Philosophy of Swami Vivekanda
By Dr Jyots Bhattacharjee
Swami Vivekanda was born on the 12th January, 1863, in a prosperous family in Calcutta. Initially his me was “rendra”, but later on he came to be known as “Vivekanda”. His early life was not eventful. Since early childhood he was interested in physical culture and intellectual pursuits. He became proficient not only in literature and music, but also in riding, swimming and wrestling. He deeply studied the ancient Indian scriptures and learnt about traditiol Indian philosophy. He also studied western literature. At the outset his mental disposition was that of a sceptic and a ratiolist, combined into one. Consequently he was a kind of atheist.
In 1881 rendra happened to meet Swami Ramakrish Paramhamsa. This meeting proved to be a turning point in his life. At the beginning he was rather dubious about the teachings of his master. But after a brief period of contact with Ramakrish all his doubts disappeared and he took Swami Ramakrish as his friend, philosopher and guide. And after some time rendrath was transformed into Swami Vivekanda.
Very soon he became the most trusted and favourite disciple of Ramakrish. After the death of his master, Vivekanda took the mission of working for the welfare of the country. To get acquainted with the social and economic conditions of the country, he exclusively toured almost the whole of India. After visiting various parts of the country he realized that India, in spite of its rich spiritual and moral heritage, as well as the strong cultural history, had not been able to eradicate poverty, weakness and social evils. Hence he thought that to remove these evils, what was needed was a spiritual revolution and for that a strong spiritual leader was needed.
At that time he came to know that a Parliament of Religions was going to be held in Chicago. He decided to go there to participate in the meeting to express the Hindu view of life. What happened there is history. He conquered the hearts of the participants from various countries with his eloquence and deep knowledge. The Parliament of Religions helped Vivekanda to assume the spiritual leadership of the Indian masses.
He travelled widely not only in India, but in foreign countries as well to learn their good things. After his return from foreign lands he established the Ramakrish Ashram at Belur near Calcutta and started the work of social service and reform. He was not only a social reformer and a spiritual leader, but was a great philosopher as well.
Vivekanda’s philosophy arose from the awareness of the social, religious and economic conditions of the Indian people. He believed that at least some of the evils arose due to orthodoxy, prejudice and superstitions prevalent at the time. He thought that these things happened because of the loss of faith in spiritual values. Consequently he aimed at a spiritual awakening to attain the highest values.
Vivekanda’s thoughts were greatly influenced by the ancient Hindu philosophy, especially Vedanta. It can be said that Vivekanda was chiefly a vedantist. The main ideas of his thoughts were derived from the Hindu scriptures, especially from the Upanishads and the Vedanta. His basic belief in the unity of everything indicates the monistic ture of the Reality, which actually owes its existence to Vedanta. His concept of “Maya” was also derived from the same source. Then he often made distinction between the ‘empirical’ and the ‘transcendental’ point of view to solve some apparent contradictions. Obviously this point of view was also derived from the Vedanta. It is true that he often talked about reinterpreting Vedanta according to the needs of time. Even then it is a fact that the basic ideas of his philosophy were based on Vedanta.
In a sense Vivekanda was influenced by the Buddhist philosophy as well. His philosophy contains a few ideas from the Buddhist thought. The first is the idea of mass-liberation that Vivekanda contemplated. It has similarity with the Buddhistic ideal of “Bodhisattva”. Secondly, Vivekanda was much impressed by the Buddhistic assertion that the raft, one user for crossing the river in a storm should be left for the use of others. It implies that even after attaining liberation one should work for the liberation of others. Buddha himself, after attaining liberation, wandered around, helping the people in their struggle against sufferings. Vivekanda greatly appreciated such hu7manitarian and altruistic work.
He was also influenced by Christianity to a certain extent. He was impressed by the strength of character of Jesus Christ, since it needed great spiritual strength to forgive the oppressor in the midst of acute physical suffering. Thus from Christianity Vivekanda took up the ideals of service and love. He was convinced that every man contains within himself an element of divinity. Then Gita’s concept of “selfless work” was a source of constant inspiration to Vivekanda.
But the most profound influence on him was that of Swami Ramakrish. It has been said that Ramakrish brought about a spiritual transformation in the persolity and mental attitude of Vivekanda. Ramakrish initiated him to spiritual discipline and meditation.
It is very difficult to reduce the teachings of a social reformer and religious leader to the technical mode of academic philosophy. The reasons are simple. A preacher or a religious teacher does not merely want to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of man. He also appeals to feelings and emotions of man. So he does not feel the need of observing the rules of logic. Moreover, if one is interested in the practical aspect of life, he does not bother about the discrepancies involved in the theoretical aspect. In the comprehensive attitude of a religious leader all contradictions disappear.
Even then we may perhaps attempt to apply some metaphysical epithets to the philosophy of Vivekanda. His philosophy may be termed as ‘idealistic’. Metaphysical Idealism holds that Reality is ultimately spiritual or ideal or mental in character. Then according to some idealists the ideal Reality is of the ture of ‘ideas’ that is, ideas of some mind, finite, infinite or ideas as such, objective and universal. Berkeley can be cited as the supporter of the first kind and Plato of the second. Berkeley believed Reality to be an idea of some mind, while for Plato Ideas are universal and objective. Vivekanda was not an idealist in that sense. He can be termed as an idealist, because he believed in the ultimacy of certain ideal values and stated that sincere and persistent attempts should be made to attain such values. His idealism is therefore not unrealistic. It becomes unrealistic only when the ideal is nothing but a creation of one’s imagition. But Vivekanda asserted his ideal to be capable of inspiring and attracting everyone.
Vivekanda’s idealism is monistic. A strictly monistic idealism becomes abstract and it asserts that Reality must be indetermite. According to this kind of idealism ‘One’ cannot have any distinctions or qualifications of any kind within it. Vivekanda often described Reality in this way like an absolute monist. But he made assertions about God’s character. Hence it is difficult to decide whether Vivekanda’s philosophy is monistic or monotheistic. But though this difficulty may present a problem to a student of academic philosophy, it did not create any problem for Vivekanda. He did not perceive any opposition or contradiction between the two. For him monism and monotheism refer to different attitudes or dispositions of man; but difference in dispositions does not create any difference in truth as such. The difference lies in merely approach to truth. In fact, truth is objective, while the approach is subjective. Hence Vivekanda believed that one could very well be a monist as well as a monotheist.
It is philosophically unusual to treat Reality and God as identical. But in the philosophy of Vivekanda they are not distinct concepts. Traditiol philosophy conceives reality as a metaphysical concept and God as a religious concept. For Vivekanda such distinctions are irrelevant. In fact, Vivekanda combined Monism and Theism. He was a pantheist, yet according to him God is persol. Consequently we find two lines of thought in the philosophy of Vivekanda—one that resembles Advaita Vedanta and the other that resembles Theism of Bhakti-cult. For Vivekanda they are not two lines of thought, they are just two ways of looking at the Reality.
Almost like an Advaitin Vivekanda asserted that Reality is one absolute Brahman. He emphasized the monistic character of Reality to such an extent that he declared Reality to be ‘one’, but not a ‘whole’. The concept of a ‘whole’ implies parts, which when organized make up the whole. But according to Vivekanda the Absolute is a perfect unity and therefore the distinction between ‘whole’ and ‘parts’ completely disappears. The concept of Absolute is reached by extending the process of abstraction to the maximum limit and that explains its strictly monistic character.
In Vivekanda’s view the absolute or Brahman is beyond space, time and causation and as such it is changeless. But that does not imply that it remains the same all the time. What it means is that the question of time or space or causation is irrelevant to the concept of Absolute. He said, “God is neither outside ture nor inside ture, but God and ture and soul and universe are all convertible terms. You never see two things, it is your metaphorical words that have deluded you”.
That is why the Absolute has been described as indetermite. One cannot attribute qualities to the Absolute. To attribute qualities to the Absolute would amount to “knowing the Absolute”. But “knowing the Absolute” is a contradiction in terms. Actually the Absolute is unknown and unknowable and it does not admit even interl division.
But Vivekanda believed that though the Absolute cannot be known, it can be described; like Sankaracharya, Vivekanda said that the Absolute can be described as sat-cit-Anda. The concept of ‘sat’ (existence) and ‘cit’ (consciousness) are similar to the ‘sat’ (existence) and ‘cit’ (consciousness) of Advaita Vedanta. But the concept of ‘Anda’ (bliss) was greatly enriched by Vivekanda. He said that love is the essence of bliss.
The reference to love takes us to the monotheistic character of God. Vivekanda asserted that the Absolute, that is, the impersol Brahman is looked upon by the mind as the Creator, the Ruler, and as the Destroyer of the world. God is also regarded as the complete ‘Cause’. He is supposed to take constant interest in his creation. Thus along with the impersol ture of the Absolute there seems to be a belief in a persol God.
Vivekanda said that the religious aspirations of man can be satisfied only by a persol God. In religion an emotiol relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped is necessary. An impersol abstract Absolute cannot satisfy the emotiol appeal of the worshipper. In Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta also the concept of God has been given a place, thought it has been conceived as a product of ignorance and maya. The concept of God is not real from the real point of view (paramarthika dristi). But Vivekanda believed that the Absolute and God are not two entities and God is not a creation of maya. These distinctions arise due to ignorance, but knowledge means the realization of the irrelevance of such distinctions. Metaphysically speaking Reality is absolute Brahman. The same reality viewed from the religious point of view is God. The supremely real Being is also the object of devotion and worship.
That is why Vivekanda emphasized the all pervasive ture of God. He is present everywhere and in everything in conclusion we may say that Vivekanda was a deeply religious man and also a philosopher. It can be said that he was a monist as well as a monotheist. For him God and Absolute imply the same reality, Absolute of philosophy is the God of religion. Only the approach is different. For religion a persol God is required to satisfy the emotiol requirements of the people. But the God of religion cannot be a creation of maya, since an illusory God cannot fulfill the needs of the devotees. The same Reality viewed from the philosophical point of view in the Absolute and viewed from the religious point of view the Absolute is known as God. For Swami Vivekanda the Reality is one and that Reality can be termed as God from the religious point of view. Hence for Vivekanda Absolute and God are identical.