By John Schlenck
From before the time of Swami Vivekananda, it has been a truism for many, both in East and West, that India represents and embodies spirituality and the West represents and embodies materialism. That is, the core values and goals of Indian civilization are spiritual, and the core values and goals of the West are materialistic. This was Swami Vivekananda’s own conviction, broadly stated. Like all generalizations, it is an oversimplification. For practical purposes, it can be useful to look in greater detail at both India and the West.
Vivekananda recognized, with great pathos, that India had by and large failed to live up to its core spiritual values. He labored strenuously not only to bring these values to the West but to goad and inspire Indians to live up to their own great ideals. And he recognized many good things in the West—not only science, technology, and material achievement, but other aspects that are not really materialistic—from which he believed India could and should learn.
While India had the great, liberating philosophy of Vedanta and a living spiritual tradition, he saw that in some respects the spirit of Vedanta was more manifest in the West. One of his main themes was the importance of faith in oneself. He very much appreciated the abundance of this attitude in American (and English) life. And the inspiration of his life and work resulted in a great awakening of self-confidence among Indians, an awakening that is still unfolding.
He also appreciated the ability of people in the West to work together to achieve common goals. Those goals may be on the material level, but the ability to put aside differences and work together requires some degree of self-transcendence.
The Four Fruits of Life
Classical Hindu civilization recognizes four “fruits” or aims of life: dharma (duty, righteousness), artha (wealth), kaama (pleasure) and moksha (spiritual liberation). The middle two of these are materialistic values. They nevertheless have their place in the overall scheme of life. Some level of material prosperity and the enjoyment of the ordinary pleasures of life by at least part of the population are necessary for society to flourish and continue. The first and last of the four ends are the means and goals of spiritual culture. They are also necessary for the proper functioning of the social order—dharma in a direct sense, and moksha as the final goal, striving for which we give our lives ultimate meaning and so raise the overall tenor of human existence.
Jewish Tradition: No One Is Above Criticism
Western civilization is said to have two parents—one Greek and one Jewish. The West’s humanistic values derive largely from Greece and Rome, while its religious values derive from Judaism and its daughter Christianity. The dominance of one parent or the other has varied from era to era. Swami Vivekananda could justifiably say that the voice of the Europe he saw was Greek. Since the Renaissance, the Greek aspect has been more dominant. However, even in what has become post-Christian Europe, with fewer and fewer people actively religious, the Jewish roots are still important. And in America religion still plays an active role in the lives of the majority of people.
One aspect of ancient Jewish culture, an attitude that can be seen in modern science, is the recording of events and people objectively.1 The characters in the Jewish scriptures are not idealized. They are shown with both their virtues and their blemishes. Other peoples of the ancient Near East idealized—or whitewashed, one might say—their leaders. Kings always triumphed in battle; peace and prosperity always prevailed under their rule. A scribe who recorded anything negative about his ruler would soon lose his life. Not so among the Jews. Rulers were not above criticism. Prophets often upbraided kings for their injustice and impiety. And their criticism became part of the Jewish scriptures. This idea of no one being above criticism is one aspect of the democratic spirit of the modern West. And so we can fairly say that democracy is derived not only from Greek but also from Jewish sources.
The conviction that no person, no institution is above criticism is axiomatic in the modern West. The most criticized person in America is the President. This is an attitude that sometimes puzzles. Once while I was traveling by bus in India I sat next to a retired military officer. He expressed the opinion that we Americans had been too hard on President Nixon. I replied that in a democracy nobody is above the law.
An important step toward modern democracy was taken with the Protestant Reformation. No longer was the authority of the Catholic Church universally acknowledged in the West. People were now free to read and interpret the scriptures in their own way. They rejected the imperial, authoritarian structure of Catholicism. Sects proliferated. A new egalitarian spirit emerged. Toynbee pointed out that the Reformation was in many ways a Jewish Renaissance.2
The Old Testament assumed much greater importance than was previously the case. The imagery of the Promised Land, the New Jerusalem, became pervasive. Children were often named after Old Testament figures, whereas Catholics named their children after Christian saints.
In studying the lives of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji, we find that they never considered themselves to be above criticism. Ramakrishna encouraged his disciples to test him. Holy Mother did not take offense when her disciples argued with her. Swamiji spoke and wrote in favor of democracy and, more importantly, practiced it in his relationships with people. He could relate in an attitude of friendship and equality with people everywhere.
Democracy and Vedanta
One might say that these attitudes of Swamiji, Ramakrishna and Holy Mother owed more to their humility than to democracy. And no doubt their humility was profound. But what was the basis of that humility? It was their realization of the truth of Vedanta, that every person is an embodiment of the Divine. Holy Mother once said, “In the fullness of spiritual realization, a person finds that the God who resides in his heart resides in the hearts of all—the oppressed, the persecuted, the lowly, and the untouchable. This realization makes one truly humble.”3
To the Western Vedantist, Vedanta fulfills the democratic spirit by giving it a profound spiritual underpinning. The person of realization directly perceives the equal presence of the divine in all persons. On a superficial level, the statement in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” is obviously untrue. Some are more intelligent, or more beautiful, or healthier than others. The equality of all people is on the spiritual level. All possess the spark of divinity, and for this reason all must be respected and given the opportunity to excel.
But is democracy by itself a spiritual value? Don’t majorities sometimes oppress minorities? Even with democracy, don’t people sometimes behave in highly unspiritual ways? Democracy is not a panacea for all ills. It must be accompanied by a spiritual culture that inculcates a higher vision of what human life can and should be.
Democracy does contribute in important ways to uplifting humanity. It acts as a safeguard, a mechanism that limits the abuse of power, the oppression of some people by others. It also gives people some control over their destiny, making them responsible for their own choices. And it encourages respect for others by giving others equal rights and denying that some people are intrinsically superior to others. These are surely contributions to spiritualizing human life.
Spirituality in Science
The scientific attitude can also be said to contribute to spiritualizing human life. The unvarnished, objective recording of events that one finds in the Jewish scriptures, the spirit of free inquiry into the nature of the world that marked ancient Greek thought, both help free the human mind from prejudice and superstition. Vivekananda much appreciated the impartial search for truth that is the hallmark of scientific inquiry. To strive fearlessly to know what is true and reject what is false is surely a spiritual quality. One can say it is the essence of both science and spirituality. Further, what we may call the common culture, the cooperative endeavor, of the community of scientists automatically reinforces the ongoing search for and discovery of truth. No scientific idea, however venerable and seemingly proven, is immune to ongoing rigorous examination. Theories without verifiable quantification are weeded out and eliminated. Other theories are modified in the light of new discoveries. It is this continuous process of challenge and verification that distinguishes modern science from science in earlier cultures, whether Greek, Indian, Chinese or Arabic. No ideas are too venerable to be challenged. But, as with democracy, science is not a panacea. It too must be accompanied by a spiritual culture that strives to mold human life to a more ideal form.
More widely recognized non-materialistic aspects of Western civilization are found in the arts and in social service. Sublime expressions of the human spirit are embodied in the great medieval cathedrals, in great musical works, great works of literature, painting and sculpture. A strong tradition of social service and charitable giving provides people with an opportunity to go beyond their immediate, self-centered concerns. And of course the West’s own religious culture has produced saints and mystics of the highest caliber.
So, it may be asked, with all this, why do we need Vedanta? I suggest several ways in which Vedanta can add new dimensions to spiritual life in the West. Some of these dimensions may be found by some people following alternate paths. But for others, a fresh perspective and different language can stimulate an awakening. With this in mind, let us examine the gifts of Vedanta.
- Vedanta gives us a non-material conception of self and a transcendent goal to strive toward. It gives us an expanded vision of what human beings can become, a vision of the transformed, perfected, fulfilled life. Having an ideal to work toward beyond material necessities and pleasures gives deeper meaning and direction to our lives. Adding moksha (spiritual liberation) to the aims of human life provides an ultimate goal to strive toward, lifting up the overall quality of our lives.
- Vedanta also gives us time-tested means to achieve that goal—spiritual practices we can consciously employ to achieve the transformation of life and mind. Swami Vivekananda explained these means in his four masterpieces: Jnana-Yoga, Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga and Karma-Yoga.
- Vedanta provides us with powerful, modern exemplars. In recent centuries, Western religious traditions have produced fewer and fewer great saints. Without these models—actual lives that achieve and embody spiritual goals—religion can easily become an abstraction, disconnected from our day-to-day lives.
- Vedanta helps us to discriminate, to sort out what contributes to spiritualizing human life and what weighs against it. In religion as well as other aspects of life, it enables us to separate the “sugar from the sand,” to build our lives on those things that uplift and ennoble us and to leave aside whatever does not contribute to our spiritual growth. Employing this “sword of discrimination” we can draw nourishment from the best in our own culture and draw inspiration from the best in the whole human heritage.
- Vedanta gives a profound rationale for altruism. Why should we be unselfish, why should we love our neighbor as our self? Because, Vedanta insists, at the deepest level our neighbor is our self. By practicing unselfishness we break down the barriers between individual selves and between the individual self and the universal Self.
- With its teaching of the truth of all religions, Vedanta gives us respect for the viewpoints of others while at the same time encouraging steadfast adherence to our own path. Yes, my path is true for me, and your path is equally valid for you. Pursued with diligence and conviction, each is a path to fulfillment.
- Vedanta as taught by Swami Vivekananda gives us an integrated viewpoint that brings together the various aspects of our lives: spiritual, intellectual, artistic, moral, physical. All are pressed into active service and developed harmoniously to achieve all-round human development.
With Vedanta, as a frame of reference and as a field of spiritual practice, Americans and other Westerners can thus draw on the best that India has to offer without denying the best in their own heritage. In this sense, Vedanta can be seen as the fulfillment of Western ideals, not their negation.
1 Cf. Gary A. Rendsburg, The Book of Genesis, Lecture 24 (The Great Courses, www.TEACH12.com)
2 Cf. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes VII-X (New York & London, Oxford University Press, 1957), pp. 259-260.
3 Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1962), p. 225.
JOHN SCHLENCK, a composer of music, is Associate Editor of American Vedantist and Secretary-Treasurer of Vedanta West Communications. He is a resident member and Secretary of the Vedanta Society of New York.