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PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Prose Style of Swami Vivekananda  



          The Prose Style of Swami Vivekananda



          Prof. U. S. Rukhaiyar



     Swami Vivekananda has been studied generally as a saint and philosopher. Unfortunately, his prose style has seldom received due literary attention. A close study of his style shows that it possesses, in ample measure, all the qualities of good prose. It has simplicity and clarity, rhythm and harmony, a fine use of figures like similes and metaphors, epigrams and paradoxes, and also subtle effects like euphony and cacophony, assonance and consonance. He first places a point and then effortlessly expands it through cogent logic and/or apt analogies.


     About style, Vivekananda said: Simplicity is the secret. My ideal of language is my Masters language, most colloquial and yet most expressive. It must express the thought which is intended to be conveyed. (1) Thus, according to him, a good style must be simple, colloquial and expressive. Bernard Shaw also said: Effectiveness of assertion is the alpha and omega of style. (2) These are the qualities that characterize the style of the great masters of English prose like Dryden and Swift, Shaw and Hemingway.


     As regards classification, Vivekanandas style may be termed expository as distinguished from the descriptive, the argumentative or the persuasive. Expository prose is generally informative or thought-provoking. The effectiveness of such prose depends mainly on its clarity and lucidity, which Vivekanandas prose has in adequate measure. But on occasions it turns towards the persuasive without losing its original character.

In terms of rhythm, its main pattern is associative, turning sometimes to prose rhythm and sometimes to the poetic. But the distinctive feature of his style is the harmonization of all the essential elements of style into an organic whole.



     Plain Language, Straightforward Manner, Informal Tone



     Vivekananda often uses an imperative sentence in an informal and colloquial manner: Be like the pearl oyster; (3) Feel like Christ and you will be a Christ; feel like Buddha and you will be a Buddha (2.307); Control the mind, cut off the senses, then you are a Yogi; after that, all the rest will come. Refuse to hear, to see, to smell, to taste; take away the mental power from the external organs (7.71); This world is not for cowards. Do not try to fly (6.83); Bring in the light and the evil goes in a moment. (2.357) Such sentences have a very direct and powerful appeal. We must not forget that many of his works have been speeches, whose effects are heightened by such imperative sentences carrying the sense of advice. They remind us of biblical prose.


     He often introduces his point in the form of a question and then answers it. Sometimes there are questions after questions, and then there are answers. This method arouses a greater degree of inquisitiveness in, and invites the participation of, the reader. What is education? Is it book-learning? No. Is it diverse knowledge? Not even that. Now, as curiosity increases, the answer follows: The training by which the current and expression of will are brought under control and become fruitful is called education. (4.490) And further: What makes a compound? A compound is that in which the causes have combined and become the effect. (5.256)



     How Vivekananda Develops an Argument



     Vivekananda first places a point and evolves it gradually with the help of logic (now deductive, now inductive) and analogy. Talking about The Cosmos and the Self, he says: Everything in nature rises from some fine seed-forms, becomes grosser and grosser, exists for a certain time, and again goes back to the original fine form. Then follow illustrations:



     Our earth, for instance, has come out of a nebulous form which, becoming colder and colder, turned into this crystallised planet upon which we live, and in the future it will again go to pieces and return to its rudimentary nebulous form. This is happening in the universe, and has been through time immemorial. This is the whole history of man, the whole history of nature, the whole history of life.



     Every evolution is preceded by an involution. The whole of the tree is present in the seed, its cause. The whole of the human being is present in that one protoplasm. The whole of this universe is present in the cosmic fine universe. Everything is present in its cause, in its fine form. (5.255)


     What the speaker wants to say has been stated clearly in the first sentence of the passage: Everything in nature original fine form. Then he gives the analogy of the formation of the earth, and then of the seed and the tree, and at the end, of the human being present in essence in the protoplasm. Here the speaker has followed the method of inductive logic. He avoids unnecessary elaboration or references that sometimes confuse the point.


     Further, the repetition of the whole five times emphasizes the main point. Such a device brings in force, especially in oratory. In another example Vivekananda endorses the need of variety in our ways of life:


     You cannot make all conform to the same ideas: If you and I and all who are present here were to think exactly the same thoughts, there would be no thoughts for us to think. We know that two or more forces must come into collision in order to produce motion. It is the clash of thought, the differentiation of thought, that awakes thought. Now, if we all thought alike, we would be like Egyptian mummies in a museum looking vacantly at one anothers faces - no more than that! Whirls and eddies occur only in a rushing, living stream. There are no whirlpools in stagnant, dead water. When religions are dead, there will be no more sects; it will be the perfect peace and harmony of the grave. But so long as mankind thinks, there will be sects. Variation is the sign of life, and it must be there. (2.363-4)


     The above-quoted passage shows very well how Vivekananda first states and then elaborates his point. It is also marked by the deft use of analogies. The passage contains three of them - of collision, of Egyptian mummies, and of whirlpools and eddies. All three of them are variants of one another. Thus, in this passage, the stylistic device of the speaker is characterized by the use of inductive logic with apt analogies. The last sentence sums up the gist of what is implied in the first.






     Vivekananda is a master of analogy. A good analogy is one that shows a close correspondence between the major and minor terms of reference. Now, true Art can be compared to a lily which springs from the ground, takes its nourishment from the ground, is in touch with the ground, and yet is quite high above it. (5.258) This observation contains the very essence of art, and needs no elaboration. Further,



     The bee came to sip the honey, but its feet stuck to the honey-pot and it could not get away. Again and again, we are finding ourselves in that state. That is the whole secret of existence. Why are we here? We came here to sip the honey, and we find our hands and feet sticking to it. We are caught, though we came to catch. We came to enjoy; we are being enjoyed. We came to rule; we are being ruled. (2.2)


     This brings out very well the image of man stuck in the temptations of the world. Also mark the smart and witty statement containing a fine paradox: We are caught, though we came to catch.


     Let us take another example. While delivering a lecture in America, he said about India: It is like a gigantic building all tumbled down in ruins. At first sight, then, there is little hope. It is a nation gone and ruined. (8.73) This analogy of a gigantic building tumbling down sums up admirably Indias great fall.


     Some more apposite analogies: The vibration of light is everything in this room: why cannot we see it everywhere? You have to see it only in that lamp. God is an Omnipresent Principle - everywhere: but we are so constituted at present that we can see Him, feel Him, only in and through a human God (4.122); Talk does not count for anything. Parrots can do that. Perfection comes through the disinterested performance of action (4.137); If this room is full of darkness for thousands of years and you come in and begin to weep and wail , will the darkness vanish? Strike a match and light comes in a moment. (2.357)






     Vivekananda also makes skilful use of the simile, a figure of speech that resembles the analogy: Like fire in a piece of flint, knowledge exists in the mind; suggestion is the friction which brings it out (1.28); Man is like an infinite spring, coiled up in a small box, and that spring is trying to unfold itself (1.389); Today we are doing one thing, tomorrow another. We are like little bits of straw rocking to and fro in water, like feathers blown about in a hurricane. (4.122)


     About the sum total of good and evil, he says: It is like old rheumatism: Drive it from one place, it goes to another. (4.241)


     All the above-quoted similes show a fine correspondence between the major and minor terms of reference. Further, as is evident, the correspondence is at several levels, which makes the similes even more appropriate.






     Vivekanandas metaphors are still more expressive. In his famous Chicago address he said: 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? (1.10) This passage calls for an elaboration. What is this tempest? And what is this sea? The sea, in this context, is the world, full of trials and tribulations. The tempest is the upheaval in life caused by the uncontrolled senses. Man is but a tiny boat. Mark the contrast between the vastness and depth of the sea and the leap of the waves on the one hand, and the size and strength of the boat on the other. This metaphor has a fine visual impact too.


     Incidentally, this imagery reminds us of several such observations in religious books. In the Gita (2.67) Krishna says to Arjuna: Indriyanam hi caratam yanmanonuvidhiyate; tadasya harati prajnam vayurnavamivambhasi. Dr. Radhakrishnan translates this as follows: When the mind runs after the roving senses, it carries away the understanding, even as a wind carries away a ship on the waters. (4)


     Vivekanandas metaphor of the boat is followed by another: (Is man) a little moth placed under the wheel of causation which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widows tears or the orphans cry?5 This metaphor looks like a variant of the metaphor of the tiny boat. In both the speaker asks if man is as small as a tiny boat or a little moth, helpless before the mighty sea of temptation or the inexorable wheel of causation.


     But in the same lecture the speaker also says: And every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the Glorious Sun. (1.17) The eagle provides a sharp contrast to the moth; it is a strong bird and, in Indian mythology, it has also a sacred association. So then, man is like an eagle, soaring higher and higher till he reaches the glorious Sun, his destination. Derozio too, in his poem My Native Land, compared enslaved India to an eagle in chains.


     Does this speech not look like a piece of creative writing in which the images take on a pattern and try to develop, sustain and repeat the leitmotif through parallels and contrasts?


     Similarly: The world is a grand moral gymnasium wherein we have all to take exercise so as to become stronger and stronger spiritually.(1.80) Here the word gymnasium has been given a spiritual dimension. Thereby Vivekananda also extends and enriches language.


     At one place we find a queer conceit, say a metaphysical conceit, the like of which is often used by poets like John Donne: He (a yogi) does not show himself to men, and yet he is a magazine of love and of true and sweet ideas. (1.105) Here the word magazine has been used in the sense of a chamber for holding a supply of cartridges to be fed automatically to the breech of a gun or a store of arms, ammunition, and provision for use in war. One might like to ask why a saint who has all along been talking of love and peace has chosen to use the image of arms and ammunition. The answer is not difficult to find. Life is also a battle, where evil is the enemy. It is the weapon of love that can defeat the enemy and win the battle. This analogy contains a fine paradox. The champions of English metaphysical poetry, especially the likes of Donne, would have waxed lyrical on this metaphor.


     The following metaphor also shows evidence of this element: Look not for the truth in any religion; it is here in the human soul, the miracle of all miracles - in the human soul, the emporium of all knowledge. (1.355) The word emporium, as all of us know, means a large retail store selling a wide variety of goods or a centre of commerce, a market. We hear of khadi emporiums, leather emporiums, and so forth. Both meanings are related to commerce. Now one may like to ask if the soul is a centre of commerce, a market where things are sold and purchased. Yes, just possible. The soul gives and receives innumerable things. We know Wordsworth imagined the human soul as a great giver and receiver. We can profit by selling and purchasing rightly. Here selling and purchasing suggest the exchange of things spiritual between partners in the commerce for betterment of life. This too is an example of metaphysical conceit. Such a conceit is frequently seen in George Herbert, another noted metaphysical poet.


     Consider another striking metaphor of this very species: The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women. (8.198) When we talk of the role of women in the progress of society, we generally use the analogy of the two wheels of a chariot or the two wings of a bird. But this thermometer metaphor startles us, though its appropriateness is illuminating. It shows the originality of Vivekanandas creative imagination. Does it not have something of Thomas Browne, who wrote of religion with the images of science?


     Finally, a metaphorical passage that needs no elaboration: What are we but floating wavelets in the eternal current of events, irresistibly moved forward and onward and incapable of rest? (4.139)






     Vivekananda has also made judicious use of epigrams: The external teacher offers only the suggestion which rouses the internal teacher to work to understand things (1.93); Religion is a constitutional necessity of the human mind (1.318); A (sacred) book is the most tangible form of God (4.44); The message makes the messenger. The Lord makes the temple; not vice versa (7.65); What is the future but the present illimitable? (4.215); Great convictions are the mothers of great deeds. (5.30)


     (To be concluded)




     1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.259.

     2. George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (London: Penguin), xxxvii.

     3. CW, 1.177.

     4. Bhagavadgita, trans. S Radhakrishnan (Bombay: Blackie & Son, 1977), 127.

     5. CW, 1.10.

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








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