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, both spiritually and historically, I am at once proud and blessed to associate my humble name with that of Swami Vivekananda, a spiritual hero of Himalayan stature.

Thomas Jefferson, upon being made envoy to France after Benjamin Franklin, 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 towards 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 for 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 none other than Lord Shiva who wanted Shankara to practise what he was preaching. Also, according to many, Shankara himself was an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

However, 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, which 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.

Shankara's advaita or monism

According to Shankara, there is only one Reality, and this Reality is Brahman. Brahman and Brahman alone is the Absolute Reality. Nothing does or can exist without Brahman.

To our sorrow, the world has misunderstood Shankara. He is being misrepresented. If one studies Shankara with one's inner light, one immediately comes to realise that Shankara never did say that the world is a cosmic illusion. What he wanted to say and what he did say is this: the world is not and cannot be the Ultimate Reality.

Shankara saw the light of day in the eighth century a.d. In those days, spirituality was on the wane in India. The Indian spirituality or, should I say, the Hindu spirituality, was undergoing a serious operation while a good many pseudo-religious sects were growing like mushrooms. The Supreme commanded Shankara's appearance on Indian soil to cast these unhealthy sects aside and re-establish one religion, the religion of the Vedas, the Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion. Shankara advocated monism. This monism is the oneness absolute of the universe, man and God.

The Buddha stole God's Heart and Compassion; Shankara, God's Mind and Intellect; Sri Chaitanya, God's Body and Love; Sri Ramakrishna, God's Soul and Vision; Swami Vivekananda, God's Vital and Will.

India's champion philosopher, Shankara, founded modern philosophy in India. Europe's champion philosopher, Spinoza, founded modern philosophy in Europe. America's champion philosopher, Emerson, founded modern philosophy in America.

Shankara's Kevala Advaita is above all dualism. In his monism, there is no room for relative things, relative values, the pair of opposites, for all these come and go, appear and disappear. What is eternal is the Transcendental Brahman. "Ekam evadvitiyam —- That is the One without a second."

Shankara's philosophy has dealt considerably with maya. Maya is now taken to mean 'illusion', but its literal meaning is 'measurement of extension'. It refers to a kind of conception. When we want to conceive and express the Truth, with our incapacities or our very limited capacity, maya offers its help and comes to our rescue. But the Brahman, being infinite, escapes both our conception and our expression. Maya is the power that causes the world to be really real and, at the same time, distinct from God. Maya is a power, a mysterious power, a power always inconceivable.

"To quote Swami Bodhananda:
Shankara confesses his ignorance about this power, but he assumes it as a fact, just as we assume electricity as power, although we do not know what electricity is. He accepted maya as a power, as a fact. Centrifugally it is the becoming of the One, this Absolute Spirit, into the many, and centripetally the re-becoming of the many into that One. So, in this way, maya is an eternal power. By this power, Brahman projects Himself in the forms of God, man and universe. These are inseparable from maya, as well as from Brahman."

Shankara and Vedanta will always go together down the sweep of centuries. They are like twin souls.

Ramanuja's vishishtadvaita or qualified non-dualism

According to Ramanuja, the world is real, absolutely real, but it is wanting in perfection. At the same time, it does not care for perfection. It has no destined goal. The world was created by God's Inspiration, is sustained by His Concern and will be dissolved by His Will. The world is God's playground. He performs His lila, 'drama', here. This eternal sport of His is His constant movement, His spontaneous expression in endless repetition. Man is real. But he has to depend on God. The world is real. But it has to depend on God. Without God, both man and the world are meaningless futility. Man can be released and will be released from the meshes of ignorance one day and he is bound to realise God. But some difference between man and God will always remain. Man will remain eternally below God, hence he will always have to worship God. Ramanuja's path is mainly the path of Devotion. He stands firm against the theory of Shankara's undifferentiated Kevala Advaita. To him, Brahman is and can only be personal. A true aspirant can realise the Highest Truth and achieve the Knowledge infinite while he is still on earth.

Madhava's dvaita or dualism

Madhava's philosophy affirms the complete duality between the Brahman and the self (the small self). God, man and the world have a permanent existence. But man and the world have to depend solely on God for their existence. God is at once above the universe and in the universe. God has a divine Body that transcends all our human imagination. Nothing can be done on earth without God's immediate Concern, direct Approval and express Command from the inner planes. The Supreme Will of the Supreme guides the world. It pilots the world to its Destined Goal. Man can be free from the shackles of ignorance only when it is the Will of the Supreme. Liberation is not only possible, but inevitable. What is absolutely essential for liberation is man's loving adoration of God.

Now I wish to tell you what I feel about Vedanta. Just once, soulfully utter the word Vedanta. Immediately it will have the effect of a magic spell on you. At once your heart is inspired, your consciousness elevated and your life illumined.

To my sorrow, in the consciousness of the Western world the idea of sin is extravagant. A Vedantin's dictionary does not house the word sin. What he knows within and without is a series of obstacles —- doubt, fear and desire. He feels that he must not doubt the Divinity within him. No earthly fear can he allow to take birth in him. No desire, significant or insignificant, can ever blight the purest heart in him. Very often we are inclined to see ignorance all around. A Vedantin is justifiably apt to see the underlying Truth here, there and everywhere.

Religious people, especially the spiritual ones, cherish abundant joy in their feeling that they live in God's world, in one undivided world. Each individual is a true brother to them. The sense of brotherhood reigns supreme in their all-loving hearts. A Vedantin's heart is fully at one with them. He goes one step ahead. He sublimely declares, "Tat twam asi —- That Thou art." He sees and feels each human being as the embodiment of the Absolute Brahman.

Vedanta means freedom, freedom from limitations, freedom from bondage and freedom from ignorance. America is the land of matchless freedom. The American soil is exceptionally fertile for God to grow the Vedantic truth in measureless measure. Vedanta's freedom is the inner freedom. When the inner freedom comes to the fore and guides and directs the outer freedom, the outer freedom unmistakably and gloriously runs towards its Destined Goal. This Goal is the manifestation of God's infinite Truth, Peace, Light, Bliss and Power here on earth. The inner freedom is the realisation of the Eternal. The outer freedom is the manifestation of the Infinite. When the inner freedom and the outer freedom soulfully and divinely run abreast, today's man changes into tomorrow's God,

I would like to conclude my talk with a word about your universally cherished student John F. Kennedy. I would like to offer today's talk, our collective dedication, our unifying love and our united achievements to his hallowed memory and soaring aspiration.

  1. EHWM 117. Harvard University; Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 25 March 1969. This lecture was published in The Philosopher, The Journal of the Philosophical Society of England, Spring 1971.