Dialogue  April - June, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 4



Vivekanada on the Idea of the Religious


Sujata Miri*


“Man must realize God, feel God, talk to God. That is religion’. In his lecture delivered at New York under the auspices of the Vedanta Society, Vivekananda talks of the India’s history as replete with of stories of saintly persons having visions of God, and how these come to form the basis of the people’s religion. All the scriptures, says Vivekananda, are the writings of persons who came into direct contact with spiritual facts. Religion begins with the awakening of the spiritual faculty. Enlightening his Western audience about the East, he refers to the Orient as he part of the world which is steeped in spirituality: for the Orient the world of the spirit is as real as the world of senses is to the Occident “In the spiritual, the Oriental finds everything he wants or hopes for; in it he finds all that makes life real to him”.

The again, “When the Oriental wants to learn about machine-making he should sit at the feet of the Occidental. When the Occidental wants to learn about the spirit, about God, about the soul, about the meaning and mystery of this universe, she must sit at the feet of the Orient to learn”. As is well-known, for Vivekananda, while India represented the haven of spirituality, the West, represented the heights of material civilization. For him it is in the effective complimentarity and reciprocity of the two that the ultimate well-being of mankind was to be sought. Each would grow with the mutual exchange of their values. Accordingly, as a Vedantin, he talked of renunciation of the world of senses as the highest value, he also viewed western industrialization in a positive light. For him the scientific urge in man that helped him in transforming nature to his own advantage was a welcome was a welcome activism. However there is a basic problem here arising out of the conflicting claims of the religious person and the man of science. The man of science expects the religious discourse to be bound by the same criteria of rationality as are implicit in science. He finds the religious discourse, specially about spirituality, falling entirely outside the bounds of scientific discourse and as such rejects it as not irrational perhaps, but at best, having a significance that is quite other than what it literally professes. (It might, for instance, have psychological, sociological or aesthetic significance, but cannot possibly claim any literal objectivity.)

Given the idea that spirituality is embodied in a religious vision, it is not difficult to see why religion cannot be seen to have an organic place in contemporary life. Modern civilization is committed to a hitherto undreamed of technology of information and manipulation of the material world including the world of humans. Such manipulation has led to a materialization or, rather of the “dematerialization” (creation of the “cyber” world) of reality in a way in which what Vivekananda calls spirituality can have no place at all. Cyber space, which is increasingly devouring the real space of everyday life, is dematerialized material space. It has nothing whatever to do with spirituality.

There is a problem of a more serious nature here. Vivekananda’s ideal of spirituality as constituting the religious, gives credence to the thesis that religion is only an “inner/private” matter, that the religious is incapable of manifestation in the “outer” world. If it interferes with the outer it only creates confusion and becomes a hindrance to a systematic pursuit of self-fulfilling goals.

Understandable as the religious of the religious to the spirituals (inner?) is, it is nonetheless based on a grave mistake which leads to an extremely limited view of the religious life. There is obviously a sense in which one’s religion is a source of spiritual joy and harmony. But once religion is reduced to the sphere of the spiritual, the word is given a sense which, in some ways, radically delimits the very notion of religion. ‘Spiritual’ in this sense means divorced altogether from man’s social/political life. The spiritual can be associated with prayer, meditation and so on, but whatever else it might include, it cannot essentially have anything to do with man’s social existence. The claim to be religious is essentially a claim to have had a spiritual vision in the inner private realm of one’s being. Here one cannot recall Gandhi: “I do not believe that spiritual law works on field of its own, it expresses itself only through the ordinary activities of life. It thus affects the economic, social and the political fields.” (Young India, 1924) Spirituality is undoubtedly something that man achieves “within” himself; but this within is as though nothing unless it manifests itself without.

Vivekananda quotes Sri Ramakrishna as having said that if we wanted to realize religion we must give up the “enjoyment of the world” for the enjoyment of the world and the enjoyment of God will never go together. He says more explicitly, “Renunciation is the background of all religious thought wherever it be, and you will always find that as this idea of renunciation lessens, the more will the senses creep into the field of religion, and spirituality will decrease in the same ratio.” Religion does not mean words nor sects but spiritual realization and only those who have attained spirituality can be great teachers of mankind. True as this assertion of the Master many be, Vivekananda’s reference to it seems to suggest his acceptance of the absolute dichotomy between “this” world and the “other”, between the secular and the sacred – this in spite of his tremendous life of service in this world, which, in itself, is a fairly revolutionary concept in Hinduism.

The separation of the spiritual form the worldly, is almost a holy principle for sociologists interested in the study of religion. For this orientation which might be said to have had its beginnings in the French sociologist Durkheim, the sacred consists of activities which have to do with what are generally recognizable as religious rites and rituals, and the secular covers almost all other spheres of life that are essential for a worldly human existence: spheres of life which consist in the pursuit economic well being, pleasures of the senses and organized political practice. Incidentally, this distinction is a peculiarly modern phenomenon which coincides with the rise of positivism and the so-called enlightenment in the West.

It must be conceded that this distinction (between the spiritual and the worldly), in Ramakrishna’s vision, is always in imminent danger of being turned into a dualism, which might have been furthest from his heart. Historically speaking, this dualism has served different kinds of interests – primarily the interests of political power. In the west, for instance, the tremendous power wielded by the priesthood went naturally with an increasing emphasis on the dualistic conception oft eh relationship between the natural and the transcendent.. For the religious person, however, this distinction cannot amount to a dualism. For him everything being imbued with religious significance, there can be nothing which is non-sacred. The natural, as it were, is rooted in the transcendental, there cannot be for him two realms of being. For a religious person or a religious society, all crucial human activities must spring fundamentally form religious motivation. A religious person’s relationship to others in society, to nature and above all, his own self-awareness can never be finally divorced from his religious vision. Of course many of his daily activities may bear substantial resemblance to those of a non-religious person. But they must find their ultimate justification in his religious vision.

 On the other hand, for a non-religious person, the concept of the religious can have only a distorted application. For him allegedly religious motives are suspect in one of the two ways:

1.  They are based on false beliefs, and activities springing from them must be fundamentally misguided. Modern humanists will come under this group.

2.  It is impossible to determine the truth or falsehood of the beliefs behind religious motives, but the activities allegedly springing from religious motives can be explained exhaustively in terms of motives and functions which have really nothing to do with religion at all. Freudian psychologists, Marxists and the general run of modern sociologists will fall under this group.

The important point, however is that for a great religious person such as Sri Ramakrishna religious motives are unquestionably valid, it is these which give his activities their essential meaning. For example, the daily ritual of a morning bath may be common to both a religious and a non-religious person. However, in the case of the former, this activity too must find its ultimate justification in his religion. The following words of Vivekananda evoke the same sentiment: “In life and in death, in woe or in joy, in misery or in happiness, the whole world is full of the Lord. Open your eyes and see him. That is what Vedanta says.”

     As a matter of fact any kind of dualism should have been suspect to Vivekananda, a self-proclaimed Vedantin. For, as he him self explains, Vedanta wants to teach the deification of the world. “It does not in reality denounce the world…….give up the world as we think of it, as we seem to know it, as it is appearing, and know what it really is. …..Deify it, it is God alone,” he counsels. The world recalls Vivekananda’s call for a universal religious in his lecture at the Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in the year 1893 with great admiration. The same message is repeated at various other forums by him. Let me quote this at some length:

The “idea that I learned from my Master……….is the wonderful truth that the religions of the world are not contradictory nor antagonistic; they are but various phases of One Eternal Religion. One Infinite religion existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways. Therefore we must respect all religions and we must try to accept them all as far as we can.” 

Living with the followers of Islam and Christianity, Ramakrishna discovered that their devotional methods led him to the same goal which he had already achieved through his own religion. Thereby he concluded that the goal of every religion is the same, that each is trying to teach the same thing, the difference being largely in method and language. “At the core, all sects and all religions have the same aim.” 

Well-meaning as this may sound, this approach to take the awesome phenomenon of religious of diversity rather lightly. While highlighting the underlying unity human existence, Vivekananda offers no constructive argument for how historically distinctive cultures would transcend individual religious and cultural barriers. With his insistence on spirituality as constituting religion proper, Vivekananda tries a deft and delicate balancing of inter-religious perspectives.

“Religion is not talk, nor doctrines nor theories nor is it sectarianism. Religion cannot live in sects and societies. It is the relation between soul and God; how can it be made into a society? It would then degenerate into a business, and wherever there is business, or business principles in religion, spirituality dies”. Ignoring the vast differences in the precepts and practices of different religions, he continues, “Religion does not consist in erecting temples, or building churches, or attending public worship. It is not to be found in books, nor in words, nor in lectures, nor in organizations. Religion consists in realization.”

Unlike his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, who took theological instruction in a particular belief system from the practitioners of that system alone, Vivekananda does not seem to be much concerned about the need for a deeper understanding of world religions across of man, he makes no mention of the vast differences inhuman historical experience. Being a Vedantin, he favoured the direct personal perception of the highest reality.

Interestingly enough, he himself unashamedly acknowledged a preference for the Hindu religion: it was only Hinduism that most emphatically taught the world universality and tolerance. University was part of his nativity, a sacred inheritance. His experience thus remains limited to his own religion thereby privileging Hinduism over other religions. Moreover there is lack of a serious effort in his philosophy to reconcile the universalistic feelings on the one hand and the insularity of individual religions. His understanding of the phenomenon of diversity of religion appears in sharp contrast to Gandhi’s call for an international fellowship of religions. Gandhi’s argument for the unity of all religious is based on the following statements, which Gandhi believed to be true of religion as such.

1.  Each religion has a centre which may be said to consist of man’s insight into his own transcendental core His assertion here about the heart of religion is not an empirical one in either the sense that he arrived at it by means of an empirical investigation of different religions of the world; or that the discovery of a religion which did not have such a core would falsify his claim. Although Gandhi’s knowledge of both Christianity and Islam was profound, he did not study either with a view, as it were, to confirming his hypothesis about the “essence” of religion. Gandhi’s belief springs from his conviction that it is impossible that God does not exist and that the mark of a true religion is that it affords primarily an insight into this truth.

2.  Each religion is also associated with a network of beliefs, doctrines, legends and stories. Gandhi believed that a network of these associated with any religion is the product of a particular culture and tradition, and that therefore, they are historically conditioned. As such they are subject to changes, open to newer interpretations, and even to partial rejection. No such network of beliefs etc. can therefore claim absolute finality or perfection.

3.  Every religion has its own mode or modes of worship. But one thing that is common to all these modes of worship. But one thing that is common to all these modes of worship is their use of what Gandhi calls “symbolism”. Symbols vary widely from one religion to another or even within the same religion; as symbols no one symbol or set of them can claim logical superiority over another. Logically each one is on a par with another-whether it is an idol, or a sacred grove, or a temple, mosque or a church. One chooses one’s mode of worship according to one’s tradition and inclination-none is, in principle, preferable to another.

The conclusion form 1.2 and 3. is clear. No religion, in principle, deserves more respect than another; in other words, every religion must be equally respected. Such an understanding, says Gandhi will, “give one a grasp of the rock-bottom unity of all religions and afford a glimpse also of the universal and absolute truth which lies beyond the ‘dust of creeds and faiths’’’ (Young India, 16 December, 1928).

The great advantage of the Gandhian concept of the unity of religions over Vivekananda is that it is, unlike the latter, based on a clear sighted recognition of the extraordinary power-spiritual, intellectual and moral of the true religious vision. Vivekananda’s starting point about the identity of the religious with only the spiritual can at best talk of the core or heart of religions to the total neglect of the more diverse manifestations of it in action. In contrast Gandhi’s idea of a fellowship of religions can obviously yield concrete principles of action which could have an immensely greater practical impact.

But perhaps I have been terribly uncharitable to Vivekananda’s position. The plausibility that his views carried in the particular historical circumstances in which they were expressed is understandable. One can also understand a natural and intrinsic sympathy for his position given the fissures that institutional, organized religions have created in our world. If a claim is made on behalf of a person that he is religious, it is natural, we think, to ask, “what religion does he belong to?” and expect an answer specifying one or other of the world religions e.g. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and so on. My asking this question assumes that one could be religious only within the framework of a form-of-life of a particular religion. Being a Christian or a Muslim for instance, involves one’s holding certain very specific beliefs about the past and the future of man, apart from being committed to a certain way of life, what ever that might mean.

But this assumption need not always be correct. There does deem to be a sense of the term “religious” in which a person could be quite understandably called “religious” without it wither being necessary or possible to identify him as Hindu, Christian, Muslim and so on. To be religious without being religious in the way of may of the doctrinaire religions, should therefore, imply that: (1) such a person does not necessarily share any of the specific beliefs associated with these religions and (2) that he need not lead a life which is recognizably the peculiar way of life prescribed by any of these religions. His being religious would definitely entail a commitment but his commitment would, in Vivekananda’s vision, be a commitment only to spiritual realization. When X say that he is religious, he is saying (a) that scientific explanation cannot “exhaust” the human situation and (b) that every act of X is aimed finally at the goal of spiritual realization.

This kind of commitment to the “religious” may or may not co-exist with its expression in any one particular religion. There are, so it seems tome, two distinct advantages, in being religious without being committed to any particular religion. (1) One can be genuinely tolerant towards all religious and regard them as different but equally legitimate ways of finding meaning in life. (2) One could also naturally arrive at the position that the various religious do not form an hierarchy where they can be arranged in an order of superiority to one another. Questions of superiority or inferiority need not arise at all since all religions are to be viewed as different attempts at articulating man’s contact with the spiritual. Vivekananda, of course, did not advocate the abandonment of doctrinaire religions in favour of (what someone might characterize my position as) the adoption of a religious attitude.

  All reference are from Speeches and Writings of Swami Vivekananda. Vol. 1. Prentwell publishers. Jaipur. 1988.

 1. P. 12

 2 P. 2

 3 P. 3

 4 P. 26

 5 P. 329

 6 P. 23

 7 P. 18

 8 P. 23

 9 P. 23


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati