How a love of India and Hindu dharma drive this octogenarian’s untiring campaign of social reform, writing, spiritual activism and global outreach
BY G.K. NAIR
By G.K. Nair, Kerala
with Rajiv Malik, Delhi
To answer the call of great men is to risk being touched by greatness yourself. When the call is as bold and compelling as that of Swami Vivekananda, courage and persistence become requisites. To raise India to the heights Vivekananda spoke of is no easy task, but that is the defining thread of P. Parameswaran’s life. As a thinker, a philosopher, a reformer and current president of Vivekananda Kendra, P. Parameswaran—the recipient of Hinduism Today’s 2010 Hindu Renaissance Award—strives to defend both India and Hinduism, which to him are inseparably linked.
Parameswarji, as he is affectionately called, was born to a devout Hindu family in a small Kerala hamlet in 1927. Religion came naturally to him from childhood, when he would join his father, a priest in a local temple, in reciting mantras and hymns.
A brilliant student all through school, he received a B.A. in history. During those student years, he met two charismatic leaders who greatly infuenced him. One was the president of the Ramakrishana Mission, Swami Virajananda, whose spiritual presence Parameswarji recalls with awe. “His charming personality with brilliant piercing eyes, the graceful and affectionate smile as I prostrated before him and received his blessings, it all still remains fresh in my memory. The impact was much more than his physical presence.”
The other leader who made a strong impression was M. S. Golvalkar, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Parameswarji remembers, “As we all sat in well-ordered lines facing the platform in front, Sri Guruji, as he was called, stepped into the hall, accompanied by two or three national-level office bearers. All of us stood up, thrilled by the magnetic personality of this charismatic leader. Instantly we felt that we were in the presence of a powerful personality who held the destiny of the country in his hand. It was a mixture of spiritual and royal power, from one who knew no fear, was full of compassion and absolutely confident of his mission in life. Though that was the first camp I ever attended, it was a defining moment. We listened to him in rapt attention, answered his questions and came back beaming with a vision of the future Hindu society. The path ahead for me was clear and I never looked back. I became a pracharak of the RSS on completion of my study.”
Idealistic, articulate and intelligent, Parameswaran rose quickly in the RSS ranks. Guruji Golvakar asked him to be the organizing secretary of the Jan Sangh, India’s nationalist political party. But that was not to last.
A Change in Direction
In 1977, India was entering a controversial time of its history, the State of Emergency. Elections were suspended, along with many rights, including freedom of speech. Parameswarji was persecuted and arrested. “Locked in jail with many politicians,” he recalls, “I got to know them well—and I was disappointed. The state of emergency was soon lifted and power was in sight. But idealism was compromised. Power corrupts, and I found that my place would be better outside politics than within those circles.”
Parameswarji decided to find new and better ways to serve India and its people. At first he worked at the Deendayal Research Institute, a grass-roots social institution founded by his friend Nanaji Deshmukh, who was himself abandoning politics. “My assignment at the Deendayal Institute came as a godsend. I welcomed the offer gladly and wholeheartedly,” he shares. Parameswarji dedicated his time to improving the lives of simple people, managing projects that spurred irrigation efforts, created schools and taught best practices for hygiene and health.
But, as a man of ideas, he felt the need for an institution that fostered intellectual dialogue. In 1982, he went back to his home state, Kerala, and founded the Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, aimed at national reconstruction through study and research.
Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, a charitable society, is headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram. It is a haven for thinkers and researchers who believe India’s future is inextricably dependent on its cultural and spiritual roots. By fostering publications and organizing camps, debates, symposia and classes over the years, the Kendram has become a place where like-minded intelligentsia could gather and nurture ideas. Kerala itself has long been a state where debate is extraordinarily fierce, an epicenter of the intellectual arena where nationalists and communists strongly oppose each other, making the organization all the more relevant.
Today the organization has 30 active units in the state. It is widely influential among academics and has a strong constituent of young people, who attend seminars on history, philosophy, economics, politics, education, environment, development, social life and management.
A Man of Many Achievements
While continuing to direct and expand the Kendram, Parameswarji devoted time and energy to a wide number of other projects. He wrote several books reflecting on Indian philosophy, religion and society, including the acclaimed Marx and Vivekananda, Bhagavad-Gita Vision of a New World Order, and Beyond All Isms to Humanism. He also served as editor of the journals Kesari and Manthan. Currently he is editor of the monthly Yuva Bharathi, the Pragati Quarterly Research Journal and the quarterly Vivekananda Kendra Patrilka.
Parameswaran also founded the International Forum for Indian Heritage, a think tank to defend the subcontinent’s rich cultural roots. The IFIH’s website proclaims its raison d’être: “While genuine secularism in no way rejects culture, in India our brand of secularism imposes cultural nihilism.”
In 1997, in recognition of his effort in teaching the principles of Hinduism, Parameswaran was awarded the Bhaiji Hanuman Prasad Poddar Award instituted by Bada Bazaar Library of Calcutta. In 2000, he was made a member of the Court of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In 2002, he was awarded the Amritha Keerthi Puraskar cultural award by Sri Matha Amrithananda Mayi Mutt for outstanding service to society. In 2004, the President of India awarded him the prestigious Padma Shri—India’s greatest honor for civilians.
Celebrating Vivekananda’s Vision
Still, Parameswarji’s most important work might be his service as the president of the Vivekananda Kendra for the last 15 years. No one can be certain to what extent the Kendra’s achievements have been due to his leadership, but it is certain that he has been an able successor to the tireless Eknath Ranade, the founder. His nurturance can be seen in the Kendra’s dynamic growth and its ability to translate the vision of Swami Vivekananda into reality.
“There were three steps in the growth and development of the Vivekananda Kendra movement,” explains Parameswarji. “The first step was to establish a monument in the memory of Swami Vivekananda at the rock memorial site, Kanyakumari.”
History tell us that on a mid-sea rock, Vivekananda meditated on Mother India. He meditated on her past, present and future, the cause of her downfall and the means of her resurrection. This was not the Vivekananda of our memory, the monk who inspired awe in ignorant Westerners and reminded Indians of their greatness; no, not yet. This Vivekananda was a young renunciate living on alms, just one wandering sadhu among India’s multitude of saints.
Finally, sitting at the last bit of rock in the Indian ocean, Swami Vivekananda made the momentous decision to go to the West to spread India’s religion and culture throughout the whole world. In order to help his beloved India, he had to leave it. It was a difficult decision to make, for he knew he would be deemed impure if he crossed the sea.
Eknath Ranade’s vision of a monument honoring that crucial moment energized Hindus who took the teachings of Swami Vivekananda to heart. Thus began the movement that would become the Vivekananda Kendra. With small donations and dedicated volunteers, a shrine was built and inaugurated in September, 1970. “Once that memorial was erected, the idea came that a mere memorial will not do,” recalls Parameswarji. “The message of Swami Vivekananda should spread—and not just that, it should be put into action as well. So an all-India movement with a hard core of devoted life workers was visualized.” In 1972, the Vivekananda Kendra was officially founded.
Activities of the Kendra
The Kendra has become a nationwide organization, but it is particularly strong in the Northeast, where activities were initially focused. “Those areas were especially vulnerable to Christian missionary activities. There was even thought of secession, and little Indian identity. It was to prevent this that we established schools where children learn about our country’s culture and unity.”
Today, over 21,000 students attend the Kendra’s 51 schools in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Andaman Islands, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The organization also has preschools all over the country and vocational centers which teach simple crafts.
Besides education, the Vivekananda Kendra is active in improving rural and tribal people’s lives. Water management, farming techniques, natural medicine with indigenous herbs and eco-friendly technologies are explained to locals and put into practice. A taskforce researches and improves the building materials used by local villages, teaching an environmentally sound way to build durable homes. Also, by setting aside a handful of rice every day, sympathizers of the Kendra donate enough rice to feed 12,000 poor rural children.
The Kendra’s medical initiatives are impressive. Health-care camps offer eye care and dental assistance. Fourteen rural medical centers with social workers serve nearly 250 villages and 50,000 people a year. A new facility, the Vivekananda Kendra Medical Research Foundation—the Kendra’s first hospital—has 40 beds and helps the people of 13 surrounding villages. The Kendra also provides relief work after natural catastrophes, and it has a program to support the elderly with a monthly amount given in cash to each one. The number of lives the organization has touched is incalculable.
The movement’s most important mission is to teach, defend and spread Hindu culture. “The goal,” Parameswaran explains, “is to take the message of Sanatana Dharma as interpreted by Swami Vivekananda to every home, every hamlet, every school, utilizing temples and service activities as the media.” The Kendra publishes books and magazines—in English, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Assamese and Gujarati—in service of that goal.
Personality development camps, cultural events, seminars and lectures expose the young to Hindu heritage. People of all ages gather to watch culturally relevant movies. Events teach how to perform simple pujas and nurture among women the basic skills for a better family and village life. Strengthened by the certainty that theirs is a venerable culture, children find a sense of belonging and adults find pride in keeping it alive.
Research plays an important part in the campaign. Traditional customs and rituals are being documented. Another project involves an investigation of the historical continuity of Hinduism between North and South India.
The Kendra has over 200 full-time dedicated workers, helped by thousands more who donate part of their time. Many join the Kendra after retirement. Parameswarji notes, “The Vivekananda Kendra was started with life workers, young and old, educated people with understanding who could devote their lives for a cause.”
Financing has not been a problem. The institution has a program for patrons, people who identify with the cause and pledge a certain sum for a year—or for life. Additional donations come from the hundreds of thousands who visit the Vivekananda Rock Memorial every year. “So far, we have not had any of our projects suffer from lack of funds,” Parameswaran says, “We believe that every good cause will be supported by society. Swami Vivekananda taught us, ‘Money and everything I want must come, because they are my slaves and I am not their slave.’ ”
Plans for the Future
At age 83, Parameswaran has no plans to slow down. He is currently focusing on what he calls the third stage of the Vivekananda Kendra, developing an international presence. He explains, “What we propose is that the Vivekananda Kendra International should be a stage for dialogue between various cultures, religions and civilizations all over the world. People speak of clash of civilizations, but the Hindu concept is that there should be harmony—this is what Swami Vivekananda preached at the Chicago Parliament of Religions. There must be mutual understanding and acceptance. Yes, people differ, and that is all right, but we must try to understand each other’s point of view, and that is what the Vivekananda Kendra International will help make happen. Because it is Hinduism alone that can promote harmony of religions, with its timeless tolerance and broad views, we must lead the way.”
Hinduism Today inquired about the keys to this respected elder’s energy and accomplishments. Parameswarji begins by explaining his routine of waking up at 4:30am daily to perform his japa, followed by exercise and pranayama. He consciously strives to live a healthy lifestyle, with plenty of intellectual engagement to keep the mind sharp. But he quickly concludes, “What keeps me going is not the observance of these routines, but the consciousness of a great goal to achieve in life and, most important of all, the Divine Grace, all pervading and ever protective.”