This article was presented as a paper at the seminar on ‘Man and Freedom’, jointly sponsored by the Indian Academy of Philosophy and the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture (RMIC) on 22 January 2000. It is being reproduced here from RMIC’s journal Bulletin where it was published in July 2006.

Swami Vivekananda was one of those rare great men who strove to extend the frontiers of human freedom by heightening man’s faith in the eternal verities. He has been regarded by eminent Western scholars like A. L. Basham as “one of the moulders of the modern world,”1 although much of the influence that Swamiji has exerted on world thought has not been widely recognized as his. Swami Vivekananda was also one of the builders of modern India, and this fact has been openly acknowledged by almost all the great leaders of modern India. Swamiji revitalized the religious consciousness of the Indians, gave them a sense of unity, pride in the past, self-confidence, a sense of responsibility towards the poor and the downtrodden, and courage to face the challenge of Western culture.

Here we are concerned only with Swami Vivekananda’s contribution to the understanding and furtherance of freedom in the context of Indian culture. It may be remembered here that Swamiji was a liberated soul. A Catholic father belonging to the Don Bosco Order, in his doctoral dissertation on Swami Vivekananda, has described Swamiji as a “man without frontiers” 2 and D r Radhakrishnan has described Swamiji as “a spokesman of the Divine Logos”.3 Being a liberated man, Swamiji’s words on freedom have the ring of authenticity and authority.

His three main contributions

Human freedom is generally regarded as having two dimensions: external and internal. External freedom includes political freedom and social freedom. Internal freedom includes intellectual freedom, moral freedom, and spiritual freedom.

All these realms of freedom are generally treated as if they were independent of each other. Swami Vivekananda was the first great thinker to show that all these types of freedom are expressions of a single existential urge for freedom derived from the intrinsic freedom of the Atman or true Self.

Secondly, Swamiji showed that religion based on universal principles such as the innate freedom of the Self can exert a tremendously liberating influence on the minds of people. Many modern people tend to look upon religion as an obstacle to social harmony and progress. Karl Marx referred to religion as “the opium of the people”, and Freud regarded it as the “chain of illusion”. Swami Vivekananda did not say that these views are entirely wrong, but he pointed out that they represent only a superficial view of religion. Religion in its true, experiential essence is a constructive force which fosters enlightenment, freedom, progress, and harmony.

Thirdly, Swami Vivekananda showed that this view of religion as a liberating, constructive and harmonizing force is not a utopian ideal but an immensely practical proposition. Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This was precisely what Swami Vivekananda attempted to do—to change the world. Swamiji was not a speculative philosopher but a prophet and pathfinder with a new gospel of social service. He called his system of thought Practical Vedanta which was intended to help every person, even the poorest and the most ignorant, in all situations of life to attain freedom, dignity, strength, and fulfilment.

The identification of pure
consciousness with mind and
body is known as bondage
which is the cause of all

Meaning of freedom

One of the most important discoveries made in ancient India, at least two thousand five hundred years ago, was that consciousness is a self-existent reality in itself independent of mind and body. Prajnanam brahma, “The ultimate Reality is pure consciousness”—this is one of the most significant metaphysical statements ever made. In the whole of Western thought consciousness is regarded as an attribute or function of the mind or of the body, never as an independent entity. In the mainstream of Hindu philosophy, known as Vedanta, consciousness is considered to be primary, and mind and matter are secondary derivatives of it. Mind and matter are created things and are bound by the laws of the universe. Pure consciousness, known as cit, is uncreated, self-existent, and ever free.

The identification of pure consciousness with mind and body is known as bondage which is the cause of all suffering. The ultimate goal of life is to break this bondage and attain the freedom of pure consciousness. Thus, freedom in traditional Hindu philosophy is an ultimate goal or value. It can be attained only through great struggle and is meant for a few individuals who choose the path of nivritti or renunciation.

Swami Vivekananda looked upon freedom as a basic, existential urge underlying all life activities. Swamiji argued that, since pure consciousness is the substratum of life, its freedom percolates through mind and body. Freedomist husan invariable attribute of life. Swamiji illustrates this truth by the example of a worm and a locomotive. He says:

A huge locomotive has rushed on over the line and a small worm that was creeping upon one of the rails saved its life by crawling out of the path of the locomotive. Yet this little worm, so insignificant that it can be crushed in a moment, is a living something, while this locomotive, so huge, so immense, is only an engine, a machine. You say the one has life and the other is only dead matter . . . . How can we make the distinction between the living and the dead, then? In the living there is freedom, there is intelligence; in the dead all is bound and no freedom is possible, because there is no intelligence. This freedom that distinguishes us from mere machines is what we are all striving for. To be more free is the goal of all our efforts, for only in perfect freedom can there be perfection.4

Although the ever – free, pure consciousness is our true Self, or Atman, we don’t feel this freedom because of the identification of the Self with the body and mind which are unfree, being governed by the rigid laws of the universe. This identification is caused by ignorance, ajnana. Swami Vivekananda has compared ignorance to a dark screen with a small hole which covers a source of light which is the Atman. Through the hole a little light of the Atman manifests itself. This is the source of the urge for freedom we all feel. As the hole becomes larger and larger, more and more light comes out. In the same way, as more ignorance is removed, the Atman manifests itself more and we feel greater freedom within. According to Swami Vivekananda, moral actions and spiritual practices help in the manifestation of the Atman and make us free, whereas immoral actions and ignorance obstruct the manifestation of the Atman and make us bound.

Another idea of Swami Vivekananda is that, since the individual self is a part or reflection of the Supreme Self, each soul is potentially divine. That is to say, all the knowledge, power, beauty, strength, and glory that we seek outside are already within us in a potential form. These capacities manifest themselves when the obstacles are removed. Swamiji gives the example of irrigation. There is water flowing in the irrigation channel. As soon as the farmer removes a part of the embankment, water rushes into his field.5 The urge for freedom that we all feel within is the urge to break the obstacles to the manifestation of the divinity within. As Swamiji has put it, “. . .each man is infinite already, only these bars and bolts and different circumstances shut him in; but as soon as they are removed, he rushes out and expresses himself.”6

Swami Vivekananda saw in this existential urge for freedom the primary motive power behind evolution, the elan vital of Bergson. “What is the cause of evolution?” Swamiji asks, and then answers, “Desire. The animal wants to do something, but does not find the environment favourable, and therefore develops a new body. Who develops it? The animal itself, its will. You have developed from the lowest amoeba. Continue to exercise your will and it will take you higher still.”7 “From mollusc to man it has been a continuous expansion towards infinity. Therefore the limited soul can be styled an individual which is continuously expanding towards the Infinite Individual.”8

Moral actions and spiritual
practices help in the
manifestation of the Atman
and make us free.

In matter there is no freedom. Freedom begins to throb in the amoeba. Greater and greater freedom emerges as evolution proceeds from worms and molluscs to fishes and birds and mammals and finally to man. In man, evolution assumes a mental dimension and self-direction. By the exercise of mind, the human being attains greater and greater freedom until he becomes the fully liberated individual known as the jivanmukta. The main aim of society should be to produce more and more of such liberated individuals. This takes us to Swami Vivekananda’s concept of social freedom.

Social freedom in Indian society

Swami Vivekananda’s love for humanity, and his concern for his motherland and its people made him think deeply about Indian society and its problems. Swamiji did not merely think about social problems, he also travelled all over India as a mendicant sannyasi and saw with his own eyes the utter poverty and backwardness of the Indian people.

There are three points in Swami Vivekananda’s approach to social problems in India, which need special mention here. In the first place, Swamiji was the first religious leader in India to point out that the cause of India’s downfall was the suppression and exploitation of the masses. Even fifty years ago Hindu society was so rigidly governed by caste rules and local customs that people belonging to the lower strata of society had no freedom to move upward in social status. Exploitation prevented them from overcoming their poverty and ignorance. Swamiji saw that what poor and downtrodden people needed most was a message of strength which will enable them to break the bonds of priestcraft, social tyranny, injustice and exploitation. Swamiji found this message of strength and freedom in the Vedanta.

Secondly, Swamiji made religion a liberating force, instead of being a restraining force. This he did by separating the life-giving, eternal and universal spiritual truths of religion from the non-essential outer forms, and also by separating true religion from social institutions. Spiritual concepts such as divinity of the soul, seeing God in all people and so on can liberate the minds of people from fear, hopelessness, selfishness, etc., and bring into existence a new society of enlightened individuals.

The third point is, Swamiji held that “Liberty is the first condition of growth,” and so he never advocated a steamroller model of socio-economic reform as Lenin and Mao Tse Tung did. The beginnings of socialism had already been made and Swamiji was aware of it, but he never favoured the totalitarian approach. He always upheld the freedom of the individual and believed that social problems could be solved in a democratic way by spreading education. He stated, “My whole ambition in life is to set in motion a machinery which will bring noble ideas to the door of everybody, and then let men and women settle their own fate. We are to put the chemicals together, the crystallization will be done by nature according to her laws.”9

Swami Vivekananda knew that the only group of people in Hindu society who were free from social rules and obligations and caste restrictions were the sannyasins. Swamiji decided to make use of their freedom for social uplift. He brought into existence a new order of monks who, while they seek final liberation, also work for the welfare of society as free individuals. With these monks as the core, a new community of liberal-minded people has come into existence and is steadily growing

Intellectual freedom in Indian culture

In no other country was there so much intellectual freedom as in ancient India, and in no other country was there such an astonishing variety of intellectual creativity as in ancient India. But after the 11th century of the second millennium much of this freedom and creativity in intellectual life was lost. Some of the best brains in India remained satisfied with interpreting scriptures and writing commentaries, glosses, and treatises. For centuries philosophical thinking in India was governed by scriptural authority. In order to counter the Mimamsaka claim that the Vedas are the highest authority because ritual injunctions and prohibitions can be known only from the Vedas, Sri Shankaracharya asserted that the nature of Brahman, the ultimate Reality, can be known only from the Vedas. In Hindu philosophy reasoning (tarka or yukti) refers to either inference (syllogistic or analogical) or hermeneutical arguments.10 Sri Shankaracharya rejected inference as a means of knowing the true nature of Brahman because the Buddhists had tried to prove the nonexistence of Atman through inferential reasoning. For Shankaracharya true reasoning is that based on the Vedas (sruti- anugrihita) and its purpose is only to clarify, interpret, and strengthen scriptural truths which are already established by sruti.11

Inferential reasoning was developed in India mainly by the Naiyayikas. One of the drawbacks of syllogistic inference is, as the word anu-mana indicates, it is knowledge based on previous perception. This restricts the scope for abstract thinking.

By contrast, in Western thought, reasoning is an independent intellectual activity based on logical consistency. Any statement is true if it follows the ‘Laws of Thought’ and there is ‘sufficient reason’ to believe it. This gave untrammelled freedom to speculation which led to the development of formal logic, advancements in mathematics and the proliferation of different schools of philosophy.12

Swami Vivekananda boldly advocated the use of reason in establishing the validity of religious concepts, practices, and experiences.13 In a lecture on ‘Reason and Religion’ delivered in London, Swamiji asked, “Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation, which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and . . . its destruction would be the best thing that could happen. All that is dross will be taken off, no doubt, but the essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of this investigation.”14

What did Swami Vivekananda mean by ‘reason” in this context? He himself answered this question on more than one occasion. He says that there are two principles of knowledge. The one principle is that we know by referring the particular to the general, and the general to the universal. And the second is that anything of which an explanation is sought is to be explained so far as possible from its own nature.15 It is clear that Swamiji’s first principle is inductive reasoning which forms the basis of the method of science. Swamiji’s second principle is what is known as ‘naturalism’ which is opposed to ‘supernaturalism’.

Without going into the details of Swamiji’s views on the role of reason in religion we may say that, by introducing rational thinking into Hindu religious thought, Swamiji liberated the eternal and universal truths of religion from the hands of a privileged few, made them available to common people and made them acceptable to modern people in the East as well as in the West.

Moral freedom

Morality, as it is understood and practised in most parts of the world, is based on compulsion and fear—fear of God or the law of karma in religious societies and fear of public opinion or the police in secular societies. This becomes clear when we try to find answer to the question, ‘Why should we be moral?’ Moral Science, developed by Western thinkers as a branch of philosophy, deals mostly with the question, ‘What is morality?’—that is, with the standard or criterion of moral judgement. And conventional morality as it is practised by people deals with, ‘How to be moral?’ The question why we should be moral was first raised by the Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius (or Meng-tzu) of the 4th century BCE

What is the answer given by traditional religions to this question of Mencius? The answer found in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions is that we have to be moral because that is God’s commandment and, should we behave in an immoral way, we would be disobeying God and He would punish us. Immanuel Kant tried to develop a theory of ethics independent of Christian theology, but his ‘categorical imperative’ also implies a sense of compulsion. In the Indian tradition (Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain) morality is conformity to the moral order of the universe known as Dharma and violation of Dharma would bring retribution according to the law of karma. Morality in traditional religions is thus based on fear or compulsion.

The answer given by Mencius was that we have to be moral and good because goodness is our true or original nature. To be good is the natural state; to be bad is a fall from that state. Thus morality involves no compulsion; it is only regaining our natural state.16

In modern times Swami Vivekananda also raised the same question, “Why should we be good?” The answer that he gave was that we should be good because goodness is our true nature. Although Mencius had given a similar answer, he could not clearly state what that true or original nature of man is. According to Swami Vivekananda, our true nature is the Atman which is eternally pure, awakened and free (nitya-suddha-buddha-mukta). This view had originally been held by the sages of the Upanishads no doubt, but it was Swami Vivekananda who applied it to morality and ethics.

Swamiji’s view makes morality a free and spontaneous expression of the innate goodness and purity of the true Self of man. According to it, I am good not because somebody compels me to be so, not because I am afraid of punishment, but because goodness is the natural expression of my true, innate nature. Needless to say, this view of Swamiji can bring about a radical change in the moral attitudes and behaviour of people in the modern permissive society. It can have an immediate appeal, especially to modern youths, who rebel against compulsion and restriction of freedom.

(To be concluded)

Notes and References

1) Swami Vivekananda in East and West. A.L. Basham. London: Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre, 1963, p. 210.

2) Man Without Frontiers (Doctoral thesis). Maria Arokiam Kanaga. Rome: Salesian Pontifical University, 1988

3) ‘Swami Vivekananda: A Spokesman of the Divine Logos’ article by Dr S. Radhakrishnan in The Vedanta Kesari, August 1963.

4) ‘What is Religion’ The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (henceforth CW). Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1: 333.

5) CW. 5: 298. It may be mentioned here that Swamiji’s idea of ‘manifestation’ is derived from Patanjali’s idea of ‘infilling of Prakriti’ [see Swami Vivekananda’s comments on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in the Complete Works, 1: 29l-93].

6) CW. 5: 298.

7) CW. ‘Practical Vedanta’ 2:356.

8) CW. ‘Practical Vedanta’ 2:346

9) CW. 5:29.

10) See M. Hiriyanna, ‘The Place of Reason in Advaita’ in Indian Philosophical Studies Mysore: Kavyalaya Publishers, 1957, p.45 f.

11) Shakaracharya says, “Once the truth that Brahman is the cause of this universe is established by the sruti, to strengthen this understanding we may have recourse to reason which is not opposed to scripture.”—Commentary on Brahma-Sutra, 1.1.2.

12) This difference between Indian thought and Western thought was first pointed out by the Italian philosopher Beneditto Croce.

13) For a comprehensive study of Swamiji’s views on reason vis-a-vis scripture, see Anantanand Rambachan, The Limits of Scripture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

14) CW. 1:367.

15) CW.1:369-72.

16) For a discussion of Mencius’s theory see Philip Ho Hwang, ‘What is Mencius Theory of Human Nature?’ in Philosophy East and West, April 1979, p.201


Source : Vedanta Kesari, April, 2021