Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.
RELIGION IS AS RELIGION DOES
(Swami Vivekananda’s Practical Vedanta)
Max Muller, the noted German Indologist, described Vedanta as “at the same time the most sublime philosophy and the most satisfying religion.”1 He had met Swami Vivekananda, who preached the said religio-philosophy in the West in the nineteenth century, and was considerably impressed by him. (It may be mentioned that later, another European savant, Romain Rolland, too, came to have a high regard for the Swami and hailed him as one of the two great Prophets of New India--- the other one being the Swami’s religious mentor, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.2)
According to Vivekananda, there is only one eternal religion, with a capital R, which is common to all humanity. However, bigoted followers of the various faiths have seized upon only one or other aspect of it and started to claim it as “the whole and sole truth.” In this regard, his aforementioned spiritual mentor, too, who held the same views, cites the example of the six blind men who happened to come across an elephant. After touching one or other of its limbs---tail, leg, trunk, etc.--- each one proclaimed that the portion he had touched constituted the entire jumbo!3 This is precisely how people with partial readings of the eternal religion eventually become sectarian and foment inter-religious conflicts and misunderstandings. So, said Vivekananda, seeking to provide us with the necessary corrective, “There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One Infinite Religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways.”4
The practical climax of this Infinite Religion lies in the realization--- not just an academic understanding or appreciation---of the final advaitic,5 truth; in the non-dualistic experience of unity with godhead. As Jesus Christ said, “I and my Father are one,” or the Self-realised Vedantin, who has experienced the transcendental state, feels within his heart of hearts, “aham Brahmasmi”--- “I and the Supreme are [essentially] identical.” Such a “supremely” enlightened one is never persuaded that his faith is the only true one and that it should be accepted by all. “Religion is not dogmatism or fanaticism.” It is, “realization; not talk, nor doctrine, nor theories, however beautiful they may be. It is being and becoming, not hearing or acknowledging; it is the whole soul becoming changed into what it believes.”6
Further elaborating upon the Practical Vedantic principles, Vivekananda maintains, aphoristically; “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work [in the spirit of Karma Yoga], 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.”7
One of the best ways of manifesting one’s innate divinity and simultaneously doing good to others too, urges the Prophet of New India, is by seeing God in one and all and serving Him to the best of one’s ability in all human beings, particularly in the poor and needy, the downtrodden and those in distress. One of his characteristic observations that he directed to his countrymen (most of whom saw God in the temple only and neglected the “living images of the Divine,” namely, the poor people outside): “Where should you go to seek for God--- are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, gods? Why not worship them first [by meeting their requirements in a respectful, nay, ‘holistic’ spirit and manner--- not in condescending way or attitude]? Why go to dig a well on the shores of the Ganga [a river which is already overflowing with pure, potable water]?”9
No wonder, Romain Rolland describes the Swami’s philosophy of practical religion based on spiritual humanism as a “Universal Gospel” capable of inspiring men and women of goodwill in the East and the West alike to the noblest of endeavours.9
1. In his Three Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy (subheading “Belief in God”), which he delivered in the Royal Institution, London, in March 1884 (p. 29).
2. Romain Rolland’s book on Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda was first published in England under the title Prophets of New India. Subsequently, it was brought out in two parts by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, entitled respectively, The Life of Ramakrishna and The Life of Vivekanada and the Universal Gospel.
3. See The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by Mahendranath Gupta (M), trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2000), 1.191.
4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda [Mayavati Memorial Edition] (Kolkata : Advaita Ashrama) IV.180. Hereafter CW.
5. Regarding the advaita (non-dualism) vis-à-vis the dvaita (dualism) and vishitadvaita (qualified dualism), the Swami says, “Man never progresses from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lesser truth to higher truth. … The Vedanta Philosophy, as it is generally called at the present day, really comprises all the various sects that now exist in India. Thus, there have been various interpretations, and to my mind they have been progressive, beginning with the Dualistic or Dvaita and ending with the non-dualistic or Advaita (CW, II,365; I,357).
Taking us to the highest rung of the ladder, viz., the non-dualistic one, and in the process also giving us the much-needed “universal code of ethics,” which is based purely on reason and human experience, and not on some pronouncement by a prophet or injunction of some holy book, he says, “All that unites with the universal is virtue. All that separates is sin. You are a part of the Infinite. This is your nature. Hence you are your brother’s keeper. … When you hurt anyone you hurt yourself, for you and your brother are one. … [Therefore understand that] expansion is life, contraction is death, Love is life and hatred in death” (CW, VI. 83; IV. 366).
6. CW, II, 396. See also the present writer’s article on the topic “dogmatism and religious fanaticism is not religion” in Interreligious Insight, UK (April 2003).
7. CW, I, 257. As regards the ‘free’ soul that Vivekananda writes about in his preamble (quoted above) to Raja Yoga, it is an allusion to the jivanmukta whose qualities he describes in more than one of his lectures. (See CW, I. 365; III. 10-11). By that term he means an individual who has freed himself from all wordly attachments, from the various bondages (including slavery to the senses, the feeling of “I and mine,” or ego and possessiveness, of a feeling of superiority pertaining to caste, class, race, gender, or whatever). He is a person who has risen above all religious and sectarian limitations and veritably become a citizen of the world, with love and sympathy for all. Says the Bhagavad-Gita (V.25;XII.4) that such an enlightened and highly evolved soul is “engaged in doing good to the entire world [a Mahatma Gandhi or Jesus Christ?] and not just to members of his own family, community or country.” The Swami, highlighting his main characteristic in a letter that he wrote to the Maharaja of Mysore in 1864, stated, “My noble Prince, this life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive” (CW, IV. 363).
8. CW, I, 257.
9. The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, 2004 ed., p. 320. Federico Mayor, the former Director-General of UNESCO, would also appear to second this opinion of Romain Rolland when he observes in a speech that he delivered in Paris some years ago that Swami Vivekananda “as early as in 1897” astonishingly anticipated the reformist and humanitarian “ideals and concerns of the UNESCO drawn up in 1945.” (See Prabuddha Bharata Jan. 1994, p. 21).
About the author: O.P. Sharma is a retd. Lecturer in English from Govt. Post- Graduate College, Ajmer, Rajasthan (India) . He has published a number of articles in Indian, British and American journals.