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Paradigm of 'Service'

Amiya P. Sen

By Gwilym Beckerlegge
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 206, Rs. 595.00


I have to say that Gwilym Beckerlegge continues to astonish me by the frequency with which he produces consistently good scholarly material for the study of the Ramakrishna movement. On the notion of ‘seva’ itself, (usually translated as social service) I recall having read no less than five research papers and a monograph in about as many years. There is, of course, some overlap between these works and the present one. Beckerlegge borrows and borrows heavily from his 2003 production, The Ramakrishna Mission: The Making of a Modern Hindu Movement. However, such borrowing also looks necessary for the sake of narrative continuity. Also, whereas the 2003 work was a collection of thematically diverse essays, albeit all connected with the Ramakrishna movement, the book under review focuses exclusively on the paradigm of ‘service’ as adopted and adapted by this movement.   At most places, Beckerlegge’s treatment of the subject is direct and penetrative even though his major arguments are built up over a long succession of essays. Organizationally, the work is divided into three parts. The first of these generally deals with the concept of seva as it evolved within the Math and Mission. Parts II and III examine this theme in greater detail and in the specific contexts of the life and work of Sri Ramakrishna and his foremost disciple, Swami Vivekananda. The latter also includes a brief reference to the work of Swami Akhandananda, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna and one whose altruistic ideals closely tried to follow those of his more illustrious gurubhai (brother–disciple), Vivekananda. At several places in the book, the author engages himself with the important question pertaining to the ethical and intellectual influences upon the movement in so far as its socially activist goals were concerned. The conclusion that he arrives at, quite rightly in my opinion, is that this was indeed a complex and cumulative process that negotiated with several traditions, both alien and the indigenous.   On the whole, there is no escaping the fact that Vivekananda’s utterances on work and ethical responsibility in this world often appear quite ambivalent. Thus, Beckerlegge is able to demonstrate how, a despondent Vivekananda negated the value of work itself as also this worldly engagement at a time he published his Karma Yoga (1896) which strongly put forth such ideals (p.133). On other occasions, the Swami seems to fall back on the view, strongly articulated by his guru, Sri ...

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