Is Vedanta for the West?

By Swami Atmarupananda

Swami Atmarupananda is the resident swami at the Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely, in Stone Ridge, New York. Swami Atmarupananda was assistant to the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1977 to 1981 and has written many articles for Vedanta journals. This article originally appeared in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West.

From time to time, it’s good to ask basic questions: Where exactly am I going? Why? Is this conveyance really going to get me there? Had I rather be doing something else?

Since I sometimes am asked about Vedanta, I like to ask myself, Why would anyone want to study it? What good does it do? If any, how?

These questions arise with a special insistence when I see an audience of twenty to twenty-five people who have gathered out of a city of more than a million to hear about Vedanta. How tempting then to question Vedanta’s relevance! But I don’t. There’s the constant certainty that someday the Western world will catch fire with the ideas of Vedanta, transforming the landscape: social, cultural, intellectual, educational, moral, and religious.


Because Vedanta provides a new paradigm which the world needs desperately. When the world will recognize the vast promise contained in that paradigm, great things will happen. This paradigm is vast and can work through all great traditions as well as outside all traditions. It respects diversity and individuality and is not concerned with membership.

A new paradigm: does that sound like an intellectual fad? What the phrase refers to certainly isn’t. It’s something profound and encompassing.

Or does it sound cold and bookish? It’s not that, either. It is life-giving, uplifting.

So, what is this “new paradigm”?

Let’s first ask what attracts people to Vedanta? That will tell us what people actually find of value there. Then we can look more carefully at the total picture of what Vedanta has to offer.

When asked, most Western Vedantins say what first attracted them was the universal outlook toward other religions: the teaching that all religions are different paths leading toward the same goal.

Others are attracted because in their prior experience, religion has been at war with science. Yet science demonstrates its truths right in front of our eyes, while religion seems to say, wait till after death and you’ll find out that religion was true. How can a sensible person accept the latter and deny the former? Such religious claims appeal to our fears and not to our intelligence. But Vedanta is a religion in search of truth, based on experience rather than on creed, and therefore has no conflict with the thrust of science. Yet it offers an exquisite idealism and the chance of transcendence, which science cannot offer.

It is also the emphasis on personal transformation, on practice and realization, which attracts people. Religion for the Vedantin lies in being and becoming, not in believing and proclaiming. All religions, of course, emphasize personal growth to some extent, but for the Vedantin it is the only standard of measurement. It’s not what we say we believe, but what we are that matters.

Some are attracted by great souls—the lives of great illumined beings like Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda—or perhaps by a living exemplar of Vedanta. In either case they find someone who has attained something they want, something of obvious value which they haven’t seen elsewhere. It is fire that generates fire: one burning candle can pass its flame to countless other candles. An unlit candle can’t do that. And so it is life that generates life: one great life ignites other lives with a vision of something heretofore unimagined, of priceless value.

Such are some of the elements that attract newcomers to Vedanta. But the value of Vedanta goes much farther. It is something much more encompassing, affecting all aspects of our being in ways that we often don’t see till much later. It is only with the passage of years that we begin to understand the true significance of Vedanta to the Western world. Even then we perhaps are catching only a glimpse of what history will reveal. And the benefits are not just individual: they are social, cultural, “civilizational.”

Let us now approach this “new paradigm” more systematically.

First, what do we mean by paradigm in this context?

Every civilization has a mythic basis or paradigm. “Mythic” doesn’t mean “false.” It refers to a comprehensive worldview that is deeper, more primal than intellectualized philosophy, and includes ideas of space, time, purpose, male and female roles, heroism, selfhood, duty, human relationships, a person’s relationship to society, to the natural world, and so on. These elements can be philosophically analyzed with great benefit, but they exist even in the absence of any philosophical statement.

Why do we need a new paradigm?

Because the old one isn’t working. It’s not that it’s ill and in need of treatment. It’s dead. A strong statement? Look at the facts:

What’s dead? The six days of creation. Traditional ideas of time and space. The earth as the center of the universe. Euro-centrism. Man’s separation from the natural world. Man’s dominion over woman. Chivalry. The idea of God as Patriarch. The idea of God as King. The certainty that “our” race, “our” nation, “our” religion, “our” culture, is the race, the nation, the religion, the culture. The certainty that God is on our side in every conflict. Morality as a covenant with God based on what he likes and doesn’t like. The view that man is a sinner by nature. The view of God as Judge. The view that man exists to glorify God. The willingness to accept tradition because it is tradition. The willingness to accept doctrine and dogma because authorities tell us that they know what’s what. The willlingness to accept a sacred book as the infallible Word of God.

It’s this mythic basis of Western civilization which is dead. And it’s this death which is the cause of the individual and social “identity crisis” we see all around us. (Is this only a Western problem? No, it’s a global problem; but it has become a global problem with the spreading influence of Western civilization.) All over the world there has been a return to religious fundamentalism, apparently in an attempt to find security in an absolute viewpoint in the midst of so much change and uncertainty. This revival of fundamentalism, however, doesn’t solve anything because the problem is the death of those old myths and values. Returning to them is like the young pup returning to its dead mother again and again, hoping she’ll respond and get up. We can sympathize, but certainly can’t encourage it.

Some may say that science has already replaced this mythic basis with its own rational worldview, and so there is no need for a new paradigm. It already exists: the truth of science as opposed to the myths of religion.

Others would say, and I agree, that science has not provided an acceptable foundation for human civilization. Science cannot provide values or purpose, nor can it provide for transcendence. All human values are actually rooted in spiritual values. When the spiritual is taken from life, values continue for some time by their own momentum, but eventually they die. We see that happening all around us. Science can tell us how we live, but not why we should live, and so it can’t address purpose either. Science extends the senses, it doesn’t transcend the senses; yet there is something inside of us which can never be satisfied with sense life, however comfortable.

Science and religion have fought each other now for several centuries in a quest to control the mythic foundation of society. But the two are tied together more closely than most scientists and theologians think. For instance, our view of scientific progress—the gradual conquest of all the evils of life through technological progress—is rooted both in a linear view of time and in the conviction that good and evil are separate, distinct quantities. These views of time and of good and evil are religious in origin: time had a beginning and is moving steadily toward a crowning end point or millennium; God is good and his creation is good, but evil entered into the picture through man’s disobedience, abetted by Satan.

These mythic ideas are dead, and most recognize them as dead, but they continue to control our thought and behavior more than we think. As yet there is nothing to replace them.

Let me add here that our religious traditions are greater than their mythic foundations. It is not Christianity and Judaism which are dead, but the old paradigm which they use to support and explain their experience. They are vital, and their great vitality is partly shown by the search within their own ranks for a new paradigm. Every great tradition has something of value to contribute to the world at large. What Vedanta has to contribute, perhaps, above all else is a clear vision of the essence of spirituality. That can help all traditions to find what is essential and what is circumstantial, what can be sacrificed without harm.

Let’s look briefly at a few of the points raised above.

The story of creation according to Genesis is beautiful and profound if taken as myth, but if taken as history it is contradicted at every step by science. It is, unfortunately, as a literal historical document that the Genesis account has shaped the mythic basis of our civilization. How common has been the belief among the devout that “we aren’t supposed to know everything . . . there are some things we just can’t understand and shouldn’t inquire into”! That can be traced to the belief that Adam and Eve fell from grace because they wished to know as much as God. Science was obstructed at every step by this attitude, until religion itself lost face. Unfortunately, when institutional religion lost face, so did genuine spiritual values which are so essential for human well-being.

Our Western preoccupation with sin comes from the ideas associated with the fall of Adam and Eve. Swami Prabhavananda said after having spent many years in America that the major problem he found in Westerners was chronic guilt, that is, chronic sin-consciousness. A major reassessment in this area is taking place in certain Western religious circles now, showing the vitality and adaptability of the tradition. But the old view is still a primary part of our mythic background. Its pervasive influence can be seen not just in religious thought and practice but even in the thought of people like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. The weight of this sin-consciousness is felt by many people today, and yet a satisfactory basis for a new image of humanity hasn’t been found.

Woman was made subservient to man by God himself, according to the Biblical account. The challenges to this view are so evident today that no comment is needed. And yet a profound basis for equality between the sexes has not been found, a basis which sees unity in the midst of difference. The unity espoused now is only socio-political and emotional. People feel that there should be equality. But that, perhaps, is not enough to effect the change desired, a change where women are equal as women, and not because they can do everything a man does in the same way a man does it.

The image of God as Father came naturally to pastoral people like the ancient Jews, but that image also, though beautiful, is now seen as limited. It is also seen as a factor contributing to the inferior position of women in society. Not that it needs to be replaced—it will always be appropriate for some—but it does need to be balanced. Many are now seeking to revive the ancient Mother Goddess, but the effort is largely intellectual and artificial. That is, God the Mother is not experienced as a reality which people encounter and then worship; rather “it” is seen as a good idea which people try to construct into a viable psychological archetype. No one, however, is going to worship for long an intellectually constructed psychological archetype.

During the age of kingly rule it was common for people to think that the king was the value and people existed to glorify and serve the king. Similarly it was natural for people to think that God the heavenly King was the value and humans existed to glorify him. But now when democracy is ascendant people have become the value, and the image of God the King has lost relevance. The primary questions are no longer, Who is God and how do I serve him and please him? but ,Who am I and how do I find completion? Yet there is no spiritual basis for this change from a God-centered universe to a self-centered universe; in fact, “self-centered” is itself a derogatory term. It seems, according to the old paradigm, you can’t be “self-centered” without being selfish and self-indulgent.

Morality as a covenant with God, where what pleases God is moral and what displeases him is immoral, is also untenable today. People want to know why certain actions are wrong. In the meantime morality itself is dying for lack of a sure foundation.

For these and other reasons, people have willingly or unwillingly become alienated from the old, and yet have no basis for a new understanding of the world, of self, of God, and of purpose. There has probably never been such a deep and widespread identity crisis in the history of humanity.

Heroes past and present have been debunked and are replaced by rock stars. Loyalty is dead for lack of a worthy object, and devotion is squandered on TV screens.

All of these factors point to the need for a new paradigm, a “unified field theory” of human existence, much broader than the unified field theory sought by some physicists. These physicists seek a theory which would unify our understanding of all the various physical forces, by showing their interrelatedness. What humanity at large needs is a new understanding of self, God, world, purpose, which can serve as the basis for creative action and discovery; that is, it can’t be a dogmatic creed which claims to answer all questions and thereby deaden all creative thought and action. It needs to be open-ended, dynamic, releasing human potential, and yet harmonizing, unifying while respecting diversity.

That, I think, is beautifully provided in Vedanta as interpreted by Swami Vivekananda. It is not a paradigm which destroys or replaces all other traditions, but one which calls out the potential of other traditions, from within those traditions. It doesn’t answer all possible questions so that there is nothing left to think, but rather opens the mind and heart to new and promising possibilities, all pointing toward the infinite. It provides a spiritual foundation for the highest aspirations of the age: democracy, equality, freedom, the dignity of all. And it does this while providing a new basis for morality, not in the likes and dislikes of a deity but by pointing to a universal principle; in other words, morality is not imposed from without, but is sought and found within the very nature of things.

The grand message of the Atman, the divine Self of man, is the source of Vedanta’s harmonizing power. It is the basis for Vedanta’s vision of unity in diversity, the equality of all people, the equality of man and woman. It thus gives a spiritual basis to democracy and to the belief in the dignity of all beings. It shows us the way to harmonize unselfishness with the desire for self-knowledge and self-discovery and thus overcome the self-alienation which is so characteristic of Western society. No longer does man exist to serve the needs of something outside of himself, whether God or church or king. As Swami Vivekananda said, “The old religions said that he was an atheist who does not believe in God. The new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself.” And yet, worship and devotion are not negated: God is within your own heart, the soul of your own soul, and so worship and devotion can continue without self-alienation.

And what a wonderful conception of God! God is not limited to one idea. Rather the infinite divine Being has infinite manifestations, infinite faces so that God approaches each person according to that person’s needs. To some, God is Mother, to some, Father; to some God is Friend, to some, Beloved, to still others, Child.

Then there is the path. Yoga means spiritual path. Each of the four main yogas as taught by Swami Vivekananda can be expanded to include and enhance, and eventually to spiritualize, all of humanity’s endeavors. In Western thought as in Indian, three supreme human values are recognized: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, known in Sanskrit as Satyam, Shivam, and Sundaram. Jnana yoga—the path of knowledge—can be expanded to include the search for the True in any field, whether through science or philosophy or religion. Karma yoga—the path of action—can be expanded to include the search for the Good through work, through service, through sacrifice. Bhakti yoga—the path of devotion—can be expanded to include the search for the Beautiful, which includes the search for love and the search for joy, through art, through religion, through any worshipful action, through all acts of love. And raja yoga is the science of searching itself—the method of search in any field for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Heroism? Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and the other disciples of Sri Ramakrishna have all shown that true heroes do exist. Of course, not everyone will be attracted to the same personalities. But these great people have not set themselves up as objects of worship before which all must bow. Through their example they have also made spiritual heroes of the past believable once again. And they have shown us where to look for heroism in the people around us. As Swami Vivekananda said, “Every one of you is a Prophet, bearing the burden of the world on your own shoulders. Have you ever seen a man, have you ever seen a woman, who is not quietly, patiently, bearing his or her little burden of life? The great Prophets were giants . . . Compared with them we are pygmies, no doubt, yet we are doing the same task; in our little circles, in our little homes, we are bearing our little crosses.”

What does Vedanta offer to the Western world? I think it offers nothing less than a new basis for civilization. And for the individual: a path opening into the infinite.

Vedanta in America: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are
August 1, 2000
Spirituality in an Age of Science
October 1, 2000
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Is Vedanta for the West?