Swami Vivekananda: His Message of Vedanta and the Western Way (Part 7)

by Swami Adiswarananda

The New Vedanta Draws Fire

Vivekananda, with his new Vedanta, created a stir both in the East and in the West. While many universalists and scientifically-minded persons in the West applauded his new message and the noble-minded breathed the air of freedom, justice, equality, and spiritual democracy, the entrenched dogmatists denounced his teachings as monstrous and profane. They concocted false stories and spread rumors about his authenticity and personality, and invented the vilest of lies, assailing his character. It is said that there was even an attempt to do away with him altogether by mixing poison with his coffee in Detroit. On his return to India, he recalled; "It struck me more than once that I should have to leave my bones on foreign shores, owing to the prevalence of religious intolerance."

There were also attempts in India to suppress Vivekananda and his message. Leaders of orthodox Hindu society denounced his message of Vedanta as a veiled imitation of Christianity. They accused him of violations of caste rules and monastic traditions, on the grounds that he had crossed the black waters of the ocean, lived in foreign lands, and dined with foreigners. His followers, the Ramakrishna Order monks -- who were engaged in work of service nursing the sick, providing for the poor, and conducting epidemic and other relief work -- were branded as "scavenger monks," whose conduct was unworthy of the monastic life. Even some of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna expressed doubt in the beginning about Vivekananda's new Vedanta, considering it a departure from their master's message. The followers of Vivekananda were but a handful of young men fired up by the spirit of worshipping the living God. They truly believed his message and were ready to die for their beliefs. Vivekananda's message prevailed: nothing could stop it, because it answered the crying need of the time.

The same love that was born as Buddha, the Compassionate One, once again assumed a human form as Vivekananda. It was this unbounded love for suffering humankind that gave Vivekananda the mandate for his message. It gave him a power that nobody could match, a wisdom that no doctrine could qualify. Vivekananda's message bridged the gulf between man and God, and broke through the wall that traditionally separates the physical from the spiritual. In him the immortal message of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita came to life again. Despair over degradation turned into hope for the future.

Saints and savants think ahead of the contemporary world. They come to give us not the things we want, but the things we need. Small wonder then that contemporary society would condemn Socrates to die, denounce Buddha, crucify Jesus, and assassinate Gandhi. Truth must struggle hard against entrenched dogma, hardened superstitions, and credulous mass thinking. History tells us that the Jesuits, the disciples of St. Ignatius, were accused of violating orthodox commands of the Gospel. Carlyle condemned them as most fatal of all time; Napoleon hated them; and the American President John Adams warned his successor Thomas Jefferson about them. Yet the Jesuits prevailed in their efforts because of the fire of their faith.

In spite of opposition, Vivekananda scattered the seeds of Vedanta wherever he went. Those seeds were not sown in vain. From them have sprung up societies and centers of Vedanta, both in the East and in the West, under the banner of the Ramakrishna Order. These centers are not merely houses of worship but homes of service where the living God is served with material, intellectual, and spiritual offerings.

The New Vedanta as the Religion of the Future

Vivekananda envisioned Vedanta as the religion of the future; in a prophetic mood, he said that his messages would sustain the world for the next fifteen hundred years. Science has shaken dogma-based religion to the very root. The decay of organized religion is in the air. Material usefulness is becoming the measure of all value. In spite of all our technological achievements, the world is experiencing a great void. Holy days are giving way to holidays. Psychotherapy is replacing the counseling of priests and pastors. Confession, once considered good for the soul, is being looked upon as bad for reputation. The word "sermon" in the present-day Western world is an unpopular word, and a preacher is regarded by some as a salesperson. For many, the word "liberated" means liberated from all religions.

The myths and symbols that once gave emotional support to humankind have been shaken by the cold conclusions of science. After the Thirty Years' War, Europe lost faith in God, and after two World Wars, humankind lost faith in itself. A culture of unbelief and skepticism has pervaded the world. Whatever claims the idealists put forth, the materialists try to disprove. The skeptics claim that there is nothing inherently spiritual about energy or wave equations. To the idealists the fourth dimension may seem to be out of this world, but to the skeptics it is no stepping stone to heaven. No dogma-based religion can fill the spiritual void. What is needed is a spiritual teaching that can meet the challenges of science and secularism, and make the spiritual quest meaningful for all. This is where the value of Vedanta lies.

Since the time of Vivekananda, Vedanta has silently but surely influenced the thought currents of the world, and built a consensus of amity among all the branches of human knowledge. When Vivekananda visited America, Robert Ingersoll, the famous orator and agnostic, told him: "Forty years ago you would have been hanged if you had come to preach in this country, or you would have been burnt alive. You would have been stoned out of the villages if you had come even much later." But today the religions are in a process of continuous dialogue. The voice of Vedanta can be heard in such movements as "Save the Planet," "Conserve the Forests," "Preserve the Ozone Layer," "Stop Cruelty to Animals", "One World, One Family," and others. At the present time, there is more consciousness of world unity than ever before. The voice of spirituality is becoming louder and louder, and the wave of spiritual democracy is breaking down the barrier of religiosity. Religious belief, for so long sure of its scriptural evidence, is now looking for the corroboration of science for its survival.

Vivekananda: Worshipper of the Living God

Vivekananda was the worshipper of the living God. He made God in the heart of all the sole object of his worship. Even as a child he would be overwhelmed to see the sufferings of the poor. To see God and serve Him became the passion of his youth, the dream of his wandering days. He lived with the poor masses of India, slept with them, ate with them, cried for their material salvation. Untiringly, he lobbied for them with his master Sri Ramakrishna and at the doors of heaven. Service of this living God was the joy of his last days. Like Prometheus, he brought down the spiritual power from heaven and made it spring up on earth in the hearts of all. This shifting of God from a far off heaven to the human heart, as our innermost Self, marks a momentous advance in the spiritual history of the world.

Vivekananda passed away in 1902 before reaching the age of 40. But he left a promise for his living God: "And may I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls. And above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species, is the especial object of my worship," "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 man everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God."

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