Swami Vivekananda and His Messages of Awakening

[An address delivered by Swami Adiswarananda on September 21, 2002 at the Haft Auditorium, New York in connection with the homage to the legacy of Swami Vivekananda, a program presented by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan-USA, New York]

Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions

The year 1993 marked the completion of 100 years since Swami Vivekananda's appearance at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. The parliament served as a platform for Swami Vivekananda to deliver the message of his master, Sri Ramakrishna. The occasion was the Columbian Exposition, honoring the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. The Parliament of Religions, convened as a part of the exposition, was really an afterthought of the organizers. But the entire dynamics became radically altered and the parliament assumed great importance because of the presence in it of one person, and that person was Swami Vivekananda, a lone visitor from India, then a British colony.

Unknown and unsupported by any religious organization, the Swami appeared at the parliament as if by divine will. He spoke at the parliament not just as a representative of Hinduism but as a defender of the spiritual core of all religions of the world. He had a message, the message was delivered, and the people of America were thrilled to hear it. He spoke of the spiritual unity of the universe and of humankind. No one in memory had so fearlessly explained, eloquently articulated, and courageously defended this message of unity as did the Swami. Hearing him, people who were being held captive by the prevalent "saved" and "doomed" mentality gratefully breathed the fresh air of hope and freedom. They saw him as their man-the man of the hour, the man of the future. Listening to him, they felt they were hearing all the world's prophets and sages rolled into one. As a result of his appearance at the Parliament of Religions, the penniless monk became a spiritual hero, a figure of mythic proportion. Newspapers, journals, and tabloids heralded his appearance and repeated his every word. Many described him as "warrior monk," "militant mystic," or "spiritual revolutionary."

In 1976, during its bicentennial year, America honored him as a great personality from abroad who left an indelible mark on the American mind. His message became the future charter for the development of religious freedom and democracy.

The Message was Vedanta

The message of Swami Vivekananda was the message of Vedanta. The four cardinal points of Vedanta are: (1)non-duality of the Godhead, (2) divinity of the soul, (3)oneness of existence, and (4) harmony of religions.

(1) Vedanta gives a spiritual interpretation of man, his universe, and the Ultimate Reality. Philosophically non-dualistic and religiously monotheistic, Vedanta is a non-dogmatic, non-sectarian way of life. According to Vedanta, "Truth is one: sages call it by various names." The validity of truth depends upon the direct perception of the Real. Religion is the manifestation of the divinity already in man. The different names and concepts of the divine are only frail, human attempts to name the nameless, attribute form to the formless, and limit the illimitable.

(2) The divinity of the soul is innate. Religious practices do not generate divinity, but help us to regain faith in our divinity.

(3) All life is one, homogeneous and integral. Individuals are like innumerable blood cells in the vast universal body that includes the human, superhuman, and subhuman. Life is interdependent, not independent. This oneness is the basis of all ethics and morality. Anything that separates us from the rest of the universe is sin, and whatever unites us with all is virtue.

(4) Different religions are only different paths leading to the same goal, described by various names, such as communion, union, samadhi, Self-Knowledge, satori, eternal life in heaven, nirvana, and so forth. Harmony of religions is based on unity in diversity, not on uniformity. This harmony is to be discovered and realized by deepening our individual God-consciousness. Vedanta asks a Christian to be a true Christian, a Hindu a true Hindu, a Muslim a true Muslim, a Buddhist a true Buddhist, a Jew a true Jew. All roads, Vedanta contends, lead to Rome, provided Rome is your destination.

Vedanta is based not on personalities but on universal principles applicable to all people of all times. Its basis of ethics is derived from the unity of life. It offers attainable immortality through Self-Knowledge before death. It gives hope that just as a saint had a past, so a sinner has a future. The sufferings of life, according to Vedanta, are not due to any external agency but to our ego that denounces our true Self and wants to make its own Kingdom of Heaven. Salvation is return to sanity and wholeness.

Contributions of Vedanta to World Religious Thought

Vedanta presents a World-Soul for the achievement of an organic world-unity. It calls for a spiritual humanism that connects mysticism and humanism. Vedanta promotes spiritual democracy and harmony of faiths. Its code of living is holistic and integral. Vedanta's way leading to Self-Knowledge and spiritual enlightenment is called Yoga, and this Self-Knowledge is achievable in this very life.

Vivekananda Made Vedanta Living

Vedanta, though it originated in India, was long forgotten there. In search of God in heaven, people forgot God on earth as the indwelling Self of all. Of the two aspects of Vedanta's central teaching-"All this is verily Brahman" and "That thou art," the latter was ignored. As a result, Vedanta ceased to be practical. It became a teaching of the elected or selected few, who only indulged in abstract, futile intellectual debates. Vedanta lost its very soul. Vivekananda restored that soul to Vedanta. He was the very embodiment of the teachings of Vedanta. In him the spirit of both the East and the West met. With his fastidious oriental upbringing, he seized upon the theories and practices of Western life. The Western readiness to reason its way to truth and its active, often bloody, quest for liberty and social justice enchanted his mind. He became a veritable Yankee long before he came to the Yankee land.

His master, Sri Ramakrishna, saw in him a blazing fire of purity. His rebellious spirit was tamed by the overpowering love of his master, who prophesied that Vivekananda would raise his voice in India and abroad for the good of the world. Before passing away, his master gave him his final teaching: "The service of man is the worship of God, and the human body is the greatest of all temples. Worship of the living God is more significant than the worship of a vague God in heaven."

After Sri Ramakrishna's passing, Vivekananda took to the life of a wandering monk. He traveled the entire length and breadth of India. During his wanderings he came to know India as few men had known her. He knew the blessings of her rich religious diversity, and felt the anguish of those living Gods in frail hungry bodies, beaten into submission by centuries of colonial rule. He saw that, weakened by unending poverty and oppression, they had lost sight of their own innate majesty and become deaf to the sweet sacred song that constantly sounded within them. A cradle to grave suffering of the people sent him into bouts of grief and despair, and transformed him once and for all. He was determined to use the drumbeats of Vedanta to rouse the people to regain their glory. But he realized that the masses of India were in deep spiritual coma and Vedanta could not be understood and practiced by them until their material conditions improved.

Vedanta is the teaching for the strong and the vigorous. Its practice requires the Western spirit with its penchant for charging headlong into the future--the spirit that does not wait for things to happen, but salutes reason, uses common sense, takes chances, and moves forward propelled by no one but oneself. Vivekananda realized that until the Western spirit joined the Eastern spirit, Vedanta would never be living and practical. So he made America his pulpit from which to broadcast the life-giving message of Vedanta. The West, he saw, was moving at a terrific speed without a goal, which was dangerous and destructive. In his addresses he repeatedly emphasized that the East and the West must learn from each other for the survival and success of both. He passionately believed that a marriage of Western material knowledge and Eastern spiritual depth could transform the entire world. Upholding the essential truths of spirituality, he lashed out against hypocrisy, self-love, and superstition. The prophet in him came out in full vigor.

The Stage was Ready

America was ready to receive Swami Vivekananda's message of Vedanta. The rude shock of the Civil War dashed to pieces the idealistic hopes of the American people for a brighter and better future. Darwin's thesis shook the foundations of church dogma, and the atheistic teachings of Ingersoll and others were holding sway at the time. Through the transcendental movement, the teachings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were slowly influencing the thought-current of the country. Against this background, Vivekananda appeared as the redeemer of the American souls. His message gave people the hope that science and religion were not inimical but complementary to each other. After hearing him, they realized that the East was not a land of star-gazers and fortune-tellers, which was the preaching of the missionaries, but a land of eternal, ancient wisdom.

The Message Draws Fire

While the universalists and the noble-minded applauded Vivekananda for his life-giving message, the entrenched dogmatists saw in him a threat. They concocted false rumors and character assassinating stories, and made campaigns of hatred against him. Just as the bigots in the West branded him as monstrous and profane, so too the decadent Hindu orthodoxy denounced him as un-Vedic, as one who crossed the forbidden black waters of the ocean and distorted the teachings of the Vedas. Even his brother disciples saw in him and in his teachings, a veiled imitation of Christianity, a departure from the teachings of their master. But in the end Vivekananda prevailed. He was like Tennyson's Sir Galahad, who said, "My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure." Following his message, both in the West and in India, Vedanta Societies sprung up, initiating a new movement and a new age for the emancipation of the human soul and the worship of the living God. The masses of India rose to their feet to receive his message.

Vivekananda: The Prophet of the Common Man

The whole life of Vivekananda was a search for the living God-the forgotten God. It was the fancy of his childhood, the dream of his youth, the passion of his monastic years, and the ecstasy of his last days. His heart bled for the poor, the down-trodden. He loved them, he fought for them, lobbied for them at the door of God, and left a promise for them: "It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body-to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God."[i]

The Future of Vedanta

The message of Vedanta is more relevant today than ever before. Scientific and technological advances are fast changing the world culture, making it heavily pluralistic and multi-racial. We are witnessing world-wide upheavals, breakdown of totalitarian regimes, awakening of the common man, and fervent calls for freedom and democracy. Organized religion is gradually losing its grip over people's minds. Many look to Vedanta for spiritual inspiration. Swami Vivekananda prophesied that his message would spread and influence society for fifteen hundred years. He said that his great master, the one who gave him the message, would send the earth's bravest and best to keep the message alive and perpetuate it for the good of the world. Vedanta with its universal message has become a world movement. The voice of Vivekananda's Vedanta can be heard today echoing from many directions-in the calls for social justice, human rights, global cooperation, environmentalism, holistic living, and above all for interfaith understanding and unity.

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[i] Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works, chosen and with a biography by Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1994, p. 179.