by Neil B. Feldman and Judy Scott Feldman

“I believe in that God who by the ignorant is called man.”

— Swami Vivekananda

This article is reprinted by permission of Prabuddha Bharata, where it appeared in the January 2013 issue.

At the dawn of the 20th century Swami Vivekananda challenged his Western audiences with language and concepts they found deeply inspiring. As Ann Louise Bardach put it in a recent article in The New York Times, “[Vivekananda] simplified Vedanta thought to a few teachings that were accessible and irresistible to Westerners, foremost being that ‘all souls are potentially divine’. His prescription for life was simple, and perfectly American: ‘work and worship’.”[1]

 

What did Vivekananda say that Americans found so compelling? How did his experience in America after his arrival in 1893 broaden and shape his message to the West? And what relevance does that message have on the 150th anniversary of his birth?

In answering these questions it is important to consider the challenges Vivekananda confronted concerning religion in America at the turn of the 20th century: a bias in the West that valued monotheistic religions (in particular the “Judeo-Christian” tradition) as superior to any others; a concept of the Supreme Being as separate from man (dualism); a prevailing Protestant ethic that rejected renunciation and monastic retreat from the world; an unquestioned belief in the authority of divine revelation as recorded in the Bible and other sacred texts; and a philosophical divide between science and religion that was growing wider and more pronounced.

In spite of the above, during his stay Vivekananda would come to believe that Americans’ belief in equality, their pursuit of freedom, their trust in rational thought and science, their skepticism of authority, and their cooperative spirit made the United States fertile ground for Vedanta to take root and lead to a rebirth of spirituality in the West.

VIVEKANANDA’S ENCOUNTER WITH AMERICA

Vivekananda took time to shape what would evolve into his new synthesis of Vedanta. For four years following his triumphant reception at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he traveled and lectured throughout the United States, immersing himself in American culture. As R. K. DasGupta points out, Vivekananda came to realize that “the West too was in need of a spiritual regeneration. He conceived his Vedanta with these considerations in his mind.”[2] During this time Vivekananda would formulate, sharpen, and expound upon what he called “practical Vedanta” and what DasGupta termed “neo-Vedanta.” This new synthesis was not simply a restatement of ancient Vedanta but an original and new message that married the wisdom and philosophy of the Upanishads with the rational, scientific, and freedom-based values of Western culture.

Vivekananda’s opening address at the Parliament was a clarion call for religious understanding and acceptance: “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair.”[3] Yet he appealed to his audience and the other SVatParl2 copyparticipants to help usher in a new age. “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this Convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.” (Ibid.)

Notable too was what he did not say. He never claimed that his religion was superior to any other or the only path to truth and salvation. Instead, his was an appeal to all religions, and to all men and women, to realize that all their paths and traditions were valid and leading to the same goal.

THE MESSAGE OF VEDANTA

 As he lectured across America, Vivekananda’s primary goal was to make Vedanta intelligible to Western audiences. He undertook the monumental task of distilling the vast and complex threads of a profound Eastern philosophy and tradition spanning thousands of years. He extracted its essence while conveying its comprehensiveness, its all-embracing character, and the heights of its discoveries. He spoke eloquently and authoritatively about ideas, ideals, and sources of wisdom that went beyond Western philosophical and religious traditions, to the essence of non-dualism. “Vedanta teaches the God that is in everyone, has become everyone and everything.” (8:125) The enthusiastic audience reaction to these and other new concepts proved that he made Vedanta understandable, alive, and tangible to his listeners.

From his experience Vivekananda also came to understand the unique task that lay before him. One year after the Parliament in Chicago he proclaimed in an interview in Brooklyn, New York, “I have a message to the West just as Buddha had a message to the East.” (5: 314) In a letter to his American supporter Mary Hale he wrote, “I have a message, and I will give it after my own fashion. I will neither Hinduize my message, nor Christianize it, nor make it any ‘ize’ in the world. I will only my-ize it and that is all. Liberty, Mukti, is all my religion, and everything that tries to curb it, I will avoid by fight or flight.” (8: 72) Two years later he would write to Margaret Noble (destined to become Sister Nivedita), “My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their Divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.” (7: 501)

Vedanta—the ancient wisdom of the Upanishads—was to be at the core of his message to America. As DasGupta noted, it was only after one year of interacting with Americans that “Vivekananda thought of preaching Vedanta”[4] as the philosophical basis of his new synthesis. Practical Vedanta would bridge East and West and free adherents from being limited by traditional religious doctrines and cultural practices associated with those traditions. He said, “One may desire to see again the India of one’s books, one’s studies, one’s dreams. My hope is to see again the strong points of that India, reinforced by the strong points of this age, only in a natural way. The new stage of things must be a growth from within. So I preach only the Upanishads. If you look, you will find that I have never quoted anything but the Upanishads. And of the Upanishads, it is only that One idea—strength.”[5]

Strength was required, Vivekananda told his audiences, if we are to see beyond our cultural and religious prejudices.[6] At the very core of Vedanta was the concept that man was not innately sinful but Divine. For those raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who had been instructed from their childhood about man’s fallen and sinful nature as told in the Bible, this was a radical concept. It was liberating, uplifting, and optimistic. Said one American disciple, “Here was hope, here was strength, that every man could become divine by realizing his own divinity.”[7]

VEDANTA AND THE AMERICAN DEMOCRATIC VALUES OF EQUALITY AND FREEDOM

Vivekananda explained to Americans that Vedanta was compatible with the core American democratic values of equality and freedom. “None can be Vedantists and at the same time admit of privilege for anyone, either mental, physical, or spiritual; absolutely no privilege for anyone.” (1: 423) But above all, individual freedom—“Liberty, Mukti, is all my religion”[8]—was the final goal.

The American ideal of equality had special appeal to Vivekananda. Prior to coming to America, he had traversed the vast Indian subcontinent. He had witnessed the squalid conditions of its poor and experienced first-hand the great gulf separating the elites from the downtrodden. He lamented the fact that rich and poor would treat him, as a Sannyasin, with great respect and hospitality but would turn a blind eye to those millions suffering at the lowest rung of society. While he had also encountered inequality in America, he noted an important difference. Americans saw inequity as a moral failing to be corrected. In his view, this made American society particularly predisposed to Vedanta.

Similarly, Vivekananda held up freedom as essential in Vedanta.[9] In the “land of the free,” religion was an individual choice and a private matter. People were free to choose, and to change or even reject religion in their lives. This was another reason Vivekananda believed America would embrace Vedanta. However he went much further. He explained to his American audiences that liberty was also essential to spiritual growth.

Vivekananda elevated the concept of freedom from a political, social, or intellectual ideal to a spiritual one. In the process, he challenged Western religion’s concept of the fundamental nature of the human being. He explained that true spiritual freedom was freedom from bondage, and “the main cause of bondage is ignorance. Man is not wicked by his own nature, not at all. His [real] nature is pure, perfectly holy. Each man is Divine. Each man that you see is a God by his very nature. This nature is covered by ignorance, and it is ignorance that binds us down. Ignorance is the cause of all misery.” (9: 214)

The freedom that Vedanta advocated was a total liberation from the tyranny of the body, the mind, and the senses—that is, from maya. “All our struggle is for freedom,” Vivekananda said. “We seek neither misery nor happiness, but freedom, freedom alone.” (8: 250)

REASON AND BEYOND

Vivekananda also shared Americans’ faith in rational thought and embraced their skeptical attitude toward traditional dogmas, blind beliefs, and authoritarian regimes. He exhorted his audiences to use reason to evaluate the truths of Vedanta and of any religion: “Stick to your reason until you reach something higher; and you will know it to be higher because it will not jar with reason.” (7: 60) Ultimately, reason was the essential tool that would allow the intellect to realize that there was a higher reality beyond mind and the external world.[10] “When we rise higher … we have to get out of the body, out of mind and imagination, and leave this world out of sight. When we rise to be the Absolute, we are no longer in this world—all is Subject, without object.” (8: 34)

His words were a fundamental challenge to Western religions, which looked to outside authorities such as sacred texts and personalities as the basis for truth and belief. “Why religions should claim that they are not bound to abide by the standpoint of reason, no one knows. If one does not take the standard of reason, there cannot be any true judgment, even in the case of religions.” (2: 335)

To further elucidate, Vivekananda made a distinction between “belief” and “faith.” Belief—in truths based on external authorities—required a suspension of reason. Faith, in contrast, was “the grasp on the Ultimate, an illumination.” (7: 60) It is arrived at through the tool of reason and does not contradict reason. In Vedanta “there is no external test for inspiration, we know it ourselves. Our guardian against mistake is negative—the voice of reason. All religion is going beyond reason, but reason is the only guide to get there.” (Ibid.) Faith is the ultimate step. “First hear, then reason—find out all that reason can give about the Atman; let the flood of reason flow over It, then take what remains. If nothing remains, thank God you have escaped a superstition!” (Ibid.)

Vivekananda spoke some of his most scathing words in America against what he considered to be the “superstition” of materialism which led to a belief in a separate God as described in the Bible, a God in the clouds ruling over man below. “What is the idea of God in heaven? Materialism! … It is all matter, all body idea, the gross idea, the sense idea.” (8: 126) Beliefs such as these “are all materialism, because they are all based on the consciousness of body, body, body. No spirit there.” (8: 133) Vivekananda, in contrast, highlighted the spiritual side of religion: “God is spirit and He should be worshipped in spirit and in truth.” (8: 126) Vedanta demanded that the truth of spirit be realized inside one’s own internal “laboratory of the Self.”[11]

If any people in the world might embrace reason and reject traditional hierarchies with God as king and man as subject, it would be Americans, Vivekananda thought. He pointed out, “His majesty the King has gone from this country [America]; the Kingdom of Heaven went from Vedanta hundreds of years ago.” (8: 125-126) He went so far as to suggest “there is a chance of Vedanta becoming the religion of your country” (8: 126) because of America’s commitment to reason, equality, and the primacy of the individual. “In this country the king has entered into everyone of you. You are all kings in this country. So with the religion of Vedanta. You are all Gods” (8: 125)

But he understood the huge challenge ahead. Vedanta called upon Americans to form new attitudes and habits based on questioning sacred texts and instead seeking truth within; faith would be based on ideals and not personalities. He said, “This makes Vedanta very difficult. It does not teach the old idea of God at all. (Ibid.) … No book, no person, no Personal God. All these must go. Again, the senses must go. (8: 127) … What is the God of Vedanta? He is principle, not person.” (8: 133)

ALL KNOWLEDGE IS VEDA

While reason was a necessary tool, the ultimate goal of reason, Vivekananda said, is knowledge of “Vedanta—this conscious knowledge that all is one spirit.” (8: 139) He explained that “the meaning of the word ‘Veda’, from which the word ‘Vedanta’ comes, is knowledge” (8: 136)—the knowledge described at the end of the Vedas. He described its essence as, “God is spirit and He should be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Does spirit live only in heaven? What is spirit? We are all spirit. Why is it we do not realize it? What makes you different from me? Body and nothing else. Forget the body and all is spirit.” (8: 126)

Speaking to his American audiences, Vivekananda said, “All knowledge is Veda, infinite as God is infinite.” (8: 136) But he contrasted knowledge of Vedanta with mere book learning. He said, “What knowledge? Chemistry? Physics? Astronomy? Geology? They help a little, just a little. But the chief knowledge is that of your own nature. ‘Know Thyself.’ You must know what you are, what your real nature is. You must become conscious of the Infinite nature within. Then your bondages will burst.” (9: 214) At that moment, the worldly sense of dualism, the illusion of God separate from man, would disappear in the realization of the Unity of all existence and of the Infinite. At that moment would come the realization that “Unity is knowledge, diversity is ignorance.” (8: 138)

Ignorance was the obstacle that prevents us from seeing that “the whole universe is one existence,” (Ibid.) Vivekananda explained. We falsely see the world as many not one, as matter not spirit. This is because of what Vedanta terms Maya, a beguiling apparitional ignorance that limits consciousness and projects a veil over the reality of Advaita (Oneness or non-dualism). Sri Ramakrishna had explained that “the knowers of Brahman declare further that identification of Self with body is the cause of the perception of duality.”[12] Destroying ignorance meant going beyond good and evil and “all the dual throng” (4: 393) to realize that “One-without-a-second” (8: 5) that is Eternal, Unchanging, Infinite Spirit. This is non-dualism. Until we come to this non-dualistic understanding of truth, Vivekananda said, the presence of good and evil and all other dualities in the world would always remain a difficult and perplexing issue.

Vivekananda knew as well as anyone just how difficult it is to go beyond the phantasm of Maya and achieve realization of Oneness. As a young man he had, at first, openly ridiculed the non-dualist teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. He had once joked to a friend, “What can be more absurd than to say that this jug is God, this cup is God, and that we too are God.”[13] Although he observed Sri Ramakrishna repeatedly go into the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, and heard him describe the unfathomable experience of Oneness, it was only after he himself realized such a state that he would begin to speak definitively and from personal experience that “all is spirit.”[14] (7:197)

To his American audiences, he was blunt about the truth as he knew it. He said, “There is such a thing as illusion—in it one thing is taken for another: matter is taken for spirit, this body for soul. That is the tremendous illusion. It has to go.” (8: 112) Yet he consistently promoted this lofty goal and claimed it was doable in one and all. He proclaimed the hopeful message that a time would come for everyone when they would realize their Divinity for it is their very nature.

Vivekananda had tremendous faith in the power of the knowledge expounded in the Vedanta to transform humankind. He proclaimed that “Knowledge will make the world good. Knowledge will remove all misery. Knowledge will make us free.” (9: 214) But he also took a realistic view of the struggle to get there. “If Vedanta—this conscious knowledge that all is one spirit—spreads the whole of humanity will become spiritual. But is it possible? I do not know. Not within thousands of years. The old superstitions must run out.” (8: 139) Vivekananda spoke of Vedanta as a revelation continually unfolding. His new synthesis was part of a thread woven into the future. Perhaps this is why Vivekananda, like his Master, never rejected any other religion and heartily encouraged new ones.[15] He said “I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship them all … I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future. Is God’s book finished? Or is it still a continuous revelation going on?” (2:374)

SCIENCE AND RELIGION

From the time he stepped foot on American soil, Vivekananda set out to reconcile Eastern thought and Western science. Most likely his first opportunity came immediately after the Parliament in Chicago when he was honored at a reception that included the top scientists of the day. Vivekananda believed that science and Vedanta were parallel and complementary paths to discovering ultimate truth. He said, “Are the same methods of investigation which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of religion? In my opinion, this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better.” (1: 367)

Vivekananda understood that the science of his day was exploring only the external, physical world while Vedanta had already conquered the internal. Nonetheless, neither one should conflict with the other. Both, he explained, were based on the direct experience and authority of the individual and rational thought. He knew the truth of Vedanta; he believed Western science could prove the same truths. He wrote in a letter to his disciple E. T. Sturdy, “I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of the Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect unison with modern science, and the elucidation of the one will be followed by that of the other. I intend to write a book later on in the form of questions and answers.” (5: 101-2) Sadly, Vivekananda did not do so before his death in 1902, at the age of 39.

Comparing the two disciplines he said “Science and religion are both attempts to help us out of the bondage; only religion is the more ancient, and we have the superstition that it is the more holy. In a way it is, because it makes morality a vital point, and science does not.” (7: 103) Vivekananda understood that scientists would first have to turn their investigative eyes within and on the Subject — on consciousness itself. He believed that when they did, they would discover that logic, reason, and intellectual knowledge were insufficient to reveal the truth. Only then would they see the need for moral and spiritual discipline as a prerequisite in their research.

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TESLA

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LORD KELVIN

To test his concept of the convergence of Vedanta and science, Vivekananda sought out the top scientists of the day, including Nikola Tesla, Professor Herman von Helmholz, Sir William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), and others.

He inquired if “they could show by their science” that Force (energy=E) and Matter (mass=m) could be reduced to the same thing. (5: 101) Tesla believed he could show this mathematically[16] but ultimately he failed to prove it. It would not be until after Vivekananda’s death that Einstein arrived at it in his famous equation, E=mc2.

Exploring the intersection of science and Vedanta, Vivekananda was able to accurately predict modern scientific insights a decade before Einstein’s discoveries (starting in 1905) would upend the “classical physics” of Vivekananda’s day. Thanks to Einstein, the inaccurate separation between time and space would be erased, while mass and energy would be proved to be equivalent. Today Quantum physicists struggle to comprehend the strange implications of how matter can be measured to be both a particle and a wave and how subjective consciousness literally creates what is measured to be “real” on the subatomic level.

Modern physics has proved that nothing in this Universe is as it appears to be—that it is all a kind of illusion, just as Vivekananda predicted. The objective Universe as perceived through the senses (with data delivered to those senses amplified by sophisticated tools and machines) defies all notions of common sense. “The senses cheat you day and night,” he had said. “Vedanta found that out ages ago; modern science is just discovering the same fact. A picture has only length and breadth, and the painter copies nature in her cheating by artificially giving the appearance of depth. No two people see the same world. The highest knowledge will show that there is no motion, no change in anything; that the very idea of it is all Maya.” (7: 74) Today the study of consciousness and Subject still beckons.

WORSHIP OF GOD IN MAN

Perhaps Vivekananda’s most profound legacy was his ideal of performing work as worship of God in man, a legacy that, however, has been neglected in America. This was his radical application of non-dualistic Vedanta—“this conscious knowledge that all is one spirit” (8: 139)—to the practical experience of everyday life and the world. Mundane labor could thus be transformed into a tool of spiritual practice. He said, “We must become thinkers. Every birth is painful. We must get out of materialism … The struggle is all the worship there is. The rest is mere shadow. You are the personal God. Just now I am worshiping you. This is the greatest prayer. Worship the whole world in that sense—by serving it.” (8: 135)

One aspect of “work as worship”[17] was non-attachment, an ancient concept best described in the Bhagavad-Gita. “Doing work is not religion, but work done rightly leads to freedom,”[18] Vivekananda explained. Work “done rightly” meant work done as service to God and with complete non-attachment to its results. “This is the one central idea in the Gita: work incessantly, but be not attached to it.” (1: 53)

An even more significant aspect was that work was to be performed as worship of God in his highest temple—man. This ideal was inspired by Sri Ramakrishna who proclaimed, “Jiva is Shiva (all beings are God). Who then dare talk of showing mercy to them? Not mercy, but service, service. For man must be regarded as God.”[19] Hearing these words from his teacher and Master, Vivekananda realized how the philosophy of Vedanta could be put into practice. “I have found the wonderful light in those few words of the Master. It has been the general tendency all these years to practice Vedanta in seclusion. But Vedanta can be practiced in the work-a-day life as well … Work and worship can go together.”[20]

Vivekananda believed this concept of worship of God in man was a vital prescription for the entire world. In March 1894 he wrote from Chicago to his disciple Kidi (Singaravelu Mudaliar): “We believe that it is the duty of every soul to treat, think of, and behave to other souls as such, i.e. as Gods, and not hate or despise, or vilify, or try to injure them by any manner or means. This is the duty not only of the Sannyasin, but of all men and women.”[21] (Italics added) While this idea has been taken up in India by institutions dedicated to service, education, and relief work, it was never attempted in America and so remains an untested element of Vivekananda’s message for Americans.

THE NEW SYNTHESIS FOR THE WEST

During his time in America, Vivekananda would return again and again to the American values of equality and freedom, and to Western faith in reason, science, and personal experience as the basis to realize God. He constantly challenged conventional notions of religious authority. He urged his audience to evolve, to wake up, to “Americanize” as well as “Vedantize” their understanding of spirituality. He gave them ammunition to challenge a major superstition (materialism) and to question those authorities that demanded blind belief. He prodded them to apply reason to religion just as in all other aspects of life, and to recognize that science and religion were not separate disciplines but parallel tracks leading to the same truths. Ultimately, Practical Vedanta, he said, would lead to a realization of God in man and to the practice in daily life of work as worship.

He well understood the revolutionary nature of what he was advocating to his American audiences. Practical Vedanta required nothing less than a total change of mentality towards the world—from dualism to non-dualism and from materialism to realization that all is Spirit. He said, “How can the rich man turn up his nose at the poor man, and the learned at the ignorant, if we are all spirit and all the same? [But] Unless society changes, how can such a religion as Vedanta prevail? It will take thousands of years to have large numbers of truly rational human beings. It is very hard to show men new things, to give them great ideas. It is harder still to throw off old superstitions, very hard; they do not die easily.” (8: 136)

Vivekananda believed the time for Vedanta in the West had come and that if there was any hope for a religion based on Practical Vedanta it was in America. He urged Americans to embrace his new synthesis and to begin a spiritual regeneration that could eventually spread throughout the entire world.[22]

THE LEGACY OF NEO-VEDANTA

Vivekananda’s participation in the World Parliament of Religions was historically fitting. The Parliament coincided with the Columbian Exposition also being held in Chicago in commemoration of Columbus’s arrival on the shores of America four centuries earlier. Columbus’s voyage of discovery had opened up the “New World” to refugees from Europe seeking freedom from political and religious persecution. Vivekananda brought another message of freedom to America—freedom as the means to, and the goal of, spiritual realization. Just as the highest power in American democracy is the individual, so too the highest authority in knowing God, he would preach, lay within each individual.

When he arrived in America, a total unknown, Vivekananda had only a limited idea of the scope of the mission he would be taking on. He came in hopes that America might provide some material support to India which, while rich in its ancient spiritual traditions, could not progress until its material misery could be alleviated.[23] But he soon realized, from the resounding reception he enjoyed, that America was also ripe for spiritual regeneration.

Barely two weeks after his welcoming address to the World Parliament of Religions established a bridge between East and West, Vivekananda had become a celebrity. When he left the United States in 1896 he had developed “Practical Vedanta” as a philosophy suitable for the modern world. By the time of his untimely death on July 4th, 1902—America’s Independence Day[24]—Vivekananda had won countless supporters and inspired followers all over the world.

America played a crucial role in shaping Vivekananda’s new synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. Vivekananda had been energized by the dynamism of the young country. He believed that the absence of social hierarchies, along with the embrace of equality, freedom, reason, and science, made the United States the perfect environment for the flowering of modern Vedanta. In his 1900 talk in San Francisco at the end of his second visit to America, entitled “Is Vedanta the Future Religion?”, he was optimistic but realistic about those prospects. He said, “If Vedanta—this conscious knowledge that all is one spirit—spreads the whole of humanity will become spiritual. But is it possible? I do not know. Not within thousands of years. The old superstitions must run out.” (8: 139)

His words were prophetic. Today Vivekananda’s democracy-inspired message of Practical Vedanta has been all but forgotten in America—along with memory of his dramatic influence on early twentieth-century thought and culture. As the world grows ever more inhospitable and in need of an ambitious spiritual renaissance based in reason and strength, Vivekananda’s grand experiment—Vedanta for the West—has yet to be tested.

THE FUTURE OF VEDANTA IN AMERICA

America today is still in need of hearing the message of Practical Vedanta. Traditional religions seem to be losing relevance, while many Americans are seeking new forms of prayer and worship, often turning to Eastern traditions. Democratic principles are weakening as the nation responds to social and political upheavals at home and around the world. The notion of equality for all is under assault as the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the middle class (and poor) widens. America’s domination of the world economy and leadership in science, education, and technology are being openly challenged across the globe. Amidst these trends, Vivekananda’s words and message, presented anew, may challenge and inspire Americans today as much they did in his day.

Vivekananda showed how Vedanta could achieve a new synthesis, but it is up to Americans to turn that ideal into a reality. Vedanta by Americans for Americans was a concept understood by Swami Saradeshananda, a direct discipline of Sri Sri Ma, who once predicted that “Vedanta will begin to succeed in America only when Americans are teaching it.”[25] In order to achieve that success, there are a number of actions Americans can take to begin Vivekananda’s “grand experiment.”

One would be for Americans to establish, for the first time, service institutions committed to Vivekananda’s ideal of performing work as worship of God in man. Countless institutions in America do exemplary service work, but these all lack the unique spiritual attitude advocated by Vivekananda of service as worship of God in man. New institutions can be established throughout the country and led by dedicated people from all walks of life. In this way, entire communities committed to Practical Vedanta will emerge and grow.

A second action would be for women to take a strong leadership role in Practical Vedanta. Gauri-Ma_tThis could include establishing and working in the proposed service institutions and lecturing and teaching Practical Vedanta to Americans of all ages. Vivekananda advocated a strong, independent place for women in society and religion. He had been inspired by Sri Sarada Devi who he honored as the living embodiment of the Divine Mother.[26] Ramakrishna, who saw the need to lift the status of women in India, had charged his foremost woman disciple, Gauri-Ma, to educate and serve the women of Kolkata.[27] She, in turn, founded the Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram in 1895. In America, Vivekananda’s interactions with accomplished women gave him added insight that women, freed from control by male authorities, would be a crucial component in any spiritual regeneration to come.[28] He said, “All the mischief to women has come because men undertook to shape the destiny of women.”[29]

Vivekananda made clear that his mission would remain unfinished until women established their own, independent work.[30] At the conclusion of “My Life and Mission,” a speech he gave in Pasadena in early 1900, Vivekananda said, “I am glad to tell you that I have made a rude beginning. But the same work I want to do, on parallel lines, for women. And my principle is: each one helps himself. My help is from a distance. There are Indian women, English women, and I hope American women will come to take up the task. As soon as they have begun, I wash my hands off it. No man shall dictate to a woman; nor a woman to a man. Each one is independent … Women will work out their own destinies—much better, too, than men can ever do for them.”

A third action would be to begin to engage in an exploration of the “science of the Subject.”[31] Vivekananda wanted scientists to examine the truths revealed in the ancient Vedanta but this challenge has not been taken up by contemporary researchers. If anything, the divide between religion and science is more pronounced than ever. Science today still lacks the personal moral dimension that Vivekananda saw as basic to the study of consciousness from within. Scientists will need to test the assumption that consciousness is simply a by-product of biochemistry—that is, of matter. Doing so will open new dimensions of research and knowledge. Scientists will have to finally go beyond exploring the subjective world based solely on external observation. Somehow they will have to find a way to look within.

The 150th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s birth heralds an opportunity for Americans to honor his great legacy by launching Practical Vedanta in America. America was born out of a revolution. Vivekananda’s message to America was revolutionary in his day and it is still revolutionary in ours. He attempted to enact a “grand experiment” stretching over the next millennia.[32] He believed that Americans were uniquely equipped to orchestrate the experiment—but only if they could overcome the superstition of materialism.[33] He said, “The teachings of Vedanta I have told you about were never really experimented with before. Although Vedanta is the oldest philosophy in the world, it has always become mixed up with superstitions and everything else … The hour comes when great men shall arise and cast off these kindergartens of religion and shall make vivid and powerful the true religion, the worship of the spirit by the spirit.” (8: 141) • • •



[1] Ann Louise Bardach, “How Yoga Won the West,” The New York Times – Sunday Review, Oct. 2011: 4.

[2] R. K. DasGupta, “Swami Vivekananda’s Neo-Vedanta,” in Philosophy & Philosophers (Gol Park, Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2008) 147.

[3] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1­–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1: 4.

[4] Philosophy & Philosophers, 154.

[5] Complete Works, 8: 266-267.

[6] Ibid., 2: 201: “Strength, therefore, is the one thing needful. Strength is the medicine for the world’s disease.”

[7] J. B. Goyal, “Hands and Hearts,” Swami Vivekananda—His Human Bonds (Jalandhar: Falcon Books, 2004), 100.

[8] Swami Vivekananda, “Letter to Miss Mary Hale—Feb. 1, 1895,” CW, 5: 72.

[9] Swami Vivekananda, “The Open Secret,” CW, 2: 400. “The human soul never forgets its freedom and is ever seeking it. The search for freedom is the search of all religions.”

[10] Swami Vivekananda, “Discourses on Jnana-Yoga,” CW 8: 20. “We feel the limited character of reason, yet it does bring us to a plane where we get a glimpse of something beyond.”

[11] Author’s concept.

[12] M., trans. Sachindra Kumar Majumdar, Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita—Volume V, Part XVII, Chapter 1 (Greenville, NY: SRV Retreat Center, 2000) 139.

[13] Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda, The Yogas and Other Works (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1953), 18.

[14] Complete Works, 7:197.

[15] 2: 368. “The greater the number of sects, the more chance of people getting religion…So I want sects to multiply in every country, the more people may have a chance to be spiritual.”

 

[17] Swami Vivekananda, Karma-Yoga, Chapter III: The Secret of Work,” CW, 1: 59.

[18] Swami Vivekananda, Inspired Talks, CW, 7: 69.

[19] Great Sayings—Words of Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda (Gol Park, Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2009), 16.

[20] Goyal, 38.

[21] Complete Works, 4: 357.

[22] 7: 95. “We have to become Vedantists and live this grand thought; the masses must get it, and only in free America can this be done.”

[23] Goyal, 10. “A few weeks before his departure for Chicago, he met his brother-disciples, Swami Brahmananda and Swami Turiyananda. He told them, “I have travelled all over India but alas! It was agony for me, my brothers, to see with my own eyes, the terrible poverty and misery of the masses and I could not restrain my tears. It is now my firm conviction that it is futile to preach religion amongst them without first trying to remove their poverty and their suffering. It is for this reason to find more means for the salvation of the poor of India that I am now going to America.”

[24] Was this Vivekananda’s final message underscoring freedom and independence?

[25] Spoken directly to the author (and three other Americans) during an interview with the swami in Vrindaban on December 8, 1973.

[26] Goyal, 46.

[27] “At Dakshineswar,” Gauri Mata (Calcutta: Saradeswari Asram, 1944) 38-39.

[28] Goyal, 84-85.

[29] Complete Works, 8: 91.

[30] Ibid., 7: 95. “The new cycle must see the masses living Vedanta, and this will come through women.”

[31] Author’s concept.

[32] Complete Works, 2: 200. “Dualistic ideas have ruled the world long enough, and this is the result. Why not make a new experiment? It may take ages for all minds to receive monism, but why not begin now?”

[33] Ibid., 3: 380. “The mightiest buildings, if built upon the loose sand foundations of materialism, must come to grief some day.”

NEIL FELDMAN helped in the establishment of the Temple at Mothers/Mothers Place in Ganges, Michigan and assisted in their affiliation with the Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram (Gauri Ma’s Convent in Kolkata). He helped sponsor two visits by Mataji Bandana-Ma of the Sri Sri Saradeshwari Ashram to America and today he continues to be closely associated with them.  Email: n.feldman@videopost.com