The Vedanta Philosophy1

Seventy-three long years ago, precisely on this date, the great spiritual giant Swami Vivekananda dynamically blessed this university, the university unparalleled in the whole of the United States of America, with his august presence. He spoke on the Vedanta Philosophy. Today I am invited to speak on the same lofty subject. Seventy-three springs later, call it a mere stroke of fate, call it a destined, divine dispensation, on this fruitfully significant day, I am at once proud and blessed to associate my name with that of Swami Vivekananda, a spiritual hero of Himalayan stature.

Thomas Jefferson, on replacing Benjamin Franklin as envoy to France, remarked, "I succeed him; no one could replace him." With all the sincerity at my command, I dare neither to replace nor to succeed Swami Vivekananda, but, as a son of Bengal, I wish to bask in the unprecedented glory of Sri Ramakrishna's dearest disciple, a unique son of Mother Bengal.

O Harvard University, I tell you a sweet secret of mine. Perhaps you have heard about the Royal Bengal Tigers. The fear of these tigers ruthlessly tortured my infant heart. O Harvard, your very name used to create almost the same fear in my mind in my adolescent days. But today, to my extreme surprise, you have awakened enormous joy in my heart.

Vedanta means "the end of the Vedas"; indeed, this is purely a literal meaning. Otherwise, Vedanta has a reservoir of countless meanings; religious, philosophical, moral, ethical, spiritual, earthly human and heavenly divine. Vedanta reveals guideposts for a spiritual pilgrimage — a pilgrimage toward the absolute Truth. This pilgrimage welcomes all those who soulfully cry for the Transcendental Brahman.

The earth-bound mind is too feeble to enter into the Truth Absolute. "The words return with the mind fruitlessly endeavouring to express what Truth is." This truth sublime we learn from the Vedas.

Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma, "Verily all this is Brahman." A true lover of Brahman needs must be a true lover of mankind. Never can he see eye to eye with Samuel Johnson, who voiced forth: "I am willing to love mankind, except an American." Needless to say, the teachings of Vedanta are marked by a rare catholicity of vision — always.

Vedanta welcomes not only the purest heart, but also the scoundrel of the deepest dye. Vedanta invites all. Vedanta accepts all. Vedanta includes all. Vedanta's inner door is open not only to the highest, but also to the lowest in human society.

India's Shankaracharya is by far the greatest Vedantin that our Mother-Earth has ever produced. At the dawn of his spiritual journey, before he had attained to the Consciousness of the Absolute Brahman, a certain feeling of differentiation plagued his mind. Hard was it for him to believe that everything in the universe was Brahman. One day as Shankara was returning home after having completed his bath in the Ganges, he chanced to meet a butcher — an untouchable. The butcher, who was carrying a load of meat, accidentally touched Shankara in passing. Shankara flew into a rage. His eyes blazed like two balls of fire. His piercing glance was about to turn the butcher into a heap of ashes. The poor butcher, trembling from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, said, "Venerable Sir, please tell me the reason of your anger. I am at your service. I am at your command." Shankara blurted out, "How dare you touch my body which has just been sanctified in the holiest river? Am I to remind you that you are a butcher?" "Venerable Sir," replied the butcher, "who has touched whom? The Self is not the body. You are not the body. Neither am I. You are the Self. So am I." The Knowledge of the One Absolute dawned on poor Shankara. People nowadays in India claim that the butcher was no other than Lord Shiva who wanted Shankara to practise what he was preaching. But, according to many, Shankara himself was an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

By no means should we neglect the body. The body is the temple. The soul is the Deity therein. Have we not learned from Vedanta that it is in the physical that the spiritual disciplines have to be practised?

Lo and behold, Walt Whitman is powerfully knocking at our heart's door: "If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred."

The five cardinal points of Vedanta are: the Oneness of Existence, the Divinity in Man, the Divinity of Man, Man the Infinite and Man the Absolute.

Vedanta expresses itself through three particular systems: Advaita or Non-Dualism, Vishishtadvaita or Qualified Non-Dualism and Dvaita, Dualism. These three ancient systems developed large sects in India that were later shaken by the arrival of Buddhism. Buddhism shook the Vedic-Upanishadic tree. India is eternally grateful, therefore, to Shankara for the revival of the Non-Dualistic system, to Ramanuja for the Qualified Non-Dualistic System and to Madhava for the Dualistic System.


  1. IVY 1. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 25 March 1969.