The Neo Vedanta and Advaita of Swami Vivekananda by Kelamunii
My Selection of Excerpts from Part 1 and 2
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
This is the idea that the traditional brahmanic pandits (Brahmins) 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) [re: Shankara supporting the caste system]. 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."
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.
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.
Unlike Rammohan, Debendranath did not recognize the authority of Shankara's writings.
This is to say that Debendranath takes "self-evidence" and "intuition" as primary and the Vedic texts as their mere secondary effect.
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.
The stage is now set for the appearance of Vivekananda.
IV. Four Events in the Life of Vivekananda that Shaped his Thought
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").
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.
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.
This critique of Hinduism (by Christian apologists) took particular aim at Advaita Vedanta. In their attack on the Vedanta, the Christian apologists enlisted the aid of the principle of utility.
The implication was that the Vedanta lacked the ability to address properly ethical and social concerns.
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
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.
V. Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta in Relation to His Predecessors and Successors
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.
The moksha-marga is further divided by Vivekananda into the orientations and practices of jnana and bhakti...
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...
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...
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.
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.
Part Two of this essay will look at the Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda in greater detail by way of a direct examination of his writings, specifically those contained in the convenient one volume anthology, Selections from Swami Vivekananda.
Many of these themes reappear in the writings of later scholars of Indian thought, such as T.M.P Mahadevan and Chandradar Sharma, and in the writings of later Neo-Vedantins and perennialists, such as Sarvapella Radhakrishnan, Aurobindo Ghose, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Rama, Adi-Da (Franklin Jones), Georg Feuerstein, and Ken Wilber.
One of the more interesting dichotomies put to use by Vivekananda is the contrast between the "Guru" and the "Pundit." In his writings, Vivekananda delineates a well marked distinction between the two. He associates the Guru, or "true teacher," with the world renouncers of India -- the samnyasins, parivrajakas, bhikshus, shramanas -- while he identifies the Indian pandita as a kind of substandard, corrupt and even false teacher. Echoing Rammohan Roy...
The contrast between the "Guru" and the "Pundit" in Vivekananda's writings is closely related to another theme, the contrast between "book learning" and "experience."
II. Book-learning vs. Realization
The theme of "booking learning" recurs frequently in Vivekananda's writings. Its contrast with "experience" parallels, and indeed invokes, the empiricist distinction between "knowledge by description" and "knowledge by acquaintance."
But in Shankara's works, the distinction between higher and lower knowledge is not used to contrast "book learning" with "experience," even though this is a typical interpretation given by modern scholars. Rather, Shankara uses the distinction to distinguish knowledge that concerns ritual action from soteriological knowledge, that is, knowledge that leads to the heaven realms (brahma loka) from knowledge that leads to ultimate release (moksha).
In contrast to Shankara, Vivekananda treats the Vedic scriptures in toto, as well as the revealed word of other traditions, as instances of the "ossification" of religion:
The whole world reads scriptures, Bibles, Vedas, Korans, and others, but they are only words... the dry bones of religion.... Those who deal too much in words, and let the mind run always in the forest of words, lose the spirit.... "The Teacher of Spirituality." Selections, pp. 54-55.
Vivekananda relates the contrast between "book learning" and "realization" to another of his favourite dichotomies -- that between the "East" and the "West." In the following passage, he associates book-learning with the "Western" attitude:
We do not know if the "hotch-potch of the brain" referred to here has anything to do with the state of confusion that Vivekananda's initial encounter with European philosophy left him in. Nor does Vivekananda tell us whether his own books -- Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, etc. -- fall into the class of materials that make a "hotch potch of the brain."
III. Talking School vs. Practising School
Book learning and exegesis are in turn related to what Vivekananda refers to as "talking." Indeed, at times, "talking" takes the place of "book learning" in juxtaposition with "experience."
What you only grasp intellectually may be overthrown by a new argument, but what you realise is yours for ever. Talking, talking about religion is but little good. From "Inspired Talks." Selections, p. 325.
The following passage appears to invoke GK 3.17 and 3.18, which state that the non-dualists conflict with no one (na virudyate):
I have discovered one great secret -- I have nothing to fear from the talkers of religion. And the great ones who realise -- they become enemies to none! Let the talkers talk! They know no better!... We hold on to realisation, the Brahman, to become Brahman. From "Letter to E.T. Sturdy." Selections, p. 456.
I would suggest that the dichotomy here between "talking" and "practising" is largely a polemical construct, and that Vivekananda has someone in mind when he refers to "talking" -- be it the Christian minister, European professor of philosophy, or Indian pandita. In other words, it is only the talk of certain teachers that need be dismissed; the rants of the Neo-Vedantin may still be taken to heart.
IV. Experience as the Essence of Religion and the Basis of Authority
As already noted, Vivekananda replaces traditional revelation with personal "experience." Like Debendranath and Keshab, Vivekananda views religious experience as the essential core of religion:
Religion consists soley in realisation. Doctrines are methods, not religion. From "Inspired Talks." Selections, p. 33
Shankara's solution to this problem of the "multivalency of truth" is to insist upon the authority of the authorless Veda. Vivekananda's solution is to replace scripture with "experience."
Here, Vivekananda hastily infers the uniformity of religious experience from the premise of its universality. He does not stop to consider the possibility that personal experience too is multiform.
Vivekananda argues that the Veda itself finds its basis in the experience of the ancient seers, the rishis:
So with the Hindus. In their books the writers, who are called Rishis, or sages, declare they experienced certain truths, and these they preach. Thus it is clear that all the religions of the world have been built one universal and adamantine foundation of all our knowledge -- direct experience. The teachers all saw God; they all saw their own souls, and what they saw they preached. From "The Aim of Raja Yoga." Selections, pp. 71-72.
The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas.... By the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasure of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.... The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honour them as perfected beings. From "Address to World Parliament of Religions," Sept 19, 1893. Selections, p. 4
What this does, in effect, is wrest control away from the perceived traditional mediators of authority, represented here by the "Pundits," and sets up in their stead a new priest-craft, the "Gurus," whose claim to authority is based not on the Veda but on their own personal experience. The oligarchy of the "Pundits" and their self-validating scripture has effectively been replaced by the tyranny of the Guru and his whimsical "experience."
In Shankara's thought, it is revealed scripture that legitimates personal experience, and not the reverse.
V. Practice and "Verification"
While certain classical commentators such as Yaksha and Vatsyayana had held that the Vedas were "intuited" via super-sensory means, in classical India such extraordinary means of knowledge were not seen as possibilities for people other than the ancient rishis.
But for certain modern Neo-Hindus like Debendranath and Vivekananda revelation is not, and cannot be, a one shot affair: if it was possible in the past then it is possible today. In this way, Vivekananda distinguishes his Yoga and Vedanta from other religions:
Only there is this difference, that by most of these religions... a peculiar claim is made, namely, that these experiences are impossible in the present day.... This I entirely deny. If there has been one experience... it absolutely follows that that experience has been possible millions of times before. From "The Aim of Raja Yoga." Selections, pp. 71-72.
As was the case with the ancient rishis, the means to acquiring these super-sensory capacities is the practice of yoga:
Yoga is the science which teaches us how to get these perceptions. From "The Aim of Raja Yoga." Selections, p. 72.
In such passages we find an early version of a theme found in the writings of Ken Wilber: the need to "take up the injunction."
Vivekananda interprets the process of yoga as a kind of introspective procedure in which the mind "watches" itself. This idea parallels conceptions found in European thinkers from roughly this same period. Henri Bergson's "intuition," William James' "stream of consciousness," and Edmund Husserl's "phenomenology of internal time consciousness" all imply similar connotations.
Apparently, this is supposed to be a description of the process of patanjala-yoga. But if that is the case, it is not clear which passages from the Yoga Sutras Vivekananda has in mind here. Yoga Sutra 3.53 does say that meditation (samyama) upon the moments (kshana) and their succession yields discriminative knowledge (viveka-jnana). But apart from this, there appears to be no indication that Raja-yoga is primarily concerned with an impartial introspection of the mind and its contents.
That for Vivekananda, the yogic procedure does not simply entail a passive observation of the mental flux becomes evident in the following passage: (not included)
Here, Vivekananda reveals that, for him, more than a mere passive observation is involved in the yogic process; an active "analysis" of mental states is also entailed.
Clearly, speculative reason also played a significant role in the development of these traditions, and to suggest otherwise would be historically naive. Vivekananda as much as admits the role of speculation when he writes:
There is in this no question of mere belief; it is the analysis arrived at by certain philosophers.... From "The Aim of Raja Yoga." Selections, pp. 79-80.
... while it is unlikely that the contents of the Yoga, Samkhya and Vedanta systems were developed as a result of mere yogic perception (yogi-pratyaksha), a certain "concordance of vision" can be said to obtain between the founders of Yoga and Vedanta, on the one hand, and the followers of these paths on the other.
But this "vision" is not like the perception of a given empirical reality passively absorbed through the senses (if such a thing even exists); nor is it something acquired through the application of a neutral open-ended enquiry. Rather, it involves the development of a certain kind of "seeing," an understanding of oneself and the world in accordance with a particular teaching.
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