By Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Pravrajika Vrajaprana is a nun of Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara at the Vedanta Society of Southern California; she is the author of Vedanta: A Simple Introduction and the editor of Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West. This article was published in the Vedanta Keshari in December, 2000.
In June of this year I attended a seven-day interfaith symposium at a Camaldolese (Benedictine) monastery. It was profoundly inspiring to be surrounded by deeply committed spiritual seekers from other faiths. During the time I was there, the topic for this issue, “The Vedanta Way of Life,” had been placed on the mental backburner. Yet the more I listened and learned from other spiritual traditions, the more the topic kept popping up in response to the speakers’ presentations. Despite the fact that I was consciously intent on absorbing what each speaker had to say, their words more often than not provoked an “aha!” response: “This is the Vedanta way of life!” That response came from listening to Christians, to Buddhists, to Taoists and Confucians, to Thomas Merton contemplating Sufism.
How the topic and the symposium were interrelated became clear upon reading what Swami Vivekananda wrote to Alasinga: “Now, by religion is meant the Vedanta; the applications must vary according to the different needs, surroundings, and other circumstances of different nations.”1 This idea was amplified further in one of his lectures:
…the religions of the world are not contradictory or antagonistic. They are but various phases of one eternal religion. That one eternal religion is applied to different planes of existence, is applied to the opinions of various minds and various races. There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion; there never existed many religions, there is only the one. One Infinite religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this religion is expressing itself in various countries in various ways.2
So our starting point in discussing a “Vedanta Way of Life” depends on our definition of “Vedanta.” If we define Vedanta—as Swamiji did—as the “essence of all religions”,3 then it makes perfect sense that what constitutes the Vedanta way of life would be heard—and should be heard—from people in every spiritual tradition on the planet. In this sense Vedanta is “not a new religion,” as Swamiji noted. It is “as old as God Himself. It is not confined to any time and place, it is everywhere.”4
But Vedanta is specific as well as universal: Vedanta not only has its all-embracing, universal aspect but also its specific aspect which originated in India and is the distilled wisdom of the Hindu spiritual tradition. A “Vedanta Way of Life,” then, should apply to both dimensions.
What would be the hallmark of both these dimensions? Above all, an integrated life. It’s a life which is a seamless whole, a unified endeavor which moves smoothly, resolutely and joyfully toward the goal of spiritual awakening. This goal is the ballast which keeps our lives anchored, it’s the compass for making daily decisions; it’s the reason why we engage in activity and sometimes it’s the reason when we don’t engage in activity.
In this integrated Vedanta life, our actions are in tandem with our words and our words don’t betray our heart. Our subconscious doesn’t wage guerrilla warfare with our conscious mind and our conscious mind isn’t continually battling itself. Our life, as it is lived both privately and publicly, reflects our most deeply held, cherished beliefs about the ultimate Reality and our relationship to it. As a necessary corollary to this is our relationship with all other beings on the planet.
At the interfaith symposium a Benedictine priest quoted these simple but powerful words of St. Francis: “Always preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words.” In other words, first and foremost our life is our Gospel. What we say about religion doesn’t really matter unless it’s given credence by what we are. Even though most of our lives are Gospels-in-the-making, at least it must be a work in progress. If there’s a wild disparity between our philosophy and our actions, we need to mend the fissures in our personality so that we can live as deeply integrated a spiritual life as we’re capable.
Thinking of St. Francis’s exhortation brought to mind what Swamiji particularly appreciated about Sri Ramakrishna—his complete alignment of thought, word and deed:
We see many persons talking the most wonderfully fine things about charity and about equality and the rights of other people, but it is only in theory. I was so fortunate as to find one who was able to carry theory into practice. He had the most wonderful faculty of carrying everything into practice which he thought was right.5
Sri Ramakrishna embodied the counsel he gave others: harmonizing thoughts, words and actions. The Vedanta way of life consists not just in talking the talk, but walking the walk. If we don’t walk the walk or at least try to walk the walk—even if that means stumbling on occasion—we’re parrots, not genuine spiritual seekers.
A Jesuit at the symposium unwittingly contributed to our discussion of Vedanta living by relating his own experience as a priest in Japan. Living in Japan for eighteen years, the priest had become extremely drawn to Zen philosophy and practice. A Zen community with a renowned Zen master was right down the street from his parish and he soon found himself studying diligently with a Zen roshi and regularly attending the zendo. One day, standing in front of the Japanese language school, the priest had a dramatic crisis of faith: “Am I a Catholic? Am I even a Christian?” he asked himself with anguish. Searching his heart, the powerful reply burst forth on its own: “I don’t care! I don’t care if I’m a Catholic. I don’t even care if I’m a Christian. I only want the truth. And that’s all I want!” With this fervent response coming from the depths of his heart, he found peace. And, over the years, he realized that he had become a much better Catholic and Christian than he was earlier.
The Vedanta path is illumined by the light of truth. Like our Jesuit friend, all of us need to have that much love for truth and that much reckless abandon in seeking it. Sri Ramakrishna could renounce everything except truth; Swamiji said, “Through truth everything is attained.”6 Truth is both the way and the goal, the direction to the destination and the destination itself.
A Camaldolese priest at the symposium provided yet another aha! moment by quoting Chuang-Tzu: “There must be a true person before there can be true knowledge.”
What is Chuang-Tzu’s definition of a true person? Interestingly, a “true person” has much in common with the sthitaprajna (one possessing steady wisdom) in the Bhagavad Gita.7 Chuang-Tzu’s “true person” is one who, having attained oneness with Tao, doesn’t mind having little, doesn’t boast of accomplishments, isn’t concerned with success or failure or even with his or her own life or death. Above all, a true person is one who is wholly detached and utterly free.8
Detachment, an essential quality for a Vedanta life, is not a synonym for icy indifference. Detachment isn’t the opposite of love and concern. In fact, it is detachment which produces true love and selfless concern. Detachment means identifying with our real nature; it means really being ourselves in the highest sense of the term. It means acknowledging and responding to our innate purity, our innate joyfulness, our innate freedom and wisdom.
The early Christian monk Evagrius found detachment or apatheia to be the cornerstone of a committed spiritual life. Again, apatheia isn’t coldness or indifference; it’s a “state of deep calm, arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life, under the influence of love. . . . Apatheia and agape, divine love, are but two aspects of a single reality. In fact, the first offspring of apatheia is agape.”9
Detachment and love for God are completely intertwined in a Vedanta way of life. Real detachment is freedom from the lower desires which pull us away from realizing our true nature, from attaining oneness with the divine. And, unless checked, these desires will prevent us from giving ourselves wholeheartedly to spiritual life. As Sri Ramakrishna said: “A thread cannot pass through the eye of a needle if it has the smallest fiber sticking out.”10 A Vedanta way of life means having the determination to continue struggling in our spiritual quest, to laboriously attend to those pesky fibers, so that our carefully threaded life can enter into the needle of divine reality.
Included in this package is the patience to persevere against what sometimes appear to be overwhelming obstacles (90% of which are self-imposed). In order to maintain this patience—we can call it steadfastness—our spiritual goal has to be placed again and again in our mental foreground. Otherwise, sad to say, we’ll just get distracted, and distracted isn’t too much of a jump from disinterested. “Anyone who does things lukewarmly is close to falling,” said St. John of the Cross.11
But to return to Chuang-Tzu’s equation: “There must be the true person to have true knowledge.” What is true knowledge? It’s the vision of the Tao, the integrated vision of wholeness, the experience of the One that comprises all existence. Like Brahman, the Tao is present in all things; there is no place where it does not exist. The subjective experience is that I am one with all existence.12 This experience is the crown of the Vedanta way of life.
Thomas Merton, quite unexpectedly, had a glimpse of this oneness on a street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. Hearing of this experience provided yet another aha! moment at the symposium. Merton, a Trappist monk, was in town doing routine errands when
…it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of [everyone’s] heart, the depths of their hearts … the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. . . .
It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. . . . I have no program for this seeing, it is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”13
What does this mean in practical terms for those embarking on a Vedanta way of life? Says Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “One who, established in unity, worships me who dwells in all beings, abides in me.”14
If the highest expression of spirituality is seeing God dwelling in the hearts of all, then true worship is offering service to humankind.
Which is, of course, what we hear from those masters of Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Sri Ramakrishna consistently stressed serving human beings as God himself—worshiping jiva as Shiva. His life unerringly reflected the same. Swamiji expanded on this theme, both in words and actions: “He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary.”15
Swamiji’s ceaseless labor for humanity, both in India and the West, showed that he, like his great master, inevitably followed word with deed. That his unremitting toil shattered his health never dampened his efforts. Living and dying in the saddle, his life was—like his master’s—a living testament to the power of Vedanta living.
What does this mean for those of us with less heroic temperaments? First, that the Vedanta way of life always means starting from where we are, and starting itself is a triumph. Second, it means that success is inevitable; after all, we’re only discovering our own real nature. We are attaining what is ours by our birthright as human beings. Eventually we shall, every single one of us, attain the goal of life.
Whether we attain the goal quickly or whether we attain the goal over a prolonged period of time depends on our own sincere efforts. But, the good news is that once we start taking those initial steps, we’ll find it difficult to stop. The joy of leading a Vedanta life is too much to resist. We’ll find that our tenacity pays off with the happiness and meaning which pours over our entire life, from the smallest detail to its highest goal. We’ll find that the Vedanta way of life is the best and most joyful life a human being can have. We will find our life blessed and our life will be a blessing to others.
1. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 10th ed. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1973), 5: 82. [Hereafter abbreviated as CW.]
2. CW, 4: 180.
3. CW, 5: 306.
4. CW, 8: 137.
5. CW, 4: 174.
6. CW, 1: 189.
7. See Bhagavad Gita 2: 54-59.
8. From the sixth chapter of the Chuang-Tzu entitled “The Great Teacher.”
9. John Eudes Bamberger, trans., Evagrius: The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer (Kalamazoo, MI: 1981), lxxxiv.
10. Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 3rd ed. (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1965), 547.
11. Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., trans., Sayings of Light and Love (No. 168), in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), 97.
12. From the 22nd chapter of Chuang-Tzu.
13. From a talk given by Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B., quoting Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 140-2.
14. Bhagavad Gita 6: 30.
15. CW, 3: 142.