into an organic whole. Romain Rolland rightly compares Vivekananda’s prose style to a symphony, a musical composition of a high order. There are several such passages in Vivekananda’s speeches and writings which show a fine rise and fall of rhythm, harmony and cadence. We may look at one more such passage:


     “Thou “blessed ‘land of the ‘Aryas, thou wast “never de“graded. ‘Sceptres have been “broken and “thrown away, the “ball of “power has “passed from ‘hand to ‘hand, but in ‘India, “courts and “kings always ‘touched only a ‘few; the “vast mass of the ‘people, from the ‘highest to the ‘lowest, has been ‘left to pursue its ‘own in“evitable course, the ‘current of ‘national life ‘flowing at times ‘slow and ‘half-conscious, at others, “strong and a“wakened. I “stand in ‘awe before the “un’broken pro’cession of “scores of ‘shining ‘centuries, with here and ‘there a “dim link in the “chain, only to ‘flare up with “added ‘brilliance in the ‘next, and “there she is ‘walking with her own ma’jestic ‘steps - my “motherland - to ‘ful“fil her “glorious des’tiny, which “no ‘power on earth or in ‘heaven can “check - the “regeneration of ‘man the “brute into ‘man the “God. (13)


     The marking of stress in the above-quoted passage shows the rise and fall of cadence - the alternation of love and resolve, pride and shame, and so on. The last sentence has poetic imagery and rhythm that ends in a crescendo. A detailed analysis of the passage will reveal many more beauties of style.






     So we see that Vivekananda’s style has almost all the qualities of good prose. It also shows how expository prose is often enriched by persuasive and emotive prose without impairing its primary virtue, which is clarity. If we compare his style with that of other great masters, we may say that he has combined the ease and grace of Dryden with the raciness of Hazlitt. He does not have the ornateness of Pater or Ruskin, but he has the simplicity of Hemingway and the force, colour and music of Lawrence. Among the Indian masters of English prose, we may say that he has the natural flair of Nehru and the music of Tagore. His religious and philosophical preoccupations invite comparison with Aurobindo. But as shown earlier, Aurobindo’s prose often becomes heavy or clumsy despite its other virtues. What a happy coincidence it is that this great champion of the harmony of religions has written in a prose which is itself one of the finest examples of harmony! Here thought and language match each other. His prose well illustrates the dictum: ‘The style is the man’.


     It will not be an exaggeration to say that Vivekananda’s prose style has few parallels. We find therein a blend of so many elements that it is difficult to reduce it to any neat or mechanical classification. Vivekananda’s prose style deserves to be a subject of detailed study or full-length research. It is hoped that critics and scholars will wake up to this noble task and bring to light the myriad shades of the literary style of this great master. At present, it still is ‘a gift unopened’.






     6. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.179.

     7. Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects.

     8. CW, 1.55.

     9. Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashrama, 1971), 2.

     10. Norton R Tempest, The Rhythm of English Prose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 38-9.

     11. George Saintsbury, History of English Prose Rhythm (London, 1912).

     12. Oliver Elton, ‘English Prose Numbers’ in A Sheaf of Papers (Liverpool, 1922).

     13. CW, 4.314.




International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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