Sometimes we unexpectedly find heroes in unlikely places. When I resigned from the LDS church in 2011, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me that four years later one of my heroes would be a Hindu monk who lived from 1863-1902. I had never heard of him, and my guess is that you haven’t either.
Although we in America learn plenty about Europe in school and in the news, we learn next to nothing about India. So it’s no surprise that we in the U.S. have never heard of a man who is widely regarded as a national hero in India, whose birthday is still celebrated there as a national holiday, and who Gandhi identified as one of his main inspirations in the struggle for Indian independence: Vivekananda.
Vivekananda recognized the looming conflict between science and religion, and he learned from an unexpected source how to integrate the two. He helped develop and promote a science-affirming spiritual philosophy, and became a pioneer of Religious Humanism in both the East and the West.
Vivekananda saw the conflict between science and religion first-hand in his own home. His father was an attorney and a scientifically-minded atheist. He blamed religion for intellectually weakening the Indian people to the point where they’d become vulnerable to colonization by an outside power. Vivekananda’s father believed that to achieve political liberation, the Indian people must first cast off the chains of their religious superstition.
Vivekananda’s mother, on the other hand, was a devout Hindu who loved Hindu scripture and regularly worshiped both at home and at temples in the typical Hindu fashion. When Vivekananda was growing up, his mother would read him stories from the Mahabharata, the mythical history of the gods and their dealings with the ancient Indian people. Vivekananda was inspired by these heroic figures who personified various virtues, and he recognized that striving to emulate such heroes helped him and others develop good character.
Vivekananda would later say that as a result of his upbringing, he had a scientific mind but a religious heart.
In his college years, Vivekananda tended more toward his father’s outlook. He considered himself an atheist. Like many upper-class Indians, he received a Western education in British schools in India. He studied Schopenhauer, Darwin, Nietzsche, and other Western luminaries in philosophy and science. He admired the great strides the West had taken in science and technology, and yearned for the day when the once-great Indian civilization would do the same.
Unbeknownst to Vivekananda, his life’s path was permanently altered one day at school when his psychology professor suggested that if any students wanted to see first-hand what someone in a trance looks like, they should visit a monk named Ramakrishna at the Kali temple in Dakshineshwar, just outside of Calcutta. Vivekananda and some of his classmates took up their professor’s suggestion.
When they met Ramakrishna, Vivekananda got right to the point: he asked Ramakrishna if he’d ever seen God. Ramakrishna’s response surprised him. Rather than ducking the question as had everyone else he’d asked, Ramakrishna immediately replied: “Yes, I have seen God. I have seen Him as I see you here.” It would take four years for Vivekananda to grasp the meaning of Ramakrishna’s response.
Ramakrishna told Vivekananda that he had been dying to unburden his mind by sharing his thoughts with someone who could understand them. He invited Vivekananda to return often to continue their discussion.
For Vivekananda, Ramakrishna was an enigma. Ramakrishna was known for spending hours in meditation each day, during which he would go into trances and ecstasies that Vivekananda dismissed as delusions. In so many ways Ramakrishna was Vivekananda’s polar opposite. Ramakrishna believed in God, but Vivekananda was an atheist. Ramakrishna performed ritual idol worship, but Vivekananda rejected idol worship as rank superstition. Ramakrishna was uneducated, but Vivekananda was a dedicated student and passionate seeker of knowledge. But despite these sharp differences, Vivekananda said he felt inexplicably drawn to this strange monk.
Vivekananda’s inability to articulate why he was drawn to Ramakrishna made him intensely curious to discover the answer. Over the next four years, he visited Ramakrishna at the temple regularly. Vivekananda appreciated Ramakrishna’s personality and sincerity, but he constantly disagreed and scoffed at Ramakrishna’s teachings. For example, when Ramakrishna shared with Vivekananda the monistic philosophy of Advaita Vedanta–the idea that God (Brahman) is everywhere in everything–Vivekananda ridiculed the idea: “How absurd! See that pot over there? That’s God! See that fly on the wall? That’s God!”
Over time, however, Vivekananda grasped this concept of Brahman, and it changed his outlook forever. As Vivekananda would later explain to Western audiences, the God of Indian scripture–Brahman–is a principle, not a person. Like the Greek philosopher Democritus, the sages of ancient India who wrote Hindu scripture observed that matter can be broken down into smaller and smaller particles. For example, a boulder can be crushed down to rocks, rocks can be crushed down to pebbles, pebbles can be crushed down to sand, sand can be crushed down to dust, and dust can be crushed until it becomes almost ethereal. Democritus reasoned that everything must therefore be constituted of particles too small to be seen by the naked eye, and he invented a name for these theoretical particles: “atoms”. More than two thousand years later, Democritus’ reasoning was scientifically confirmed with the atomic theory.
The sages of ancient India reached a similar conclusion several centuries before Democritus, but they went even further than he did. Unlike Democritus, they did not think the inquiry into the nature of reality could end with the individual particles of which matter is comprised. Rather, they reasoned that if we could break down material reality to the furthest point possible, the Ultimate Reality we would discover would be something like a cosmic energy field. And they gave it name: Brahman. For thousands of years, Indians have regarded the sound “Om” as the “sacred symbol” that represents the hum of the energy of the Universe–Brahman.
If Vivekananda were alive today, he would not be surprised at all to learn that scientists have discovered atoms and even smaller elementary particles, quarks. Nor would he be surprised by the concept of “dark energy” and the fact that, as far as physicists can tell, there’s no such thing as “nothing” in the Universe–that even the near-perfect vacuum of space contains relativistic quantum fields. None of this would come as a surprise to a believer in Brahman like Vivekananda.
From the Western perspective, applying the word “God” to Brahman seems wildly inappropriate because it is a naturalistic concept, and the West has defined God as being supernatural–as being separate from and independent of nature. From the Western point of view, a naturalistic concept like Brahman doesn’t deserve to be classified as a theistic idea.
But from the Indian point of view, it is only logical to regard Brahman as God. The cosmic energy field that has evolved into galaxies full of stars and planets is Eternal in that it has no beginning or end, Absolute in that it lacks nothing, and Infinite in that it contains the limitless potentialities that have evolved from it. Moreover, that cosmic energy field is the ultimate source of all our “blessings”: our lives, our health, our loved ones, the materials that shelter and clothe us, and the food that sustains us. For the sages of ancient India, these qualities made Brahman every bit deserving of the title “God”.
When one understands the concept of Brahman, one can understand what the Hindu means when he says “God is everywhere and in everything”. One can also understand the meaning of Ramakrishna’s answer when Vivekananda asked if he’d ever seen God: “Yes, I have seen him. I have seen Him as I see you here.” Because the ultimate source of humankind is the cosmic energy field of Brahman, Hindus see divinity in everyone. They greet each other by saying “namaste”, meaning “I bow to you”.
When Vivekananda came to understand the concept of Brahman, he realized that he needn’t choose between science and religion, nor between atheism and theism, because the God of Hinduism–Brahman–is a naturalistic concept that is compatible with science. Moreover, the cosmic energy field that is the ultimate source of our lives and blessings is perfectly worthy of our awe, reverence, gratitude, and devotion. We can have scientific minds and religious hearts.
After four years of arguing with Ramakrishna, Vivekananda finally accepted Ramakrishna as his guru (teacher/mentor) and became his disciple (student). It was at that point that he took on the name Vivekananda, which means “the bliss of knowledge” (his given name was Narendranath Dutta). But to Vivekananda’s dismay, their relationship was cut short by Ramakrishna’s death in 1886.
Vivekananda was twenty-three years old. He had graduated from college but had not yet dedicated himself to a career. He was at one of life’s crossroads. Eventually he and some of Ramakrishna’s other disciples decided to form a monastic order to perpetuate Ramakrishna’s teachings. But Vivekananda was adamant that it must be different from the existing monastic orders in one respect: charitable service must be one of its key missions.
At that time, the prevailing interpretation of Hinduism embraced the caste system and the doctrine of karma. The two were a lethal combination because together they promoted the idea that the poorest castes deserved their station in life. Moreover, the prevailing view was that one’s spiritual welfare was more important than one’s temporal welfare. As a result, charitable service was not a priority for Hindu monastic orders.
Vivekananda strongly felt otherwise. He had studied Christianity in the British schools he’d attended, and he greatly admired the Christian emphasis on charity. Moreover, he did not consider spiritual and temporal welfare to be disconnected. “How can a person develop spirituality if he doesn’t have clothes to wear or food to eat?” he would ask. And so on Christmas Eve of 1896, Vivekananda and several of Ramakrishna’s other disciples met together and took their monastic vows, including a commitment to live as Jesus lived by serving the sick and the needy.
After taking his vows, Vivekananda decided to follow Hindu monastic tradition by wandering the countryside and meditating in the forest. He set out on foot taking only four possessions with him: a bowl, a staff, and his two favorite books–the Bhagavad Gita, and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
As Vivekananda wandered throughout India, he found his countrymen in a more impoverished state than he’d ever imagined. He’d seen poverty in his hometown of Calcutta, but he’d largely been sheltered from it by his upper-class upbringing. For the first time in his life, Vivekananda was now experiencing poverty personally, and he was distraught to find his countrymen in deep poverty all across India.
For the next five years as Vivekananda wandered India’s cities and countrysides, he tried to figure out a solution to India’s impoverishment and political captivity. He saw the psychological effects of chronic poverty on the Indian people; they felt powerless and hopeless. Vivekananda didn’t believe in the existence of any supernatural deity that could liberate the Indian people in answer to their prayers and offerings. He knew that to become capable of overcoming the most powerful empire in the world, the Indian people would have to find confidence and strength within themselves.
“Religion is the manifestation of the natural strength that is in man.”
Vivekananda firmly believed that the Indian people could find their inner strength and confidence through the concept of Brahman. Although the concept of Brahman is a predominant theme in Hindu scripture, it was apparently too abstract a concept for most people to grasp. Over thousands of years, the concept of Brahman became overshadowed by a pantheon of mythical gods and goddesses, each of which personified various virtues and were thought to possess certain powers. Statues representing these mythical gods and goddesses were worshiped in temples all throughout India.
In Vivekananda’s view, the Hindu religion had been turned into a superstitious scam by self-interested priests who taught the people that if they donated money to their temples and made offerings to their idols, the gods represented by those idols would give them blessings. These idolized gods and goddesses were treated like divine vending machines: the people squandered what little substance they had on temple donations and offerings hoping they’d receive blessings that, in reality, came no more reliably than was already offered by chance.
In Vivekananda’s view, the worst aspect of this superstition was that it made the Indian people look to some mythical external source for help, when what they needed to do was to look within themselves to find strength and solutions to their problems.
For Vivekananda, the concept of Brahman had tremendous implications that, if understood, would enable the Indian people to discover their innate strength and potential. His thinking went something like this: Every living and non-living thing in the Universe has evolved from Brahman, that cosmic energy field that is Ultimate Reality. Galaxies full of planets and stars, our magnificent Earth with its towering mountains and oceans teeming with life, thousands of species of plants and animals–everything that exists evolved from Brahman’s infinite potential. Each of us is a product or manifestation of Brahman. We therefore ought to consider ourselves gods and goddesses, kings and queens, princes and princesses; the human species could have no higher birth than to have evolved from Ultimate Reality. Each of us has a tremendous amount of innate, undiscovered strength and potential.
But Vivekananda was not solely interested in improving India’s self-image. He was keenly aware that Britain’s moral justification for colonizing India was rooted in its perception of the Indian people as uncivilized barbarians. Vivekananda believed that India had brought that image upon itself to a degree. His country was steeped in old barbaric customs that he found abhorrent, such as the caste system. To make matters worse, the British people’s ignorance about India made them incapable of distinguishing between customs that arose from Indian culture as opposed to Hindu scripture. As a result, the British often erroneously assumed that India’s barbaric cultural customs were rooted in Hinduism, when in fact they were not.
Near the end of Vivekananda’s five-year sojourn throughout India, he met a raja (a wealthy Indian prince) and they discussed the plight of the Indian people. The raja agreed with Vivekananda that India’s image in the West sorely needed improvement, and he told Vivekananda about an upcoming World Parliament of Religions that the Unitarian church was hosting in Chicago. The raja encouraged Vivekananda to represent India and Hinduism at the World Parliament and offered to pay Vivekananda’s travel expenses to Chicago. Vivekananda agreed, and he made the long voyage over land and sea.
“I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East.”
Vivekananda delivered five speeches at the World Parliament of Religions, the first of which he gave on September 11, 1893. The last two paragraphs of his speech are still as relevant today as they were then:
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.
“But their time is come. And I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
In his subsequent speeches at the World Parliament, Vivekananda discussed the root causes of religious intolerance, the Hindu religion, India’s need for humanitarian aid rather than Christian missionaries, and the religion that Vivekananda called “the fulfillment of Hinduism”: Buddhism.
Vivekananda’s speeches were widely reported in American newspapers, and he immediately received numerous invitations from admirers all over the United States who offered to provide him room and board if he would come lecture in their cities. He accepted their gracious offers and spent the next two years lecturing American audiences. Vivekananda developed a following wherever he visited, and attracted prominent admirers like Leo Tolstoy, Nikola Tesla, and William James.
In 1894, Vivekananda founded the Vedanta Society in New York. Vedanta means “the essence of the Vedas”, the Vedas being a term commonly used to refer to the Hindu scriptures. The purpose of the Vedanta Society was to promote Ramakrishna’s universalistic interpretation of Hinduism and religious tolerance. In time, Vedanta Societies were formed in other U.S. cities as well.
In 1895, Vivekananda carried his message into the belly of the beast: Great Britain. Reading the speeches he gave there, one cannot help admiring his courage in rebuking the British nation for preying on weaker nations in violation of the Christian values they professed, and for thinking themselves superior to “heathen” peoples who in actuality exemplified Christian values better than they did. But despite his boldness, Vivekananda won admirers in Britain and formed Vedanta Societies there. He then spent two more years lecturing and forming Vedanta Societies in the U.S. and Britain.
For four years the Indian newspapers reported on Vivekananda’s warm reception in the West, and when Vivekananda returned to India in 1897, he received a hero’s welcome. He was lauded for rehabilitating India’s image by introducing the West to India’s great spiritual heritage, and for doing so in a way that emphasized the rationalistic and universalistic aspects of Hinduism that would appeal to Western audiences. But Vivekananda felt the honor was undeserved. When a group of admirers put Vivekananda in a carriage and started pulling it through the streets, he immediately jumped out of the carriage and pulled it with them.
Using donations he’d received while in the West, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission for social service in May of 1897. The Mission’s first project was famine relief in the Murshibadad district. Over the next two years, he founded two more monasteries and two journals.
In 1899, Vivekananda returned to the United States and formed more Vedanta Societies. In 1900, he attended the World Parliament of Religions in Paris, where he formed a Vedanta Society as well. He returned to Calcutta in December of that year, and spent the next two years coordinating the activities of the monasteries, Vedanta Societies, journals, and social service mission he had founded.
On July 4, 1902, Vivekananda awoke at the monastery and meditated for three hours. He then taught Sanskrit grammar and yoga philosophy to his students. At 7:00 p.m. he went back to his room and asked not to be disturbed, and was found dead at 9:10 p.m. His body was cremated on a sandalwood pyre on the bank of the Ganges, right across from where Ramakrishna was cremated sixteen years earlier. At the time of his death, he was thirty-nine years old.
As one might expect, Vivekananda has had a greater legacy in India than in the West. Today, the Ramakrishna Mission owns dozens of hospitals, charitable dispensaries, maternity clinics, tuberculosis clinics, mobile medication dispensaries, orphanages, and schools for the needy throughout India. In the West, the Vedanta Societies that Vivekananda formed still exist and continue to carry out their spiritual and charitable missions, but they are relatively unknown because they neither proselytize nor solicit donations.
I discovered the Vedanta Society in 2013 when an ex-Mormon friend invited me to attend the Sunday service at the Ramakrishna Monastery located just fifteen miles from my home. The monastery was built in 1942 by Aldous Huxley and other British authors who were members of the Vedanta Society, but somehow I had never heard of it in the twenty-five years I had lived in the area.
I appreciated the non-dogmatic Unitarian message presented at the service, but I still had a bad taste in my mouth for anything religious or quasi-religious, so I had no interest in learning anything more about them at that time. I did notice, however, that there was a meditation sanctuary at the monastery, and I made a mental note to come back sometime to mediate. Over the next year I visited the monastery occasionally to meditate, and I enjoyed the natural beauty and peaceful solitude of the sparsely-developed hills where it is located.
In 2014, I finally decided to buy a book at the monastery bookstore to learn what the Vedanta Society was all about. The book was “Vivekananda: Voice of Freedom”, a compilation of excerpts taken from the speeches Vivekananda delivered in the U.S. and Britain, arranged by topic. And his outlook really resonated with me.
Vivekananda showed me how to have a scientific mind and a religious heart. He taught me that I needn’t reject science and buy into some supernatural idea of God to be a spiritual person, and convinced me that the “magic of reality”, as Richard Dawkins called it, is every bit deserving of my reverence, gratitude, and devotion. He showed me how the highest ethical values flow from the naturalistic concept of Brahman: unity, the brotherhood of humankind, love, charity, kindness, gentleness, patience, tolerance, acceptance, inclusion, humility, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, non-violence, and honesty.
I realized after leaving Mormonism that regardless of how much my thinking had changed, I still had a religious heart. I loved Mormonism when I believed in it. It gave me a purpose, a focus, and a motivation. It was my cause. And leaving Mormonism caused me to discover that I’m the type of person who needs a cause–a commitment to a greater good that I feel benefits others as well as myself. Without a cause, I feel like a fish out of water.
Promoting the idea that we can have a scientific mind and a religious heart is my new cause. But not in the same sense as Mormonism was my cause. As a Mormon, I felt a need and desire to convert others to my way of thinking. I feel no such obligation now as a Vedantist, because Vedantists are to refrain from proselytizing.
The rationale behind that rule is simple: the possibilities and facets of Brahman–that cosmic energy field from which everything has evolved–are infinite. So the fact that anyone has discovered a paradigm that seems right to him proves only that he subjectively views his paradigm as the “right” one. Maybe what I’ve said here resonates with you, and maybe it doesn’t. And it’s okay either way, because neither of us can say one is right and the other is wrong; we can say only that our own perspective seems right to us. Moreover, being convinced that our own paradigm is the only objectively “right” one and trying to convert everyone to our own way of thinking is precisely what causes religious conflict. And considering our shared parentage, such conflict should be avoided like the plague because it can only lead to disunity and fratricide.
To me, Vivekananda was a man who was far ahead of his time. He had a scientific mind and a religious heart. He was a pioneer of Religious Humanism and humanitarian service. He accomplished so much in his thirty-nine years, and I can’t help wonder what more he could have accomplished if he’d had a few more decades on this planet.
But despite my admiration for Vivekananda, I think he would tell you that he really isn’t as special as I’ve made him out to be. He’d say that if you think anything good about him, you should realize there are and have been billions of Vivekanandas–people who summoned their innate strength to do what they believed was right and good.
And he would ask: What does that tell us about Brahman?
More reading: Excellent NYT article about Vivekananda