THERE IS A KIND OF TIMELESSNESS in the religious landscape of India. It is so vast and ancient that even Indians need a guide to see it in the proper perspective. In this age the foremost exponent of Indian ethos is Swami Vivekananda, and we need to turn to him in order to perceive this timeless landscape. He was responsible not merely for a religious renaissance but his love and veneration for India has become legendary.
Swamiji’s life is a testimony to his unbounded knowledge and vision of India and of every aspect concerning humanity. Sister Nivedita observes the importance of his works: ‘For ages to come the Hindu man who would verify, the Hindu mother who would teach her children, what was the faith of their ancestors will turn to the pages of these books for assurance and light.’1 The torrent of ideas that Swamiji had of religion in modern India are stupendous. His words are manifestations of divine light.
Purpose of Religion
The goal of religion is moksha, liberation. This is the ideal placed before everyone. Religion should make humans godlike, with qualities such as selflessness, renunciation, tolerance, honesty, contentment, and love for all. Each individual soul, because of its inherent divinity, has undertaken a long journey back to its real nature. Swamiji succinctly says: ‘Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or by psychic control, or philosophy—by one or more or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion’ (1.257). The ancient sages understood that the jiva’s journey back to God has various levels and avenues; therefore, each jiva must be offered help on the way. This is the reason for the vast proliferation of beliefs, rituals, practices, as well as gods and goddesses. As the jiva journeys and matures, it ascends to higher and higher levels. Swamiji says: ‘From the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite’ (1.17). Though methods of seeking God differ, the goal is one. Unlike some monotheistic religions with a central authority and dogma, religion in India did not have any central authority. Authority and freedom in religion was invested to all, whether theist, atheist, or agnostic, as long as one did not disturb or injure others. Each one could choose according to one’s nature and inclination.
One of the most powerful civilizing factors in human history has been religion. It has made humankind think of itself not as matter but as spirit. It is spirituality that has helped people to overcome many struggles and obstacles that matter inevitably creates in the path of progress. The more people thought themselves as divine, the more they progressed; the more people thought of themselves as matter, the more that progress was arrested. Religion has helped build social relationships and institutions, formed social bonds, inculcated reverence for life and nature, and has inspired people to become perfect.
Religion is a tangible science, and until one realizes the truths of religion, one is not truly religious. The person in whom religion dawns is called a rishi. These religious truths are supersensuous. Many a time we mistake mundane truths, however subtle, for religious ones and fight over them. Mundane truths are by nature contradictory, and that is why there is so much fight and dispute in the name of religion. The attainment of rishi-hood is the true realization of religion, and the truths of religion are called Veda. Veda, in its actual meaning, is not contradictory, because it is infinite. The purpose of religion is to convert the ordinary mind into that of a rishi to actualize the supersensuous truths.
One of the onerous tasks given to Swamiji by Sri Ramakrishna was the reformulation of the Sanatana Dharma. For millennia the scriptures called the Vedas were the main authority in the religious life of India, because they set forth the steps to a universal life. Some aspects of a universal life are also found in the Puranas and Itihasas. All this literature has two aspects: knowledge and work. The latter kept changing according to the changing times; the former was beyond time and change and was immutable. As time rolled on, people lost sight of the original scriptures and their meaning and deviated from the source. Failing to understand even the message of the Puranas they became attached to popular customs and beliefs and created new sects from old materials.
While branching off into various sects and practices, these sects and various religions retained some part of the original truths. It was Sri Ramakrishna who by his advent showed what Sanatana Dharma is and where the unity among all the numberless sects and denominations lay. And this great work he did by going through various sects, denominations, and religions, authenticating them through his realizations. Then fusing all these different truths he embodied them as a unified whole and held his life as an ideal and an object lesson before India.2 Swamiji saw the glorious and significant life of his Master and preached it to the world. That is why he composed the salutation to his Master thus: ‘Sthapakaya cha dharmasya sarva-dharma-svarupine, avatara-varishthaya ramakrishnaya te namah; Salutations to Thee, O Ramakrishna, the Reinstator of Religions, the Embodiment of all Religions, the Greatest of all Incarnations.’3
Swamiji’s Vision of India and the World
During his years as a wandering monk, Swamiji had seen India at close quarters, from the high to the low. He understood that India had weathered many storms because she held on to religion. On his return from the West, Swamiji spoke at Ramnad: ‘And here in this blessed land, the foundation, the backbone, the life-centre is religion and religion alone.’4 Around religion had grown all the languages, cultures, arts, sciences, learning, and life itself. And because religion was decaying, so was the national life and national vigour. Swamiji saw that religion was not at fault for this degraded state of affairs, but it was due to the non-application or wrong application of religious principles. People had to be brought back to the mainstream not by denunciations but by encouragement. And this he set forth to accomplish. If religion was strong, so would be the people. Swamiji saw a slow revival of religion and declared this in a stirring lecture at Ramnad, which is a masterpiece of eloquence, passion, pain, joy, strength, and deep insight:
The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble seems to be coming to an end at last, the seeming corpse appears to be awaking and a voice is coming to us—away back where history and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom of the past, coming down from there, reflected as it were from peak to peak of the infinite Himalaya of knowledge, and of love, and of work, India, this motherland of ours—a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by, and behold, the sleeper is awakening! Like a breeze from the Himalayas, it is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not see, that she is awakening, this motherland of ours, from her deep long sleep. None can resist her any more; never is she going to sleep any more; no outward powers can hold her back any more; for the infinite giant is rising to her feet (3.145–6).
The religious revival in India was not just going to benefi t India, but there was a greater global role and purpose. Politically, India was a conquered nation, an old ‘jewel in the [British] crown’. She had been systematically exploited over centuries and now there was nothing else that she had but religion. She would revive herself through that and in the process she would also revive the world. Responding to the welcome accorded in Madurai, Swamiji reminded us:
We find that whenever either by mighty conquest or by commercial supremacy different parts of the world have been kneaded into one whole race and bequests have been made from one corner to the other, each nation, as it were, poured forth its own quota, either political, social, or spiritual. India’s contribution to the sum total of human knowledge has been spirituality, philosophy. These she contributed even long before the rising of the Persian Empire; the second time was during the Persian Empire; for the third time during the ascendancy of the Greeks; and now for the fourth time during the ascendancy of the English, she is going to fulfil the same destiny once more. As Western ideas of organization and external civilisation are penetrating and pouring into our country, whether we will have them or not, so Indian spirituality and philosophy are deluging the lands of the West (3.171).
At a deep level humanity is essentially one. All the variations are on the surface or just slightly below the surface. If ‘religion is a constitutional necessity of the human mind’ (1.318), then it also means that real religion, like humanity, is one. Swamiji says: ‘One infinite religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this religion is expressing itself in various countries in various ways. Therefore we must respect all religions and we must try to accept them all as far as we can’ (4.180). The one religion manifests differently not only geographically and culturally but also within individuals. One person manifests religion as karma, a second as bhakti, a third as yoga, and a fourth as jnana. These are of course broad classifi cations, but there are many other sadhanas.
People should be respected for their religious convictions and should be encouraged so far as they are sincere. It is important to let each one progress by one’s own efforts. The solution is to recognize ‘the natural necessity of variation. Just as we have recognized unity by our very nature, so we must also recognize variation. We must learn that truth may be expressed in a hundred thousand ways, and that each of these ways is true as far as it goes’ (2.382–3). Swamiji explained that what he meant by universal religion was not one set of doctrines prescribed for all or one mytholog y or ritual. Such concepts are disastrous, as variety is the basis of life. Such a universal religion does not need to be formulated, for it already exists: ‘As the universal brotherhood of man is already existing, so also is universal religion’ (2.367).
Swamiji wanted that individuals in the future become harmoniously balanced in all the four yogas. This development will make humanity truly universal. What he wanted to propagate was a religion equally acceptable to all modern minds. It is for this reason that he placed before India and the world Sri Ramakrishna’s life and message. Universality now becomes tangible with a holy name and form.
Sri Ramakrishna and Harmony Religion concerns itself with the metaphysical, while the physical world is the domain of science. It is becoming more and more accepted that there should be mutuality between science and religion. Just like Sri Ramakrishna showed that all religions and sects lead to the same goal, so also all the various branches of knowledge lead one from the physical to the metaphysical. The word ‘harmony’ carries a great significance for future humanity.
The purpose of human birth is to realize God, and true religion is realization. Swamiji said:
A harmony of all these [yogas] is the thing required. Ramakrishna was such a harmony. Such beings are few and far between; but keeping him and his teachings as the ideal, we can move on. And if amongst us, each one may not individually attain to that perfection, still we may get it collectively by counteracting, equipoising, adjusting, and fulfilling one another. This would be harmony by a number of persons and a decided advance on all other forms and creeds (4.356).
The timeless religious landscape of India has embodied as Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda for India and the world.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha January 2013)
1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekanand, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.ix.
2. See Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, trans. Swami Jagadananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2010), 453.
3. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 2.307.
4. Complete Works, 3.148