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PRABUDDHA BHARATAWas Swami Vivekananda a Prophet?  






            Was Swami Vivekananda a Prophet?




Swami Sunirmalananda




     Who Is a Prophet?




     God loves His creation. His love manifests itself in His attempts to contact us in diverse ways. He may manifest Himself as an incarnation, which is perhaps the greatest expression of His love; He may send His chosen children to speak for Him. These are the messengers of God, popularly called the prophets. He may speak and enlighten humanity through His devotees, jnanis and yogis. He may grant visions, experiences or enlightenment, liberation or even worldly good to seekers or to the ones He chooses. Sri Ramakrishna says that the compassion of God knows no bounds; He is the Wish-fulfilling Tree. (1) He is our own. He gives everything we want. God sees that we dont overburden ourselves with evil karmas and so He may send painful treatment occasionally: pestilence, floods, drought. Since we are viewing only a little piece of a long movie, we can not understand why such things happen. Yet God loves us and keeps on reminding us about our spiritual goal.


     Anyway, Gods sending His chosen children, the eternally perfect ones, known as navis in Hebrew, nabis or rasuls in Arabic, prophetes in Greek, prophets in English, and rishis in Sanskrit, is what concerns us here. A prophet is one who is sent by God to teach people. One who speaks of the future is also a prophet, but we are concerned with the messenger of God. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says:




     According to whether the emphasis is on possession and ecstasy, inspired utterance, prediction of the future, visionary experience, ethical fervour, passionate social criticism, sense of absolute commitment, millenarian and apocalyptic expectation, etc., the most diverse phenomena and personalities have been called prophetic: Montanists, Pentecostals, Zoroaster, Muhammad, Joachim of Fiore, Savonarola, Thomas Muntzer, Jakob Bohme, George Fox, Joseph Smith, and many others.



     Evidently, there have been innumerable prophets, big and small, and countless false prophets. Our historical awareness is limited to a few thousand years only, and so we dont know how many prophets have been here. However, it is interesting that most of the prophets we know - Christian, Jewish, Muslim -were born in Asia.


     There are two classes of prophets. Of the Jewish prophets, we have Moses, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and others, who virtually ruled over the Jews. Moses brought physical freedom to his people, while the other prophets performed miraculous deeds to help them. But one common thing is, these Old Testament prophets professed a particular creed - of faith in Yahweh, of belief in the Commandments, of adoration of the sacred Tablet - and they did not found new religions. But there were other prophets who initiated, and even founded, new religions. These were the greatest prophets who revolutionized the world. Mani, a Babylonian, was the initiator of Manichaeism, but it died out. Confucius was also a prophet, and an ism in his name has started influencing Chinese thought once again. Then we have Prophet Muhammad, who is called the seal of the prophets, and nineteen per cent of the worlds population now, roughly speaking, follow his religion. What about Jesus Christ? Jesus was prophetic in his utterances, true, but he is better known as an incarnation.




     What Does the Prophet Do?




     A prophet generally speaks of the imminent doomsday and warns people around to be penitent and to pray. The Encyclopaedia of Religion gives five general characteristics of the founding prophets of the past: 1) Prophets conceived of their activity as the result of a personal divine commission. 2) There arose religious traditions that regarded some oracles of these prophets as uniquely heaven-sent, sacred, and binding upon people. Their words became part of a scriptural canon and that was the standard for later traditional judgement. 3) Though their teachings differ significantly from one another, depending on historical circumstances and inherited tradition, all of the founding prophets proclaimed what their later tradition regarded as universal truths. 4) The founding prophets were, in their own individual ways, social critics. 5) The founding prophets helped both maintain and reform religious traditions.




     Prophets of India




     We have had rishis, munis, adhikarika purushas, siddhas and yogis in India but perhaps we do not have the founding-prophet classification as in the Semitic system. To the Hindu everyone is an avatara. Leaving aside claims of prophecy, and also not considering the first few of the known incarnations, we find that Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavira, Chaitanya, and Ramakrishna have been considered incarnations of God. Religions and sects were born after their advent, true, but they were not responsible for that. For conveniences sake we shall include the great acharyas like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, and others under the category of prophets. They initiated new schools of thought, which subsequently became sects within Hinduism. We may also call Nanak a prophet.




     In What Sense Was Swami Vivekananda a Prophet?




     The question now is, where do we place Swami Vivekananda? Sri Ramakrishna called his Narendra the incarnation of Nara (Man). He said to Narendra: I know you are that ancient sage, Nara, the Incarnation of Narayana, born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind. (2) Sri Ramakrishna considered everyone as Narayana. He would wax eloquent in Narendras praise and would say, for instance: Narendra belongs to a very high plane - the realm of the Absolute. He has a manly nature. So many devotees come here, but there is not one like him. Every now and then I take stock of devotees. I find that some are like lotuses with ten petals, some like those with sixteen petals, some like those with a hundred petals; but among lotuses Narendra is a thousand-petalled one (1.91). Naren is a Nitya-siddha, perfect in realization even from his very birth; Naren is a Dhyana-siddha, an adept in meditation; the roaring fire of knowledge, always ablaze in Naren, burns to ashes whatever impure food he may take. Impurity of food can never tarnish his pure mind. He is always cutting to pieces the veils of Maya with the sword of knowledge. The inscrutable Maya can never bring him under Her control (1.93). Narendra was considered Shiva by some. One of the Seven Sages, he was brought down to earth from the plane of the Absolute. However, since Sri Ramakrishna is the avatara, Swami Vivekananda is the prophet preaching his masters message; he is Sri Ramakrishnas prophet.


     But what type of prophet was he? In the above-mentioned characteristics of a prophet, the first one is true of Vivekananda, since he always said he was spreading his masters message. The second and third are not true, since his words have not become the canon for any religion and he did not found a sect or religion. The fourth point, that Vivekananda was a social critic, is partially true because he was a reformer of a different kind - he wanted rootand-branch reform, as he termed it. In this rootand-branch reform was involved his concern for maintaining religious traditions, which is the fifth point.


     Thus Swami Vivekananda was a prophet. But he was quite different from Mani, Confucius, Muhammad, Shankara, or Ramanuja. Vivekananda was unique. What was his uniqueness? He was unique in numerous ways, but we shall mention only a few specialities. One, while all other prophets spoke of one particular form of religion, Vivekananda alone spoke of all religions with equal faith and devotion. Two, while other prophets condemned alien practices, Vivekananda said that all are paths to the Divine; that we go from truth to truth and not from error to truth. Three, while all other prophets claimed that their path alone was the best and that their God alone would lead to salvation, Vivekananda said that one could attain salvation through any path. Four, Vivekananda spoke of universal religion, the harmony of all yogas, and of the secondary character of scriptures and churches and temples, which none else did. Five, Vivekananda spoke on the world stage addressing the whole world, while others were limited, at least initially, to their regions. Six, Vivekananda concerned himself more than other prophets with the all-round well-being of all, from the lowest to the highest, and firmly stated that religion can bring about this all-round well-being. Seven, Vivekananda was unique in terms of depth and broadness of mind, social concern, spiritual experience and power to transmit spirituality. Eight, Vivekananda condemned none and said that all were entitled to spiritual glory, which some others did not. Nine, Vivekananda travelled extensively, which others could not. Ten, Vivekananda, a monk, founded a worldwide monastic order and did work of great diversity and magnitude. Eleven, Vivekananda used scientific expertise to explain religion, and gave a rational background to it, which was not possible for others. Twelve, with peoples coming closer - with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others living in the same apartment building - a new dimension was needed for religion, and Vivekananda alone could give it. He is, therefore, the first prophet of his kind.


     During his lifetime, this great prophet was recognized as such not only by Sri Ramakrishna and his own brother disciples, but also by the greatest and best of the religious and intellectual world. Except for his critics, everyone who saw or met him was simply awestruck by his astounding personality. An American newspaper commented that he was an orator by divine right. About recommending him to the organizers of the Parliament of Religions of 1893, Professor Wright exclaimed, To ask you, Swami, for credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine! (1.405-6).




     Did Vivekananda Say He Was a Prophet?




     Yes, he did! But Swami Vivekananda was always reluctant to claim a status for himself. Yet he had to state the fact. So he declared that while Buddha had a mission for the East, he had a mission for the West. Once even Swami Saradananda was stunned by a remark Vivekananda let fall during the course of a conversation with Miss Henrietta Muller. Vivekananda said, I will have a lot of difficult work to do in this life. Compared with last time, there is much more to be done. And a little later: I have just begun my work; in America I have raised only one or two waves; a tidal wave must be raised; society must be turned upside down; the world must be given a new civilization. The world will understand what that Power is and why I have come. Compared with the power I showed last time, it will be tremendous. (3) So Vivekananda was a prophet.


Next we come to his ideas on religion.




     What Has Vivekananda Said about Religion?




     Swami Vivekanandas concern was religion at its best. Religion is realization, he declared. He was initially a Brahmo who did not believe in image worship, but was smoothly led past all hurdles by Sri Ramakrishna until he attained the highest - nirvikalpa samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna had experienced that all religions are true. He declared: As many faiths, so many paths. All religions lead to the same goal. This spirit entered Vivekananda. And he himself must have had varied experiences of the ideals of different religions: we know he had visions of Buddha; we know of his love for Christ, and of his translation of the Imitation of Christ. On the secular side, Vivekananda had world history and the history of religions at his fingertips. He knew fully well the way religious movements affected the world. Later, Vivekananda travelled all over India and different parts of the world and thus had first-hand experience of religion in practice. By the time he went to the US to represent Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he had attained a very exalted state, spiritually and intellectually.




     What Was Religion like during Vivekanandas Time?




     Swami Vivekananda himself said that religion had entered the cooking pot. That is, what remained of religion was only ceremonials and non-essentials. Considering these to be everything, people quarrelled, and there was disunity, discord and pogroms. Even today this goes on. The Catholic Church proclaimed: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the church, no salvation. The world-renowned German Jesuit priest Karl Rahner remarked that anyone in the world who is pious and seeks God is an anonymous Christian. Or, there are those who believe that they are Gods chosen people. Then there is the militant appeal of religion. All these are aberrations of reality. Vivekananda remarked in his famous lecture titled The Way to the Realisation of a Universal Religion, delivered in 1900: Each religious sect has claimed the exclusive right to live. And thus we find that though there is nothing that has brought to man more blessings than religion, yet at the same time, there is nothing that has brought more horror than religion. Nothing has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for men, and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged the world with more blood than religion. (4) And he said elsewhere: There has been more bloodshed in the name of God than for any other cause, because people never went to the fountain-head; they were content only to give a mental assent to the customs of their forefathers, and wanted others to do the same (1.127).


     Vivekananda repeatedly said that instead of quibbling over inessentials, if only there was an ounce of practice, much could have been done. He observed with sadness: Even at the present time we find many sects and societies, with almost the same ideas, fighting each other, because one does not want to set forth those ideas in precisely the same way as another (2.68).


     What was his panacea for this fundamental and eternal problem of religion? He said that religions will have to broaden: Religious ideas will have to become universal, vast, and infinite; and then alone we shall have the fullest play of religion, for the power of religion has only just begun to manifest in the world. It is sometimes said that religions are dying out, that spiritual ideas are dying out of the world. To me it seems that they have just begun to grow (ibid.). With Ramakrishna-Vivekananda we are becoming religious.


     While on the one hand we have become a global village and there is information boom, in the religious field we are becoming pluralistic, with peoples coming so close to one another. Now a church, a temple and a mosque all coexist in the same locality, which was rare even until the last century. So the idea of one religion and one faith has to go. Individualism and exclusivism - my religion alone is true - will have to leave. In todays society, pluralism is the ideal, since it says that all religions have some truth in them. Vivekananda suggested this: The religious ideals of the future must embrace all that exists in the world and is good and great, and, at the same time, have infinite scope for future development. Religions must also be inclusive, and not look down with contempt upon one another, because their particular ideals of God are different (2.67). Of course there should be nishtha towards our own, but we should be broad enough to assimilate good ideas from every religion.


     The Chicago Parliament of Religions can be said to be an important point in recent history because it began with the old idea of selfish religion and ended in making way for a universal religion. And Swami Vivekananda was responsible for it. Though its chief purpose was to show the superiority of the majority religion, Vivekanandas broadness came as a surprise to everyone because he spoke highly of other religions - Christianity, Buddhism - as if they were his own. He declared:




     If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: Help and not Fight, Assimilation and not Destruction, Harmony and Peace and not Dissension (1.24).



     Thus within a few days the world had changed, as it were - from exclusivism to pluralism - with Vivekananda as the instrument. So he is the greatest prophet of harmony we have seen.




     What is Religious Harmony?




     Practically speaking, is such a religious harmony or religious unity possible? To answer this, we should know the nature of human growth. We are trichotomous: we have the body, the mind, and the Self. Other religions speak of the body and the soul - not the Atman, or Self. The concept of Atman is Indias contribution to the world. Most Indian religions centre round the Self, which is the only reality. This much is at the individual level. At the collective level, we have the physical world, the world of ideas, and the Spirit. This Spirit, known as Brahman, is again an Indian discovery. Moreover, there is one more discovery of the Indian sages which is the profoundest of all. That is the simple equation: Atman = Brahman. All is one and one is all.


     Where then is difference? Difference is at the physical level, at the bodily level. Where is harmony? Harmony is at the mental or ideational level. And where is unity? Unity is at the level of the Self, or Atman or Brahman. So there are three levels. If we hold on only to the gross physical, there is only difference and discord because of variety. Unity in variety is the law of nature, Vivekananda remarked on several occasions. At the physical level, no two things can become one. Communists failed because they thought of bringing about physical equality. But equality can only be at the spiritual level. Next, peaceful coexistence can be at the mental level, where we cannot see difference. And finally Oneness: unity is at the Spirit level.


     Thus, both at the collective and the individual levels, there are three dimensions, physical, mental, and spiritual. The spiritual alone is true, and the rest are not. And we move from discord, through harmony, to unity. Now, is there such a gradation in the field of religion also? Yes, there is. There is ritual, there is mythology, and there is philosophy. All our discord and dissension is at the ritualistic level and about theories of rituals, which are wrongly called philosophy. There is harmony at the mythology level, because stories are stories. Then there is unity at the level of philosophy, which I equate with the experiential level. The word philosophy needs to be taken in its truest sense, the dimension of experience. Then there will be unity. When Vivekananda spoke of harmony, he spoke of the coexistence of different mythologies. When he spoke of a higher dimension of unity, he was speaking of the experiential dimension of the Spirit. This we shall see now.




     Is Such a Harmony Possible?




     We have already spoken of the first stage, religious discord. We shall now turn to harmony. Vivekananda says: Amidst this chaos there is harmony, throughout these discordant sounds there is a note of concord; and he who is prepared to listen to it will catch the tone (3.1-2). Had it been the will of an All-wise and All-merciful Creator that one of these religions should exist and the rest should die, it would have become a fact long, long ago. If it were a fact that only one of these religions is true and all the rest are false, by this time it would have covered the whole ground. But this is not so (2.362). Vivekananda explained his ideal of a universal religion thus:




     What then do I mean by the ideal of a universal religion? I do not mean any one universal philosophy, or any one universal mythology, or any one universal ritual held alike by all. What can we do then? We can make it run smoothly, we can lessen the friction, we can grease the wheels, as it were. How? By recognising the natural necessity of variation. We must learn that the same thing can be viewed from a hundred different standpoints, and yet be the same thing (2.382-3).



     This is harmony.


     Next, unity. Using the scientific discoveries of his time, Vivekananda proved that there is basic unity at the physical level. Then he gave the instance of Humphrey Davys experience to say that there is unity at the thought level. Finally, he added: Unity in variety is the plan of creation. However men and women may vary individually, there is unity in the background (1.41). He also said: Even in the universe of thought we find unity, and at last, when we get to the Self, we know that that Self can only be One. Beyond the vibrations of matter in its gross and subtle aspects, beyond motion there is but One. Even in manifested motion there is only unity (1.152). Finally, an individual, through varied experiences of innumerable lives, will have to expand towards unity. Vivekananda says: He expands into one mass of universal love, infinite love - the love that is God (2.51).


     Thus it is evident that Swami Vivekananda was the first prophet to speak of the fundamental unity of religions on such a universal scale. There was harmony in India, as can be seen in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. But Vivekananda was the first prophet to bring the whole world of religions, at all levels, together. Those who understand him will benefit immensely. None of the previous prophets spoke of a universal religion, or of harmony among religions or of unity of different religions. Buddha condemned brahminic sacrifices; Muhammad condemned idolatry; Nanak created a new group. Others had something or other to say against others practices. But Vivekananda accepted all.


     His wonderful declaration says it all: Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, 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 (1.124).









     1. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 475.

     2. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2000), 1.76.

     3. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, 6 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1986), 4.142.

     4. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.359-60.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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