VEDANTA HAS BECOME particularly relevant to humankind in this period of significant transition from being local to being global. We may be too close to the transition to grasp its full signifi cance, but what is quite clear now is that we are in the throes of a major movement that is leading us to a global society. Whether it is in the field of politics, economics, communications, or culture, a powerful new globalism is fast developing. Even in science, with the impact of post-Einsteinian physics, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, many other conceptual revolutions, and the discovery of the boson particle, the old classical structures have begun to crumble, solid matter dissolves into probability waves, and the new physics seems to be approaching the mystic vision of which seers and sages of all traditions have spoken about.
Human consciousness is reflecting its evolutionary situation, and we could say that at this crucial transition humankind is searching for a new philosophy, a new paradigm, that replaces the old. It is no coincidence that this is happening at a juncture when humanity is in peril—not from other species, not from outer space, but from itself. There has been a tragic divergence between knowledge and wisdom, and from deep within the human psyche there has developed a terrible poison that threatens not only our own generation but future ones, and not only humans but all life on earth.
Ancient myths often illuminate the human predicament. There is the powerful Puranic myth of samudramanthana, the churning of the milk-ocean, which speaks to us across millennia and symbolizes the long and tortuous evolution of consciousness on planet earth. In this story devas and asuras—the bright and the dark forces—collaborated in churning the ocean to bring out the jar of amrita, ambrosia. Many other gifts came out from this churning, which were shared among both the groups. But at one point a terrible poison emerged that threatened the entire cosmos. Devas and asuras fled in terror. Th en the great god Shiva, who is far above the duality and materialism of devas and asuras appeared, drank the poison, and integrated it into his own being. Only then could the churning resume. This myth vividly illustrates the present-day human predicament. Prolonged churning has given humans break- throughs and numerous gifts to medicine, communications, agriculture, electronics, space travel, cybernetics, wealth, and prosperity. And yet surely the poison is also upon us. Billions are spent every day on the manufacture of monstrous weapons with unprecedented power of destruction.
It is in this chilling context that the necessity for an alternative philosophy of life becomes important. Because of the universal values that it enshrines, Vedanta represents precisely such an integrated and universal system. Based upon the collective wisdom of generations of seers, sages, and scriptures, it stands as a testimony to the magnificent spiritual endeavour and achievement of ancient India. This vast corpus of wisdom provides insights that can be of crucial value for the survival of the human race in this nuclear age. While the field is extremely broad and rich, I have abstracted six major principles of Vedanta that can collectively provide the framework for the emerging global consciousness on our planet.
Six Principles of Vedanta
The first and most basic concept is that of the transcendental yet all-pervading Brahman: ‘ Isha vasyam idam sarvam yat kincha jagatyam jagat; all this—whatsoever moves on the earth—should be covered by the Lord.’1 And not just earth but all of creation. This tiny solar system along with billions of galaxies in the universe is permeated by the same divine power of the Lord. All that has been, is and will be manifest, is a reflection of Brahman. In a way this concept has similarities with the discoveries of modern science. Previously, in the classical Cartesian-New-tonian period, there was an incurable dichotomy between matter and energy. But after Einstein there is the understanding that whatever exists is really a manifestation of the same energy, although it may appear as matter—as a particle or as a wave. Therefore, the unified field towards which the scientists are proceeding has its spiritual counterpart in the concept of the all-pervading Brahman of the Upanishads. This is the first important concept of the Vedantic knowledge.
The second is that Brahman, superimposed by the ignorance of an individual appears as the Atman. The Atman is, so to say, the reflection of this all-pervading Brahman in the individual consciousness. The Atman is not separate from Brahman, it is identical to Brahman. One of the examples given in the Upanishads is that when a great fire is lighted, millions of sparks fly up out of the fi re and then fall back into it; equally, from Brahman arise all these millions of individual selves and into Brahman again they all ultimately merge.2‘ Sarvabhutanam hriddeshe’rjuna tishthati; O Arjuna, God resides in the region of the heart of all creatures.’3 This second great insight of the Upanishads, the relationship between the Atman and Brahman, is the keynote upon which the entire Vedantic teachings revolve.
The third point of relevance comes from yoga, which is widely known around the world but its deeper signifi cance is seldom realized. The word ‘yoga’ comes from the same Sanskrit root as does the English word ‘yoke’, and implies joining the indwelling Atman with the all-pervading Brahman. In the Hindu tradition there are four main paths of yoga.
(i) Jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom, involving intellectual discernment between the real and the unreal, which leads to spiritual illumination. In the Western tradition this could perhaps be likened to Plato’s philosophy, the contemplation upon the eternal truths that lie behind their material manifestation.
(ii) Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, is an outpouring of love and devotion to a personalized manifestation of the divine. While jnana yoga does not need to focus upon any divine form, bhakti yoga prescribes a divine form upon which one’s devotion is to be focused. The Hindu pantheon has a rich spectrum of divine manifestations, predominant among whom are Shiva, Vishnu—including his two incarnations as Rama and Krishna—and the various goddesses in many diff erent forms. In the Buddhist traditions there is adoration of Buddha or the bodhisattvas. In the Western tradition there is the adoration of Jesus Christ. Even in Islam there is a strong devotional dimension among the Sufis, such as the mystic Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.
(iii) Karma yoga, the yoga of work, is the dedication of actions and their fruits to the divine by removing the idea of ‘self ’. Karma yoga includes all works in the fi eld of health, education, environment, philanthropy, and so forth. According to the Hindu belief, if all such actions are performed with a spirit of inner devotion and dedication to the Divine, they can become a powerful means of spiritual liberation. This is stressed particularly in the Bhagavadgita.
(iv) Raja yoga, the yoga of concentration, includes many psycho-spiritual disciplines like pranayama, control of the prana, vital breath, and various asanas, postures. According to the Hindu tradition, especially the yoga-tantra tradition, the human body contains hidden forces and spiritual powers known as the kundalini, believed to lie coiled at the base of the spine. This yoga teaches meditation with the purpose of releasing the kundalini, which when awakened moves up from the base through the spine, energizing various chakras on the way, until it finally explodes into the thousand petalled lotus located in the brain and brings about a transmutation of consciousness. It is important to stress that all the paths of yoga are directed towards bringing about a union between the inner Divinity and the supreme Divine while living, not at some stage or place after death.
The fourth relevant principle of Vedanta is that all human beings, because of their shared spirituality, are members of a single extended family. Th e Upanishads have a beautiful expression for all living beings, and even the gods: amritasya putrah, children of immortality.4 We carry within us the light and the power of Brahman, regardless of our race, colour, creed, sex, or any other difference. That is the basis of the concept of human beings as an extended family: vasudhaiva kutumbakam. Notions of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ are narrow views of reality. For those of the greater consciousness, the entire world is a family.5 This is another great insight of the Upanishads, particularly relevant at this juncture in human history when technology is making possible the coming of a global society. Indeed if this global society is to choose a motto it can only be: vasudhaiva kutumbakam.
We come now to the fifth major Vedantic concept, the essential unity of all religions, of all spiritual paths, as the Rig Veda declares: ‘Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti; truth is one, the sages call it by many names.’6 The Mundaka Upanishad has a beautiful verse mentioning streams and rivulets that arise in diff erent parts of the world but ultimately flow into the same ocean.⁷ Similarly all these creeds and religious formulations arise in different times and places, ultimately reaching the same goal. Here is a philosophy that cuts across the barriers of hatred and fanaticism that have been built in the name of religion.
Vedanta is a universal religion; it accepts the infinite possibilities of going towards the Divine and does not seek to limit or confine us to any particular formulation. Vedanta not only accepts but welcomes a multiplicity of paths to the Divine. It is like climbing a mountain that has several starting points; in the beginning we may remain miles apart, but as we start to climb and move upwards our paths begin to converge, and ultimately when we reach the top we all meet there, because there is only one summit. Similarly, once we really start moving upwards in the field of spiritual endeavour, we find our denominational and intellectual differences gradually losing their importance, and as we rise to the summit we realize the spiritual oneness of humanity.
I would like here to make a special reference to the interfaith movement, which can be said to have begun with the World’s Parliament of Religions held in 1893. It was Swami Vivekananda who in his inaugural and other addresses at this parliament instilled the idea of religious plurality, which is a byword today. In the twentieth century a large number of interfaith organizations have come into being, including the Temple of Understanding, of which I happen to be the Chairperson. There were also a number of significant interfaith gatherings around the world, including the Second World Conference in Chicago, in 1993, the third conference in Cape Town, in 1999, and the unique Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which was held under the auspices of the United Nations in 2000. The entire movement is directed towards bringing harmony and understanding between the many religions of the world. The unfortunate history of inter-religious conflict must ultimately give way to an atmosphere of harmony; otherwise, if religious conflicts continue to rage in this era of high technology, only disaster will result. Hinduism is particularly open to this movement because of its acceptance of multiple paths to the Divine.
The sixth Vedantic concept is that of the welfare of all beings: ‘Bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya; for the welfare of all, for the happiness of all.’8 Vedanta seeks the welfare of all creation, not only of human beings but also of the lower creatures. In our arrogance and ignorance we are destroying the environment that sustains us. We have polluted the oceans and made the air unbreathable, we have desecrated nature and decimated wildlife. The Vedantic seers knew that humans are not something apart from nature and, therefore, they had compassion for all living beings. Th e famous ‘Bhumi Suktam’, Hymn to the Earth, in the Atharva Veda presents in its sixty-three verses probably the most comprehensive formulation of environmental values.9 War, of course, is the worst pollutant, and the only way to protect our environment is to strengthen the foundations of peace in the hearts of human beings.
Vedanta constantly exhorts us to work for our own salvation and shun the path of violence and hatred. We must strive for the welfare of society and for the uplift of the materially needy and the spiritually poor. We must seek to develop both elements of our psyche: the inner and the outer, the quietist and the activist. Indeed, these are two sides of the same coin, so that while working out our own destiny we have also to work for the welfare of all beings. Vedanta is not, as some believe, a selfi sh creed; rather, it places human consciousness in the broader context of evolution.
These six concepts of the Vedanta—the all-pervasive Brahman, the Atman that resides in all beings, the four paths of yoga, the concept of the human race as members of an extended family, the idea that all religions are essentially different paths to the same goal, and the concept that we must work for the welfare of society as a whole and not only for ourselves—when taken together provide us with a comprehensive world view. This Vedantic world view will greatly help in the process of globalization upon which we have embarked. Each one of these concepts can be elaborated at length, but in this presentation I have simply given an outline of some of the main principles of Vedanta, which have universal validity.
We can survive and flourish as a global civilization only if we have an ideology alternative to the one that has led humankind to its present dilemma, and if we boldly act in harmony with this new ideolog y. Even at this late hour we can imbibe some of Vedanta’s universal truths, contributing thus to reverse the mad rush towards destruction. The time has come to begin with the long, slow climb back to sanity. Let me close, then, with an immortal Vedic prayer: ‘Asato ma sad gamaya, tamaso ma jyotir gamaya, mrityor ma amritam gamaya: lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.’10
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha January 2013)
1. Isha Upanishad, 1.
2. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 2.1.20.
3. Bhagavadgita, 18.61.
4. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 2.5.
5. See Maha Upanishad, 6.72; Hitopadesha, 1.3.71; and Panchatantra, 5.3.37.
6. Rig Veda, 1.164.46.
7. See Mundaka Upanishad, 3 . 2 . 7.
8. Vinaya Mahavagga, 1 .7-20.
9. Atharva Veda, 12.1.1–63.
10. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.3.28.