By Swami Swahananda
Swami Swahananda was the head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California from 1976 until his passing on October 19, 2012.
Swami Vivekananda’s ideas have been seen through various eyes, and new light has been thrown upon these ideas. In one sense, Swamiji is inexhaustible. In another sense, it can be supported that Swamiji’s core message is that man is the Atman, Atman is perfection, and perfection defies all types of limitations.
“I Shall Not Cease to Inspire”
The first thing about Swamiji that strikes me is his importance in inspiring us. His teachings are there of course, but his life is also there. He has left behind a sangha, an organization, a circle of devotees, to put into practice the ideas he gave. And a great man is more a principle than a person. But still, to my mind, his most important contribution is the inspiration he creates.
I remember—and this is the experience of many people—that when we were young, there was a Bengali volume, a second volume of Swamiji’s letters, which was very inspiring. Now it has been included in the larger compilation, Letters of Swami Vivekananda. The letters written between 1890 and 1902 are of a more inspiring type, when Swamiji was trying to energize people to do things. Romain Rolland has described Swamiji as “energy personified, and action was his message to man.” So when you read his books, you get thrilled, as do some of the famous writers and thinkers and singers, but you also feel that inspiration comes in your own life.
I was in Madras for more than twelve years in the 1950s and 60s. The president of the Tamil Writers’ Association became my friend. And being inspired by us, he began to read the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Early one morning, he came to the Math to meet me. That was not the time sadhus met people, but still I had to come out. He said, “Swami, I could not contain myself. Last night I was reading Swamiji till twelve o’clock; then suddenly the inspiration came, by reading his works, that I must do something. But what to do at midnight? So I settled with my pen and wrote two stories in one night.”
The reason he was so impressed was that for the previous two years he could not write a book or any stories for that matter, because he was constructing a building. That building took up all his energies, all his attention. There was no creativity left in him to write anything. So that is the important idea: in whatever way you are going, Swamiji’s inspiration can help you in that particular way. Not that you will necessarily turn traditionally spiritual overnight, but you will be inspired, and inspired things will happen. And that, according to Swamiji, is the real fulfillment of life: to manifest the perfection we have in us. How it is manifested and how much it is manifested, only by that will it be judged whether our life is successful or not.
So that is the major idea: Swamiji is an inspirer of people, especially young people. When we remember his inspiring words, we feel energized, enthused; all the blood will be boiling, as it were, to do something. What things will come? Much will be determined by the composition of our mind. Inspiration doesn’t always express itself in the same way. We have the classical experience of the Ramayana stories. Three brothers, Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Vibhishana, practiced hard austerities. That was considered to be the major method by which strength, power and wisdom were acquired. Because Ravana was of the rajasic type, his mental composition was of rajoguna. He became a king and wielded power in the three worlds, but he also became a tyrant. Kumbhakarna was a lazy man, so by his tapasya his laziness increased, though it was probably a covetable laziness to some extent. He could alternately sleep for six months and eat for six months! We may smile at this, but remember, eighty per cent of our activities center around these two: having good sleep and good food—to attain our security in these two. Twenty per cent of our activities may involve something more than these two things. Vibhishana was of the sattvic type and had spiritual attainment, realization of God. The idea is that spirituality can give you inspiration, but your mental composition must be all right.
Need for Purification of Mind
Along with receiving inspiration, it is very important to purify our minds as much as possible. The method of achieving purification is contemplation of the pure. The lives of Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, Swamiji and others can purify us, but it is also important to do some unselfish action. Swamiji’s major prescription is service. He used to say that renunciation and service are the national ideals of India. Why national ideals, these are the ideals of the whole world.
I was at one time the editor of the Vedanta Kesari in Madras. My predecessor was Swami Budhananda, who was a good thinker. At one time he filled up the journal with quotations he had collected for two years—quotations from the Mahabharata and other books—to prove that a householder is a greater renouncer than a sannyasin. Why? If I am a monk and I have got a headache, I go to sleep. I don’t care for the world. But if I am a mother and my child comes home, in spite of my headache, in spite of my illness, I shall have to get up and look after the child. Now, unconsciously that mother has acquired the quality of a yogi: self-control, control of the emotions and demands of the body, working for others.
Swamiji’s prescription is to purify yourself, and then, to be useful to society, to work for others. Spiritual work is all right, but if you work for others, at least something substantial will remain. When Swamiji went to Rameswaram, he said in his lecture in the Shiva temple that if we go to the temple with fruits and flowers but forget that God is there, the whole thing is a waste. Of course, some result will be there inasmuch as it is a discipline; it is not a hundred per cent waste, but still a waste. But if we go to a sick man and give a little medicine, or go to an ignorant man and give a little knowledge, if we remember God is in him, we get the full benefit of worship. But even if we forget the God in him, still, our action has a social benefit. It involves the practice of unselfishness. The more unselfishness increases, the more will purity come. Impurity is self-consideration. In all our affairs we normally equate things from our own standpoint. Unselfishness is ignoring oneself.
I remember one thinker’s very beautiful definition of humility. We know what humility is, but his was a very unique way of explaining it: humility is the capacity to praise your adversary—very difficult indeed! To praise one’s adversary, to say that he has got good qualities, is wonderful. It requires us to think a little deeper. When we can do this, it means that complete egolessness has come. We are then able to appreciate goodness elsewhere, or find goodness in somebody else.
Swamiji’s idea is that we will be much more successful if we can purify ourselves, make the mind ready for results, ready for the manifestation of our hidden powers. As Vedantists we should believe that nothing comes from outside. All the capacities are already within. They are to be brought out. Instead of self-development, our word is atma-vikasa, self-manifestation. The Atman is all perfect, but it manifests itself. Unknown areas are there in human nature in which the Spirit can manifest. In the world’s oldest book, the Rig Veda, it is said that God covered the entire universe, but transcended it by ten fingers more, meaning that He is not finished with the universe—He is something more also.
This means that a puny creature like a man or a woman has the same perfection God has; it is a question of difference of manifestation. And in innumerable ways we can manifest the Spirit in ourselves. When I first went to America, thirty-five years ago, two women had been declared generals of the US Army, for the first time in history. There had been queens and fighters, but not generals. That means that an ordinary creature like a man or woman has unknown areas, undiscovered areas, unmanifested areas. So that is why Swamiji advised us to every day think of ourselves as the Atman and manifest the power of the Spirit.
One writer spoke of “prayer without tears.” Prayer, normally, is asking. Now, Vedanta says, instead of weeping and crying, assert. You have got the power within you. Assert it. The theistic idea is that God has got the power, and that we ask God, “Please, God, give me something.” But instead of that, assert. Assertion is a better psychological technique. If we say, “I have got a headache, I have got a headache; O Lord, do something for me,” the subconscious absorbs the idea—headache, headache, headache. So instead of producing health, more unhealthiness will be produced.
On the other hand, Vedanta will ask you to say, “Shuddho’ham, buddho’ham, niramayo’ham; I am pure, I am illumined, I am healthy.” You may argue, “I am not healthy; I have a headache.” But, really speaking, you don’t have a headache. Vedanta pushes you to the question, “Who are you?” That is one of the inquiries Vedanta asks us to make. Some groups don’t go into philosophy, religion, pujas and bhajans—they use straight questioning. Who are you? Analyze, analyze, analyze. Vedanta asserts, “I am not the body, not the mind, but the Spirit.” The moment you say, “I am healthy, I am healthy,” you are identifying with your Spirit nature. When you say, “I have got a headache, I have got a headache,” who has got the headache? The body, of course. Or, you may feel bad mentally, but you have already argued that you are not the body, not the mind, so you are not suffering. When you say “I am healthy,” you are telling the greater truth, the higher truth, the more enduring truth. Truth that is more enduring is real truth. Temporary truth is no truth.
The materialists came forward and said, “No, we don’t accept this. How do you know that this is so? Our studies don’t reveal the Spirit.” The Vedantists explained, “We don’t know your method of physical analysis or logical process, but we can realize the Truth by our special method of inspiration, or intuition, by what is called anubhuti, or experience, realization.”
These are different terms used by different schools to describe the ultimate understanding of one’s real nature. This method may not be accepted by the materialists but that does not matter, for according to them it cannot be known by their methods. This is not evident to ordinary people, but the ultimate nature of everything is revealed to the realized soul.
Swamiji asserted that man is Divinity in human form. When he went to America, he told the people, “You are not sinners. It is a sin to call you so.” Very dramatic sentences! And by the by, it would be a very good idea, especially for you young people, to memorize fifty, sixty or seventy of these inspiring sayings of Swamiji. Through your whole life they will be useful. So when Swamiji said this, he was speaking to Americans, who were immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Europe, who had either been persecuted religiously or went to America because of famine or for a better livelihood. They found that the country was theirs for the taking. Soon there were ranches and fields, ten, twenty miles long. To such a person, if you say, “You are a sinner; you are hopeless,” he is not going to believe it. For religion’s sake he may grudgingly agree, but he is not going to really accept it. Swamiji said, “No, you are the all-powerful Spirit.” That appealed to the pioneering Americans.
That is one reason why Swamiji became so successful. He inspired. He touched the real core of the people’s lives. He told them, “You are something grand, something infinite, something unending.” That is the special idea Swamiji tried to inject. In the Western context the idea of the divinity of man is the major idea that he thrust. In the Indian context it was the application of the ideal that we must see divinity in man—see it for ourselves. The Bhagavad Gita identifies both, and Swamiji supported both ideas. But in the Western context, he made people aware of their spiritual nature. In the Indian context, he stressed the idea that the Atman should be seen in society.
Serving the Manifested Atman
Normally, commentators translate the word atmarama as ‘one who finds bliss in the Self’. But is it bliss in the Self with closed eyes or opened eyes? Sri Ramakrishna is seen in both ways in the advanced stage. In his commentary on the Narada Bhakti Sutras, Swami Tyagishanandaji explains that the effect of seeing the Atman everywhere is service of men and other creatures. So a man of illumination can do both: he may go within or serve the manifested Atman. Once you have realized, you are free; what do you want to do? The swami is telling us that the normal, natural course of a man of illumination will be to serve others. It is a very beautiful way of putting Swamiji’s ideas.
This is an important idea in the Indian context. Swamiji stressed this idea of service, because India needs service. Even after more than fifty years of independence, people are starving, people are ignorant. There has not been much improvement. Of course, they say forty per cent of Indians belong to the middle class, and that is why America has got interested in India. But, still, in the larger community, people are not free from hunger and insecurity, so some manifestation of energy is necessary. The Ramakrishna Mission immediately attracted the attention of society because of pinpointing this idea of serving society.
Nowadays, the question of relevance is often brought out. In what way, as a person or as a principle manifesting ideas, is Swamiji relevant? He is significantly relevant in two ways. Man must continually be made aware that he has got infinite possibilities. If he knows and believes that he has got possibilities, new avenues will open up. The method will be to serve others. That way, society will be benefited, the individual will be benefited. This way, Swamiji says, stage by stage a practitioner will go towards higher realization, which is the ultimate goal of life.
Everything Positive, Nothing Negative
Swamiji’s special prescription is that all of us should have an ideal. His famous saying is, ‘If a man with an ideal makes a thousand mistakes, I am sure that the man without an ideal makes fifty thousand. Therefore, it is better to have an ideal.’1 Swamiji always tried to improve people, not by showing their defects, but by showing their merits. By denouncing people, much result is not achieved, because it evokes resistance. If somebody denounces me and then gives me advice, half the time I am not going to accept it even if he is right. That is why Swamiji’s method was to bring out the positive side. In one of his famous letters he says, ‘No negative, all positive, affirmative. I am, God is, everything is in me. I will manifest health, purity, knowledge, whatever I want.’ (6.276) But that has to be done by asserting the positive aspect of ourselves, by thinking of our divine nature. If I lack strength, I think of the Atman as full of strength. If I lack courage, I think of the Atman as full of courage. That is the method. There is another famous saying of his:
Disease was found out as soon as man was born. Everyone knows his disease; it requires no one to tell us what our diseases are. But thinking all the time that we are diseased will not cure us – medicine is necessary. … In our heart of hearts we all know our weaknesses. But, says the Vedanta, being reminded of weakness does not help much; give strength, and strength does not come by thinking of weakness all the time. The remedy for weakness is not brooding over weakness, but thinking of strength. Teach men of the strength that is already within them. (2.300)
That is why, even for India his prescription is to think of strength, not weakness.
In one context Swamiji denounces India, but his major thrust is, ‘Love India, honour India, respect India.’ The idea is that you must develop that love for your own country. Not only for your country – ultimately you will have to embrace the whole world, but not by ignoring your country. Now the present world is being ruled by nationalism, and everywhere the nationalistic states are lionized. But, transcending nationalism, we must also recognize the universal idea – to make the entire world our own.
These are a few ideas from Swamiji. We can take up Swamiji from any angle and try to show that a particular idea of his is useful for the betterment of the individual, of society and of the world at large. That is the special purpose of a religious teacher, a teacher who is an inspirer. ‘Awakener of souls’ is the term often used for Swamiji. Let us be inspired by him; let us try to build our lives and also dedicate them for the good of everyone.