ACCORDING TO TRADITION, when Sri Ramakrishna incarnated he brought along Swami Vivekananda from the saptarshi mandal, abode of the seven great sages. At another time Sri Ramakrishna also said Swamiji was the ancient sage Nara, of the holy duo Nara-Narayana, and that he had come to the earth as a world teacher. Interestingly, the Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda duo is the first in the spiritual history of the world to be independently famous for preaching spirituality. Never before had the world seen an avatara engage his disciple actively in preaching so extensively. This makes one wonder why did an avatara need extra hands to complete the task for which he himself had descended?
One answer to this question is when God incarnates, he is always accompanied by his chosen ones. A second answer is the need of the age was truly acute, and continues to be so, requiring sustained effort for a long period, at various levels, and in various settings. To accomplish this, a great sage had to come to complete the work started by an avatara himself.
There are reasons to believe this. To mention one, we find that Swamiji, after Sri Ramakrishna’s mahasamadhi, faced years of struggle, travelling throughout the country on foot, witnessing and experiencing India’s suffering before feeling ready to deliver his message to India and the world. It appears strange that Swamiji had to undergo all this even after he experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, and had the knowledge of the oneness of jiva and Brahman. There has to be more to him than what meets the eye.
The purpose of an avatara’s advent is to help humanity realize its divine nature. But depending on the evolutionary stage of society, every avatara has to address issues differently. When an avatara arrives, he or she sets in motion a massive upheaval of a subtle creation-destruction-creation cycle, which burns the dross in the cosmic mind, nourishes new ideas, and drives both physical and mental transformation in society. In turn, the entire universe—animate and inanimate—is pushed towards a new kind of unification, harmony, and synthesis.
Hence, we can never fully fathom or quantify the contributions made by an avatara. Nor can we fix the limits of the place and time for an avatara’s influence. Here lies the difference between an ordinary teacher of spirituality and an avatara. The contribution made by the former is necessarily limited by time-space-causation, while the contributions of an avatara are far-reaching.
Swamiji was a prophet, and like every other prophet, his influence was far-reaching. Different minds could perceive the teachings and contributions of Swamiji from different perspectives, and yet, all of these interpretations could prove to be equally correct, even at times when they seem contradictory.
Although Swamiji’s fundamental teaching was centred on the divine oneness of existence, the conflicts faced by humans at the time demanded that spiritual truth be explored with vigour and revealed in a fresh perspective.
He brought all these issues together and started a new kind of spiritual conflagration with the idea of Virat worship. Essentially, it means treating the world with the attitude of worship or seeing God in all aspects of the world. The word Virat means something infinitely large. When applied in the field of sadhana, it becomes the yoga of Virat worship, which is Swamiji’s special contribution for this age. In Vedanta, the gross form of Brahman or the cosmic person is called Virat, the subtle aspect of the same reality is called Hiranyagarbha, and its causal aspect is Ishvara.
This message of seeing all of creation through the eyes of a worshipper had a deep impression on the respected historian Will Durant. In his monumental work The Story of Civilization in the volume entitled ‘Our Oriental Heritage’ he begins the section with a quotation from Swamiji: ‘After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth—God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. “Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed.”’1
Issues that Needed Resolution
During his wanderings through the country, Swamiji had many divine visions and intuitive experiences that guided him towards his future mission and message. For example: ‘Once he had a strange vision. He saw an old man standing on the banks of the Indus, and chanting Vedic hymns, in a way distinctly different from that which is normal in modern times.’2 Swamiji believed that ‘through this vision he had recovered the musical cadences of the early Aryans’ (ibid.). At Dwaraka, Gujarat, amidst the silent ruins of that great ancient city of the Yadavas, ‘he saw a great light—the resplendent Future of India’ (1.298). In Almora, on the banks of the Kosi at a place called Kakrighat he said: ‘Here under this peepul tree one of the greatest problems of my life has been solved: I have found the oneness of the macrocosm with the microcosm. In this microcosm of the body everything that is there (in the macrocosm), exists. I have seen the whole universe within an atom’ (1.250). His plans started unfolding at Kanyakumari, where, on the last bit of rock away from the mainland, he meditated on India—her past glory, downfall, and future rise. Swamiji’s real insights into envisioning a futurefor India and delivering the right message to the world, started coming to him only in the US. This has been well-documented in Marie Louise Burke’s monumental work Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries.
In his travels throughout the length and breadth of India, Swamiji witnessed heartbreaking poverty juxtaposed with immense opulence, sublime spirituality as well as sheer charlatanism, illiteracy and scholarship, glory and decadence. The West exposed him to the conflicts between science and religion, rationalism and faith, worldliness and spiritual urgings, God’s will and self-reliance, exploitation and helplessness.
Swamiji needed to resolve all these conflicts and contradictions by delineating a new religion, or at least by chalking out a new spiritual outlook that could be presented as a short formula, easy to understand and practical in its application.
Unlike a common saint, Swamiji was not to depend on divine intervention to set things right. After all, he was the divine intervention! He was now armed with the knowledge of the world, its civilizations, history, sciences, sociolog y, environments, economics, and particularly the mental make-up of humanity. He also had the knowledge of the ultimate spiritual Truth with which to work out the solution. However, the solution did not come to him in a flash; it evolved gradually, much in the same way that all solutions belonging to the world of maya eventually come to everyone. He took up ideas, held on to some, discarded many, searched for and evaluated new ones till finally his message was ready—the yoga of Virat worship. He said: ‘The first of all worship is the worship of the Virat—of those all around us. …And the first gods we have to worship are our countrymen. These we have to worship, instead of being jealous of each other and fighting each other’ (2.208).
This yoga aimed to address the needs of the individual as well as the collective; it was meant to be as relevant for India as for the rest of the world. It was as germane and contemporary then as it is now. Yoga of Virat worship combined karma, bhakti, and jnana yogas in one practical application. Swamiji envisioned it as the universal religion of the future.
Swamiji on Virat Worship
Before Swamiji could preach his message to the world, he had to take on the issues plaguing India. After all, who would listen to the person whose own house is in shambles? So he started toying with the idea of a new kind of religion that would keep the spiritual message of the Vedas intact, but would differ in its application. He is quoted to have said in Memphis: ‘I believe that the Hindoo faith has developed the spiritual in its devotees at the expense of the material, and I think that in the Western world the contrary is true. By uniting the materialism of the West with the spiritualism of the East I believe much can be accomplished.’3
Combining the two forces of spirituality and materialism was not new to India. Since time immemorial, Hinduism had preached dharma, artha, kama, and moksha as the four goals of human life. However, Swamiji’s innovative approach to harness the synergies arising out of the pursuit of the four goals was indeed unique.
To make it clear that he wanted a new way of life for all, Swamiji wrote: ‘From the very date that he was born, has sprung the Satya-Yuga (Golden Age). Henceforth there is an end to all sorts of distinctions, and everyone down to the Chandala will be a sharer in the Divine Love. The distinction between man and woman, between the rich and the poor, the literate and illiterate, Brahmins and Chandalas—he lived to root out all. And he was the harbinger of Peace—the separation between Hindus and Mohammedans, between Hindus and Christians, all are now things of the past. That fight about distinctions that there was, belonged to another era. In this Satya-Yuga the tidal wave of Shri Ramakrishna’s Love has unified all.’4 The beginning of the Satya Yuga demanded a new religion that would be characterized by equality, compassion, and wisdom. He says: ‘I believe that the Satya Yuga (Golden Age) will come when there will be one caste, one Veda, and peace and harmony’ (5.31). Swamiji’s worship of the Virat offered all this.
Swamiji continued to talk about this new religion till his last day. He wrote about it, convinced others, elaborated upon it, and emphasized its importance. ‘If you want any good to come, just throw your ceremonials overboard and worship the Living God, the Man-God—every being that wears a human form—God in His universal form as well as individual aspect. The universal aspect of God means this world, and worshipping it means serving it—this indeed is work, not indulging in ceremonials’ (6.264). He asked his brother disciples to spread these ideas like fire and preach this worship of the Virat, a form of worship that was never undertaken in the country. In one of his stirring letters to his brother disciples he writes: ‘Onward! Great Lord! … I feel as if somebody is moving my hand to write in this way. Onward! Great Lord! Everyone will be swept away! Take care, he is coming! Whoever will be ready to serve him—no, not him but his children—the poor and the downtrodden, the sinful and the afflicted, down to the very worm—who will be ready to serve these, in them he will manifest himself ’ (6.295).
‘Another truth I have realised is that altruistic service only is religion, the rest, such as ceremonial observances, are madness—even it is wrong to hanker after one’s own salvation. Liberation is only for him who gives up everything for others, whereas others who tax their brains day and night harping on “my salvation”, “my salvation”, wander about with their true well-being ruined, both present and prospective; and this I have seen many a time with my own eyes’ (6.395). His idea of Virat worship finally distilled into one single message for India and the world.
Unifying All Streams of Worship
There are many schools in Vedanta, but all of them can be placed upon the scales of jnana and bhakti. Pure Advaita implies giving up bhakti altogether, and pure Dvaita implies giving up jnana altogether; the remaining schools can be placed somewhere between the two. Jnana means seeing only the Atman everywhere, and para, higher, bhakti means seeing God everywhere. In either case, the petty self, or the ego, is left out. Therefore, pure jnana and pure bhakti is essentially one and the same: to love is to know, and to know is to love.
The twin ideas of oneness and worship, in the words of Swamiji, are the twin faces of jnana-bhakti of Vedanta. A jnani sees the world as having come out of himself: ‘ Mattah sarvam pravartate; owing to me everything moves.’5 A bhakta sees the world and all that is in it as the palpable manifestation of God. Thus, it is in this yoga of Virat worship, one finds the great unification of jnana and bhakti.
Hinduism does not accept any statement as valid unless it passes the triple test of shruti-yukti-anubhuti, scriptures-reason-experience. This means that for a principle to be valid it must have scriptural support, it must be logical, and it must be verifiable. There is no place for sensationalism in sadhana; all through it is a disciplined search. When Swamiji talked about this path of worship, was he revealing something entirely new ? If yes, then it would not be totally acceptable; and if no, then why give Swamiji the credit?
What Swamiji was talking about was not entirely new for India. A popular Vedic mantra reads: ‘Tvam stri tvam pumanasi tvam kumara uta va kumari; you are the woman, you are the man, you are the boy, and you are the girl.’6 The Bhagavadgita also says: ‘Ekatvena prithaktvena bahudha vishvatomukham; others worship me (God) multifariously, and other beings as the manifold existence.’7 This cosmic Being ‘has thousands of heads and eyes everywhere’.8 In the Bhagavata we read: ‘So overcoming the separativeness of a self-centred life, one should serve all beings with gifts, honour and love, recognizing that such service is really being rendered to me (God) who resides in all beings as their innermost Self.’9 There are thousands of such teachings in the Vedas and the Puranas.
Sri Ramakrishna once had a unique vision of which he spoke: ‘One day I was about to gather some flowers. They were everywhere on the trees. At once I had a vision of Virat; it appeared that His worship was just over. The flowers looked like a bouquet placed on the head of the Deity. I could not pluck them.’10
There are many popular scriptural verses suggesting that every thought, word, and deed of an aspirant should be an offering to the Divine. This idea, though often quoted, is rarely seen to be practised. An overload of religion, scriptures, and sacred sayings seem to have desensitized the common religious person. One repeats what he or she has imbibed without any meaning, and without caring to practise it.
Swamiji changed it all. The significant difference between the earlier traditions and Swamiji’s approach lies in its emphasis and originality of perspective. The earlier mentions of Virat were casual corollaries of the divine oneness, while in the case of Swamiji’s message, it is an indisputable central reality. Also, given the condition that India was in at the time, a subjugated nation of poor and ignorant people, viewing the country as an object of worship was pertinent and effective as well as startling.
A New Religion
One major difference between Vedanta and other religions lies in the approach to the ‘path’ and the ‘goal’. Vedanta treats the path and the goal as one and the same, while other religions treat them as distinct entities. Thus faithful people may treat devotion as a means to an end; they may believe that it will bring them more worldly success, fame, or earn them a place in heaven after death—such individuals are not practising Vedanta. For a true Vedantin one must learn to practise what he or she wants to achieve; for the cause and the effect are same. Seeing God everywhere is both the path and the goal and it is to be attained here and now.
Swamiji preached the yoga of Virat worship as the Vedantic approach. Seeing the Divine everywhere leads to the realization of the Divine everywhere.
Why did Swamiji speak of India as the object of worship, rather than all of humanity or even the universe? The answer probably lies in his pragmatic approach to all issues he addressed. He understood that while a highly evolved Vedantin would be able to see divinity in the entire universe, an average practitioner could atleast find divinity in humanity or living creatures, but for the beginner something more concrete would be necessary. The people of India were at the time caught in the eye of the storm grappling with the dichotomy of its rich history, philosophy, and heritage, juxtaposed against imperial subjugation, poverty, and ignorance. To awaken the common Indian man and woman to the divinity inherent in the nation and her people could bring direction, purpose, and a new and keen sense of awareness to the countrymen. Swamiji understood that loving and caring for India never meant excluding others. It is rather a stepping stone to the general from the particular.
It is said that to achieve a spiritual goal, a seeker may take one of the two paths of sadhana: iti-iti, this-this; or neti-neti, not this – not this. It is interesting to note that most sadhanas are of the neti-neti type. This is true not just for sannyasins but involves every vow of abstinence in every religion be it chastity, austerity, frugality, or obedience. Nearly every path, including Yoga Philosophy’s ‘ yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodhah; yoga is controlling the mind-stuff from taking various forms ’,11 and the Isha Upanishad’s‘ ma grid hah; do not covet,’ delineate the neti-neti approach.
The uniqueness of the yoga of Virat worship is that it combines both the mature forms of iti-iti and neti-neti. Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘Once I sang for Nangta [Tota Puri] at the Panchavati:“To arms! To arms, O man! Death storms your house in battle array.” I sang another: “O Mother, I have no one else to blame: Alas! I sink in the well these very hands have dug.” Nangta, the Vedantist, was a man of profound knowledge. The song moved him to tears though he didn’t understand its meaning. Padmalochan also wept when I sang the songs of Ramprasad about the Divine Mother. And he was truly a great pundit’ (357). This shows that people with profound knowledge are always endowed with love and devotion.
This age needed a new religious mould, as it were, for jnana and bhakti to combine. This mould was the worship of the Virat as a means to replace antiquated idols, deities, gods, as well as the jnani’s dry attitude that all this is an illusion. We can assume the great jnani Tota Puri had to experience an aspect of this manifested Brahman to emphasize this new form of worship. While trying to cast off his body in the Ganga, as it had become a bother due to constant pain, a veil was suddenly pulled away from his mind to see the Divine Mother pervading all creation. Tota Puri waded back ashore; his knowledge perfected. This was the Vedanta preached by Swamiji. Swamiji’s new religion accepts all, discards nothing, encompasses everyone, and refuses entry to no one.
Scholars use the term upapatti to mean derived truths or corollaries. In Vedanta, upapatti plays an important role to indicate the practicability of a spiritual truth. If a truth does not have practical applications, it is of no use to anyone. For example, if someone comes up with the idea of a powerful but indifferent God, sitting high up in the clouds, then it has no utility for us, and we need not pay attention to or worship such a God. The sages spoke about upapatti whenever possible. Thus we find the Isha Upanishad beginning with:‘Isha-vasyam idam sarvam yatkin-cha jagatyam jagat; all this, whatever moves on the earth, should be covered by the Lord.’12 The upapatti of this mantra is mentioned in, ‘tato na vijugupsate; feels no hatred’ (6), and ‘tatra ko mohah kah shokam ekatvam-anupashyatah; what delusion and what sorrow can there be for the seer of oneness’(7).
The yoga of Virat worship is an upapatti of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings: ‘I perceived it was God alone who had become all living beings.’13 This again is similar to an Upanishadic mantra:‘Sarvam khalu-idam brahma; all this is Brahman .’14 The corollary of this is that one must see God everywhere with a worshipper’s eyes.
By specifically making India in particular and the world in general open to such a nature of the cosmos, Swamiji could touch the hearts of all people who were either religious, secular, nationalists, internationalists, unbelievers, environmentalists, learned, and the ignorant. Now there was no need to have different ideals for people of a different mindset, as long as the aspiring practitioner was willing to give up selfishness for the sake of higher things.Thus, Swamiji’s ideals of service, nationalism, and practical Vedanta are nothing but different aspects of this new religion.
The beauty of Swamiji’s new religion for this age, the yoga of Virat worship, lies both in its simplicity and its profundity. On the other hand, the result of this sadhana is as powerful as that declared by the highest Vedantic principles, taught for thousands of years in India.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)
1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), 405–6.
2. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 1.347.
3. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, 6 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 2.362.
4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.335.
5. Bhagavadgita, 10.8.
6. Shvet ashvatara Upanishad, 4.3.
7. Bhagavadgita, 9.15.
8. Taittiriya Aranyaka, ‘Purusha Sukta’, 1.
9. Bhagavata, 3.29.27.
10. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1996), 687–8.
11. Patanjali, Yoga Sutra, 1.2.
12. Isha Upanishad, 1.
13. Gospel, 357.
14. Chhandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.