by Joan Shack

This article was originally published in Issue No. 66 of Samvit, the journal of Sri Sarada Sangha, Kolkata, in September 2012.

In her biography of Swami Vivekananda, The Master as I Saw Him, Sister Nivedita writes: “ Our Master has come and he has gone, and in the priceless memory he has left with us who knew him, there is no other thing so great, as this his love of man.”[1]



These words were written by one who was personally trained by Vivekananda. His teachings, ideas, and views and even personal glimpses of his own life were treasured and recorded by her during the course of their time together. She aptly distilled into one simple yet revealing phrase what he bequeathed to those who knew him: “his love of man.” What a priceless memory for them! What an imperative for us!


A favorite parable of Vivekananda’s was that of a golden bird perched high on the tree of life, radiant and content in its own existence. Another restless, busy bird moves from branch to branch eating the fruits of the tree, both sweet and bitter. Gradually, the active bird ascends to the upper branches. In the light radiating from the plumage of the serene bird, the active bird recognizes his luminous self. There is no “two.”

Vivekananda never tired of reminding us of our true nature, our innate divinity, yes, our luminous self. The Upanishadic truth about man, tat twam asi (thou art that), was a principal theme in his teachings, especially in the West. Behind the manifested many is the One, the ultimate reality, the unchanging, undying unity. When addressing man’s divinity, Vivekananda dropped bombshells:

No books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the Self that appears as man, the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists or ever will exist.[2]

Religion as defined by Vivekananda is the manifestation of our divinity in every movement of life. Based on his definition, religion is no longer bound up in the dogma or rituals of any “ism.” Similarly, books, temples, or forms are only secondary. The essence of all religions is the realization of the One reality. Vivekananda notes that that One reality is “the Self of our own self.”[3]

In the closing words of his address on Hinduism at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda expanded on his ideal of a future religion:

It would be a religion which would have no place for persecution or intolerance…and would recognize a divinity in every man or woman and whose whole scope, whose whole force will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its divine nature.[4]


Credited with sparking a national conversation regarding the eating habits of children, Michelle Obama, wife of the American president, recently remarked that “Kids emulate what they see. You don’t have to make a lecture if you’re living it.” She thus acknowledges the power of example. The spoken word counts but a life lived speaks louder.

An element of Vivekananda’s life which speaks loudly and eloquently to our time is his comprehensiveness. In the first instance, every field and endeavor of man gripped his interest and curiosity, whether economic theories, social thoughts, or scientific discoveries.

An impressive array of technological advances marked the end of the nineteenth century. Walking the streets of New York, Vivekananda’s gaze would have risen to the top of the New York Tribune building, one of the earliest skyscrapers. He would have crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, hailed as a feat of its time. The cable cars on Broadway were his means to the theater. Upon the invitation of Nikola Tesla, inventor and thinker, he toured his scientific laboratory to view his “creations.” Tesla succeeded in implementing mass electrification for the first time by lighting up the entire Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. In all of these instances, Vivekananda would have perceived the energy of the Divine. He once stated, “Art, science and religion are but three different ways of expressing a single truth. But in order to understand this we must have the theory of Advaita [nondualism].”[5]

All human endeavors in the external physical world are an attempt to discover the truths of the universe in order to answer the age-long questions about ourselves and our place in the scheme of things. The same search for the answer to those momentous questions of life is undertaken by the practitioners of all religions, focusing on our internal nature. Whether the standpoint is the external or the internal, these searches have as their goal that One, undivided, ultimate unity. Oneness is the theme of Advaita.

Sister Nivedita writes:

If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths to realization [identification with the One]. No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labor is to pray…Life itself is religion.[6]

Her statement is in keeping with a point made by Vivekananda in his address on Advaita delivered in India in 1897: “ Advaita [has been] worked out so long on the spiritual plane only, and nowhere else; now the time has come when you have to make it practical.”[7]

Further evidence of Vivekananda’s inclusive impulse is his extensive travels. Before embarking for the West, he wandered throughout India for years. Without a companion and changing his name in each village that he reached, he witnessed the tribulations, the abuses, and the conditions of life of the rich and poor alike. This exposure had a significant influence on him; it forged the metal of his love for his homeland and his people. All the elements of the greater whole of India –­ its historic past, culture, spiritual traditions, and social institutions – he embraced.

Similarly in the West, he undertook a lecture tour during the winter of 1893-1894, visiting small towns of the Midwest of America. Aboard the clackety trains of those days, he encountered a cross section of citizens: parents and children, salesmen and businessmen, preachers and lecturers, cowboys and entertainers.

He tried his hand at a number of pastimes. He golfed at Ridgely Manor, roller skated in the halls of the Hale household, shot eggshells bobbing in a small stream (presumably at Camp Taylor), rowed a boat at Camp Percy, and learned to bike with Swami Saradananda in England. Honored at social receptions in the parlors of the elite, he exchanged views with eminent scientists, politicians, thinkers, and artists.

He embraced all aspects of life in the West. He was a student and the strong points of every nation were his course of study. In fact, it was often the smallest of things that caught his attention and spoke to the noblest qualities of that nation.

tagore copy


The poet Rabindranath Tagore viewed Vivekananda as the meeting point of East and West. In his essays written in 1909, he notes:

The great soul whose death occurred a few years ago in Bengal, that Vivekananda also rose keeping the East to his right and the West to his left and himself standing in between… To accept, to mingle, to create, was, verily his genius.[8]

Vivekananda opened up a communication line between East and West. His goal is clear in his definition of the aims of the Ramakrishna Order founded by him “to effect an exchange of the highest ideals of the East and the West, and to realize these in practice.”[9] That is, to work it out in life.

Love and Serve

To Vivekananda, practical Advaita meant permeating our being to its depth with the ideal – I am that ever glorious Spirit – and then bringing this thought to bear in our everyday lives. How? He added to the inward spiritual life of the members of the Order an outward component of humanitarian activities. Both aspects were incorporated in the motto of the movement: For the freedom of oneself and for the welfare of the world. These two elements are to be practiced together, to support each other.

This stands in contrast to the past in India, with its emphasis on withdrawal from society to advance spiritually. Vivekananda dedicated himself and the Order to the service of others, of God in them, in society; he juxtaposed service with working for one’s liberation. His heartfelt compassion for the impoverished and lowly was fully awakened in him during his itinerant days in India. Service was his way to apply his vision of Advaita as well as the means to restore human dignity to the poor and oppressed in his country and abroad.

The first large humanitarian effort came in April-May 1898. The whole of the Ramakrishna Mission was mobilized to control the plague epidemic that broke out in Kolkata. To inspire courage in the workers helping those afflicted by the plague, Vivekananda came to live in the house of some poor afflicted people. To aid the relief cause, he wrote a pamphlet listing effective sanitary measures that could be adopted to combat the plague. He then saw to its distribution by organizing students; they went into the affected quarters of the city. History notes that he was even ready to sell the grounds of Belur Math, purchased for the construction of a monastery, if money was needed for this work. Numerous are the chronicled examples of his personal involvement in the service of God in humanity.

In a letter to Mary Hale, his American “sister,” he didn’t mince words.

May I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries so that I may worship the only God that exits, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls – and above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species, is the special object of my worship.[10]

When requested to return to India and take up the work at hand, he replied: “Doubtless, I do love India, but everyday my sight grows clearer. What is India or England or America to us? We are the servants of the God who by the ignorant is called Man [human being]. He who pours water at the root, does he not water the whole tree?”[11]

To the world at large, Vivekananda’s spiritual message of practical Vedanta culminated in love of God through loving service of all. We are all servants of the immanent God dwelling in all his creation. He declared: “I do not believe in a religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or stop the orphan’s wails.”[12]

When requested to return to India and take up the work at hand, he replied: “Doubtless, I do love India, but everyday my sight grows clearer. What is India or England or America to us? We are the servants of the God who by the ignorant is called Man [human being]. He who pours water at the root, does he not water the whole tree?”[13]

To the world at large, Vivekananda’s spiritual message of practical Vedanta culminated in love of God through loving service of all. We are all servants of the immanent God dwelling in all his creation. He declared: “I do not believe in a religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or stop the orphan’s wails.”[14]

All religions in existence today have as their goal to unite us with the eternal source of our being. The means of finding a path to Divinity have differed, but the objective is the same. Unfortunately, religions have been a source of conflict in the past, dividing the people of nations worldwide. In the global society of today, a convincing case can be made that religions need to become a force for unity and harmony, more a power for good than it has been before. Religions need to recognize their spiritual brotherhood.

At the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, commemorating the centenary of the 1893 Parliament attended by Vivekananda, members of diverse traditions gathered and formulated a Global Ethic:[15]

We are the women and men who have embraced the precepts and practices of the world’s religions. We affirm that a common set of core values is found in the teachings of the religions, and that these form the basis of a global ethic.


We must not live for ourselves alone, but should also serve others, never forgetting the children, the aged, the poor, the suffering, the disabled, the refugees, and the lonely. Opening our hearts to one another, we must sink our narrow differences for the cause of the world community, practicing a culture of solidarity and relatedness.

In this selection from the entire declaration, their keen interest in struggling souls is apparent. The suggested pathway to correcting all societal injustices is: “opening our hearts to one another.” Vivekananda provides the solution as to how to accomplish this opening of heart – by loving service in recognition of the innate divinity of man. To the extent that acts of service flow from a selfless, loving heart, progress in spirituality is assured. For the human heart powered by feelings of altruism, self-sacrifice, and love finds one’s personal good is ultimately merged in the impersonal, universal good. The goal of religions is thus realized. Religion is authenticated –becomes real and living.

The genesis of Vivekananda’s doctrine of service was his guru, Sri Ramakrishna. It is recorded that Vivekananda requested Ramakrishna to bless him with long immersion in samadhi. Ramakrishna’s response was in the form of a rebuke. “What a small mind is yours! Can’t you experience the Divine with eyes open, in work and inter-human relations as well as with eyes closed in the trans-social experience of meditation?”[16]

Similarly, in conversation with a Bengali intellectual, Bankim Chandra Chattapadhyay, Ramakrishna asserted:

Charity! Doing good! How dare you say you can do good to others? Man struts about so much…It is God alone that man serves – God who dwells in all beings; and when he serves God, he is really doing good to himself and not to others.[17]

Vivekananda himself refused all merit for any of his thoughts, words, or deeds that might have helped anyone. He was merely a faithful steward bringing his guru’s vision of a “universal religion of head and heart into existence.”[18] • • •

[1] Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him (Calcutta: Udbodhan, 1972), 171.

[2] Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Vol. 2 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1976), 250.

[3] Ibid., 128.

[4] John Henry Barrows, Ed., The World’s Parliament of Religions (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Co., 1893), Vol. II, 977.

[5] Swami Ranganathananda, Swami Vivekananda and Human Excellence (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997), 49.

[6] Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Vol. 1 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1986), xv.

[7] Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Vedanta the Scientific Religion (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997), 55.

[8] Swami Ranganathananda, Eternal Values for a Changing Society, Vol II: Great Spiritual Teachers (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1985), 364.

[9] The Master as I Saw Him, 155.

[10] Complete Works, Vol 5, 1973, 137.

[11] Complete Works, Vol 8, 1959, 349.

[12] Eternal Values, Vol. 2, 258.

[13] Complete Works, Vol 8, 1959, 349.

[14] Eternal Values, Vol. 2, 258.

[15] Jyoti Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, January-March 1994, 10.

[16] Swami Vivekananda and Human Excellence, 32.

[17] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center), 670.

[18] Complete Works, Vol. 3, 1984, “Sages of India,” 267.

JOAN ELISABETH SHACK, Professor of Mathematics at Hudson Valley Community College, is Co-Founder of Sri Sarada Society Inc. At her home in Albany, New York, day-long retreats and Saturday satsangs are held. She writes for Sri Sarada Notes (published by Sri Sarada Society) and for Integral Vedanta News. Email:

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