Swami Vivekananda interpreted religions in a novel way, likening them to an orchestra, writes SATISH K KAPOOR
The dictionary meaning of an atheist is one who does not believe in a god, but Vivekananda defined an atheist as one who does not believe in the glory of one’s soul. Likewise, sin is generally regarded as the wilful breaking of religious or moral law, but Vivekananda observed that the greatest sin is to consider oneself to be weak. ‘You will understand the Bhagwad Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger,’ he said. He justified image-worship, undervalued during his time, by alluding to its psychological use as an aid to concentration. In his view, one does not move from error to truth, but from lower truth to higher truth — from forms to the formless, and even beyond.
Vivekananda’s concept of religion transcends doctrines, dogmas, and pedagogy. His assertion that all religions are essentially in harmony with one another springs from the Rig Veda saying, Ekam sad vipra bahudha vedanti — ‘Truth is one; but the wise speak of it differently.’ Each religion has a distinct role to play, as it meets the requirements of people of different mental capabilities. It is wrong to lay down fixed dogmas and force society to adopt them.
‘Why take a single instrument from the great religious orchestra of the earth? Let the grand symphony go on.’ He observed so, knowing well that religious diversity is both natural and desirable for the spiritual efflorescence of humanity. Each religion can enrich itself with the higher values professed by the other, and realise that all paths, ‘crooked or straight’ lead to the Supreme Source. Truth is the essence of divinity, inherent in every religion. His views had a seminal influence on Unitarians, Universalists, Christian Scientists, Congregationalists, later Transcendentalists, Neo-Christians, and liberals among Catholics.
During the second half of the 19th century, religion began to be studied on a cross-cultural basis. Some feared that discussion about a universal religion could endanger the hegemony of Christianity. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, asked the English clergy to boycott the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, because it would divest Christianity of its superior status. Rev John Henry Barrows, chairman of the General Committee on the Congress of Religions (1893), remarked on one occasion: ‘Though light has no fellowship with darkness, light does have fellowship with twilight. God has not left Himself without witness and those who have full light of the Cross should bear brotherly hearts toward all who grope in a dimmer illumination.’
At the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda emphasised that religious narrowness arouses intolerance, leading to emotive or subjective attachment to one’s faith and hostility towards others. In his maiden speech delivered on September 11, he referred to religious persecutions through the ages, and expressed the hope that the bell that tolled in honour of the Parliament might be ‘the death knell to all fanaticism, to all persecutions with the sword or pen, and to all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.’
In his ‘Paper on Hinduism’ (September 19), he described the future universal religion as one which would be infinite in scope and transcend location in place or time, which would accord due place to every human being, from the savage to the civilised, and which will not persecute people on grounds of religion and, which would recognise divinity in everyone. In his final speech on September 27, he advocated that a Christian was not to become a Hindu, or a Buddhist to become a Christian. ‘But each must assimilate the others, and grow according to its own laws of growth.
When he questioned missionaries for trying to save the souls of starving people in India, Bishop John J Keane of Washington endorsed his views. Subsequently, Rev Reed Stuart who heard him speak on ‘The Divinity of Man’ in Detroiton February 17, 1894, became so inspired that he gave a sermon entitled ‘The Gate Opening Towards the East’ at the Unitarian Church. In the same vein, Rabbi Grossman said, ‘Let us learn from the Hindu, the lesson that God lives and reigns, now and ever, that God is in every flower of the field; in every breath of the air; in every throb of our blood.’
Vivekananda’s concept of universal religion, has its praxis in Advaita Vedanta, which regards all life as one. It includes every attitude of the human mind — philosophic, emotional, mystic and work-oriented — and has five essential features: First, it is rooted in spirituality and inculcates faith in the divinity of man; second, it is based on principles, not persons; third, it has a rational and scientific basis, and allows scope for new thoughts; fourth, it professes that service of man is service of God; finally, it is non-sectarian, and regards humankind as one. Vivekananda’s declaration that he did not believe in a god or religion ‘which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth,’ be speaks of his spiritual humanism. ■