By Swami Tyagananda
Swami Tyagananda is head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. The paper below was presented at the conference organized by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan on September 21, 2002, in New York.
Swami Vivekananda’s vision of Vedanta is his lasting legacy to contemporary spiritual thought. When his work in America needed an organizational structure, he chose to name it as Vedanta Society. We have an idea of what a “Society” is, but we need to ask ourselves what kind of “Vedanta” Swamiji had in mind when he used that word in connection with his Western work.
This will help us understand the role of the Vedanta Societies in this country. It will also clarify the doubts and questions that many Vedanta students have about their self-identity: what does it mean when I say that I am a Vedanta student? Does that automatically mean I am a Hindu? Can I be a Vedantist without being a Hindu? Can I be a Hindu without being a Vedantist? These questions need to be explored. Vivekananda’s vision of Vedanta provides insights that help us answer such questions.
At the outset we must recognize that the word Vedanta has many connotations. The word means different things to different people. It is possible to say that the word Vedanta is generally used in three different ways.
As a philosophy that guides the way of life in the Indian subcontinent, Vedanta’s best expression is found in the set of books called the Upanishads, which are a part of the Vedas, the principal scripture of the Hindus. Since the Upanishads usually come toward the end (anta) of the Vedas and are considered to embody the essence (anta) of the Vedas, another name for the Upanishads is Vedanta (Veda + anta).
In reality, however, neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads are “books.” As Vivekananda explained: “By the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons at different times.” The Vedic wisdom was transmitted orally from generation to generation long before it was put into writing. Etymologically, the word Upanishad means the knowledge that loosens the grip of existential suffering, destroys the seeds of worldly existence, and leads to the Supreme Being. Thus Upanishads or Vedanta are books only in a secondary sense.
It is well known by now that the word “Hindu” occurs nowhere in the classical scriptures of Hinduism. The ancestors of the present day Hindus did not identify themselves as Hindus. The word “Hindu” originated with Persians. They used the word “Hindu” to refer to the people who lived on the other side of the river Sindhu. But they pronounced the letter “s” with an “h” sound—and that is how the people who lived on the bank of the river Sindhu became known as Hindus. When the British colonized the territory, the “h” disappeared, the river became “Indus” and the people became “Indians.” When Western scholars and Christian missionaries arrived on the scene, they gave the name Hindu-ism to the way of life most Indians practiced. Swami Vivekananda said that an accurate name for the faith would be Vaidika Dharma and the name for the people would be Vaidikas or, more accurately, Vedantists.
Among the things that are common to the different traditions that have evolved within Hinduism, the first and foremost is their allegiance to the Vedas. If a tradition doesn’t accept the authority of the Vedas, it is no longer considered a “Hindu” tradition. Which is why, in the Indian context, Hinduism and Vedanta are synonymous. These two words refer to one and the same faith tradition, although it must be granted that most Indians who are raised in the religion of the Vedas would identify themselves as Hindus rather than as Vedantists. The reason for this is simple. In contemporary discourse and literature, the words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” have been used more frequently than the word “Vedanta.” They have, therefore, become a part of common and popular vocabulary.
If we overlook the origin of the word “Hinduism” and if we ignore the real meaning of “Vedanta,” it becomes easy to categorize—and thus limit—Vedanta as only one of the several schools or sects within Hinduism. So it is not unusual to speak of, for instance, the Vaishnava tradition, the Shaiva tradition, the Shakta tradition, the Tantrik tradition and, in the same breath, the Vedanta tradition. If the classification is based on the object of worship, then Vaishnavas can be defined as those who worship Vishnu/Narayana or, more popularly, Rama or Krishna. Shaivas are those whose principal godhead is Shiva. In the Shakta and Tantrik traditions the central position is occupied by the goddess in the form of Kali or Durga. Following the same line of thought, the Vedanta tradition is defined as one which has as its ideal the impersonal Supreme Being, called Paramatman or Brahman.
Although the Vedas continue to be the fundamental scripture of all these traditions, each tradition has also its own set of sacred books. Vaishnava literature includes the Bhagavata, the Vishnu Purana and the great epics (itihasas) like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Shaivas have their Agamas and the Shaktas have the Devi Bhagavata and the Chandi. The Tantras have their own vast literature. Vedanta is associated with the Upanishads. Notice that at this stage the idea of the word “Vedanta” as synonymous with the “Upanishads” is abandoned; Vedanta is considered one of the many streams of Hinduism with Upanishads as its scripture. Sometimes Vedanta is called the philosophy of the Upanishads.
In the traditional enumeration of “orthodox philosophies” (astika darsana), Vedanta is listed as one of the six philosophies. What makes these schools of thought “orthodox”? The fact that they all accept the supremacy of the Vedas. In theory, at least, each of these is supposedly propounding what it perceives as the essence of the Vedas. Thus, etymologically, each of these philosophies is Vedanta. Four of these orthodox schools—Samkhya and Yoga, Nyaya and Vaiseshika—developed their own views of reality with only a minimal reference to the Vedas, and the other two—Purvamimansa and Uttaramimansa—based their views on Vedic revelations.
Purvamimamsa principally deals with the ritual portion (karmakanda) of the Vedas and relegates the knowledge portion (jnanakanda) to a secondary status, whereas the Uttaramimansa does just the opposite. Clearly, they differ in their perception of where the essence of the Vedas lies. But traditionally the name Vedanta has been associated with only the Uttaramimansa. This happened because, unlike the other schools, Uttaramimansa principally draws from the Upanishads which, as we have seen, are another name for “Vedanta.”
Further changes can be noticed when Vedanta becomes only one part of the Hindu tradition. Often Vedanta is considered a nondualistic school of thought and practice. It is contrasted with the devotional strains that can be found in other traditions. Even if there are nondualistic concepts present elsewhere as well, the tendency is to show that the nondualism of Vedanta is somehow different from the nondualism of other traditions.
Thus the meaning of Vedanta undergoes a twofold contraction: first, from being an accurate and preferred alternative to the word “Hinduism” and thus being synonymous with the way of life that is learned and practiced since Vedic times, it becomes merely one of the many ways in which Hinduism is understood and practiced. The second contraction in its meaning takes place when Vedanta becomes identified with only the nondualistic approach to reality.
Much of the contemporary literature dealing with Hinduism looks upon Vedanta as a part rather than as a whole of Hindu thought. Even in the life of Ramakrishna, it is common to find his various religious practices being labeled as Vaishnava sadhana, Tantra sadhana, Vedanta sadhana, besides of course his Christian sadhana and Islam sadhana.
Sri Ramakrishna’s words often reflect the popular but narrowed use of the word Vedanta. Consider this example from his conversations: “There are two schools of thought: the Vedanta and the Purana. According to the Vedanta this world is a ‘framework of illusion,’ that is to say, it is all illusory, like a dream. But according to the Purana, the books of devotion, God Himself has become the twenty-four cosmic principles.”
Interestingly, in a conversation Ramakrishna had with two monks we find both the meanings of Vedanta expressed. When asked to share his thoughts on Vedanta, a monk tells Ramakrishna: “It includes all the six systems of philosophy.” Ramakrishna then says: “But the essence of Vedanta is: ‘Brahman alone is real, and the world illusory; I have no separate existence; I am that Brahman alone.’” Here we see the tension that exists between the original and the popular usages of the word.
In Vivekananda’s works, we find the word “Vedanta” appear again and again. What is interesting is that we find him using the word with all its different shades of meaning. He often identifies the word with what is popularly called Hinduism. At times he also uses it as a synonym of the Upanishads. Mostly by Vedanta he means the philosophy of the Vedas in general and the Upanishads in particular. But when Vivekananda uses the word Vedanta in a global context, he means by it neither the Vedic religion nor its philosophy nor even the Upanishads. In a master stroke, he lifts the word above its cultural, historical and religious contexts, and uses it to mean the basis of spiritual quest.
We have seen that etymologically the word “Vedanta” means the “the end or essence of the Vedas.” If we push the etymological enquiry further, it yields the meaning: “the end or essence of knowledge” (veda=knowledge; anta=end, essence). Whenever Vivekananda refers to the influence of Vedanta outside the geographical boundary of India, he always means “the principle, the background, the foundation” on which Hinduism is built. What he seeks to show is that “the principle, the background, the foundation” of every wisdom tradition is not really different. Traditions differ among themselves in “secondary details” such as “doctrines or dogmas or rituals or books or temples or forms.” The essence is the same. Vivekananda calls this essence by the name Vedanta. But any other name would be just as fine. It’s not the name that is important but the idea.
It is important to remember this. Otherwise it would be easy to dismiss Vedanta’s claim to universality as an attempt at hegemony or a dangerous inclusivism that seeks to subsume (and metaphorically diminish or destroy) other religious traditions. What are the characteristics of this universal “Vedanta,” the basis of the spiritual quest? It is convenient to begin by saying what Vedanta is not before saying what it is.
In his path-breaking lecture titled “Is Vedanta the Future Religion?” Swami Vivekananda points out that Vedanta has no book, no special allegiance to any person, and no personal God. This surely seems like an outrageous claim. If Vedanta has no books, what about the Upanishads? What about the Gita? What about the hundreds of commentaries on them? And Vedanta has no special allegiance to any person? What about the Vedic sages (rishis) and the teachers (acharyas)? It cannot also be denied that the ideas of personal God can be found in Vedantic texts.
Clearly, we are speaking of a different kind of “Vedanta” here—or, at least, it is the Vedanta that is far removed from our general understanding of it. So what does Swamiji mean by saying that Vedanta has no book, no person and no personal God? My guess is that Swamiji wants to remind us that none of these—book, person, or personal God—are intrinsic to Vedanta. Vedanta has a place in it for all of them but it doesn’t really depend on any of them.
What does it depend on then? It depends on the reality of the existence of every one of us. The existence of everything or everyone apart from me can be questioned or doubted but I cannot doubt my own existence. Vedanta lights the path of self-enquiry, urging the individual to ask basic questions like “Who am I? Who is it that really exists? What is the purpose of my existence?” As we can see, these questions are common to us all, no matter what our religious, cultural and racial backgrounds are. Religions of the world try to answer these questions with the help of books, persons or concepts dealing with divinity and transcendence, but the resolution always comes in the form of a very personal, direct experience. It is our own experience that finally settles the issue, not just books and such “secondary details.”
Vedanta acknowledges that while the goal before us may be the same, there are any number of ways of attaining that goal. In the words of Vivekananda: “[Vedanta] has nothing to say against anyone—whether you are a Christian, or a Buddhist, or a Jew, or a Hindu, whatever mythology you believe, whether you owe allegiance to the prophet of Nazareth, or of Mecca, or of India, or of anywhere else, whether you yourself are a prophet—it has nothing to say. It only preaches the principle which is the background of every religion and of which all the prophets and saints and seers are but illustrations and manifestations. Multiply your prophets if you like; it has no objection. It only preaches the principle, and the method it leaves to you. Take any path you like; follow any prophet you like; but have only that method which suits your own nature, so that you will be sure to progress.” These are important words: they contain a definitive statement of Swamiji’s vision of Vedanta—and he clearly distinguishes Vedanta here from what is popularly understood as “Hinduism.”
By the word “Vedanta” Vivekananda means religion with a capital R, which (as he once said) is the “one eternal religion.” According to Swamiji, it is this one eternal religion that “is applied to different planes of existences, 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 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.”
The name he gave this “one eternal religion” is Vedanta which, as we have seen, translates as simply “the essence of knowledge”—the knowledge of the mystery of existence, our own and of the world around us. Understood thus, Vedanta becomes a quest that cannot be fenced within the boundaries defined by any particular religion, culture, race or nationality. The essence of every religion, of every culture, of every racial and national trait can be employed “to uplift oneself by oneself,” but the quest itself need not be defined in terms of any of those traits.
When spiritual enquiry becomes associated with a specific set of books, rituals, cultural practices and traditions, it becomes a “religion”—religion with a small “r”. Every seeker of truth needs some religion or other at some point in life. So long as my religion does not inhibit me or isolate me from the positive influence of other religions, being a part of a religious tradition is not only helpful but also essential. It acts like a fence that protects a growing plant. Once the plant grows into a mighty tree, the fence may no longer be necessary. In the same way, the seeker of truth outgrows the necessity of remaining confined within the limits of a religious tradition and transcends it. This need not necessarily mean severing any connection with one’s religion. It is an inner movement that uplifts the individual and brings about the state of transcendence.
This, then, is the ultimate meaning of Vedanta: it is the quest for spirituality. It is the Religion beyond all religions, or the Essence of Knowledge that frees us from ignorance, bondage and existential suffering. Understood thus, Vedanta has global relevance because it cuts across religious, racial, and national borders and addresses our concerns as human beings.
Vivekananda embodies this idea in the emblem he designed for the Vedanta Societies. The emblem was designed by him in this city [New York] nearly 107 years ago. As many of you may remember, the emblem shows a swan swimming in water with a lotus in front and the rising sun behind—all of this enclosed in a circular coil of a serpent. The swan stands for the spiritual Self. The wavy water is the symbol of selfless activity; the lotus, of devotion; the rising sun, of knowledge; and the coiled serpent, of the latent power within us. The idea is that with the help of selfless work, devotion, philosophical enquiry and self-contol—one or more or all of these—we humans can free ourselves from our limitations and experience lasting bliss and fulfillment. Anyone from any part of the world, with any cultural, racial or religious background, is eligible for this highest state of being.
We have seen some of the important ways in which Vedanta is understood and identified. Technically it is the most appropriate name for the religion practiced by present-day Hindus. Popularly it is considered one of the many traditions within Hinduism and often identified with the nondualistic approach to reality. Literally—and this is how Swami Vivekananda generally employs the word—Vedanta is simply “the essence of knowledge.” Every true seeker of knowledge can be considered to be a Vedanta student.
No matter what Vedanta means to us, one thing is certain: the roots of Vedanta are neither in the East nor in the West, neither in any particular culture nor in any particular language. The roots of Vedanta are neither in books, nor in persons, nor in places. The roots of Vedanta are in the hearts of every one of us. If we can reach out and touch those roots, they will guide us upwards along the tree until we discover the fruit of knowledge in the palm of our hands. The purpose of the Vedanta Societies in the Western world is to water the roots and facilitate the growth of a healthy plant. The flowers of this plant are peace and joy, and its fruit is knowledge—the knowledge that frees us from bondage and gives us total fulfillment.