In one of the lectures he gave in this country Swami Vivekananda said, “A sannyasin cannot belong to any religion, for his is a life of independent thought, which draws from all religions; his is a life of realization, not merely of theory or belief, much less of dogma.” Even to call Vivekananda a “Vedantist” is to put a label on him unjustly.
What, then, do we mean by the Vedanta of Sankaracharya or of Ramanuja or of any other acharya?
We mean the emphasis, something indicated by the Sanskrit word darshana, the outlook special to that particular person. We wish to outline and discuss here some nine salient points which could be considered the special features of Swamiji’s Vedanta.
Before we do that, let us first point out what seem to be mistakes often made in approaching the life and thought of Swamiji. If we can first clear the ground of these mistaken preconceptions, our step into Vivekananda-land will be more sure.
1) That he was at times unfaithful to what Sri Ramakrishna taught: his message seems to be quite different.
Reply: in the first place, the Master never told Narendra that he was to be a “clone” of himself. He often stood in awe of the height and breadth of his disciple’s mind. Secondly it must be remembered that they had very different audiences. Ramakrishna spoke to the western-educated, but still very Indian in background, Calcutta residents, whereas Vivekananda addressed crowds of Americans and Europeans, products of the Renaissance, of science and of western philosophy and theology. In Vedanta the message is guided by the nature of the recipients.
2) That Swamiji got his humanism, socialism, organizing methods etc. from his experience in the West.
Reply: by reading his life in detail one soon discovers that he was studying, and thinking about the ideas of Hamilton, Herbert Spencer, Tyndall, T.H. Huxley and others and how to use them, long before he left for the West. He was, even in his college days, familiar with philosophers like Hume and Hegel, and an avid reader of John Stuart Mill.
3) That he was “only” the Master’s messenger, not a spiritual power in himself.
Reply: Nothing could be further from the fact. Sri Ramakrishna gave him the power accumulated by his own sadhana, on one fateful day at Dakshineswar, remarking afterwards, “Now I have become a mere fakir.” Swamiji too, challenged by one of his brother-disciples, declared unequivocally, “While I am on earth Sri Ramakrishna is working through me, have no doubt.”
Now let us turn to what I would call Vivekananda’s most significant and distinctive teachings.
We shall put them under nine headings:
That truth is Brahman alone
This differs a bit from Sankara’s “Brahman alone is real; the world is false.” Swami Vivekananda said that the greatest name man ever gave to God was Truth. “My mission,” he explained to an interviewer in London, “is to show that religion is in everything and is everything.” He told us that drama and music and art are by themselves religion; that any song, love song or whatever, will lead to liberation if one’s whole soul is in that song.
Most surprisingly, he said “I am a materialist in a certain sense, because I believe that there is only One. That is what the materialist wants you to believe; only he calls it matter and I call it God, Brahman.” He knew from his own experience, when, after the touch of his Master, he went into the streets and saw that everything before him was God.
So much for nature. As for the soul, “There is only one individual,” he said, “and each of us is That.” Atman is Brahman.
The ultimate realization is identity with Brahman
Here he shows himself the orthodox Advaitan. No compromise can be accepted. “Stop not until the goal is reached,” he urged. What is the goal? That pure identity, attained only by fearlessness, which is why he talked so much of fearlessness. “That God, for whom you have been searching all over the universe is all the time yourself — your self, not in the personal sense but in the Impersonal.” And when others appealed to Ramakrishna that this sounded like egotism, the latter replied, “Naren can say that.”
“The eternal, the infinite, the omnipresent, the omniscient is a principle, not a Person. You, I and everyone are but embodiments of that principle and more of it is embodied in a person, the greater is he, and all in the end will be the perfect embodiment of that, and thus all will be one, as they are now essentially…” He told us we are born monists; we cannot help it, because we always perceive the One.
All paths are grounded in Advaita and fulfilled in it
This is what will prevent us from being fanatics: that man goes not from error to truth, but from lower truth to higher truth. When Swamiji spoke about Sri Krishna and the Gita he cautioned, “You must worship the Self in Krishna, not Krishna as Krishna.” He shows the all-inclusive nature of Advaita when he says that it accepts dualism and all systems that preceded Advaita. This is the universal solvent into which all philosophies must merge at last. This is not “inclusive-ism” nor triumphalism as is sometimes alleged. Just see: “Without the Vedanta every religion is superstition (including ‘Hinduism’); with it everything becomes religion.”
Religion should be presented rationally
This is just what Swami Vivekananda did in his speeches at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. It captivated the audience, which was tired of emotional harangues from sectarian prelates. Vedanta of all persuasions has always prescribed shravanam, manamam, nididhyâsanam — hearing the truth, mulling it over, and meditating upon it; here was Vivekananda telling us not just about his own faith, but about all faiths. Had anyone done this in this way before? “If one religion be true,” he pointed out, then all the others must be true.” “What happened once in history must happen again…” That was the scientific attitude. He said that the study of religion can and should be pursued on exactly the same basis as the pursuit of any other science. “Everything religion claims must be judged from the standpoint of reason,” and when people replied that human reason was weak, he told them “a body of priests would be even weaker!” He dared to say to his own disciples at the head monastery in India, “Only those portions of the Vedas which agree with reason are to be accepted as authority,” and also warned them, regarding the Guru, “Worship your Guru as God, but do not obey him blindly; love him all you will, but think for yourself.”
All truths should be made available to all people
“What I want to propagate,” Swamiji said, in his lecture “The Ideal of a Universal Religion,” “is a religion that will be equally acceptable to all minds; it must be equally philosophic, equally emotional, equally mystic and equally conducive to action… and this ideal will be the nearest approach to a universal religion.” Particularly he dinned this into the ears of his fellow Indians. “The most wonderful truths confined in our Upanishads, in our Puranas, must be brought out from the books, brought out from the monasteries, from the forests, from the possession of selected bodies of people and scattered broadcast over the land, so that these truths run like fire, all over the country.” “Advaita,” he said, …”shall no more be a secret… it must come down to the everyday life of the people.” It has to enter the palace, come from the cave to the cottage, to the beggar — everywhere. The oppressed — the outcast and the woman were to fear no longer. “Let the new India arise, from the man who grasps the plough, from the huts of the fisherman, the cobbler, the sweeper…” And in London he made this prediction: “The power of religion, broadened and purified, is going to penetrate every part of human life … it will live in our every movement, penetrate every pore of our society, and be infinitely more a power for good than it has ever been before.”
Everyone should embody all phases of truth
By this the Swami did not mean that there would no longer be specialists: he meant no more exclusiveness. What the age needs is the all-rounded person. “Would to God,” he said, that all the elements of philosophy, mysticism, emotion and work were equally present in full! That is my ideal of the perfect person. Everyone else …is one-sided, and this world is almost full with these ‘one-sided’ people, with knowledge of the one road only in which they move; anything else is dangerous and horrible to them. To become harmoniously balanced in all these directions is my ideal of religion.” On rare occasions he would point to his Master as the example of this: e.g., “It was given to me,” he told the Madrasis, “to live with a man who was as ardent a dualist, as ardent an Advaitin, as ardent a bhakta, as a jñâni Swamiji fortunately provided his own fine example: another such well-rounded prophet is difficult to discover. He was a master at stating accurately the views of another. He was a musician, and in the West took lessons in painting and in the French language. “We are of a new type,” he told his listeners; “sometimes dressed like gentlemen, we are engaged in lecturing; at other times, throwing all aside …ash-clad, we are immersed in meditation and austerities in mountains and forests.” This same idea he applied to the form his work was to take: “I haven’t been born,” Swamiji remarked, “to found one more sect in a world teeming with sects.”
All paths are to be made active in the service of man as God
Suppose we want to do charitable work; in that case what Swami Vivekananda tells us is: “Never approach anything except as God.” “It is our privilege to be allowed to be charitable, for only so can we grow. The poor suffer that we may be helped; let the giver kneel down and give thanks, let the receiver stand up and permit.” “Feel that the receiver is the higher one. You serve the other because you are lower than he, not because he is low and you are high.” The relation of all this to the overcoming of ego is obvious. “Philosophy and yoga and penance… –all these constitute the religion of one person or one country; doing good to others is the one great universal religion.” Swamiji told his own disciples, “Know this for certain: he who will work will be the crown on my head.” “What is India, or England or America to us? We are the servants of that God who by the ignorant is called MAN.”
Now if this activity of service is to be expressed through all paths, then we are again reminded of our first point: that drama, music and art are by themselves religion. What Vivekananda preached he carried out. In his lecture to an American audience in San Francisco, entitled “Is Vedanta the Future Religion”, he confided: “You are the Personal God. Just now I am worshipping you (in speaking). This is the greatest prayer.”
That man-making was his religion
What does he mean by a man? A human being, of course. “Great men,” Swamiji said, “are those who build bridges for others with their heart’s blood.” That was the austerity for this age, not so much the forest penances and meditations, but the building of character through karma yoga, is what is needed today. What India in particular now wanted was “muscles of iron and nerves of steel”, which nothing could resist, which could penetrate the mysteries of the universe, and accomplish their purpose in any fashion, even if meant going down to the bottom of the ocean and meeting death face to face. Quoting or paraphrasing some verse of poetry he said, “We shall crush the stars to atoms and unhinge the universe. Don’t you know who we are? We are the servants of Sri Ramakrishna!” One can sometimes feel that Swamiji’s God was Man; “Read Man,” he said, “he is the living poem.” It is not humanism.
It has a much larger definition.
Worship the Terrible
This, in a way, is the most “personal” of these distinctive accents in the message of Vivekananda. He used to say, when speaking of Kali, that She, whom at first he could not accept, had become the Power that now moved him. “Two or three days before Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away She whom he used to call ‘Kali’ entered this body. It is She who takes me here and there and makes me work… I feel that that Power is constantly directing me.” Aside from being personal to him, how is it an injunction for all of us? “Each is responsible for the evil anywhere in the world.” No one can really “shut the door where evil dwells”; everyone has to face, eventually, that Being whose hands hold good and bad, sweetness and terror. She, the even-handed Mother, was the chosen Ideal of Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekananda had to make out the significance of it and carry this to the world. “Worship the Terrible,” meant for him and us, no fear even of death; to see in the world of today the tremendous play of energy, showing its splendors in every way, understanding it as the Power of Brahman Itself.