"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell










PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | June 2004  





        Aesthetics in Swami Vivekanandas Speeches and Writings




        C. S. Ramakrishnan




     To dwell on the aesthetics innate in the words and deeds of Swami Vivekananda is at once a challenge and an inspiration. In Homers winged words it is an invitation to stroll along the shore of the sounding sea. Mathuradhipateh sakalam madhuram; Everything connected with Sri Krishna is sweet, sings the poet. Contemplating the Lords beauty he goes into rapture, exclaiming madhuryad api madhuram; sweeter than sweetness itself. The sense of beauty throbbing in all that Swamiji says and does is likewise something more to be enjoyed than analysed in words. Mukasvadavat - how is a dumb man to give expression to the sweetness he has tasted?




     What Is Aesthetics?




     Etymologically, aesthetics means feeling. We speak of anaesthetics, drugs that dull sensitivity and relieve the patient from feeling pain. To be aesthetic, on the other hand, is to feel. But all feeling is not aesthetic, a toothache for instance. On the contrary we note the ecstasy of Sri Ramakrishna who, as a boy, was overwhelmed at the sight of the flight of silverwhite cranes across the indigo of the monsoon clouds. That is aesthetics, vibrant sensitivity to beauty and total response to it.




     Beauty, an Experience




     But what is beauty? What does it mean? Where does it reside? An external object or a mental image may seem to be the stimulus. But the response, the feeling invoked, transcends the objective conditions. It has been called an affection of the soul, a consciousness of joy, a pang, a dream, a pure pleasure. It suffuses an object without telling why. Nor has it any need to ask the question. It is self-justified. Beauty exists for the same reason that the object that is beautiful exists or the world in which that object exists or we that look upon both exist. It is an experience. There is nothing more to say about it.




     The Basis of Swamijis Aesthetics




     Yet we cannot refrain from trying to put it in words, however inadequate the verbalization. Poets who weave word magic have striven variously to formulate it. The immortal lines of Keats, for instance, declare, Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. And Keats ought to know. Was he not the archpriest of beauty - worshipping, enjoying and revealing loveliness in all its hues, through all the senses? But the Keatsian equation quivers on the brink of another conundrum. If beauty is indefinable is not truth much more so? What is truth? said jesting Pilate and did not wait for an answer. One indescribable cannot explain another ineffable.


     But there is a way out. We can improve on Keats by adding one more imponderable: goodness. The good, the true, the beautiful - it is a triune, a three-in-one. It is the Ultimate: sat, chit, ananda or satyam, shivam, sundaram. Beauty is nonseparate from truth and goodness. What is beautiful is simultaneously true and good. What is false or evil cannot be beautiful. Swamijis aesthetics is rock-based on this realization. It is from this summit that Swamiji watches and speaks. All his observations and actions have to be viewed from this perspective.




     All Excellences in One




     Swamiji was yati-raja, a prince among ascetics. His main quest was for the Truth Supreme. But, like his Great Master, he was not a dry sadhu. He sought and enjoyed the Infinite in all Its manifestations. Seeing God in everything, he revelled in the appreciation of divine beauty, and wore out his life helping goodness at every level. His approach was Olympian and holistic. His head and heart and hands acted in harmonious unison, reaching out for the highest, pitying the low and serving the unfortunate. Kalidasa remarks that the Creator is usually averse to assembling all excellences in one entity. But the same servant of Kali, when he has to describe the beauty of Uma Devi, tries to compare the various aspects of her form to classical objects of loveliness, and, finding all the latter inadequate, ends his description by declaring that eager to see for once all beauty concentrated at one spot, the Creator fashioned Devi. (1) The same Creator must have tried to repeat his performance by moulding the person of Swamiji, eager to see Truth, Beauty and Goodness meeting and mingling harmoniously in one human personality.




     Outer Appearance and Inner Coherence




     Chemistry tells us that the lovely structure we see on the exterior of a crystal is a reflection of the pattern on which the molecules and atoms are arranged within the crystal. The outer appearance mirrors the inner coherence. Swamijis physical form underlined the sense of beauty with which he was infilled.


     Everyone, in India or abroad, who saw him could not but be impressed by his majestic personality, which palpably radiated divinity. In the Himalayas a pilgrim would exclaim, There goes Shiva. In America the impress of his personality has been graphically etched by Sister Christine.


     The power that emanated from his mysterious being was so great that one all but shrank from it. It was overwhelming. It threatened to sweep everything before it. It was a mind so far transcending other minds, even of those who rank as geniuses, that it seemed different in its very nature. Its ideas were so clear, so powerful, so transcendental that it seemed incredible that they could have emanated from the intellect of a limited human being. He was barely thirty, this preacher from faraway India. Young with an ageless Youth and yet withal old with the wisdom of ancient times. (2)


     This is onomatopoeia, the splendid body echoing the profound mind and the mind echoing the grandeur of the soul.


Look at the rapture with which a celebrated savant and connoisseur like Romain Rolland hails Swamijis utterances:


     His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books at thirty years distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shock, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!



     The Essence of His Personality




     Yes, heroism was the alpha and omega of his personality, the essence of his approach to every question, intellectual or spiritual. Again and again he stressed the need for strength:


     Therefore, my friends, as one of your blood, as one that lives and dies with you, let me tell you that we want strength, strength and every time strength. And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds, and all sects, to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom, and spiritual freedom are the watchwords of the Upanishads. (3)


     Strength comes from faith. The history of the world is the history of the few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within. You can do anything. You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently to manifest infinite power. (8.228) Believe first in yourself, then in God. A handful of strong men will move the world. (8.223)


     But he is careful to stress what real strength, real faith, is. We need a heart to feel, a brain to conceive, and a strong arm to do the work. One man contains the whole universe. In a conflict between the heart and the brain follow your heart. (8.223)




     A Massive Heart-attack!




     This observation of Swamiji is very significant. His aesthetics was not just intellectual penetration but a massive heart-attack! We are reminded of the appropriateness of the epithet used for a connoisseur: sahridaya, one of excellent heart. Only if the heart is large can there be positive, constructive apprehension of a piece of art. In Swamiji the brain of Sri Shankara was wedded to the heart of Buddha, who was the embodiment of mahakaruna. Swami Turiyanandaji recalls an incident that took place at the Abu Road station. He had come there with Swami Brahmanandaji to see Swamiji before he left for Bombay to set sail for America. Swamiji explained to them the reason for his going to the West. It was Indias suffering. I travelled, he said, all over India. But alas, it was agony to me, my brothers, to see with my own eyes the terrible poverty of the masses. I could not restrain my tears. It is now my firm conviction that to preach religion among them, without first trying to remove their poverty and suffering is futile. It is to find means for the salvation of the poor of India that I am going to America. Then he added, Brother, I cannot understand your socalled religion. His face was red with an influx of blood. Shaking with emotion, he placed his hand on his heart and said, But my heart has grown much, much larger and I have learnt to feel. Believe me, I feel it very sadly. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Swami Turiyananda, thoroughly moved, could not but muse, Are not these the very words and feelings of Buddha! (4)


     Against this background we can appreciate all the more his exhortation to his young admirers of Madras:


     I bequeath to you, young men, this sympathy, this struggle for the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed. Go now this minute to the temple of Parthasarathi, and before Him who was friend to the poor and lowly cowherds of Gokula, who never shrank to embrace the Pariah Guhaka, who accepted the invitation of a prostitute in preference to that of the nobles and saved her in His incarnation as Buddha - yea, down on your faces before Him and make a great sacrifice, the sacrifice of a whole life for them, for whom He comes from time to time, whom He loves above all, the poor, the lowly, the oppressed. (5)


     In this spirited message we can experience the rich blend of Swamijis aesthetics: the all-seeing eye, the razor-sharp intellect, the thunderous roar of the lion of Vedanta, the ciceronean eloquence, the weaving of choice words into a fascinating garland, the stirring appeal to the hearts of his listeners, the clarion call for urgent action and the love that conquers all.




     Seeing Divinity in the Despised




     Swamijis sahridayata made him see worth where others would have seen only ugliness. One day, in Cairo, Swamiji was taking a walk with a number of Western disciples and friends. The party happened to lose their way. They found themselves in a red-light district. Realizing they were at the wrong place the friends tried to take Swamiji away from that squalid, evil-smelling street of ill fame. But Swamiji detached himself from the group and approached the half-clad women sitting on a wayside bench. Looking at them with profound pity he muttered, Poor children! and began to weep. The women, who had been making vulgar gestures at him, were silenced and abashed. One of them kissed the hem of his robe and said, Man of God! Man of God! (6) Moved by Swamijis palpable divinity, these unfortunate woman were certifying to the great truth that Gods love is unconditional and overwhelming. Where there is unalloyed love there God abides. And the sahridaya can see God in everything and everywhere. No wonder, the vast heart that could see divinity in the sordid bursts into hallelujah at the mention of the truly great.




     Love for His Motherland




     His love of India, the motherland, was ecstatic. If there is any land on this earth that can lay claim to be the blessed Punya Bhoomi, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards gentleness, towards generosity, towards purity, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and of spirituality - it is India. (7)


     Not that he was not acutely aware of the imperfections and weaknesses of his countrymen. In burning words he chastised them even as a fond mother pulls up an errant son. And when pity and passion flow in unison the aesthetics is superb. Oh India, this is your terrible danger. The spell of imitating the West is getting such a hold upon you that what is good or what is bad is no longer decided by reason, judgement, discrimination or reference to the Shastras. Wouldst thou attain by means of thy disgraceful cowardice, that freedom deserved only by the brave and the heroic? (4.478-9)


     Then in the same strain but at another and higher pitch:


     Oh! India! Forget not that the ideal of thy womanhood is Sita, Savitri, Damayanti; forget not that the God thou worshippest is the great Ascetic of ascetics, the all-renouncing Shankara, the Lord of Uma; forget not that thy marriage, thy wealth, thy life are not for sense-pleasure, are not for thy individual personal happiness; forget not that thou art born as a sacrifice to the Mothers altar; forget not that thy social order is but the reflex of the Infinite Universal Motherhood; forget not that the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, are thy brothers. Thou brave one, be bold, take courage, be proud that thou art an Indian, and proudly proclaim, I am an Indian, every Indian is my brother. Say, The ignorant Indian, the poor and destitute Indian, the Brahmin Indian, the Pariah Indian, is my brother. (4.479-80)


     Imagine the thunderous reverberations of these words, issuing from the lips of a born king. How enthralled his audience must have been by his strength and beauty, the grace and dignity of his bearing, the dark light of his eyes, his imposing appearance and the splendid music of his rich deep voice.


     Listen to the warrior-prophet, the anointed of God sounding the conch for the resurrection of the land of the rishis, My India, arise!


     For the next fifty years let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race - everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything. All other gods are sleeping. What vain gods shall we go after and yet cannot worship the god that we see all around us, the Virat? The first of all worship is the worship of the Virat - of those all around us. (3.300-1)


     He was the personification of energy, and action was his message - selfless action, loving action, action expecting no return. A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord and nerved to lions courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising up, the gospel of equality. (5.15)


     Handsome is what handsome does. Aesthetics, the sense of beauty, should not be an ineffectual angel beating its wings in the void. It must inspire sublime action. Sister Christine has gone on record:


     Our love for India came to birth when we first heard him say the word India in that marvellous voice of his. It seems incredible that so much could have been put into one small word of five letters. There was love, passion, pride, longing, adoration, tragedy, chivalry, heimweh, and again love. Whole volumes could not have produced such a feeling in others. It had the magic power of creating love in those who heard it. Ever after, India became the land of hearts desire. Everything concerning her became of interest - became living - her people, her history, architecture, her manners and customs, her rivers, her mountains, plains, her culture, her great spiritual concepts, her scriptures. (8)


     What a tribute from a sensitive soul to the magic of Swamijis pancakshari!




     Growth according to Ones Inner Law




     Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, Swamiji points out. Divinity is the beauty of perfection, the infinitude of truth and goodness. The master artist is he who enables his audience to feel this touch of the One in the play of the many. He helps them, encourages them, stirs them to manifest in themselves the divine perfection palsied over by the pale cast of diffidence. But then Swamiji also knew when and where to switch off the spell.


     At one of the public meetings in New York, after addressing a tense audience for about fifteen minutes, he suddenly made a formal bow and retired. The people went away wondering why the Niagara had so suddenly stopped. A friend asked him if he had forgotten his points. Had he become nervous? Swamijis reply stunned the friend. He revealed that at the meeting he felt a tremendous upsurge of power. He had noticed that the audience were becoming so absorbed in his ideas that they were losing their own individualities. He had felt that they had become like soft clay, that he could give them any shape he wanted. That, however, was contrary to his outlook. Every man and woman must grow according to his or her own inner law. Not wishing to change or to destroy anyones individuality, he had to stop.


     This episode reveals what a master craftsman Swamiji was, how finely his aesthetics were honed.




     His Singing Charmed Sri Ramakrishna




     Plotinus observes, The mind could never have perceived the beautiful, had it not first been itself beautiful. How beautiful Swamijis mind was can be seen from a variety of angles. His love of and expertise in music, for instance. We recall how the Great Master was first drawn to Naren by the impetus of the latters singing. O my mind, go to your own abode./ In the foreign land of this world/ Why roam uselessly like a stranger!


     Sri Ramakrishna was so overwhelmed by the song that he suddenly grasped Narens hand, took him to the northern porch and with tears streaming down his cheeks expostulated, Ah! You have come so late. How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long! One is left wondering whose aesthetic was sublimer - Narens or Narayanas. And we may be sure that when Sri Ramakrishna transmitted his powers to Naren just before passing away, he vastly enriched Narens sense of beauty also.




     Worthy Disciple of a Great Master




     It will be remembered that Narens attention was first drawn to Sri Ramakrishna when, in order to explain the meaning of ecstasy, Professor Hastie observed that this exalted state was the result of purity and concentration and that he could only think of the Saint of Dakshineswar as a living example of this rare phenomenon. But even earlier Naren had had a taste of spiritual trance. While with other members of the family Naren was journeying to Raipur in a bullock cart, natures beauty bowled him over. The air was crisp and clear. The trees and creepers were covered with green leaves and many-coloured blossoms. Brilliant-plumaged birds warbled all around. The cart was moving along a narrow pass. The lofty peaks rising on the two sides seemed to touch and hug each other. And in the cleft of a giant cliff dangled a huge beehive. Suddenly Narens mind was filled with awe and reverence for Divine Providence. He lost consciousness and lay in the cart inert for a long time. Even when he regained his senses his heart radiated an ineffable joy. We are reminded of the Great Masters repeated ecstasies on seeing what to ordinary eyes might look humdrum - the flight of white cranes across the dark of rain-laden clouds; an English lad standing against a tree; drunkards making merry outside a tavern. Sri Ramakrishnas aesthetics were nonpareil and he had a very worthy disciple in Narendranath.



                    ~ ~ ~



     The flood tide of Swamijis sense of beauty coursed through diverse channels. The majesty of physical form, the splendour of nature, the love of song, the intellectual passion, the thunder of oratory, the compassion for the lowly and the lost, the poets pen, the burning renunciation - the list is endless. To docket the various aspects of his appreciation and exposition of loveliness will be chasing the horizon. As Sri Ramakrishna has advised us, entering the garden of Swamijis aesthetics let us not waste our time and energy counting the leaves. We are here to enjoy eating the superb mangoes.







     1. Sarvopama dravya-samuccayena
     yatha pradesham viniveshitena;
     Sa nirmita visvasrijah prayatnat

     2. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1994), 148-9.

     3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.238.

     4. His Eastern and Western Disciples, Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), 1.388.

     5. CW, 5.16-7.

     6. Life, 2.557.

     7. CW, 3.105.

     8. Reminiscences, 151.


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






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