Swami Vivekananda, in his discussions on the Upanishads in his wonderful book, the Jnàna-Yoga, borrows many of the arguments of Shankara, the great Advaitic philosopher. But, in fact, he went beyond; he even surpassed Shankara in certain respects. For example, in his discussion on the Brihadàranyaka Upanishad referred to earlier, Shankara had said that it is for the satisfaction of the individual self—mark the words ‘àtmanastu kàmàya’—that the wife is fond of the husband and vice versa. But Swamiji has enlarged the interpretation. According to Dinesh Chandra Shastri, Swamiji’s interpretations have been still liberal enough because he has said that it is because of the presence of the Supreme âtman behind all entities of the world that things are covetable, that relations are lovable. It is because of that Supreme Being which shines in all of them, we love them and cherish them.
How does Swamiji discuss the âtman? All of you know that the Upanishads and the Vedanta say that the âtman is unchanging and unmoving. The Vedanta has been referred to as the end of the Vedas.That is, it contains the essence of the Vedas. The Veda is, in fact, a huge literature. But Swamiji said that three-fourth of it is karma-kànda or rituals that tell us how to perform a sacrifice or how to lead a proper life and so on. But only a small fraction of it deals with jnàna-kànda, the Vedanta or the Upanishads. But although small in volume, the jnàna-kànda deals with âtman or Brahman. It deals with the life beyond. It tells us that we are not merely encased in the small body of ours. It tells you about âtman, Brahman or the Supreme Being Ishvara.
Swamiji uses a unique simile to explain this ultimate reality. He says, consider a dark room. There are a number of spectators in the room. There is a white screen and there is a projector going on. As the lights are on, different characters in the film become living, as it were. They cry, they laugh, they do all sorts of things. And we, who watch the movie, gradually become one with it. We also start crying, we also become cheerful and laugh. A discerning mind, however, would understand that it is merely a film roll moving because the actors and actresses had finished their job long ago. They are now perhaps resting in their own rooms! But when we see the film we forget it all. The light, the sound, the action engulf us. We become one with the film! Swamiji says, such is the world. We become one with it. We become one with its sorrow and happiness. The relationship, the objects, we cherish them as our own.
Swamiji says: well, look at the screen on which the film was being projected. The white screen is there unchanged. It was there before the movie started, it is still there after the movie ended. Swamiji says that similar is the âtman. Without that white screen the movie would not make any sense; all the laugh, dance, happiness and misery would not take shape without that substratum. âtman or Brahman is that unchanging substratum.
So this âtman, which is unchanging, ever present, and ever pure must be sought, must be looked after. Thus the Upanishads tell us ‘Tat tvam asi’. Swamiji untiringly mentions this great Upanishadic dictum. What does it say? It says Tat, meaning ‘That’, ie the Supreme Being. Tvam is ‘you’. ‘You are That’. Vedanta says you must be able to discern this clearly and understand that all nàma and rupa (names and forms), which are nothing but upàdhis or adjuncts, can be gradually removed. If one is able to do that one would understand that he or she is essentially the pure, undiluted, unchanging Self.What is the benefit of all this methodology of shravana (hearing the truths of the scriptures), manana (cogitation of what is heard) and nididhyàsana (meditation on the truth)? What do you gain from all these? Swamiji says, we gain the highest. What do we gain? We become fearless. Here, Swamiji has given a wonderful example in his Jnàna-yoga. He says, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Emperor had come to India. He had crossed the Hindukush and fought against king Puru. Then Alexander was a young man. But he had a great teacher whose name was Aristotle. He must have heard about the wisdom of the Hindus from that great philosopher. So, before leaving the land of knowledge, ie India, Alexander wanted to meet a sage. He was taken to one such sage and he found that the sage did not have any belongings, nor did he have any craving for anything. All the same, he was beaming with happiness. Alexander was satisfied when he saw this sage and reasoned—‘Could there be such a man who is without any craving for belongings, for property, for name and fame!’ He made up his mind to take this wonderful specimen to Greece. He made the proposal but the yogi declined to move an inch. Then, an infuriated Alexander threatened the yogi that he would kill him if he did not comply. Now the sage laughed aloud and said: ‘You haven’t uttered a greater falsehood earlier.
How can you kill me? I’m not the body. I’m not the mind. I’m the âtman, the Soul, the Spirit eternal. I can’t be pierced by the sword. I can’t be burnt by fire.’ Think of this person! He had no worldly possessions, yet he was stronger than the Greek Emperor because he was rooted in his Self, because he had realized his Self, realized his kingdom within. Therefore the Upanishads declare that ‘brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati’. That is, the person who knows Brahman verily becomes Brahman. The limitations of the flesh have disappeared forever from him. Poetic imageries Swami Vivekananda was not content to look only at the philosophical side of the Upanishads. The poet in him also recognized their wonderful imageries. In his ‘Lectures from Colombo to Almora’, as also in many other lectures, he referred to one of the most poetic imageries of the Mundaka Upanishad. The verse runs as follows: Dvà suparnà sayujà sakhàyà samànam vriksham parishasvajàte; Tayoranyah pippalam svàdvattyanashnannanyo abhicàkashiti. (III.1)
What does it say? It says, two birds were sitting on the branch of a tree. One of them was busy eating the fruits—bitter fruits of life. The other bird was calm, eating nothing. Both of them were friends and looked alike. Both of them clasped the branch of the tree. Yet their nature was different. One of them, the jivàtman was busy tasting the bitter and sometimes the sweet fruits of life. The Paramàtman, the other bird, sitting higher is calm in its resplendent glorious Self. Swamiji says, gradually the busy bird started hopping towards the calm, serene, majestic bird. And one day it had disappeared into the other. That is, the jivàtman gradually became nearer and nearer the Paramàtman. They become one.
This is brahmajnàna about which Vedanta tells us again and again through various imageries. We must not forget that the jivàtman is essentially the same as paramàtman. Again, the Upanishads do not tell us always about Advaita. There are dualistic passages in the Upanishads as well. The Upanishads thus have all streams of thought—Dvaita (dualism), Vishishtàdvaita (qualified monism) and Advaita (Monism).
For instance, Bhakti-Yoga tells us about devotion. Swamiji has discussed the sublime passage of the Brihadàranyaka Upanishad that tells us about the unity of the Self. In the passage which I have referred to a little earlier, he said: Can’t you see the wonderful flow of devotion, of love, which engulfs a person who sees the âtman everywhere? As he sees the same âtman everywhere, he feels the welling-up of compassion within. As he feels his self in all, he wants to have all as his very own. None of them are strangers to him anymore. He wants to serve them. It is thus that Swami Vivekananda has discussed ‘Practical Vedanta’ in this age. The Vedanta which remained confined in the dense forests, the books of the Brahmins, and the monasteries of sadhus have been brought to our everyday life.
This life-giving message is not theoretical merely, as we have pointed out earlier. Western historians have again and again blamed Indians for their passionate attachment to religion. But, when Swamiji was returning from the West, someone asked, ‘How do you feel Swamiji after four years of life in the West?’ Swamiji replied, ‘India was holy to me earlier, but now every dust of it is holy to me.’ India was punyabhumi (holy land) to him. Returning from the West, in a wonderful historical analysis, he pointed out that every nation in the world has some prime area of concern. The English have justice, the French have their love for liberty, and in India we have dharma. Dharma is what holds us. Swamiji said, all reforms in India must come through dharma. In sharp contrast to what the Western historians have claimed, he said; who said that it was this devotion to the Vedic dharma that led to our decline? The decline came because people had forgotten over time what real religion was all about.
Dharma had been confined in the cooking pots, had been restricted to achàra and vichàra, some local rites and small areas of worship. Swamiji argued that people had forgotten the sublime message of the Vedanta, great life-giving call of the Vedanta. Therefore Swamiji exhorted us to go back to the Upanishads, to the great lives of Nachiketà and Yàjnavalkya and listen to the ‘Song Celestial’, ie the Gità, which has its roots in the Upanishads. Swamiji would say: Attend to the call ‘I am Brahman, I am Brahman’. Meditate on its truth day and night. There would be various obstacles in the way, there would be vikshepa or distractions. Remove them forcibly and tell yourselves—you are strong, you are sinless, you are the Soul Immortal. Remove all thoughts of duality. Remove all thoughts of limitation. Remove all sorts of past sins. Remove all old samskàras (tendencies). Yes, earlier lives, earlier actions have been there. Earlier samskàras have been there. But today I have listened to the words of the Upanishads, the great teachings of the Upanishads. So I should not look back anymore. I must delve deep into the nectarine ocean of
Sri Ramakrishna had once asked young Narendranath: Naren, if you have a pitcher of amrita, where would you sit and drink the nectar? Young Narendra who used to go to the Brahmo-Samaj, with his intellectual rationality gave a cautious reply. He said he would sit at the corner of the pitcher.Sri Ramakrishna asked, ‘Why?’ Narendra said, ‘Because, if I dip too much, I may get drowned.’ Sri Ramakrishna laughed and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. This is the pitcher of immortality; one who sinks there, doesn’t die. He or she becomes immortal.’ The Upanishads thus preach to us the message of immortality. It was Swami Vivekananda, who in this age carried the torch, the flame of the Upanishads. Just as Bhagirath had brought down the Ganga from the locks of Mahàdeva into the plains, Swamiji in this age has brought the Upanishads down to all of us. People, who do not know the intricacies of the scriptures, but want to lead a blessed life, a life of light and wisdom, should read Swamiji’s Complete Works. May Swamiji enlighten us and open our eyes so that we can comprehend the real meaning of the Upanishads.