Swami Vivekananda: His Message of Vedanta and the Western Way (Part 5)

by Swami Adiswarananda

The Reasons for the Eclipse of Vedanta

The reasons for the eclipse are obvious. Self-Knowledge, the goal of Vedanta, has two movements: one is mysticism and the other is humanism. One is seeing God with eyes closed and the other is seeing the same God with eyes open. One is Knowledge, the other is intimate experience. The first without the second is sterile, the second without the first is meaningless. When mysticism and humanism get separated, both degenerate. Mysticism turns into 'mist-ism," a dreamy search for salvation in transcendental cloud-land. On the other hand, humanism without mysticism turns into secular humanism, becomes the practice of enlightened ego, and the enlightened ego eventually degenerates into a dark ego, obsessed with self-interest. Under such circumstances, our philanthropy and works of welfare prove to be drab substitutes for spirituality, futile efforts to fill the great spiritual void left by the decay of faith. The human soul craves God, but the substitutes offer consumer goods and services. It asks for immortality and the substitutes say, "Eat, drink, and make merry." Where there is nothing beyond the present to be hoped for, the philosophy of the creeds of secular humanism tries to make life less pitiably wretched. As the tide of spirituality recedes, the tide of materialism rises. Secular humanism promises good roads, efficient water supply, unlimited movie houses, luxurious homes, excellent sanitation, humane slaughtering, the best of schools, radio and television installation for everyone, and free concerts for all, but without the far horizons and invincible hopes. We cease to think of our immortal soul, of the supreme goal of our life, and the sublime secrets of the universe.

Swami Vivekananda Makes Vedanta Living

Swami Vivekananda was a synthesis of the cultures of the East and West, a daring do-or-die hero, tempered in the fire of holiness. He was quick, razor-sharp, and full of life. His fastidious oriental intellect seized upon the theories and practices of both the Eastern and Western minds, but was in a dilemma to reconcile faith to reason. The Western readiness to reason its way to truth, and active and often bloody quest for liberty and social justice, fascinated him in his early youth. On the other hand, in the midst of his intellectual joy there was a deep longing for God. With all his life he loved God, whom reason could not prove to exist. The two streams of thought created a terrible commotion within him and he became a kind of roving threat to the holy men of his time with his one single forthright question: "Sir, have you seen God?" The search for truth ultimately brought him to Sri Ramakrishna, whom, after six years of struggle, he accepted as his master, and from his great master he learned the true spirit of Vedanta, If Vivekananda reasoned too much and doubted too long it was because his longing for knowledge was to deep and his spiritual hunger was too intense. By coming into contact with the God-man of nineteenth century India, the iconoclastic, rebellious, young Narendra turned into a flaming Vivekananda, the very embodiment of Vedanta. One day his dying master passed his final word of Vedanta to him, the worship of the living God.

After his master's passing, Vivekananda set out on a pilgrimage to the shrines of the living God. His master asked him to become a huge banyan tree, under whose shade would gather weary souls in search of peace and solace of life. No one saw India and India's masses as Vivekananda saw them, and what he saw made him restless and brought his mind down from the height of transcendental consciousness to the misery of the world around him. He saw the land of the all-pervading Brahman filled with cries of sorrow and suffering. The living God in all hearts, whom Vedanta glorifies, was being neglected, insulted, and trampled underfoot. The people having been subjected to centuries of invasions and foreign rule, had been beaten into submission, their never-ending poverty making them deaf to the song of the soul that was being sung within.

The lion-hearted Vivekananda roared in agony and frustration, and became restless for finding a way to put an end to this insult and neglect of the living God. He decided to awaken the masses by sounding the thundering drumbeats of Vedanta. He saw people in India worshipping local superstitions in the name of Vedanta. Like moss growing over a stone, a proliferation of dogmas, creeds, rituals, and theological speculations concealed the real teachings of Vedanta, until the whole Vedanta came to be mere collection of empty ceremonials and intellectual jugglery. Vivekananda saw India in deep spiritual coma. Vedanta is the teaching neither for the week nor for the empty stomach. He looked toward the West and realized that he needed the Western vigor, manliness, and virility to make Vedanta living. He wrote that he wished it infuse some of the American spirit into India, into "that awful mass of conservative jelly-fish, and then throw overboard all old associations and start a new thing, entirely new - simple, strong, new and fresh as the first-born baby - throw all of the past overboard and begin anew."

There is an apparent contradiction between the outlook of the East and that of the West. The two often stand at opposite poles. What seems wisdom to the one is regarded as folly by the other; what delights the one disgusts the other. For the East, knowledge is virtue; it is "being" as opposed to "becoming." For the West, knowledge is not merely the satisfaction of virtue but is also a tool to improve the quality of life. Knowledge is "becoming." To know is to be able to deal with the objects we know in a dynamic way that is practical and capable of changing external nature, accomplishing goals, and bringing about material improvement. Progress in the West is material, while in the East it is spiritual. The East seeks peace of soul even at the price of submission, while the West seeks freedom even at the price of bloody combat.

The East is concerned with finding the ultimate solution to the problems of life by absorption in the silence of the Self; it considers the world "a mirage," "a framework of illusion," "maya," and "a dog's curly tail" that is impossible to straighten. Progress, the East says, is illusory, for we live not in a progressive world but in a changing world. To try to build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is futile. True good is not to be achieved by material improvement. There is no use trying to make the dog's curly tail straight, to run after the mirage for water. It is foolish to try to save this world of delusion or make it better. Liberation of the soul calls for renunciation of desires, not their multiplication.

In contrast, the West looks upon these views as pessimistic, other worldly, and self-defeating. The ultimate goal can never be reached by bypassing immediate needs; one who is not fit for the earth is not fit for heaven either. Without material fulfillment, the hope for spiritual attainment is an empty dream. Without fulfillment of legitimate desires, our disinterestedness leads only to uninterestedness, dispassion to depression, and self-surrender to self-pity. Too often dispassion is caused by a zero bank balance or a torpid liver. Discontent with the world is often induced by a disordered colon, and overconscientiousness by overstimulated nerves.

However the East may brand the world as illusory and unreal, everyone knows that it is all too real. That the saints and mystics struggle hard to overcome the lures and temptations of this world only shows that the world is real and has power. The human individual is not just a soul, but is body-mind-soul. For the West, liberation, is cessation of suffering. As Dewey pragmatically said, "When you are lost in a forest, the true view of the way out is the view by which you get out." Living life calls for educating ourselves to face reality by knowing that we have nothing to rely on except our own power and potentiality.

The West looks upon the Eastern way as life-negating and depressive, and its so-called moralism as fanaticism. Such a way engenders self-isolation, selfish individualism, and cowardly retreat from the challenges of life. The Easterner is gloomy, impractical, and brooding. Matthew Arnold described a Hindu as one who lets "the legions thunder past, and then plunges in thought again."

The East responds by saying that the Western way with its love of unrestrained pleasure, is suicidal. Its so-called life-asserting views only create speed without destination. In the name of reason its philosophy goes round and round in a circle. Its freedom of self-expression in art and esthetics only caters to promiscuity, Its blind pragmatism seeks to nourish the body at the cost of the soul, the center of our being. The greatness of a person is not to be judged by what he does, but by what he is. A monkey trained to ride a bicycle, drink a glass, and smoke a cigar is still a monkey. The Westerner is sunny, shallow, noisy, and naive. The laws of history are pitiless; they show that civilizations and cultures that chose the way of speed, combat, and quantity quickly died because of their spiritual bankruptcy.

Part 6

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