WE AT THE MODERN AGE are too prone to modernise too much the message of Vivekananda as if he were a mere political leader. It is forgotten that his main strength lay in the depths of his soul. It was his soul force that sustained a life so rich in events and in external activities. There is hardly a life in which so much could be packed within its span so restricted. His life … is a priceless possession for India and Humanity.’1
Being a universal man, Vivekananda’s message too has to be universal. Its basic principles can be effectively applied to all walks of life, either to solve life’s problems or to enrich it. We may now make an attempt to study his message from various angles, secular and sacred.
Modern people have enormously increased the various comforts of living, to such an extent that they are now proving counterproductive! Tasty and attractive foods are ruining health, even causing new kinds of diseases. Various electronic gadgets, which have greatly reduced physical labour and mental strain, are contributing to the withering of the body’s natural capacities and faculties. Dreadful disport in the guise of entertainment is poisoning the minds of the younger generation. Crime, violence, smoking, drinking, and drugs are eating up a sizeable section of the population.
All this is because people, in their ignorance, have opted for a body-centred way of living, instead of a God-centred life. It is here that the philosophy of life as enunciated by Vivekananda comes to our rescue.
Vivekananda has given his philosophy succinctly in two places. At the beginning of his remarkable treatise Raja Yoga, he has given the following aphoristic maxims, which can be designated as the chatus-sutri, four aphorisms, of Neo-Vedanta:
(i) Each soul is potentially divine.
(ii) The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.
(iii) Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or by philosophy, by one, or more, or all of these—and be free!
(iv) This is the whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
In addition he has also given the motto of the Ramakrishna Order: ‘Atmano mokshartham jagad dhitaya cha; for the liberation of the soul and for the good of the world.’
These five principles condense the whole of Vivekananda’s philosophy. They are potentially capable of being expanded into full-fledged theories or even theses.
Science enunciates the basic tenets of a particular field of knowledge. Technology is its application in that field. If one takes philosophy as a basic science, religion is then its technoloy, its application in practice. Swamiji has given us a lot of material on religion. Some of it, relevant to our subject here, may be quoted.
‘Religion is the manifestation of the Divinity already in man.’2 This Divinity is God. Are there many religions in the world? Swamiji answers this question by quoting from the ‘Shiva mahimna Stotra’ (verse 7): ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee’ (1.4). He repeats the same idea in another place: ‘Religion is one, but its application must be various’ (6.82). ‘Application’ means sadhana or a mode of spiritual discipline. In another place he defines religion as ‘the realising of God’ (5. 417). Realization of God and manifestation of the Divinity, which is ‘already in man’, are two sides of the same coin. Incidentally, he deplores religious quarrels, which occur when purity and spirituality disappear (6.127).
What can religion do for us? It brings to us eternal life. Normally, we seek sense happiness. Religion helps us transcend this. Without religion’s saving touch, human society becomes a forest of brutes! (3.4).
The final stage of religion is realization of God. To reach this, one has to start with some preliminary steps. Swamiji declares devotion to God as the necessary first step: ‘The Chief thing is to want God. We want everything except God, because our ordinary wants are supplied by the external world; it is only when our necessities have gone beyond the external world that we want a supply from the internal, from God’ (4.19). If you really want God, that wish must express itself in several ways. So, says he: ‘Man must realise God, feel God, see God, talk of God. That is religion’ (4.165).
Religion in practice is spiritual life that finally leads to the realization of God. And meditation is the means. Swamiji avers: ‘The greatest help to spiritual life is meditation’ (2.37), especially when it becomes ‘like an unbroken stream of oil’ (7.253).
Granting that meditation is the means, the next question is meditation on what? In the Vedantic path of jnana, knowledge, it is on the Atman. Swamiji advises: ‘Think and meditate that you are the omnipresent Atman. “I am neither the body, nor the mind, nor the Buddhi (determining faculty), neither the gross nor the subtle body”—by the process of elimination, immerse your mind in the transcendent knowledge which is your real nature’ (7.196).
However, this is easier said than done. That is why the Upanishads and the Puranas have given us two aspects of Brahman, or God, for contemplation. They are the Saguna-Sakara aspect—with form and blessed attributes—and the Nirguna-Nirakara aspect—without form and attributes. To quote Swamiji:
There are two ideas of God in our scriptures—the one, the personal; and the other, the impersonal. The idea of the Personal God is that He is the omnipotent creator, preserver, and destroyer of everything, the eternal Father and Mother of the universe, but One who is eternally separate from us and from all souls; and liberation consists in coming near to Him and living in Him. Then there is the other idea of the Impersonal, where all those adjectives are taken away as superfluous, as illogical and there remains an impersonal, omnipresent Being who cannot be called a knowing being, because knowledge only belongs to the human mind. He cannot be called a thinking being, because that is the process of the weak only. He cannot be called a reasoning being, because reasoning is a sign of weakness. He cannot be called a creating being, because none creates except in bondage. What bondage has He? None works except for the fulfilment of desires; what desires has He? None works except it be to supply some wants; what wants has He? In the Vedas it is not the word ‘He’ that is used, but ‘It’, for ‘He’ would make an invidious distinction, as if God were a man (3.128–9).
Personal God, Easier to Access It is the personal God—God with a form, name, and attributes—that the human mind can easily grasp, that the human heart can easily find solace in. That is why Swamiji declares: ‘Brahman … is too much of an abstraction to be loved and worshipped; so the Bhakta chooses the relative aspect … that is Ishvara, the Supreme Ruler’ (3.37). Granting that the human psychology is such that we can conceive of God only in human form, Swamiji jokingly declares: ‘If buffaloes want to worship God, they will see him as a huge buffalo’ (4.30).
Can we see God as we are seeing the various objects of the world? Yes! So, Swamiji proclaims: ‘God can also be seen as a form, just as we are seen. … This is why Sri Ramakrishna constantly saw the Divine Mother ever present with him, more real than any other thing around him’ (7.58).
He also adduces the reason for this: ‘The personal God is the same Absolute looked at through the haze of Maya. When we approach Him with the five senses, we can see Him only as the Personal God’ (5.266).
To meditate upon God with form or even worshipping him in the mind is perfectly all right. But to worship him in images made out of stone or metal is certainly idolatry, is it not so? Swamiji answers to this objection effectively thus: ‘Two sorts of persons never require any image—the human animal who never thinks of any religion, and the perfected being who has passed through these stages. Between these two points all of us require some sort of ideal, outside and inside’ (4.45). If the image or the symbol can bring the living and conscious deity into our minds, so meditation on it can be practised; that is exactly what is really needed.
Swamiji sarcastically remarks that the strong attachment that people have for particular men and women, which does not leave them even when they die, is the real idolatry! Says he: ‘Is it not better to have a personal attachment to an image of Christ or Buddha than to an ordinary man or woman?’ (4.46).
Images are not normally worshipped anywhere and everywhere. They are ceremonially established and worshipped in temples or special places of worship. Actually, an entire set of scriptural works, known as the Agamas, has grown around this subject, including the science or art of making these images, called Murtishilpa Shastras. It is therefore natural for Swamiji to appreciate the spirit behind these temples housing such images. He clearly opines: ‘If you look at a temple, you are sure to find a Divine presence in and about it’ (5.422). Not only that, he even instructs his brother-disciples thus: ‘The Ramakrishna temple and prayer hall should be built together’ (2.205); ‘Within the temple there would be a figure of Sri Ramakrishna seated on the swan’ (7.205).
While accepting these temples and images, he does not forget the main purpose behind them all. So he proclaims: ‘All these forms and ceremonies, these prayers and pilgrimages, these books, bells, candles, and priests, are the preparations; they take off the impurities of the soul. And when the soul becomes pure, it naturally wants to get to the mine of purity, God Himself ’ (2.46).
Incidentally, following in the footsteps of Acharya Shankara (788–820 ce), Swamiji alludes to the three great gifts God has given to us: ‘Three great gifts we have: first, a human body. (The human mind is the nearest reflection of God, we are “His own image”.) Second, the desire to be free. Third, the help of a noble soul, who has crossed the ocean of delusion, as a teacher. When you have these three, bless the Lord; you are sure to be free’ (7.77).
The realization of the Divinity, whether as God or the Atman or Brahman, which is the goal of human life, can be attained, says Swamiji, by following any of the four well-known yogas, the paths to perfection. He makes it clear in one of his class-talks thus:
As every science has its methods, so has every religion. The methods of attaining the end of religion are called Yoga by us, and the different forms of Yoga that we teach, are adapted to the different natures and temperaments of men. We classify them the following way, under four heads:
(1) Karma-Yoga—The manner in which a man realises his own divinity through works and duty.
(2) Bhakti-Yoga—The realisation of the divinity through devotion to, and love of, a Personal God.
(3) Raja-Yoga—The realisation of the divinity through the control of mind.
(4) Jnana-Yoga—The realisation of a man’s own divinity through knowledge. These are all different paths leading to the same centre—God (5.292).
Ideas on Education
Before a person takes to the path of religion and spiritual life, his or her entire personality should have been properly prepared. Unless the ground is suitably readied, the seed cannot be sowed. And this can be done only by good education.
After declaring that education is the panacea for all our evils, Swamiji gives a fundamental definition of education as ‘the manifestation of the perfection already in man’ (4.358). ‘Perfection’ means the Atman, because that alone is perfect and not the body-mind complex, which is transitory. Since the ‘perfection’ is enclosed within the body-mind complex, equal attention should be paid for their proper harmonious development.
Here is Swamiji’s oft-quoted and famous statement: ‘What I want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, inside which dwells a mind of the same material as that of which the thunderbolt is made’ (5.117). In another place he says: ‘The brain and muscles must develop simultaneously.’ (6.460). And again he says: ‘The body is simply a means to an end, an instrument intended for the culture of the soul’ (3.78).
But the development of the body is not enough. That is why he stresses: ‘We must turn out the greatest intellects in India.’ 3 Again he declares: ‘You must have an all-sided intellect to do efficient work.’ 4 And finally the heart, the seat of all our emotions. Swamiji exhorts us: ‘Always cultivate the heart’ (1.415). Why? Because, ‘the pure heart is the best mirror for the reflection of the truth’ (1.414). So, according to Vivekananda, if the educational system gives proper training to all these three aspects of the personality and makes them work in perfect harmony, the human being will be a perfect specimen of God’s creation.
The next point to be considered is the content of education, what should be taught, what ideas should be given. It is our mind that collects facts and draws lessons from them. Hence, if the mind is taught the right technique of the art of concentration, then the task becomes much easier and efficient. That is what Swamiji asks us to do: ‘To me, the very essence of education is concentration of mind, not the collecting of facts. … I would develop the power of concentration and detachment, and then with a perfect instrument I could collect facts at will’ (6.38–9).
Once the equipment and the technique are ready, what is the content that education should give? The Mundaka Upanishad advises us that we should have secular knowledge, to earn our livelihood, and spiritual knowledge, to attain immortality.5 Now let us listen to Swamiji: ‘The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life, which does not bring out strength of character … and the courage of a lion—is it worth the name?’6 Again: ‘We need technical education and all else that may develop industries’ (5.368). But the poor have no time for education, since all their time is taken up by struggling for bread. So, Swamiji says: ‘If a ploughman’s boy cannot come to education, why not we meet him at the plough… just wherever he is?’ (8.88–9).
Some more ideas given by him may now be summarized as follows: Assimilation of a few right ideas to develop character; a training by which the will is brought under control; the old institution of living with the guru and similar systems are needed. Great stress is laid on women’s education and allowing them to solve their own problems. Swamiji dreamed: ‘We must have the whole education of our country, spiritual and secular, in our hands, and it must be on national lines, through national methods as far as practical’ (3.302).
On Nation Building
Swamiji was a great and true patriot. See what he says: ‘It makes me rather patriotic to think I am born a Hindu, a descendant of the only race that never went out to hurt anyone, and whose only action upon humanity has been giving and enlightening … but never robbing’ (9.255). On the other hand he cautioned that patriotism should not be ‘a mere sentiment or even emotion of love of the motherland but a passion to serve our fellow countrymen.’7
To make this service more comprehensive one must be prepared to learn from other countries as well. That is why he is obliged to declare: ‘With all my love for India, and with all my patriotism and veneration for the ancients, I cannot but think that we have to learn many things from other nations.’8 After learning from others, we must help ourselves. Says he: ‘Nations, like individuals, must help themselves. This is real patriotism’ (5.109).
If a sick person has to be treated by a doctor, three things have to be noted first: the basic constitution of the patient, what is now ailing him or her, and what is the remedy to be applied. Swamiji realized that India was sick and needed a drastic treatment. But, before prescribing it, he assiduously studied her strong points, so that the remedy could be tailored to suit her constitution. Each nation has a basic or foundational structure of its own values of life. The superstructure, to last long, has to be built on that foundation only. Swamiji had absolutely no doubt that religion was India’s basic structure. So he proclaims: ‘Here in India, it is religion that forms the very core of the national heart. It is the backbone, the bed-rock, the foundation upon which the national edifice has been built’ (3.204). Again in another place he declares: ‘This is the land of Religion Eternal’ (5.381). He even makes fun of the Hindus thus:‘The Hindu man drinks religiously, sleeps religiously, walks religiously, marries religiously, robs religiously!’ (8.74).
If that is so, when is it that India deteriorated so much in the moral and social field? This happened because India gave up the most essential aspect of religion, spiritual evolution, but paid great attention to the formal and external observances, often taking Indians to ridiculous levels. Apart from physical purity, Hindu scriptures also insist upon ceremonial purity in certain rituals. But if this is carried to extremes, it becomes ‘a form of mental disease!’ (6.320). That is why Swamiji laments: ‘Ours is only Don’t touchism, only “Touch me not”, “Touch me not”. Good heavens!’ (6.253).
Hindu scriptures advise us to honour the common masses, by giving food and other necessities of life, recognising that God lives in them.9 The Bhagavadgita (3.13) goes to the extent of declaring that a person who cooks only for himself, denying others, actually eats sin! But Hindu society not only neglected the masses, it positively exploited them. That is why Swamiji angrily remarks: ‘I consider that the great national sin is the neglect of the masses, and that is one of the causes of our downfall. No amount of politics would be of any avail until the masses in India are once more well educated, well fed, and well cared for.’10 Again he says: ‘If you grind down the people, you will suffer. We in India are suffering the vengeance of God’ (7.279).
Vivekananda has pointed out a few other factors responsible for our degeneration, like speaking and not doing things, lacking in the faculty of organization, forgetting to study our glorious past, tamasic attitude towards work, hating others, building walls of customs, jealousies, and preventing people from coming into contact with other countries.
For an individual, or for that matter a nation, to survive and thrive, six basic needs have to be satisfied. They are food, clothing, shelter, medical facilities, education, and employment opportunities. Or, to put it in one comprehensive term, materialism! That is why Swamiji emphatically declares: ‘Material civilisation, nay, even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in a God, who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven! Pooh! India has to be raised, the poor are to be fed, education is to be spread, and the evil of priestcraft is to be removed. No priestcraft, no social tyranny! More bread! More opportunity for everybody!’ (4.368).
But he does not forget where the shoe of materialism pinches! That is why he advises: ‘By uniting the materialism of the West with the spiritualism of East … much can be accomplished’ (7.284).
In India, religion had for a long time become static and hence it fell. To raise it again, all of us have to become dynamic, active. So says he: ‘You all set your shoulders to the wheel! … Your duty at present is to go from one part to another, from village to village, and make the people understand … their real condition and say, “O ye brothers, arise! Awake! How much longer would you remain asleep!” Go and advise them how to improve their own condition. … Also instruct them, in simple words, about the necessities of life, and in trade, commerce, agriculture, etc.’ (5.381). But in doing so, the place or role of religion, as spiritual evolution, should not be forgotten. So, according to him: ‘Religion, as it always has been in the past, must enter the palaces of kings as well as the homes of poorest peasants in the land. … Religion in India must be made as free and easy of access as is God’s air’ (3.383).
However, in the field of work some serious problems may arise, which can sour human relationships. Swamiji gives us a warning : ‘Take care of these two things—love of power and jealousy. Cultivate always “faith in yourself ”’ (5.52).
Even while advising us to keep in touch with the outside world and learn from others, Swamiji does not want us to give up svadharma, our own cherished values and duties of life. In other words, we just have to integrate those factors we ‘import’ from others with our own sociocultural body. See what he says in this regard: ‘We have to learn from others. You put the seed in the ground, and give it plenty of earth, and air, and water to feed upon; when the seed grows into the plant and into a gigantic tree, does it become the earth, does it become the air, or does it become water? It becomes the mighty plant, the mighty tree, after its own nature, having absorbed everything that was given to it. Let that be your position’ (3.381).
But then, who will rebuild India? He gives a clarion call to the youth of the country: ‘The hope lies in you—in the meek, the lowly but faithful’ (5.16). ‘A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising up—the gospel of equality’ (5.15).
Swamiji is sometimes ruthless while speaking out his heart’s feelings. If the new India has to arise now, the old generation has to disappear! This is the roar of the ‘Lion of Vedanta’:
You merge yourselves in the void and disappear, and let New India arise in your place. Let her arise—out of the peasant’s cottage, grasping the plough; out of the huts of the fisherman, the cobbler, and the sweeper. Let her spring from the grocer’s shop, from besides the oven of the fritter-seller. Let her emanate from the factory, from marts, and from markets. Let her emerge from the groves and forests, from hills and mountains. These common people have suffered oppression for thousands of years—suffered it without murmur, and as a result have got wonderful fortitude. They have suffered eternal misery, which has given them unflinching vitality. Living on a handful of grain, they can convulse the world; give them … a piece of bread, and the whole world will not be big enough to contain their energy; they are endowed with the inexhaustible vitality of Raktabija. And, besides, they have got the wonderful strength that comes of a pure and moral life, which is not to be found anywhere else in the world. Such peacefulness, such contentment, such love, such power of silent and incessant work, and such manifestation of lion’s strength in times of action—where else will you find these! Skeletons of the Past, there, before you, are your successors, the India that is to be. Throw these treasure-chests of yours and those jewelled rings among them, as soon as you can; and you vanish into air, and be seen no more—only keep your eyes open. No sooner will you disappear than you will hear the inaugural shout of Renaissant India, ringing with the voice of a million thunders and reverberating throughout the universe, ‘Wah Guru Ki Fateh’—victory to the Guru! (7.327–8).
Swamiji, in his own inimitable way, clinches the whole issue of rebuilding, rejuvenating India in just two words: renunciation and service. Hence he proclaims: ‘The national ideals of India are renunciation and service. Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself ’ (5.328).
Vivekananda is adored and admired by the poor and the ignorant; if they have come to know something about him, it is because his heart bled for them. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the rich; if they have come to know something about him, it is because they now believe that they are trustees of God’s wealth. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the youth; if they have come to know something about him, it is because he inspired them for doing great things in life, so as to leave a mark behind. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the old; if they have come to know something about him, it is because he helps them attain inner peace. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the scientists; if they have come to know something about him, it is because he had a scintillatingly scientific mind, which would never accept anything without convincing proof. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the artists; if they have come to know something about him, it is because he was an adept in the field of music and fine arts, as well as an art critic. Vivekananda is adored and admired by the pundits; if they have come to know something about him, it is because of his admirable adroitness in presenting even complicated philosophic tenets in a simple and direct language.
Secular intellectuals can admire him because he was a humanist. Spiritually inclined persons can adore him because he was a saint par excellence. All men and women can admire and adore him, because he is a man among men, endowed with an adamantine will and a tender heart. This is Vivekananda, who inspired, and still inspires, many an ordinary soul to aspire after extraordinary achievements in life.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)
1. Dr Radha Kumud Mookerji, ‘Our Priceless Possession’, Prabuddha Bharata, 45/4 (April 1940), 157.
2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 4.358.
3. Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him (Kolkata: Udbodhan Office, 2007), 261.
4. Complete Works, 6.316.
5. Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.4–5.
6. Complete Works, 7. 1 4 7.
7. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2004), 100.
8. Complete Works, 9.272.
9. See Bhagavata, 3.29.21, 27.
10. Complete Works, 5.222–3.