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Vedanta: The Heart of Hindu Spirituality
 

"That which unites us with the whole is virtue,
and that which separates us from the whole is vice."
 


Swami Vivekananda:
His Message of Vedanta and The Western Way


Contents -
The Message of Vedanta

The Essential Teachings of Vedanta
Vedanta's Contribution to World Thought
The Nineteenth Century Eclipse of Vedanta
The Reasons for the Eclipse of Vedanta
Swami Vivekananda Makes Vedanta Living
The New Testament of Vedanta
The New Vedanta Draws Fire
The New Vedanta as the Religion of the Future
Vivekananda: Worshipper of the Living God


The Message of Vedanta

Swami Vivekananda is the world-teacher who first brought the message of Vedanta to the Western world. Vedanta was the message that he delivered at the Parliament of Religions in 1893.

Vedanta literally means "end of the Vedas," that is, the final teaching of the Vedas. It is the crowning consummation of the spiritual thoughts of Hinduism. It is the teaching of Vedanta that has saved India again and again in times of spiritual crisis over the centuries. The conclusions of Vedanta are based on universal principles and are applicable to all people of all times. Philosophically non-dualistic but religiously monotheistic, Vedanta reflects the very mood and outlook of Eastern spirituality, and its echo can be heard in Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, theistic Hinduism and other spiritual traditions of the East. Vedanta is more than a religion or a speculative philosophy. Is a spiritual way that is direct and decisive. Breaking the barriers of traditions and conventions and cutting through the speculations of theology and philosophy, it leads the individual soul to its inevitable destiny - union with Brahman, the Supreme Soul. It pushes its search for truth as far as human reason can go and reaches the dizzy height where everything is reduced to one principle, Pure Consciousness. Though developed and perfected in the Indo-Gangetic plain, Vedanta cannot be called Indian, just as the law of gravitation, discovered by Newton, cannot be called a British law.

Vedanta maintains that the Ultimate Reality is one without a second, and designates it by the name Brahman. Brahman is incorporeal, immutable, all-pervading, Absolute Pure Consciousness, beyond all names, forms, and attributes. The various names, forms, and epithets of the Divine, such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Jehovah, Allah, Father of Heaven, are merely superimpositions of the individual seekers on Brahman. For the spiritual fulfillment of the seekers of truth, the Supreme Brahman assumes various names and forms. It is this Brahman that appears as Personal God and also as impersonal Absolute Truth. Brahman is called the Reality of all realities. The various concepts of the Divine are the various readings of the Absolute by individual minds from different depths and spiritual distances. They are like the various pictures of a building taken from various angles of vision.

The individual soul, according to Vedanta, is the focus of the infinite Brahman. Designated by Vedanta as Atman, It is ever divine and ever pure. Atman is different from the ego-self, generally assumed to be the soul of a person. A human individual is a layered being. His soul remains encased by five material layers - physical body, vital air, mind, intellect, and bliss. The so-called individualities are like whirlpools in the Ocean of Infinite Brahman.

Creation, according to Vedanta, is beginningless cycles of manifestation and non-manifestation of Brahman, and it is often described by Vedanta texts as the outbreathing and inbreathing of Brahman. The myriad diversity of the universe is only in name and form. As in the case of a mirage in a desert, the ignorant see water and trees but the enlightened see the desert; similarly, what appears as the diverse universe to the ignorant is perceived by the illumined as nothing but Brahman. The world appearance of Brahman is caused by its own power, known as Maya. Another name of Maya is imagination. So it is said that the world is in the mind of the individual. Speaking psychologically, the earth rotates not so much around the sun as around the individual mind. Maya is the disguise of Brahman. So long as it is not known it is a terrible delusion and is destructive; but when perceived through the eye of Knowledge, it is nothing but Brahman. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, heaven and hell, are all in the mind. Nothing in this world is absolutely good or absolutely evil. It is the mind, that having been polarized due to ignorance, divides the indivisible into good and evil, desirable and undesirable.

The sufferings of life, according to Vedanta, are not due to the retribution of God, to luck, chance, hostile stars and planets, or to any external agency like Satan, Iblis, the Devil, or Ahriman. Vedanta attributes five causes of suffering, and these are: (1) loss of contact with the real that is the center of our being, the Atman; (2) ego; (3) attachment; (4) aversion; and (5) clinging. Loss of contact with the real forces the individual into the world of ego - a fanciful world of polarization, imagination, and dream. Birth and death, pain and pleasure, here and hereafter, the law of karma and reincarnation, all apply to the ego and its world. The way to the end of suffering is neither multiplication of desires nor their liquidation, but Self-Knowledge through self-control.

The Essential Teachings of Vedanta

The way to the liberation of the soul through Self-Knowledge is called yoga. Vedanta speaks of four yogas, or paths to the goal: (i) Jnana-Yoga, or the direct way of Knowledge; (ii) Bhakti-Yoga, or the natural way of divine love; (iii) Karma-Yoga, or the practical way of unselfish work; and (iv) Raja-Yoga, or the scientific way of concentration and meditation. The primary road block to Self-Knowledge is the restless mind. The four Yogas are four ways to overcome the restlessness. The path of Jnana-Yoga advocates the method of persuasion through reason, saying that unreason, the cause of all restlessness, can be overcome only by reason. Bhakti-Yoga looks upon the cause as the mind's impurity, and for its purification prescribes worship, prayer, and self-surrender to the divine. Karma-Yoga views the intoxicated ego as the cause of all restlessness, and seeks to overcome restlessness by the eradication of the ego. Raja-Yoga upholds the method of confrontation. It maintains that restlessness of mind has its roots deep in the psychophysical system. Reason is too weak to uproot ingrained habits, worship and prayer in order to be effective require inborn faith in God, and eradication of the elusive ego is almost impossible. So Raja-Yoga calls for confronting the restless mind through concentration and meditation and by control of posture and breathing (pranayama). To bring the mind under control is the central purpose of all the yoga disciplines. Vedanta maintains the mind never becomes controlled unless it is controlled consciously and deliberately. For the spiritual seeker, the ultimate battlefield is his mind. Yoga is not a collection of vague theories or theological arguments. It takes a person from where he is and leads him to genuine freedom, compared with which all other forms of freedom are merely bondage in disguise.

The keynote of Vedanta is: "Truth is one: sages call it by various names." The essence of Vedanta can be summed up in four sentences: God as Pure Spirit alone abides. The world of diversity is the manifestation of the Spirit in time and space. The individual soul and God as the Supreme Soul are non-different in essence. Realization of this identity alone can confer liberation and put an end to all the sorrows and sufferings of life. The four cardinal principles of Vedanta are non-duality of the Godhead, divinity of the soul, oneness of existence, and harmony of religions. These are not dogmas but four universal principles that are in keeping with common sense, reason, and everyday personal experience. It is a universally accepted fact that Ultimate Reality is one and beyond all names, forms, and attributes, which are mere concepts superimposed on It by the human mind. Again all religions proclaim that the individual soul is divine. This divinity is innate, not acquired or given. Practice of spiritual disciplines only endows us with faith in the divinity in ourselves. The difference between a sinner and a saint is that the former has faith in his sinfulness and the latter faith in his saintliness. Oneness of existence is the basis of all ethics and morality. Life is interdependent, not independent. There is only one life that pulsates in all. That which unites us with the whole is virtue, and that which separates us from the whole is vice. The creative process consists of evolution and involution, potentiality and actuality, described by Vedanta as the outbreathing and inbreathing of the Pure Spirit. The universe comes into being, endures for a length of time, and again goes back to its causal state. In this sense, creation is beginningless. Vedanta regards the creative process as the play of God, or lila. God is at once all the actors and all the audience, the props, the prompter, the playwright, and the producer.

Critics of Vedanta observe that such a world-view dwarfs the human individual to utter insignificance. In answer to this, Vedanta says the drama is cosmic and evolves through a chain of numberless separate dramas where the One assumes the roles of many. But how does Vedanta resolve the question of evil in the realm of God and His drama? If everything is the play of God, does He not become responsible for all the sufferings of the world? Does this not  make God whimsical and cruel, an irresponsible Creator who just for His enjoyment inflicts suffering on his own created beings?   The seers of Vedanta never shrink from accepting evil as part of creation. They have no use for a fairy-tale view of creation, a childish sentimentality that says God made all things bright and beautiful and had nothing to do with all things dark and hideous. Good and evil, Vedanta maintains, have no absolute reality and are value-judgments of individual minds, superimposed on the divine play. That which is good for some is evil for others, and that which is evil for some is good for others. They are different facets of the same drama. Life is role playing. A human individual suffers when he refuses to play his role in this drama. He slips into the fanciful world of his deluded ego and never thinks or even suspects that his life is part of a vast cosmic drama.

Vedanta designates the individual ego as Maya. The role of Maya is to soften the glare of Reality and to create a dream world where fact is diluted by fiction. Maya is not a peculiar concept of Vedanta. The Buddhist tradition calls it Mara; the Taoist tradition says it is being "out of harmony with Tao;"  the Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Zoroastrian traditions personify Maya, calling it Satan, Iblis, and Ahriman; the Platonists refer to it simply as delusion. Things and beings in the realm of Maya are not non-existent, though they are illusory. They are relatively real, that is, real for a short time. God as Pure Spirit is the Absolute Reality. The beings and things of the relative universe appear real because they reflect the light of the Absolute. The message of Vedanta has two rhythms: "All this is verily Brahman" and "That thou art;" that is, God is both the Absolute and the relative Reality. One represents the dizzy height of mystical realization, the other its counter part, its humanistic expression. One is Knowledge, the other intimate Knowledge.

Harmony of religions is the natural corollary to the first three cardinal principles. Different religions are only different pathways to the same common goal - God. All roads lead to Rome, provided Rome is our destination. Vedanta repudiates the idea of proselytisation. Proselytisation seeks to wipe out the social meaning of a person, which would be psychologically disruptive and morally reprehensible. According to Vedanta, all are proceeding toward God-realization, consciously or unconsciously, and all will reach the goal eventually. When we move toward this goal voluntarily and consciously, we call it spiritual quest; when this move is involuntary and forced by nature, we call it an evolutionary process. Harmony of religions is not uniformity. It is neither eclectic nor sectarian. It is not the brotherhood of man based on the fatherhood of God. Harmony is unity in diversity. This harmony is something that is not to be attained by mere intellectual understanding and interfaith deliberations, nor can it be enacted by law. It is to be discovered and realized by deepening our individual God-consciousness. Essentially there is only one religion, which is the religion of God-consciousness, one salvation, which is communion or union with God, and the way to salvation is one, that is, the way of purity and holiness. It is not the literal and meticulous observance of ceremonials but the depth of spirituality that counts most. The depth of a person's God-consciousness is measured by his spiritual transformation. A tree is known by its fruit.

Vedanta's Contribution to World Thought

Vedanta's contributions to world religious thought may be said to be the following: upholding spiritual democracy, promoting spiritual humanism, and providing a basis for world unity. Vedanta advocates spiritual democracy. While each of the other systems presents only one ideal and path to its followers, Vedanta offers an infinite variety of ideals and paths to choose from in order to reach the same ultimate goal. An ancient Sanskrit verse says that the Supreme Brahman assumes many forms for the welfare of the seekers. Lacking in this freedom, religion becomes authoritarian and oppressive, insisting upon unthinking obedience to rigid traditions and dogmas and unquestioning belief in ceremonials and creeds. Such religion relies more on assent to given propositions than on certainty of conviction based on personal experience. Democracy is considered the best form of government because all the members freely participate in its process and take responsibility for governing. in the same way, religious freedom ensures spiritual individuality, critical enquiry, honest doubts, choice of the path, and verification of truth through personal experience. The ideas of "exclusive salvation," "a jealous God," "chosen people," and "the only way" are repugnant to Vedanta.

The second major contribution of Vedanta is spiritual humanism, as opposed to secular humanism. Secular humanism without a spiritual basis soon degenerates into enlightened self-interest. It seeks to make our life rich and meaningful without defining life's goal and purpose. Mere morality without spirituality is neither sure of itself nor self-sufficient. Vedanta, on the other hand, presents spiritual humanism, which is not so much doing good to others as it is rendering loving service to God, seeing His presence in all. Spiritual humanism embraces the whole of humanity, irrespective of race, culture, country, religion or social affiliation.

The third major contribution of Vedanta is its ideal for enduring world unity. World unity based on political considerations, economic interest, cultural ties, or humanitarian principles is never enduring. The bonds of such unity are too fragile to withstand the stresses and strains of social diversities. They are too often bonds of convenience and not of spiritual solidarity. Social diversity without spiritual unity always proves to be explosive and dangerous to society. Unity of the world-body, in order to be real, must be organic, and this requires a World-Soul. As the presence of the soul makes the human body with its various limbs into an organic unity, so also only a World-Soul that is capable of embracing countless diversities of culture, creed, religion, and human experience and aspirations can make the unity of the world-body organic and enduring. Such a World-Soul, in order to be universal, must be the Soul of all beings - human, superhuman, and subhuman - beyond all names, forms, and epithets. Vedanta provides that World-Soul, designating it as the all-pervading Self which is the Common Self of both the macrocosm and the microcosm. The unity of this Self includes not only humans but every form of life - animals,  plants, etc. Superficial critics often perceive this unity as anthropomorphism. But science has proved life is as much present in the galaxy as in a tiny plant, an animal, or a human being, only its manifestation varies. The fabric of life in the universe is organically woven. No one can move one atom of the universe without moving  the whole universe with it. No one can be truly happy by keeping the rest of the world unhappy. No one can live in peace on a island of prosperity surrounded by a sea of poverty and suffering.

Vedanta gives a spiritual interpretation of the Ultimate Reality, the meaning of creation, and the human individual, as opposed to mechanical and psychological interpretations. Its view of the cosmos is one of organic wholeness that includes all beings and things. It presents an immortality that is attainable and a salvation that is verifiable. It extols a way of life which is holistic and realistic. It avoids the extremes of pseudo-mysticism and occultism on the one hand, and reason for reason's sake on the other. Vedanta asserts that spirituality is the core dimension of both the macrocosm and the microcosm. To deny this core or to neglect it is the surest and shortest way to self-destruction. Vedanta considers all human problems as symptoms of a deep-rooted malady that is alienation from our true self, our spiritual dimension. Any lasting remedy must be spiritual, and not just humanistic, political, or social. Present day secular culture has broken the unity of existence. It has replaced the cosmic law of cooperation and interdependence with the low of competition and the struggle for survival. It has ignored the old Socratic aphorism that knowledge is virtue and replaced it with its own: knowledge is power. This has set in motion a chain reaction of alienation - alienation from Reality, alienation from nature, and alienation from our true self. Vedanta seeks to give us back our spiritual connection with everybody and everything. 

Vedanta is the very soul of India's spiritual wisdom. It is the message of the Upanishads, the voice of the Bhagavad Gita, and the song of all its prophets and Godmen, past and present. The conclusions of Vedanta are no idle speculations, but guidelines of life that have been tested and verified through countless spiritual experiments and adventures. Vedanta has saved India again and again in her times of spiritual crisis. Deviation from the wisdom of Vedanta always brought her spiritual decline, moral chaos, and material degradation, and recovery came by invoking the spirit of Vedanta.

The Nineteenth Century Eclipse of Vedanta

The nineteenth century witnessed as unprecedented spiritual eclipse in India, the land of Vedanta. Once again, Vedanta lost its fire and vigor and ceased to be a social reality. That which is the teaching for the strong-minded became a refuge for the weak and the escapists. The philosophy of Vedanta became life-negating instead of life-giving. The spiritual values it championed became separated from the material values which were their support. In search of God in heaven, it ignored the God in the human heart. The connecting link between mysticism and humanism was lost.  Vedanta forgot that holiness means nothing unless it brings happiness, that filling the empty stomach must come before filling the empty heart, and that renunciation presupposes acquiring and enjoying things to renounce. Passivity became its keynote and self-withdrawal its prime virtue. Inertia passed for tranquility, hopelessness for dispassion. Its spiritual quest encouraged a morbid inwardness, a flight from the world, in despair over life and its problems. Once a teaching of hope and strength, Vedanta of the time exaggerated human weakness, wickedness, unworthiness, and sinfulness. It only saw human limitations and not human possibilities. As a result, Vedanta proved to be a hollow philosophy of life that produced only seedy reformers, dreamy idealists, idle philosophers, and so-called knowers of truth who sought transcendental solutions for earthly problems. It created pessimists who proved life intolerable, yet continued to tolerate it. Except for a few sannyasins, the wisdom of Vedanta got lost in the wilderness of superstition, false piety, pseudo-mysticism, eroticism, occultism, and fatalism.

The Reasons for the Eclipse of Vedanta

The reasons for the eclipse are obvious. Self-Knowledge, the goal of Vedanta, has two movements: one is mysticism and the other is humanism. One is seeing God with eyes closed and the other is seeing the same God with eyes open. One is Knowledge, the other is intimate experience. The first without the second is sterile, the second without the first is meaningless. When mysticism and humanism get separated, both degenerate. Mysticism turns into 'mist-ism," a dreamy search for salvation in transcendental cloud-land. On the other hand, humanism without mysticism turns into secular humanism, becomes the practice of enlightened ego, and the enlightened ego eventually degenerates into a dark ego, obsessed with self-interest. Under such circumstances, our philanthropy and works of welfare prove to be drab substitutes for spirituality, futile efforts to fill the great spiritual void left by the decay of faith. The human soul craves God, but the substitutes offer consumer goods and services. It asks for immortality and the substitutes say, "Eat, drink, and make merry." Where there is nothing beyond the present to be hoped for, the philosophy of the creeds of secular humanism tries to make life less pitiably wretched. As the tide of  spirituality recedes, the tide of materialism rises. Secular humanism promises good roads, efficient water supply, unlimited movie houses, luxurious homes, excellent sanitation, humane slaughtering, the best of schools, radio and television installation for everyone, and free concerts for all, but  without the far horizons and invincible hopes. We cease to think of our immortal soul, of the supreme goal of our life, and the sublime secrets of the universe.

Swami Vivekananda Makes Vedanta Living

Swami Vivekananda was a synthesis of the cultures of the East and West, a daring do-or-die hero, tempered in the fire of holiness. He was quick, razor-sharp, and full of life. His fastidious oriental intellect seized upon the theories and practices of both the Eastern and Western minds, but was in a dilemma to reconcile faith to reason. The Western readiness to reason its way to truth, and active and often bloody quest for liberty and social justice, fascinated him in his early youth. On the other hand, in the midst of his intellectual joy there was a deep longing for God. With all his life he loved God, whom reason could not prove to exist.  The two streams of thought created a terrible commotion within him and he became a kind of roving threat to the holy men of his time with his one single forthright question: "Sir, have you seen God?" The search for truth ultimately brought him to Sri Ramakrishna, whom, after six years of struggle, he accepted as his master, and from his great master he learned the true spirit of Vedanta, If Vivekananda reasoned too much and doubted too long it was because his longing for knowledge was too deep and his spiritual hunger was too intense. By coming into contact with the God-man of nineteenth century India, the iconoclastic, rebellious, young Narendra turned into a flaming Vivekananda, the very embodiment of Vedanta. One day his dying master passed his final word of Vedanta to him, the worship of the living God.

After his master's passing, Vivekananda set out on a pilgrimage to the shrines of the living God. His master asked him to become a huge banyan tree, under whose shade would gather weary souls in search of peace and solace of life. No one saw India and India's masses as Vivekananda saw them, and what he saw made him restless and brought his mind down from the height of transcendental consciousness to the misery of the world around him. He saw the land of the all-pervading Brahman filled with cries of sorrow and suffering. The living God in all hearts, whom Vedanta glorifies, was being neglected, insulted, and trampled underfoot. The people having been subjected to centuries of invasions and foreign rule, had been beaten into submission, their never-ending poverty making them deaf to the song of the soul that was being sung within.

The lion-hearted Vivekananda roared in agony and frustration, and became restless for finding a way to put an end to this insult and neglect of the living God. He decided to awaken the masses by sounding the thundering drumbeats of Vedanta. He saw people in India worshipping local superstitions in the name of Vedanta. Like moss growing over a stone, a proliferation of dogmas, creeds, rituals, and theological speculations concealed the real teachings of Vedanta, until the whole Vedanta came to be a mere collection of empty ceremonials and intellectual jugglery. Vivekananda saw India in deep spiritual coma. Vedanta is the teaching neither for the weak nor for the empty stomach. He looked toward the West and realized that he needed the Western vigor, manliness, and virility to make Vedanta living. He wrote that he wished it infuse some of the American spirit into India, into "that awful mass of conservative jelly-fish, and then throw overboard all old associations and start a new thing, entirely new - simple, strong, new and fresh as the first-born baby -  throw all of the past overboard and begin anew."

There is an apparent contradiction between the outlook of the East and that of the West. The two often stand at opposite poles. What seems wisdom to the one is regarded as folly by the other; what delights the one disgusts the other. For the East, knowledge is virtue; it is "being" as opposed to "becoming." For the West, knowledge is not merely the satisfaction of virtue but is also a tool to improve the quality of life. Knowledge is  "becoming." To know is to be able to deal with the objects we know in a dynamic way that is practical and capable of changing external nature, accomplishing goals, and bringing about material improvement. Progress in the West is material, while in the East it is spiritual. The East seeks peace of soul even at the price of submission, while the West seeks freedom even at the price of bloody combat.

The East is concerned with finding the ultimate solution to the problems of life by absorption in the silence of the Self; it considers the world "a mirage," "a framework of illusion," "Maya," and  "a dog's curly tail"  that is impossible to straighten. Progress, the East says, is illusory, for we live not in a progressive world but in a changing world. To try to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is futile. True good is not to be achieved by material improvement. There is no use trying to make the dog's curly tail straight, to run after the mirage for water. It is foolish to try to save this world of delusion or make it better. Liberation of the soul calls for renunciation of desires, not their multiplication.

In contrast, the West looks upon these views as pessimistic, other worldly, and self-defeating. The ultimate goal can never be reached by bypassing immediate needs; one who is not fit for the earth is not fit for heaven either. Without material fulfillment, the hope for spiritual attainment is an empty dream. Without fulfillment of legitimate desires, our disinterestedness leads only to uninterestedness, dispassion to depression, and self-surrender to self-pity. Too often dispassion is caused by a zero bank balance or a torpid liver. Discontent with the world is often induced by a disordered colon, and overconscientiousness by overstimulated nerves.

However the East may brand the world as illusory and unreal, everyone knows that it is all too real. That the saints and mystics struggle hard to overcome the lures and temptations of this world only shows that the world is real and has power. The human individual is not just a soul, but is body-mind-soul. For the West, liberation, is cessation of suffering. As Dewey pragmatically said, "When you are lost in a forest, the true view of the way out is the view by which you get out." Living life calls for educating ourselves to face reality by knowing that we have nothing to rely on except our own power and potentiality.

The West looks upon the Eastern way as life-negating and depressive, and its so-called moralism as fanaticism. Such a way engenders self-isolation, selfish individualism, and cowardly retreat from the challenges of life. The Easterner is gloomy, impractical, and brooding. Matthew Arnold described a Hindu as one who lets "the legions thunder past, and then plunges in thought again."

The East responds by saying that the Western way with its love of unrestrained pleasure, is suicidal. Its so-called life-asserting views only create speed without destination. In the name of reason its philosophy goes round and round in a circle. Its freedom of self-expression in art and esthetics only caters to promiscuity, Its blind pragmatism seeks to nourish the body at the cost of the soul, the center of our being. The greatness of a person is not to be judged by what he does, but by what he is. A monkey trained to ride a bicycle, drink a glass, and smoke a cigar is still a monkey. The Westerner is sunny, shallow, noisy, and naive. The laws of history are pitiless; they show that civilizations and cultures that chose the way of speed, combat, and quantity quickly died because of  their spiritual bankruptcy.

The New Testament of Vedanta

Vivekananda saw the Western way as the missing counterpart of Vedanta. He admired the Western spirit - its penchant for heading into the future with courage and tenacity; its impatience, not to wait for things to happen but to make them happen; and its readiness to take responsibility upon itself, taking risks, making mistakes, and forging ahead propelled by nothing but itself. He loved the Yankee land and the Yankee spirit. He wrote: "I love the Yankee land - I like to see new things. I do not care a fig to loaf about old ruins and mope a life out about old histories and keep sighing about the ancients. I have too much vigor in my blood for that. In America is the place, the people, the opportunity for everything new . I have become horribly radical."

The high voltage of pluck and the thrust of the Western spirit fascinated Vivekananda. He passionately believed that the wisdom of the soul would never be a social reality without the support of the Western spirit, and that the Western way - its speed and thrust - unless guided toward the wisdom of the soul, would be the surest way to doom and destruction. Vedanta, in order to be complete, must combine the spirit of the East with that of the West.  If the Vedic statement "All this is verify Brahman" is real, then the other Vedic statement "that thou are" is equally real. Truth is to be realized both through knowledge and experience. Holiness and happiness are interrelated; mediation and action are complementary. Unselfishness is the greatest virtue, and working for the good of others the highest form of worship. Self-control is the supreme austerity. Our direct experience of the Ultimate is our greatest savior, and the surest sign of direct experience is permanent transformation of character. 

The most important contribution of the new Vedanta is its practicality. It replaces the humanitarian ideals of compassion and charity with the spiritual precept of service to the living God dwelling in the hearts of all beings. Practical Vedanta is a call to make the spiritual reality a social reality. Its essential teaching, in Swami Vivekananda's words, is that: "Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature: external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details"

The new Vedanta regards the four yogas - the paths of Jnana (Knowledge), Bhakti (devotion), Karma (selfless action), and Raja (concentration) - as four independent paths leading to the goal of Self-Knowledge, a departure from the old view that the first yoga was the highest and a culmination of the other three. The new approach no only declares that a human individual is divine, but also has daring faith in that divinity. Practical Vedanta is in agreement with Carl Jung, who rejects the belief that the brain is a "appendage of the genital glands," the view which leads to the neglect of the most important aspect of man's being. Practical Vedanta is not just a philosophy: it is a guideline for robust living, for being divine and also fully human. One cannot be divine unless one is human first.

The new Vedanta is available to all regardless of caste, color, or race. Its practice does not require a person to have a male body and Brahmin birth, and to live in the seclusion of the forest. The old Vedanta said that one who did not believe in God was an atheist; the new Vedanta says: He who does not believe in himself is an atheist. For the new Vedanta, material and spiritual development are conjoined. Work and worship go together. The inner and the outer dimensions of a person must be balanced in a pleasing harmony. The new approach does not believe in a God who promises a person eternal bliss in heaven but cannot give him bread here. Practical Vedanta is a active spiritual quest - not letting things happen, but causing them to happen.

Swami Vivekananda foresaw that the East needed the West as much a the West needed the East - not only for success, but also for survival. In his view, India, the center of Eastern spirituality, possesses the wisdom of the soul but lacks a strong body to house that soul. The West, on the other hand, possesses a strong body but lacks a soul. The soul and the body need to be united to make life meaningful. The West needs the wisdom of the soul so that is mighty achievements in science and technology will not prove self-destructive. India needs Western muscle, vigor and vitality, human concern, and self-dignity for her material regeneration. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, "By preaching the profound secrets of Vedanta in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ourselves the position of their teachers in spiritual matters; let them remain our teachers in all material concerns." 

Of the West, Swami Vivekananda wrote: "The present-day civilization of the West is multiplying day by day only the wants and distresses of men;" "Nowhere have I heard so much of `love, life, and liberty' as in this country [America], but nowhere is it less understood." He predicted that within fifty years Europe would crumble to pieces if it did not mend its way. Nearly fifty years after he had uttered this warning, the Second World War ended, leaving Europe shattered and in ruins. Mere knowledge without understanding and love can lead to human catastrophe. The Western catchword "man's right to knowledge and the fee use thereof" is a dangerous slogan.

In his message to India, Swami Vivekananda called for strength: "make your nerves strong. What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel. We have wept long enough. No more weeping, but stand on your feet and be men;" "First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards. Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita." Of Hinduism, he observed: "No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and low in such a fashion as Hinduism."

The New Vedanta Draws Fire

Vivekananda, with his new Vedanta, created a stir both in the East and in the West. While many universalists and scientifically-minded persons in the West applauded his new message and the noble-minded breathed the air of freedom, justice, equality, and spiritual democracy, the entrenched dogmatists denounced his teachings as monstrous and profane. They concocted false stories and spread rumors about his authenticity and personality, and invented the vilest of lies, assailing his character. It is said that there was even an attempt to do away with him altogether by mixing poison with his coffee in Detroit. On his return to India, he recalled; "It struck me more than once that I should have to leave my bones on foreign shores, owing to the prevalence of religious intolerance."

There were also attempts in India to suppress Vivekananda and his message. Leaders of orthodox Hindu society denounced his message of Vedanta as a veiled imitation of Christianity. They accused him of violations of caste rules and monastic traditions, on the grounds that he had crossed the black waters of the ocean, lived in foreign lands, and dined with foreigners. His followers, the Ramakrishna Order monks -- who were engaged in work of service nursing the sick, providing for the poor, and conducting epidemic and other relief work -- were branded as "scavenger monks," whose conduct was unworthy of the monastic life. Even some of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna expressed doubt in the beginning about Vivekananda's new Vedanta, considering it a departure from their master's message. The followers of Vivekananda were but a handful of young men fired up by the spirit of worshipping the living God. They truly believed his message and were ready to die for their beliefs. Vivekananda's message prevailed: nothing could stop it, because it answered the crying need of the time.

The same love that was born as Buddha, the Compassionate One, once again assumed a human form as Vivekananda. It was this unbounded love for suffering humankind that gave Vivekananda the mandate for his message. It gave him a power that nobody could match, a wisdom that no doctrine could qualify. Vivekananda's message bridged the gulf between man and God, and broke through the wall that traditionally separates the physical from the spiritual. In him the immortal message of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita came to life again. Despair over degradation turned into hope for the future.

Saints and savants think ahead of the contemporary world. They come to give us not the things we want, but the things we need. Small wonder then that contemporary society would condemn Socrates to die, denounce Buddha, crucify Jesus, and assassinate Gandhi. Truth must struggle hard against entrenched dogma, hardened superstitions, and credulous mass thinking. History tells us that the Jesuits, the disciples of St. Ignatius, were accused of violating orthodox commands of the Gospel. Carlyle condemned them as most fatal of all time; Napoleon hated them; and the American President John Adams warned his successor Thomas Jefferson about them. Yet the Jesuits prevailed in their efforts because of the fire of their faith.

In spite of opposition, Vivekananda scattered the seeds of Vedanta wherever he went. Those seeds were not sown in vain. From them have sprung up societies and centers of Vedanta, both in the East and in the West, under the banner of the Ramakrishna Order. These centers are not merely houses of worship but homes of service where the living God is served with material, intellectual, and spiritual offerings. 

The New Vedanta as the Religion of the Future

Vivekananda envisioned Vedanta as the religion of the future; in a prophetic mood, he said that his messages would sustain the world for the next fifteen hundred years. Science has shaken dogma-based religion to the very root. The decay of organized religion is in the air. Material usefulness is becoming the measure of all value. In spite of all our technological achievements, the world is experiencing a great void. Holy days are giving way to holidays. Psychotherapy is replacing the counseling of priests and pastors. Confession, once considered good for the soul, is being looked upon as bad for reputation. The word "sermon" in the present-day Western world is an unpopular word, and a preacher is regarded by some as a salesperson. For many, the word "liberated" means liberated from all religions.

The myths and symbols that once gave emotional support to humankind have been shaken by the cold conclusions of science. After the Thirty Years' War, Europe lost faith in God, and after two World Wars, humankind lost faith in itself. A culture of unbelief and skepticism has pervaded the world. Whatever claims the idealists put forth, the materialists try to disprove. The skeptics claim that there is nothing inherently spiritual about energy or wave equations. To the idealists the fourth dimension may seem to be out of this world, but to the skeptics it is no stepping stone to heaven. No dogma-based religion can fill the spiritual void. What is needed is a spiritual teaching that can meet the challenges of science and secularism, and make the spiritual quest meaningful for all. This is where the value of Vedanta lies.

Since the time of Vivekananda, Vedanta has silently but surely influenced the thought currents of the world, and built a consensus of amity among all the branches of human knowledge. When Vivekananda visited America, Robert Ingersoll, the famous orator and agnostic, told him: "Forty years ago you would have been hanged if you had come to preach in this country, or you would have been burnt alive. You would have been stoned out of the villages if you had come even much later." But today the religions are in a process of continuous dialogue. The voice of Vedanta can be heard in such movements as "Save the Planet," "Conserve the Forests," "Preserve the Ozone Layer," "Stop Cruelty to Animals", "One World, One Family," and others. At the present time, there is more consciousness of world unity than ever before. The voice of spirituality is becoming louder and louder, and the wave of spiritual democracy is breaking down the barrier of religiosity. Religious belief, for so long sure of its scriptural evidence, is now looking for the corroboration of science for its survival.

Vivekananda: Worshipper of the Living God

 Vivekananda was the worshipper of the living God. He made God in the heart of all the sole object of his worship. Even as a child he would be overwhelmed to see the sufferings of the poor. To see God and serve Him became the passion of his youth, the dream of his wandering days. He lived with the poor masses of India, slept with them, ate with them, cried for their material salvation. Untiringly, he lobbied for them with his master Sri Ramakrishna and at the doors of heaven. Service of this living God was the joy of his last days. Like Prometheus, he brought down the spiritual power from heaven and made it spring up on earth in the hearts of all. This shifting of God from a far off heaven to the human heart, as our innermost Self, marks a momentous advance in the spiritual history of the world.

Vivekananda passed away in 1902 before reaching the age of 40. But he left a promise for his living God: "And may I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls. And above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species, is the special object of my worship," "It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body -- to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire man everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God."

- Swami Adiswarananda


Recommended Reading:

     

More from Vivekananda: Raja-Yoga

www.ramakrishna.org

The complete works of Swami Vivekananda may be found online at this site:
http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info

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