FUNDAMENTALISM IS BECOMING one of the most dangerous forces adversely affecting humanity. It went unheeded for centuries and was thought of as a passing phase or as something indulged in by the uneducated. Swami Vivekananda predicted that fundamentalism would hinder human progress and therefore preached against it. Fundamentalism is a strict maintenance of an ancient or fundamental doctrine of any religion or ideology. The fundamentalist lives by his or her faith and takes that little world as the whole, unquestioningly. Fundamentalism, taken to the extreme, rejects other faiths and is marked by intolerance, violence, and manipulation. Reflecting on its negative impact on civilization Swamiji says: ‘Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.’1
The political scientist Samuel P Huntington observed in 1996 that religious intolerance of any kind was the reason for the frequent clashes between religionists in many parts of the world. Such clashes are likely to be the dominant feature of the world in the future.2 Some two years after this prophecy Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics, argued at Oxford University that the human inability to place reason before identity was the cause for the clash among people of different religions. He later elaborated his thesis in Identity and Violence.3 The roots of violence in our times lie, he pointed out, in our misplaced sense of identity, and our deliverance lies in our freedom to think and to place reason before identity. In the context of Huntington’s foreboding words and Sen’s thesis, my humble opinion is that Swamiji went into the heart of things, anticipating all theories and research, more than a hundred years ago. He resolved several problems by showing the higher nature of humankind—the individual self is a part of the universal Self. This truth solves the question of identity and thereby resolves conflicts. He also showed that religion is based on experience and reason.
It is only by accepting and believing that there is a real and universal entity in us that we truly develop as human beings. This thesis was systematically developed by Swamiji in his ‘Paper on Hinduism’, read at the World’s Parliament of Religions on 19 September 1893. By way of explaining the religious ideas of the Hindus, Swamiji declared to humanity its spiritual consciousness—a major object of his mission to the US. He taught how best we can bring about our highest development by orienting religion on reason and science.
Hinduism, he acknowledged, is divided into divergent sects, and the natural question that derives from this fact is if the diverging radii have any point of convergence. In other words: is there any great central truth to which all the Hindus agree? In answering this question Swamiji turned to the teachings of the Vedas, which are the accumulated spiritual laws discovered by the rishis through deep meditation. One of their discoveries, startling and scientific, was that creation has no beginning and no end, and that there never was a time when there was no creation. The whole process is cyclic—expanding and contracting, potential and kinetic. Like a mighty tree that grows from a seed and goes back into being a seed, so does creation evolve and involve constantly. Thus he says: ‘There never was a time when there was no creation.’4 If the Creator is eternal, so is creation. Some scientific creation theories of today are in agreement with Swamiji’s thoughts on creation.
Just as the Vedas teach that creation and the Creator are eternal, they also logically go further and teach that the individual soul is the manifestation of the universal Soul, God. The soul is without beginning and end, and all humans in their essential nature are eternal. Bodies die, but not souls. In truth, bodies come and go according to the laws of nature, but the soul is beyond nature because it is part of the universal Soul, which is deathless and infinite. The Bhagavadgita says: ‘As after rejecting worn-out clothes a man takes up other new ones, likewise, after rejecting worn-out bodies the embodied one unites with other new ones. Weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it, water does not moisten it, and air does not dry it.’5 Thus, death means merely a change of centre from one body to another. All Hindus, of whatever sect, agree on the doctrine of eternality. And the next thing on which they all agree is reincarnation.
Humans have demonized death as the end of everything, but in reality there is no absolute death. Death is only one of nature’s laws of transformation. If death is looked at from the standpoint of the soul, then it is only a transition from one dwelling to another. The materials from one body find their way, even after thousands of years, into other bodies. All bodies are built according to the laws of genetics and hereditary transmission and inherit certain qualities and characteristics according to the species.
Another point that all Hindus agree upon is the law of karma. The vast difference between the characters of people is due to the law of karma, which is set in motion by the soul. Karma results again in karma and is carried onwards by the soul to another body, into which it re-embodies. This goes on till the soul learns from its mistakes and comes out of nature. Swamiji says: ‘A soul with a certain tendency would by the laws of affinity take birth in a body which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency.’6
If past lives have an impact upon the present life, why does a person not remember anything ? Swamiji answers: ‘Consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean, and within its depths are stored up all our experiences’ (1.9). If we can struggle with appropriate efforts, it is possible to bring them out and be conscious of them all. ‘Verification is the perfect proof of a theory, and here is the challenge thrown to the world by the Rishis. We have discovered that secret by which the very depths of the ocean of memory can be stirred up—try it and you would get a complete reminiscence of your past life’ (ibid).
If by the law of karma or causation the soul must go on evolving from birth to birth, is there then no escape or hope to be free from the seemingly endless cycle of causation? Swamiji teaches that the soul is, in essence, ever free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow it finds itself tied down to matter and thinks of itself as matter. Being overtaken by maya it takes the reality it experiences as the ultimate Reality. Thus the perfect comes to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter. It is here that Swamiji exhorted souls to throw off this delusion with his stirring words: ‘Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter’ (1.11). This is Swamiji’s greatest contribution to humanity: to tell us that we are essentially divine and that the laws of karma can be broken.
Another contribution of Swamiji is to show that the universal Self is not only transcendental but also immanent. In fact, all through his teachings he stresses the immanent aspect of God. He says: ‘He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful’ (ibid.). A person can realize God through purity and unconditional love, and that life should be lived unattached ‘like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water’ (1.12). Swamiji constantly reminds us that the goal of human life is to realize God.
Result of the Thesis
Swamiji’s thesis results primarily in the idea that all life is holy and divine. ‘Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth—sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature’ (1.11). Almost all religions teach, in some form or the other, that souls are ‘children of God’, but they immediately contradict themselves by insisting that people are sinners. Secondly, only those who believe in their doctrines can be saved and not others. The first proposition, so noble, is vitiated by the second parochial attitude, which destroys everything that could have become a platform for unprecedented human development. Swamiji’s thesis opened up this second factor and stated that all life and beings are ‘children of God’, and by nature souls are sinless. For centuries different religions have been fighting among themselves and retarding their development. In this age people laugh when ancient religions want to become exclusive and exclude others.
Swamiji’s teachings have resulted in the bringing together of various religions into a common dialogue; they are learning that at the basic level all religions speak the same language and that the encrustation on the surface is due to human folly and selfishness. Interfaith conferences and dialogues are slowly peeling away the encrustations to reveal the truth. This is a great age of religions discovering themselves through other religions.
Throughout his ‘Paper on Hinduism’, Swamiji consistently pointed out that science and religion were not antagonistic to each other. Both were striving for the same goal: unity. Religion was seeking unity on the spiritual plane; science was searching unity on the material plane. Both the searches ultimately hinge on unity. One day religion and science will combine into a beautiful harmony. Swamiji says: ‘Science is nothing but the fi nding of unity. As soon as science would reach perfect unity, it would stop from further progress, because it would reach the goal’ (1.14). What Swamiji means by the stopping of science is that it will be indistinguishable from the higher unity of religion—physics would merge into metaphysics. As science searches for unity in the external world and religion seeks unity in the internal world, ultimately both will meet, for the distinctions between external and internal will vanish. Scientifi c and religious unities will merge in the greater unity, which is God.
Once people can understand this basic doctrine of the soul and God, there will come a new age of reconciliation of peoples, of cultures. People will believe in the unity of humankind and not indulge in the petty wars that Samuel Huntington predicted. The problem of defective religious identity, pointed out by Amartya Sen, will also vanish. Societies and cultures will harness their energies in building better societies and cultures, based on the idea of universality. Universality will be the watch-word of all progress in the future, because the soul by its nature is universal. Humans will conform their existence to this deepest Truth, which will be a mighty step towards manifesting the inherent Divinity.
One of the main points in Swamiji’s thesis is the emphasis on the individual. All dependence on external things is secondary; the primary dependence is on oneself. All the powers that can lead to perfection are within each soul; it only has to manifest those powers. Th e next point Swamiji emphasized is that the grand function of every religion, not just of Hinduism, was to evolve a God out of the material human. God is present in every religion, and the more a religion seeks to evolve a God out of the material human, the more it fulfi ls itself as a religion. It is in such a spirit that he quoted this Gita verse: ‘I am in every religion as a thread through a string of pearls. Wherever, thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know that I am there’ (1.18).
In presenting the essentials of Hinduism Swamiji gave to humanity a larger and newer concept of humankind, society, world, and religion. Swamiji’s proclamation before the world that Divinity is one’s real nature gives humankind the philosophy and the aspiration towards fulfilling that goal. It also makes us see our fellow human beings in the best light possible. All the different concepts of humans such as fighting, quarrelling, evil, and so on are merely surface views. Even evil people believed in this surface reality. Through the idea of the inner Divinity in all we can look at humans differently, we can remove our limitation by becoming our real Self.
Swamiji’s fervent prayer on the platform of the World’s Parliament of Religions is meant for humanity: ‘I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal’ (1.4).
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha January 2013)
1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.4.
2. See Samuel P Huntington, Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
3. Dr Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence (London: Allen Lane, 2006).
4.Complete Works, 1 . 7.
5. Bhagavadgita, 2.22–3.
6.Complete Works, 1.8–9.