Wednesday 5 June 2013

Vivekananda's Impact on World of Ideas

ॐ वीरेश्वराय विद्महे विवेकानन्दाय धीमहि । तन्नो वीर: प्रचोदयात् ।

Broadly speaking, humanism concerns itself with human interests and ideals, affirms a person’s autonomy and the supremacy of reason. Humanism was the ideology of the European Renaissance, which diverted the attention from God to the study of humankind. The Enlightenment that followed spurned religious and traditional authority and emphasized

reason instead of faith, experience instead of dogma, and scepticism instead of blind belief. With the passage of time these ideals proliferated into many areas such as arts, natural science, literature, religion, philosophy, and economics. All this empowered individuals. Humanism focused on Jeremy Bentham’s idea of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’

Spiritual Humanism

Vivekananda gradually influenced the discourse on humanism, as he added a spiritual dimension to it—he accepted humanism but did not discard faith. Faith is not an amalgam of illogical beliefs or presumptions; it is an inherent quality of the soul that needs awakening. Vedanta considers that faith is the reaffirmation of the unity of existence. Existence cannot be viewed in anthropocentric terms, because all life is one. The welfare of an individual lies in the welfareof others. Vivekananda’s humanism does not merely confine itself to humans and their immediate or long-term interests, but it is also concerned with the human impact on the world around. Inner environmental degradation is dangerous and leads to outer pollution. The emphasis laid by René Descartes, David Hume, and other thinkers on rationality, scepticism,and empiricism led many people away from spirituality. Seeking divine grace was considered primitive. On the other hand, Vivekananda’s humanism aimed at resuscitating faith in the highest ideals so that humans could broaden their vision, see Divinity in one and in others, and develop the natural quality of feeling for others, which, according to him, helps ‘growing in oneness’.53 He said: ‘Feel like Christ, and you will be a Christ; feel like Buddha and you will be a Buddha’ (ibid.).An intellect without feelings dries the personality, just as feeling without intelligence debilitates one’s viveka, discernment. Vivekananda established a relation between faith and reason, thought and feeling, humanity and Divinity. Vivekananda’s humanism has nothing in common with Marxism. It does not believe in class struggles or violence to achieve social justice. This new humanism is possible through mutual human concern and feeling. It is not opposed to the development of science and technology, but believes in divinizing human tendencies so that humankind is not endangered by unethical practices through science and technology. It aims at the ascent of humankind to God and rejects the cynical propositions of some humanists who proclaim the death of God.Vivekananda’s humanism is trifoliate—it links humans with humans, humans with nature, and humans with God. He was perhaps the first to use the word daridra-narayana, and exhorted all to see narayana, God, in the poor and lowly daridra. God, to him, was the sum of all souls: ‘Where should you go to seek for God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first? Why go to dig a well on the shores of the Ganga? Believe in the omnipotent power of love’ (5.51). He deprecated the educated and the rich for ignoring thedowntrodden classes and asked them to find out ways and means to ameliorate their lot. Vivekananda’s humanism transcends the boundaries of caste, creed, and nationality, and his ardour in this respect made him write: ‘I do not care forliberation, or for devotion, I would rather go to a hundred thousand hells, “Vasantavallokahitam charantah—Doing good to others (silently) like the spring”—this is my religion’ (7.486–7). Sri Aurobindo says: ‘Vivekananda drawn by the Absolute, feels also the call of the disguised Godhead in humanity … the call of the fallen and the suffering, the call of the Self to the self in the obscure body of the universe.’  Protagoras (c.490–20 bce) said: ‘Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that are, and of things which are not, that they are not.’  But Vivekananda went far ahead of the Greek philosopher by saying: ‘Man himself is the All. I cannot know the fundamental reality because I am that fundamental reality.’

Cosmology and Cosmogony

Theories about the origin and evolution of the universe have been many and varied—from the creation of the world in six days to the Big Bang and the inflationary theory of recent times. In olden days the only authority regarding the world and creation was religion. In Europe any theory going against settled Church doctrines were termed heretic. Towards the nineteenth century science, which could no longer be suppressed, brought out scientific views of the universe. These thoughts were revolutionary and created a great conflict among believers in the old theological interpretation of creation. As questions about cosmology and cosmogony were commonplace in the US and Europe, Vivekananda touched upon the subject in a unique way, basing his observations mainly on Sankhya and Vedanta philosophies while also bringing in scientific theories. His view of creation roused great interest among religious and cultural groups in the West. The principles of these philosophies were startling, modern, and though seemingly counter-intuitive, were authenticated by science. Vivekananda spoke about the Indian ideas of cyclic time against the Western ideas of linear time. He also spoke of immensely long periods of time, which was shockingly new to the West. He showed that creation and evolution go on in cycles and are under the strict laws of causation. Today’s scientific theories of inflationary models, nebulae clumping into stars, stars later dying to give birth to other stars, are perfectly in accord with what Vivekananda preached. Acharya Shankara regarded creation as maya, or vyavaharika satta, empirical reality; Ramanuja and Madhvacharya deemed it real. Vivekananda argued that the world is neither real nor unreal but the ‘shadow of truth’ (8.30). ‘Creation is eternal without beginning or without end, the ever moving ripple in an infinite lake’ (ibid.). ‘God and creation are like two lines without end, without beginning and parallel’ (5.313). ‘It [creation] is, it was, and is to be’ (ibid.). Vivekananda’s view that Being is the substratum of the whole universe is in line with the Upanishads, which say: ‘All these beings have sat, Existence, as their root. Existence is their abode. Existence is their place of merger.’ Although Vivekananda did not discuss in detail the various theories of creation and evolution of the universe, he felt that the Darwinian theory of evolution was not the final word on the subject. Firstly, he said that every evolution presupposes an involution; secondly, though the species evolve through competition and the struggle of the fittest, in the higher human realm it is cooperation that makes species evolve faster. Giving a moral tilt to the argument Vivekananda observed that ‘the highest evolution of man is effected through sacrifice alone’. Today many of these ideas are accepted by scholars and are gaining ground even among common people. From another standpoint, Vivekananda put forth Patanjali’s view that the transformation of one species into another is affected by prakrityapurat, in-filling of nature. Here nature impels us towards perfection by changing our bodies and mind so that we can reach the goal. Vivekananda argued that the universe was not created by an extra-cosmic God or an outside agent. ‘It is self-creating, self-dissolving, selfmanifesting.’  The primeval matter required for creation is not provided to some divine craftsman by an invisible, external, agency, but is a part of Prakriti, which includes the whole universe and is in constant evolution and transformation. Basing his view of the Hindu ideas of creation—rather projection—Vivekananda argued that the Vedic teachings were in consonance with the scientific laws that affirm that the sum total of the cosmic energy is the same throughout. The question ‘if there was a time when nothing existed, where was all this manifested energy?’ is answered by Vivekananda in this way: ‘Some say it was in a potential form in God. In that case God is sometimes potential and sometime kinetic, which would make Him mutable. Everything mutable is a compound, and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction. So God would die, which is absurd. Therefore, there never was a time when there was no creation’ (1.7). In another lecture delivered on 9 April 1900 in San Francisco, Vivekananda asked with sarcasm: ‘Six thousand years ago God woke up from His dream and created the world [and] before that there was nothing? What was God doing then, taking a good nap?’ (6.55). He argued that everything has a cause, and there never was a time when nature did not exist, because the cause has always existed either in subtle, causal, or gross form. Evolution precedes involution and vice versa.The causal universe evolves into the subtle, the subtle into the gross, then the gross reverts to the subtle and then to the causal in a cyclic movement over and over again. The period of one manifestation of this universe is known as kalpa. At the end of each kalpa everything returns to the primal state, where it remains for a time before springing forth again. ‘What becomes of all these forces, the Pranas? They are resolved back into the primal Prana, and this Prana becomes almost motionless—not entirely motionless; and that is what is described in the Vedic Sukta: “It vibrated without vibrations”—Anidavatam’  (3.399). From the amoeba to the human species life is a single unit. Accordingly, Vivekananda said: ‘The little cell, which becomes afterwards the man, was simply the involved man and becomes evolved as a man’ (2.208). In the Vedas, creation is likened to a cosmic yajna, which the supreme Being performs himself. Even though Vivekananda spoke rationally about cosmology and cosmogony, at the heart of his message was the idea that this creation is divine—the body of God. His own realizations tallied with the Vedic teachings as described in the Rig Veda’s ‘Purusha Sukta’, that the cosmos is the body of the Purusha, the primeval Being, who projects the world out of himself. ‘From him Viraj [cosmic person] was born; again Purusha  from Viraj was born. As soon as he was born, he spread eastward and westward over the earth’ (10.90.5). The Purusha is presented as having thousands of heads, eyes, feet, and so on.  Vivekananda also translated into English the ‘Nasadiya Sukta’, Hymn of Creation, of the Rig Veda, which speaks of the unitary nature of being and non-being (10.129.1–7). The Sukta is one of the finest specimens of ancient Indian philosophical thought; it’s first two stanzas are as follows: Existence was not then, nor non-existence, The world was not, the sky beyond was neither. What covered the mist? Of whom was that? What was in the depths of darkness thick? Death was not then, nor immortality, The night was neither separate from day. But motionless did That vibrate  Alone, with Its own glory one— Beyond That nothing did exist.


Reincarnation—jivas passing from one body to another after death—has been debated throughout the course of history and soundly rejected by the Abrahamic religions. The Greek philosophical word ‘metempsychosis’ has the same meaning, but is usually applied to the belief that human souls may be incarnated in animals. As the subject formed part of the religious discourse of nineteenth-century US and Europe, Vivekananda spoke on it at Evanston, Des Moines, Memphis, Bay City, and other places and won accolades for his unique interpretation. Vivekananda’s views on reincarnation were so novel that the Evanston Index of 7 October 1893 wrote that such views were not often heard in this part of the world. He argued that the theory was not jargon but a fact. The main point to be decided was whether we have had a past. ‘We know that we have a present and feel sure of a future. Yet how can there be a present without a past? … The same arguments that prove that there is a future prove that there is a past. It is necessary that there should be causes other than God’s will. Heredity is not able to give sufficient cause’ (3.479). He further stated that some people do retain memories of past life in childhood days. Vivekananda justified reincarnation on metaphysical and moral grounds, by bringing in the theory of karma, which explains why a person is born rich or poor, healthy or disabled. All people have different bodies, minds, capacities, morals, and so on, and it is wrong to blame God on that account, because he would then become ‘a most unjust creature’. Life on earth represents many stages through which the jiva has to pass in order to return to its original source, God. The regression of souls to lower forms of existence is to exhaust the sanchita karma, accumulated effect of actions done in past lives. Thus the jiva travels from lower to higher planes. Vivekananda accepted the argument of the Nyaya philosophy that the experiences of life do not wither away, and that our karma, though apparently disappeared, still remains unperceived, adrishta, and reappears as tendencies, pravrittis. A newborn looks so innocent and nice, but It has brought along the burden of karma created through many lives; these tendencies will gradually unfold as the child grows up. Rejecting the arguments of the Madhyamika Buddhists, who state that there is no permanent soul, Vivekanandastated: ‘If the soul is not an individual but a combination of “Skandas” (notions), as the Madhyamikas among the Buddhists insist, still they find pre-existence absolutely necessary to explain their position.’ The belief in reincarnation had prevailed among ‘the Alexandrian Jews imbued with the doctrine of the individual soul’ (4.264). The first fathers of the Christian Church, some Arab tribes, Celtic Druids, Scythians, and even Australian aboriginals believed in the reincarnation theory of the Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Jesus Christ tacitly expounded this theory when he told his disciples that John the Baptist, his guru, was Elijah in his former life: ‘And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, who was for to come. He that has ears to hear, let him hear.’ There are passages in the Apocrypha indicating that many Jews were holders of the doctrine of transmigration, and in John it seems indicated in the disciple’s question: ‘Master, who did sin, this manor his parents that he was born blind?’  The Christian Council of Nicaea in 325 ce, however, insisted that the doctrine of reincarnation should be dropped from the Bible. In 533 ce the Second Council of Constantinople declared that the doctrine of reincarnation is anathema. The Neoplatonists regarded metempsychosis as an integral part of their doctrine. Virgil and Ovid, Roman poets, were its enthusiastic supporters. Some Christian saints accepted it as well. During the medieval age the theory of reincarnation won a number of adherents, including Johann W Goethe, Johann G Fichte, David Hume, Gotthold E Lessing, and Friedrich W Schelling. In modern times Western thinkers like Herbert Spencer and Arthur Schopenhauer found in it a lofty explanation of life’s seeming inequities. Vivekananda stressed the age-old Hindu belief that one should not harm anyone, as every action would recoil as per the eternal law of cause and effect. ‘You cannot injure anybody and sit quietly. It is a wonderful machinery—you cannot escape God’s vengeance’ (6.116). Ahimsa entails the nurturing of love for all, and the light of love ignited by sadhana dispels the darkness of anger and hatred in the human mind, makingus peaceful.

A Great Reconciler

Much can be learnt from Vivekananda on different subjects. Vivekananda preached that religion, in the coming ages, cannot be divorced from any human endeavour, and that all endeavours can transform us spiritually. All so-called secular knowledge can benefit from spiritual insights and wisdom, which will transform knowledge and make it sacred. Humanists may see in Vivekananda a modern Protagoras; while the latter stated that ‘man is the measure of all things’, the former said that ‘no books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the Self that appears as man’. Rationalists can find that Advaita Vedanta is not another religion or school of philosophy forcibly thrusting a belief system, but it is a practical, scientific, spiritual, and an all-encompassing way of life, which can help one achieve higher goals. Reformers can learn that society comes out of the darkness into the light, and that violent methods, denunciations, and pitting one group against another do not work. Vivekananda’s saying that each human being was like a bubble in the cosmic ocean, though a small one, in comparison with prophets or saints who were big bubbles, makes us optimistic. His observation that ‘it is very good to be born in a church but it is very bad to die there’ (2.39) is not sectarianism, but a pointer to the fact that human beings normally adhere to forms and ceremonies throughout their lives and fail to rise to spirituality. They do not understand that Christ and Buddha are not names, but denote the supreme state that everyone needs to attain. Vivekananda’s ideas are so prolific that one can even find in them tips and insights on cooking, diet, health, travel, music, fine arts, and innumerable other things. Vivekananda was a great reconciler. He provided a link between spirituality and science, tradition and modernity, material prosperity and spiritual ascension, intellect and intuition, the spirit of enquiry and the spirit of faith, and the best of the East and the West. He combined sannyasa with social work, bhakti with shakti—devotion with strength—and patriotism with an international outlook. Besides, he reconciled the three different schools of Indian philosophy—Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita, and Advaita—describing them as stages in spiritual development. He wanted a balance between intellect and love, mystical nature and reason, and theory and practice. His words are not ordinary but the outpourings of a prophet—they soothe and inspire, inform and educate, jolt one’s complacency and deep-seated notions, and act like the surgeon’s knife to dissect fears, prejudices, and complexes from the subconscious mind. Sri Aurobindo, who described Vivekananda as a vibhuti, spiritual splendour, like the great Acharya Shankara, observed: ‘Of this freer dealing with past and present, this preservation by reconstruction, Vivekananda was in his life-time the leading exemplar and the most powerful exponent.’  Humankind today is caught between the Scylla of plain materialism and the Charybdis of religious materialism. Organized faiths have virtually failed to inculcate simple faith and give direction. When religions have made God a commodity, can humans remain behind? We live in a world of artificiality—from our smiles and laughter to our wishing good, from our daily grind centring round food, drinks, dress, and enjoyments to our feeble prayers. While everyone talks glibly of freedom—social, economic, political, religious, and cultural— humans have enslaved themselves on all fronts, internally and externally. The ‘lion’ has turned into a ‘lamb’! Material advancement has made people restless and destroyed the environment as never before in human history. It is the inner spirit of the human being that Vivekananda wanted to awake. It is in this context that his ideas become relevant.

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