Swami Vivekananda’s Message to the Ordinary Person

By Sister Gargi

Sister Gargi, also known as Marie Louise Burke, was the author of the six-volume classic Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries and was considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the life and work of Swami Vivekananda. A tireless worker known for her spirit, humor and wisdom, Sister Gargi took her first vows in India from the Ramakrishna Order in 1974 and was given the monastic name “Gargi” after the Vedic scholar in recognition of her brilliant accomplishments as researcher and writer.

In 1983, in recognition of her outstanding work as a researcher and a writer, Sister Gargi received the prestigious Vivekananda Award from the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta. In addition, Sister Gargi was the author of the critically acclaimed biography of Swami Ashokananda, A Heart Poured Out and A Disciple’s Journal. A life-long member of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, Sister Gargi passed away in January, 2004. Her last book, compiled and edited by Shelley Brown, was Shafts of Light. All the quotations given below are from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. This article originally appeared in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West, published by Vedanta Press.

Swami Vivekananda would perhaps object to the title of this article, for to him no person was ordinary. Each was a unique manifestation of God, and each was perfect in his or her own expression of divinity. Indeed, in his eyes nothing in this universe, living or nonliving, was ordinary; so let me quickly define what I mean by this term in the present context.

By “ordinary person” I mean the man or woman who is neither sunk in a thoroughly material existence nor consciously aspires to a life of the spirit. He (and, of course, she) is well-meaning; he attempts to live a good life, and to the extent that he succeeds in this endeavor, is more or less content. He may raise a family, pursue a profession, work on the land, in an office, in a factory. He (or she) may be among the rich, talented, and famous or may be poor, ungifted, and unknown. But in one condition or the other, his desires are legion: he desires love, wealth, power, health, esteem, fame, and the many pleasures that this world affords. If fortunate, he enjoys a good percentage of those pleasures; if unfortunate, he is deprived of most of them.

In either case, as many as are his desires, so many are his fears; for fear is the soft underbelly of desire. He fears failure, abandonment, loss of esteem, poverty, disease, and, above all, he fears death. His attitudes toward and reactions to the external world are governed by these desires and fears—sometimes to a neurotic and destructive degree, more often to a degree that is considered normal—”only human.”

This ordinary person is thoroughly imbued with a concept of his (or her) limitations in the face of an inconceivably vast and, by and large, unpredictable universe. When he thinks about it, he finds himself to be a tiny bit of living matter, fragile, perishable, prey to hostile or, at best, mindless forces beyond his most sophisticated control. Though he benefits from the genius of his species, as well as from whatever genius and intellectual brilliance he himself may have, he is nonetheless innately and fundamentally ignorant and limited. He does not know the purpose of his life, nor the purpose of existence as a whole; he does not know the future—even a minute ahead—and his powers of reasoning, though generally adequate for the pursuits of his daily life, are circular and analytic. In the long run his reason cannot discover or prove the existence of anything lying beyond the level of the premises from which it started.

This limited body and mind constitute, as far as the ordinary person is concerned, his entire being, and, while he knows their relative insignificance, he finds them all-important. No love, no attachment is greater than his attachment to this unit of body-mind; no fear is greater than the fear that it may either self-destruct or be destroyed, as indeed it will—one thing or the other.

Now, to this person, this ordinary person, Swami Vivekananda had a revolutionary message. It was not a message basically different from that which he gave to those monastics and nonmonastics who were consciously seeking God or aspiring wholeheartedly to reach a supersensuous level of perception and existence. It was not a watered-down version of a lofty philosophy; it was lofty. It was not a cushioned couch on which one could relax, secure in the knowledge that all was well in heaven and on earth. On the contrary, it blew the ordinary man sky-high, and if he listened, it changed him forever. Since Swami Vivekananda gave his life to pour that message with the full force of his tremendous personality into the souls of ordinary men and women, infusing it into the very marrow of their bones, they were bound to listen. Sooner or later, that message, which will resound for centuries around the world, will be heard by everyone, everywhere.

And what was that message? From start to finish it was simple: You are not the body, you are not the mind; you are the infinite, eternal, ever-pure, ever-perfect Spirit. In his first public speech in the West, in which he alarmed the Christian clergy and electrified an audience of “ordinary” people, his cry was thunderous: “Hear ye, Children of Immortal Bliss, . . . you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.” And in his last class-lecture in London three years later he cried, “This is the one prayer, to remember our true nature, the God who is always within us, thinking of it always as infinite, almighty, ever-good, ever-beneficent, selfless, bereft of limitation.” And again, now in California: “Vanish nature from me, vanish [these] gods; vanish worship; . . . vanish superstitions, for I know myself. I am the Infinite. . . . How can there be death for me, or birth? Whom shall I fear? I am the One. Fill the mind [with this] day and night!” From the beginning of his mission to its end, this is what Swami Vivekananda taught to one and all alike, insisting that the purity and strength of that Upanishadic teaching never be compromised, never diluted, never adjusted for the sake of expedience or human weakness.

On the other hand, this was not a message doomed from the outset by its very loftiness. It was not a doctrine of renunciation or self-abnegation impossible for the majority of people to follow. It was practical—a message meant to alter the ordinary person’s concept of himself and of others and thereby eventually and inevitably mold his conduct in the world. “It is the greatest of all lies,” he cried in London, “that we are mere men; we are the God of the universe. In worshiping God we have been always worshiping our own hidden Self.” “Let the world resound with this ideal, and let superstitions vanish. Tell it to men who are weak and persist in telling it. You are the Pure One; awake and arise, O mighty one, this sleep does not become you. . . . Tell that to mankind and show them their power. Then we shall learn how to apply it in our daily lives.”

In the wake of his great Master, Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji left each to his own way and own path. “We must not lose sight of this doctrine,” he warned in his last lecture in California, “‘Better die in your own path than attempt the path of another.’ . . . Wait and grow, and you attain everything; otherwise there will be [great spiritual danger].” And by the same token, the path of another should never be subject to criticism or intolerance. Each had his own way and own speed of growth, and each way was valid. But throughout, underlying and directing the growth of the individual, ran the great, unshakable, unaltering concept that man—every man and every woman—is here and now divine Spirit. Just as throughout a long railway journey, the tracks, though they run straight or windingly, uphold the train to the journey’s end, so Swami Vivekananda’s message of man’s divinity underlay and guided the traveler on the road of life.

This, then, was his basic message to one and all, East and West: we are not finite bodies and minds; we are infinite Spirit. Perhaps he taught this great truth more explicitly in the West, where the dualism of Semitic religion (which of course includes Christianity) had held sway for thousands of years and the individual had been considered sinful by nature and dependent entirely upon the grace of God for redemption.

In India, on the contrary, even dualistic religions hold that the soul is eternal and essentially pure. Therefore in India, while Swamiji forcefully reminded the Hindus of their own incomparably great religion and their responsibility of nurturing it, of living up to it in all areas of life, and of giving it to the world, he did not have to explain over and over the basic facts of spirituality. “All Hindus believe,” he said in Lahore, “that man is not only a gross material body, not only that within this [body] there is the inner body, the mind, but . . . that there is something beyond even this fine body, which is the Atman of man, which has neither beginning nor end, which knows not what death is. . . . There may be differences as to the relation between the soul and God. . . . [But] it does not matter what our interpretation is, so long as we hold on to the one basic belief that the soul is infinite. . . . [And] we all hold in India that the soul is by its nature pure and perfect, infinite in power and blessed.”

Swamiji grieved to see India swamping the greatness of her religion with layer upon layer of local superstitions and cultural accretions; yet he knew that the greatness of the Upanishadic religion was still living in every village, shining in every eye, ineradicable, waiting only to be called forth. And call it forth he did. “Be strong once more,” he cried in Calcutta; “drink deep of this fountain of yore; that is the only condition of life in India!”

In his motherland, Swamiji’s lectures were rousing calls to a sleeping giant, in the West they were bombshells, not meant to awaken an ancient culture, but to turn a relatively young one upside down, revolutionizing it. Swamiji was well aware of the effect of his words in America and England. He wanted to stir those pivotal countries to the very bottom of their souls. He wanted to change the current of their thought or, rather, to introduce into that current a strong, dynamic element of spirituality that would transform it.

Why? One of the dicta of the Bhagavad Gita is that the wise should not disturb the beliefs of the dull-witted. If the West had survived, indeed prospered, for almost two millennia on the idea that human beings were sinners in immanent peril of eternal damnation, and if, added to this or superseding it, it was now thriving on the more recent idea that the human being was a complicated chunk of matter that somehow could think—then why should a Swami Vivekananda come along and hurl thunderbolts into this tranquil pool of perhaps slowly evolving ideas?

The obvious answer is that the West was not (and is not) a sunlit pool, blissfully nurturing an embryonic spirituality. At the end of the nineteenth century (as we now well know), the West was pregnant with both accomplishment and disaster. Scientific technology was about to explode into unimaginable achievements and equally unimaginable and diverse means of destruction. Today both the good and the evil that the human hand and human brain are capable of have been augmented and extended beyond all belief—and this is just the beginning. If ever there was a time in the history of mankind for spiritual knowledge to awaken, for human beings to become morally and spiritually equal to their own material powers, it is now—in the present age, this unthinkably glorious and unthinkably perilous age. And on cue, Swami Vivekananda has appeared like a great guiding star.

He went straight to the mark, striking at the core of the peril, which is that the ordinary Western person has no conception of the Spirit as the fundamental reality of his being. He thinks, and he has always thought that he is a finite being. There is terrible fear in this concept. It is, in fact, a concept intolerable to the human spirit. We cannot accept it; we continuously fight against it, which is precisely why we have been inventing, since we first purposefully chipped a stone, extensions of our hands and brains that today threaten to destroy us. Civilization—its religion, its art, its science—is, indeed, nothing but the human being’s attempt to conquer his limitations; it is man’s reach for freedom.

But tragically, we—we in the West, at least—persistently reach in the wrong direction and only dig ourselves deeper into the pit of finitude. The soul cries continually for the infinite, and we translate that cry into a need to conquer and possess our external world.

Human desire is rooted in man’s stretch toward the unlimited; fear, frustration, violence are all spawned by the inevitable failure of that attempt in the relative world. Indeed man’s sense of limitation and his wrongly directed struggle to break his bonds lie at the root of all his miseries; they concoct the core of relative existence itself; but deep-rooted though that fault is, we can no longer afford the luxury of wallowing in it. Even Lord Shiva, when he took on the body of a pig, was loathe to give it up; but today, like it or not, we have to turn our concepts and our lives around and seek the unlimited where it actually exists—in the Spirit within ourselves. And from that radiant center light will spread to all aspects of our lives.

There is, indeed, no other solution to individual or world problems. No amount of political or social or economic manipulation, violent or peaceful, will make the least dent in world thought, for those labyrinthine activities take place on a level that is simply an effect of subtle causes lying deep in human existence. The problems themselves are effects of our basic ignorance and can be remedied only by an influx of spiritual knowledge. There is no other way. Man—all men and women—must learn that he is Spirit.

One question may arise here: whatgood will it do to have an intellectual knowledge of spiritual truths? Did not Swami Vivekananda himself say again and again that religion lies in realization? The practice of religion consists of lifting our consciousness by one means or another into states of existence beyond the realms of sense perception and reason and in experiencing those states as realities. But the ordinary man, as defined in this article, is not about to devote himself to spiritual practice.

So what have we been talking about? It will not do simply to say over and over “I am Spirit” and continue to think and to act in the mode of “I am a finite body with a finite mind.” True, an intellectual grasp of spiritual concepts will not be of much good all at once, but truth, as Swamiji said, is like a corrosive that will eat its way into the hardest of stone. Recollection of our true nature will mold our actions and thoughts around itself, it will transform our lives: bushels of nonsense will drop from our minds, innumerable fantasies and hang-ups, which we did not even know we had, will disappear; we will not cherish and protect our self-image so fiercely; we will not grow so angry at slights or so despairing over failures; we will gain faith in ourselves, and “faith in ourselves,” Swamiji said, “will do everything.”

Convinced even intellectually of our own infinitude and the infinitude of others (for there can be but one Infinite Being), fear will drop from us, and with fear selfishness will drop—and vice versa, for, as Swamiji said, “Only to selfishness comes fear. He who has nothing to desire for himself, whom does he fear, and what can frighten him? What fear has death for him? What fear has evil for him? . . . Who can injure us, the omnipresent?”

With the disappearance of fear from our conscious and unconscious minds how many quirks of human thought and action will not also disappear! This is a matter for psychiatrists to determine, but it seems axiomatic that much of our irrational, self-destructive, and harmful behavior is based on hidden fears, usually groundless in themselves, but exerting great power in our lives. And as our thoughts and acts grow pure, free from fear and its progeny of demons, our perceptions will grow correspondingly pure, and in turn will transform our lives.

Eventually, we will actually experience a spiritual reality that had been only a concept. Moreover, we—the ordinary people—will not be alone. “The hour comes,” Swamiji said in San Francisco, “when great men shall arise and . . . make vivid and powerful the true religion, the worship of the Spirit by the Spirit.” We will have plenty of inspiration and examples around us, plenty of holy company and help. And as time goes on, ordinary men and women will know themselves to be as extraordinary as Swami Vivekananda always knew them to be.

But the thing he wanted is that we begin and that we begin from where we are now, wherever that may be. “Hear day and night,” he said, “that you are the Soul. Repeat it to yourselves day and night till it enters into your very veins, till it tingles in every drop of blood, till it is in your flesh and bone. Let the whole body be full of that one ideal, ‘I am the birthless, the deathless, the blissful, the omniscient, the omnipotent, ever-glorious Soul.’ Think on it day and night; think on it till it becomes part and parcel of your life. Meditate upon it, and out of that will come work. ‘Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh,’ and out of the fullness of the heart the hand worketh also. Action will come. Fill yourselves with the idea; whatever you do, think well on it. All your actions will be magnified, transformed, deified by the very power of the thought.”

And that, I think, was the essence of Swami Vivekananda’s message and instruction to everyone in the world.

Holy Mother’s Prescription for Peace
January 5, 2005
Talks with Swami Shivananda
March 5, 2005
Show all

Swami Vivekananda’s Message to the Ordinary Person