Was Swami Vivekananda a Prophet?
Is a Prophet?
loves His creation. His love manifests itself in His attempts
to contact us in diverse ways. He may manifest Himself as
an incarnation, which is perhaps the greatest expression of
His love; He may send His chosen children to speak for Him.
These are the messengers of God, popularly called the prophets.
He may speak and enlighten humanity through His devotees,
jnanis and yogis. He may grant visions, experiences or enlightenment,
liberation or even worldly good to seekers or to the ones
He chooses. Sri Ramakrishna says that the compassion of God
knows no bounds; He is the Wish-fulfilling Tree. (1) He is
our own. He gives everything we want. God sees that we don’t
overburden ourselves with evil karmas and so He may send painful
treatment occasionally: pestilence, floods, drought. Since
we are viewing only a little piece of a long movie, we can
not understand why such things happen. Yet God loves us and
keeps on reminding us about our spiritual goal.
God’s sending His chosen children, the eternally perfect ones,
known as navis in Hebrew, nabis or rasuls in Arabic, prophetes
in Greek, prophets in English, and rishis in Sanskrit, is
what concerns us here. A prophet is one who is sent by God
to teach people. One who speaks of the future is also a prophet,
but we are concerned with the messenger of God. The Encyclopaedia
to whether the emphasis is on possession and ecstasy, inspired
utterance, prediction of the future, visionary experience,
ethical fervour, passionate social criticism, sense of absolute
commitment, millenarian and apocalyptic expectation, etc.,
the most diverse phenomena and personalities have been called
prophetic: Montanists, Pentecostals, Zoroaster, Muhammad,
Joachim of Fiore, Savonarola, Thomas Muntzer, Jakob Bohme,
George Fox, Joseph Smith, and many others.
there have been innumerable prophets, big and small, and countless
false prophets. Our historical awareness is limited to a few
thousand years only, and so we don’t know how many prophets
have been here. However, it is interesting that most of the
prophets we know - Christian, Jewish, Muslim -were born in
are two classes of prophets. Of the Jewish prophets, we have
Moses, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and others, who virtually ruled over
the Jews. Moses brought physical freedom to his people, while
the other prophets performed miraculous deeds to help them.
But one common thing is, these Old Testament prophets professed
a particular creed - of faith in Yahweh, of belief in the
Commandments, of adoration of the sacred Tablet - and they
did not found new religions. But there were other prophets
who initiated, and even founded, new religions. These were
the greatest prophets who revolutionized the world. Mani,
a Babylonian, was the initiator of Manichaeism, but it died
out. Confucius was also a prophet, and an ‘ism’ in his name
has started influencing Chinese thought once again. Then we
have Prophet Muhammad, who is called ‘the seal of the prophets’,
and nineteen per cent of the world’s population now, roughly
speaking, follow his religion. What about Jesus Christ? Jesus
was prophetic in his utterances, true, but he is better known
as an incarnation.
Does the Prophet Do?
prophet generally speaks of the imminent doomsday and warns
people around to be penitent and to pray. The Encyclopaedia
of Religion gives five general characteristics of the
founding prophets of the past: 1) Prophets conceived of their
activity as the result of a personal divine commission. 2)
There arose religious traditions that regarded some oracles
of these prophets as uniquely heaven-sent, sacred, and binding
upon people. Their words became part of a scriptural canon
and that was the standard for later traditional judgement.
3) Though their teachings differ significantly from one another,
depending on historical circumstances and inherited tradition,
all of the founding prophets proclaimed what their later tradition
regarded as universal truths. 4) The founding prophets were,
in their own individual ways, social critics. 5) The founding
prophets helped both maintain and reform religious traditions.
have had rishis, munis, adhikarika purushas, siddhas
and yogis in India but perhaps we do not have the founding-prophet
classification as in the Semitic system. To the Hindu everyone
is an avatara. Leaving aside claims of prophecy, and also
not considering the first few of the known incarnations, we
find that Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavira, Chaitanya, and
Ramakrishna have been considered incarnations of God. Religions
and sects were born after their advent, true, but they were
not responsible for that. For convenience’s sake we shall
include the great acharyas like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva,
and others under the category of prophets. They initiated
new schools of thought, which subsequently became sects within
Hinduism. We may also call Nanak a prophet.
What Sense Was Swami Vivekananda a Prophet?
question now is, where do we place Swami Vivekananda? Sri
Ramakrishna called his Narendra the incarnation of Nara (Man).
He said to Narendra: ‘I know you are that ancient sage, Nara,
the Incarnation of Narayana, born on earth to remove the miseries
of mankind.’ (2) Sri Ramakrishna considered everyone as Narayana.
He would wax eloquent in Narendra’s praise and would say,
for instance: ‘Narendra belongs to a very high plane - the
realm of the Absolute. He has a manly nature. So many devotees
come here, but there is not one like him. Every now and then
I take stock of devotees. I find that some are like lotuses
with ten petals, some like those with sixteen petals, some
like those with a hundred petals; but among lotuses Narendra
is a thousand-petalled one’ (1.91). ‘Naren is a Nitya-siddha,
perfect in realization even from his very birth; Naren is
a Dhyana-siddha, an adept in meditation; the roaring fire
of knowledge, always ablaze in Naren, burns to ashes whatever
impure food he may take. Impurity of food can never tarnish
his pure mind. He is always cutting to pieces the veils of
Maya with the sword of knowledge. The inscrutable Maya can
never bring him under Her control’ (1.93). Narendra was considered
Shiva by some. One of the Seven Sages, he was brought down
to earth from the plane of the Absolute. However, since Sri
Ramakrishna is the avatara, Swami Vivekananda is the prophet
preaching his master’s message; he is Sri Ramakrishna’s prophet.
what type of prophet was he? In the above-mentioned characteristics
of a prophet, the first one is true of Vivekananda, since
he always said he was spreading his master’s message. The
second and third are not true, since his words have not become
the canon for any religion and he did not found a sect or
religion. The fourth point, that Vivekananda was a social
critic, is partially true because he was a reformer of a different
kind - he wanted rootand-branch reform, as he termed it.
In this rootand-branch reform was involved his concern for
maintaining religious traditions, which is the fifth point.
Swami Vivekananda was a prophet. But he was quite different
from Mani, Confucius, Muhammad, Shankara, or Ramanuja. Vivekananda
was unique. What was his uniqueness? He was unique in numerous
ways, but we shall mention only a few specialities. One, while
all other prophets spoke of one particular form of religion,
Vivekananda alone spoke of all religions with equal faith
and devotion. Two, while other prophets condemned alien practices,
Vivekananda said that all are paths to the Divine; that we
go from truth to truth and not from error to truth. Three,
while all other prophets claimed that their path alone was
the best and that their God alone would lead to salvation,
Vivekananda said that one could attain salvation through
any path. Four, Vivekananda spoke of universal religion, the
harmony of all yogas, and of the secondary character of scriptures
and churches and temples, which none else did. Five, Vivekananda
spoke on the world stage addressing the whole world, while
others were limited, at least initially, to their regions.
Six, Vivekananda concerned himself more than other prophets
with the all-round well-being of all, from the lowest to the
highest, and firmly stated that religion can bring about this
all-round well-being. Seven, Vivekananda was unique in terms
of depth and broadness of mind, social concern, spiritual
experience and power to transmit spirituality. Eight, Vivekananda
condemned none and said that all were entitled to spiritual
glory, which some others did not. Nine, Vivekananda travelled
extensively, which others could not. Ten, Vivekananda, a monk,
founded a worldwide monastic order and did work of great diversity
and magnitude. Eleven, Vivekananda used scientific expertise
to explain religion, and gave a rational background to it,
which was not possible for others. Twelve, with peoples coming
closer - with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others living
in the same apartment building - a new dimension was needed
for religion, and Vivekananda alone could give it. He is,
therefore, the first prophet of his kind.
his lifetime, this great prophet was recognized as such not
only by Sri Ramakrishna and his own brother disciples, but
also by the greatest and best of the religious and intellectual
world. Except for his critics, everyone who saw or met him
was simply awestruck by his astounding personality. An American
newspaper commented that he was an ‘orator by divine right’.
About recommending him to the organizers of the Parliament
of Religions of 1893, Professor Wright exclaimed, ‘To ask
you, Swami, for credentials is like asking the sun to state
its right to shine!’ (1.405-6).
Vivekananda Say He Was a Prophet?
he did! But Swami Vivekananda was always reluctant to claim
a status for himself. Yet he had to state the fact. So he
declared that while Buddha had a mission for the East, he
had a mission for the West. Once even Swami Saradananda was
stunned by a remark Vivekananda let fall during the course
of a conversation with Miss Henrietta Muller. Vivekananda
said, ‘I will have a lot of difficult work to do in this life.
Compared with last time, there is much more to be done.’ And
a little later: ‘I have just begun my work; in America I have
raised only one or two waves; a tidal wave must be raised;
society must be turned upside down; the world must be given
a new civilization. The world will understand what that Power
is and why I have come. Compared with the power I showed last
time, it will be tremendous.’ (3) So Vivekananda was a prophet.
Next we come to his ideas on religion.
Has Vivekananda Said about Religion?
Vivekananda’s concern was religion at its best. Religion is
realization, he declared. He was initially a Brahmo who did
not believe in image worship, but was smoothly led past all
hurdles by Sri Ramakrishna until he attained the highest -
nirvikalpa samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna had experienced that all
religions are true. He declared: ‘As many faiths, so many
paths.’ All religions lead to the same goal. This spirit entered
Vivekananda. And he himself must have had varied experiences
of the ideals of different religions: we know he had visions
of Buddha; we know of his love for Christ, and of his translation
of the Imitation of Christ. On the secular side, Vivekananda
had world history and the history of religions at his fingertips.
He knew fully well the way religious movements affected the
world. Later, Vivekananda travelled all over India and different
parts of the world and thus had first-hand experience of religion
in practice. By the time he went to the US to represent Hinduism
at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he had
attained a very exalted state, spiritually and intellectually.
Was Religion like during Vivekananda’s Time?
Vivekananda himself said that religion had entered the cooking
pot. That is, what remained of religion was only ceremonials
and non-essentials. Considering these to be everything, people
quarrelled, and there was disunity, discord and pogroms. Even
today this goes on. The Catholic Church proclaimed: ‘Extra
ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the church, no salvation.’
The world-renowned German Jesuit priest Karl Rahner remarked
that anyone in the world who is pious and seeks God is an
anonymous Christian. Or, there are those who believe that
they are God’s chosen people. Then there is the militant appeal
of religion. All these are aberrations of reality. Vivekananda
remarked in his famous lecture titled ‘The Way to the Realisation
of a Universal Religion’, delivered in 1900: ‘Each religious
sect has claimed the exclusive right to live. And thus we
find that though there is nothing that has brought to man
more blessings than religion, yet at the same time, there
is nothing that has brought more horror than religion. … Nothing
has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for
men, and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged
the world with more blood than religion.’ (4) And he said
elsewhere: ‘There has been more bloodshed in the name of God
than for any other cause, because people never went to the
fountain-head; they were content only to give a mental assent
to the customs of their forefathers, and wanted others to
do the same’ (1.127).
repeatedly said that instead of quibbling over inessentials,
if only there was an ounce of practice, much could have been
done. He observed with sadness: ‘Even at the present time
we find many sects and societies, with almost the same ideas,
fighting each other, because one does not want to set forth
those ideas in precisely the same way as another’ (2.68).
was his panacea for this fundamental and eternal problem of
religion? He said that religions will have to broaden: ‘Religious
ideas will have to become universal, vast, and infinite; and
then alone we shall have the fullest play of religion, for
the power of religion has only just begun to manifest in the
world. It is sometimes said that religions are dying out,
that spiritual ideas are dying out of the world. To me it
seems that they have just begun to grow’ (ibid.). With Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
we are becoming religious.
on the one hand we have become a global village and there
is information boom, in the religious field we are becoming
pluralistic, with peoples coming so close to one another.
Now a church, a temple and a mosque all coexist in the same
locality, which was rare even until the last century. So the
idea of one religion and one faith has to go. Individualism
and exclusivism - ‘my religion alone is true’ - will have
to leave. In today’s society, pluralism is the ideal, since
it says that all religions have some truth in them. Vivekananda
suggested this: ‘The religious ideals of the future must embrace
all that exists in the world and is good and great, and, at
the same time, have infinite scope for future development.
… Religions must also be inclusive, and not look down with
contempt upon one another, because their particular ideals
of God are different’ (2.67). Of course there should be nishtha
towards our own, but we should be broad enough to assimilate
good ideas from every religion.
Chicago Parliament of Religions can be said to be an important
point in recent history because it began with the old idea
of selfish religion and ended in making way for a universal
religion. And Swami Vivekananda was responsible for it. Though
its chief purpose was to show the superiority of the majority
religion, Vivekananda’s broadness came as a surprise to everyone
because he spoke highly of other religions - Christianity,
Buddhism - as if they were his own. He declared:
the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world
it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity
and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church
in the world, and that every system has produced men and
women of the most exalted character. In the face of this
evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of
his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity
him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that
upon the banner of every religion will soon be written,
in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not Fight,’ ‘Assimilation
and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’
within a few days the world had changed, as it were - from
exclusivism to pluralism - with Vivekananda as the instrument.
So he is the greatest prophet of harmony we have seen.
is Religious Harmony?
speaking, is such a religious harmony or religious unity possible?
To answer this, we should know the nature of human growth.
We are trichotomous: we have the body, the mind, and the Self.
Other religions speak of the body and the soul - not the Atman,
or Self. The concept of Atman is India’s contribution to the
world. Most Indian religions centre round the Self, which
is the only reality. This much is at the individual level.
At the collective level, we have the physical world, the world
of ideas, and the Spirit. This Spirit, known as Brahman, is
again an Indian discovery. Moreover, there is one more discovery
of the Indian sages which is the profoundest of all. That
is the simple equation: Atman = Brahman. All is one and one
then is difference? Difference is at the physical level, at
the bodily level. Where is harmony? Harmony is at the mental
or ideational level. And where is unity? Unity is at the level
of the Self, or Atman or Brahman. So there are three levels.
If we hold on only to the gross physical, there is only difference
and discord because of variety. ‘Unity in variety is the law
of nature,’ Vivekananda remarked on several occasions. At
the physical level, no two things can become one. Communists
failed because they thought of bringing about physical equality.
But equality can only be at the spiritual level. Next, peaceful
coexistence can be at the mental level, where we cannot ‘see’
difference. And finally Oneness: unity is at the Spirit level.
both at the collective and the individual levels, there are
three dimensions, physical, mental, and spiritual. The spiritual
alone is true, and the rest are not. And we move from discord,
through harmony, to unity. Now, is there such a gradation
in the field of religion also? Yes, there is. There is ritual,
there is mythology, and there is philosophy. All our discord
and dissension is at the ritualistic level and about theories
of rituals, which are wrongly called philosophy. There is
harmony at the mythology level, because stories are stories.
Then there is unity at the level of philosophy, which I equate
with the experiential level. The word philosophy needs
to be taken in its truest sense, the dimension of experience.
Then there will be unity. When Vivekananda spoke of harmony,
he spoke of the coexistence of different mythologies. When
he spoke of a higher dimension of unity, he was speaking of
the experiential dimension of the Spirit. This we shall see
Such a Harmony Possible?
have already spoken of the first stage, religious discord.
We shall now turn to harmony. Vivekananda says: ‘Amidst this
chaos there is harmony, throughout these discordant sounds
there is a note of concord; and he who is prepared to listen
to it will catch the tone’ (3.1-2). ‘Had it been the will
of an All-wise and All-merciful Creator that one of these
religions should exist and the rest should die, it would have
become a fact long, long ago. If it were a fact that only
one of these religions is true and all the rest are false,
by this time it would have covered the whole ground. But this
is not so’ (2.362). Vivekananda explained his ideal of a universal
then do I mean by the ideal of a universal religion? I do
not mean any one universal philosophy, or any one universal
mythology, or any one universal ritual held alike by all.
… What can we do then? We can make it run smoothly, we can
lessen the friction, we can grease the wheels, as it were.
How? By recognising the natural necessity of variation.
… We must learn that the same thing can be viewed from a
hundred different standpoints, and yet be the same thing
unity. Using the scientific discoveries of his time, Vivekananda
proved that there is basic unity at the physical level. Then
he gave the instance of Humphrey Davy’s experience to say
that there is unity at the thought level. Finally, he added:
‘Unity in variety is the plan of creation. However men and
women may vary individually, there is unity in the background’
(1.41). He also said: ‘Even in the universe of thought we
find unity, and at last, when we get to the Self, we know
that that Self can only be One. Beyond the vibrations of matter
in its gross and subtle aspects, beyond motion there is but
One. Even in manifested motion there is only unity’ (1.152).
Finally, an individual, through varied experiences of innumerable
lives, will have to expand towards unity. Vivekananda says:
‘He expands into one mass of universal love, infinite love
- the love that is God’ (2.51).
it is evident that Swami Vivekananda was the first prophet
to speak of the fundamental unity of religions on such a universal
scale. There was harmony in India, as can be seen in the Vedas,
the Upanishads and the Gita. But Vivekananda was the first
prophet to bring the whole world of religions, at all levels,
together. Those who understand him will benefit immensely.
None of the previous prophets spoke of a universal religion,
or of harmony among religions or of unity of different religions.
Buddha condemned brahminic sacrifices; Muhammad condemned
idolatry; Nanak created a new group. Others had something
or other to say against others’ practices. But Vivekananda
wonderful declaration says it all: ‘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 psychic control, or philosophy - by one, or more,
or all of these - and be free. This is the whole of religion.
Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or
forms, are but secondary details’ (1.124).
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 475.
His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda,
2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 2000), 1.76.
Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New
Discoveries, 6 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1986),
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.359-60.