"One's own dharma, even when not done perfectly, is better than another's dharma, even though well performed; one does not incur sin doing the action prescribed by one's own condition." - Bhagavad Gita XVIII.47














PRABUDDHA BHARATAVedanta in Practice | Swami Gambhirananda  





            Vedanta in Practice

            Swami Gambhirananda


     (Translated by Shoutir Kishore Chatterjee)


     At the outset it is necessary to be explicit on one point. Like others I too am a student of Vivekananda literature. Therefore I cannot claim that I have fully understood the import of Vivekananda's writings. As such it is inevitable that there would be vagueness and incompleteness in what I am going to say. Also, at present I am not in a position to devote as much time and put in as much hard work as would be required to do justice to all aspects of this vast subject.


     Acharya Shankara and Swami Vivekananda


     It was the all-pervasiveness and perfection of Brahman that were taken up by Swami Vivekananda as the basis to formulate his guiding philosophy of life and programme of social uplift, or in other words, the framework of his 'Practical Vedanta'. The earlier masters had said and deliberated a good deal about this Brahman. It is necessary to comprehend in what respects Swamiji as an expounder of Brahman agreed with and differed from them. Of course, so far as truth goes, there cannot be any difference between Swamiji's Advaitic (non-dualist) position and that of the earlier masters. But whereas Shankaracharya is bent upon exposing and showing the truth in its unsullied form, Swamiji, seeing the same truth as pervading one and all, is determined to apply it in practice. Whereas Shankara, at every step, shows the mutual incompatibility of work and knowledge, Swamiji's efforts are directed towards harmonizing the two in the practical field. Whereas the former regards knowledge as Brahman Itself, established in Its own glory, in Swamiji's view the same is a blazing beacon guiding humanity on the road to progress. Therefore to understand Swamiji, it is necessary to understand Shankaracharya also to some extent. I take this as my starting point.

     The path chalked out by Swamiji is not independent of the Upanishads and the Gita; they form the basis of Swamiji's philosophy. Therefore we have to examine their relation to Swamiji's thinking. Finally, we have to consider the plan of work formulated by Swamiji. We propose to proceed through these various stages.

     Swami Vivekananda wanted to bring Vedanta out of forest confines and establish it in the habitats of people. The service of man in the spirit of worship that he preached is based on this Advaita Vedanta. The path of progress that he prescribed for humanity is also laid out on this ground of Advaita. In this context one question naturally arises. Shankaracharya summarized Advaita Vedanta in the words: 'Brahma satyam jaganmithya; Brahman is real, the fleeting relative world is unreal.' How can the transcendental truth of this Advaita philosophy fit in with the down-to-earth ideas of worshipful service of people or of social uplift? Some modern thinkers even say that all the schools of religion in India are averse to the world. As long as their basic philosophical tenets do not change, how can they provide inspiration for worldly progress?

     Although the two objections belong to different categories, there is a basic similarity between them. Both the questions generate in our mind doubts as to whether a world-negating Vedanta, or for that matter any religious school which is averse to the world, can provide inspiration for any positive endeavour. Apparently it cannot; yet Advaita Vedanta, wedded to an extreme form of negation of the world, forms the basis of Swami Vivekananda's philosophy and programme of action. Moreover, his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa also gave him lessons in Advaita with utmost care. Further, after becoming established in nirvikalpa samadhi, the pinnacle of Advaita, Sri Ramakrishna himself proclaimed, 'Advaita is the last word in spirituality; with Advaitic realization in your possession, do as you wish.' This means, just like Swami Vivekananda, his guru Sri Ramakrishna did not see any contradiction between Advaitic experience and practical activity.

     In terms of practical behaviour, such absence of contradiction can be observed in the lives of earlier masters too. Nobody doubts the fact that Shankaracharya was a knower of Brahman. It is also unanimously agreed that he is the principal exponent of Advaitism in the present age. Yet, even after attaining realization, he worked for the dissemination of Advaitism by authoring books, founding monasteries, taking part in religious polemics, undertaking pilgrimages, composing devotional hymns, and so on. It is necessary to resolve this inconsistency. It is possible that out of such a resolution will emerge a ground for the synthesis of dualism and non-dualism.


     The Acts of the Perfected



     The Advaitic teachers found that, even after attainment of realization, a jnani (knower of Brahman) happens to give instructions to others. In fact, unless we agree to regard an instructor as a jnani, it detracts from the authenticity of the truth taught by him. Therefore, looking at the lives of the jnanis and listening to the sayings in the scriptures, one has to conclude that there is a state of existence called jivanmukti, in which one can remain established in perfect knowledge and yet from the practical point of view engage oneself in activity. Still, from a rational viewpoint, coexistence of dualism and non-dualism is impossible. So, to explain this state, terms like prarabdha (past actions that have already begun fructifying), ajnanalesha (remnant of ignorance), badhita-anuvritti (the reappearance of that which has been sublated) were brought in. Again, some say that in his own eyes the jnani does not do any work, but in the eyes of others he seems to be working. Whatever may be the explanation, from our lay viewpoint, jnanis do have their activities. But those activities are not exactly like ours. They are regulated by motives like providing guidance to people, by prarabdha, or by God's command. Bhagavan Sri Krishna himself has described this state of being active or inactive in the Bhagavadgita:

     Naiva kincit karomiti
          yukto manyeta tattvavit;
     Pashyan shrinvan sprishan jighrann
          ashnan gacchan svapan shvasan.

     'The selfless karma yogi, having realized the Truth, even while seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, going, sleeping and breathing, is firmly convinced that the senses are occupied with their respective objects and knows for certain, "I do nothing at all."' (1)

     And he has provided the illustration:

     Na me parthasti kartavyam
          trishu lokeshu kincana;
     Nanavaptam avaptavyam
          varta eva ca karmani.

     'I have, O Partha, no duty, nothing that I have not gained and nothing that I have to gain in the three worlds. Yet (for the good of people), I remain always engaged in action.' (3.22)

     We get another example in the life of the sage-king Janaka: 'Karmanaiva hi samsiddhim asthita janakadayah; Verily by action alone Janaka and others attained samsiddhi.' (3.20)

     While commenting on this, Shankaracharya said that the word samsiddhi can be taken to mean either 'purity of mind' or 'realization'. If we say that it means purity of mind, then there is nothing illogical in Janaka's being established in samsiddhi through action. And if realization be the meaning of samsiddhi, then we may construe that for some reason, even after the attainment of realization, Janaka's activities did not cease - he remained established in realization along with activity. According to the latter interpretation too, from the practical viewpoint, the jnani can still be involved in work. Shankara took the presence or absence of the idea of ownership and desire for results as the test of work and worklessness. Without the desire for results or the attitude of a doer, work is no work at all. So in this case the question of mixing work with knowledge cannot arise - 'naitat karma yena jnanena samucciyeta.' Furthermore, this state, one of activity to all appearances, represents in truth the acme of knowledge. The sage-king Janaka remained established in such knowledge. However that may be, herein we have an explanation as to how someone who has reached the Advaitic experience can still remain engaged in activity. We have also to keep in mind that when the ancient masters denied the coexistence of knowledge and work, they were examining the issue not at the worldly (or phenomenal) level but rather from the absolute standpoint. Although from the absolute viewpoint knowledge and renunciation of activity are inseparably connected, they did not emphasize external renunciation from the point of view of practice. Even Shankaracharya's line of reasoning here is mainly concerned with the state of the mind. From the point of view of psychology there is an insuperable barrier between the two modes of thinking - 'I am doing work' and 'I am the actionless Atman'. Even Anandagiri in his gloss on Shankaracharya's exposition of the Shruti text tapasa vapyalinggat (the knowledge of Atman cannot be attained by austerity alone, without formal renunciation or sannyasa) has both Upanishadic thinking and practical considerations in mind when he observes: 'But is there not mention of realization of Atman by Indra, Janaka, Gargi, and others in the Vedic texts? Truly it is there. As they had no idea of possession, they too had that internal renunciation of everything which sannyasa stands for. Indeed, "the assumption of external signs of renunciation" is not the meaning intended herein.' (2)

     It is a long-standing practice that a spiritual aspirant makes progress along the spiritual path by ascribing to himself the state of a perfected person. That is why Shankaracharya, in the course of his prefatory remarks on the the characteristics of a sthitaprajna (person of steady wisdom) in the second chapter of the Gita, writes, 'In all spiritual literature, cultivation of the attributes of a person who has reached perfection is prescribed as spiritual practice. This is because such cultivation requires a good deal of effort.' This leads us to the following conclusion: For various reasons, liberated persons, in spite of being beyond all bondage of duty, appear dutiful to people; a spiritual aspirant can progress by ascribing to himself this state of a liberated being. For this reason, in the Gita Sri Krishna advises aspirants to simulate the conduct of earlier masters and perfected souls as regards 'doing no work in the midst of activity'.

     The Jnani's View of the World


     In this context another question naturally arises in our mind. If, to a jnani, the world manifests as a reappearance of what has already been transcended, how then does he relate to it? He may regard the universe created by maya as illusory like a dream and attach no importance to it. That is, even though it appears reflected like a dream in his psyche, he may disdainfully withdraw his mind and pay little attention to it. Secondly, he may regard it as the manifestation of God's power, look at it cursorily, and yet keep himself aloof. We may recall that Shankaracharya concedes that maya is the inconceivable power of God. Thirdly, instead of evincing such apathy, he may see the world as the manifestation of the exquisite beauty of God endowed with maya, and establish a loving relation with it. All these attitudes may be found among Advaitists. Even monks recite reverently a good many devotional hymns, traditionally attributed to Shankaracharya. One of his hymns contains the following verse:

     Satyapi bhedapagame natha
          tavaham na mamakinastvam;
     Samudro hi taranggo na kvacana

     'O Lord, even though there is no distinction between you and I, yet I belong to you; it does not behove me to say, "You belong to me." Although it is true that there exists not a bit of distinction between the sea and the wave, yet people say that the wave belongs to the sea; nobody says that the sea belongs to the wave.' (3)

     Madhusudana Saraswati too consciously harmonized knowledge and devotion. The following well-known verse is attributed to him:

     Advaita samrajya pathadhirudhas
          trinikritakhandala vaibhavashca;
     Shathena kenapi vayam hathena
          dasikrita gopavadhuvitena.

     'We have embarked on a journey to the Advaitic empire and have spurned Indra's riches as though they were mere grass. Yet we have somehow been forcibly enslaved by that deceitful seducer of the gopa women.'
Shridhara Swami too is a wayfarer on the same road. And the author of the Bhagavata writes:

     Atmaramashca munayo
          nirgrantha apyurukrame;
     Kurvantyahaitukim bhaktim
          itthambhutaguno harih.


     'Sages who remain absorbed in the Atman are devoid of all attachments, yet they remain devoted to the Lord without any motive; such is the glory of the Lord.' (4)

     The conclusion we reach from the above discussion is that, even in the Advaitic tradition, there are certain stages in the life of an illumined person wherein there is simultaneous manifestation of knowledge, work and devotion, at least as seen by an empirical observer; an aspirant cultivates the same consciously in his life. It is natural to presume that this perspective affected to a great extent the thinking of Swami Vivekananda, an Advaitin that he was. Furthermore, in his opinion such an active Advaitism alone can be the starting point and unshakable basis of every religion, morality and social order. There is no other doctrine which has such a universal and liberal outlook and which calls people to march unwaveringly towards the Truth. Fixity of the goal combined with a ceaseless onward struggle to reach it, can be found in Advaita alone; and we will be discussing this point in due course. Let us first take up the application of Advaitism in the field of spirituality.

     Reconciling 'Neti, Neti' and 'Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma'


     As we proceed to discuss Advaitic spiritual practice as delineated in the Upanishads, two special phrases present themselves to us - one is 'neti neti; not this, not this' of the Brihadaranyaka and the other, 'sarvam khalvidam brahma; all this is verily Brahman' of the Chandogya. These two sentences appear to be mutually contradictory, yet according to Shankaracharya they both have the same meaning. The first sentence introduces Brahman in a negative way; the second also introduces Brahman, and not 'all'. Indeed this is so from the point of view of theory. But is it so as regards spiritual practice too? Theoretically, knowledge destroys ignorance, which is its antithesis. For destruction of ignorance nothing else can be accepted as an aid or auxiliary to knowledge of Brahman. Knowledge alone destroys ignorance, independent of all other things. When ignorance is dispelled Brahman manifests Itself spontaneously; any other positive effort for Its manifestation is pointless.

     In semi-darkness one may mistake a piece of rope for a snake. To rectify that mistake one needs to bring light. But this action does not cause the appearance of any new property such as 'manifestation' in the rope. When everything else is negated through discrimination and deliberation - 'not this, not this' - Brahman manifests Itself of its own.

     On the other hand, the Chandogya says, 'This universe is verily Brahman Itself; for it is born out of That, dissolves into That, and exists in That. Therefore one should meditate by becoming calm. A person is identified with (his) conviction. As is a man's conviction in this world, so does he become after departing from here. Therefore he should firmly take to that form of meditation which consists in remaining engrossed in the thought of That.' (5) As regards the mode of meditation, the Upanishad says, 'This Atman of mine situated in the lotus of my heart is smaller than a rice or barley or mustard or shyamaka seed or the kernel of a shyamaka seed. This Atman of mine situated in the lotus of my heart is greater than the earth, greater than the intermediate space, greater than heaven - it is vaster than all these worlds. That which is the performer of all actions, is possessed of all good desires, is possessed of all good smells, is possessed of all good essences, exists pervading all this Е that very entity is situated in the lotus of my heart as my Atman - it is Brahman.' (3.14.2-4) Thus the identity of Atman and Brahman is established in stages in various ways. The first verse of the Isha Upanishad reflects this process and this feeling of identity:

     Ishavasyam idam sarvam
          yat kinca jagatyam jagat;
     Tena tyaktena bhunjitha
          ma gridhah kasyasvid dhanam.

     'All that is changeful in this universe should be covered by the Lord. Protect (your Self) through this detachment. Do not covet anybody's wealth. Or, do not covet, (for) whose is (this) wealth?'

     Upanishadic Upasanas: The Stairways to Advaita


     In the Upanishadic conception of meditation Swami Vivekananda found a graduated scheme for the establishment of the jiva's identity with Brahman and hints about basing human life on Advaitism in accordance with that. He observed and mentioned how Satyakama Jabala of the Chandogya Upanishad, ordered by his guru Haridrumata Gautama, went to the deep forest to graze cows and realized that sarvam khalvidam brahma there. The bull said to him, 'The eastern side is one part, the western side is one part, the southern side is one part, and the northern side is one part of Brahman. This, my dear, is one foot of Brahman, consisting of four parts and called the Manifested.' The fire said to him, 'Earth is one part, intermediate space is one part, heaven is one part, and the ocean is one part. O dear one, this is surely one foot of Brahman, having four parts and called the Limitless.' The swan said to him, 'Fire is one part, the sun is one part, the moon is one part, and lightning is one part. O dear one, this is surely one foot of Brahman, having four parts and called the Effulgent.' The diver-bird said to him, 'The vital force is one part, the eye is one part, the ear is one part, and the mind is one part. O dear one, this is surely one foot of Brahman, having four parts and named Ayatanavan (possessed of an abode).' (4.4-9) According to Shankaracharya, words like bull are to be understood in the sense of the presiding deities of the directions and so on. Although Swami Vivekananda did not reject that view, he said that Satyakama, with his natural spiritual inquisitiveness, became determined to realize Brahman even through such an ordinary work like grazing cattle. As a result, commonplace creatures and objects like bull, fire, and the rest had to become eloquent and lead him to the truth sarvam khalvidam brahma. The next story of the Chandogya is also similar. The guru went out of station without instructing the disciple. Yet the fires, being tended by the disciple, became pleased and instructed him about Brahman, 'Prana (the vital force) is Brahman, ka (Bliss) is Brahman, kha (Space) is Brahman.' Then each fire instructed him separately. The fire known as Garhapatya said, 'Earth, fire, food, and sun are my body. The Person that is seen in the sun, that I am.' Then the fire named Anvaharya-pacana (Dakshinagni) said, 'Water, directions, stars, and the moon (are my body). This Person that is seen in the moon, that I am.' The Ahavaniya fire said, 'Vital force, space, heaven, and lightning (are my body). This Person that is seen in lightning, that I am.' (4.10-14) Here also sarvam khalvidam brahma is spontaneously manifested in the heart of the disciple.

     Brahman is all-pervasive; It is bhuma (Infinite). In Vedanta this all-pervasiveness of Brahman has been accepted and described in many ways, using many terms. The different Upanishads prescribe methods for seeing Brahman everywhere and realizing one's Self everywhere through various meditations on Brahman. Further, it is accepted that progress on the path of realization occurs in stages - this being a ceaseless expedition from the smaller to the greater. Common objects of our everyday world are also not excluded from the sweep of this all-pervasive vision. The Taittiriya Upanishad prescribes meditation on food, vital force, mind, and other things as Brahman. Considering all this, Swami Vivekananda reached the conclusion that at least in the age of the Upanishads meditation on Brahman was thus harmonized and identified with life and as a result the whole of life became transformed into one single meditation. A further hint or proof of this is available in the Purusha Yajna of the Chandogya Upanishad. (3.16) There it is stated that a man indeed is a sacrifice. The first twenty-four years of his life represent the morning savana (libation). The Vasus are associated with the morning savana of this 'sacrifice that is man'. The vital forces are indeed the Vasus. The next forty-four years of life represent the midday savana. Е The last forty-eight years of life are the third savana, and so on. Then it is said that the hunger, thirst and lack of happiness of the performer of the Purusha Yajna constitute his initiation (into the sacrifice). (3.17) His eating, drinking, and feeling happy are similar to the partaking of food that follows initiation. His austerity, charity, sincerity, non-injury and truthfulness are the dakshinas (offerings to the priest) of the Purusha Yajna. This is somewhat like the well-known Bengali song: 'My lying down I consider as prostration and my sleep meditation upon Mother; and when I take my food, I think that I am offering an oblation to Mother Shyama.'

     After this, when the Taittiriya Upanishad proclaimed the mantra 'Matridevo bhava, pitridevo bhava, atithidevo bhava; May you be one to whom mother is God, father is God, the guest is God', it was easy for Swami Vivekananda to tune in with daridradevo bhava ('may you be one to whom the poor is God') and so on. This is the culmination of the thinking of the Upanishads and is a most up-to-date prescription of spiritual practice well within the bounds of Advaita Vedanta.

     But even this could not bring peace to the mind of Vivekananda. The line of thinking which extended so far in the Upanishadic age cannot possibly terminate at this point; its momentum cannot remain arrested here. If we penetrate into its heart, then we would have to proceed further, much further ahead. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad contains the verse

     Tvam stri tvam puman asi
          tvam kumara uta va kumari;
     Tvam jirno dandena vancasi
          tvam jato bhavasi vishvatomukhah.

     'You are the woman, You are the man, You are the youth, and the maiden too; You are the aged man who totters along leaning on the staff; You, being born, assume various forms.' (6)

     This idea must not remain confined to the scriptures; we need to experience it in everyday life and realize it in practice. We have to comprehend the integral view of Brahman beyond Its individuated manifestation, which is described in the Purusha Sukta and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad. Thus the mantra says:

     Sahasrashirsha purushah
          sahasrakshah sahasrapat;
     Sa bhumim vishvato vritva'
          tyatishthad dashanggulam.

     'That perfect Being has infinitely many heads, infinitely many eyes, infinitely many feet; although pervading the entire universe, It situates Itself in the heart at a distance of ten finger-breadths above the navel.' (7)

     Sarvatah panipadastat
          sarvato'kshi shiromukham;
     Sarvatah shrutimalloke
          sarvamavritya tishthati.

     'The hands and feet of all creatures really belong to Brahman; so do the eyes, heads, and mouths of all living beings; so also the ears of all creatures. That pervades everything and exists in the bodies of all living beings as the pratyagatman.' (8)

     This individual and collective manifestation of the Infinite is not to remain an object of meditation or an expression of truth alone; it must be made an object of worship in the practical world. It is desirable to do away with the hiatus created between life and the concept of Brahman. That is why Vivekananda wrote:

     From highest Brahman to the yonder worm,
     And to the very minutest atom,
     Everywhere is the same God, the All-Love;
     Friend, offer mind, soul, and body, at their feet.

     These are His manifold forms before thee,
     Rejecting them, where seekest thou for God?
     Who loves all beings without distinction,
     He indeed is worshipping best his God. (9)

     (To be concluded)






     1. Bhagavadgita, 5.8.
     2. Anandagiri's gloss on Shankaracharya's commentary on Mundaka Upanishad, 3.2.4.
     3. Shankaracharya, Shatpadi, 3.
     4. Bhagavata, 1.7.10.
     5. Chandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.
     6. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 4.3.
     7. Purusha Sukta, 1.
     8. Shvetashvatara Upanishad, 3.16.
     9. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 4.496.





International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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