Swami Vivekananda was born on 12th January 1863, as Narendranath Dutta – he was an Indian Hindu monk and philosopher. He was a chief disciple of the 19th century Indian mystic Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva. Being born in an aristrocatic family at Shimlepara in North Calcutta, Narendranath Dutta was inclined towards spirituality. He was influenced by his guru Sree Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva, from whom he learnt that all living beings were an embodiment of the divine self; therefore service to God could be rendered by service to humankind. Swami Vivekananda was a spiritual genius of commanding intellect and power – Vivekananda crammed immense labor and achievement in his short lifespan (12th January 1863 – 4th July 1902). “Only the sinners live long” – it should not be taken to mean that all those who live long are sinners but the reverse of it is also true. Lives of many great men are shorter – Swami Vivekananda is one of them. But the amount of noble works that Swami Vivekananda had done in such a short span of his lifetime, that even after over a century since his demise, he is still considered as the most powerful youth icon and an inspiration to the country. Narendranath Dutta embraced the agnostic philosophies of the Western mind along with the worship of science, from very young age. At the same time, vehement in his desire to know the truth about God, he questioned the people of holy reputation, asking them whether they had seen God. He found such a person in Sri Ramakrishna, who became his master, allayed his doubts, gave him the vision of God and transformed him into sage and prophet with the authority to teach.
After Ramakrishna’s death, Vivekananda toured the Indian sub-continent extensively and acquired first-hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing in British India. Then Swami Vivekananda renounced the world and criss-crossed India as a wandering monk. His mounting compassion for Indians, drove him to seek their material help from the West. Later, being influenced by Western esotericism, Swami Vivekananda made himself a key figure in the introduction
of the Indian darsanas (teachings and practices) of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world-religion during late 19th century. Swami Vivekananda was a major force in the contemporary Hindu reform movements of India, and contributed to the concept of nationalism in colonial India. Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission. He is perhaps best known for his speech; which began with the words – “Brothers and sisters of America.....”, in which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago (America) in the year 1893. Accepting an opportunity to represent Hinduism at Chicago’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, Swami Vivekananda was successful enough to popularize himself as an instant celebrity in America and created a ready forum for his spiritual teachings. For the next three years, Swami Vivekananda spread the Vedanta philosophy and religion in America and England and then returned to India to found the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Exhorting the nation to a spiritual greatness, Swami Vivekananda awakened India to a new national consciousness. In India, Swami Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint, and his birthday is celebrated as ‘National Youth Day’.
Swami Vivekananda was a great lover of Vedantic Philosophy. By his personal example, he preached monism or Advaita Vedantism. By that Swamiji showed his toleration towards every religion. He spoke the message of Vedanta regarding the unity of world and to believe the shapeless God. The name of Swami Vivekananda sends through us a stirring current of strength : “I am one of the proudest men ever born”. While speaking about his Hindu roots, Swamiji proclaimed, “...but let me tell you frankly, it is not for myself, but on account of my ancestry”. Swami Vivekananda propagated the idea of a ‘universal religion’ and equated it with Vedanta.
Being a redoubtable spiritual leader, he was an exponent of Vedanta and Yoga. He is a major figure in the history of the Hindu reform movements. While he is widely credited with having uplifted his own nation (India), Swami Vivekananda simultaneously introduced Yoga and Vedanta to America and England with his seminar lectures and private discourses on Vedanta Philosophy. He was the first known Hindu sage to travel to West, where he introduced Eastern thoughts at
the World’s Parliament of Religions, in connection with the World’s Fair in Chicago in the year 1893. Swami Vivekananda is still regarded as one of the most famous Hindu sages of the modern age. He is considered by many as a ‘heralder’ of a new era of Hinduism, being the first person in the modern age, who gave the message of Vedanta to the audiences in the seminar of an international level. Yoga practitioners in the West recently celebrated the centenary of Swamiji’s first journey to the West as the birth of the international practice of Yoga.
Swami Vivekananda spelt out the four pathways of attaining moksha from the worldly pleasure and attachment in his books – ‘Raja-yoga’, ‘Karma-yoga’, ‘Jnana-yoga’ and ‘Bhakti-yoga’.
1) KARMA-YOGA : Karma-yoga is the yoga of selfless-action, which tells that through correct actions the ego of trouble-maker can turn into the ego of trouble-shooter. Karma-yoga, also called Karma-marga is one of the three spiritual paths of Hinduism, based on the yoga of action and it purifies human-mind (as per statement of Bhagavad Gita). It says that even if you do not believe in God, just focus on your work with utmost honesty, dedication and power of your mind. Be non-attatched and keep working for work’s sake. Instead of worrying about the results, leave the fruits of your work to the Lord. To a Karma-yogi right action is a form of prayer. Karma-yoga teaches that a spiritual seeker should according to ‘dharma’, without being attached to the fruits of personal consequences. Karma-yoga leads to consider dharma of work and the work according to one’s dharma, doing god’s work and in that sense becoming and being ‘like unto god Krishna’ in every moment of one’s life. According to Bhagavad Gita, Karma-yoga is a path to reach ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation) through work. It is a rightful action without being attached to fruits or being manipulated by what the results might be, a dedication to one’s duty and trying one’s best while being neutral to rewards or outcomes such as success or failure.
2) BHAKTI-YOGA : Bhakti-yoga is the process of inner purification, which emphasizes the ‘path of knowledge’, also called the path of self-realization. Bhakti-yoga is the path of loving devotion to the personal god. It is one of the three classical paths or margas for attaining moksha
(salvation/liberation). Love is the vital element for all human beings. Love is pure and cosmic, but ego pollutes it and gives out negative elements like lust, greed, jealousy and anger. God is the only one who truely loves us. Pour holy thoughts into the mind with prayer, chant holy words, study holy books and keep the holy company within your heart.
3) RAJA-YOGA : Raja-yoga seeks to attain the divine by igniting the flame of knowledge within one-self. In Sanskrit texts, Raja-yoga was both the goal of yoga and a method of attaining it. It is considered a form of royal-union. It is the highest state of practicing yoga to achieve Samadhi.
Most seekers do not have the patience and perseverance to follow this path for the sacrifices that it calls for. Raja-yoga dispels that the mind is perverted to follow the path of reason. Teaching the process of meditation and concentration, it tells you to confront the restlessness of the mind and uproot it. It is a spiritual path but it is not universally accepted as distinct from the other three. Raja-yoga is a classical yoga is mentioned as a fourth one, an extension introduced by Swami Vivekananda, who gave his interpretation of the Yoga sutras of Patanjali in his Raja-yoga.
4) JNANA-YOGA : Jnana-yoga is the path of knowledge(jnana). Weeding out the darkness of ignorance through the light of knowledge, it brings the ‘fire’ and ‘light’ alive by burning all the impurities of the mind. The mind does not give up its attachment to worldly pleasures unless it has tasted something greater and higher. Self-knowledge, according to Jnana-yoga is the true liberation. Jnana-yoga is a spiritual practice that pursues knowledge with questions such as ‘Who am I?’ ,’What am I?’ among others. The practitioner studies usually with the aid of counsellor or guru, mediates, reflects, and reaches liberating insights on the nature of his own Self (Atman/Soul) and its relationship to the metaphysical concept called Brahman in Hinduism. The ideas of jnana-marga are discussed in ancient and medieval era Hindu scriptures and texts such as Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Jnana-yoga is one of the three classical types of yoga mentioned in Hindu philosophies. Jnana-yoga encourages its adepts to think and speak of themselves in the third person as a way to distance themselves from the ego and detach their eternal self (atman) from the body related to one (maya).
Influences which shaped Swami Vivekananda’s Philosophy : The philosophy of Swami Vivekananda was shaped by three sources. These three sources are ‘The Philosophy of Vedanta’, ‘Teachings of Ramakrishna Paramhansa’ and ‘Swami Vivekananda’s own experiences of life’ – these three sources combined to influence his thought. Swami Vivekananda thoroughly studied Indian Philosophy and Indian scriptures during his student life. Swamiji was actually lured by Vedanta. Ultimately, the Philosophy of Vedanta entered deep into his heart and soul.
‘Vedanta’ means – the end or final portion of Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest extant of the literary monuments of the Aryan mind. In the Vedas, the origin of Indian Philosophy may be easily traced. In the history of Indian Philosophy, the Vedanta has been playing a vital role since Vedic period till contemporary period. Again Vedanta’s philosophical ideals have variously influenced Indian religious and cultural lifestyle. The founder of the Vedanta, Badarayana gave a formal but very brief explanation of Vedanta-philosophy in Brahmasutra. After him, Sankaracharya also commented on ‘Brahmasutra’. As a matter of fact, many commentators at different ages wrote the commentaries on ‘Brahmasutra’. Consequently various schools of Vedanta philosophy are formed, according to various commentaries. Out of the various schools, some have played important role in the history of Vedanta philosophy. These are – ‘Advaitavada’ of Adi Sankara in Sankarabhasya, ‘Visistadvaitavada’ of Ramanuja in Sribhasya, ‘Bhedabhedavada’ in Bhaskarbhasya by Sri Bhaskaracharya and ‘Dvaitavada’ of Madhava in Purnaprajnabhasya.
i) Sankara Vedanata (9788-820 AD) : According to Dr. Sarvapally Radhakrishnan, “It is impossible to read Sankara’s writings, packed as they are with serious and subtle thinking, without being conscious that one is in contact with a mind of a very fine penetration and profound spirituality. Sankara’s philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after... whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were”. The ultimate reality according to Sankaracharya is ‘Atman’ or ‘Brahman’. Brahman is pure consciousness – ‘Jnana-svarupa, ‘Nirguna’ and
‘Nirvisesha’. Individual self or ‘jiva’ is a subject –object complex. Its subject element is pure-consciousness or ‘sakshin’ and the object element is ‘antahkarana’. Brahman, associated with ‘maya’ appears as the qualified ‘Brahman’ or ‘Iswara’. This ‘Iswara’ is the creator, preserver and destroyer of this universe. ‘Maya’ or ‘Avidya’ is not pure illusion – it is not only the absence of knowledge. The relation between Brahman and Jiva is non-difference. When right knowledge dawns, this unity of ‘Jiva’ with ‘Brahman’ is realized. ‘Maya’ vanishes at the dawn of right knowledge – this is called liberation.
ii) Visistadvaitavada (1017-1137 AD) : According to Ramanuja, there is no undifferentiated pure consciousness. Pure difference and pure identity are alike unreal. Brahman is ‘saguna’ and ‘savisesha’. The self is the eternal substratum of consciousness, but not pure consciousness. ‘Jiva’ or individual souls are real spiritual substances. In liberation they do not merge in God, but only become similar to Him. Ramanuja’s view is non-dualism, qualified by difference or Visistadvaitavada. He recognizes three ultimate real things – soul (chit), matter (achit) and God (Iswara). God is a perfect personality. He is full of existence, knowledge, bliss, truth, goodness, beauty, lustre, love and power.
iii) Madhva Vedanta (1179 AD) : Madhva is the champion of unqualified dualism (dvaita). He advocates the reality of five-fold differences between God and Soul, Soul and Soul, Soul and Matter, God and Matter, Matter and Matter. Like Ramanuja, Madhva believes God, Soul and Matter as eternal and absolute but God alone is independent. God possesses infinitely good qualities. Individual souls are atomic and numberless. The individual soul is essentially conscious and blissful.
Swami Vivekananda does not favour a fragmentation of Vedanta into different systems but he has been most profoundly influenced by Adi Sankara’s Advaitavada. The monistic nature of Adi Sankara’s philosophy has attracted Swami Vivekananda. According to Swami Vivekananda, all the systems of Vedanta are valid but according to him, “Advaitavada is the highest altitude of the spiritual life and others are only steps towards it”.
It is impossible to write about the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, without going back to the ideology of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva. It is under Sri Ramakrishna, that Vivekananda learned the spiritual lessons and message. Later Vivekananda propagated those lessons and messages of his spiritual guru. Sri Ramakrishna was a great mystic (sannyasi), who lived as a brahmachari, even in his married life. Ramakrishna had in himself a reservoir of great religious inspiration. Ramakrishna wanted a mouth-piece to preach his messages and Swami Vivekananda finally took this responsibility. Hence for a clear understanding of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy, it is necessary to go back to the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna – it was really a unique combination. It is said that Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa was ‘the thought’ and Swami Vivekananda was the ‘expression of that thought’.
“Now all the ideas that I preach are only an attempt to echo his ideas. Nothing is mine, originally except the wicked ones. But every world that I have ever uttered which is true and good, is simply an attempt to echo his voice” – Swami Vivekananda made this statement at the Shakespeare Club in California on 27th January 1900. Swami Vivekananda actually found the key of his life within his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Infact Vivekananda’s life-mission was to put the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna into practice. The chief object of Ramakrishna was the realization of God. According to Ramakrishna, God can be attained only by the development of high spiritual life – this would be possible only when one could control his desires for physical luxury and turn all actions and thoughts towards God. For this it does not require the renunciation of any worldly life.
According to Ramakrishna Paramhansa, all religions are true and lead to salvation. Just as water is called by different names in different languages, similarly different religions call God by different names, yet all denote the same God (a single entity). Sri Ramakrishna himself practised different modes of sadhana of different religions knowing the truth. Actually one God is worshipped differently and called by various names as Hari, Shiva, Christ, Allah..... – this catholicity of views of Ramakrishnadeva is very significant contribution to the world. He was visible embodiment of the spiritual regeneration of India. This spirit of tolerance and harmony of different religions was the main subject of the discourse of Swami Vivekananda in the Parliament of Religions.
Vivekananda’s own life-experience is also one of the source of his own philosophy. Swami Vivekananda had travelled throughout India from Himalayas to Cape Comorin, mixing with all types of people. Not only in India, Swamiji Vivekananda also went to different European, Asian and American countries. Swamiji’s extensive journey gave him the opportunity to comprehend the life and culture of many countries and to strip off the illusion about them. He witnessed the real condition of Indian masses. He compared it with the glorious past of India and set before himself the task of resurrecting them with the help of ancient Indian culture and Western technology. Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda originated from the degenerated social condition of 18th and 19th century’s India. Swamiji’s philosophy has its root in the Vedanta philosophy, specially in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Sankaracharya and it was guided by Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansadeva.
[Footnotes and References :
1) Indian Philosophy by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan (Volume II, Pg :446-447)
2) Vivekananda’s Philosophy of Man (Pg : 21)
Presentation of Vedantic Philosophy by Swami Vivekananda : “Universal religion or Vedanta is not a negation of the existence of multiple religions” (Swami Vivekananda) – it is based on the statement in the fourth chapter of Bhagavad Gita ‘ye yatha mam prapadayante, tams tathaiva bhajamy aham’, meaning whoever worships me in whatever form, I am that. Vivekananada used to quote this verse from Bhagavad Gita to state that Vedanta is not an exclusivist or superior religion but one that every human being should attain in the evolutionary process of spiritual thought.
Through Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda tried to dispel the notion in the West about Hinduism being a religion of many gods. Since the semitic world believed in the monotheistic conception of God, thus, to them Hinduism was polytheism. Vivekananda would contest this understanding to explain that the Vedantic philosophy in Hinduism proposed omnipresence of God and hence, if anyone explain Hinduism in those terms, it ought to be categorised as omnitheism, not polytheism.
Despite his eager support and propagation of Vedanta and universal religion in the West, Swami Vivekananda had some harsh words for his countrymen. Being a modernist at the core, Swami Vivekananda had openly revolted against the aspects of poverty, superstition etc. in the heart of his motherland. He also condemned the practitioners of those false faiths in the harshest of his terms. On Swamiji’s way to America, he had the opportunity to visit Japan. He spent considerable time, visiting several cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Vivekananda’s letters to his fellow countrymen from Japan are instructive of his modernist outlook on the one hand and his abhorrence for backward-looking ideas of the Hindu religion on the other.
Swami Vivekananda’s vision on Vedanta : Swami Vivekananda’s vision on Vedanta is his lasting legacy to contemporary spiritual thought. In reality, however, neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads are ‘books’, as Swami Vivekananda explained, “By the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws, discovered by different persons at different times”. The Vedic wisdom was transmitted orally from generation to generation, long before it was put into writing. Etymologically, the word ‘Upanishad’ means the knowledge, that loosens the grip of existential suffering, destroys the seeds of worldly existence and leads to Supreme Being. Thus, Upanishad and Vedanta - both are the books, only used in a secondary sense.
In Swami Vivekananda’s works, we find the word ‘Vedanta’ to appear again and again. What is interesting is that we find him using the word with all its different shades of meaning. He often identifies the word with what is popularly called Hinduism. At times, Swamiji also uses it as a synonymn of Upanishads. Mostly by Vedanta, Swami Vivekananda means the philosophy of the Vedas in general and the Upanishads in particular. When Vivekananda uses the word Vedanta in a global context, he means by it neither the Vedic religion nor its philosophy nor even the Upanishads. In a master stroke, Swamiji lifts the word above its cultural, historical and religious contexts and uses it to mean the basis of spiritual quest.
When Swami Vivekananda refers to the influence of Vedanta outside the geographical boundary of India, he always means ‘the principle, the background,
the foundation’, on which Hinduism is built. What he seeks to show is that ‘the principle, the background, the foundation’ of every wisdom - tradition is not really different. Traditions differ among themselves in secondary details such as doctrines or dogmas or rituals or books or temples or norms – the essence is the same. Swami Vivekananda calls this essence by the name Vedanta but any other name would just be as fine. Its not the name that is important but the idea is.
In Swami Vivekananda’s path-breaking lecture titled “Is Vedanta the Future religion?” – it is pointed out that Vedanta has no book, no special allegiance to any person and no personal God. This surely seems like an outrageous claim. If Vedanta has no books, what about the Upanishads? What about the Gita? What about the hundreds of commentaries on them? If Vedanta has no special allegiance to any person, then what can be known about the Vedic sages (rishis) and the teachers (acharyas)? It cannot also be denied that the ideas of personal God can be found in Vedantic texts. By saying that Vedanta has no book, no person and no personal God – Swamiji wanted to remind all of us that none of the book, person or personal God are intrinsic to Vedanta. Vedanta has a place in it or all of them, but it does not really depend on any of them. According to Swami Vivekananda, “Vedanta depends on the reality of the existence of every one of us. The existence of everything or everyone apart from me can be questioned or doubted but I cannot doubt about my own existence. Vedanta lights the path of self-enquiry”.
Vedanta acknowledges that while the goal before us may be the same, there are many number ways to attain the goal. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, “Vedanta has nothing to say against anyone – whether you are a Christian, or a Buddhist or a Jew or a Hindu; whatever mythology you believe, whether you owe allegiance to the prophet of Nazareth or of Mecca or of India or of anyone else, whether you yourself are a prophet – it has nothing to say. It only preaches the principle and the method it leaves to you. Take any path you like, follow any prophet you like but have only that method which suits your own nature, so that you will be sure to progress”. These are the vital words – they contain a definitive statement on Swami Vivekananda’s vision on Vedanta and he clearly distinguishes Vedanta (what is popularly understood as Hinduism). By the word Vedanta, Vivekananda means ‘Religion’ with a capital R, which as he once said as ‘one eternal religion’ - applied to different planes of existence, to the
opinions of various minds and races. According to Swami Vivekananda, “There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion, there is only the one. One infinite religion existed all through eternity and will never exist and this religion is expressing itself in various countries in various ways”. Swami Vivekananda presented Vedanta as a ‘quest’ that cannot be restricted within any narrow-minded boundaries, defined by any particular religion, culture, race or nationality. The essence of every religion, of every culture, of every racial and national trait can be employed ‘to uplift oneself by one self’ but the quest itself need not to be defined in terms of any of those traits.
Highlighting Swami Vivekananda’s views on Vedanata philosophy, Swami Tyagananda Maharaj (presently the head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston) explained, “Actually the roots of Vedanta are neither in the West nor in the East, neither in any particular culture nor in any particular language. The roots of Vedanta are neither in books nor in persons nor in places – the roots of Vedanta are in the hearts of everyone. If we can reach out and touch these roots, they will guide us as upwards, until we discover the fruit of knowledge in the palm of our hands. The purpose of the Vedanta societies in the Western world is to water the roots and facilitate the growth of a healthy plant. The flowers of this plant are peace and joy and its fruit is knowledge – the knowledge that frees us from bondage and gives us total fulfilment”.