Śivajñāne jīver sevā: Reexamining Swami Vivekananda’s Practical Vedānta in the Light of Sri Ramakrishna
According to the influential German Indologist Paul Hacker, Swami Vivekananda was a “Neo-Hindu” who mistakenly clothed what were essentially Western values in superficially Indian garb in order to promote Indian nationalism. I argue that Vivekananda’s philosophy of “practical Vedānta”—which upholds the ethical ideal of serving all human beings as manifestations of God—has its roots not in Western values but in the teachings of his beloved guru Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna often spoke of his own spiritual experience of “vijñāna,” which revealed to him that everything in the universe was a manifestation of God. Sri Ramakrishna derived from this vijñāna-based worldview a spiritual ethics of service—“śivajñāne jīver sevā” (“serving human beings knowing that they are manifestations of God”)—that directly shaped Vivekananda’s later formulation of practical Vedānta. I conclude the paper by arguing that we should reject the “Neo-Vedāntic” paradigm in favor of a more nuanced and dialectical “cosmopolitan” approach to modern Vedānta.
KeywordsSwami Vivekananda Sri Ramakrishna Paul Hacker Practical Vedānta Neo-Vedānta
One of the dominant scholarly paradigms for studying modern Hinduism and Vedānta is the “Neo-Vedāntic” paradigm inaugurated by the German Indologist Paul Hacker (1913–1979). According to Hacker, modern Indian figures such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan were “Neo-Hindus” who championed “pseudo-Vedāntic” philosophies shaped more by Western values than by indigenous Hindu traditions (1995: 296). Neo-Hindus, Hacker argues, disguise what are essentially Western ideas and values in superficially Indian garb in order to promote Indian nationalism (1995: 251).
For Hacker, a prime example of Neo-Hindu ideology is Vivekananda’s “practical Vedānta,” his influential attempt to show that Vedānta provides a philosophical foundation for an ethics of love and social service. According to Hacker, the German Indologist Paul Deussen, who had extended conversations with Vivekananda in London in September 1896, first suggested to Vivekananda a pseudo-Vedāntic ethics rooted in Arthur Schopenhauer’s derivation of an ethics of compassion from the Upaniṣadic teaching “tat tvam asi” (1995: 239–41, 273–318). It is no coincidence, Hacker claims, that just weeks after his meeting with Deussen, Vivekananda delivered a series of four lectures on “Practical Vedānta” in which he presented a Vedāntically grounded ethics for the first time. Hacker reasons that since Śaṅkara’s world-denying Advaita Vedānta in no way promotes a “tat tvam asi ethics,” Vivekananda’s practical Vedānta must have been inspired by Deussen’s Schopenhauerian “pseudo-Vedānta.”
Scholars such as Beckerlegge (2006: 218–19), Green (2016: 130–31), and Killingley (1998: 145–59) have conclusively refuted Hacker’s specific thesis about Deussen’s influence on Vivekananda by identifying numerous passages in letters and lectures prior to his 1896 encounter with Deussen in which Vivekananda clearly articulated a Vedāntically grounded ethics of social service. Meanwhile, Wilhelm Halbfass ( 2007) and Bagchee and Adluri (2013) have shown that Hacker’s normative claims about the “inauthentic” nature of Vivekananda’s Vedāntic ethics were colored, at least in part, by Hacker’s own assumptions about the superiority of Catholicism to Hinduism.
Nonetheless, Hacker’s broader Neo-Vedāntic argument about the primarily Western provenance of Vivekananda’s practical Vedānta continues to be defended by numerous scholars.1 They tend to reason as follows. Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, which maintains that the world is ultimately unreal and that action stems from ignorance, could not have been the source of Vivekananda’s practical Vedānta. Likewise, the life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda’s guru, could not have been the inspiration for his disciple’s ethically oriented Vedānta, since Sri Ramakrishna often warned spiritual aspirants that too much preoccupation with social service may distract them from the goal of God-realization. Since Vivekananda’s practical Vedānta cannot be traced to an indigenous Indian source, it must have been shaped primarily by ideas and values he imbibed from the West.
However, Hacker and his followers have been too quick to assume that Sri Ramakrishna could not have influenced Vivekananda’s ethically oriented Vedānta. In fact, as Beckerlegge (2006: 94–126) has pointed out, Sri Ramakrishna was primarily critical of rājasika, ego-driven philanthropy but actually praised, on several occasions, the sāttvika humanitarian activities of people like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. Even more importantly, Sri Ramakrishna—as I will argue—taught a world-affirming Advaitic worldview on the basis of his unique spiritual experience of “vijñāna,” the ecstatic realization that God has become everything in the universe.
Neevel (1976), Beckerlegge (2006: 113–20), and Nicholson (forthcoming) have argued that Sri Ramakrishna’s world-affirming philosophy influenced Vivekananda’s Vedāntic ethics. Building on their valuable work, I will focus here on the Ramakrishnan elements in Vivekananda’s “Practical Vedānta” lectures—a topic none of these scholars have discussed. I will also argue, contrary to Beckerlegge (2006: 201–51), that one of the primary aims of Vivekananda’s “Practical Vedānta” lectures was to provide a philosophical foundation for sevā.
Part I of this essay argues that Sri Ramakrishna gradually brought the young Vivekananda to realize how a vijñāna-based panentheistic worldview provides the ontological basis for “śivajñāne jīver sevā,” the spiritual practice of serving human beings as actual manifestations of God. Part II shows that in his 1896 lectures on “Practical Vedānta,” Vivekananda derived an ethics of service and universal love not from traditional Advaita Vedānta but from the world-affirming panentheistic metaphysics taught by Sri Ramakrishna. Part III explores some of the broader implications of my argument about Vivekananda for contemporary discourse on modern Vedānta. I encourage scholars to move away from the reductive and ideologically laden paradigm of “Neo-Vedānta” to the more nuanced and dialectical paradigm of “cosmopolitan Vedānta,” which sees modern Vedāntins as creative, original thinkers who developed sophisticated philosophical positions and fashioned a distinctive Hindu self-identity through a critical engagement with both indigenous and Western sources.
I. Vivekananda’s Spiritual Tutelage under Sri Ramakrishna
The young Narendra—Vivekananda’s pre-monastic name—first met Sri Ramakrishna in November 1881 at the age of eighteen, when he had just begun studying Western philosophy at Scottish Church College.2 Naren visited Sri Ramakrishna regularly in Dakshineswar from early 1882 to 1886, the year his beloved guru passed away. Sri Ramakrishna singled out Naren as a person of the highest spiritual caliber, an “īśvarakoṭi”—that is, a spiritually perfect, divinely commissioned soul who takes birth not in order to exhaust his own karma but in order to help others attain salvation (Life of Swami Vivekananda2: 853–54).
When he met Sri Ramakrishna, Naren was a follower of the Brāhmo Samāj, a theistic movement that championed the reality of a formless personal God. Under Sri Ramakrishna’s guidance, Naren’s philosophical and spiritual outlook evolved dramatically. Sri Ramakrishna encouraged Naren to read aloud from Advaitic treatises like the Aṣṭāvakra Saṃhitā. As a Brāhmo, Naren initially dismissed Advaita Vedānta as a “blasphemous” atheistic philosophy which taught the “absurd” and sinful doctrine that we are “identical with the Creator” (Chetanananda 1997: 27). Characteristically, Sri Ramakrishna won him over to the Advaitic standpoint not primarily through intellectual argument but through direct spiritual transmission. One day, while Naren was ridiculing the Advaitic idea that “[t]his jug is God, this cup is God, and we too are God,” Sri Ramakrishna touched Naren, who immediately went into an ecstatic spiritual state which lasted for several days. Vivekananda himself later described his spiritual state as follows:
The magic touch of the Master that day immediately brought a wonderful change over my mind. I was stupefied to find that there was really nothing in the universe but God!....[E]verything I saw appeared to be Brahman. I sat down to take my meal, but found that everything—the food, the plate, the person who served, and even myself—was nothing but That….When the above state altered a little, the world began to appear to me as a dream….This state of things continued for some days. When I became normal again, I realized that I must have had a glimpse of the Advaita state. Then it struck me that the words of the scriptures were not false. Thenceforth I could not deny the conclusions of the Advaita philosophy. (Chetanananda 1997: 27–8)
According to Vivekananda, this decisive experience precipitated his spiritual conversion from Brāhmo theism to the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta. Vivekananda’s detailed description of the phenomenology of his Advaitic state is telling: while he initially saw everything as “God” or “Brahman,” he later saw the world as a “dream.” His initial panentheistic experience led him to look upon everything in the world as a real manifestation of God. By contrast, his subsequent Advaitic experience compelled him to see the world as unreal. In other words, this single prolonged Advaitic state led him to adopt, in turn, two distinct Advaitic worldviews: first, a world-affirming panentheistic worldview akin to Tantra and Kaśmīri Śaivism; and second, a world-negating Advaitic worldview that comes very close to Śaṅkara’s philosophy.
Naren’s phenomenologically multifaceted Advaitic experience enabled him to grasp the subtleties of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings on different kinds of spiritual experience. Sri Ramakrishna frequently taught that there are two stages in Advaitic realization, which he called “jñāna” and “vijñāna” respectively:
The jñānī gives up his identification with worldly things, discriminating, “Not this, not this.” Only then can he realize Brahman. It is like reaching the roof of a house by leaving the steps behind, one by one. But the vijñānī, who is more intimately acquainted with Brahman, realizes something more. He realizes that the steps are made of the same materials as the roof: bricks, lime, and brick-dust. That which is realized as Brahman through the eliminating process of “Not this, not this” is then found to have become the universe and all its living beings. The vijñānī sees that the Reality which is impersonal [nirguṇa] is also personal [saguṇa]. A man cannot live on the roof for a long time. He comes down again. Those who realize Brahman in samādhi come down also and find that it is Brahman that has become the universe and its living beings….This is known as vijñāna. (G: 103-4, K: 50-51)3
Sri Ramakrishna describes the jñānī as a Śāṅkara Advaitin who attains brahmajñāna by reasoning that the impersonal (nirguṇa) Brahman alone is real and the universe is unreal. The vijñānī, after realizing Brahman in nirvikalpa samādhi, comes back to the world and attains the more expansive, world-affirming Advaitic realization that Brahman “has become the universe and its living beings.” As Sri Ramakrishna puts it elsewhere, while the jñānī dismisses the universe as a “framework of illusion” (dhokār ṭāṭī), the vijñānī embraces the universe as a “mansion of mirth” (majār kuṭi) (G: 478, K: 479). While the jñānī realizes his identity with the nirguṇa Ātman-Brahman, the vijñānī attains the panentheistic Advaitic realization that the Infinite Divine Reality is both nirguṇa and saguṇa.4 Crucially, Sri Ramakrishna maintains that only īśvarakoṭis—a spiritual elite consisting in “incarnations of God and those born as a part of one of these incarnations” (avatār vā avatārer aṃśa)—are capable of attaining the state of vijñāna (G: 749, K: 800).
From the spiritual standpoint of vijñāna, Sri Ramakrishna affirms that “Brahman and Śakti are inseparable” (brahma o śakti abhed), like “fire and its power to burn” (G: 550, K: 568). Hence, while Sri Ramakrishna fully accepts the reality of nirguṇa Brahman, he also maintains that the dynamic personal Śakti is equally real, since Brahman and Śakti are inseparable aspects of one and the same Infinite Reality. The vijñānī sees the world as a “mansion of mirth” precisely because he sees everything in the world as a real manifestation of Śakti.
That Sri Ramakrishna considers the vijñānī to be superior to the jñānī is clear from the fact that he repeatedly contrasts the spiritual selfishness of jñānīs with the spiritual compassion of vijñānīs. Sri Ramakrishna likens jñānīs, who seek only their own salvation, to “a hollow piece of drift-wood” that “sinks if even a bird sits on it” (G: 479, K: 482). By contrast, vijñānīs like Nārada, who strive to help others achieve spiritual enlightenment, “are like a huge log that not only can float across to the other shore but can carry many animals and other creatures as well” (G: 479, K: 482). Moreover, Sri Ramakrishna explicitly declares himself to be a vijñānī: “I do not have the nature of a jñānī….The Divine Mother has kept me in the state of a bhakta, a vijñānī” (G: 393, K: 391).
Notice the parallels between Naren’s multifaceted Advaitic experience described earlier and Sri Ramakrishna’s distinction between the Advaitic states of jñāna and vijñāna. Naren’s initial vision of everything as Brahman is similar to the panentheistic realization of vijñāna, while his subsequent experience of the world as a “dream” corresponds to the world-negating state of jñāna. For some time after this spiritual experience, Naren seemed to prefer the quietistic outlook of the jñānī to that of the vijñānī; he was less intent on seeing the world as God than on forgetting the world altogether and immersing himself in the state of nirvikalpa samādhi. However, two formative encounters with Sri Ramakrishna revolutionized Naren’s entire spiritual outlook and made him recognize the superior ethical and spiritual value of vijñāna.
On one occasion in 1884, Sri Ramakrishna was explaining to his visitors—including Naren—that one of the main religious practices of Vaiṣṇavas is “showing compassion to all beings” (sarva jīve dayā) (Saradananda 2003: 852, Sāradānanda  2009: II.ii.131).5 Suddenly, just after uttering this phrase, Sri Ramakrishna went into a deep state of samādhi. After a while, he came down to a semi-ecstatic state and said: “How foolish to speak of compassion! Human beings are as insignificant as worms crawling on the earth—and they are to show compassion to others? That’s absurd. It must not be compassion, but service to all. Serve them, knowing that they are all manifestations of God [śivajñāne jīver sevā]” (Saradananda 2003: 852, Sāradānanda  2009: II.i.131). From the standpoint of vijñāna, God actually manifests in the form of human beings, so one serves God by serving others. Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching affected the young Naren so deeply that he took his friends aside afterward and explained its profound ethical significance to them:
What Ṭhākur [Sri Ramakrishna] said today in his ecstatic mood is clear: One can bring Vedānta from the forest to the home and practice it in daily life. Let people continue with whatever they are doing; there’s no harm in this. People must first fully believe and be convinced that God has manifested Himself before them as the world and its creatures….If people consider everyone to be God, how can they consider themselves to be superior to others and harbor attachment, hatred, arrogance—or even compassion [dayā]—toward them? Their minds will become pure as they serve all beings as God [śivajñāne jīver sevā], and soon they will experience themselves as parts of the blissful God. They will realize that their true nature is pure, illumined, and free. (Saradananda 2003: 852, Sāradānanda  2009: II.ii.131)
As I will show in the next section, this remark contains in a nutshell the ethically oriented “Practical Vedānta” Vivekananda would go on to preach throughout the world a decade later. The key to making Vedānta practical and efficacious in everyday life, Naren realizes, is to recognize that “God has manifested Himself” as “the world and its creatures.” In other words, Naren learns from Sri Ramakrishna that the spiritual practice of serving “all beings as God” finds its justification not in the world-negating metaphysics of traditional Advaita Vedānta but in the world-embracing panentheistic metaphysics of Vijñāna Vedānta. The fact that Naren arrived at this ethical insight in 1884 definitively rules out Hacker’s thesis that Vivekananda developed his Vedāntic ethics only after he met Deussen in 1896.
The second formative incident in Naren’s life took place shortly before Sri Ramakrishna passed away in August 1886. One day, Naren asked Sri Ramakrishna for the experience of nirvikalpa samādhi. Sri Ramakrishna then rebuked him:
Shame on you! You are asking for such an insignificant thing. I thought you would be like a great banyan tree, and that thousands of people would rest in your shade. But now I see that you are seeking your own liberation. There is a state higher than that. It is you who sing, “O Lord, Thou art all that exists.” (Chetanananda 1997: 36)6
Sri Ramakrishna reminds Naren that he is not an ordinary soul but an īśvarakoṭi for whom the exalted state of nirvikalpa samādhi is an “insignificant thing.” Significantly, Sri Ramakrishna tells him that the state “higher” than nirvikalpa samādhi is the panentheistic realization that God is “all that exists”—in other words, the state of vijñāna. In effect, Sri Ramakrishna tells Naren to be a vijñānī instead of a mere jñānī. Instead of seeking his own liberation as jñānīs do, Naren should work for the spiritual uplift of mankind by seeing God in everyone and serving them in that spirit.
Such watershed incidents, as well as his own spiritual experiences, finally led Naren to embrace Sri Ramakrishna’s world-affirming, ethically oriented philosophy of Vijñāna Vedānta instead of the world-denying outlook of traditional Advaita Vedānta, which leaves little scope for social service. As we will see in the next section, the panentheistic metaphysics of Vijñāna Vedānta lies at the basis of Vivekananda’s Practical Vedānta.
II. The Panentheistic Metaphysical Foundation of Vivekananda’s Practical Vedānta
In several 1894 letters, Vivekananda emphasizes the importance of śivājñāne jīver sevā. In one such letter, for instance, he exhorts his brother disciples of Sri Ramakrishna: “If you want any good to come, just throw your ceremonials overboard and worship the Living God, the Man-God—every being that wears a human form—God in His universal as well as individual aspect. The universal aspect of God means this world, and worshipping it means serving it…” (CW 6: 264). Crucially, Vivekananda justifies sevā not by appealing to the vivartavāda of traditional Advaita Vedānta—the doctrine that the world is an unreal appearance—but to Sri Ramakrishna’s panentheistic metaphysics of Vijñāna Vedānta. Since God has actually become all human beings, the best way to worship God is to serve them—particularly, “the poor, the miserable, the weak” (CW 5: 51). As Beckerlegge (2006: 201–2) points out, these 1894 letters are conclusive evidence that, contra Hacker and his followers, Vivekananda explicitly articulated a Vedāntic ethics of sevā well before he met Deussen.
In a series of four lectures on “Practical Vedānta” delivered in November 1896, Vivekananda elaborates in greater detail a panentheistic metaphysical foundation for sevā. Many readers of “Practical Vedānta” have assumed that the “Vedānta” in the title of these lectures means traditional Advaita Vedānta. I will argue, however, that what Vivekananda calls “Practical Vedānta” is none other than Sri Ramakrishna’s world-affirming Vijñāna Vedānta. Vivekananda’s subtle hermeneutic strategy throughout these lectures is to employ traditional Advaitic concepts such as “impersonality” and “oneness” but to reinterpret them from the metaphysical standpoint of vijñāna. For instance, Vivekananda characterizes the “Impersonal God” as follows:
The Impersonal God is a living God, a principle. The difference between personal and impersonal is this, that the personal is only a man, and the impersonal idea is that He is the angel, the man, the animal, and yet something more which we cannot see, because impersonality includes all personalities, is the sum total of everything in the universe, and infinitely more besides. “As the one fire coming into the world is manifesting itself in so many forms, and yet is infinitely more besides” [Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.2.9], so is the Impersonal. (CW 2: 319)
According to Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, the impersonality (nirguṇatva) of Brahman excludes personality and all manifestation in general. For Śaṅkara, since the non-dual Reality is only impersonal, the personal God (īśvara), individual souls (jīvas), and the universe (jagat) are all ultimately unreal. For Vivekananda, by contrast, “impersonality includes all personalities” (emphasis mine). That is, while Vivekananda agrees with Śaṅkara that Brahman is beyond all manifestation, he departs from Śaṅkara in affirming that Brahman is nonetheless capable of manifesting in various forms. Accordingly, Vivekananda, unlike Śaṅkara, embraces Sri Ramakrishna’s vijñāna-based teachings that the “Reality which is impersonal is also personal” and that “it is Brahman that has become the universe and its living beings” (G: 104, K: 51).
Tellingly, however, instead of appealing explicitly to Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda cites Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.2.9. Vivekananda knew that in order to make his teachings universal, he could not simply appeal to the authority of his own guru. Rather, throughout “Practical Vedānta,” he traces the doctrines of metaphysical panentheism and of the impersonal-personal God to the Upaniṣads themselves—the scriptural fountainhead of all Vedāntic philosophies.7 Indeed, Vivekananda claims that the ancient Upaniṣadic doctrine of panentheism is precisely the “real, practical side of Vedānta” (CW2: 312). Accordingly, he declares that “[t]he theme of the Vedānta is to see the Lord in everything” (CW2: 312) and justifies this claim by providing an extended reading of the episodes in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad involving Satyakāma Jābāla and Upakoṣala (CW2: 309–27). Vivekananda emphasizes that the Practical Vedānta of the Upaniṣads “does not show that this world is vain and does not exist.” He thereby contrasts the expansive panentheistic doctrine of Upaniṣadic Vedānta with Śaṅkara’s later world-denying Advaita Vedānta (CW2: 312).
Likewise, Vivekananda interprets the famous statement “sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma” (“All is Brahman”) in Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3.14.1 in a panentheistic manner: “[E]verything is Brahman….[E]very place is the temple of the Lord….Neither good nor bad, neither life nor death – only the one infinite Brahman exists” (CW2: 318). For Vivekananda, the Upaniṣadic statement that all is Brahman contains the quintessence of a world-affirming Advaita philosophy: everything in this universe is a real manifestation of the “one infinite Brahman.” For Śaṅkara, by contrast, Chāndogya Upaniṣad 3.14.1 brings “sarvam” into apposition with “brahma” in order to “dissolve the universe” (prapañcapravilāpanārtham).8 All is Brahman, Śaṅkara argues, in the sense that nothing exists except Brahman.9 We might say, then, that Vivekananda’s Advaita philosophy encompasses the universe, while Śaṅkara’s Advaita philosophy excludes it.
In fact, as I have shown in detail elsewhere, a crucial dimension of Vivekananda’s project was to reinterpret the Vedāntic scriptures on an “independent and better basis than by blindly following the commentators” (CW3: 233).10 Employing Sri Ramakrishna’s philosophy of Vijñāna Vedānta as a hermeneutic framework, Vivekananda suggested provocative new interpretations of various passages from the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Brahmasūtras (CW3: 233). In stark contrast to traditional sectarian commentators, Vivekananda argues that these scriptures support three key doctrines: first, that God is both personal and impersonal; second, that all four yogas—bhaktiyoga, jñānayoga, karmayoga, and rājayoga—are direct and independent paths to mokṣa; and third, that everything in the world is a real manifestation of God.11
According to Hacker, a characteristic feature of the thought of “Neo-Hindus” such as Vivekananda is that “native elements are reinterpreted so as to express ideals that were assimilated from foreign sources” (1995: 251). Hacker, then, would no doubt claim that Vivekananda’s allegedly “independent” study of the Vedāntic scriptures was, in fact, a flagrantly eisegetic attempt to read Western values into Indian texts. However, Hacker’s sweeping dismissal of the scriptural interpretations of modern Vedāntins such as Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Radhakrishnan is both uncharitable and unrigorous, since he overlooks their conscious efforts to avoid eisegesis and to subject the interpretations of traditional commentators to critical scrutiny. In fact, many modern scholars—including Thibaut (1890: ix-cxxviii), Ghate (1981), Mainkar (1969), and Adams (1993)—have taken Vivekananda’s lead in studying the prasthānatrayī independently of traditional commentators and arguing that these scriptures do not support Śaṅkara’s Advaitic doctrine that the personal God and the world are unreal.
In his “Practical Vedānta” lectures, Vivekananda explicitly derives a practical ethics of love and service from the panentheistic metaphysics of Upaniṣadic Vedānta. As he puts it, “My idea is to show that the highest ideal of morality and unselfishness goes hand in hand with the highest metaphysical conception...” (CW2: 355). This “highest metaphysical conception,” as we have seen, is none other than the world-affirming Advaitic philosophy of the Upaniṣads and his guru Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda elaborates the ethical implications of this panentheistic metaphysics as follows:
But what is more practical than worshipping here, worshipping you? I see you, feel you, and I know you are God. The Mohammedan says, there is no God but Allah. The Vedanta says, there is nothing that is not God….The living God is within you, and yet you are building churches and temples and believing all sorts of imaginary nonsense. The only God to worship is the human soul in the human body. Of course all animals are temples too, but man is the highest, the Taj Mahal of temples. If I cannot worship in that, no other temple will be of any advantage. (CW2: 320–1)
For Vivekananda, the panentheistic metaphysics of Vedānta has a crucial practical implication: since we are all living manifestations of God, the highest form of worship is to love and serve human beings. In fact, Vivekananda further argues that Vedānta alone furnishes the metaphysical foundation for the Christian ethics of love:
Do you not remember what the Bible says, “If you cannot love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen?” If you cannot see God in the human face, how can you see him in the clouds, or in images made of dull, dead matter, or in mere fictitious stories of our brain? I shall call you religious from the day you begin to see God in men and women, and then you will understand what is meant by turning the left cheek to the man who strikes you on the right. (CW2: 326)
Here, Vivekananda cannily anticipates—and refutes—the charge of scholars such as Hacker who claim that his ethically oriented Vedānta has a Western, and specifically Christian, provenance. As we have seen, Vivekananda’s Vedāntic ethics of love and service derives neither from Christianity nor from Deussen or Schopenhauer but from the panentheistic metaphysical worldview of his guru Sri Ramakrishna, who introduced to him the ethical ideal of śivajñāne jīver sevā. On this basis, Vivekananda turns the tables on Christians by arguing that the Biblical teachings to love one’s fellow beings and to “turn the other cheek” find their ultimate metaphysical justification not in the Bible but in the Vedāntic scriptures, which teach that “[w]hatever comes to you is but the Lord, the Eternal, the Blessed One, appearing to us in various forms…” (CW2: 326). Vivekananda thereby proleptically refutes Hacker by arguing that his Vedāntic ethics of love and service not only derives from indigenous Indian sources—namely, Sri Ramakrishna and the Upaniṣads—but also has a much stronger metaphysical foundation than Christian ethics.
Interestingly, when Vivekananda returned to India in 1897 after his first visit to the West, his own brother disciple Swami Yogananda accused Vivekananda, in effect, of being a Neo-Hindu over half a century before Hacker did! According to Yogananda, Sri Ramakrishna “had emphasized bhakti alone for spiritual seekers, and philanthropic activities, organizations, homes of service for the public good, and patriotic work were Vivekananda’s peculiar ideas, the result of his Western education and travel in Europe and America” (Nikhilananda 1953: 245–46). Vivekananda’s fierce response to Yogananda is revealing:
You think you have understood Sri Ramakrishna better than myself! You think jñāna is dry knowledge to be attained by a desert path, killing out the tenderest faculties of the heart! Your bhakti is sentimental nonsense which makes one impotent. You want to preach Sri Ramakrishna as you have understood him, which is mighty little! Hands off! Who cares for your Ramakrishna? (Nikhilananda 1953: 246)
On the surface, Vivekananda’s retort might seem like little more than browbeating. However, we can bring out the philosophical significance of his response by placing it in the context of the vijñāna-based metaphysics of his “Practical Vedānta” lectures. As we have seen, while the jñānī sees the world as a dream and only seeks his own salvation, the vijñānī combines jñāna and bhakti, head and heart, by seeing God in everyone and dedicating his life to serving others in a spirit of worship. From this standpoint of vijñāna, bhakti that does not issue in sivajñāne jīver sevā is in danger of becoming “sentimental” and self-centered. Essentially, then, Vivekananda tells his brother disciple that the spiritual practice of sevā is based on Sri Ramakrishna’s vijñāna-based spiritual worldview.
Vivekananda’s response to Yogananda, then, contains in germ a decisive refutation of the “Neo-Hindu” paradigm championed by Hacker and others. Tellingly, Hacker himself admits that Sri Ramakrishna was not a “Neo-Hindu,” since he was not influenced by Western ideas and values (1995: 234–35). Therefore, the Neo-Hindu interpretation of Vivekananda collapses if we can demonstrate that Sri Ramakrishna was a major influence on Vivekananda. In this essay, I have argued that Vivekananda’s Vedāntic ethics was, in fact, rooted not in Western ideas but in Sri Ramakrishna’s panentheistic philosophy of Vijñāna Vedānta, which Vivekananda ultimately traces to the Upaniṣads.
III. From “Neo-Vedānta” to Cosmopolitan Vedānta
Interestingly, contemporary scholars routinely refer to modern Vedāntins such as Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan, and Gandhi as “Neo-Vedāntins” or “Neo-Hindus,” even though many of these scholars reject—either in part or in full—Hacker’s argument about the primarily Western roots of modern Vedānta. I want to conclude on a polemical note by interrogating this seemingly benign practice. I will briefly present four reasons why the terms “Neo-Vedānta” and “Neo-Hinduism” are best consigned to the dustbin of history. First, the vague umbrella term “Neo-Vedānta” fails to capture the nuances of the specific Vedāntic views of different modern figures. For instance, the term occludes the important philosophical differences between Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna-inspired Practical Vedānta, Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Vedānta, and Radhakrishnan’s world-affirming Advaita Vedānta. We can better honor the distinctiveness and specificity of different modern Vedāntic views by resisting the impulse to lump them all into a monolithic category.
Second, the prefix “Neo” in the term “Neo-Vedānta” misleadingly implies that modern Vedāntic philosophies represent a deviation from, or break with, traditional Vedānta. However, as I have argued here and elsewhere, the aim of at least some modern Vedāntins—including Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo—was not to promulgate a new Vedāntic philosophy but to recover and revive the original Vedānta embodied in traditional Indian scriptures such as the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā (Maharaj 2015, forthcoming-a, b). Of course, one might question the success of these interpretive efforts and even try to show how these modern thinkers sometimes imposed their own views onto the scriptures. However, it would be both uncharitable and question-begging to assume from the outset that the Vedāntic philosophies propounded by modern Indian thinkers are not, in fact, continuous with traditional strains of Vedānta. In other words, the term “Neo-Vedānta” presupposes what needs to be proved: namely, that modern Vedānta is discontinuous with traditional Vedānta.
Third, the term “Neo-Vedānta” is indelibly colored by Hacker’s normative, ideologically inflected use of the term. For Hacker, as we have seen, the philosophical ideas of Neo-Vedāntins are inauthentic and have little intrinsic worth. In fact, at the end of his essay “Schopenhauer and Hindu Ethics,” Hacker writes: “It is to be hoped that Indian thought will soon outlive the memory of the colonial period and the deep wound which it left in the Indian mind, and regain a greater tranquillity and composure, so that it can…find a new orientation” (1995: 308–9). There is more than a hint of the old Christian missionary anxiety in Hacker’s condescension. As Brian Hatcher has pointed out, nineteenth-century Christian missionaries were the first to use the term “Neo-Vedānta.” Threatened by modern Vedāntins like Rammohun Roy and Debendranath Tagore who championed a home-grown, ethically oriented Vedāntic monotheism, Christian missionaries strategically labeled them as “Neo-Vedāntins” in order to suggest that their views were “newfangled, contrived, and therefore dubious” (Hatcher 2004: 193). Even if we intend to use the term “Neo-Vedānta” in a non-normative sense, we cannot simply wish away the ideological baggage with which it has been saddled since the early nineteenth century.
Fourth, Hatcher has convincingly argued that the “Neo-Vedāntic” paradigm presupposes a crude and undialectical “billiard-ball theory of change,” according to which modern Hindu thought is “the direct result of the ‘impact’ of Western thought” (Hatcher 2004: 201). According to Hatcher, this “impact-response” model not only deprives modern Indian thinkers of agency and creativity but also overlooks the various ways that indigenous Indian sources and ideas contributed to the shaping of modern Hinduism and certain aspects of modern Western thought (Hatcher 2004: 201).
Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. Several recent scholars have rejected the “Neo-Vedāntic” framework in favor of a more nuanced and dialectical “cosmopolitan” approach to modern Vedāntic thought (Madaio 2017, Ganeri 2017, Bhushan and Garfield 2011: xiii-xv, Bhushan and Garfield 2017, Hatcher 2004: 201–3). James Madaio, for instance, makes a convincing case that Vivekananda is best understood as a “cosmopolitan theologian” who creatively engaged with both Western and indigenous Indian sources in order to develop a distinctive Vedāntic worldview (2017: 9). Vivekananda’s dialectical engagement with Western thought involved not only active assimilation but also, at times, searching critique—as, for instance, when he highlights the limitations of Darwinian evolutionary theory from the standpoints of Sāṃkhya and Vedānta or when he interrogates some of the central presuppositions of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s philosophies (Madaio 2017: 9, Maharaj 2017). Building on the fruitful work of scholars like Madaio, my current book project, tentatively titled “Swami Vivekananda’s Vedāntic Cosmopolitanism,” ventures a full-scale reexamination of Vivekananda’s philosophy from a cosmopolitan standpoint.
A cosmopolitan hermeneutic approach to modern Vedāntic thinkers helps expose, challenge, and deconstruct the tacitly colonialist and Eurocentric assumptions at the basis of Hacker’s “Neo-Vedāntic” hermeneutics, which both deprives Indian thinkers of agency, creativity, and authenticity and unduly exaggerates the importance of Western values in the shaping of modern Hindu thought. However, the cosmopolitan hermeneutics I am advocating also has important global implications, insofar as it can be applied to innovative modern thinkers in places with a colonial past throughout the world, including Latin America and Africa. In striving to restore agency and creativity to non-western figures in colonial countries, a cosmopolitan hermeneutics can play a valuable role in the urgent—and still ongoing—project of reinterpreting and reassessing the achievements of colonial thinkers, writers, and artists through a decolonizing lens.
For the biographical information in this section, I rely on Chetanananda (1997: 19–73).
I sometimes modify Nikhilananda’s translation of Gupta’s Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇakathāmṛta.
For a more in-depth discussion of Sri Ramakrishna’s vijñāna-based philosophy, see chapter 1 of Maharaj (2018).
I sometimes modify Chetanananda’s translation of Sāradānanda’s Śrīśrīrāmakṛṣṇalīlāprasaṅga.
Nicholson (forthcoming) rightly cites this passage as strong evidence for the influence of Sri Ramakrishna on Vivekananda’s Vedāntic ethics.
For further discussion of this point, see Maharaj (forthcoming-a).
See Śaṅkara’s commentary on Brahmasūtra 1.3.1.
See Maharaj (forthcoming-a).
For justification of this claim, see Maharaj (forthcoming-a).
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