Vedanta in Practice
(Translation by Shoutir Kishore Chatterjee continued from
the previous issue)
and Karma Yoga
Vivekananda's sadhana knowledge, devotion, and work assume
an inseparable identity. This is not an imaginary attribution
of the Godhead to an icon; nor is it thinking of the mind
or the vital force as Brahman by taking recourse to some particular
attribute. This is the perception of Brahman Itself as Consciousness
in all beings and the utterance of the mantras of worship
in accordance with that perception. Here there is no necessity
of imposition (attribution), for there is a direct encounter
with Reality. Again, this is not the worship of humanity,
which is in vogue nowadays. For what is worshipped here is
not 'humanity' but the Purusha with infinitely many heads,
who is inseparable from the worshipper. Whenever Vivekananda
is inspired by patriotism, whenever he calls upon spiritual
aspirants to devote themselves to the service of all beings,
his vision is fixed upon the immanent Brahman. Shankara's
philosophy emphasizes the necessity of spiritual practice
excluding all else, in accordance with the path of negation.
That too attains fulfilment here; for as soon as one seeks
to see Brahman in all, the 'allness' of all becomes considerably
attenuated. Seeing Brahman, non-different from Atman, everywhere
and seeing the non-dual transcendent Absolute become synonymous.
When that happens, the effects of seeing the many as a result
of duality disappear.
sarvani bhutany-atmaivabhut vijanatah;
ko mohah kah shoka ekatvamanupashyatah.
to the man of realization all beings become the very Self,
then what delusion and what sorrow can there be for that seer
of oneness?' or 'To the Self of the man of realization, all
beings become the Self. What delusion and what sorrow can
remain for the Self of that seer of oneness?' (1)
union of knowledge and devotion, based on the perception everywhere
of Brahman as non-different from one's Self, makes Viveknanda's
ideal of service of nara-narayana (God in the form of man)
distinct from [traditional] karma yoga. Swami Vivekananda
states in his Karma Yoga that absence of the sense
of doership and the desire for the fruits of action when doing
something is enough to make one a karma yogi; faith in God
is not essential to that. To do work prompted by a sense of
duty can also be called karma yoga. On these counts Buddha
was a great karma yogi. This, however, is only an extreme
example. Even if we leave this aside and consider theistic
karma yoga, the distinction between Vivekananda's 'path of
service' and that form of karma yoga appears obvious. In the
Bhagavadgita the best presentation of karma yoga is found
in the following verses:
karoshi yadashnasi yajjuhoshi dadasi yat;
tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurushva madarpanam.
you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice,
whatever you give away, and whatever you practise in the form
of austerities, O son of Kunti, do it as an offering to Me.'
karmaphalam karyam karma karoti yah;
sannyasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na cakriyah.
who performs the prescribed works (agnihotra etc.)
without caring for the fruit of action, is a sannyasin and
also a karma yogi; not he who has renounced the (sacred) fire
and actions enjoined by the Vedas (agnihotra etc.)
and the Smritis (practice of austerity, charity etc.).' (6.1)
we find renunciation of the fruits of action and dedication
of all work unto God; it is this that is usually known as
karma yoga. Further, when it comes to interpreting the word
'karma', or work, many take the restricted view that it stands
for sacrifices prescribed in the scriptures, or philanthropic
activities. Swamiji's view, however, encompasses all living
beings and all forms of work. Moreover, it does not merely
involve the dedication of the fruits of action to God; rather,
those that we serve stand before us as God Himself. And the
person who serves is also himself Brahman. The agent is Brahman,
the material acted upon is also Brahman; the giver is Brahman,
so is the recipient; action is Brahman, so are the fruits
of action. We can express this through a Gita verse:
brahma havir brahmagnau brahmana hutam;
tena gantavyam brahmakarmasamadhina.
knower of Brahman sees the offering, the ghee, the sacrificial
fire, the performer of sacrifice and the process of oblation
as Brahman. To his vision, the fruit of action accruing to
a person who sees Brahman in action is also Brahman.' (4.24)
Seva Ideal in the Gita
the Gita, this idea of Swamiji's remains scattered in various
forms in different chapters. Further, in the expositions of
the commentators the Gita is divided into the traditional
disciplines of karma (action), bhakti (devotion) and jnana
(knowledge). As a result the form and ideal of service conceived
by Swamiji is not easily discernable in all its fullness.
For instance, the Gita describes the vision of the Universal
Form of the omnipresent God; however, it does not tell that
the vision of the Universal Form is to be taken not merely
as a vision, but as providing a suggestion and a method for
realizing it in every walk of life. Although the Gita speaks
about same-sightedness everywhere and doing good to all beings,
these topics do not appear together in the chapter on 'Karma
Yoga', and hence one fails to grasp their true import. For
instance, it says:
yo mam bhajatyekatvam asthitah;
vartamano'pi sa yogi mayi vartate.
who worships (bhajati) Me, who dwells in all beings
as the pratyagatman, as non-different from his own
Self (that is to say, he directly experiences 'I am That'),
that yogi, whatever may be his situation, abides in Me; nothing
can stand in the way of his liberation.' (6.31)
we find worship in the sense of bhajana; but there is no mention
of service or of worship in the sense of puja. This bhajana
is only a sort of mental perception, as is stated in the preceding
mam pashyati sarvatra sarvam ca mayi pashyati;
na pranashyami sa ca me na pranashyati.
person who sees Me (the Atman of all) everywhere, and all
beings (starting right from Brahma) in Me, does not lose sight
of Me, nor do I lose sight of him (such a person and I being
we find: 'Te prapnuvanti mameva sarvabhutahite ratah;
They, devoted to the welfare of all beings, attain Me alone.'
as Worship: Practical Implications
Swamiji's perception, the ideal is not the welfare of all
beings but the worship or service of all beings, looking upon
them as Brahman. The difference in respect of outlook and
outcome is tremendous.
Swamiji's viewpoint appears to be more in consonance with
the point of view of the Upanishads. But on occasions, adopting
the line of thinking of the Upanishads, he proceeds even further.
When one sees Brahman in all beings and at all places, one
cannot segregate man from man by drawing an inviolable dividing
line between virtue and vice. The Advaitin says: Man is already
good, he can become better still; he moves from the good to
the better, not from the bad to the good. Truly speaking,
there is nothing which can be called sin and nobody who can
be called a sinner; there is only lesser or greater manifestation
of Brahman. Society's duty is not to punish the sinner, but
to remove his ignorance and give the inherent Reality of Brahman
scope to express Itself. In the field of education, the teacher
cannot finish his duties merely by making the student hear
or swallow new facts. His principal duty is to appear before
the student-God as a servant and remove the obstacles in the
path of manifestation of the perfect Atman that inheres in
him. With love as his instrument he will be the worshipper
of the student-God as the latter proceeds in his path of Self-manifestation.
The guru will not direct the disciple along the spiritual
path; rather he will be the disciple's companion in his journey
towards truth. And here also he will assume the role of the
worshipper of God, the disciple.
every field of activity will become a temple and every action
will be transmuted into worship in individual life. The structure
of the temple will vary from case to case and the type of
worship also will differ from place to place. Religion will
not be restricted to a particular form. The individual has
a right to full freedom. Here every individual's religion,
or path of Self-manifestation, will be completely his own.
What is more, in Vivekananda's view even the apparently impious
may, under certain circumstances, become pious. Bhagavan Sri
Krishna prescribed violent fighting as duty to Arjuna. And
Swamiji told some of his interlocutors that they would reach
God more easily by playing football than by reading the Gita.
line of thinking had an element of dynamism in it. Swamiji's
religion is living and dynamic - it is something that moves
progressively to its ultimate ideal. Indeed, in his view this
ceaseless progress is the crucial test by which religion should
be judged. As he saw it, where there is no activity, there
is no sattva guna, but only inertia. For in the present age
inertia passes for sattva guna. In the field of spirituality,
the acceptance of both the quiescence of Brahman and man's
ceaseless quest for fulfilment is unique to Swamiji. Brahman,
the Absolute, is present in everyone; there is difference
only in manifestation. Everyone will some day or other eliminate
this difference and become established in their true Self
that is Brahman. At present our duty is to aid in every way
and in every field the manifestation of this absolute, omnipresent
but yet unmanifested Brahman, and also to strive for the realization
of the same in our own life.
the above idea of Swamiji's, Romain Rolland wrote, 'Religion
is never accomplished. It is ceaseless action and the will
to strive - the outpouring of a spring - never a stagnant
pond.' (3) Of course this is a one-sided interpretation. Swamiji
accepted nirvikalpa samadhi too. But that is another matter.
Taking note of another of Swamiji's thoughts, Rolland wrote:
is the quality of thought and not its object which determines
its source and allows us to decide whether or not it emanates
from religion. If it turns fearlessly towards the search
for truth at all costs with single-minded sincerity prepared
for any sacrifice, I should call it religious; for it presupposes
faith in an end to human effort higher than the life of
the individual, at times higher than the life of existing
society and even higher than the life of humanity as a whole.
Swamiji's view, his cherished social order, established on
the reality of Brahman, will have no room for inequality.
Whatever may be the form and condition of society at present,
it is bound to transcend its present narrowness on application
of Vedantic principles. Further, the principles of Vedanta
are not meant to remain confined to books; these must needs
be applied to different social fields. India's decline is
not due to any deficiency in her ideal; rather it is due to
a lack of earnest effort to transform that ideal into practice.
The scriptures say:
brahmane gavi hastini;
caiva shvapake ca panditah samadarshinah.
knowers of Brahman look with an equal eye on a brahmana endowed
with learning and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog and
an outcaste (they see Brahman in all these).' (5)
pashyan hi sarvatra samavasthitam ishvaram;
hinastyatmanatmanam tato yati param gatim.
a person, because he sees the Lord as present everywhere without
any differentiation, does not injure the Self by the self;
therefore he attains the supreme goal.' (13.28)
in practice we said, 'O outcaste, keep your distance!' In
the Gita the Lord said, 'Samo'- ham sarvabhuteshu na me
dveshyo'sti na priyah; I am the same to all beings; to
Me there is none hateful or dear'. (9.29) But we created a
fifth caste, the pariah, taking these people to be 'moving
corpses'. In truth, Vedanta can have no compromise with untouchability.
It is a social malady; and it shall be a true Vedantist's
duty to rid society of it.
is no gender difference in the Atman. So obstructing the path
of women's progress cannot be tolerated. Again, the Atman
is free. So women themselves will decide what they will do
and what they ought to do. Men's duty lies only in helping
them from a distance by removing their ignorance through education
and such other means. Women are but forms of the feminine
aspect of God; hence they are objects of worship (they deserve
our highest respect).
and related ideas that we hear of nowadays, had already made
their appearance in Swamiji's days. We are therefore naturally
keen to know his opinion on these topics. He sought to settle
this question too on the basis of Vedanta. The Gita says:
tairjitah sargo yesham samye sthitam manah;
hi samam brahma tasmat brahmani te sthitah.
whose minds rest in evenness, conquer relative existence even
in this life. As Brahman is the same in all beings (from brahmanas
to chandalas) and untouched by their good and bad qualities,
such persons abide in Brahman and so (being without any sense
of possession as regards their bodies and senses) they remain
free from all taint.' (5.19)
spoke about this Vedantic concept of equality in many places.
He also declared that, whether we wish it or not, equality
is sure to make its appearance in future society in various
forms. But established as he was in the knowledge of Atman,
Swamiji could not settle for economic or racial equality alone.
Such egalitarianism may be inevitable under certain circumstances
in particular societies, yet equality based on the reality
of Atman is what is desired. The nearest approximation to
that is cultural equality. It is necessary to establish this
kind of equality by manifesting Atman to a greater extent,
by raising the cultural level of people in the lower rungs
of society. Swamiji was not for equality brought about by
levelling down the upper strata, and he criticized it in no
Unity: The Basis of Harmony and Ethics
also wanted to end the conflict of religions on the basis
of Vedanta. If Brahman be one and only Its manifestations
be of varied modes and different forms, where then is the
scope for quarrel? He worked for a human society with its
diversity founded on an underlying ground of unity, irrespective
of caste or colour. Taking note of this idea Professor Floyd
Ross writes: 'The oneness of mankind is something which modern
man everywhere needs to learn, if he is to move creatively
into one world, where the richness of diversity does not mean
an anarchy of foolish competition; but each person needs to
find the meaning of that oneness in his own selfhood before
he can go far in helping to build "one world".'
has been aware of the fact of the One expressing Itself through
many forms since time immemorial. More recently, Gaudapada
too has conceded that if one accepts Advaitism, then there
can be no question of opposing other doctrines. In fact conflicts
can be resolved on the basis of Advaita itself. His conclusion
dvaitino nishcita dridham;
virudhyante tairayam na virudhyate.
dualists, being firmly convinced about their respective divergent
conclusions, oppose each other. But one who sees that Atman
alone abides, does not quarrel with such people (for, after
all, he has no feeling of separation from them).' (6)
showed that, even when we take the non-dual Brahman to be
the ultimate Reality, it is possible to be in harmony with
considerable portions of other schools of thought. Swami Vivekananda,
in keeping with his guru's teachings, said that it is not
enough to merely tolerate other religions; rather every religion
must be respected. Although he based the harmony of all religions
on the firm foundation of non-dualism, he did not fail to
show generosity and respect to different expressions of religion
like bhakti, jnana, yoga and karma. He also said that all
kinds of disputes can be settled by means of non-dualism.
is not all; according to Swamiji it is this non-dualism that
can provide the surest basis for all ethics. All attempts
to build an edifice of humanitarianism on the basis of concepts
like the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the
solidarity or equality of all human beings have so far ended
in failure. Now has come the time to re-establish the ideal
on the basis of the greatness and oneness of Atman - and Swami
Vivekananda is its pioneer. When we accept the greatness of
the Atman in man, we accord to him a certain dignity irrespective
of his race or caste, and humanity can be truly united only
on that basis. Such unification will come not as a result
of the pursuit of rights and claims, but rather through the
manifestation of the Atman in oneself and the worship of the
Atman in others.
discovered that at the root of all human progress lay self-confidence,
that is faith in the immortality, immutability, and such other
characteristics of one's Self. It is the self-respect aroused
by this self-confidence that prevents a man from doing vile
deeds and inspires him to noble action.
we have made only a cursory survey of the grand plan for the
application of Vedanta in human life as chalked out by Swami
Vivekananda. Those who wish to know more will have to delve
into the source books written by him.~
Isha Upanishad, 7.
Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1970), 6.
Gaudapada's karika on Mandukya Upanishad, 3.17.