Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Four Events in the Life of Vivekananda that Shaped his Thought

Vivekananda, i.e., Narendranath Datta, was born in 1863 in Calcutta. He was a member of the kayastha, a scribe caste that viewed itself as a sub-caste of the kshatriyas. In 1879 he entered Presidency College in Calcutta, and later he studied at Scottish Church College. In 1884, he received a B.A. degree.
During his time at college, Narendra became acquainted with European philosophy. He studied the positivism of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, the scepticism of David Hume, and the agnostic thought of Herbert Spencer. The works of these European philosophers had been exerting their influence in Bengal for some time. Comte was particularly well known in Bengal. Enthusiasts in Europe had sent positivist "missionaries" to Bengal at one time to spread the word, and Comte came to have a dedicated following there. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason (1794) had, over a period of time, been translated into Bengali. Hume was taught at the Hindu College in Calcutta. And the empiricism and Utilitarianism of J.S. Mill were well known among Bengali intellectuals. Rammohan Roy himself had corresponded with Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart's mentor.
Throughout most of his youth, Narendra maintained a belief in God, a belief that was in part shaped by the teachings of the Brahma Samaj. But as a result of his study of European positivism, in particular Mill's Three Essays on Religion, his faith in theism collapsed. This shattering of his faith was a significant event in the life of young Narendra, and it eventually helped orient him away from theism and motivate him to move toward the Vedanta and Yoga. We find evidence in his later writings of the perceived effects of the Enlightenment critique of religion:
Modern science and its sledge hammer blows are pulverising the porcelain foundations of all dualistic religions everywhere. "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 229
Under the terrific onset of modern scientific research, all the old forts of Western dogmatic religions are crumbling into dust; ... the sledge-hammer blows of modern science are pulverising the porcelain mass of systems whose foundation is either in faith or in belief... "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 419.
Some time after these events, one of Narendra's friends, Bajendranath Seal, introduced him to the metaphysical monism of Advaita Vedanta and to the Hegelian concept of reason ("the real is the rational, and the rational is the real"). With Bajendra's help, Narendra was able to construct a philosophical perspective that allowed him to ameliorate the effect that positivism and scepticism had exerted upon him. This perspective combined Vedanta with elements of rationalism. This amalgam remained with Narendra throughout his life, and he eventually came to understand Advaita Vedanta as particularly capable of resisting the Enlightenment critique of religion. On the Vedanta, he later writes:
We have seen how here alone we can take a firm stand against all the onrush of logic and scientific knowledge. Here at last reason has a firm foundation.... Therefore, preach the Advaita to everyone so that religion may withstand the shock of modern science. "The Vedanta," Selections, pp. 220; 230.
The influence of empiricism can also be discerned in his later writings; we will return to the question of how he adapted classical empiricism to the Indian tradition by fusing it with yogic mysticism. For now, we can note that he did not agree with the classical empirical view that experience is primarily sensory experience. Concerning empiricism, he asks rhetorically, "Who dares say that the senses are the all-in-all of man?" "The Sages of India," Selections, p. 235
In the years immediately following the death of his spiritual master in 1886, Narendra lived in a small monastery in Baranagore with others disciples. But he grew restless, and so he began wandering the country as samnyasin. During this period, we find Narendra continuing to seek out knowledge and spiritual experience -- meeting with various religious leaders and teachers, receiving instruction in Sanskrit from pandits, and living life as a traditional ascetic.
Narendra's letters from this time display a concern that his growing interest in the welfare of others might be hampering his own quest for spiritual enlightenment and liberation. But sometime during 1893, a change in his attitude begins to take place. A letter written in 1894 reveals that his interest had grown to the point where he had become alarmed by the despair and impoverishment of the people of India. This experience of Indian humiliation was another determinative event in his life, and it proved to be something of a turning point for him.
Other Hindu modernists and Neo-Hindu thinkers had experienced this sense of humiliation as well, and there was a general feeling among them that India, and Hinduism in particular, had grown too accustomed to its spiritual resignation and political inertia. S. Radhakrishnan describes the state of dejection he experienced as a student at Madras Christian College:
I was strongly persuaded of the inferiority of the Hindu religion to which I attributed a political downfall of India.... I remember the cold sense of reality, the depressing feeling that crept over me, as a causal relation between the anaemic Hindu religion and our political failure forced itself on my mind. ("The Spirit of Man")
No doubt, this feeling of inferiority was directly related to India's years of political subjugation. But it was also related to the Indian encounter with European civilization and culture. To an extent, this involved its confrontation with European science, technology, and rationality. But it also involved the social and ethical challenge presented to Hinduism by the Christian missionaries and others. Vivekananda refers to this challenge at various points in his writings; he writes:
Look at the books published in Madras against the Hindu religion. If a Hindu writes such a line against the Christian religion, the missionaries will cry fire and vengeance. "In Defence of Hinduism," Selections, p. 416
This critique of Hinduism took particular aim at Advaita Vedanta. In their attack on the Vedanta, the Christian apologists enlisted the aid of the principle of utility. An article from the Calcutta Review of 1852 reads, "Let Utility then answer if she prefers Vedantism to Christianity." When referring to the superiority of Christianity, the Christian apologists often pointed to the social and ethical consequences of adopting Vedanta. The implication was that the Vedanta lacked the ability to address properly ethical and social concerns.
This idea, that Advaita Vedanta suffers from a kind of "ethical apathy," is traced by its critics to the doctrine of the witness (sakshin), that is, to the teaching that the soul is, in its essence, merely a passive spectator and never truly an active agent (kartr). This is the familiar charge of "quietism," the accusation that contemplative traditions are negligent of the needs of society and theoretically inadequate to the task of social activism. Again, we find evidence that Vivekananda was aware of this critique:
"Oh" they say, "you Hindus have become quiescent and good for nothing, through this doctrine that you are witnesses!" "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 217
The critics of Vedanta also related this doctrine to another problem: Under the auspices of eternalism, any action becomes possible since any action can be rationalized. Bhagavad Gita 2.19 reads, "Neither he who sees the Self as a killer, nor he who sees the Self as killed, sees things correctly. For the Self is not a killer and nor is it killed." Surely, they argued, this sort of teaching is anathema to ethically justifiable conduct. Many centuries earlier, the Jains and Buddhists had raised a similar objection. They pointed out that any doctrine that teaches that the real can only be the permanent (nitya) and unchanging (avicalita; kutastha) reality will teach the akriya-vada, the teaching that nothing can be done, since all action is impossible.
Another way that monism was viewed as ethically challenged was related by its critics to its inability to provide an adequate frame of reference for morality. Again, it is worth noting that the Indian tradition itself had noticed this problem well before the appearance of Christian missionaries in India. The classical critics of Vedanta posed the problem thus: If we are all one Self, then moral retribution in the case of individuals is senseless; and if we are all essentially one with God, then our sins will attach to God. The modernist critique of Advaita continues this line of thought, if in a less sophisticated manner: If duality is illusory, then good and evil do not exist; and if we are all God, then we can do no wrong. In his later writings, Vivekananda also shows an awareness of this type of critique; he writes:
Our boys blithely talk nowadays, they learn from somebody -- the Lord knows whom -- that Advaita makes people immoral, because if we are all one and all God, what need of morality will there be at all! "The Vedanta," Selections, p. 222
With regard to the question of Hinduism, and religion in general, some Indian reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had come to the conclusion that Hinduism itself was to blame for India's political and social stagnation. But there is little indication in his writings that Vivekananda ever seriously entertained this idea. Since his discovery of Vedanta, and his encounter with Ramakrishna, he appears convinced that Hinduism, and Advaita Vedanta in particular, is not the problem, but the solution. For Vivekananda, "spirituality" is India's strength. This meant that, "religion was not to blame; men were to blame."
Determined that he should seek to find a way to improve the lot of the people of India, Narendranath, who at this time begins calling himself Vivekananda, decided to leave India in search of the resources needed to improve the well-being of India's masses. And so, in 1893, he set sail for America. He remained there until 1896, taking occasional excursions to England and Continental Europe. While in the West, he experienced American and European civilization and culture. This exposure to Western lifestyles, and culture in general, was another formative factor in the thought of Vivekananda.
Throughout Vivekananda's writings we find stereotyped descriptions of the "West." Most typically, the West is "materialistic" and dominated, as he puts it, by the ideals of "eating and drinking." But he acknowledges that Europe and America have mastered the "outer world," and he contrasts this with the Indian mastery of the "inner world." Like Keshab Chandra Sen, Vivekananda speaks of the value of an exchange of learning between the two "complementary" cultures:
I would say, the combination of the Greek mind represented by the external European energy added to the Hindu spirituality would be the ideal society for India.... India has to learn from Europe the conquest of external nature, and Europe has to learn from India the conquest of the internal nature.... We have developed one phase of humanity, and they another. It is the union of the two that is wanted. Interview from "The Hindu," (Madras) 1897, Selections, pp. 290-291
At the same time, however, Vivekananda is not as conciliatory toward the West as Rammohan Roy or Keshab Chandra Sen. He insists that India should resist Western social norms and cultural attitudes, and make no concessions to Christianity. It must discover its own hidden potential and recover its forgotten greatness; if anything, it must follow the lead of Japan, which found and maintained its own identity even while learning from the West:
There in Japan you find a fine assimilation of knowledge, and not its indigestion, as we have here. They have taken everything from the Europeans, but they remain Japanese all the same, and they have not turned into Europeans; while in our country, the terrible mania of becoming Westernized has seized upon us like a plague. "Conversations," Selections, p. 386
Nonetheless, there are a number of features of American and European civilization that Vivekananda comes to admire. He admires its technical expertise and science; he admires its industry, vigour and work ethic; he admires its social order, in particular the organization of its educational systems; he admires its ideals of equality and liberty; he admires its traditions of philanthropy, altruism, and cooperative action; and perhaps above all, he admires the self-confidence of the West, to which he attributes its strong sense of national identity.
Upon returning from his travels abroad, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission, the principle aims of which were to be practical philanthropy and education. In his speeches, Vivekananda himself says that his establishing of the Ramakrishna Mission was directly influenced by his life in America. His opening statement at the inaugural meeting of what will become the Ramakrishna Mission begins thus:
The conviction has grown in my mind after my travels in various lands that no great cause can succeed without an organization. "Conversations," Selections, p. 343.
But the most significant event in the life of Vivekananda was undoubtedly his encounter with Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna (i.e., Gadadhara Chattopadhyaya, 1836-1886) was a temple priest at Daskshineshwar, Bengal, and devotee of the goddess Kali. An ecstatic and mystic, he viewed Hinduism as an organic whole comprised of several different, yet equal, paths to the divine. For Ramakrishna, this equality was a demonstrable truth, and for periods of time, he was alternately a devotee of Rama and Krishna, receiving religious visions of both while practising as their devotee. At the same time, Ramakrishna was also a universalist whose inclusivism went beyond the various forms of cultic Hinduism. He believed that Islam and Christianity were equally paths to God, to the "one water that we all drink," and he thought he could demonstrate, experientially, that this was the case.
We find present in the person and teaching of Ramakrishna the familiar themes of "experience" and "inclusivism." But Ramakrishna was no Hindu modernist, and nor was his teaching, strictly speaking, a form of Neo-Hinduism. He distanced himself from modernist Hindu movements; his negative view of the Brahma Samaj was closer to that of the traditional pandits. Like some of his contemporaries, Ramakrishna referred to the Hindu tradition as the "sanatana dharma," "the eternal religion," and for him this meant that Hinduism was in no need of "reform." Nonetheless, Ramakrishna's universalism, and his conception of Hinduism as a unity, was also a response to the situation of modernity and to the Indian encounter with the West. His teaching can thus be seen as a form of a Hindu self-assertion in that it implies that Hinduism is capable of absorbing the foreign while retaining its self-identity.
Narendra first met with Ramakrishna in 1881, while he was a student at college. At first, Narendra was reticent toward Ramakrishna. He was sceptical of Ramakrishna's "visions" and suspicious of the idolatry practiced around him; nor did he did not share Ramakrishna's emotional and ebullient religiosity. But after several years of association with him, he acquired a fondness for Ramakrishna, and became one of his disciples. He was soon Ramakrishna's favourite, and he would become the best known apostle of Ramakrishna's gospel of universalism. In time, Vivekananda came to share some of his master's fervour for the religious life, though he continued to distance himself from religious sentimentality and emotionalism.
While Narendra did not seek to relive the various devotional experiences of his master, Ramakrishna did immerse him in mystical spirituality, and under his tutelage, Narendra underwent a series of mystical experiences. For Narendra, such experience was the final proof of religion, the refutation of scepticism, and the answer to positivism.
As a mature devotee, Vivekananda came to regard Ramakrishna as an incarnation of God. He viewed him as a kind of "living commentary" on Hinduism, as the embodiment of its vitality and truth, and the fulfilment of its potential. While there is no reason to doubt that Vivekananda's devotion to his master was real, he also made use of the traditional cult of the guru to forward his own agenda and to propagate his own teachings. After the death of his teacher in 1886, Vivekananda believed that the spirit of Ramakrishna was working through him. But while Ramakrishna may have been a source of inspiration and grounding for Vivekananda, he was not the primary source of Vivekananda's ideas. Ramakrishna was not a Neo-Vedantin; nor did he share Vivekananda's later interests in "practical Vedanta," philanthropy and education. Nonetheless, when confronted by these differences, Vivekananda presented himself as the "instrument" of his master. posted by kelamuni at 11:35 AM

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