In the Light of Swami Vivekananda’s Teachings
The March of History
‘While nation states are important actors in the world, their interests and conflicts are shaped by civilizational factors1,’ said the political scientist Samuel Huntington in his now famous 1992 lecture at the merican Enterprise Institute. Thus, it is civilizations, not nations, that have been a major force in steering humanity’s course in history. Human history has indeed been a history of civilizations.
Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), the noted British historian, identified 21 major civilizations in the world.2 According to him, some civilizations developed finer human aspects. Some remained barbaric before vanishing from the eyesight. Some (for example, the Roman) bloated into unwieldy greatness which yielded to the weight of its own pressure and broke apart3. Only about six or seven major civilizations remain today.
We wonder what the future civilization will be, now that the limitation of material pleasure and harm from its toxic effects has come to our notice worldwide. What will be the relationship between society and religion? Will man’s rallying cry for ‘secularization’ push the seekers of the grand Ultimate Truth into their private ambries away from
society? If Vedanta, the timeless wisdom of Indian sages, has been the mainstay of the Indian civilization, will it take a defeat in this scuffle for ‘progress’—‘material progress’? The present article looks at the factors behind the dynamics of civilizations and what might unfold.
What is Civilization?
The word ‘civilization’ originated from the French word civilisation, ‘to be an opposite to barbarity’. Oxford dictionary defines ‘civilization’ as:
a state of human society that is very developed and organized.
It is a ‘state of intellectual, cultural and material development.’4
What then is cultural development? Or, ‘what is culture?’
According to Oxford dictionary, ‘culture’ is:
the customs and beliefs, art, way of life and social organization of a particular country or group.
The word ‘culture’ comes from two Latin words: cultura (tilling of land) and colere (cultivation through education). What is implied is cultivation of the mind.
What then is the difference between civilization and culture? The answer is implicit in the definitions. Culture is in the mental realm while civilization is mainly in the physical. While culture refers to the behaviour, civilization refers to the structure (including people). Culture is a heritage, unwilling to change, difficult to measure (due to the problem of ‘self-reference,’ because it itself is the measuring yardstick), and can be a stand-alone entity. Civilization is a creation,
synchronous with time (i.e., must change with time), can be measured, and must have one or more cultures in it.
While ‘civilizations are dynamic. They rise and fall, and may disappear altogether in the sands of time,5’ The roots of Indian Civilisation, based on Vedanta which emphatically holds itself on the immutable and infinite Brahman which is ever fresh, has a built-in renewal mechanism. Thus a civilization that is based on Vedanta, i.e, Indian Civilisation, which is a philosophy of the ‘unchanging reality’, would, by definition, be undying and eternal. Like Vedanta, which is
its basis, the Indian Civilisation is also eternal.
One may portray the relationship of these concepts in a figure:
The above figure illustrates that civilization consists of the physical structure including the people and their culture. Removing people from the picture leaves society, further removing people from society leaves culture. Culture in turn is an engine for the advancement of the civilization. In the Indian context, it is through the channel of culture that civilization will make progress towards being Vedantic.
The Indian View
Culture is the sum total of samskaras in the collective mind. The memories of the glorious past of India, when philosophy, arts, science, literature, logic, mathematics, scientific inventions, astronomy, religion and so on flourished in India, remain deep inside the collective mind of her people. These cannot be forgotten just as one cannot forget memories of one’s past years. These memories incite the civilization from deep inside the minds of the people, quite unknown to the people themselves, and consequently the reconstruction of past glory automatically takes place.
How then shall the development take place in India? Before that, let us look at the following ‘difference’.
Difference Between the Western and the Indian Civilization
Since the times of Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, West ern society has followed the analytical approach.
On the other hand, at some point in her long history, India discovered the unity underlying everything and thus advanced to the integral approach. It should be noted that analysis divides, while integration unites and synthesizes. By ‘West’ is meant a mind-set and approach towards life, and not just a geopolitical entity. This could be applicable to the people in India as well as in the West.
One characteristic peculiar to Indian people is their synthesizing ability—the Indian people are quite comfortable with contradictions and paradoxes, knowing them to be in the large fabric of existence. They know that different gods and goddesses have contradictory characteristics and likes and dislikes, but they worship all of them and are happy. For example, according to vâstushâstra, garbage pit of the house may be located towards the south-west direction in the plot, but this happens to be the south-east direction for the neighbouring house, and yet they see no problem in it. They understand that the Ultimate Truth is beyond the capture of the impure mind, and that the mind itself sees the Ultimate Reality in contradictions due to the mind’s own peculiar structure.
According to Vedantasara6, this sankalpavikapla (thoughts and counter-thoughts) is a function of the mind. Taking contradictions as reality, placing emphasis on logic and using mind itself as the ultimate instrument, the Western society could not advance beyond mind. When a Western man confronts a contradiction, he is awfully stuck and cannot go any further because of his reliance on the incompetent tool, viz., the mind. One cannot sit on one’s own shoulder, similarly one cannot understand the mind through the mind. If one tries, one goes in circles, pirouetting. Observing the changing understanding of reality given by the Western camp from the elaborately constructed edifice of logic, the present author notes elsewhere7:
Having built a large philosophic structure on shifting sands of the mind and the intellect, it is no wonder that the final conclusions in the Western system appear to be shifting in an ever extending and unending sequence.
The Indian society, on the contrary, did not remain satisfied with the cozy chambers of the intellect. It moved out of the suffocating confines of that which is ‘rational’—and it reached not the irrational but the suprarational8—this pure consciousness is the ‘supreme’ and a vantage point at which the mind is transcended.
This brings us to an important difference between the Western and the Indian approaches. According to the Western understanding, human personality is dichotomic, i.e., body and mind. According to the Indian understanding, human personality is trichotomic, i.e., body, mind, and the Atman.9
Perhaps because of an overemphasis on the analytical approach and the absence of a higher stand like the Atman, the West has been unable to achieve three important integrations:
1. Philosophy and religion: These two were a single quest in the West during the Greek period. However, for some reason, these two separated, and their integration has never been achieved in the West to date10. There has always been a separation between rationality and belief in West11. (Note that Western theology is not philosophy per se.)
2. Philosophy and practical life: Philosophy has remained abstract and speculative in the West and hence its integration with practical life has not been achieved. (Note that science and technology is not ‘philosophy’ per se. but is a part of practical life itself.)
3. Religion and practical life: In the West, religion is equated to ‘belief’, and not to Reality. Being hazy and subjective, belief does not concord with practical life. This integration still remains to be achieved in the Western society.
In India, religion was discovered to find solutions to practical aspirations. Philosophy was developed much later to ‘formulate’ the discoveries. Thus the three, viz. philosophy, religion and practical life, have always been integrated in India.
The four yogas (Karma, Bhakti, Dhyana, and Jnana) that are studied as philosophies in the field of Indian religion are practical sciences. These are not theologies but are charted pathways, tested and verified, for a journey through life and from life to the Ultimate Reality. The secular and the sacred have been, except during the dark ages, integrated in India.
India is at least a 5000-year-old civilization. Since the beginning of this civilization, spirituality has been its ‘obsession’. Thus spirituality forms India’s ‘vibrant and living core’.12
Quite contrary to the common belief, Hinduism is not exactly a ‘religion’. It is rather a culture based on the philosophy known as the Vedanta. The reason Hinduism does not fit into the conventional definition of the word ‘religion’ is that it has ‘no founder, no defining creed, no centralized authority, is a vast complex of confederation’. However, it has ‘an overall coherence and vitality mainly because of its dynamic philosophy known as the Vedanta.’10
Again, contrary to intuition, in India, the spiritual realizations came first, only later were philosophic treatises developed to ‘record and explain’ the realizations. These records have been substantiated by future realisations. The classical treatises are six in number and are called the Darshanas. These are Purva Mimamsa, Uttara Mimamsa, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika.
Of these, except the Uttara Mimâmsâ, all of the other five ceased to be living philosophies because they either did not develop further and/or were absorbed into the Uttara Mimâmsâ now being called the Vedanta. Later on, Vedanta itself developed its own sub-schools such as the Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita, Shuddhadvaita, Dvaitadvaita and so on.
Vedanta is not a creed or dogma. It is a search for the Ultimate Truth. It is this quest that the Indian mind has ever been preoccupied with. In their search, they found a mystery hidden inside one’s own being. They found: one’s true being is neither the body nor the mind, but pure consciousness— which is omniscient, omnipresent and untouchable by anything external. This is the source and sustenance of the entire universe.
They made another important discovery: they found that the universe is a ‘self-sustaining, self-regulating, supreme harmony.’13 A harmony not only of matter and energy but an interconnectedness of consciousness, thought, and matter. The physical objects, thoughts, souls, feelings, experience, memory, energy, interaction, dynamics, stability, enthusiasm, danger, war, peace, good, evil, pleasure, pain—all these form a single, living, dynamic cosmic entity. They discovered interconnectedness between human efforts and results. It is this connection that is known as the ‘law of Karma’ or simply ‘Karma’. Ethics results from this.
Thus, in India, ethics is not a draconian law stipulated in some scripture. There is no one to judge our actions. No one to sentence a punishment. No one to execute the punishment. Ethics is a simple statement of harmony: if you are in tune, the harmony itself has the capacity, with all its universal abundance, to ‘fill’ you up and make you happy. If you go against the harmony, you suffer—precisely because you distance yourself from the larger abundance and couch into a whirlpool of self-centred little fort.
In the modern age, Sri Ramakrishna, with his Herculean spiritual efforts and resulting direct realizations, affirmed that the ‘Ultimate Reality is one’ and ‘the goal of human life is the realization of the Ultimate Reality.’14 From his chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda, came the two important definitions:
Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man, (1)
Religion is the manifestation of the divinity already in man. (2)
These utterances that were made extempore at different times, in different contexts and at different places, are yet homophonic and aphoristic in structure. Swamiji has also given us definitions of true civilization and good society:
True civilization is the manifestation of the divinity in man, (3)
Truth does not pay homage to any society, ancient or modern. Society has to pay homage to Truth or die. Societies should be moulded upon truth, and truth has not to adjust itself to society . . . That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical. (4)
When asked if there should be religious element in education, Swamiji replied solemnly:
I look upon religion as the innermost core of education. (5)
We note that in these few words Swamiji has shown the relationship between the six entities: civilization, divinity, religion, practicality, education, and society. If we rearrange Swamiji’s words, we see the relationship in six parts:
1. True civilization makes divinity in man manifest, (from (3))
2. Manifestation of divinity is religion, (from (2))
3. Religion (i.e., highest ideas) is made practical in the greatest society (from (4))
4. Practicality (which is one way of manifestation of perfection) needs education, (from (1))
5. Religion is the innermost core of education, and, (from (5))
6. Society has to pay homage to Truth (which is divinity). (from (4))
This, in short, delineates the Vedantic Idea of Civilization.
The Philosophy and Practice of Vedanta
In Swamiji’s other utterances we get more details:
- The world is always seeking the practical possibilities of religion. Religion is ever a practical science.
- The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.
- Vedanta philosophy is not the outcome of meditation in the forests only, but that the very best parts of it were thought out and expressed by brains which were busiest in the everyday affairs of life.
- The actual should be reconciled to the ideal, the present life should be made to coincide with
- Practical side of Vedanta… does not destroy the world, but it explains it; it does not destroy the person, but explains him; it does not destroy the individuality, but explains it by showing the real individuality.
- And the greatest error, says the Vedanta, is to say that you are weak.
- The Vedanta recognises no sin, it only recognises error. Sins are very low degrees of Self-manifestation.
- Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.
These quotations from Swami Vivekananda describe the Vedantic Civilization. Vedantic Civilization is an integral life. It will be based on real religion, which is a practical science. Practical Vedanta means divinization of life—no separate times need be earmarked for religious and secular activities. The secular will be sacralised. The Vedantic Civilization will be based on strength. And yet ‘lion will lick lamb’s body in love.’15
Vedantic Civilization will do good to the entire humanity ‘on the strength’ of strength. Arts, literature, science, technology, mathematics, religion and philosophy will flourish again. It will have strength together with surrender, renunciation coexisting with active life, attitude of acceptance as well as sacrifice, and faith in one’s own self concurrent with self-effacement. It will not run away from life into an imaginary heaven-like utopia. Rather, it will let life itself unfold into palpable divinity on earth.
1. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1997), p.36.
2. Arnold Toynbee A Study of History, quoted in ibid., p.44.
3. Paraphrased from Gibbon, Edward, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (London: Strahan & Cadell, 1789), Vol. 3, Chapter 38, Part 6, sourced from www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/892/ pg892.txt.
4. Farlex online dictionary, 2013, www. thefreedictionary.com, accessed 25 Sept. 2013.
5. The Clash of Civilizations, p.44.
6. Vedantasara 66
7. The Cosmos in Western and Indian Thought, Prabuddha Bharata, 112/9 (Sept. 2007), p.42.
8. Suprarational means ‘above rational’.
9. Swami Bhajanananda, Knowledge and Consciousness—An Integral Approach. In Swami Sarvabhutananda (ed.), Understanding Consciousness : Recent Advances, (Kolkata: The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2009).
10. See for details Swami Bhajanananda, Sri Ramakrishna and the Vedic Ideal, Editorial,Prabuddha Bharata, 88/3 (Mar. 1980), p.89.
11. ‘Western civilization is a perpetual battle between Athens and Jerusalem. There is an uneasy alliance between the two in building up the Western civilization.’—author unknown.
12. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission—their History, Ideals, Activities, issued by The General Secretary, Ramakrishna Math and Mission, p.3.
13. Swami Bhajanananda, Meditation and Sacrifice-V, Editorial, Prabuddha Bharata, 88/9 (Sept. 1983), p.364.
14. For an excellent account of what Sri Ramakrishna has done for humanity, see Swami Bhajanananda, What Sri Ramakrishna Has Done for the World, Editorial, Prabuddha Bharata, 91/12 (Dec. 1986), pp.492-505.
15. See Swamiji’s conversations with Ranada Babu, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1999), vol. 7, p.205.
The older I grow, the better I seem to think of these time-honoured institutions of India. There was a time when I used to think that many of them were useless and worthless; but the older I grow, the more I seem to feel a diffidence in cursing any one of them, for each of them is the embodiment of the experience of centuries.
—Swami Vivekananda, CW, 3.132
Source : Vedanta Kesari, January, 2015