by Shoutir Kishore Chatterjee)
the outset it is necessary to be explicit on one point. Like
others I too am a student of Vivekananda literature. Therefore
I cannot claim that I have fully understood the import of
Vivekananda's writings. As such it is inevitable that there
would be vagueness and incompleteness in what I am going to
say. Also, at present I am not in a position to devote as
much time and put in as much hard work as would be required
to do justice to all aspects of this vast subject.
Shankara and Swami Vivekananda
was the all-pervasiveness and perfection of Brahman that were
taken up by Swami Vivekananda as the basis to formulate his
guiding philosophy of life and programme of social uplift,
or in other words, the framework of his 'Practical Vedanta'.
The earlier masters had said and deliberated a good deal about
this Brahman. It is necessary to comprehend in what respects
Swamiji as an expounder of Brahman agreed with and differed
from them. Of course, so far as truth goes, there cannot be
any difference between Swamiji's Advaitic (non-dualist) position
and that of the earlier masters. But whereas Shankaracharya
is bent upon exposing and showing the truth in its unsullied
form, Swamiji, seeing the same truth as pervading one and
all, is determined to apply it in practice. Whereas Shankara,
at every step, shows the mutual incompatibility of work and
knowledge, Swamiji's efforts are directed towards harmonizing
the two in the practical field. Whereas the former regards
knowledge as Brahman Itself, established in Its own glory,
in Swamiji's view the same is a blazing beacon guiding humanity
on the road to progress. Therefore to understand Swamiji,
it is necessary to understand Shankaracharya also to some
extent. I take this as my starting point.
path chalked out by Swamiji is not independent of the Upanishads
and the Gita; they form the basis of Swamiji's philosophy.
Therefore we have to examine their relation to Swamiji's thinking.
Finally, we have to consider the plan of work formulated by
Swamiji. We propose to proceed through these various stages.
Vivekananda wanted to bring Vedanta out of forest confines
and establish it in the habitats of people. The service of
man in the spirit of worship that he preached is based on
this Advaita Vedanta. The path of progress that he prescribed
for humanity is also laid out on this ground of Advaita. In
this context one question naturally arises. Shankaracharya
summarized Advaita Vedanta in the words: 'Brahma satyam
jaganmithya; Brahman is real, the fleeting relative world
is unreal.' How can the transcendental truth of this Advaita
philosophy fit in with the down-to-earth ideas of worshipful
service of people or of social uplift? Some modern thinkers
even say that all the schools of religion in India are averse
to the world. As long as their basic philosophical tenets
do not change, how can they provide inspiration for worldly
the two objections belong to different categories, there is
a basic similarity between them. Both the questions generate
in our mind doubts as to whether a world-negating Vedanta,
or for that matter any religious school which is averse to
the world, can provide inspiration for any positive endeavour.
Apparently it cannot; yet Advaita Vedanta, wedded to an extreme
form of negation of the world, forms the basis of Swami Vivekananda's
philosophy and programme of action. Moreover, his guru Sri
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa also gave him lessons in Advaita with
utmost care. Further, after becoming established in nirvikalpa
samadhi, the pinnacle of Advaita, Sri Ramakrishna himself
proclaimed, 'Advaita is the last word in spirituality; with
Advaitic realization in your possession, do as you wish.'
This means, just like Swami Vivekananda, his guru Sri Ramakrishna
did not see any contradiction between Advaitic experience
and practical activity.
terms of practical behaviour, such absence of contradiction
can be observed in the lives of earlier masters too. Nobody
doubts the fact that Shankaracharya was a knower of Brahman.
It is also unanimously agreed that he is the principal exponent
of Advaitism in the present age. Yet, even after attaining
realization, he worked for the dissemination of Advaitism
by authoring books, founding monasteries, taking part in religious
polemics, undertaking pilgrimages, composing devotional hymns,
and so on. It is necessary to resolve this inconsistency.
It is possible that out of such a resolution will emerge a
ground for the synthesis of dualism and non-dualism.
Acts of the Perfected
Advaitic teachers found that, even after attainment of realization,
a jnani (knower of Brahman) happens to give instructions to
others. In fact, unless we agree to regard an instructor as
a jnani, it detracts from the authenticity of the truth taught
by him. Therefore, looking at the lives of the jnanis and
listening to the sayings in the scriptures, one has to conclude
that there is a state of existence called jivanmukti, in which
one can remain established in perfect knowledge and yet from
the practical point of view engage oneself in activity. Still,
from a rational viewpoint, coexistence of dualism and non-dualism
is impossible. So, to explain this state, terms like prarabdha
(past actions that have already begun fructifying), ajnanalesha
(remnant of ignorance), badhita-anuvritti (the reappearance
of that which has been sublated) were brought in. Again, some
say that in his own eyes the jnani does not do any work, but
in the eyes of others he seems to be working. Whatever may
be the explanation, from our lay viewpoint, jnanis do have
their activities. But those activities are not exactly like
ours. They are regulated by motives like providing guidance
to people, by prarabdha, or by God's command. Bhagavan Sri
Krishna himself has described this state of being active or
inactive in the Bhagavadgita:
shrinvan sprishan jighrann
gacchan svapan shvasan.
selfless karma yogi, having realized the Truth, even while
seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping
and breathing, is firmly convinced that the senses are occupied
with their respective objects and knows for certain, "I
do nothing at all."' (1)
he has provided the illustration:
me parthasti kartavyam
eva ca karmani.
have, O Partha, no duty, nothing that I have not gained and
nothing that I have to gain in the three worlds. Yet (for
the good of people), I remain always engaged in action.' (3.22)
get another example in the life of the sage-king Janaka: 'Karmanaiva
hi samsiddhim asthita janakadayah; Verily by action alone
Janaka and others attained samsiddhi.' (3.20)
commenting on this, Shankaracharya said that the word samsiddhi
can be taken to mean either 'purity of mind' or 'realization'.
If we say that it means purity of mind, then there is nothing
illogical in Janaka's being established in samsiddhi
through action. And if realization be the meaning of samsiddhi,
then we may construe that for some reason, even after the
attainment of realization, Janaka's activities did not cease
- he remained established in realization along with activity.
According to the latter interpretation too, from the practical
viewpoint, the jnani can still be involved in work. Shankara
took the presence or absence of the idea of ownership and
desire for results as the test of work and worklessness. Without
the desire for results or the attitude of a doer, work is
no work at all. So in this case the question of mixing work
with knowledge cannot arise - 'naitat karma yena jnanena
samucciyeta.' Furthermore, this state, one of activity
to all appearances, represents in truth the acme of knowledge.
The sage-king Janaka remained established in such knowledge.
However that may be, herein we have an explanation as to how
someone who has reached the Advaitic experience can still
remain engaged in activity. We have also to keep in mind that
when the ancient masters denied the coexistence of knowledge
and work, they were examining the issue not at the worldly
(or phenomenal) level but rather from the absolute standpoint.
Although from the absolute viewpoint knowledge and renunciation
of activity are inseparably connected, they did not emphasize
external renunciation from the point of view of practice.
Even Shankaracharya's line of reasoning here is mainly concerned
with the state of the mind. From the point of view of psychology
there is an insuperable barrier between the two modes of thinking
- 'I am doing work' and 'I am the actionless Atman'. Even
Anandagiri in his gloss on Shankaracharya's exposition of
the Shruti text tapasa vapyalinggat (the knowledge
of Atman cannot be attained by austerity alone, without formal
renunciation or sannyasa) has both Upanishadic thinking and
practical considerations in mind when he observes: 'But is
there not mention of realization of Atman by Indra, Janaka,
Gargi, and others in the Vedic texts? Truly it is there. As
they had no idea of possession, they too had that internal
renunciation of everything which sannyasa stands for. Indeed,
"the assumption of external signs of renunciation"
is not the meaning intended herein.' (2)
is a long-standing practice that a spiritual aspirant makes
progress along the spiritual path by ascribing to himself
the state of a perfected person. That is why Shankaracharya,
in the course of his prefatory remarks on the the characteristics
of a sthitaprajna (person of steady wisdom) in the second
chapter of the Gita, writes, 'In all spiritual literature,
cultivation of the attributes of a person who has reached
perfection is prescribed as spiritual practice. This is because
such cultivation requires a good deal of effort.' This leads
us to the following conclusion: For various reasons, liberated
persons, in spite of being beyond all bondage of duty, appear
dutiful to people; a spiritual aspirant can progress by ascribing
to himself this state of a liberated being. For this reason,
in the Gita Sri Krishna advises aspirants to simulate the
conduct of earlier masters and perfected souls as regards
'doing no work in the midst of activity'.
Jnani's View of the World
this context another question naturally arises in our mind.
If, to a jnani, the world manifests as a reappearance of what
has already been transcended, how then does he relate to it?
He may regard the universe created by maya as illusory like
a dream and attach no importance to it. That is, even though
it appears reflected like a dream in his psyche, he may disdainfully
withdraw his mind and pay little attention to it. Secondly,
he may regard it as the manifestation of God's power, look
at it cursorily, and yet keep himself aloof. We may recall
that Shankaracharya concedes that maya is the inconceivable
power of God. Thirdly, instead of evincing such apathy, he
may see the world as the manifestation of the exquisite beauty
of God endowed with maya, and establish a loving relation
with it. All these attitudes may be found among Advaitists.
Even monks recite reverently a good many devotional hymns,
traditionally attributed to Shankaracharya. One of his hymns
contains the following verse:
hi taranggo na kvacana
Lord, even though there is no distinction between you and
I, yet I belong to you; it does not behove me to say, "You
belong to me." Although it is true that there exists
not a bit of distinction between the sea and the wave, yet
people say that the wave belongs to the sea; nobody says that
the sea belongs to the wave.' (3)
Saraswati too consciously harmonized knowledge and devotion.
The following well-known verse is attributed to him:
kenapi vayam hathena
have embarked on a journey to the Advaitic empire and have
spurned Indra's riches as though they were mere grass. Yet
we have somehow been forcibly enslaved by that deceitful seducer
of the gopa women.'
Shridhara Swami too is a wayfarer on the same road. And the
author of the Bhagavata writes:
who remain absorbed in the Atman are devoid of all attachments,
yet they remain devoted to the Lord without any motive; such
is the glory of the Lord.' (4)
conclusion we reach from the above discussion is that, even
in the Advaitic tradition, there are certain stages in the
life of an illumined person wherein there is simultaneous
manifestation of knowledge, work and devotion, at least as
seen by an empirical observer; an aspirant cultivates the
same consciously in his life. It is natural to presume that
this perspective affected to a great extent the thinking of
Swami Vivekananda, an Advaitin that he was. Furthermore, in
his opinion such an active Advaitism alone can be the starting
point and unshakable basis of every religion, morality and
social order. There is no other doctrine which has such a
universal and liberal outlook and which calls people to march
unwaveringly towards the Truth. Fixity of the goal combined
with a ceaseless onward struggle to reach it, can be found
in Advaita alone; and we will be discussing this point in
due course. Let us first take up the application of Advaitism
in the field of spirituality.
'Neti, Neti' and 'Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma'
we proceed to discuss Advaitic spiritual practice as delineated
in the Upanishads, two special phrases present themselves
to us - one is 'neti neti; not this, not this' of the
Brihadaranyaka and the other, 'sarvam khalvidam
brahma; all this is verily Brahman' of the Chandogya.
These two sentences appear to be mutually contradictory, yet
according to Shankaracharya they both have the same meaning.
The first sentence introduces Brahman in a negative way; the
second also introduces Brahman, and not 'all'. Indeed this
is so from the point of view of theory. But is it so as regards
spiritual practice too? Theoretically, knowledge destroys
ignorance, which is its antithesis. For destruction of ignorance
nothing else can be accepted as an aid or auxiliary to knowledge
of Brahman. Knowledge alone destroys ignorance, independent
of all other things. When ignorance is dispelled Brahman manifests
Itself spontaneously; any other positive effort for Its manifestation
semi-darkness one may mistake a piece of rope for a snake.
To rectify that mistake one needs to bring light. But this
action does not cause the appearance of any new property such
as 'manifestation' in the rope. When everything else is negated
through discrimination and deliberation - 'not this, not this'
- Brahman manifests Itself of its own.
the other hand, the Chandogya says, 'This universe
is verily Brahman Itself; for it is born out of That, dissolves
into That, and exists in That. Therefore one should meditate
by becoming calm. A person is identified with (his) conviction.
As is a man's conviction in this world, so does he become
after departing from here. Therefore he should firmly take
to that form of meditation which consists in remaining engrossed
in the thought of That.' (5) As regards the mode of meditation,
the Upanishad says, 'This Atman of mine situated in the lotus
of my heart is smaller than a rice or barley or mustard or
shyamaka seed or the kernel of a shyamaka seed.
This Atman of mine situated in the lotus of my heart is greater
than the earth, greater than the intermediate space, greater
than heaven - it is vaster than all these worlds. That which
is the performer of all actions, is possessed of all good
desires, is possessed of all good smells, is possessed of
all good essences, exists pervading all this … that very entity
is situated in the lotus of my heart as my Atman - it is Brahman.'
(3.14.2-4) Thus the identity of Atman and Brahman is established
in stages in various ways. The first verse of the Isha
Upanishad reflects this process and this feeling of identity:
kinca jagatyam jagat;
gridhah kasyasvid dhanam.
that is changeful in this universe should be covered by the
Lord. Protect (your Self) through this detachment. Do not
covet anybody's wealth. Or, do not covet, (for) whose is (this)
Upasanas: The Stairways to Advaita
the Upanishadic conception of meditation Swami Vivekananda
found a graduated scheme for the establishment of the jiva's
identity with Brahman and hints about basing human life on
Advaitism in accordance with that. He observed and mentioned
how Satyakama Jabala of the Chandogya Upanishad, ordered
by his guru Haridrumata Gautama, went to the deep forest to
graze cows and realized that sarvam khalvidam brahma
there. The bull said to him, 'The eastern side is one part,
the western side is one part, the southern side is one part,
and the northern side is one part of Brahman. This, my dear,
is one foot of Brahman, consisting of four parts and called
the Manifested.' The fire said to him, 'Earth is one part,
intermediate space is one part, heaven is one part, and the
ocean is one part. O dear one, this is surely one foot of
Brahman, having four parts and called the Limitless.' The
swan said to him, 'Fire is one part, the sun is one part,
the moon is one part, and lightning is one part. O dear one,
this is surely one foot of Brahman, having four parts and
called the Effulgent.' The diver-bird said to him, 'The vital
force is one part, the eye is one part, the ear is one part,
and the mind is one part. O dear one, this is surely one foot
of Brahman, having four parts and named Ayatanavan (possessed
of an abode).' (4.4-9) According to Shankaracharya, words
like bull are to be understood in the sense of the
presiding deities of the directions and so on. Although Swami
Vivekananda did not reject that view, he said that Satyakama,
with his natural spiritual inquisitiveness, became determined
to realize Brahman even through such an ordinary work like
grazing cattle. As a result, commonplace creatures and objects
like bull, fire, and the rest had to become eloquent and lead
him to the truth sarvam khalvidam brahma. The next
story of the Chandogya is also similar. The guru went
out of station without instructing the disciple. Yet the fires,
being tended by the disciple, became pleased and instructed
him about Brahman, 'Prana (the vital force) is Brahman, ka
(Bliss) is Brahman, kha (Space) is Brahman.' Then each
fire instructed him separately. The fire known as Garhapatya
said, 'Earth, fire, food, and sun are my body. The Person
that is seen in the sun, that I am.' Then the fire named Anvaharya-pacana
(Dakshinagni) said, 'Water, directions, stars, and the moon
(are my body). This Person that is seen in the moon, that
I am.' The Ahavaniya fire said, 'Vital force, space, heaven,
and lightning (are my body). This Person that is seen in lightning,
that I am.' (4.10-14) Here also sarvam khalvidam brahma
is spontaneously manifested in the heart of the disciple.
is all-pervasive; It is bhuma (Infinite). In Vedanta
this all-pervasiveness of Brahman has been accepted and described
in many ways, using many terms. The different Upanishads prescribe
methods for seeing Brahman everywhere and realizing one's
Self everywhere through various meditations on Brahman. Further,
it is accepted that progress on the path of realization occurs
in stages - this being a ceaseless expedition from the smaller
to the greater. Common objects of our everyday world are also
not excluded from the sweep of this all-pervasive vision.
The Taittiriya Upanishad prescribes meditation on food,
vital force, mind, and other things as Brahman. Considering
all this, Swami Vivekananda reached the conclusion that at
least in the age of the Upanishads meditation on Brahman was
thus harmonized and identified with life and as a result the
whole of life became transformed into one single meditation.
A further hint or proof of this is available in the Purusha
Yajna of the Chandogya Upanishad. (3.16) There it is
stated that a man indeed is a sacrifice. The first twenty-four
years of his life represent the morning savana (libation).
The Vasus are associated with the morning savana of this 'sacrifice
that is man'. The vital forces are indeed the Vasus. The next
forty-four years of life represent the midday savana. … The
last forty-eight years of life are the third savana, and so
on. Then it is said that the hunger, thirst and lack of happiness
of the performer of the Purusha Yajna constitute his initiation
(into the sacrifice). (3.17) His eating, drinking, and feeling
happy are similar to the partaking of food that follows initiation.
His austerity, charity, sincerity, non-injury and truthfulness
are the dakshinas (offerings to the priest) of the
Purusha Yajna. This is somewhat like the well-known Bengali
song: 'My lying down I consider as prostration and my sleep
meditation upon Mother; and when I take my food, I think that
I am offering an oblation to Mother Shyama.'
this, when the Taittiriya Upanishad proclaimed the
mantra 'Matridevo bhava, pitridevo bhava, atithidevo bhava;
May you be one to whom mother is God, father is God, the guest
is God', it was easy for Swami Vivekananda to tune in with
daridradevo bhava ('may you be one to whom the poor
is God') and so on. This is the culmination of the thinking
of the Upanishads and is a most up-to-date prescription of
spiritual practice well within the bounds of Advaita Vedanta.
even this could not bring peace to the mind of Vivekananda.
The line of thinking which extended so far in the Upanishadic
age cannot possibly terminate at this point; its momentum
cannot remain arrested here. If we penetrate into its heart,
then we would have to proceed further, much further ahead.
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad contains the verse
stri tvam puman asi
kumara uta va kumari;
jirno dandena vancasi
jato bhavasi vishvatomukhah.
are the woman, You are the man, You are the youth, and the
maiden too; You are the aged man who totters along leaning
on the staff; You, being born, assume various forms.' (6)
idea must not remain confined to the scriptures; we need to
experience it in everyday life and realize it in practice.
We have to comprehend the integral view of Brahman beyond
Its individuated manifestation, which is described in the
Purusha Sukta and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
Thus the mantra says:
bhumim vishvato vritva'
perfect Being has infinitely many heads, infinitely many eyes,
infinitely many feet; although pervading the entire universe,
It situates Itself in the heart at a distance of ten finger-breadths
above the navel.' (7)
hands and feet of all creatures really belong to Brahman;
so do the eyes, heads, and mouths of all living beings; so
also the ears of all creatures. That pervades everything and
exists in the bodies of all living beings as the pratyagatman.'
individual and collective manifestation of the Infinite is
not to remain an object of meditation or an expression of
truth alone; it must be made an object of worship in the practical
world. It is desirable to do away with the hiatus created
between life and the concept of Brahman. That is why Vivekananda
highest Brahman to the yonder worm,
to the very minutest atom,
is the same God, the All-Love;
offer mind, soul, and body, at their feet.
are His manifold forms before thee,
them, where seekest thou for God?
loves all beings without distinction,
indeed is worshipping best his God. (9)
Anandagiri's gloss on Shankaracharya's commentary on Mundaka
Shankaracharya, Shatpadi, 3.
Chandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.
Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 4.3.
Purusha Sukta, 1.
Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 3.16.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 4.496.