Role of Reason in Vivekananda’s Philosophy of Religion

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Role of Reason in Vivekananda’s Philosophy of Religion

RELIGION IS BASED on faith rather than reason, whereas philosophy is a set of logically reasoned arguments. In modern times one hears much about ‘philosophy of religion’, which is a philosophical or rational approach to religion. In fact, both religion and philosophy need the support of reason but must ultimately go beyond its constraining limits. Swami Vivekananda, the philosopher of religion applies the above methodology in his teachings on religion.


Some Basic Propositions Religion Needs

Like any other science, religion can also be justified through reason. According to Swamiji, in modern times religions have become less and less equipped with reason and more and more filled with pseudo-arguments. There are of course a number of people who seem to acquiesce in the popular faith but theirs is only ‘not-thinking-carelessness’.1 The question arises: can the same methods of logical arguments and other ratiocinations applied to the sciences be applied to religion? Swamiji is firmly convinced that it must be so and the sooner it is done the better. ‘The essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of this [rationalistic] investigation. Not only will it be made scientific—as scientific, at least, as any of the conclusions of physics or chemistry—but will have greater strength, because physics or chemistry has no internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which religion has’ (ibid.).


In the absence of a firm footing in reason, religion tends to be what may be characterized as ‘religionism’, ‘fundamentalism’, or ‘obscurantism’. The followers of each religion think that their religion is supreme, its ethical principles are absolutely true, or its scriptures are the most sacred. Fighting between themselves, different religionists cannot be the judges for themselves. It is here that we need a higher proposition, a universal proposition, which is higher than particular moral principles or holy books. Logically speaking, the truth of the particular is decided by grounding it on the more general, and the general on the universal. Swamiji says: ‘There is something more universal than these books, something higher than all the ethical codes that are in the world, something which can judge between the strength of inspirations of different nations. Whether we declare it boldly, clearly, or not—it is evident that here we appeal to reason’ (1.369).


Logical reasoning can take the form of either deduction or induction. The former is the way of reasoning from the general to the particular, whereas the latter is from the particular to the general. All sciences rely upon both deduction and induction. When a particular event happens it is explained scientifically on the basis of laws. So the particulars are to be referred to the general, the general to something more general, and at last to the universal. According to Swamiji, the last and ‘the most universal concept is that of existence’ (3.370). ‘This is a good point to understand … there is but One Existence, and that One Existence seen through different constitutions appear either as the earth, or heaven, or hell or gods or ghosts, or men, or demons, or world, or all these things’ (3.24). Thus all beings and all materials come under the concept of universal existence and the most general universal proposition is at once an ontological principle of Being. This oneness of existence also becomes the rationale of all ethics and spirituality.


The principle of unity is also an epistemological principle. Religionists as well as scientists ultimately seek this unity. While religion calls this unity Divinity, science calls it matter. The mind classifies and stores up a number of generalizations. Mind is, as it were, full of pigeon-holes where all these ideas are grouped together.


Whenever the mind finds a new thing or object it immediately ‘tries to find out its type in one of these pigeon-holes’ (3.370). This sounds exactly like Immanuel Kant, who speaks of logical categories in the process of understanding. Thus one can identify this kind of logical categorization or classification as what we call knowledge. Through this the mind ultimately seeks unity. Therefore knowledge can be defined as the finding of unity. Swamiji says: ‘In all religions of the world you will find it claimed that there is a unity within us. Being one with divinity, there cannot be any further progress in that sense. Knowledge means finding this unity. … Take the science of chemistry, for instance. Chemists are seeking to resolve all known substances into their original elements, and if possible to find the one element from which all these are derived. … Reaching that they can go no further’ (1.4–5).


Plato defines knowledge as justified true belief. If anything is to be counted as knowledge it must be justified logically. In fact, justification is possible in two ways: internal and external. According to Swamiji, an explanation of a thing—or justification—must be internal to it. Every science wants its explanation of things from the inside, from the very nature of that thing. This must be applied to religion also: ‘What is meant by science is that the explanations of things are in their own nature, and that no external beings or existences are required to explain what is going on in the universe. … And this is one of the features of science which I mean to apply to religion’ (3.371).


Whether it is science or religion, asking ‘why’ is seeking a cause-effect relationship. Causation is also one of the widely discussed and dissected topics in Eastern as well as Western logic. In this context, Swamiji’s insight of applying the cause-effect relationship to the scientific theory of evolution is worth mentioning. As we have seen, the laws of science hold that the explanation of everything should come from the nature of the thing itself. In other words, the meaning of evolution is that the effect is nothing but the cause in another form. The whole universe with its myriad life forms is wrought by the chains of cause and effect and is called evolution. This view is rational because it explains things without bringing in extraneous agents or agencies. This idea that the effect is not a new beginning but that which exists potentially in the cause sounds similar to the satkarya-vada theory of the Samkhya philosophy and Aristotle’s principles of potentiality-actuality. Every effect is a reproduction of a preceding cause. In other words, cause and effect are but different stages of the same process karya-karana-ananyatva, non-difference of cause and effect.


Vedanta and the Requirements of Reason

Thus it follows that for religion to satisfy the criteria of reason, two things are important: the principles of generalization and evolution. The most universal of all generalizations should be infinite—absolute or impersonal. Again, it ought to sync with the principle of evolution. Only Brahman, the Absolute, can be that principle. Swamiji says: ‘We have to come to an ultimate generalisation, which not only will be the most universal of all generalisations, but out of which everything else must come. It will be of the same nature as the lowest effect; the cause, the highest, the ultimate, the primal cause, must be the same as the lowest and most distant of its effects, a series of evolutions. The Brahman of the Vedanta fulfils that condition, because Brahman is the last generalisation to which we can come’ (1.372).


Again Vedanta fulfils the scientific law that the explanation of a thing comes from within. According to Advaita Vedanta, what we see as the prapancha, universe, is only a manifestation of Brahman. It is called Brahma-vivarta vada, that is, the cause, Brahman, and the effect, prapancha are not entirely different. The Vedantic theory of causation is but karya-karana ananyatva. This sounds exactly like what the law of evolution says: the explanation of a thing should come from its own nature. Swamiji says: ‘Everyone from the highest angel to the lowest particle of matter is but an expression of that one infinite ocean and the difference is only in degree’ (1.375). Both modern science and Vedanta are trying to prove that the finer is more real than the grosser. That is why science leaves behind ordinary language and takes the help of mathematics. Vedanta leaves off the lower forms of religion, with gods and personal God, and ascends to the very pinnacle of abstractness. Considering science and Vedanta as two fields of knowledge they testify to Swamiji’s contention that knowledge is the finding of unity.


To put it in a nutshell, one can see that the religion and philosophy of Vedanta satisfy the demands of reason that the particular is known only through the general; the personal through the impersonal; the changing through the unchanging ; and the relative through the absolute.


Transcending the Limits of Reasoning

It is good to have a conception of religion with its firm footing in logical and rational grounds. But the question is: religion being primarily a realm of faith, how far does reason work? Is there any necessity of going beyond the parameters of all logical reasoning ? It is a truism that in the matter of religion, Swamiji described reason as the necessary tool, which clears away dogmatism, idolatry, and the evils of priestcraft. No doubt, he had faith in reason and was certain that reason must govern the conduct of life. He saw that in human evolution towards selfknowledge, men and women have to struggle against external nature as well as their own internal nature. To conquer external nature they need science; to conquer internal nature people have to practise religion. He said: ‘I am sure God will pardon a man who will use his reason and cannot believe, rather than a man who believes blindly instead of using his faculties’ (6.12–3). However, for his part, he was acutely aware that reason has definite limitations. It cannot, for instance, demonstrate the ultimate Reality to the thinking-feeling-sensing subject.


The goal of religion is to realize the real Self called Atman or Brahman, which is Absolute and Infinite, human intelligence and reason being finite, cannot realize or ‘know’ what is infinite. Paraphrasing Swamiji’s clear explanation of the same point, it can be said that there are two elements in our perception, one coming from outside and the other from inside. I see a blackboard. What the German philosophers call ‘the-thing-in-itself ’ of the blackboard is unknown. Let us call it x. The blackboard x acts on my mind and the mind reacts. The mind throws up a wave towards it and this wave is what we call the blackboard. Similar is the case with internal perception. The real self within me is unknown and unknowable. Let us call it y when I know myself as ‘so and so’, it is y+ mind. So our whole world is x+mind (external), and y+ mind (internal), x and y standing for ‘the thing-in-itself ’ behind the external and the internal worlds respectively (2.458).


Thus it becomes clear that real knowledge is not what we know—not through intuition, reason, or instinct. Reason cannot know what x and y is; they are unknowable. But ‘the-thing-in-itself’, which is the most universal proposition, the ultimate principle of ontolog y and epistemolog y cannot be two but one. In other words, x and y must be identical. The differentiation might have been caused by ratiocinations. Again, the ultimate ground of all logical reasoning should be the one principle that is beyond logic. Swamiji says:
All difference is, due to time, space, and causation. These are the constituent elements of the mind. No mentality is possible without them. You can never think without time, you can never imagine anything without space, and you can never have anything without causation. These are the forms of the mind. … According to Vedanta, it is the mind, its forms, that have limited x and y apparently and made them appear as external and internal worlds. But x and y being both beyond the mind, are without difference and hence one (2.461).
Here one is reminded of Immanuel Kant’s account of the illusions of reason through which he demonstrated the limits of reason in knowing transcendental entities.


Swami Vivekananda brilliantly exposes the parameters of reason in matters of religion. As a true philosopher of religion, he accepts the validity of reason in every field of knowledge, including religion. His rational mind found out how the logical operations used in modern science can be applied to the questions relating to religion. This would make religion dynamic by freeing it from superstition, dogmatism, and mythologies. However, as an adept Vedantin he succeeded in showing the limits of all ratiocinations and the necessity of transcending the level of reason to that of vijnana, special realization. This is supposed to be humankind’s journey, from the relative to the absolute, from knowledge to vijnana. This beautiful analysis of Vedanta at once satisfies and combines people of reason as well as of faith.


(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)



1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.367.
By | 2018-06-12T13:15:38+00:00 June 7th, 2018|Prabuddha Bharata, Public Articles|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr R Lekshmi is assistant professor of Philosophy at the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram.