BEFORE I LAUNCH into any discussion on Swami Vivekananda, we should consider whether or not he has a messagefor us. We may well think that he doesn’t. After all, he passed away 111 years ago and the world today is nothing like the world a century ago. Secondly, although nearly four years of his life were devoted to the US and Americans, most of Vivekananda’s life was spent in India and much of his energ y was devoted to regenerating India. And above all, Vivekananda was a monk: how relevant can a monk’s message be to anyone in today’s secular world? So if Vivekananda has a message, is it even relevant to those of us living in America today?
Relevance of His Message
My answer is yes, obviously. Why is his message relevant? For, unlike all the other people who died over a century ago, Vivekananda was a prophet. He was a seer, a rishi, and he spoke for the ages. He knew very well what was coming in the future; he saw it as clearly as we can see our hands in front of us. He said he would not live to see forty. He knew that India would become politically free, and in 1897 he exhorted Indians: ‘For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote—this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds.’1 And, fifty years later, in 1947, India became free. ‘In connection with China, the Swami once said at a later time, “I see before me the body of an elephant. There is a foal within. But it is a lion-cub that comes out of it. It will grow in future, and China shall become great and powerful”’ (2.559). He saw the first rise of socialism in Russia and China. About Europe he said: ‘The whole of Western civilization will crumble to pieces in the next fifty years if there is no spiritual foundation’ (2.182). With two World Wars falling within the fifty years of which he spoke, who will say that his words were wide off the mark! He also predicted the rise of the masses and said that they will gain supremacy in society. All of these came to pass and none of these events could have been foreseen—in fact, they seemed laughable at the time.
Interestingly, in the July-August 2013 issue of Intelligent Life, which is the culture and technology spinoff of The Economist, six eminent writers were asked: ‘What was the greatest speech ever?’ Mark Tully, one of the six, who was the BBC’s former bureau chief for India, chose Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The other winners were Abraham Lincoln’s Gettys burg address, Nelson Mandela’s speech at his trial in South Africa, and Hillary Clinton’s address on women’s rights in Beijing.2
What is amazing is that Vivekananda’s speech was given on 9/11—September 11—exactly 108 years before those planes, commandeered by terrorists, tore into New York’s Twin Towers. One hundred and eight years gets our attention because we all know that 108 is a significant number. On 11 September 1893, 108 years before 9/11, Vivekananda said: ‘Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. … I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.’3
If only we had listened to his message then and taken it seriously, how much pain the world would have been spared! I hope by now I’ve convinced you that Vivekananda’s vision was unerring, and that his message bears immense weight on our world today. I would therefore suggest that we tune ourselves to Vivekananda’s frequency so that we can listen to what he has to say to us right now. Vivekananda’s spirit is as alive today as it was when he sat as a boy at the feet of his guru Sri Ramakrishna. Not long before Vivekananda passed, he said: ‘It may be that I shall find it good to get outside of my body—to cast it off like a disused garment. But I shall not cease to work! I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God’ (5.414).
This is the message Vivekananda has given us and this is his message for today, tomorrow, and for all the ages to come: to know that we are one with God. This truth—the truth of our oneness with divinity—is his message and it is the basis of all his teachings; it is the basis of Vedanta. What, then, are we supposed to do with this message? How is this at all relevant to anyone’s life in today’s secular world? What does it mean for us in practical terms?
Obviously Vivekananda wasn’t expecting everyone to renounce the world, to find some nice cozy cave so that we can all meditate in solitude. Vivekananda wanted all of humanity to know its oneness with God. Not just monks and nuns, not just people associated with the Ramakrishna Movement and not just Hindus. He said ‘until the world shall know that it is one with God.’ That’s a pretty tall order, so let’s step back a little and take a deeper look.
One thing we know about Vivekananda was that, while he was a visionary, he was also intensely practical. Therefore, if his message is for humanity to know it is one with God, we also know that he had practical means for doing so, and that these means would be available for all people at all times. Swami Vivekananda was highly critical of philosophy without accompanying action, and he was especially critical of any philosophy that was without heart. In speaking of Vedanta philosophy in India, he said that its ‘one defect’ was that it worked ‘on the spiritual plane only, and nowhere else; now the time has come when you have to make it practical’ (3.427).
What Vivekananda said to some distinguished visitors from Punjab gives us an idea of just how practical and down to earth Vivekananda was. He said: ‘So long as even a dog of my country remains without food, to feed and take care of him is my religion, and anything else is either non-religion or false religion!’4 This is fairly surprising news for those who sweetly assumed that Hinduism meant meditating until one was floating in bliss, at which time you transcended the world and became an illumined yogi. Vivekananda would have none of it. He said: ‘After so much Tapasya I have understood this as the highest truth: “God is present in every being. There is no other God besides that. He who serves all beings serves God indeed!”’ (2.618).
Our Real Nature
So much for floating in bliss! We are not to turn our backs on the world, but to turn our backs on our own worldliness. We are to divinize the world and its living beings and see it for what it really is—a manifestation of the Divine. Vivekananda famously said: ‘Do not seek for Him, just see Him!’5 Brahman, the infinite divine Reality, pervades this universe and the highest manifestation of divinity lies within the human heart. Our divine nature is the greatest truth of our lives; we are that infinite divine Reality—free, pure, perfect, and eternal.
The obvious corollary to this—which we, alas, often forget because it is so inconvenient—is that every other being’s real nature is also divine, pure, perfect, and eternal. I may be able to believe this about myself—I may be able to persuade myself that my real nature is divine, free, and perfect—but what about that person I don’t like? That is always the rub.
But Vivekananda doesn’t allow us to escape; we don’t get a pass on this. In affirming our oneness with the infinite divine Brahman we also affirm, as Vivekananda said: ‘Feel for them as your Veda teaches you, till you find they are parts of your own bodies, till you realise that you and they, the poor and the rich, the saint and the sinner, are all part of the One Infinite Whole, which you call Brahman’ (3.432). That means even the person I don’t like is a manifestation of Brahman, the infinite divine Reality. It means even those people that are Republicans or Democrats, even those that are black, white, brown, Muslim, or Christian—and we can all fill in our own blanks here—even those that we choose to see as somehow radically ‘other’ than me, they too are all manifestations of the same infinite, divine Brahman.
The Divine resides in the hearts of all beings. No exceptions. Even those we choose to revile, hate, dismiss as not worthy of our care or attention—including the homeless, drug addicts, racists, and bigots. The Divine resides in the hearts of those that have hurt, betrayed, or used us. Vivekananda will not allow us to exclude from divinity those that we would prefer to dismiss. We cannot dismiss anyone or anything because if we deny the divinity of those we don’t care for, we deny everyone else’s divinity, including our own. Vivekananda’s radical vision, a vision he shared with the ancient Vedic sages, encompasses all beings. And, truth be told, until we absorb his message and try to expand our own hearts, we will never find joy or peace or real satisfaction in this world.
How do we see God, then, instead of seeking him—or ignoring him, as the case may be? This is the practical application that we need to address. We will see God when we see the world without our own worldliness. And the root of our worldliness is our own selfishness and self-centredness. Our worldliness has its source in the big ugly ego that always gets in our way, only we usually don’t see it that way because we usually find our own ego so charming and comfortable. When we are aware of our unity with the Divine and see that all beings are suffused with that same Divinity, then we see accurately. When we see ourselves as separate from others, that’s when we know that selfishness has crept in and has blinded our vision. When this happens, our life becomes sour; then greed, jealousy, lust, hatred, and every other mean-spirited emotion manifests itself and makes life miserable for us and for everybody else. We forget the real nobility of our nature.
This is why Vivekananda preached unselfishness above all else. Unselfishness is the key quality for us and for all people to develop. Unselfishness is the practical application of Vivekananda’s philosophy and it is applicable to all people everywhere, in every land and in every culture and at every socio-economic level. Unselfishness can be our key practice, no matter whether we live in the world or in a monastery or convent; no matter whether we’re Indian, American, old, young, black, white, brown, rich, poor, female, or male. In the big picture, none of these distinctions matter. What does matter is, as Vivekananda said: ‘Are you unselfish? That is the question. If you are, you will be perfect without reading a single religious book, without going into a single church or temple’ (1.93).
We may well ask, how does that work? It seems like an oversimplification. It is easy to think of Vivekananda’s words as an overstatement, but if we unpack it and see it for what it is, we’ll see that the whole of spiritual life, indeed the whole of life itself, is present in these deceptively simple words.
Let us first think about the word unselfish. We bandy about the words ‘selfish’ and ‘unselfish’ without much thought, but what exactly is that ‘self ’ at the root of both words? Knowing this is the key to our understanding, because it is our wrong idea of self that causes us all our difficulties in the first place. The wrong idea of self makes us feel that we are separate from everything else—from other people, other beings and from everything else in the world. It is really no exaggeration to say that our own wrong idea of what is our self is what gives us every misery we’ve ever had.
Knowing the Self
In Sanskrit, the word for ‘Self ’ is ‘Atman’. Usually when we think of the Atman, we think of the eternal, divine presence that dwells in the heart. And that is, of course, correct. But actually the word ‘Atman’ merely means ‘Self ’, so the word ‘Atman’ can mean ‘body’ or ‘mind’ or ‘the eternal indwelling Spirit’, depending upon the context in which it is used. For example, in the Taittiriya Upanishad,6 there is a discussion of the five ways in which people self-identify, and so there is a discussion of the five Atmans—which to an ear untrained in Vedanta, sounds very strange indeed!
How we think of what constitutes my ‘self ’ defines the terminolog y. We first encounter the body, the annamaya-atma, food self, or gross matter self. At the beginning of our investigation into the self, we take this outer body, to be the real ‘me’. This is where our identification of me begins and ends. But as our investigation continues, we realize that there is something deeper than the physical body; there is something within us that is more permanent, and therefore more real, than the outer physical body. When someone dies, we see that the body—which had earlier been filled with life and energy, thought and feeling—has become dead matter. That’s when we realize that the physical body is a sheath, a covering over the pranamaya-atma that moves throughout the body. We realize that the prana is the real enlivening force. At this point we identify the pranamaya-atma as the real self or the real me. When we come to this conclusion, our definition of self changes: the body, which we at first thought was the real me then becomes a sheath—a covering over what we now know is more real.
As we go further in our investigation, we realize that even deeper and more real than the prana self is the manomaya-atma, mindself. This process of identifying what is the real self or the real me continues until, as our search becomes even deeper, even beyond the vijnanamaya-atma, intelligence self, and anandamaya-atma, bliss self, we at last encounter the luminous, pure, and eternal core of our being—that from which ‘the mind and words turn away’ (2.4.1), the absolute Reality, which is the nature of absolute bliss, pure consciousness and pure being. Then we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this, and this alone is the real ‘me’, and everything else is a covering over that. Sri Ramakrishna told a story that illustrates this: ‘The king lives beyond seven gates. At each gate sits a man endowed with great power and glory. At each gate the visitor asks, “Is this the king ?” The gate-keeper answers, “No. Not this, not this.” The visitor passes through the seventh gate and becomes overpowered with joy. He is speechless. This time he doesn’t have to ask, “Is this the king ?” The mere sight of him removes all doubts.’7
And so it shall be for us also. But until we reach this point, however, where we personally encounter the grandeur of the king, the divine Self within us, we go through various identifications of what we think is the real me and who and what is my real self. And this is where we come back to the nature of selfishness and unselfishness. It is our wrong identification with who is the real me and what is my self that leads us to selfishness. The good news is that because we are the Divine, our natural instinct is to be unselfish. Selfishness is actually an aberration, it is not who we really are. Selfishness is like a spiritual flu: it shows us something systemic is out of sync. Selfishness is a symptom of wrong identification, of not knowing who we really are. Unselfishness, on the other hand, is a sign that the real divine Self is shining through whatever ignorance we may have.
We need to remember, however, that unselfishness is not to be confused with being a doormat or jellyfish or being an enabler. There is a world of difference between a doormat and a person who aspires to love and serve other beings as a manifestation of divinity. Being unselfish does not mean being a martyr. Being unselfish does not mean allowing other people to walk over us, nor does unselfishness mean allowing others to take advantage of us. Being unselfish does not mean allowing people to misuse their power, nor does unselfishness mean that we allow people to forget their good manners.
Just as there is a great difference between genuine humility and one who lacks self-respect, so also there’s a great difference between being unselfish and being a willing victim. A person who willingly allows oneself to be treated badly has a distorted sense of self—just as one who is egotistic and pretentious has a distorted sense of self. Both manifestations have their root in the same ignorance—they are taking the false, limited self, and mistaking it for the true divine Self. The true Self, the Atman, doesn’t need propping up with petty manifestations of power and control. When we see our real Self, when we know that we are infinite, unlimited, and free, when we realize that joy is our very nature, then no one and nothing can have power over us. This is where our self-respect must be located, in knowing our real Self.
Therefore we need to always guard against thinking of ourselves as weak, limited, helpless, or worthless, because when we do so, we are doing a terrible injustice to ourselves. If we think of ourselves as weak and limited, we will act accordingly and the damage goes deeper. Further, if we think of ourselves as weak, limited, and worthless, we will treat others in the sameway, given the opportunity.
Making Knowledge Practical
True unselfishness means that we see the divine Self in all beings and all beings in the Self and we act according to that vision. When we are selfish, we are the centre of our universe and everyone and everything revolves around us. We are the heroes of our stories; we are the masters of our narrative. It is embarrassing but true, and its all too human. All this happens when we think that my ‘self ’ is the body-mind complex and that I am limited to that entity. When I think I am a limited being, unconnected to everything around me, I become subject to fear and want. When I think that I am limited and weak, I will do everything I can to prop up this false me by pushing others out of the way so that I can come first. I will acquire things that I don’t need so that I can be bigger than the frail person I fear myself to be. When I identify myself with what is small and limited, I put myself at the mercy of others’ whims and I lose my freedom. Then I resent others for their power over me.
But that resentment is misplaced: I have given away my birthright of freedom, joy, and fearlessness by my own misplaced identification. When we know, as Vivekananda tells us, ‘that we are in essence one with God’8—what fear, what hatred, what pettiness and misery can affect us? What or who can I be jealous of ? How can we feel resentment towards manifestations of the Divine? One who is a manifestation of my own Self ? We can’t. We can only respond with love and service. Christ said: ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Vivekananda added to that: ‘Love them as ourselves, in fact to see ourselves in them’ (6.107). How, then, can we hate or be jealous of our own Self ?
This oneness of life is the greatest truth of the Hindu tradition: we are united in and through divinity with all beings. The natural outcome of knowing our divine nature is unselfishness, and the natural outcome of unselfishness is for the ego to take a step back while our real divine nature shines forth. As Vivekananda said: ‘Unselfishness is God.’ That is about as clear-cut a directive as we can get.
Vivekananda taught that the practical application of Vedanta that was missing in the past was service to humanity, in fact service to all beings—let’s not forget the dog that Vivekananda mentioned to those gentlemen from Punjab—knowing that in doing so we are worshiping the manifold forms of the Divine standing before us. Vivekananda said: ‘See the Lord back of every being and give to Him’ (7.68). Serving all beings is the same as serving God.
It is important to remember, though, that service doesn’t mean only feeding the poor and nursing the sick. No grand acts of going to Africa or Haiti or the barrios of San Francisco are necessary. Though these acts are commendable, they’re not easily replicable in our own individual situations. Nor should they be: all of us have our own dharma, our own life’s duties to fulfil. We can do our duties and expand our hearts through service at the same time; in doing so, we will be living a life of true spirituality.
Real service can be found in simple, often unnoticed, unselfish actions. To sit and listen to someone patiently is service. To make breakfast for our family is service. To call a friend in need is service; to pray for the distressed is also great service. All these actions can be done selfishly—that is, with an expectation of gratitude or appreciation. But we must remember that if we do acts of service and still expect gratitude or appreciation, we will then sabotage our own happiness and our spiritual life. Our expectations of any reward or gratitude will become our own self-imposed torture scheme.
What, after all, do we expect? What do we really want? We want acknowledgment, gratitude, appreciation, and we want people to know that we’re here. We don’t want to be invisible. But if we really analyse this, what is this really about? Aren’t we really saying that we feel incomplete? That we are not whole?
We only desire what we think we don’t have, but the truth is, we lack nothing. Because we’ve formed a habit of looking outside of ourselves for happiness and fulfilment, we’ve neglected the truth that fulfilment and joy are already inside us. We are joy and perfection itself. Because we’re habituated to looking outside for happiness, we seek gratitude, praise, and appreciation from those around us. But these desires, these powerful expectations we have, inevitably become forms of self-torment. Because we have forgotten our real divine nature and we look for the infinite outside of ourselves, we become bottomless pits of need. We have to remember that with any expectation, we give away control over our happiness. We make our happiness dependent upon the actions and moods of someone else. We then give away that freedom that is our very nature. It is self-sabotage.
What turns acts of service into a spiritual path is an attitude of unselfishness—not expecting gratitude or appreciation or even notice. An attitude of loving service, putting ourselves in the background, remembering that we are literally worshipping the Divine with the simple acts we do and every kind and noble thought we think, is a sure means to spiritual growth.
This is practical spirituality at its best. As Vivekananda said: ‘We are the servants of that God who by the ignorant is called man’ (8.349). The Hindu tradition famously teaches the value of meditation and worship. Long before American women wearing spandex turned to yoga for self-development, the yogis in India knew that yoga took various forms and all of them were paths to perfection. The Self that was described by the ancient yogis was not the one wearing yoga pants, however. The rishis spoke in rapturous joy of the Self, the Atman, that was eternal, birthless, deathless, and utterly free, whose nature was pure Consciousness.
Vivekananda insisted that we expand our vision and most of all, expand our hearts. He said: ‘Believe in the omnipotent power of love. … Have you love?—You are omnipotent. Are you perfectly unselfish? If so, you are irresistible. It is character that pays everywhere’ (5.51). This is a very significant statement. Our character is to be perfectly unselfish and we are to love. If this sounds odd coming from a Hindu sannyasin, one who is supposedly dead to the world, let us remember that Vivekananda said: ‘It is love and love alone that I preach, and I base my teaching on the great Vedantic truth of the sameness and omnipresence of the Soul of the Universe’ (3.194).
And of course, he is right: ‘Sarvam khalu- idam brahma; all this is indeed Brahman’, says the Chhandogya Upanishad.9 The list of references could go on and on. Says the Isha Upanishad: ‘Who sees all beings in their own Self and their Self in all beings hates none.’ 10 We read in the Bhagavadgita: ‘Since by seeing equally God who is present alike everywhere he does not injure the Self by the Self, therefore he attains the supreme Goal.’11
Thus if we can grow in unselfishness, this will lead to love. Moreover, unselfishness is the natural outcome of love. If our hearts manifest both unselfishness and love, we will be ‘irresistible’. What does Vivekananda mean by that? That love, kindness, and goodness are as infectious as a cold. People will find that they want to be around us, that they feel good in our presence. They want to know why we are so joyful and peaceful. They will want to know our secret. Vivekananda said: ‘All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction.
Love is therefore the only law of life. He who loves lives, he who is selfish is dying. Therefore love for love’s sake, because it is the only law of life, just as you breathe to live.’12
We should never forget that the effect of one person can change the world. Even if we can make the life of one person sweeter, if we can remove their pain or loneliness or hopelessness or fear, then we will have succeeded in following Swami Vivekananda’s message.
We all have that potential to be the person who can change the world for the better. Every one of us. Let us not squander the opportunity.
(Source: Prabuddha Bharatha Special Edition January 2014)
1. His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2008), 2.208.
2. See <http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/anonymous/vivekananda> accessed 11November 2013.
3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.4.
4. The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2.440.
5. Complete Works, 7.29.
6. Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.1.1.
7. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1996), 218.
8. Complete Works, 1.338.
9. Chhandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.
10. Isha Upanishad, 6.
11. Bhagavadgita, 13.28.
12. Complete Works, 6.320.