"Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best." - Swami Vivekananda













PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | April 2005  






            Vedanta in Practice

         Swami Gambhirananda


           (Translation by Shoutir Kishore Chatterjee continued from the previous issue)



     Seva and Karma Yoga



     In Vivekananda's sadhana knowledge, devotion, and work assume an inseparable identity. This is not an imaginary attribution of the Godhead to an icon; nor is it thinking of the mind or the vital force as Brahman by taking recourse to some particular attribute. This is the perception of Brahman Itself as Consciousness in all beings and the utterance of the mantras of worship in accordance with that perception. Here there is no necessity of imposition (attribution), for there is a direct encounter with Reality. Again, this is not the worship of humanity, which is in vogue nowadays. For what is worshipped here is not 'humanity' but the Purusha with infinitely many heads, who is inseparable from the worshipper. Whenever Vivekananda is inspired by patriotism, whenever he calls upon spiritual aspirants to devote themselves to the service of all beings, his vision is fixed upon the immanent Brahman. Shankara's philosophy emphasizes the necessity of spiritual practice excluding all else, in accordance with the path of negation. That too attains fulfilment here; for as soon as one seeks to see Brahman in all, the 'allness' of all becomes considerably attenuated. Seeing Brahman, non-different from Atman, everywhere and seeing the non-dual transcendent Absolute become synonymous. When that happens, the effects of seeing the many as a result of duality disappear.

     Yasmin sarvani bhutany-atmaivabhut vijanatah;
     Tatra ko mohah kah shoka ekatvamanupashyatah.

     'When to the man of realization all beings become the very Self, then what delusion and what sorrow can there be for that seer of oneness?' or 'To the Self of the man of realization, all beings become the Self. What delusion and what sorrow can remain for the Self of that seer of oneness?' (1)

     This union of knowledge and devotion, based on the perception everywhere of Brahman as non-different from one's Self, makes Viveknanda's ideal of service of nara-narayana (God in the form of man) distinct from [traditional] karma yoga. Swami Vivekananda states in his Karma Yoga that absence of the sense of doership and the desire for the fruits of action when doing something is enough to make one a karma yogi; faith in God is not essential to that. To do work prompted by a sense of duty can also be called karma yoga. On these counts Buddha was a great karma yogi. This, however, is only an extreme example. Even if we leave this aside and consider theistic karma yoga, the distinction between Vivekananda's 'path of service' and that form of karma yoga appears obvious. In the Bhagavadgita the best presentation of karma yoga is found in the following verses:

     Yat karoshi yadashnasi yajjuhoshi dadasi yat;
     Yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kurushva madarpanam.

     'Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away, and whatever you practise in the form of austerities, O son of Kunti, do it as an offering to Me.' (2)

     Anashritah karmaphalam karyam karma karoti yah;
     Sa sannyasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na cakriyah.

     'He who performs the prescribed works (agnihotra etc.) without caring for the fruit of action, is a sannyasin and also a karma yogi; not he who has renounced the (sacred) fire and actions enjoined by the Vedas (agnihotra etc.) and the Smritis (practice of austerity, charity etc.).' (6.1)

     Herein we find renunciation of the fruits of action and dedication of all work unto God; it is this that is usually known as karma yoga. Further, when it comes to interpreting the word 'karma', or work, many take the restricted view that it stands for sacrifices prescribed in the scriptures, or philanthropic activities. Swamiji's view, however, encompasses all living beings and all forms of work. Moreover, it does not merely involve the dedication of the fruits of action to God; rather, those that we serve stand before us as God Himself. And the person who serves is also himself Brahman. The agent is Brahman, the material acted upon is also Brahman; the giver is Brahman, so is the recipient; action is Brahman, so are the fruits of action. We can express this through a Gita verse:

     Brahmarpanam brahma havir brahmagnau brahmana hutam;
     Brahmaiva tena gantavyam brahmakarmasamadhina.

     'The knower of Brahman sees the offering, the ghee, the sacrificial fire, the performer of sacrifice and the process of oblation as Brahman. To his vision, the fruit of action accruing to a person who sees Brahman in action is also Brahman.' (4.24)


     The Seva Ideal in the Gita


     In the Gita, this idea of Swamiji's remains scattered in various forms in different chapters. Further, in the expositions of the commentators the Gita is divided into the traditional disciplines of karma (action), bhakti (devotion) and jnana (knowledge). As a result the form and ideal of service conceived by Swamiji is not easily discernable in all its fullness. For instance, the Gita describes the vision of the Universal Form of the omnipresent God; however, it does not tell that the vision of the Universal Form is to be taken not merely as a vision, but as providing a suggestion and a method for realizing it in every walk of life. Although the Gita speaks about same-sightedness everywhere and doing good to all beings, these topics do not appear together in the chapter on 'Karma Yoga', and hence one fails to grasp their true import. For instance, it says:

     Sarvabhutasthitam yo mam bhajatyekatvam asthitah;
     Sarvatha vartamano'pi sa yogi mayi vartate.

     'He who worships (bhajati) Me, who dwells in all beings as the pratyagatman, as non-different from his own Self (that is to say, he directly experiences 'I am That'), that yogi, whatever may be his situation, abides in Me; nothing can stand in the way of his liberation.' (6.31)

     Here we find worship in the sense of bhajana; but there is no mention of service or of worship in the sense of puja. This bhajana is only a sort of mental perception, as is stated in the preceding verse:

     Yo mam pashyati sarvatra sarvam ca mayi pashyati;
     Tasyaham na pranashyami sa ca me na pranashyati.

     'A person who sees Me (the Atman of all) everywhere, and all beings (starting right from Brahma) in Me, does not lose sight of Me, nor do I lose sight of him (such a person and I being inseparable).' (6.30)

     Further, we find: 'Te prapnuvanti mameva sarvabhutahite ratah; They, devoted to the welfare of all beings, attain Me alone.' (12.4)


     Seva as Worship: Practical Implications


     In Swamiji's perception, the ideal is not the welfare of all beings but the worship or service of all beings, looking upon them as Brahman. The difference in respect of outlook and outcome is tremendous.

     Consequently, Swamiji's viewpoint appears to be more in consonance with the point of view of the Upanishads. But on occasions, adopting the line of thinking of the Upanishads, he proceeds even further. When one sees Brahman in all beings and at all places, one cannot segregate man from man by drawing an inviolable dividing line between virtue and vice. The Advaitin says: Man is already good, he can become better still; he moves from the good to the better, not from the bad to the good. Truly speaking, there is nothing which can be called sin and nobody who can be called a sinner; there is only lesser or greater manifestation of Brahman. Society's duty is not to punish the sinner, but to remove his ignorance and give the inherent Reality of Brahman scope to express Itself. In the field of education, the teacher cannot finish his duties merely by making the student hear or swallow new facts. His principal duty is to appear before the student-God as a servant and remove the obstacles in the path of manifestation of the perfect Atman that inheres in him. With love as his instrument he will be the worshipper of the student-God as the latter proceeds in his path of Self-manifestation. The guru will not direct the disciple along the spiritual path; rather he will be the disciple's companion in his journey towards truth. And here also he will assume the role of the worshipper of God, the disciple.

     Likewise, every field of activity will become a temple and every action will be transmuted into worship in individual life. The structure of the temple will vary from case to case and the type of worship also will differ from place to place. Religion will not be restricted to a particular form. The individual has a right to full freedom. Here every individual's religion, or path of Self-manifestation, will be completely his own. What is more, in Vivekananda's view even the apparently impious may, under certain circumstances, become pious. Bhagavan Sri Krishna prescribed violent fighting as duty to Arjuna. And Swamiji told some of his interlocutors that they would reach God more easily by playing football than by reading the Gita.

     This line of thinking had an element of dynamism in it. Swamiji's religion is living and dynamic - it is something that moves progressively to its ultimate ideal. Indeed, in his view this ceaseless progress is the crucial test by which religion should be judged. As he saw it, where there is no activity, there is no sattva guna, but only inertia. For in the present age inertia passes for sattva guna. In the field of spirituality, the acceptance of both the quiescence of Brahman and man's ceaseless quest for fulfilment is unique to Swamiji. Brahman, the Absolute, is present in everyone; there is difference only in manifestation. Everyone will some day or other eliminate this difference and become established in their true Self that is Brahman. At present our duty is to aid in every way and in every field the manifestation of this absolute, omnipresent but yet unmanifested Brahman, and also to strive for the realization of the same in our own life.

     Noting the above idea of Swamiji's, Romain Rolland wrote, 'Religion is never accomplished. It is ceaseless action and the will to strive - the outpouring of a spring - never a stagnant pond.' (3) Of course this is a one-sided interpretation. Swamiji accepted nirvikalpa samadhi too. But that is another matter. Taking note of another of Swamiji's thoughts, Rolland wrote:

     It is the quality of thought and not its object which determines its source and allows us to decide whether or not it emanates from religion. If it turns fearlessly towards the search for truth at all costs with single-minded sincerity prepared for any sacrifice, I should call it religious; for it presupposes faith in an end to human effort higher than the life of the individual, at times higher than the life of existing society and even higher than the life of humanity as a whole. (4)

     Vedantic Social Order


     In Swamiji's view, his cherished social order, established on the reality of Brahman, will have no room for inequality. Whatever may be the form and condition of society at present, it is bound to transcend its present narrowness on application of Vedantic principles. Further, the principles of Vedanta are not meant to remain confined to books; these must needs be applied to different social fields. India's decline is not due to any deficiency in her ideal; rather it is due to a lack of earnest effort to transform that ideal into practice. The scriptures say:

     Vidyavinayasampanne brahmane gavi hastini;
     Shuni caiva shvapake ca panditah samadarshinah.

     'The knowers of Brahman look with an equal eye on a brahmana endowed with learning and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste (they see Brahman in all these).' (5)

     Samam pashyan hi sarvatra samavasthitam ishvaram;
     Na hinastyatmanatmanam tato yati param gatim.


     'Such a person, because he sees the Lord as present everywhere without any differentiation, does not injure the Self by the self; therefore he attains the supreme goal.' (13.28)

     But in practice we said, 'O outcaste, keep your distance!' In the Gita the Lord said, 'Samo'- ham sarvabhuteshu na me dveshyo'sti na priyah; I am the same to all beings; to Me there is none hateful or dear'. (9.29) But we created a fifth caste, the pariah, taking these people to be 'moving corpses'. In truth, Vedanta can have no compromise with untouchability. It is a social malady; and it shall be a true Vedantist's duty to rid society of it.

     There is no gender difference in the Atman. So obstructing the path of women's progress cannot be tolerated. Again, the Atman is free. So women themselves will decide what they will do and what they ought to do. Men's duty lies only in helping them from a distance by removing their ignorance through education and such other means. Women are but forms of the feminine aspect of God; hence they are objects of worship (they deserve our highest respect).

     Communism and related ideas that we hear of nowadays, had already made their appearance in Swamiji's days. We are therefore naturally keen to know his opinion on these topics. He sought to settle this question too on the basis of Vedanta. The Gita says:

     Ihaiva tairjitah sargo yesham samye sthitam manah;
     Nirdosham hi samam brahma tasmat brahmani te sthitah.

     'Those whose minds rest in evenness, conquer relative existence even in this life. As Brahman is the same in all beings (from brahmanas to chandalas) and untouched by their good and bad qualities, such persons abide in Brahman and so (being without any sense of possession as regards their bodies and senses) they remain free from all taint.' (5.19)

     Swamiji spoke about this Vedantic concept of equality in many places. He also declared that, whether we wish it or not, equality is sure to make its appearance in future society in various forms. But established as he was in the knowledge of Atman, Swamiji could not settle for economic or racial equality alone. Such egalitarianism may be inevitable under certain circumstances in particular societies, yet equality based on the reality of Atman is what is desired. The nearest approximation to that is cultural equality. It is necessary to establish this kind of equality by manifesting Atman to a greater extent, by raising the cultural level of people in the lower rungs of society. Swamiji was not for equality brought about by levelling down the upper strata, and he criticized it in no uncertain terms.


     Vedantic Unity: The Basis of Harmony and Ethics


     Swamiji also wanted to end the conflict of religions on the basis of Vedanta. If Brahman be one and only Its manifestations be of varied modes and different forms, where then is the scope for quarrel? He worked for a human society with its diversity founded on an underlying ground of unity, irrespective of caste or colour. Taking note of this idea Professor Floyd Ross writes: 'The oneness of mankind is something which modern man everywhere needs to learn, if he is to move creatively into one world, where the richness of diversity does not mean an anarchy of foolish competition; but each person needs to find the meaning of that oneness in his own selfhood before he can go far in helping to build "one world".'

     India has been aware of the fact of the One expressing Itself through many forms since time immemorial. More recently, Gaudapada too has conceded that if one accepts Advaitism, then there can be no question of opposing other doctrines. In fact conflicts can be resolved on the basis of Advaita itself. His conclusion is:

     Sva-siddhanta-vyavasthasu dvaitino nishcita dridham;
     Parasparam virudhyante tairayam na virudhyate.

     'The dualists, being firmly convinced about their respective divergent conclusions, oppose each other. But one who sees that Atman alone abides, does not quarrel with such people (for, after all, he has no feeling of separation from them).' (6)

     Shankaracharya showed that, even when we take the non-dual Brahman to be the ultimate Reality, it is possible to be in harmony with considerable portions of other schools of thought. Swami Vivekananda, in keeping with his guru's teachings, said that it is not enough to merely tolerate other religions; rather every religion must be respected. Although he based the harmony of all religions on the firm foundation of non-dualism, he did not fail to show generosity and respect to different expressions of religion like bhakti, jnana, yoga and karma. He also said that all kinds of disputes can be settled by means of non-dualism.

     That is not all; according to Swamiji it is this non-dualism that can provide the surest basis for all ethics. All attempts to build an edifice of humanitarianism on the basis of concepts like the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the solidarity or equality of all human beings have so far ended in failure. Now has come the time to re-establish the ideal on the basis of the greatness and oneness of Atman - and Swami Vivekananda is its pioneer. When we accept the greatness of the Atman in man, we accord to him a certain dignity irrespective of his race or caste, and humanity can be truly united only on that basis. Such unification will come not as a result of the pursuit of rights and claims, but rather through the manifestation of the Atman in oneself and the worship of the Atman in others.

     He discovered that at the root of all human progress lay self-confidence, that is faith in the immortality, immutability, and such other characteristics of one's Self. It is the self-respect aroused by this self-confidence that prevents a man from doing vile deeds and inspires him to noble action.

     Here we have made only a cursory survey of the grand plan for the application of Vedanta in human life as chalked out by Swami Vivekananda. Those who wish to know more will have to delve into the source books written by him.~



     1. Isha Upanishad, 7.
     2. Bhagavadgita, 9.27.
     3. Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1970), 6.
     4. Ibid., 5-6.
     5. Bhagavadgita, 5.18.
     6. Gaudapada's karika on Mandukya Upanishad, 3.17.




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






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