Swami Vivekananda's Practical Vedanta
(An article by Mangesh Buwa in American Vedantist, February 2014 issue.
'Shankara left this Advaita philosophy in the hills and forests, while I have come to bring it out of those places and scatter it broadcast before the workaday world and society. The lion - roar of Advaita must resound in every hearth and home, in meadows and groves, over hills and plains'1 proclaims Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji's new approach of presenting Vedanta for modern age is unique in history of humanity; never before has anyone tried so boldly, to teach Advaita to everybody irrespective of caste, creed, race, religion, ashrama of life (student, house-holder, recluse, monk), and adhikara-bheda (level of competency to grasp spiritual truths). He used to exhort,
'… conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit, and in the cottage of the poor man, with the fishermen that are catching fish, and with the students that are studying.'2
This bold approach is in sharp contrast with traditional Vedantic monks who generally stress the distinction of Paramarthika (transcendental or absolute) and Vyavaharika (relative) aspects of Reality and the importance of Adhikarawada (i.e. the argument that spiritual truths are to be told only to those with subtle and pure minds). Advaita Vedanta was regarded in India as an esoteric philosophy meant for only few all-renouncing monks, never to be practiced by majority in day-to-day life; Swamiji's advent changed that scenario. We shall try here to understand how Swamiji's new approach affects all of us in every-day life.
India's collective lack of implementation of Vedanta in life for many centuries resulted in social decadence and loss of political freedom. Swami Ranganathananda points out this mistake as,
'We failed to stress this whole gamut of social virtues and graces, and to impart the relevant secular education which is the source of them. Instead we stressed an other-worldly excellence with its passive virtues, with inaction as its watchword; we failed to understand that social welfare comes from an activist ethics in the context of interaction with other members in society. The result was that we failed to achieve the more attainable ideals of character, work-efficiency, public spirit, and general well-being, while equally failing to achieve the high ideal of mukti and the virtues and graces associated with so great an ideal. The high spiritual inaction of the mukti path and ideal became deformed into laziness, inertia, and human unconcern, along with a type of worldliness, or "a piety-fringed worldliness" as I prefer to call it, more harmful than the worldliness of the modern Western type, which has at least character-efficiency and human concern to enrich it.'3
In Bhagawad-Gita we find Sri Krishna explaining the practical implementation of the spiritual ideal and also manifesting in Himself the teaching. The Holy Scripture has been the backbone of Indian religious life for centuries, but we Indians failed to make it practical, make it work in our every activity. Sri Krishna had assured that, 'svalpamapyasya dharmasya trayate mahato bhayat'4 - 'practicing even little bit of this dharma saves us from great danger'; and had further given the principle of practicing this, 'mayi sarvamidam protam sutre maniganiva'5 - 'God is the divine thread that unites all of us like the pearls in a garland'. Unfortunately for India, successive political subjugation added to her failure in practicing this great teaching regarding all spheres of life.
This lacuna of Indian culture is being rectified today with Swamiji's Practical Vedanta, which proclaims the ideal to everyone and encourages everyone to move towards it, from whatever level one finds oneself. It encompasses the whole gamut of life into this process and thus helps one move not 'from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth'6. No step is looked down upon or condemned; no activity of life is out of reach for practicing spirituality. This is famously put by Sister Nivedita as:
'If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths of realisation. No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labour is to pray. To conquer is to renounce. Life is itself religion. To have and to hold is as stern a trust as to quit and to avoid.'7
Thus when whole life itself is viewed as journey towards the ideal or as progressive manifestation of the infinite divine, then it gives tremendous scope for everyone to practise spirituality in day-to-day life and thus 'If the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student. If the lawyer thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better lawyer, and so on …'8; this in effect gives rise to social virtues and graces which were missing in India for past many centuries. Swami Bhajanananda puts this as,
'… the two great divisions of the Hindu way of life [are] known as nivritti-marga (way of withdrawal) and pravritti-marga (way of involvement). The two ways were traditionally regarded as distinct and meant for two different classes of people. This division was given legitimacy by the Advaita system with its theory of two levels of reality and of the self: the paramarthika (absolute) and the vyavaharika (relative). This view may be metaphysically valid but translated into common life it becomes a justification for perpetuating all kinds of social inequities. One of the efforts of Swami Vivekananda was to provide a unitary view of Reality which would integrate the two ways of life into one. Regarding this Swamiji said, "And what Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and I have added to this is that the many and the One are the same Reality, perceived by the same mind at different times and in different attitudes."'9
If we study Swami Vivekananda's works we find this theme running throughout it; especially if we pay attention to the lectures Swamiji delivered at London in November 1896 on Practical Vedanta, we can see him citing Upanishads and explaining following points:
(I) Teach yourselves, teach every one his real nature, call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Development of heart is
more important than head and detached work as explained in Gita is the key.
Swamiji emphasises the all-pervasive nature of Reality and divinity of man, thus making it primary base for all functions of life. The new stress on the omnipresence of Spirit and less on the negative principle of maya, releases tremendous reserves of energy trapped in millions of people especially among working class masses. 'Practical Vedanta - Its central principle is to bridge the gulf separating the sacred and the secular by converting work into worship and by stressing the potential divinity of the soul. Advaita Vedanta had for too long been identified with Maya, and became a philosophy of escape. Swamiji played down Maya and stressed the omnipresence, power, and glory of Brahman.'10 If the infinite Pure Consciousness is the source of everyone and everything in the universe then there are infinite possibilities in which It will manifest and no manifestation can be looked with contempt. Based on the immanent Spirit within, we have to develop a new way of looking at ourselves and others; also any work done with the new vision will purify the mind and help one attain the blessed state of unity with Reality. This will help the process of progressive manifestation and yield the desirable by-products like values, character, and social-political-national progress.
Swamiji's Practical Vedanta approach is also most appropriate for modern age spiritual aspirant whose intellect is sharpened by the technological education he/she receives in society. Never before in history was human being so exposed to dominance of reason over faith and never was practical demonstration given so much preference over intangible source of values. Scientific revolution initiated in the West swept entire globe in couple of centuries and in the process brought in new ways of not only education but also value assessment. This process in the West caused religion to be looked upon initially as great obstacle to human progress and later as harmless past-time; in the East similar confusion regarding religion could have prevailed if not for the efforts of Swami Vivekananda's exposition of religion. Swamiji foresaw the trends of modern age and interpreted religion on scientific lines, he boldly said,
'Are the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion this must be so, and I am also of the opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen. All that is dross will be taken off, no doubt, but the essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of this investigation. Not only will it be made scientific -- as scientific, at least, as any of the conclusions of physics or chemistry -- but will have greater strength, because physics or chemistry has no internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which religion has.'11
Modern spiritual aspirant, in this highly technological age, will surely be immensely gladdened to hear these words of Swamiji.
We understand through their lives that life itself is religion and this integrated approach is best suitable for this age; this is also the revival of ancient Rishi ideal of Vedic period according to Swami Bhajanananda:
'Sannyasa as an ideal and practice must remain as the core of national life but the vast majority of people need an alternative ideal which will enable them to realize the highest Truth through self-control, service and meditation, without formally taking monastic vows. The ancient Rishi ideal satisfies these conditions. … This is the ideal that the modern world needs, for only such an ideal can penetrate deep into society. And we believe that it is this ideal that Sri Ramakrishna has revived through his life and teachings.'12
We can observe in modern India many non monastic NGO's and individuals working for the weaker sections of society in the spirit of
new Vedanta. Many are also seen trying to realize the spiritual ideal while actively participating in social and domestic duties.
Thus slow but sure penetration of Swamiji's ideas is unmistakable.
Another characteristic of modern age is globalization; we are witnessing a unique period in human history where technology and
modes of transport have revolutionized the connectivity among nations. This, when seen from the entire unfolding of human drama
on earth, is but appropriate stage for humanity. The great division of humanity represented by the Eastern view and Western view
of life has come in contact again and successful synthesis of the two weltanschauungs is the greatest need of the hour.
The study of 'external man' as a member of society is championed by the Western view while study of 'man in depth' or 'internal man'
is the hallmark of Eastern view. India for long neglected the 'exterior' of man in preference to his inner nature while West ignored
the 'inner' and focused only on the 'outer' of man; this lop-sided views are hindrances for complete growth of man. Swamiji's
integrated approach addresses this concern completely; he wanted future humanity to be the perfect harmony of the two views. This
gives universal appeal to his message.
1. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (9 Vols.), Advaita Ashrama, Vol VII P 162