This article, by Swami Tyagananda, originally was a talk given at a panel discussion organized at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, in June 2003.
I would like to focus on two issues: first, facing life’s challenges with courage; and second, negotiating the boundaries based on nationality, religion, politics, and race. The two issues are related but need to be examined separately. More specifically, I wish to offer a few insights gathered from Vivekananda’s teachings as possible pointers towards addressing these two issues.
Courage to face life’s challenges
We need strength to meet any kind of challenge. Added to the usual dose of challenges in daily life is the increasing threat of terrorism in many parts of the world. Strength and courage are usually treated as “virtues” that we need to develop. In Vivekananda’s works, however, we find that he treats strength not as an ethical concept but as an ontological concept: as an essential attribute of our nature. According to him, our true self (atman) is the source of all power. The atman is birthless and deathless, pure and perfect, free and blissful. Identifying ourselves with the atman means developing the awareness that “I am the atman covered by a body and mind” as opposed to our current awareness: “I am a human being with a body and mind.” When we rise above our physical and mental dimensions and get in touch with the spiritual dimension, we are able to develop strength and courage naturally.
Here’s a relatively recent story about a young monk of the Ramakrishna Order. He told me that in 1986 he was on a pilgrimage to the Four Shrines (“Char Dham”) in the Himalayas: Yamunotri (near the source of the river Yamuna), Gangotri (near the source of the river Ganga), Kedaranath (Shiva), and Badari-Narayan (Vishnu). On his way to Gomukh, the actual source of the river beyond the Gangotri shrine, he was unexpectedly caught in a snowstorm. This happened in the month of May and it generally didn’t snow that time of the year. Not properly equipped to meet that situation, he was tired and weak as he continued trekking. The three other monks he was walking with had moved ahead and this monk was left alone on the circuitous narrow path along the mountainside. Exhausted, he sat down and he felt he wouldn’t be able to make it to the Lalbaba Ashram, which was yet another three miles up the trail. He mused that the time to die had finally arrived. He looked around to see where he could lie down and wondered when and in what condition his body would be discovered after the snow cleared. Interestingly, this monk told me that deep within him he instinctively recollected that he was the atman, not the body, and felt amazingly free from any fear or anxiety. The strong conviction that he was the atman, and that death meant only the destruction of the physical “covering” (kosha), gave him the courage to face the situation with calmness and courage.
I believe that this kind of courage comes from a diligent study of Vivekananda’s teachings, the knowledge that Vivekananda himself lived without fear, and a sincere effort to live according to his teachings. The knowledge that we are more than just our body and mind gives our existence greater depth and stability, and we can then tap into our inner reserves of energy to face life’s challenges bravely and intelligently.
Transcending borders and being free
Thanks to technology, the world in which we live appears to have shrunk: we can now reach any part on this planet in matter of hours and we can communicate almost instantly with anyone in nearly every part of the world. While technology has brought us together closer than ever before, we still remain separated by the boundaries defined by nationality, religion, race, and political ideology. What do we do with all these boundaries that keep us separate and different in spite of the technology that has brought us all so close to one another?
A good example of crossing boundaries—of dissolving them, really—can be found in Vivekananda’s use of the term “Vedanta”. I have often wondered why Vivekananda, who proclaimed publicly in the West that he was proud to be a Hindu, chose to name his organization here “Vedanta Society” rather than “Hindu Society.” The word “Vedanta” frequently occurs in Vivekananda’s works but not always in the same sense. One sense in which he uses it is the traditional and linguistically accurate meaning of the term as synonymous with the Upanishads. Vedanta as a combination of Veda (the basic scripture of the Hindus) and anta (“the essence of” or “the end of”) refers directly to the Upanishads, the portions that usually come toward the end of the Vedic texts and provide the philosophical foundation for them. A second sense in which Vivekananda uses the term “Vedanta” is as a better and more accurate name for the “religion” of the Hindus. Neither “Hindu” nor “Hinduism” is a term indigenous to the tradition. By recognizing “Vedanta” as a better substitute to the relatively recent word “Hinduism”, Vivekananda takes Vedanta across the boundary that would have limited its usage to only a specific scripture. Identifying it with Hinduism, though, would still keep the word limited within the boundary of a specific tradition. But Vivekananda was a person with little regard for boundaries that keep people and ideas confined. He was truly a visionary whom no frontiers could hold back. So he lifted the word “Vedanta” even beyond the boundary of a single spiritual tradition and identified it with spiritual life itself. This is the third and the most important sense in which Vivekananda used the word “Vedanta.” Going to the root of the word Veda as “knowledge” (from the Sanskrit vid, to know), he defined Vedanta as the “essence of knowledge.”
This is but one example to show how barriers can be broken and boundaries dissolved by looking deeply into our lives and at the world around us, and connecting with everything out of freedom. Remembering our real identity as the atman can fill us with both the courage to face life’s challenges and the ability to transcend all boundaries that confine us. As Vivekananda said: “Teach yourselves, teach everyone their real nature. Call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, purity will come, and everything that is excellent will come when this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.”