He was one of the “Seven Sages”, brought down by Sri Ramakrishna for the good of the world. What are the implications of this, for our society today? As I study him I see him as a mind of the first order, applying itself not only to the traditional science of the spiritual life, but to all human problems, as far as he encountered them. We have an important question here: Should philosophers become kings? i.e., how far into society as an organism should one go who is vowed to be “out of society?” Does his detachment make for better wisdom? The Greeks usually said yes. The Hindus usually no. Swami Vivekananda, however, was more than a traditional monk: he was patriot and prophet as well, and in this respect joined in his own body of thought both Eastern and Western elements.
Swami Vivekananda is one of the very few sannyasins to turn his mind to more than just “religion,” and he has spoken on many of the issues of his day which remain issues for ours. Importantly, he looked upon religion itself as “the fulfillment of the perfection in man.” He was a great humanist, who picked up European social ideas and fleshed them out with philosophic underpinning and implication. As a prophet he foresaw the twentieth century as the age “of labor and the sudras and of women”, predicting the rise of Russia and China. He also said the Indian ideas would go to every country under the sun and, before long, become a component of their many forces. It should be obvious by now that the Western world’s dream of attaining happiness or permanent success through materialism has been a failure. Certainly Vivekananda did say, “Bread first; then religion,” but for those who have too much bread? What about them? It is fine to have computers and color television, but do we not see that it is the Orient alone which has understood the finer dimensions of happiness? It is never in the machine; it is in the human mind. This was his message.
Today we find ourselves in a world beset with horrendous problems and dilemmas, and we have not yet evaded the threat of nuclear war. What does Swamiji have to say to us? It plays out on two levels: first as he addressed the problem on the level of the problem; and later, how he made us look behind it.
Let us begin with
Crime and public morality
The facts are that punishment for crime often foments more crime than it prevents. The enforcers of law are as often corrupt and unlawful as not. And we could go on and on.
“If it is social opinion that makes us moral, then really we are little better than animals,” he said. “It is inner strength only that can curb the vicious tendencies.” He told Indian boys, “You will be nearer to God by playing football than by studying the Gita.” “Strength is the medicine for the world’s disease.” He encouraged athletic and bodily development in all who were effete. How sad he would feel, now, to see the dearth of Indian Olympians at the Games, and the commercializing of sports!
Swamiji saw crime as the result, not only of the injustices of society, but more the lack of self-esteem in the individual, and the impoverishment of higher ideals. He compared the social fabric of India with that of America, and felt that the Indian marriage system, in spite of its glaring injustices, was superior to the promiscuity (already rampant in his day) of the romantic West. He was getting wind of the license Freudianism was going to bring. He did not try to be a Manu, defining particular codes of conduct. Following his Master, he could prescribe for human nature only turning our base impulses in a higher direction: there was no other solution. “Consciously or unconsciously,” he said, “that Indian idea of the divinity within everyone will express itself even in other countries.” Behind the drunkard, behind the abuser, he saw the crushed and struggling divinity. “Do not seek help from anyone. There is only one sin: weakness. Be strong, physically, mentally, morally.”
We have known for long that just producing valedictorians and spelling geniuses in not enough to warranty the continuity of high culture. Hear Vivekananda: “It is the culture of the heart, really, not that of the intellect, that will lessen the misery of the world.” “It is culture that withstands shocks, not learning! And we are finding that our children face many shocks, more every day. To the Christians he said, “Make yourselves decent people…Be chaste and pure…There is no other way. Did Christ find any other way? ‘Except ye become as a little child, ye may not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'”
He told us how to love a wife or a husband: “It is not our love that makes us miserable, but the fact that we want love in return.” Always give, do not demand, he said. Swamiji was not a “reformer” in the sense of pulling down social systems. He approved the idea of a caste system, but not the latter-day applications of it; with proper amendments he thought it good for a society.
As to family coherence, he knew that “those who cannot discipline themselves cannot control their children and pointed out the folly of expecting the offspring not to follow their parents’ conduct.
What we would like others to do, we had better do, ourselves.
Sri Ramakrishna had been eclectic in his resort to methods of medical practice. He used to say that the Ayur Vedic treatments were good for the “Satya Yuga”, the days of the rishis when time was abundant. They worked too slowly for modern times. But when stricken by cancer at the end, he would let all the schools of medicine try their hand! Swami Vivekananda too, in his approach to health and treatment, felt that all types of health management could be tried. He had no high opinion of what governments could do in the matter; they had to take a role, of course, but when all the evils of corruption, inefficiency, waste and callousness which attend bureaucracy were taken into account, how much could health be improved? Again, that idea of strength: “No disease can get a hold in you unless you are weak, and allow it to do so.” We do not know for sure, but can surmise that in today’s health controversies he would encourage prevention over cure, immunity over medicine, natural alternatives over pills, and spiritual practice to eliminate mental and physical dependence. There are hints of these, throughout the Swami’s conversations.
Environmental pollution and denigration
The problem was scarcely recognized at the end of the nineteenth century, but one can extrapolate from nearly all that Swamiji said about life styles and conspicuous consumption. He was a realist and knew very well that we cannot have something for nothing. “The misery of the world is like chronic rheumatismchase it from one area, it shows up in another, ” he said. If he were here today to face the problem in its ripest stage, there is little doubt that he would be an “environment-alist”, and surely would remind us that we are going to be the inheritors of our own mess, allowing the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. And one may imagine the almost acid tones with which he would refer to the population explosion and accent the role of self-control in its solution.
The same is true of fiscal irresponsibility. Do you remember that he upheld the value of the caste system as regards its original ideal and concept? That the caste member who attained to wealth or status was under the dharmic obligation to help raise the whole community from which he had risen and which had launched his struggle? Then how can we provide only for our own offspring? That would be adopting the nuclear family framework of the West, not the best to emulate, in his mind. “Freedom is the first condition of growth;” he forcefully remarked one day, “what you do not make free can never grow.” This applies to employees and dependents as well.
The question of male dominance and woman’s status.
This defect the Hindus share with all the world’s peoples, he acknowledged, as there is scarcely a culture which has not succumbed to it. He was one of the first of his era in the field of religion to recognize the indignity and oppression which woman was subject to, in this world of men. He had seen and studied the misery of his own sister, a suicide, and it had deeply affected his thinking. “If woman cannot act, neither can man suffer,” he said; a fact now well-known in the statistics of psychology. There were times when Vivekananda’s mind was dwelling in a transcendental realm, and those times gave rise to expressions like these: “There is neither man nor woman [in Vedanta], for the soul is sexless… It is a lie to say that I am a man or a woman, or I belong to this country or that. All the world is my country, because I have clothed myself with it as my body.”
Such was his sense of identity at that moment. He never tired of brushing off the well-meaning concerns of men who would ask him about “women’s problems”: “Hands off! ” he exclaimed, “women will solve their own problems.” Men had no business attempting to solve them for them.
In the United States he made a very interesting comment. He said, “American men profess to worship woman, but in my opinion they simply worship youth and beauty. They never fall in love with wrinkles and grey hair.” By worship of woman, Sri Ramakrishna had meant, he assured us, that to him every woman’s face was that of the Blissful Mother and nothing else. At the same time he could clearly see that in America alone there was now the social freedom to rise up and take equality with men. Swamiji met many women in the West, patrons, admirers, helpers, disciples and with all of them he dealt in his own natural and spontaneous way. They sometimes expected of him the gallant chivalry of that Victorian era, but he flatly refused. “You can take care of yourself, ” he would say; “you are as able as I am, if not more.” Swami Vivekananda was prophet enough to foresee what the twentieth century would bring. We can sum up the subject in his broad but telling generality: “Asia laid the germs of civilization. Europe developed man. America is developing woman and the masses.”
Lack of religious identity
On this subject Swamiji had much to say. His years of wandering over his Motherland brought him to summarize what he considered the “Common Bases of Hinduism.” These were: Belief in God (he once said with a bit of exasperation, “The Hindus can never give up His Majesty, the Lord of the Universe!”), belief in the Vedas as “revealed,” the cyclic nature of time (yugas and kalpas in the macrocosm, reincarnation in the microcosm), and belief in all religions as valid paths because of the divinity of the human soul. Rather a minimal list, when one stops to think about it.
As regards scripture, Swamiji declared: “The proof of religion depends on the constitution of man, not on any books.” What was the role of religion for a Hindu? “Religion, to help mankind, must be ready and able to help him in whatever condition he is.” Then is there any place there for caste?
Above all, the Hindu is certain that we never go from falsehood to truth, but only from truth to truth. Be convinced of these and you are a Hindu.