The figure of Swami Vivekananda casts a long shadow in the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century religious thought. His influence, which extends now into the twenty-first century, can be seen in a variety of contexts. Later Indian teachers of spirituality who have worked in the West, such as Yogananda, owe a large debt to Vivekananda, as do Western self-styled gurus, like Adi Da (Franklin Jones). Likewise, many of the ideas of perennialist writers who deal with Indian yoga and mysticism, such as Ken Wilber and Georg Feuerstein, echo ideas originally popularized by Vivekananda. While many remember Vivekananda as a teacher of spirituality and prominent leader of a religious community, he was also, and perhaps more importantly, an influential rhetorician and apologist for what he referred to as the "sanatana dharma," the "eternal tradition" of Hinduism.
For Vivekananda, the primary expression of India's "eternal tradition" was the Vedanta, in particular, Advaita Vedanta. But a question has lingered in the minds of historians of religion over the degree to which Vivekananda's "Vedanta" can be said to correspond to the classical Advaita of Gaudapada, Shankara, Mandana and their successors. For the discerning historian, it is apparent that Vivekananda significantly modifies the classical Vedanta, and that his modifications are not derivative of the traditional interpretations; no, they appear as the expression of something new.
In one of the few historically critical articles on Vivekananda, the German Indologist Paul Hacker posed the question thus:
The student of Indian thought must ask himself whether this modification is a straight prolongation of the lines traced out by the ancient masters of the monistic Vedanta, or whether there is a break between the ideas of the old school and Vivekananda's presentation of the Vedanta.... The result of such scrutiny is that there is actually a break... ("Aspects of Neo-Hinduism," Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta, W. Halbfass, editor, p. 240.)
A noted scholar of the classical Indian tradition, Hacker was also interested in the relation between Indian traditionalism and modernity. Hacker proposed the term "Neo-Hinduism" to refer to various Hindu modernists and nationalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, authors and political leaders such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894); B.G. Tilak (1856-1920); Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1947); Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941); and Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982). Other writers and religious leaders, such as Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-1883), and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884) are considered "forerunners" of Neo-Hinduism by Hacker, since the theme of Hindu nationalism remains undeveloped in their works. Hacker also occasionally used the term "Neo-Vedanta" to refer to the writings of religious thinkers and writers within Neo-Hinduism whose orientation was more specifically Vedantic, figures such as Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), and the noted intellectual historian and statesman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975).
What, then, does it mean to call Vivekananda a "Neo-Vedantin?" What Hacker has in mind when he speaks of Neo-Hinduism is specifically the adoption of Western values and approaches, and the subsequent attempt to find those values imbedded in the indigenous Indian tradition. There are, of course, various degrees to which a writer or movement can be said to be "Neo-Hindu" in this regard. Interestingly, Hacker finds the writings of the Neo-Vedantins to be the most characteristic expressions of the Neo-Hindu type.
Though it is primarily through the work of Hacker that the term "Neo-Vedanta" has come into its current usage, the term itself predates Hacker's work. A Bengali work from 1817, for example, speaks of the "new Vedanta" (abhinava-vedanta) of Rammohan Roy. And an article in the Calcutta Review of 1844 compares the term "Neo-Vedanta" to the usage "Neo-Platonism"; the article remarks:
So, in like manner, ought much of what, nowadays, is made to pass for Vedantism -- consisting as it does of a new compound arising from an incorporation of many Western ideas with fragments of oriental thought -- to be designated Neo-Vedantism to distinguish it from the old.
The context of the above remark is one that is already apologetic and polemically charged, with Hindu traditionalists, Christian missionaries, and early Hindu modernists constituting the primary factions. In the years to come, the Neo-Vedantins will answer the charge that their innovations do not entail the incorporation of foreign elements by arguing that these elements are to be found originally in the primordial Vedanta. Thus, Hacker's secondary characteristic -- that of attempting to find modern values in the ancient tradition -- is also an extension of the polemical context from which the term "Neo-Vedanta" arises.
What distinguishes Hacker's specific application of the term "Neo-Vedanta," vis-a-vis earlier applications, is that it is more or less descriptive and not normative. I say "more or less" since Hacker was also interested in the "Hindu-Christian dialogue" of his day. This being the case, it can be difficult, at times, to separate clearly Hacker's purely historical and Indological concerns from his theological ones; Hacker himself believed that the aim of "pure" objectivity was an abstraction. Nonetheless, in his studies, Hacker was able to identify some important differences between the classical Indian tradition and certain modern expressions of Hinduism, and he managed to reveal the essentially rhetorical elements of the latter in the process. Thus, from an Indological point of view, his categories of "Neo-Hinduism" and "Neo-Vedanta" make for useful historical descriptions.
My work here is meant to complement and extend the work of Hacker and the late Wilhelm Halbfass. My approach to Vivekananda's presentation of Vedanta will be historical and critical, and yet at the same time hermeneutically sensitive. By the term "critical" I do not mean that I will simply supply a critique of Vivekananda's thought as such. What I mean is that I will not take what he says at face value, as a phenomenologist might; rather, I will subject what he says to the scrutiny of critical reason and fact. At the same time, I will not indulge in the mere "deconstruction" of either the person of Vivekananda or his thought, and this is what I mean by the designation "hermeneutically sensitive." For, whatever his "influence," there is much that is of historical interest in the thought of Vivekananda.
II. A Note on the Sources of this Study
The works of Vivekananda amount to nearly four thousand pages. To facilitate access to the wide range of Vivekananda's writings, the editors at Advaita Ashrama assembled a single-volume collection of some of Vivekananda's more memorable tracts. First published in 1944, it is an commendable edition, in my opinion, as it provides not only a fair representation of Vivekananda's ideas and general vision, but suggests an interesting impression of the character of Vivekananda himself.
Running at close to 500 pages, Selections from Swami Vivekananda contains many of the more forceful chapters from his four well-known books on yoga -- Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. It also contains several important essays and lectures, as well as some of his more interesting addresses and inspired speeches to his Indian countrymen. Rounding out the contents are various interviews, conversations, private discourses to students, and letters to friends and correspondents.
The collection shows Vivekananda at his rhetorical best -- or worst, depending on how one views such things. This makes it a useful document for students and teachers of the history of Indian religion, as it brings together Vivekananda the philosopher and teacher of spirituality with Vivekananda the political visionary and religious propagandist.
I will be focussing on the words and ideas of Vivekananda in this essay and not dwell extensively on his biography. Instead of referring to page numbers from the various books of Vivekananda, I will simply refer to the page numbers of the one-volume edition, Selections.
In Part One of this essay I have drawn largely from the studies of Paul Hacker and Wilhelm Halbfass (listed at the end of Part One). I have also consulted Swami Nikhilananda's biography of Swami Vivekananda.
In Part Two of the essay, I collate various recurring themes found in Selections. The aim will be to contextualize aspects of the thinking and rhetoric of Vivekananda by relating select ideas to their classical and modern antecedents. In this way, I hope to give meaning and content to the designation "Neo-Vedanta" as it applies to his thought.
III. The Intellectual Context Prior to Vivekananda: Three Forerunners
All thought arises relative to a particular intellectual milieu. The thinking of Vivekananda is not different in this regard, and accordingly, several of the themes in Vivekananda's thought can also be found in his intellectual and rhetorical forerunners. Three of the most important of these are Rammohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore, and Keshab Chandra Sen.
Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) was a Hindu "reformer" from Bengal. He is sometimes associated with the so-called Hindu "renaissance" and has been called "the father of modern India," even though he was by no means a Hindu nationalist. A brahmin by birth, he came from a family of successful businessmen. As a result of his family's business ventures, he had extensive contact with English and Muslim cultures during his youth. Financial security later allowed Rammohan to dedicate his time to scholarly and journalistic interests. In 1828, he founded the Brahma Samaj, a movement concerned with Hindu reform. Perhaps his most famous campaign opposed the practice of "suttee."
One of the most important themes in Rammohan Roy's thought is that of universalism, a theme that occurs with increasing frequency in his writings. Rammohan was among the first to point to commonalities shared by the world's religions. M. Monier-Williams and B.N. Seal saw him as an early practitioner of the field of "comparative religions." In 1829, Rammohan published a work with the title, The Universal Religion: Religious Instructions founded on Sacred Sources. In this work, we find the germ of the idea that the Hindu tradition is superior to all others due to its ability to subsume the foreign. In Rammohan's thought, this receptivity to the foreign is presented as an essential aspect of Hinduism. Here, perhaps for the first time in history, Indian "inclusivism" is extended toward religions and traditions outside of India.
Rammohan attempted to find a traditional basis for this universalism by referring to classical Hindu sources, such as the scriptures of Vedanta and the commentaries of Shankara. He also referred to the Mahanirvana Tantra. A text of questionable date and origin, the Mahanirvana Tantra is an important text in the history of Indian inclusivism. It speaks of the kaula-dharma as super-ceding all other Hindu revelation: just as the elephant's footprint obliterates the footprints of all the animals of the forest, so too the kaula-dharma subsumes every other Hindu tradition. The Mahanirvana Tantra is also interesting in that it speaks of the kaula community as open to all men, an idea that may indicate influence from Mahayana Buddhism.
Rammohan regarded the Deism of the rationalists as the supreme theology. In regards the Indian traditions, he viewed the Vedanta as particularly authoritative. In an attempt to bring the two together, he came to understand the monism of Advaita Vedanta as the expression of a "pure monotheism." As for Rammohan's readings of Shankara, they are rather forced. For one, the stringent requirements of "qualification" (adhikara) set out by Shankara are systematically avoided by Rammohan in his commentaries. Indeed, Rammohan sought to do away entirely with the notion of caste-based "qualification"; unlike Shankara, he understood ultimate truth as accessible to everyone. Rammohan also sought to relate the teachings of the Upanishads and Advaita Vedanta to "practical" and utilitarian concerns, such as the achievement of social ends. But in the classical Vedanta of Shankara, the domains of worldly means-and-ends, on the one hand, and salvation (moksha), on the other, are sharply demarcated. As Shankara says at the end of his introduction to Brhad Up 3.2.1, "means and ends constitute bondage (sadhya-sadhana-lakshano bandhah)."
Though the Mahanirvana Tantra provided a degree of inspiration for Rammohan, his interest in universalism appears to have stemmed from his preoccupation with another idea, that of religious egalitarianism. This interest in egalitarianism derived in large part from his encounter with Western liberal thought, in particular, J. Bentham's idea of the "greatest good for the greatest number." In his writings, Rammohan appears to have retrofitted the idea to Hinduism and then read it back into his Sanskrit sources.
Paralleling the themes of universalism and egalitarianism is another theme that functions as their reflex. This is the idea that the traditional brahmanic pandits have appropriated the Vedic revelation and adapted it to serve their own purposes. According to Rammohan, the pandits, who are only interested in their own ends, are the real perpetrators of the idea of qualification (adhikara). These "selfish pundits" (svarthapara pandita) have at the same time dissembled the real purport of the scriptures; Rammohan writes:
But from its being concealed within the dark curtain of the Sungskrit language, and the Brahmins permitting themselves alone to interpret or even to touch any book of the kind, the Vedant, although perpetually quoted, is little known to the public.
Accordingly, Rammonhan had little interest in maintaining the traditional schools of the pandits. Rather, he supported the idea of instituting the English system of education in India. In keeping with his liberal predilections, Rammohan saw education as an important means of levelling caste hierarchy.
In the above quotation from Rammohan, we also find implied another important theme. This is the idea that the sources of Hinduism are pure in their original essence, but that their contents have been distorted by those who have appropriated their transmission. As opposed to this "corrupt" and ossified tradition, Rammohan advocates a return the "primordial intent" of the Vedas and other sources of Hinduism.
Another interesting aspect of Rammohan's writings concerns not so much the content of his thought as its rhetorical form. Like some of his Neo-Hindu successors, especially those who wrote in English, Rammohan wrote not only for Indian audiences, but for, and against, Europeans. An interesting aspect of his writing is the degree to which his various addresses differ depending upon whom he is addressing. When he is addressing a primarily European audience, he appeals to concepts such as "common sense," "reason," and "the dignity of the human," all the while playing down ideas like reincarnation. But when he is addressing his Bengali audiences, for example, we find the expression of familiar Indian themes such as the tension between "yukti" (reason) and "shastra" (scripture).
According to Hacker, Rammohan Roy's thought should not be understood as an expression of "Neo-Hinduism" proper since we do not find the theme of Hindu nationalism present in it, a theme that Hacker sees as characteristic. Nonetheless, we do find the beginnings of Hindu self-assertion in Rammohan's writings, and many of his conceptions anticipate ideas that will reappear in the writings of Neo-Vedantins, especially those of Vivekananda, who more than once refers to him favourably. In this sense, he can be considered an important forerunner of Neo-Vedanta and Neo-Hinduism in general.
Another leader of the Brahma Samaj was the influential thinker and writer Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), father of the poet Rabindranath Tagore. In a much more overt way than what we find in Rammohan, Debendranath questioned the degree to which the Hindu scriptures are to be taken as authoritative; he openly challenged those portions of the scriptures that he saw as unsuitable for the "worship of Brahma," as he conceived it.
One theme that follows from this challenge to scriptural authority is the search for the foundation of authority in self-certainty. For if traditional authority is to be challenged, then some other form of authority will be needed to replace what has been displaced. So it is that we find in Debendranath's thought the idea that validity and authority lie, most authentically, in the "experiential" and "intuitive" confirmation of truth. Significantly, Debendranath tells us that the ancient seers (rishis) "experimentally tested" (parikshita) and confirmed the truths expressed in the Upanishads. In this scenario, the Upanishads become documents chronicling the "experiences" of ancient yogins.
Debendranath also believed that the ancient seers had intended us personally to realize and "experientially confirm" the truths they had discovered, and he saw himself as a kind of seer who had personally realized such truths. It is important to note that for Debendranath, scriptural revelation does not hold the same kind of authority it does in traditional Hinduism. Truth for him is not implicit in the religious text itself; it is to be found in the "intuitive confirmation" of what the text denotes. The scriptures are mere secondary reports of such experience; what matters is the intuitive experience of truth itself, which Debendranath claims has its ground in his one's "own heart." He writes accordingly, "I evolved the foundation of the Brahma Dharma from my own heart."
Unlike Rammohan, Debendranath did not recognize the authority of Shankara's writings. He appears to have realized that Shankara's allegiance to scriptural authority would not be in keeping with his own understanding of the role of the Hindu scriptures. He also saw the austere soteriology of Advaita Vedanta as out of touch with religious life and its social expression as he envisioned it. Abandoning the classical commentaries of Shankara, he wrote his own commentaries upon the Upanishads in their stead.
While it is possible that Debendranath may have been inspired by the mystical traditions of his native Bengal, his most important ideas appear to come from modern European thought, in particular, from the Scottish school of Common Sense. In his writings, Debendranath attempts to find Indian equivalents for the principles of self-certainty and common sense; for example, when he uses the compound "svatahsiddha-atmapratyaya" it is clear that he means "self-evident intuition." While Debendranath's notions concerning "intuition" (atma-pratyaya) and the "heart" (hrdaya) sound much like the "personal conviction" (atma-tushthi) and "inner voice" (hrdaya-koshana) referred to in the dharmashastra literature, and his use of the term "svatahsiddha" reminds us of the concept of "svatahpramanya," the "self-validating authority" of the Vedas referred to by the Mimamsakas, it is important to note that Debendranath reverses the priority established by Kumarila and other orthodox commentators. This is to say that Debendranath takes "self-evidence" and "intuition" as primary and the Vedic texts as their mere secondary effect. This indicates that he gives initial priority to the modern concepts of "self-certainty" and "common sense" and only subsequently attempts to find their analogs in the Indian lexicon.
Debendranath's adaptation of the Indian term for "examination" (pariksha), which for him refers to a kind of "experimental verification," shows influence from the camp of the empiricists as well. Indeed, Debendranath is important in the history of Neo-Hinduism, and in regard to the writings of those who will follow in its wake, because he is among the first to articulate a philosophical basis for what has been called "mystical empiricism." The central idea of mystical empiricism is the principle that spiritual truths can not only be "empirically verified" through spiritual or "transpersonal" experience, but that they are required to known in such a manner. We find this idea not only in the writings of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Yogananda, but in the works of perennialists like Wilber and Feuerstein.
One more figure should be referred to before turning to the life of Vivekananda, and that person is Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884). Keshab was a compatriot of Debendranath in the Brahma Samaj. In Keshab's thinking, the idea that "intuition" is superior to scripture is even more pronounced. But unlike Debendranath, Keshab was more open to the suggestion that there are sources of truth outside of Hinduism, and to the idea of the universal harmony of all religions. For Keshab, the Buddha, Christ, and Moses are all rishis. In the Gospel of Ramakrishna it is suggested that Keshab's view was shaped largely by his encounter with Ramakrishna, who also held the view of the universal harmony of all religions. But though Keshab did meet with Ramakrishna on several occasions, his biography shows that he arrived at his belief in the universal harmony of all faiths independently of the influence of Ramakrishna.
Like Rammohan and Debendranath, Keshab's writings also show the influence of European thought. Familiar Western philosophical turns of phrase such as "common sense," "a priori truth," and so on, pepper his writings. We also find in Keshab's work the development of an important theme that will reappear among later apologists like Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Yogananda and Wilber. This is the idea that "Western" scientific enquiry and "Eastern" spirituality need not be mutually incompatible, but that they can complement each other and indeed, supplement each other's deficiencies; Keshab writes:
Europe, the Lord has blessed thee with scholarship and science and philosophy, and with these thou art great among the nations of the earth. Add to these the faith and intuition and spirituality of Asia, and thou will be greater still. Asia honours thy philosophy; do thou honour, O Europe, Asia's spirituality and communion. Thus shall we rectify each other's errors and supplement mutual deficiencies. (Lectures in India)
The stage is now set for the appearance of Vivekananda.
IV. Four Events in the Life of Vivekananda that Shaped his Thought
Vivekananda, i.e., Narendranath Datta, was born in 1863 in Calcutta. He was a member of the kayastha, a scribe caste that viewed itself as a sub-caste of the kshatriyas. In 1879 he entered Presidency College in Calcutta, and later he studied at Scottish Church College. In 1884, he received a B.A. degree.
During his time at college, Narendra became acquainted with European philosophy. He studied the positivism of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, the scepticism of David Hume, and the agnostic thought of Herbert Spencer. The works of these European philosophers had been exerting their influence in Bengal for some time. Comte was particularly well known in Bengal. Enthusiasts in Europe had sent positivist "missionaries" to Bengal at one time to spread the word, and Comte came to have a dedicated following there. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1794) had, over a period of time, been translated into Bengali. Hume was taught at the Hindu College in Calcutta. And the empiricism and Utilitarianism of J.S. Mill were well known among Bengali intellectuals. Rammohan Roy himself had corresponded with Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart's mentor.
Throughout most of his youth, Narendra maintained a belief in God, a belief that was in part shaped by the teachings of the Brahma Samaj. But as a result of his study of European positivism, in particular Mill's Three Essays on Religion, his faith in theism collapsed. This shattering of his faith was a significant event in the life of young Narendra, and it eventually helped orient him away from theism and motivate him to move toward the Vedanta and Yoga. We find evidence in his later writings of the perceived effects of the Enlightenment critique of religion:
Modern science and its sledge hammer blows are pulverising the porcelain foundations of all dualistic religions everywhere. "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 229
Under the terrific onset of modern scientific research, all the old forts of Western dogmatic religions are crumbling into dust; ... the sledge-hammer blows of modern science are pulverising the porcelain mass of systems whose foundation is either in faith or in belief... "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 419.
Some time after these events, one of Narendra's friends, Bajendranath Seal, introduced him to the metaphysical monism of Advaita Vedanta and to the Hegelian concept of reason ("the real is the rational, and the rational is the real"). With Bajendra's help, Narendra was able to construct a philosophical perspective that allowed him to ameliorate the effect that positivism and scepticism had exerted upon him. This perspective combined Vedanta with elements of rationalism. This amalgam remained with Narendra throughout his life, and he eventually came to understand Advaita Vedanta as particularly capable of resisting the Enlightenment critique of religion. On the Vedanta, he later writes:
We have seen how here alone we can take a firm stand against all the onrush of logic and scientific knowledge. Here at last reason has a firm foundation.... Therefore, preach the Advaita to everyone so that religion may withstand the shock of modern science. "The Vedanta," Selections, pp. 220; 230.
The influence of empiricism can also be discerned in his later writings; we will return to the question of how he adapted classical empiricism to the Indian tradition by fusing it with yogic mysticism. For now, we can note that he did not agree with the classical empirical view that experience is primarily sensory experience. Concerning empiricism, he asks rhetorically, "Who dares say that the senses are the all-in-all of man?" "The Sages of India," Selections, p. 235
In the years immediately following the death of his spiritual master in 1886, Narendra lived in a small monastery in Baranagore with others disciples. But he grew restless, and so he began wandering the country as samnyasin. During this period, we find Narendra continuing to seek out knowledge and spiritual experience -- meeting with various religious leaders and teachers, receiving instruction in Sanskrit from pandits, and living life as a traditional ascetic.
Narendra's letters from this time display a concern that his growing interest in the welfare of others might be hampering his own quest for spiritual enlightenment and liberation. But sometime during 1893, a change in his attitude begins to take place. A letter written in 1894 reveals that his interest had grown to the point where he had become alarmed by the despair and impoverishment of the people of India. This experience of Indian humiliation was another determinative event in his life, and it proved to be something of a turning point for him.
Other Hindu modernists and Neo-Hindu thinkers had experienced this sense of humiliation as well, and there was a general feeling among them that India, and Hinduism in particular, had grown too accustomed to its spiritual resignation and political inertia. S. Radhakrishnan describes the state of dejection he experienced as a student at Madras Christian College:
I was strongly persuaded of the inferiority of the Hindu religion to which I attributed a political downfall of India.... I remember the cold sense of reality, the depressing feeling that crept over me, as a causal relation between the anaemic Hindu religion and our political failure forced itself on my mind. ("The Spirit of Man")
No doubt, this feeling of inferiority was directly related to India's years of political subjugation. But it was also related to the Indian encounter with European civilization and culture. To an extent, this involved its confrontation with European science, technology, and rationality. But it also involved the social and ethical challenge presented to Hinduism by the Christian missionaries and others. Vivekananda refers to this challenge at various points in his writings; he writes:
Look at the books published in Madras against the Hindu religion. If a Hindu writes such a line against the Christian religion, the missionaries will cry fire and vengeance. "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 416
This critique of Hinduism took particular aim at Advaita Vedanta. In their attack on the Vedanta, the Christian apologists enlisted the aid of the principle of utility. An article from the Calcutta Review of 1852 reads, "Let Utility then answer if she prefers Vedantism to Christianity." When referring to the superiority of Christianity, the Christian apologists often pointed to the social and ethical consequences of adopting Vedanta. The implication was that the Vedanta lacked the ability to address properly ethical and social concerns.
This idea, that Advaita Vedanta suffers from a kind of "ethical apathy," is traced by its critics to the doctrine of the witness (sakshin), that is, to the teaching that the soul is, in its essence, merely a passive spectator and never truly an active agent (kartr). This is the familiar charge of "quietism," the accusation that contemplative traditions are negligent of the needs of society and theoretically inadequate to the task of social activism. Again, we find evidence that Vivekananda was aware of this critique:
"Oh" they say, "you Hindus have become quiescent and good for nothing, through this doctrine that you are witnesses!" "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 217
The critics of Vedanta also related this doctrine to another problem: Under the auspices of eternalism, any action becomes possible since any action can be rationalized. Bhagavad Gita 2.19 reads, "Neither he who sees the Self as a killer, nor he who sees the Self as killed, sees things correctly. For the Self is not a killer and nor is it killed." Surely, they argued, this sort of teaching is anathema to ethically justifiable conduct. Many centuries earlier, the Jains and Buddhists had raised a similar objection. They pointed out that any doctrine that teaches that the real can only be the permanent (nitya) and unchanging (avichalita; kutastha) reality will teach the akriya-vada, the teaching that nothing can be done, since all action is impossible.
Another way that monism was viewed as ethically challenged was related by its critics to its inability to provide an adequate frame of reference for morality. Again, it is worth noting that the Indian tradition itself had noticed this problem well before the appearance of Christian missionaries in India. The classical critics of Vedanta posed the problem thus: If we are all one Self, then moral retribution in the case of individuals is senseless; and if we are all essentially one with God, then our sins will attach to God. The modernist critique of Advaita continues this line of thought, if in a less sophisticated manner: If duality is illusory, then good and evil do not exist; and if we are all God, then we can do no wrong. In his later writings, Vivekananda also shows an awareness of this type of critique; he writes:
Our boys blithely talk nowadays, they learn from somebody -- the Lord knows whom -- that Advaita makes people immoral, because if we are all one and all God, what need of morality will there be at all! "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 222
With regard to the question of Hinduism, and religion in general, some Indian reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had come to the conclusion that Hinduism itself was to blame for India's political and social stagnation. But there is little indication in his writings that Vivekananda ever seriously entertained this idea. Since his discovery of Vedanta, and his encounter with Ramakrishna, he appears convinced that Hinduism, and Advaita Vedanta in particular, is not the problem, but the solution. For Vivekananda, spirituality is India's strength. This meant that, "religion was not to blame; men were to blame."
Determined that he should seek to find a way to improve the lot of the people of India, Narendranath, who at this time begins calling himself Vivekananda, decided to leave India in search of the resources needed to improve the well-being of India's masses. And so, in 1893, he set sail for America. He remained there until 1896, taking occasional excursions to England and continental Europe. While in the West, he experienced American and European civilization and culture. This exposure to Western lifestyles, and culture in general, was another formative factor in the thought of Vivekananda.
Throughout Vivekananda's writings we find stereotyped descriptions of the "West." Most typically, the West is "materialistic" and dominated, as he puts it, by the ideals of "eating and drinking." But he acknowledges that Europe and America have mastered the "outer world," and he contrasts this with the Indian mastery of the "inner world." Like Keshab Chandra Sen, Vivekananda speaks of the value of an exchange of learning between the two "complementary" cultures:
I would say, the combination of the Greek mind represented by the external European energy added to the Hindu spirituality would be the ideal society for India.... India has to learn from Europe the conquest of external nature, and Europe has to learn from India the conquest of the internal nature.... We have developed one phase of humanity, and they another. It is the union of the two that is wanted. Interview from "The Hindu," (Madras) 1897, Selections, pp. 290-291
At the same time, however, Vivekananda is not as conciliatory toward the West as Rammohan Roy or Keshab Chandra Sen. He insists that India should resist Western social norms and cultural attitudes, and make no concessions to Christianity. It must discover its own hidden potential and recover its forgotten greatness; if anything, it must follow the lead of Japan, which found and maintained its own identity even while learning from the West:
There in Japan you find a fine assimilation of knowledge, and not its indigestion, as we have here. They have taken everything from the Europeans, but they remain Japanese all the same, and they have not turned into Europeans; while in our country, the terrible mania of becoming Westernized has seized upon us like a plague. "Conversations," Selections, p. 386
Nonetheless, there are a number of features of American and European civilization that Vivekananda comes to admire. He admires its technical expertise and science; he admires its industry, vigour and work ethic; he admires its social order, in particular the organization of its educational systems; he admires its ideals of equality and liberty; he admires its traditions of philanthropy, altruism, and cooperative action; and perhaps above all, he admires the self-confidence of the West, to which he attributes its strong sense of national identity.
Upon returning from his travels abroad, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission, the principle aims of which were to be practical philanthropy and education. In his speeches, Vivekananda himself says that his establishing of the Ramakrishna Mission was directly influenced by his life in America. His opening statement at the inaugural meeting of what will become the Ramakrishna Mission begins thus:
The conviction has grown in my mind after my travels in various lands that no great cause can succeed without an organization. "Conversations," Selections, p. 343.
But the most significant event in the life of Vivekananda was undoubtedly his encounter with Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna (i.e., Gadadhara Chattopadhyaya, 1836-1886) was a temple priest at Daskshineshwar, Bengal, and devotee of the goddess Kali. An ecstatic and mystic, he viewed Hinduism as an organic whole comprised of several different, yet equal, paths to the divine. For Ramakrishna, this equality was a demonstrable truth, and for periods of time, he was alternately a devotee of Rama and Krishna, receiving religious visions of both while practising as their devotee. At the same time, Ramakrishna was also a universalist whose inclusivism went beyond the various forms of cultic Hinduism. He believed that Islam and Christianity were equally paths to God, to the "one water that we all drink," and he thought he could demonstrate, experientially, that this was the case.
We find present in the person and teaching of Ramakrishna the familiar themes of "experience" and "inclusivism." But Ramakrishna was no Hindu modernist, and nor was his teaching, strictly speaking, a form of Neo-Hinduism. He distanced himself from modernist Hindu movements; his negative view of the Brahma Samaj was closer to that of the traditional pandits. Like some of his contemporaries, Ramakrishna referred to the Hindu tradition as the "sanatana dharma," "the eternal religion," and for him this meant that Hinduism was in no need of "reform." Nonetheless, Ramakrishna's universalism, and his conception of Hinduism as a unity, was also a response to the situation of modernity and to the Indian encounter with the West. His teaching can thus be seen as a form of a Hindu self-assertion in that it implies that Hinduism is capable of absorbing the foreign while retaining its self-identity.
Narendra first met with Ramakrishna in 1881, while he was a student at college. At first, Narendra was reticent toward Ramakrishna. He was sceptical of Ramakrishna's "visions" and suspicious of the idolatry practiced around him; nor did he did not share Ramakrishna's emotional and ebullient religiosity. But after several years of association with him, he acquired a fondness for Ramakrishna, and became one of his disciples. He was soon Ramakrishna's favourite, and he would become the best known apostle of Ramakrishna's gospel of universalism. In time, Vivekananda came to share some of his master's fervour for the religious life, though he continued to distance himself from religious sentimentality and emotionalism.
While Narendra did not seek to relive the various devotional experiences of his master, Ramakrishna did immerse him in mystical spirituality, and under his tutelage, Narendra underwent a series of mystical experiences. For Narendra, such experience was the final proof of religion, the refutation of scepticism, and the answer to positivism.
As a mature devotee, Vivekananda came to regard Ramakrishna as an incarnation of God. He viewed him as a kind of "living commentary" on Hinduism, as the embodiment of its vitality and truth, and the fulfilment of its potential. While there is no reason to doubt that Vivekananda's devotion to his master was real, he also made use of the traditional cult of the guru to forward his own agenda and to propagate his own teachings. After the death of his teacher in 1886, Vivekananda believed that the spirit of Ramakrishna was working through him. But while Ramakrishna may have been a source of inspiration and grounding for Vivekananda, he was not the primary source of Vivekananda's ideas. Ramakrishna was not a Neo-Vedantin; nor did he share Vivekananda's later interests in "practical Vedanta," philanthropy and education. Nonetheless, when confronted by these differences, Vivekananda presented himself as the "instrument" of his master.
In Selections, there is recorded the following conversation between Vivekananda and another disciple of Ramakrishna, Yogananada (not the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, but another). The conversation followed the inaugural meeting of what would be the Ramakrishna Mission:
Vivekananda: So the work is now begun this way; let us see how far its succeeds, by the will of Ramakrishna.
Yogananda: You are doing these things with Western methods. Should you say Shri Ramakrishna left us any such instructions?
Vivekananda: Well, how do you know that all this is not on Shri Ramakrishna's lines? He had an infinite breadth of feeling, and dare you shut him up within your own limited views of life? I will break down these limits and scatter broadcast over the earth his boundless inspiration. We have to realise the teachings he has left us about religious practice and devotion, concentration and meditation and such higher ideas and truths, and preach these to men. The infinite number of faiths are only so many paths. I haven't been born to found one more sect in a world already teeming with sects. We have been blessed with obtaining refuge at the feet of the Master, and we are born to carry his message to the dwellers of the three worlds.... So casting all doubt away, please help my work, and you will find everything fulfilled by his will.
Yogananda: Yes, whatever you will, shall be fulfilled; and are we not all ever obedient to you? Now and then I do see how Shri Ramakrishna is getting these things done by you. And yet, to speak plainly, some misgiving rises at intervals, for as we saw it, his way of doing things was different. So I question myself: Are we sure that we are not going astray from Shri Ramakrishna's teachings? -- and so I take the opposing attitude and warn you.
Vivekananda: You see, the fact is that Shri Ramakrishna is not exactly what the ordinary followers have comprehended him to be. He had infinite moods and phases. Even if you might form an idea of the limits of Brahmajnana, the knowledge of the Absolute, you could not do the same with the unfathomable depths of his mind! Thousands of Vivekanandas may spring forth through one gracious glance of his eyes! But instead of doing that, he has chosen to get things done this time through me as his single instrument, and what can I do in this matter, you see? "Conversations," Selections, pp. 344-345.
V. Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta in Relation to His Predecessors and Successors
Like Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda takes the Vedanta as the quintessential expression of Hinduism; at times he virtually equates the two:
The Vedanta, then, practically forms the scriptures of the Hindus, and all the systems of philosophy that are orthodox have to take it as their foundation. "The Vedanta Philosophy," Selections, p. 95.
If the Vedanta is the heart of Hinduism for Vivekananda, then Advaita is its crowning glory. While Aurobindo questioned the value and relevance of the classical Advaita of Shankara, Vivekananda adopts Advaita Vedanta and applies the inclusivist agenda of the later Advaitin doxographers to the Indian tradition, making it not only the basis for harmonizing the various traditions of Hinduism but the inspiration for his conception of the national unity of India; indeed, he refers to the Vedanta as "our national philosophy." (Selections, p. 182) This general attitude toward Advaita Vedanta stands in contrast to the view of Ramakrishna, who saw Advaitism as simply one path among many.
In his scheme for harmonization, Vivekananda adopts the traditional Vedantic distinction between the karma-kanda and the jnana-kanda, or as he puts it, between "ceremonialism," which aims at bhoga, enjoyment, and "spirituality," which aims at moksha. To the former he assigns the Samhitas and Brahmanas, while to the latter he assigns the Aranyakas and Upanishads, which he refers to as the "rahasya," or "esoteric" portion of the Vedas.
The moksha-marga is further divided by Vivekananda into the orientations and practices of jnana and bhakti:
Now all the sects in India can be grouped roughly as following the Jnana-Marga or the Bhakti-Marga. "In Defence of Hinduism" Selections, p. 412.
Here, Vivekananda adapts Shankara's division between higher knowledge (para-vidya) and lower knowledge (apara-vidya), that is, between jnana proper, which takes brahman as formless (nirguna), and upasana, which worships the brahman with form (saguna). Vivekananda then applies this division to the various sub-schools of Vedanta. The implication is that the dualism and modified non-dualisms of Madhva, Ramanuja, Vallabha, and Chaitanya all fall within the lower knowledge of the bhakti-marga.
Vivekananda also makes use of ideas that recall Rammohan's notion of the "pure origin" and subsequent degeneration of Hinduism. The idea that aspects of modern Hinduism are "degenerate" was not an idea explicitly endorsed by Ramakrishna, who saw Hinduism as a totality of paths. Nonetheless, Vivekananda appeals to such ideas -- for example, when describing the purpose of Ramakrishna's incarnation:
But when by the process of time, fallen from the true ideals and rules of conduct, devoid of the spirit of renunciation, addicted only to blind usages and degraded in intellect, the descendents of the Aryas failed to appreciate even the spirit of these Puranas etc., which taught men of ordinary intelligence the abstruse truths of the Vedanta in concrete form.... And when as a consequence, they reduced India, the fair land of religion, to a scene of infernal confusion by breaking up into fragments the one Eternal Religion of the Vedas (Sanatana Dharma), the grand synthesis of the aspects of the Spiritual Ideal, into conflicting sects.... then it was that Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna incarnated himself in India, to demonstrate what the true religion of the Aryan race is; to show where amidst all its many divisions and offshoots, scattered over the land in the course of its immemorial history, lies the true unity of the Hindu religion... "Hinduism and Shri Ramakrishna," Selections, p. 430.
Like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda extends this "harmonization" include all the worlds religions; he continues:
So at the very dawn of this momentous epoch, the reconciliation of all aspects and ideals of religious thought is being proclaimed... This epochal dispensation is the harbinger of great good for the whole world. "Hinduism and Shri Ramakrishna," Selections, p. 432.
One of Vivekananda's central aims is to revive interest in the Vedanta in India and to foster interest in it abroad. This proselytising instinct is much more pronounced in Vivekananda than in his predecessors. On the surface, Vivekananda teaches that India is the home of "tolerance" and the land of "spirituality," and he presents it as his mission to teach this to the world. The West, he suggests, is ready for the teachings of "Eastern spirituality," and it desires instruction:
Today the West is awakening to its wants, and the "true self of man" and "spirit" is the watchword of the advanced school of Western theologians. "In Defence of Hinduism" Selections, p. 417.
The world is waiting for the treasures to come from India...; little do you know how much of hunger and of thirst there is outside of India for these wonderful treasures of our forefathers. "Reply to the Calcutta address." Selections, p. 189.
But the teaching of "universal harmony" and "tolerance" is at the same time the view that the Vedanta is in truth the all-encompassing tradition. Here, the Vedanta is not just one religion among many; it is the essence of all religion. Thus, the universalism of Vivekananda is a form of Hindu self-assertion in so far as it implies that the Vedanta is superior to all other traditions by virtue of the fact that it simultaneously transcends and includes them all:
Ours is the universal religion. It is inclusive enough, it is broad enough to include all ideals. All the ideals of religion that already exist in the world can be immediately included, and we patiently wait for all ideals to come in the future to be taken in the same fashion, embraced in the infinite arms of the religion of the Vedanta. Collected Works III, p. 251.
While Vivekananda presented himself as interested in instructing the West about the truths of "spirituality," he was not interested in simply founding another sect. In an interview to an English newspaper he states:
It is contrary to our principles to multiply organizations, since in all conscience there are enough of them already. Selections, p. 280.
Nonetheless, he does speak of Hinduism and Vedanta as "conquering" the West in a manner analogous to the way that India had "conquered," i.e., absorbed, the Moghuls:
Before many years the English people will be Vedantins. (Interview from the "Hindu," Selections, p. 286)
The only condition of national life, of awakened and vigorous national life, is the conquest of the world by Indian thought. Collected Works III, p. 276.
In this last quotation we find reference to one of the most interesting and significant features of Vivekananda's project. Upon his return to India from America, Vivekananda discovers that his recognition in the West has greatly affected his image and standing in India; as a result he is asked to give a series of addresses. In his initial address, "In Defence of Hinduism," given in Madras, 1894, he states:
It is most gratifying to me to find that my insignificant service to the cause of our religion has been acceptable to you.... Generous is your appreciation of Him whose message to India and to the whole world I... had the pleasure to bear. It is your innate spiritual instinct which saw in Him and His message the first murmurs of that tidal wave of spirituality which is destined at no distant future to break upon India in all its irresistible powers... raising the Hindu race to the platform it is destined to occupy in the providence of God... fulfilling its mission among the races of the world -- the evolution of spiritual humanity. Selections, p. 403.
Like the message of "tolerance," Vivekananda's proselytising becomes of mere secondary importance; his primary interest is the national identity of Indians. Realizing the opportunity that now presents itself, he begins to utilize his recognition by the West, and Western interest in Vedanta, to bring attention to the Vedanta in India, and to generate Hindu confidence in its own traditions. Aghenanda Bharati has referred to this phenomenon as the "pizza effect" -- the idea being that the foreign acceptance of an idea or tradition helps to foster its appreciation among the indigenous populace.
But the most distinctive characteristic of Vivekananda's Vedanta is his suggestion that Vedanta needs to become "practical." It is here that the modern European elements in Vivekananda's thought are most conspicuous and where we can refer to it specifically as a form of Neo-Vedanta.
It was with respect to the practical and ethical domain that Debendranath Tagore and Dayananda Sarasvati had distanced themselves from the classical Advaita of Shankara. They did so for good reason: Shankara clearly separates ultimate soteriological concerns from worldly means and ends. Vivekananda, on the other hand, proceeds undaunted; he believes he can derive an ethical teaching from the principle of non-dualism. How he does so will form a significant portion of the discussion in Part Two of this essay.
It is not merely with respect to the content of his thought that European elements play a role in Vivekananda's Vedanta. As Halbfass points out, it is also important to note the role played by the context of the Indian encounter with modernity, European culture, and Christianity, for it is only within such a context that we can fully appreciate Vivekananda's interest in emphasizing the social and ethical domain. In other words, his concern that Vedanta become "practical" is as much a response to the challenge presented by Christian and Utilitarian ethics as it is an interest in the value of practical concerns as such. This response is important to Vivekananda as it is integral to his project of inspiring Indian self-confidence.
While European thought played an important role in the development of Vivekananda's notion of a "practical Vedanta," Indian elements influencing its development also can not be ignored. Ramakrishna himself had introduced Vivekananda to forms of "tantricizied" Advaita, such as the teachings contained in the Ashtavakra Gita and Yogavashishta. While he remains theoretically committed to Shankara's Vedanta, Vivekananda also incorporates into his teaching elements not characteristic of Shankara's thought. In his conception of non-dualism, Shankara emphasized the discrimination of the world from transcendent brahman; for Shankara, a-dvaita means that brahman has "no other," no second. Vivekananda, on the other hand, emphasizes a monistic version of non-dualism wherein the world is "non-other" than brahman. This acceptance of the world, which is an aspect of Tantric thought in general, lays the theoretical backdrop against which action in the world, in accordance with the principle of "non-dual ethics," becomes possible.
It Part Two of this essay, we will look at selected features of Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta in greater detail.
VI. Further Reading
From Paul Hacker, Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Hinduism, Wilhelm Halbfass, editor:
"Aspects of Neo-Hinduism as Contrasted with Surviving Traditional Hinduism"
"Schopenhauer and Hindu Ethics"
"Vivekananda's Religious Nationalism"
From Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Philosophical Understanding:
"Rammohan Roy and His Hermeneutic Situation."
"Neo-Hinduism, Modern Indian Traditionalism, and the Presence of Europe"
"Supplementary Observations on Modern Indian Thought"
"The Adoption of the Concept of Philosophy in Modern Hinduism"
"Reinterpretations of Dharma in Modern Hinduism"
"The Concept of Experience in the Encounter between India and the West"
"'Inclusivism' and 'Tolerance' in the Encounter between India and the West"
See also Aghenanda Bharati, "The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns," Journal of Asian Studies 29 (1970).