Swami Vivekananda and Vedanta
(An article by Swami Tathagatananda in Vedanta Kesari, February 2016 issue. For e-copy of the issue pl visit Vedanta Kesari Feb 2016)
In his lecture, ‘Vedanta and Indian Life’, Swami Vivekananda remarked:
The Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice to the weak, the miserable and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds and all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom and spiritual freedom are the watchwords of the Upanishads.1
And in his lecture, ‘The Mission of the Vedanta’, he said:
Teach yourselves, teach everyone his real nature, call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, and everything that is excellent will come when this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.2
Swamiji looked upon Vedanta as a great source of inspiration. The Vedantic doctrines of Atman points out that the human spirit is in reality identical with the Supreme Being. Atman is one and universal. The primary message of Vedanta, according to Swamiji, is the proclamation of man’s true nature as the birthless, deathless Spirit, ever free, perfect and ever pure. The human being is not really the weak and groveling creature that he seems to be—a creature who is at the mercy of hundred forces of nature and a slave to irresistible passions. The consciousness of bondage, of weakness and of impurity is present in us, because we have forgotten our identity, and the moment we assert our divinity again, the inalienable nature of ours, which no amount of self-hypnosis can really change, it will manifest itself. The world of matter which appears so vast and so overpowering is only a misreading of the nature of the Supreme Atman. The next important teachings of Vedanta that caught the imagination of Swamiji were those about abhaya (fearlessness), shraddha (faith and reverence) and tyaga (renunciation).
Vedanta View of Life
Vedanta does not preach a static view of life. It is a perennial source of strength and creativity. Its theme is the freedom of the human spirit. It underlines the infinite dimensions of the human personality. It explains every great movement, social, political or religious—nay, the entire gamut of life itself as an expression of the urge for freedom that is inherent in man. The Atman is the basis of our consciousness, our happiness, even of our very existence. One man differs from another in body, colour, race or mental attitudes, but not in this essential truth of his being, his self. This is the real point behind universal religion and the brotherhood of man. The discovery of this truth is indeed of momentous importance.
Sister Nivedita has aptly described Swamiji as ‘the worker at foundations’. He is the only man who has utilized the life-giving message of Vedanta for the regeneration of India and for the establishment of Universal Religion. The base of his mission is a spiritual non-dualism and any eclectic, exotic, superficial, pseudo-universal religious propaganda indulged in by modern intellectuals have no insight into the spiritual unity of man. Vivekananda saw to it that Vedanta no longer remained confined to the forest and given over to scholastic speculation, but was made the property of the masses for lifting them up in the spiritual scale, as well as for sustaining them in the struggle of life. The concept of Atman has not been applied for the elevation of the collective life of the people and for providing a solid basis for all-round prosperity.
In the light of the gospel of Neo-Vedanta, there is ‘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 avoid.’3 Taking his stand on this set principle, the great Swami deduced a series of consequences bearing vitally on the entirety of life, thought and activity.
The situation that faced Swamiji in his time was a very complex and baffling one. India was groaning under the heels of the foreign conqueror. It was no longer isolated and was exposed to the influence of the Christian missions, English education, Western culture, and materialism augmented by science and technology. Hence the Indian renaissance that began with the advent of Rammohan Roy was not confined to religion. People were interested in many things—politics, social reform, science and materialism. Religion itself was caste-ridden; rituals and superstition were choking it. Atheism was rampant; poverty, stagnation and exploitation were the order of the day. What was needed was all-round reconstruction at a rapid pace.
The modern age was different from the age of religious revolution of the Upanishadic era and the times of expansion and consolidation of the message of Gita. In Swamiji’s view, man had too long been obsessed with the idea of sin and weakness. It was high time for man to wake up to the consciousness of his own divine nature which was his birthright. This alone was rightly considered to be a panacea for all maladies of stagnant and moribund life. Self-knowledge alone could foster love and mutual understanding between man and man.
It alone would summon men and women everywhere to the mighty adventure of freedom and fearlessness, sympathy and service, and to the spiritual realization of inner unity, and thus help the solving of the formidable problems of life. An overemphasis of the jnana attitude was a historical necessity—for counteracting the pernicious and debasing effects of the feeling of unworthiness of man, which feeling was engendered by slavery. The Swami said, ‘Strength is the medicine of the world’s disease.’4 To him, spirituality was strength and strength was the test of true realization. Vedanta in his hands became a gospel of intense activity and connoted the widest expansion of the spirit. It became a great force for the moral regeneration of an India that was haunted by the spectre of fatalism, defeat and decay. Again and again the Swami reminded his countrymen of their glorious spiritual heritage and stressed the special role his generation had to play in the evolution of modern renascent India. The reconstruction of India had to be based, he said, on the bedrock of her spiritual resources, on the Upanishads, which were an inexhaustible mine of infinite strength. He taught that without faith in the Atman—ever free, pure, immortal, self-luminous, as the Upanishads describe it, men could not be strong and invincible.
That period in India’s history in which Swamiji lived and worked was characterized, in part, by the search of ideologies. Swamiji presented Vedanta as a fearless philosophy of life which helped man to frame ideas for himself ‘with the intensity of the fanatic and the extensity of the materialist’. In Swamiji, Hinduism got a fresh lease on life and vigour. He infused Hinduism with the ideal of complete self-dedication to the service of humanity. He encouraged the study of new knowledge for the improvement of the secular life of people. He also made Hinduism dynamic by enkindling in it the zeal for dissemination of the gospel of universal truths for the welfare of the humanity at large.
Swamiji emphasized a twofold application of Vedanta in practical life:
Swamiji not only preached this ideal, but he went a step further and warned the country that India’s special gift to the world throughout the ages had been the profound truths of spiritual life and that on her regeneration depended the regeneration of the world.
Spirit of Tyaga—the Basis of Vedanta
The spirit of Vedanta, asserted Swamiji, was through and through permeated by the idea of renunciation. The alpha and omega in India was renunciation. Give up, says the Veda, give up. Na karmana, na prajaya dhanena, tyagenaike amritattvam anasuh (‘neither through karma, nor through progeny, nor through wealth, but only through renunciation have some attained immortality’). So he emphasized the twin ideals of our culture—renunciation and service.
It was Swamiji’s philosophy of mobility and vitality based on the message of the Aitareya Brahmana—charaiveti—‘move on’, which gave a tremendous inspiration to the new forces operating in modern India. Said he, ‘My hope is to see again the strong points of India, reinforced by the strong points of this age, only in a natural way. The new state of things must be a growth from within.’ Swamiji’s all-encompassing vision took in its ken those who aspired after temporal values as well as those who sought spiritual bliss. He said,
'With us the prominent idea is mukti—there was a time in India when dharma was compatible with mukti. There were worshippers of dharma such as Yudhishtira, Arjuna, Bhisma and Karna, side by side with the aspirants of mukti such as Vyasa, Suka, Janaka. On the advent of Buddhism, dharma was entirely neglected and the path of moksha alone became predominant. The central fact is that the fall of our country, of which we hear so much spoken, is due to the utter want of this dharma. Without enjoyment, renunciation can never come.'
A New Order of Monasticism
Hence, Swamiji deviated from the traditional way, by not imparting the cardinal Vedic teaching of the divinity of the soul exclusively to the seekers of spiritual knowledge. He democratized it and proclaimed its message to one and all, to the spiritual seekers as well as to the materialists. He recommended its application not only for spiritual development but also for material and intellectual development. He said, ‘This infinite power of the spirit brought to bear upon matter evolves material development; made to act upon thoughts, evolves intellectually and made to act upon itself, makes man a God. Manifest the divinity within and everything will be harmoniously arranged around it.’
He also enjoined on the monks of Ramakrishna Order a twofold duty: While striving for his own liberation the seeker should work for the good of the world as well. And here lay the originality of the Swamiji. He, with his Guru, Shri Ramakrishna, for the first time in the history of Indian philosophy, combined the monistic Vedanta theory of the oneness of Brahman with the monotheistic Vedanta practice of universal love and service. Vedic seers, Jains, Buddhists, Monotheistic Vedantists and many others preached and practiced the ideal of service to humanity. But none before had preached the ideal of service to man as God Himself. In fact, in the whole history of mankind, as has been well stated, none has proclaimed the glory and grandeur of man—his absolute divinity, infinite greatness, and immeasurable dignity in such a vehement manner as Swamiji.
He elevated and sublimated the empirical to the transcendental, instead of denying the former.
The Vedanta does not in reality denounce the world—it really means deification of the world— giving up the world as we think of it, as we know it, as it appears to us and to know what it really is. . . You can have your wife but you are to see God in the wife. In life and in death, in happiness and in misery, the Lord is equally present. The whole world is full of the Lord. Open your eyes and see Him. This is what Vedanta teaches.5
And, this may be taken as one of the best commentaries on the Vedanta. He emphasized equally the twin aspects of Supreme Godhead—the transcendental and the immanent. Swamiji pointed out that the Vedanta, in all its forms, is intensely practical. Two celebrated mantras—sarvam khaluvidam Brahma (The world is Brahman)6, and ayamatma Brahma (The soul is Brahman)7, give the most comprehensive view of the state of things in the universe. Swamiji had to deal with the active, busy, complex life of intellectual triumph and material achievement—a life which demanded the spiritualizing principle of karma. Idleness in the garb of contemplation was no longer to be tolerated. He had to rouse all to action. In fact, he presented karma yoga to people, with a broad and elevated outlook, without denying the bliss and glory of the real meditative life.
The Ideal of Service
In his view, all domestic, social, and humanitarian deeds could be performed in the spirit of service to God. His message was the logical conclusion of the teachings of the Vedanta, the Gita and the Bhagavatam. Truly speaking, it was not at all a new message. But its practical application in every department of life had not been tried before. Such a course had been recommended by Shri Ramakrishna himself. ‘No, not kindness to living beings, but service to God dwelling in them’, said he. He further said, ‘If God can be worshiped through a clay image, then why not through a man?’ It was to the singular credit and eternal glory of Swamiji that he exhorted us to practise this teaching in the modern age for the welfare of the suffering humanity. He blended the ethical and spiritual ideals beautifully. His message was for men of realization, too. Serving man even after attaining the Supreme Bliss had to be regarded as a very high state—a state of super-knowledge and super-devotion.
Shri Ramakrishna and his disciples have emphasized the ideal of living in the world as a free soul for the well-being of the humanity. This is the vijnani stage of evolution. Swamiji linked Vedanta and Buddhism. His view was that one was incomplete without the other. Swamiji felt the need of all the three systems of philosophy—Dvaita, Advaita and Vishishthadvaita. He brought out their inner glory, inherent beauty, and infinite wealth through his message and synthesized in a simple, straightforward and charming manner. In his view, the oneness of Advaita had to be reached through Dvaita and Vishishthadvaita, as the three were not contradictory, but complementary.
This synthesis of Dualism, Qualified Monism and Monism was the work of the mastermind of Swamiji. It was indeed a marvelous ‘discovery’. The Advaita, as propounded and practiced by Swamiji, was therefore marked by a wonderful spirit of acceptance of diversity. Thus the originality of Swamiji lies in that, though a staunch Advaitin, he recognized the supreme importance and absolute necessity of feelings in one’s spiritual life. ‘It is feeling that is life, the strength, the vitality, without which no amount of intellectual activity can reach God.’ This feeling or love is the logical and living outcome of his realization of the basic and infinite unity of creation. Love and knowledge are by no means opposed, but are rather complementary—like the hard stem and the soft petal of a flower.
The hiatus between the ideal and the practical has been beautifully bridged by his emphasis on the practice of Vedanta in life. Swamiji has thus carved a place for himself as modern apostle of Advaita, of cosmic unity. His words have become the modern hymn of Advaita: ‘I see God in all that exists. I see him as completely in the least fragment as in the whole cosmos ....'
Head and Heart Combination
Swamiji indeed had ‘the head of Shankara and the heart of Chaitanya, the eyes of a Monist and the hands of a Monotheist, the tenacity of a scholar and the tenderness of a lover, the devotion of a Theist and the spirit of service of a Humanist.’ We may call his interpretation of the Vedanta doctrine by a new name, manava advaitavada or ‘Humanistic Monism’. For whoever sang manava-mahatmya, or the glory of man, in sweeter tunes than he? Swamiji said,
No books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the self that appears as man, the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists or ever will exist. Bold, brave beyond the conception of the present day stand the giant minds of the sages of the Upanishads, declaring the noblest truths that have ever been preached to humanity, without any compromise, without any fear. This, my countrymen, I want to lay before you. . . . go back to your Upanishads, the shining, the strengthening, the bright philosophy, and part from all these mysterious things, all these weakening things. Take up this philosophy; the greatest truths are the simplest things in the world, simple as your existence. The truths of the Upanishads are before you. Take them up, live up to them, and the salvation of India will be at hand. 8
Such were the ringing words of Swamiji.
1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, Vol. III, p. 238