A Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Vedanta Perspective
Religion is Realisation
Religion in the context of RamakrishnaVivekananda-Vedanta tradition means inner growth and spiritual realisation. Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, rooted in the experience of Vedanta tradition of oneness and love, remind us of our real nature which is divine and eternal. This sacred tradition aims to make everyone realise his or her innate divinity. As Swami Vivekananda said,
My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.1
To Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, religion was a matter of experience. Sri Ramakrishna experimented with various religious ideals and experienced the underlying truth that they taught. He showed through his life how different religions are but paths to reach one and the same mystic goal called Self or God experience. Swami Vivekananda, his chosen disciple, recognised his master’s message of oneness and spoke of it in many ways and contexts. Hence we find in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda-Vedanta tradition great truths of immense value—such as oneness of existence, underlying unity of religions and the need to accept all religions as true.
For Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta is a living philosophy and a great source of inspiration. Swami Vivekananda holds that Vedanta is a universal phenomenon, a world literature and an eternal religion. He rightly said,
By the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world.2
It is this inclusiveness and scientific approach that make Vedanta a living philosophy of life
Universality and humanism are two of the essential characteristics of RamakrishnaVivekananda-Vedanta tradition. It seeks the real welfare, peace and spiritual uplift of man everywhere. It is concerned with man in his depth beyond the frontiers of narrow and parochial dissensions. Swamiji preached the universal truths contained in ancient Vedic scriptures, combining the spiritual ideal of Shankaracharya and ethical embellishment of Buddha. He gave a new direction to Vedanta by making it a practical system meant for the common people. God-centred philosophy was transformed into a man-centred philosophy—a philosophy for daily life.
The Vedanta tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda is not only universal and humanistic but also scientific and rational. Vivekananda delineated the rationalistic aspect of Vedanta in the following way. The first principle of reasoning is that the particular is explained by the general, the general by the more general, until we come to the universal. Everything at last comes to the universal and Existence is the last and the most universal concept we have.3 Vedanta holds that the very nature (svarupa) of reality, namely Atman or Brahman, is but sat (Existence).
Again the Vedanta tradition of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda satisfies the demand of the scientific minds by referring it to the law of evolution that the explanation of a thing comes from within.4 The Brahman of Vedanta has nothing outside of himself. He is the universe himself. Vivekananda said:
To my mind if modern science is proving anything again and again it is this that we are onementally, spiritually and physically. . . Coming to a still further generalisation, the essence of matter and thought is their potentiality of spirit. . .This oneness is the one fact that is being proved every day by modern science.5
In matters of religion, Swamiji described reason as a powerful tool which clears away dogmatism and intolerance. He said:
I am sure God will pardon a man who will use his reason and cannot believe, rather than a man who believes blindly instead of using his faculties. He simply degrades his nature and goes down to the level of beasts—degrades his senses and dies.6
Swamiji was however intensely aware that reason had definite limitations.
Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda went beyond all religious narrowness.
They taught the message of universal truth. Vivekananda’s ideal of universal religion was one that will be equally acceptable to all minds, which will be equally philosophic, emotional, mystic and conducive to action. He held that all narrow, limited fighting ideas of religion must be given up. Since each man grasps what he can of the truth, acceptance and not mere tolerance should be the attitude of each towards all religious. Speaking at the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago he said:
I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.7
The Need for Religious Tolerance
According to Vivekananda, there are three parts in every religion.8
- First there is the philosophy which presents the scope of that religion setting forth its basic principles, the goal and the means of reaching it.
- The second part is mythology, which is philosophy made concrete. It consists of legends relating to the lives of men, or of supernatural beings and so forth.
- The third part is rituals. This part is more concrete and is made up of forms and ceremonies, physical attitudes, flowers and incense and many other things.
All recognised religions have these three elements. Some lay more stress on one, some on another. Each religion brings out its own doctrines and insists upon them as being the only true ones . This ends in what is called fanaticism and dogmatism which breeds what may be called intolerance towards other religions.
Another case of religious intolerance comes from people who deny the efficacy of any rationalistic investigation into religion. In the absence of reason, quarrels may arise between prophet and prophet or books and books. The question is then, how to decide between books and books? Vivekananda says,
We have to admit that there is something more universal than these books, something higher than all the ethical codes that are in the world, something which can judge between the strength of inspirations of different nations. Whether we declare it boldly, clearly, or not—it is evident that here we appeal to reason.9
Fanaticism and the lack of proper reason are the two important causes of religious intolerance. In fact, one leads to the other.
Complementarity of Religions
The rationale for religious tolerance comes only when there is either the idea that the different religions are contradictory or they are supplementary. Vivekananda says:
I believe that they are not contradictory; they are supplementary. Each religion, as it were, takes up one part of the great universal truth, and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying that part of the great truth. It is, therefore, addition, not exclusion. That is the idea. System after system arises, each one embodying a great idea, and ideals must be added to ideals. And this is the march of humanity.10
Swamiji further holds that all religions are different forces in the economy of God, working for the good of mankind. The ideal which every religion represents is never lost, and so every religion is intelligently on the march. He says,
Unity in variety is the plan of the universe. We are all men, and yet we are all distinct from one another. As a part of humanity I am one with you, and as Mr. So-and-so I am different from you. As a man you are separate from the woman; as a human being you are one with the woman. As a man you are separate from the animal, but as living beings, man, woman, animal, and plant are all one; and as existence, you are one with the whole universe. That universal existence is God, the ultimate Unity in the universe. In Him we are all one. At the same time, in manifestation, these differences must always remain. In our work, in our energies, as they are being manifested outside, these differences must always remain.11 If it be true that God is the centre of all religions, and that each of us is moving towards Him along one of those radii, then it is certain that all of us must reach that centre. And at the centre where all the radii meet, all our differences will cease.12
From the Particular to the Universal
One of the successful ways through which religious tolerance can be effectively realised is by moving from the particular concept to the most universal concept. This is one of the contexts where reason plays its role in religion.
The first principle of logical reasoning is that the particular is explained by the general, the general by the more general, until we come to the universal. A second explanation of knowledge is that the explanation of a thing must come from inside and not from outside. The question is: can religion satisfy these two conditions? These conditions are fulfilled by the idea of Brahman of the Vedanta because it is Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. Existence is, indeed, the ultimate generalisation which the human mind can come to.
Again, Vedanta also holds that the whole of universe is but an evolution and not a creation. Brahman has nothing outside of it. He is in the universe. He is the universe himself. Thus there exists no difference between man and man, religion and religion, for there is difference only in degree and not in kind.13
But it does not mean that reason is the only instrument in matters of religious knowledge. In fact, one has to transcend the limitations of logical ratiocination. Vivekananda called that instrument, inspiration. But inspiration never contradicts reason.
It is important to mention about the universal religion of Swami Vivekananda. By universal religion is not meant any one universal philosophy, or any one universal mythology or any one universal ritual held alike by all. What is needed is not to destroy the individuality of any man in any religion but to show him a point of union with all others. Vivekananda says:
The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others ant yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.14
The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda-Vedanta tradition is a path that is equally acceptable to all minds; it is equally philosophic, equally emotional, equally mystic and equally conducive to action. It supplies the strength of philosophy to the philosopher, the devotee’s heart to the worshipper, to the ritualist, it gives all that the most marvellous symbolism can convey; to the poet, it gives as much of heart as he can take in, and other things besides.
Learning to Accept Others
In spite of all the cries that we hear from the various corners of the world in achieving religious harmony, there exists no end to religious antagonism and unrest. It makes us think that we must move one step forward from religious tolerance to religious acceptance. Vivekananda’s profound and practical words are quoted here to see how important it is to develop the attitude of acceptance.
Our watchword then will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only tolerance, for so called toleration is often blasphemy and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live.15
Again he continues,
The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remains yet to be unfolded. I would leave it open for all of them.16
What is needed is an attitudinal change from toleration to acceptance. The Vedanta tradition as practised and preached by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda is one that is universal, rationalistic, humanistic and all-comprehensive. Thus one who sincerely takes up this mature and wise path would surely be raised to the level of acceptance of all religions.
- CW, 7.501.
- Meditation on Swami Vivekananda, Swami Tathagatananda, Vedanta Society, New York, 1994,
- CW, 1.3
- CW, 2.37 7
- CW, 1.369
- CW, 2. 65
- CW, 2.382
- CW 1. 374
Source : Vedanta Kesari, February, 2015