Prose Style of Swami Vivekananda
U. S. Rukhaiyar
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.
style, Vivekananda said: ‘Simplicity is the secret. My ideal
of language is my Master’s 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.
regards classification, Vivekananda’s 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 Vivekananda’s 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.
Language, Straightforward Manner, Informal Tone
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.
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)
Vivekananda Develops an Argument
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:
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
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
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.
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:
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 another’s 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)
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.
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,
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)
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.’
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 India’s
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)
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)
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)
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.
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
this imagery reminds us of several such observations in religious
books. In the Gita (2.67) Krishna says to Arjuna: Indriyanam
hi caratam yanmano’nuvidhiyate; 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)
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 widow’s tears
or the orphan’s 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
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.
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?
‘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.
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.
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.
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 Vivekananda’s creative imagination.
Does it not have something of Thomas Browne, who wrote of
religion with the images of science?
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?’
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.’
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.259.
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (London: Penguin),
Bhagavadgita, trans. S Radhakrishnan (Bombay: Blackie &
Son, 1977), 127.