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
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
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
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
The high voltage of pluck and the thrust of the Western spirit fascinated Vivekananda.
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.
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
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
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." ( To be continued )
- Swami Adiswarananda