Inspiration That Was Swami Vivekananda
Vivekananda’s ideas have been seen through various eyes, and
new light has been thrown upon these ideas. In one sense,
Swamiji is inexhaustible. In another sense, it can be supported
that Swamiji’s core message is that man is the Atman, Atman
is perfection, and perfection defies all types of limitations.
Shall Not Cease to Inspire’
first thing about Swamiji that strikes me is his importance
in inspiring us. His teachings are there of course, but his
life is also there. He has left behind a sangha, an organization,
a circle of devotees, to put into practice the ideas he gave.
And a great man is more a principle than a person. But still,
to my mind, his most important contribution is the inspiration
remember - and this is the experience of many people - that
when we were young, there was a Bengali volume, a second volume
of Swamiji’s letters, which was very inspiring. Now it has
been included in the larger compilation, Letters of Swami
Vivekananda. The letters written between 1890 and 1902
are of a more inspiring type, when Swamiji was trying to energize
people to do things. Romain Rolland has described Swamiji
as ‘energy personified, and action was his message to man’.
So when you read his books, you get thrilled, as do some of
the famous writers and thinkers and singers, but you also
feel that inspiration comes in your own life. I was in Madras
for more than twelve years in the 1950s and 60s. The president
of the Tamil Writers’ Association became my friend. And being
inspired by us, he began to read the Complete Works of
Swami Vivekananda. Early one morning, he came to the Math
to meet me. That was not the time sadhus met people, but still
I had to come out. He said, ‘Swami, I could not contain myself.
Last night I was reading Swamiji till twelve o’clock; then
suddenly the inspiration came, by reading his works, that
I must do something. But what to do at midnight? So I settled
with my pen and wrote two stories in one night.’ The reason
he was so impressed was that for the previous two years he
could not write a book or any stories for that matter, because
he was constructing a building. That building took up all
his energies, all his attention. There was no creativity left
in him to write anything. So that is the important idea: in
whatever way you are going, Swamiji’s inspiration can help
you in that particular way. Not that you will necessarily
turn traditionally spiritual overnight, but you will be inspired,
and inspired things will happen. And that, according to Swamiji,
is the real fulfilment of life: to manifest the perfection
we have in us. How it is manifested and how much it is manifested,
only by that will it be judged whether our life is successful
that is the major idea: Swamiji is an inspirer of people,
especially young people. When we remember his inspiring words,
we feel energized, enthused; all the blood will be boiling,
as it were, to do something. What things will come? Much will
be determined by the composition of our mind. Inspiration
doesn’t always express itself in the same way. We have the
classical experience of the Ramayana stories. Three
brothers, Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana, practised hard
austerities. That was considered to be the major method by
which strength, power and wisdom were acquired. Because Ravana
was of the rajasic type, his mental composition was of rajoguna.
He became a king and wielded power in the three worlds, but
he also became a tyrant. Kumbhakarna was a lazy man, so by
his tapasya his laziness increased, though it was probably
a covetable laziness to some extent. He could alternately
sleep for six months and eat for six months! We may smile
at this, but remember, eighty per cent of our activities centre
around these two: having good sleep and good food - to attain
our security in these two. Twenty per cent of our activities
may involve something more than these two things. Vibhishana
was of the sattvic type and had spiritual attainment, realization
of God. The idea is that spirituality can give you inspiration,
but your mental composition must be all right.
for Purification of Mind
with receiving inspiration, it is very important to purify
our minds as much as possible. The method of achieving purification
is contemplation of the pure. The lives of Ramakrishna, Holy
Mother, Swamiji and others can purify us, but it is also important
to do some unselfish action. Swamiji’s major prescription
is service. He used to say that renunciation and service are
the national ideals of India. Why national ideals,
these are the ideals of the whole world.
was at one time the editor of the Vedanta Kesari in
Madras. My predecessor was Swami Budhananda, who was a good
thinker. At one time he filled up the journal with quotations
he had collected for two years - quotations from the Mahabharata
and other books - to prove that a householder is a greater
renouncer than a sannyasin. Why? If I am a monk and I have
got a headache, I go to sleep. I don’t care for the world.
But if I am a mother and my child comes home, in spite of
my headache, in spite of my illness, I shall have to get up
and look after the child. Now, unconsciously that mother has
acquired the quality of a yogi: self-control, control of the
emotions and demands of the body, working for others.
prescription is to purify yourself, and then, to be useful
to society, to work for others. Spiritual work is all right,
but if you work for others, at least something substantial
will remain. When Swamiji went to Rameswaram, he said in his
lecture in the Shiva temple that if we go to the temple with
fruits and flowers but forget that God is there, the whole
thing is a waste. Of course, some result will be there inasmuch
as it is a discipline; it is not a hundred per cent waste,
but still a waste. But if we go to a sick man and give a little
medicine, or go to an ignorant man and give a little knowledge,
if we remember God is in him, we get the full benefit of worship.
But even if we forget the God in him, still, our action has
a social benefit. It involves the practice of unselfishness.
The more unselfishness increases, the more will purity come.
Impurity is self-consideration. In all our affairs we normally
equate things from our own standpoint. Unselfishness is ignoring
remember one thinker’s very beautiful definition of humility.
We know what humility is, but his was a very unique way of
explaining it: humility is the capacity to praise your adversary
- very difficult indeed! To praise one’s adversary, to say
that he has got good qualities, is wonderful. It requires
us to think a little deeper. When we can do this, it means
that complete egolessness has come. We are then able to appreciate
goodness elsewhere, or find goodness in somebody else.
idea is that we will be much more successful if we can purify
ourselves, make the mind ready for results, ready for the
manifestation of our hidden powers. As Vedantists we should
believe that nothing comes from outside. All the capacities
are already within. They are to be brought out. Instead of
self-development, our word is atma-vikasa, self-manifestation.
The Atman is all perfect, but it manifests itself. Unknown
areas are there in human nature in which the Spirit can manifest.
In the world’s oldest book, the Rig Veda, it is said
that God covered the entire universe, but transcended it by
ten fingers more, meaning that He is not finished with the
universe - He is something more also. This means that a puny
creature like a man or a woman has the same perfection God
has; it is a question of difference of manifestation. And
in innumerable ways we can manifest the Spirit in ourselves.
When I first went to America, thirty-five years ago, two women
had been declared generals of the US Army, for the first time
in history. There had been queens and fighters, but not generals.
That means that an ordinary creature like a man or woman has
unknown areas, undiscovered areas, unmanifested areas. So
that is why Swamiji advised us to every day think of ourselves
as the Atman and manifest the power of the Spirit.
writer spoke of ‘prayer without tears’. Prayer, normally,
is asking. Now, Vedanta says, instead of weeping and crying,
assert. You have got the power within you. Assert it. The
theistic idea is that God has got the power, and that we ask
God, ‘Please, God, give me something.’ But instead of that,
assert. Assertion is a better psychological technique. If
we say, ‘I have got a headache, I have got a headache; O Lord,
do something for me’, the subconscious absorbs the idea -
headache, headache, headache. So instead of producing health,
more unhealthiness will be produced. On the other hand, Vedanta
will ask you to say, ‘Shuddho’ham, buddho’ham, niramayo’ham;
I am pure, I am illumined, I am healthy.’ You may argue, ‘I
am not healthy; I have a headache.’ But, really speaking,
you don’t have a headache. Vedanta pushes you to the question,
‘Who are you?’ That is one of the enquiries Vedanta asks us
to make. Some groups don’t go into philosophy, religion, pujas
and bhajans - they use straight questioning. Who are you?
Analyse, analyse, analyse. Vedanta asserts, ‘I am not the
body, not the mind, but the Spirit.’ The moment you say, ‘I
am healthy, I am healthy’, you are identifying with your Spirit
nature. When you say, ‘I have got a headache, I have got a
headache’, who has got the headache? The body, of course.
Or, you may feel bad mentally, but you have already argued
that you are not the body, not the mind, so you are not suffering.
When you say ‘I am healthy’, you are telling the greater truth,
the higher truth, the more enduring truth. Truth that is more
enduring is real truth. Temporary truth is no truth.
materialists came forward and said, ‘No, we don’t accept this.
How do you know that this is so? Our studies don’t reveal
the Spirit.’ The Vedantists explained, ‘We don’t know your
method of physical analysis or logical process, but we can
realize the Truth by our special method of inspiration, or
intuition, by what is called anubhuti, or experience,
realization. These are different terms used by different schools
to describe the ultimate understanding of one’s real nature.
This method may not be accepted by the materialists but that
does not matter, for according to them it cannot be known
by their methods. This is not evident to ordinary people,
but the ultimate nature of everything is revealed to the realized
asserted that man is Divinity in human form. When he went
to America, he told the people, ‘You are not sinners. It is
a sin to call you so.’ Very dramatic sentences! And by the
by, it would be a very good idea, especially for you young
people, to memorize fifty, sixty or seventy of these inspiring
sayings of Swamiji. Through your whole life they will be useful.
So when Swamiji said this, he was speaking to Americans, who
were immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Europe,
who had either been persecuted religiously or went to America
because of famine or for a better livelihood. They found that
the country was theirs for the taking. Soon there were ranches
and fields, ten, twenty miles long. To such a person, if you
say, ‘You are a sinner; you are hopeless’, he is not going
to believe it. For religion’s sake he may grudgingly agree,
but he is not going to really accept it. Swamiji said, ‘No,
you are the all-powerful Spirit.’ That appealed to the pioneering
Americans. That is one reason why Swamiji became so successful.
He inspired. He touched the real core of the people’s lives.
He told them, ‘You are something grand, something infinite,
something unending.’ That is the special idea Swamiji tried
to inject. In the Western context the idea of the divinity
of man is the major idea that he thrust. In the Indian context
it was the application of the ideal that we must see divinity
in man - see it for ourselves. The Bhagavadgita identifies
both, and Swamiji supported both ideas. But in the Western
context, he made people aware of their spiritual nature. In
the Indian context, he stressed the idea that the Atman should
be seen in society.
the Manifested Atman
commentators translate the word atmarama as ‘one who
finds bliss in the Self’. But is it bliss in the Self with
closed eyes or opened eyes? Sri Ramakrishna is seen in both
ways in the advanced stage. In his commentary on the Narada
Bhakti Sutras, Swami Tyagishanandaji explains that the
effect of seeing the Atman everywhere is service of men and
other creatures. So a man of illumination can do both: he
may go within or serve the manifested Atman. Once you have
realized, you are free; what do you want to do? The swami
is telling us that the normal, natural course of a man of
illumination will be to serve others. It is a very beautiful
way of putting Swamiji’s ideas.
is an important idea in the Indian context. Swamiji stressed
this idea of service, because India needs service. Even after
more than fifty years of independence, people are starving,
people are ignorant. There has not been much improvement.
Of course, they say forty per cent of Indians belong to the
middle class, and that is why America has got interested in
India. But, still, in the larger community, people are not
free from hunger and insecurity, so some manifestation of
energy is necessary. The Ramakrishna Mission immediately attracted
the attention of society because of pinpointing this idea
of serving society.
the question of relevance is often brought out. In what way,
as a person or as a principle manifesting ideas, is Swamiji
relevant? He is significantly relevant in two ways. Man must
continually be made aware that he has got infinite possibilities.
If he knows and believes that he has got possibilities, new
avenues will open up. The method will be to serve others.
That way, society will be benefited, the individual will be
benefited. This way, Swamiji says, stage by stage a practitioner
will go towards higher realization, which is the ultimate
goal of life.
Positive, Nothing Negative
special prescription is that all of us should have an ideal.
His famous saying is, ‘If a man with an ideal makes a thousand
mistakes, I am sure that the man without an ideal makes fifty
thousand. Therefore, it is better to have an ideal.’1 Swamiji
always tried to improve people, not by showing their defects,
but by showing their merits. By denouncing people, much result
is not achieved, because it evokes resistance. If somebody
denounces me and then gives me advice, half the time I am
not going to accept it even if he is right. That is why Swamiji’s
method was to bring out the positive side. In one of his famous
letters he says, ‘No negative, all positive, affirmative.
I am, God is, everything is in me. I will manifest
health, purity, knowledge, whatever I want.’ (6.276) But that
has to be done by asserting the positive aspect of ourselves,
by thinking of our divine nature. If I lack strength, I think
of the Atman as full of strength. If I lack courage, I think
of the Atman as full of courage. That is the method. There
is another famous saying of his:
was found out as soon as man was born. Everyone knows his
disease; it requires no one to tell us what our diseases
are. But thinking all the time that we are diseased will
not cure us - medicine is necessary. … In our heart of hearts
we all know our weaknesses. But, says the Vedanta, being
reminded of weakness does not help much; give strength,
and strength does not come by thinking of weakness all the
time. The remedy for weakness is not brooding over weakness,
but thinking of strength. Teach men of the strength that
is already within them. (2.300)
is why, even for India his prescription is to think of strength,
one context Swamiji denounces India, but his major thrust
is, ‘Love India, honour India, respect India.’ The idea is
that you must develop that love for your own country. Not
only for your country - ultimately you will have to embrace
the whole world, but not by ignoring your country. Now the
present world is being ruled by nationalism, and everywhere
the nationalistic states are lionized. But, transcending nationalism,
we must also recognize the universal idea - to make the entire
world our own.
are a few ideas from Swamiji. We can take up Swamiji from
any angle and try to show that a particular idea of his is
useful for the betterment of the individual, of society and
of the world at large. That is the special purpose of a religious
teacher, a teacher who is an inspirer. ‘Awakener of souls’
is the term often used for Swamiji. Let us be inspired by
him; let us try to build our lives and also dedicate them
for the good of everyone.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.152.