Swami Vivekananda: His Message of Vedanta and the Western Way (Part 6)

by Swami Adiswarananda

Swami Vivekananda Makes Vedanta Living (Continued)

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 trail straight, to run after the mirage for water. It is foolish to try to save this world of delusion of 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, otherworldly, 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.

The New Testament of Vedanta

Vivekananda saw the Western way as the missing counterpart of Vedanta. He admired the Western spirit - its penchant for heading into the future with courage and tenacity; its impatience, not to wait for things to happen but to make them happen; and its readiness to take responsibility upon itself, taking risks, making mistakes, and forging ahead propelled by nothing but itself. He loved the Yankee land and the Yankee spirit. He wrote: "I love the Yankee land - I like to see new things. I do not care a fig to loaf about old ruins and mope a life out about old histories and keep sighing about the ancients. I have too much vigor in my blood for that. In America is the place, the people, the opportunity for everything new . I have become horribly radical."

The high voltage of pluck and the thrust of the Western spirit fascinated Vivekananda. He passionately believed that the wisdom of the soul would never be a social reality without the support of the Western spirit, and that the Western way - its speed and thrust - unless guided toward the wisdom of the soul, would be the surest way to doom and destruction. Vedanta, in order to be complete, must combine the spirit of the East with that of the West. If the Vedic statement "All this is verify Brahman" is real, then the other Vedic statement "that thou are" is equally real. Truth is to be realized both through knowledge and experience. Holiness and happiness are interrelated; mediation and action are complementary. Unselfishness is the greatest virtue, and working for the good of others the highest form of worship. Self-control is the supreme austerity. Our direct experience of the Ultimate is our greatest savior, and the surest sign of direct experience is permanent transformation of character.

The most important contribution of the new Vedanta is its practicality. It replaces the humanitarian ideals of compassion and charity with the spiritual precept of service to the living God dwelling in the hearts of all beings. Practical Vedanta is a call to make the spiritual reality a social reality. Its essential teaching, in Swami Vivekananda's words, is that: "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"

The new Vedanta regards the four yogas - the paths of Jnana (Knowledge), Bhakti (devotion), Karma (selfless action), and Raja (concentration) - as four independent paths leading to the goal of Self-Knowledge, a departure from the old view that the first yoga was the highest and a culmination of the other three. The new approach no only declares that a human individual is divine, but also has daring faith in that divinity. Practical Vedanta is in agreement with Carl Jung, who rejects the belief that the brain is a "appendage of the genital glands," the view which leads to the neglect of the most important aspect of man's being. Practical Vedanta is not just a philosophy: it is a guideline for robust living, for being divine and also fully human. One cannot be divine unless one is human first.

The new Vedanta is available to all regardless of caste, color, or race. Its practice does not require a person to have a male body and brahmin birth, and to live in the seclusion of the forest. The old Vedanta said that one who did not believe in God was an atheist; the new Vedanta says: He who does not believe in himself is an atheist. For the new Vedanta, material and spiritual development are conjoined. Work and worship go together. The inner and the outer dimensions of a person must be balanced in a pleasing harmony. The new approach does not believe in a God who promises a person eternal bliss in heaven but cannot give him bread here. Practical Vedanta is a active spiritual quest - not letting things happen, but causing them to happen.

Swami Vivekananda foresaw that the East needed the West as much a the West needed the East - not only for success, but also for survival. In his view, India, the center of Easter spirituality, possesses the wisdom of the soul but lacks a strong body to house that soul. The West, on the other hand, possesses a strong body but lacks a soul. The soul and the body need to be united to make life meaningful. The West needs the wisdom of the soul so that is mighty achievements in science and technology will not prove self-destructive. India needs Western muscle, vigor and vitality, human concern, and self-dignity for her material regeneration. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, "By preaching the profound secrets of Vedanta in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ourselves the position of their teachers in spiritual matters; let them remain our teachers in all material concerns."

Of the West, Swami Vivekananda wrote: "The present-day civilization of the West is multiplying day by day only the wants and distresses of men;" "Nowhere have I heard so much of `love, life, and liberty' as in this country [America], but no where is it less understood." He predicted that within fifty years Europe would crumble to pieces if it did not mend its way. Nearly fifty years after he had uttered this warning, the Second World War ended, leaving Europe shattered and in ruins. Mere knowledge without understanding and love can lead to human catastrophe. The Western catchword "man's right to knowledge and the fee use thereof" is a dangerous slogan.

In his message to India, Swami Vivekananda called for strength: "make your nerves strong. What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel. We have wept long enough. No more weeping, but stand on your feet and be men;" "First of all, our young men must be strong. Religion will come afterwards. Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita." Of Hinduism, he observed: "No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and low in such a fashion as Hinduism."

Part 7

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