Addresses at the Parliament of Religions by Swami Vivekananda

Posted on August 8, 2010

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Paper on Hinduism

Swami Vivekananda’s first ever series of public lectures were the ones he delivered at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. All of these lectures, except the paper on Hinduism (this month’s reading), were extempore. As we read his words, we can feel their awesome power even today. Swamiji’s paper on Hinduism was read on September 19, 1893. It is published in the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 1: 6-20.

Introduction

Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric–Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. They have all received tremendous shocks and all of them prove by their survival their internal strength. But while Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter, and a handful of Parsees is all that remains to tell the tale of their grand religion, sect after sect arose in India and seemed to shake the religion of the Vedas to its very foundations, but like the waters of the seashore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous, and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed, and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith.

From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in the Hindu’s religion. Where then, the question arises, where is the common center to which all these widely diverging radii converge? Where is the common basis upon which all these seemingly hopeless contradictions rest? And this is the question I shall attempt to answer.

[The subsequent part of the paper takes up aspects of what Swamiji calls “the common basis” of Hinduism and describes them briefly. The topics covered include: the Vedas, creation, the true “Self”, karma and reincarnation, image worship, the cause of bondage, the way to freedom, the unity of all existence, the harmony of religions, and the ideal of a universal religion.–ed.]

The Vedas

The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound ludicrous to this audience, how a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them.

The Hindu Concept of “Creation”

The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honor them as perfected beings. I am glad to tell this audience that some of the very greatest of them were women. Here it may be said that these laws as laws may be without end, but they must have had a beginning. The Vedas teach us that creation is without beginning or end. Science is said to have proved that the sum total of cosmic energy is always the same. Then, if there was a time when nothing existed, where was all this manifested energy? Some say it was in a potential form in God. In that case God is sometimes potential and sometimes kinetic, which would make Him mutable. Everything mutable is a compound, and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction. So God would die, which is absurd. Therefore there never was a time when there was no creation.

If I may be allowed to use a simile, creation and creator are two lines, without beginning and without end, running parallel to each other. God is the ever active providence, by whose power systems after systems are being evolved out of chaos, made to run for a time and again destroyed. This is what the Brahmin boy repeats every day: “The sun and the moon, the Lord created like the suns and moons of previous cycles.” (1)And this agrees with modern science.

Atman, or the True “Self”

Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, “I”, “I”, “I”, what is the idea before me? The idea of a body. Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material substances? The Vedas declare, “No”. I am a spirit living in a body. I am not the body. The body will die, but I shall not die. Here am I in this body; it will fall, but I shall go on living. I had also a past. The soul was not created, for creation means a combination, which means a certain future dissolution. If then the soul was created, it must die.

Karma and Reincarnation

Some are born happy, enjoy perfect health, with beautiful body, mental vigor and all wants supplied. Others are born miserable, some are without hands or feet, others again are idiots and only drag on a wretched existence. If they are all created, why does a just and merciful God create one happy and another unhappy, why is He so partial? Nor would it mend matters in the least to hold that those who are miserable in this life will be happy in a future one. Why should a person be miserable even here in the reign of a just and merciful God?

In the second place, the idea of a creator God does not explain the anomaly, but simply expresses the cruel fiat of an all-powerful being. There must have been causes, then, before our birth, to make us miserable or happy and those were our past actions.

Are not all the tendencies of the mind and the body accounted for by inherited aptitude? Here are two parallel lines of existence–one of the mind [“subtle” matter], the other of [gross] matter. If [gross] matter and its transformations answer for all that we have, there is no necessity for supposing the existence of a [mind and a] soul. But it cannot be proved that thought has evolved out of matter, and if a philosophical monism is inevitable, spiritual monism is certainly logical and no less desirable than a materialistic monism; but neither of these is necessary here.

We cannot deny that bodies acquire certain tendencies from heredity, but those tendencies only mean the physical configuration through which a peculiar mind alone can act in a peculiar way. There are other tendencies peculiar to a mind caused by the person’s past actions. And a soul with a certain mental tendency would by the laws of affinity take birth in a body which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency. This is in accord with science, for science wants to explain everything by habit, and habit is got through repetitions. So repetitions are necessary to explain the natural habits of a new-born soul. And since they were not obtained in this present life, they must have come down from past lives.

There is another suggestion. Taking all these for granted, how is it that I do not remember anything of my past life? This can be easily explained. I am now speaking English. It is not my mother tongue, in fact no words of my mother tongue are now present in my consciousness; but let me try to bring them up, and they rush in. That shows that consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean, and within its depths are stored up all our experiences. Try and struggle, they would come up and you would be conscious even of your past life.

This is direct and demonstrative evidence. Verification is the perfect proof of a theory, and here is the challenge thrown to the world by the Rishis. We have discovered the secret by which the very depths of the ocean of memory can be stirred up–try it and you would get a complete reminiscence of your past life.

Ignorance, the Prime Cause of Bondage

So then the Hindus believe that every person is a spirit. The sword cannot pierce the spirit, the fire cannot burn it, the water cannot melt it, and the air cannot dry it. [Gita 2.23](2) The Hindus believe that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose center is located in the body, and that death means the change of this center from body to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of itself as matter.

Why should the free, perfect, and pure being be thus under the thralldom of matter, is the next question. How can the perfect soul be deluded into the belief that it is imperfect? We have been told that the Hindus shirk the question and say that no such question can be there. Some thinkers want to answer it by positing one or more quasi-perfect beings, and use big scientific names to fill up the gap. But naming is not explaining. The question remains the same. How can the perfect become the quasi-perfect; how can the pure, the absolute, change even a microscopic particle of its nature? But the Hindus are sincere. They do not want to take shelter under sophistry. They are brave enough to face the question in a manly fashion; and their answer is: “I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.” But the fact is a fact for all that. It is a fact in everybody’s consciousness that one thinks of oneself as the body. The Hindus do not attempt to explain why one thinks one is the body. The answer that it is the will of God is no explanation. This is nothing more than what the Hindus say, “I do not know.”(3)

Well, then, the human soul is eternal and immortal, perfect and infinite, and death means only a change of center from one body to another. The present is determined by our past actions, and the future by the present. The soul will [apparently] go on evolving up or reverting back from birth to birth and death to death.

But here is another question: Is a human being a tiny boat in a tempest, raised one moment on the foamy crest of a billow and dashed down into a yawning chasm the next, rolling to and fro at the mercy of good and bad actions–a powerless, helpless wreck in an ever-raging, ever-rushing, uncompromising current of cause and effect; a little moth placed under the wheel of causation which rolls on crushing everything in its way and waits not for the widow’s tears or the orphan’s cry? The heart sinks at the idea, yet this is the law of Nature.

The Way to Freedom

Is there no hope? Is there no escape?–was the cry that went up from the bottom of the heart of despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down and inspired a Vedic sage, and he stood up before the world and in trumpet voice proclaimed the glad tidings: “Hear, ye children of immortal bliss!–even ye that reside in higher spheres![Svetasvatara Upanishad, 2.5] (4) I have found the Ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.” [Svetasvatara Upanishad, 3.8](5)

“Children of immortal bliss” –what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name–heirs of immortal bliss–yea, the Hindus refuse to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth–sinners! It is a sin to call anyone so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.

Thus it is that the Vedas proclaim not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One “by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain, and death stalks upon the earth.” [Taittiriya Upanishad, 8.1](6)

And what is His nature? He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful. “Thou art our father, Thou art our mother, Thou art our beloved friend, Thou art the source of all strength; give us strength. Thou art He that beareth the burdens of the universe; help me bear the little burden of this life.” Thus sang the Rishis of the Vedas. And how to worship Him? Through love. “He is to be worshipped as the one beloved, dearer than everything in this and the next life.”

This is the doctrine of love declared in the Vedas. Let us see how it is fully developed and taught by Krishna, whom the Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth. He taught that we ought to live in this world like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water [Cp. Gita 5.10]; so we ought to live in the world–our heart to God and our hands to work. It is good to love God for hope of reward in this or the next world, but it is better to love God for love’s sake, and the prayer goes: “Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be Thy will, I shall go from birth to birth, but grant me this, that I may love Thee without the hope of reward–love unselfishly for love’s sake.”

One of the disciples of Krishna, the then Emperor of India, was driven from his kingdom by his enemies and had to take shelter with his queen in a forest in the Himalayas, and there one day the queen asked him how it was that he, the most virtuous of men, should suffer so much misery. Yudhishthira answered, “Behold, my queen, the Himalayas, how grand and beautiful they are; I love them. They do not give me anything, but my nature is to love the grand, the beautiful, therefore I love them. Similarly, I love the Lord. He is the source of all beauty, of all sublimity. He is the only object to be loved; my nature is to love Him, and therefore I love. I do not pray for anything; I do not ask for anything. Let Him place me wherever He likes. I must love Him for love’s sake. I cannot trade in love.”

The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst, and the word they use for it is therefore, mukti–freedom, freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery. And this bondage can only fall off through the mercy of God, and this mercy comes on the pure. So purity is the condition of His mercy.

How does that mercy act? God reveals Himself to the pure heart. The pure and the stainless see God, yea, even in this life; then and then only all the crookedness of the heart is made straight. Then all doubt ceases. [Cp. Mundaka Upanishad, 2.2.8](7) We are no more the freaks of a terrible law of causation. This is the very center, the very vital conception of Hinduism. The Hindus do not want to live upon words and theories. If there are existences beyond the ordinary sensuous existence, they want to come face to face with them. If there is a soul which is not matter, if there is an all-merciful universal Soul, the Hindus will go to Him direct. They must see Him and that alone can destroy all doubts. So the best proof a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about God, is: “I have seen the soul; I have seen God.” And that is the only condition of perfection. The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing–not in believing, but in being and becoming.

Thus the whole object of the Hindu system is by constant struggle to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God and see God. This reaching God, seeing God, becoming perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus. And what becomes of those who attain perfection? They live a life of bliss infinite. They enjoy infinite and perfect bliss, having obtained the only thing in which we ought to have pleasure, namely God, and enjoy the bliss with God.

Nonduality, or the Unity of All Existence

So far all the Hindus are agreed. This is the common religion of all the sects of India; but, then, perfection is absolute, and the absolute cannot be two or three. It cannot have any qualities. It cannot be an individual. And so when a soul becomes perfect and absolute, it must become one with Brahman, and it would only realize the Lord as the perfection, the reality, of its own nature and existence, the existence absolute, knowledge absolute, and bliss absolute. We have often and often read this called the losing of individuality and becoming a stock or a stone.

“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

I tell you it is nothing of the kind. If it is happiness to enjoy the consciousness of this small body, it must be greater happiness to enjoy the consciousness of two bodies, the measure of happiness increasing with the consciousness of an increasing number of bodies, the aim, the ultimate of happiness being reached when it would become a universal consciousness.

Therefore, to gain this infinite universal individuality, this miserable little prison-individuality must go. Then alone can death cease when I am one with life, then alone can misery cease when I am one with happiness itself, then alone can all errors cease when I am one with knowledge itself; and this is the necessary scientific conclusion. Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter; and Advaita, or nonduality, is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.

Science is nothing but the finding of unity. As soon as science will reach perfect unity, it will stop from further progress because it will have reached the goal. Thus Chemistry will not progress farther when it will discover one element out of which all others can be made. Physics will stop when it will be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations. The science of religion became perfect when it discovered the Being who is the one life in a universe of death, the one who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, the one who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all science.

All science is bound to come to this conclusion in the long run. Manifestation, and not creation, is the word of science today, and the Hindus are only glad that what they have been cherishing in their bosom for ages is going to be taught in more forcible language, and with further light from the latest conclusions of science.

Image Worship

Descend we now from the aspirations of philosophy to the religion of the ignorant. At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism, nor would the name henotheism explain the situation. “The rose called by any other name would smell as sweet.” Names are not explanations.

I remember, as a boy, hearing a Christian missionary preach to a crowd in India. Among other sweet things he was telling them was that if he gave a blow to their idol with his stick, what could it do? One of his hearers sharply answered, “If I abuse your God, what can He do?” “You will be punished,” said the preacher, “when you die.” “So my idol will punish you when you die,” retorted the Hindu.

The tree is known by its fruits. When I have seen amongst them that are called idolaters, people the like of whom in morality and spirituality and love I have never seen anywhere, I stop and ask myself, “Can sin beget holiness?”

Superstition is our great enemy but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing. By the law of association, the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindus use an external symbol when they worship. They will tell you that it helps to keep their minds fixed on the Being to whom they pray. They know as well as you do that the image is not God, is not omnipresent. After all, how much does omnipresence mean to almost the whole world? It stands merely as a word, a symbol. Has God superficial area? If not, when we repeat that word “omnipresent”, we think of the extended sky or of space, that is all.

As we find that somehow or other, by the laws of our mental constitution, we have to associate our ideas of infinity with the image of the blue sky, or of the sea, so we naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the idea of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. But with this difference that while some people devote their whole lives to their idol of a church and never rise higher, because with them religion means an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and doing good to their fellows, the whole religion of the Hindus is centered in realization. We are to become divine by realizing the divine. Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps, of our spiritual childhood: but on and on we must progress.

We must not stop anywhere. “External worship, material worship,” say the scriptures, “is the lowest stage; struggling to rise high, mental prayer is the next stage, but the highest stage is when the Lord has been realized.” [Cp. Mahanirvana Tantra, 14.122](8) Mark, the same earnest people who are kneeling before the idol tell you, “Him the sun cannot express, nor the moon, nor the stars, the lightning cannot express Him, nor what we speak of as fire; through Him they shine.” (Mundaka Upanishad, 2.2.10)(9) But they do not abuse anyone’s idol or call its worship sin. They recognize in it a necessary stage of life. “The child is father of the man.” Would it be right for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth a sin?

If we can realize our divine nature with the help of an image, would it be right to call that a sin? Nor even when we have passed that stage, should we call it an error. To the Hindus, human beings are not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To the Hindus all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the Glorious Sun.

Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindus have recognized it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat that must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry, he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols–so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on. It is not that this help is necessary for everyone, but those that do not need it have no right to say that it is wrong. Nor is it compulsory in Hinduism.

One thing I must tell you. Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is not the mother of harlots. On the other hand, it is the attempt of undeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. The Hindus have their faults, they sometimes have their exceptions; but mark this, they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbors. If the Hindu fanatics burn themselves on the pyre, they never light the fire of Inquisition. And even this cannot be laid at the door of their religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.

Harmony of Religions

To the Hindus, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material person, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, say the Hindus. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.

It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindus in His incarnation as Krishna, “I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.” [Cp. Gita 7.7, 10.41](10) And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression as that the Hindus alone will be saved and not others. Says Vyasa, “We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed.”

One thing more. How, then, can the Hindus, whose whole fabric of thought centers in God, believe in Buddhism which is agnostic, or in Jainism which is atheistic? The Buddhists or the Jains do not depend upon God; but the whole force of their religion is directed to the great central truth in every religion, to evolve a God out of a human being. They have not seen the Father, but they have seen the Son. And he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father also.

The Ideal of a Universal Religion

This, then, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindus may have failed to carry out all their plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Islamic, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, from the lowest groveling savage not far removed from the brute, to the highest beings towering by the virtues of their heads and hearts almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of them and doubt their human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be created in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.

Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. Ashoka’s council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar’s, though more to the purpose, was only a parlor meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion.

May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble idea! The star arose in the East; it traveled steadily towards the West, sometimes dimmed and sometimes effulgent, till it made a circuit of the world; and now it is again rising on the very horizon of the East, the borders of the Sanpo, a thousandfold more effulgent than it ever was before.

Hail, Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped her hand in her neighbor’s blood, who never found out that the shortest way of becoming rich was by robbing one’s neighbors, it has been given to thee to march at the vanguard of civilization with the flag of harmony.

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