Self-Development According to Vedanta

By Swami Atmarupananda

Swami Atmarupananda lives at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco Canyon. He lectures frequently and gives retreats on Vedanta topics throughout the United States.

What is Self-Development from a Vedantic standpoint?

“Each soul is potentially divine,” says Swami Vivekananda. “The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.”[Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Mayavati: Mayavati Memorial Edition), I.124.]  We read such words, and the meaning seems self-evident. Until, that is, we try to define our terms. By “soul” does the Swami mean the Atman? If so, is it potentially divine? Isn’t it actually divine, at least according to Advaita Vedanta? Or is he speaking from the standpoint of Vishishtadvaita (Qualified Nondualism), where the soul is said to be in a contracted state while in ignorance? Maybe the Swami is speaking from the standpoint of Advaita, but means the jivatman or individualized soul by “soul”, not the true Self. And what does he mean by “manifesting” that divinity? Is he speaking of realization of the Self? “Manifesting” sounds more like bringing the glory of the soul down into our minds and bodies, developing our powers of thinking and acting and feeling, manifesting greatness, manifesting talents.

Sometimes it seems that philosophers—and even some spiritual teachers—work overtime to ensure their own job security by obscuring what had seemed clear before they took it upon themselves to explain things. It’s true that, when we try to actually define terms, we find that what once seemed clear is much less so.  Yet a statement like Vivekananda’s, his call to manifest our potential divinity quoted above, has an initial, and workable, meaning to us, even without the help of philosophers and etymologists.

Whether we are Advaitins or not, we know that our present experience of self is not what it should be, and that’s sufficient for us to get meaning from “potential divinity.” That is, even if we believe that we are one with Brahman, now itself, still we don’t experience that identity, not fully, and so our divinity is in that sense “potential.” And “manifesting” that potential means, at the least, realizing it in direct experience, not just understanding the concept. Let us, therefore, begin with this simple, straightforward meaning, and deepen our understanding from there, examining self-development from several standpoints.

First, there are the traditional schools of Vedanta. A short article doesn’t allow us space to look at the various schools, each of which has its own perspective. Let us therefore examine very briefly traditional Advaita Vedanta.

Since the goal of Advaita Vedanta is nothing short of identity with Brahman, there is not much focus on stages of development along the path.  Patanjali is much more interested in stages, because Yoga is a path of mental development leading to self-knowledge, and so the stages of such development become important. In devotional schools of Vedanta, also, there is considerable attention given to stages of growth in love, in nearness to God, in purification of heart. In Advaita Vedanta, however, the focus is on realizing the truth of the Mahavakyas or “Great Sayings” of the Upanishads, such as “Thou art That” and “I am Brahman.” The very idea of stages is a part of ignorance, and so little focus is given to describing them.  In actual practice, however, Jnana Yoga is a path, it is followed in time, and so some awareness of stages is inevitable.

Traditionally one would follow karma yoga first, performing one’s duties with no ulterior motive, for the purification of the mind. Then one might, or might not, follow bhakti yoga for further purification. But finally one would follow jnana yoga in order to attain the liberating knowledge of one’s identity with Brahman. And for many, these were the only stages described. Yes, some texts speak of different stages of samadhi, but other texts such as the Ashtavakra Samhita don’t even speak of samadhi. Some texts, like Jivanmukti Viveka of Vidyaranya, speak of different degrees of brahmajnana or liberating wisdom, but others just speak of the state of ignorance and the state of knowledge as the two conditions worthy of attention. In practice, traditional teachers of Advaita certainly had to deal with concrete obstacles faced by disciples,  and had to lead their disciples step by step toward liberation. In general, however, the stages of development received little attention.

For many, this traditional approach has worked and still works. But let us look at Swami Vivekananda’s approach, which is solidly founded upon the Upanishads yet oriented toward the modern mind and spirit.

Swami Vivekananda always taught us to affirm our inherent divinity.

You are not bound. No one was ever bound. [The Self] is beyond. It is the all. You are the One; there are no two. God was your own reflection cast upon the screen of Maya …

“God is true. The universe is a dream. Blessed am I that I know this moment that I [have been and] shall be free all eternity; … that I know that I am worshipping only myself; that no nature, no delusion, had any hold on me. Vanish nature from me, vanish [these] gods; vanish worship; … vanish superstitions, for I know myself. I am the Infinite…

Go on saying, “I am free”. Never mind if the next moment delusion comes and says, “I am bound.” Dehypnotise the whole thing.[Complete Works, I.500-01.]

He even said: “You have reached the goal — all there is to reach. Never allow the mind to think that you have not reached the goal. . . .”[Complete Works, II.470.]  Here there is no talk of stages of development, and if we look at Vivekananda’s teachings, we find that he was mainly concerned with driving this idea deep into the collective—as well as individual—consciousness: “Ye are holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; 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.”[Complete Works, I.11.]

But one might ask, why didn’t he attend to more practical teachings, including stages of development? Just telling people, “you are divine,” doesn’t make them so.

There are, I’ve always believed, two very good reasons for this insistence, rather than an insistence on the details of practice. One, a powerful soul like Vivekananda works on a deeper level than what we see: he had the power to awaken that idea in the collective consciousness, and for those who have eyes to see, it is awakening around the world in the hearts of individuals and groups. He wasn’t just speaking words, he was speaking fire. Two, whatever a great man teaches, generations of people follow devotedly but somewhat dogmatically and unimaginatively. Vivekananda seems always to have feared entrapping humanity by teaching the specifics of spiritual life which people would lock onto and enshrine as the be-all and end-all of spiritual life. Therefore he said, “I do not want to start with any initial mistake. One little mistake made then will go on multiplying; and if you succeed, in the long run that mistake will have assumed gigantic proportions and become hard to correct.”[Complete Works, VIII.91. Admittedly, Vivekananda was speaking in a different context in this quote, but I believe it was a general principle of his regarding the danger of his teaching specifics of observance and practice.] And so he said, “I can give ideas — that is all; let people work them out any way they like, and Godspeed to all.” [From a letter to Mrs. Ole Bull, dated 18 July 1896, found in Complete Works, IX.]

When we come to the actual practice of spiritual life, however, we find that the goal seems far off, and we have to begin where we are. Let us then look at the process of self-development, consistent with Swami Vivekananda’s teaching and with traditional Vedanta, in a more detailed manner.

Let’s go back to the beginning and ask, what is the self? Who am I?

In our present experience, there are several layers of selfhood. There is, according to the sages, the true Self, the Atman, one with Brahman. Then there is the jivatman or individualized consciousness. Coming lower in manifestation there is the phenomenal self, or embodied self, the jiva, the agent of action and enjoyment, identified with body and mind. Finally there is the self-image, or constructed sense of self, who I think I am: the deep mental picture I have of myself. Only the Atman, according to Advaita, is the true Self, but in practice we have to deal with all levels of selfhood.

How does Vedanta deal with the self-image? It doesn’t deal with it explicitly: it isn’t even mentioned in the traditional texts. What about Vivekananda’s teachings? He doesn’t mention it either. But it is implied in Swamiji’s teachings. When he says, “[if] the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman,”[Complete Works, III.245.] he is speaking of the self-image. It’s really a radically new emphasis in Vedanta—not a new principle, but a new implication found in the traditional teaching of the jiva’s, or individual’s, identity with Brahman. What previous acharya has said that the knowledge of the Self would make a fisherman a better fisherman? None. That it would help them to realize the Self is not new. That it would help them be better at whatever they do, even long before realization, that is new. Radically new.

The Swami even says, “The Advaita is the only system which gives unto man complete possession of himself, takes off all dependence and its associated superstitions, thus making us brave to suffer, brave to do, and in the long run attain to Absolute Freedom.”[Complete Works, V.436.] Note that he says, “and in the long run attain to Absolute Freedom.” Not immediately. What it does immediately is make us “brave to suffer, brave to do.”

How is this connected to self-image? It’s the self-image that is changed for the fisherman and student and lawyer. Swami Vivekananda wanted to teach everyone the glory of the Atman. That doesn’t mean that everyone will therewith plunge into the knowledge of the Self, nor does it mean that the awareness of the jivatman will immediately be awakened. It means that the fisherman and cobbler, the student and lawyer, will think of themselves in different terms, and that is the self-image: what they think themselves to be. Everyone short of the sage who has direct experience of the jivatman or supreme Atman has a self-image, what they think themselves to be, that is, a thought-mediated image of themselves, an interpreted image of themselves. And that is the self-image.

Swamiji had seen what harm has been done by the dualistic teachings around the world, the teaching that we are weak, that we are dependent, that we are impure. This undercuts the glory of the true Self. Vivekananda wanted, as he said, to try a new experiment: “[On] the heights of the Himalayas I have a place where I am determined nothing shall enter except pure [nondualistic] truth … The purpose is to train seekers of truth and to bring up children without fear and without superstition … They shall learn, from the start, to stand upon their own feet.”[Complete Works, VIII.140.] What a difference it would make if people from childhood grew up knowing that—whether they’ve experienced it or not—they are the pure, the glorious, the infinite Self, full of power, full of wisdom, that life is about manifesting this reality which we have forgotten!  Why add more layers of obscuration by teaching children their weakness and impurity and ignorance and limitations?

We can take a real-world, though secular, parallel. For all of America’s many faults, every child there grows up with the faith that, if I want, and if I try hard enough, I can become president of the United States. That’s a tremendous idea, one that has been true for two hundred years. And it comes simply from this: the idea is instilled in children from childhood, and examples are displayed before them of simple people of humble birth who did just that.

Cannot the same be done with the teaching of our truest birthright, our inherent divinity which is never clouded, never obscured except by our forgetfulness and unbelief? Swami Vivekananda felt that it could.

Hence for Vivekananda, the first step is to convince myself of this deepest truth of my being, to create a new self-image based on this glorious truth. And then the next step is to learn to manifest this inner perfection. As he said about his mission, “My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.”[Complete Works, VII.501.] It is in the light of this teaching that many of his statements become comprehensible, without bringing the ideal of ultimate Self-realization down to a common level. When he says that you “will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita,”[Complete Works, III.242.] this is what he is referring to. Again he says, referring to the same idea, that in India, “we go down on our knees before the man who reads the Vedas, and we do not care for the man who is studying physics. That is superstition; it is not Vedanta at all.”[Complete Works, VIII.137.] When he says, “Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep,”[Complete Works, I.11.] it is this which he wants given to one and all, whether they are spiritual aspirants or not.

Then, when through experience I begin to feel the call of higher illumination, I can begin to seek the higher Self in direct experience, not just to manifest it in my everyday life through my daily activities. And eventually I will, through higher experience, learn to manifest that wisdom in a superior way, in a way that has transformative power, bringing the deepest fruits of spirituality to myself and to others.

And so, for Vivekananda, manifesting our divinity does mean more than realizing it in direct experience. Yes, that’s the highest, that’s the ideal, but before that, manifesting our perfection means founding our lives, our self-image, our psychological being on this deep-seated conviction: I am one with God, in me is all power and glory, even if I haven’t learned to manifest it. It means learning to suffer and to do on the basis of this deep conviction. Out of that, he was convinced, great things would come, and eventually it would help us to the ultimate Self-knowledge.

“In every country, this [belief in one’s own weakness] is the backbone of every sect. For thousands of years millions and millions all over the world have been taught to … consider themselves helpless, miserable creatures and to depend upon the mercy of some person or persons for salvation. There are no doubt many marvellous things in such beliefs. But even at their best, they are but kindergartens of religion, and they have helped but little. Men are still hypnotised into abject degradation. However, there are some strong souls who get over that illusion. The hour comes when great men shall arise and cast off these kindergartens of religion and shall make vivid and powerful the true religion, the worship of the spirit by the spirit.”[Complete Works, VIII.141.]

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Self-Development According to Vedanta