A Western Take on the Teachings of Swami Vivekananda

By William A. Conrad

In this article I intend to give one Westerner’s view of the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. I do not claim that my view encompasses the whole of the wide-ranging thoughts of the Swami, nor does it capture all of the most important statements he made. I have included quotes from Western thinkers to show both the parallels and the compatibility of his ideas with the thought of the West. Let those who differ with my picture of his thought give their own view. As Swami Vivekananda has said, “Difference is the sauce of life; it is the art of everything — difference makes all beautiful here. It is variety that is the source of life, the sign of life. Why should we be afraid of it?” (CW, 4 p.127)

On this note let us begin.

Sisters and Brothers of America

The first public utterance of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions was, “Sisters and brothers of America.” (CW, 1, p.3) In this clarion call he set the tone of his entire work. Westerners are not foreigners, but one with Indians and all of humanity. His view of all humanity as part of the in-group —in evolutionary terms—meant that nothing should be withheld, that all teachings should be translated into terms that his hearers could understand.1

Teacher and Student

As Vivekananda says, “The only true teacher is he who can immediately come down to the level of the student and transfer his soul to the student’s soul and see through the student’s eyes and hear through his ears and understand through his mind. Such a teacher can really teach and none else.” (CW 4, p.183) In another context he went on to say, “a Vedic sage … proclaimed the glad tidings ‘Hear ye children of immortal bliss…’ Allow me to call you brethren by that sweet name. …Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings.” (CW 1, p.11) In this statement Vivekananda opens the door to spiritual truth for all, East or West or, as Kipling puts it, “But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth.” In other words, there is no distinction to be made between Indians and Americans or Westerners in general, as to what teachings are appropriate or to be given. But the entire burden is not on the teacher alone; the student needs to do his/her part also. As the Swami says, “With the teacher … our relationship is the same as that between an ancestor and his descendant. Without faith, humility, submission and veneration in our hearts to our religious teacher, there cannot be any growth in religion.” (CW 1, p.52)

In my opinion the most fundamental thing Swami Vivekananda ever said was, “Worship your guru as God, but do not obey him blindly; love him heart and soul, but think for yourself. No blind faith can save you; work out your own salvation [with diligence, as Buddha said]. Have only one idea of God, that he is an eternal help.” (CW 7, p. 86) Now some may feel that this statement contradicts the previous one. As Emerson wisely puts it, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, … With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1841) History)

My good friend Michael Fell made the point that there is a parallel to a good marriage where “Devotion of a couple each to the other is not incompatible with each one thinking matters out for himself (or herself). Neither should feel fettered in thought. And neither should disturb the faith of the other.”

Now, then how is the teaching to be given? Swami Vivekananda says, “The teaching must…be modified according to the needs of the taught…Fire a mass of bird-shot, one at least will strike; give a man a whole museum of truths, he will at once take what is suited to him. Past lives have molded our tendencies; so give the taught in accordance with his tendency…” (CW, 7, p.98) Swami Vivekananda constantly reiterates the need to allow the aspirant to think for himself, to choose for himself. Why is he following this method rather than asking for complete acceptance, as many teachers do? In my opinion, he has confidence in the capacity of the student to choose wisely. Swami Vivekananda is following the tradition of the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna ends his teaching with (18:63) “Thus has wisdom more profound than all profundities been declared to you by Me. Ponder it carefully, then act as you think best.” Perhaps this is what Pascal meant when he wrote, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the minds of others.” Pascal, Pensees No. 10

When one formulates an idea so that it gives one the “aha” experience, that is more likely to persuade us of its truth than any formulation by the teacher, although the teacher had to have prepared the ground for the student. Learning does not come by mere memorizing of texts. Ideas have to be thought on and made one’s own by reformulating them in our own terms or, as Swami Vivekananda says, “It is wrong to believe blindly. You must exercise your own reason and judgment…”(CW 1, p.134). Albert Einstein agrees: “Blind obedience to authority is the greatest enemy of truth.” (Alice Calaprice, “Ultimate Quotable Einstein,” due out in November 2010.)

Science and Religion

Let us now turn to one of the stumbling blocks in the way of a scientifically minded person accepting any religion. It is the implicit assumption that the religion has the answers to all problems. It is therefore most refreshing to find that Swami Vivekananda uses the phrase “I do not know” in his first public formulation of the ideas of Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions. He says, “Why should the free, perfect and pure being be thus under the thralldom of matter… the Hindu is sincere. He does not want to take shelter under sophistry. He is brave enough to face the question in manly fashion and his answer is: “I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to or conditioned by matter. But the fact is a fact for all that…. The answer that it is the will of God is no explanation.” (CW 1, p.10) In this statement Swami Vivekananda has struck a note that resonates with the whole of scientific thought. The first step toward making any discovery is to acknowledge that the answer is unknown. This is not a unique statement in his teachings. For example, in discussing Raja Yoga, he says, “It is wrong to believe blindly. You must exercise your own reason and judgment; you must practice, and see whether these things happen or not. Just as you would take up any other science, exactly in the same manner you should take up the science of Raja Yoga for study.” (CW 1, p134)

Speaking of science, Swami Vivekananda makes a careful distinction between science and revelation. He says, “When revelations undertake to tell of material things they enter upon a domain which belongs to science and are not to be accepted.” (CW 9, p. 438) In this one statement he puts aside any conflict between science and religion.

Swami Vivekananda’s view of the separation of the domains of science and religion is exactly the same as that enunciated by the well known evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould says, “The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise — science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.” (NonOverlapping Magisteria (NOMA), Natural History, vol. 106, No.2, p.16, 3/1997.)

Keep Learning

Turning now to another aspect of Swami Vivekananda’s approach toward life, let me quote from Swami Chetanananda’s stimulating book, “They Lived With God,” p. 534. “Ramakrishna never cared for narrow, bigoted, closed-minded people, and his disciples resembled their Master in this respect. They continually learned wherever they found anything good, beneficial, and uplifting. Miss MacLeod once said to Akhandananda: “People say Swamiji was a great teacher, but I and many others knew him to be a great learner. He learnt from all. So he conquered all. He would always learn something, so he was always fresh, never monotonous — never repeating the same thing.”

For a physicist, this trait is most clearly demonstrated by his reference to the dependence of mass on velocity. In 1900 he said, “We know that in science as we increase the velocity, the mass decreases; and as we increase the mass, the velocity decreases. Thus we have matter and force. The matter, we do not know how, disappears into force, and force into matter. Therefore there is something that is neither force nor matter, as these two may not disappear into each other. This is what we call mind — the universal mind.” (CW 8, p. 233)

He is referring to the relationship between velocity and mass published by Lorentz in 1904, but very likely under discussion well before then. Unfortunately, Swami Vivekananda got the relationship wrong. For all known particles, mass actually increases as velocity increases for velocities less than that of light. However, there is an hypothetical particle called the tachyon, postulated by Arnold Sommerfeld and named by Gerard Feinberg (who originally coined the term in the 1960s) which is conjectured to travel faster than light and whose mass is supposed to decrease as its velocity increases beyond the velocity of light.

As almost everyone knows, the velocity of light is a limit for all physical particles and mass increases as velocity increases. However, if by some quirk of nature, tachyons should be demonstrated to exist, then I predict the Vedanta community will make much of this “prediction” of Swami Vivekananda. Where he learned about the relation between mass and velocity in 1900 is not obvious because such ideas were not widely disseminated at that time. Perhaps Tesla or some other knowledgeable person was the source.

Think for Yourself

Swami Vivekananda’s faith in the power of discrimination of everyone is shown in his statement, “This you must guard against. Do not disturb the faith of any. For you must know religion is not in doctrine. Religion lies in being and becoming. All men are born idolaters. The lower man is an animal. The highest man is perfect. And between these all have to think in sound and color, doctrine and ritual.” (CW 8, p. 229.)

I would like to point out that Swami Vivekananda’s statement “Do not disturb the faith of any,” is a reflection of his call on people to think for themselves. He was confident that all people would come to the truth if given the opportunity. This is in stark contrast to the way cults work where unthinking devotion is taken for mature or ripe devotion. As Marc Galanter says in his book “Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion,” “When one joins a charismatic group, one gives up the opportunity for independent decision making and complies with the groups norms which may conflict with one’s own adaptive needs…” p. 81.

Swami Vivekananda agrees. He says, “ Therefore, beware of everything that takes away your freedom. Know that it is dangerous, and avoid it by all the means in your power.” (CW 1, p. 173)

Face the Brute

Swami Vivekananda always emphasized the need for strength and courage in spiritual life. He relates an experience he had to emphasize the point: “Once when I was in Varanasi, I was passing through a place where there was a large tank of water on one side and a high wall on the other. It was in the grounds where there were many monkeys. The monkeys of Varanasi are huge brutes and are sometimes surly. They now took it into their heads not to allow me to pass through their street, so they howled and shrieked and clutched at my feet as I passed. As they pressed closer, I began to run, but the faster I ran, the faster came the monkeys and they began to bite at me. It seemed impossible to escape, but just then I met a stranger who called out to me, ‘Face the brutes.’

“I turned and faced the monkeys, and they fell back and finally fled. That is a lesson for all life — face the terrible, face it boldly. Like the monkeys, the hardships of life fall back when we cease to flee before them. If we are ever to gain freedom, it must be by conquering nature, never by running away. Cowards never win victories. We have to fight fear and troubles and ignorance if we expect them to flee before us.” (CW 1, p. 338).

Conclusion

Let me close this article with an excerpt from Swami Vivekananda’s poem “Kali the Mother” (CW 9, 415):

Thou “Time”, the All-Destroyer!
Come, O Mother, come!
Who dares misery love,
And hug the form of Death,
Dance in Destruction’s dance,
To him the Mother comes.

In sum may we all be inspired to follow Vivekananda in our own way, or, as Thoreau puts it, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”


Acknowledgments

My thanks to Prof. Rachel McDermott for incisive editorial comments, to William Page for pointed and encouraging comments, to Ravi Bhasin for giving the Indian standpoint, to many friends and colleagues too numerous to mention who shaped, supported and encouraged my spiritual life, but particularly to Swami Pavitrananda who for ten years tolerated and encouraged my sincere, but relentless questioning.

SV references from CD Swami Vivekananda: Life, Works and Research, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, India, cf: www.oceanuscreative.com.

Footnote

1 In Darwinian evolution, the unit of evolution can range from the gene to the individual to the socially interacting group. Such groups are divided into in-groups who cooperate and out-groups who fight. Swami Vivekananda’s view takes all of humanity, even all beings, as part of the in-group.


WILLIAM A. CONRAD, a retired bio-physicist, has been a member of the Vedanta Society of New York since 1955. He is President of Vedanta West Communications.

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