Manifesting Brahman – Vivekananda

An interesting, (occasionally side-tracked!) talk on Swami Vivekananda by the ever-ebullient Swami Sarvapriyananda:

His punchline – Vedanta is about manifesting the divinity within. Recall Sankara – neti neti and renunciation, with any action not for selfish ends but for the good of the whole.

Dennis and Shishya – I commend this to you both, for entirely different reasons.

25 thoughts on “Manifesting Brahman – Vivekananda

  1. Dear Venkat, thank you for this wonderful video, Sarvapriyananda is a very insightful and fluent speaker. At the point below, I stopped listening and may go back later.

    Instead of Vivekananda claiming that he discovered something new, his amanuensis Nivedita did so on his behalf, and I wonder whether the good Swami would agree? Sorry to sound skeptical, I just find the Ramakrishna/Vivekananda temperamental effusions somewhat overpowering.

    More later,

  2. Venkat, I had opened the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna on a friend’s recommendation and found Nikhilananda’s sketch of M among the disciples.
    Mahendranath Gupta, known as “M.”, arrived at Dakshineswar in February 1882. He belonged to the Brāhmo Samāj and was headmaster of the Vidyāsāgar High School at Śyāmbāzār, Calcutta. At the very first sight the Master recognized him as one of his “marked” disciples. Mahendra recorded in his diary Sri Ramakrishna’s conversations with his devotees. These are the first directly recorded words, in the spiritual history of the world, of a man recognized as belonging in the class of Buddha and Christ. The present volume is a translation of this diary. Mahendra was instrumental, through his personal contacts, in spreading the Master’s message among many young and aspiring souls.
    You see what I mean, where I’m coming from?

    Goodness, I feel like saying more but I must stop, really.


  3. Shishya

    I am not particularly invested in Ramakrishna or Vivekananda, though I do have an allergic reaction when self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ vedantic ‘acharyas’ – most of whom seem to originate, perhaps not coincidentally, from the D school – seek to lecture about the shortcomings of other’s interpretations and confusions.

    I can’t comment on the passages you have referenced, though recognise that at least some of it may be attributable to the style of writing of the time. Having said that, one does not come across such passages in reading Ramana.

    Looking beyond the devotional outpourings of Ramakrishna, and to a lesser extent Vivekananda, the three points I thought you’d find interesting are:
    – a more inclusive vs exclusive approach to advaita
    – the clarification of the roles of karma-, bhakti- and raja yoga vs jnana in Vivekananda’s conception
    – the emphasis on manifestation of the divinity within, rather than simply the sterile ‘knowledge’ of Brahman, as the indication of a jivanmukta.

    On the latter point, Sarvarpriyananda makes the argument that knowledge of the one-ness of Brahman – and concomitantly the dissolution of the ego – is the most cogent basis for an ethical, moral life.

    best wishes,

    • Dear Venkat,
      I am deeply appreciative of the 3 points you list above. Sarvapriyananda’s quote from Nivedita’s introduction to the collected works is magnificent –
      “If the many and the One be indeed the same Reality, then it is not all modes of worship alone, but equally all modes of work, all modes of struggle, all modes of creation, which are paths of realisation. No distinction, henceforth, between sacred and secular. To labour is to pray. To conquer is to renounce. Life is itself religion. To have and to hold is as stern a trust as to quit and to avoid.

      • Here is an extract from a comment by Ramesan a while back that I liked very much.
        I wish people (would) stop idolizing Shankara as a deity. One should realize that he was a teenager when he entered the world with a zeal to revive the Vedanta, standing up against entrenched oldies like me and Dennis (and perhaps others) of his time. So he armed himself with certain documents that were necessary for supporting his thesis. He did not avow to review all the extant Advaitic lore existing in his time. That was not the purpose of his bhAShya-s. So there is hardly any justification to say that ‘if Shankara did not mention, it is either inferior or has to be post-Shankara.’
        I think Vivekananda spoke through Ramesan, heh, heh.


  4. Just finished the video – Swami Sarvapriyananda is excellent as usual. Someone on the Advatin list also posted the link and here is how I responded to that:

    I think you are missing the point (if you are referring to my own comments). There is no question but that Swami V was a towering influence for the good, not only in bringing Advaita to the attention of many in the West but in his indication of the value of all religions in taking us to the one goal. Swami Sarvapriyananda brings this out beautifully in his talk. If you follow someone such as Swami S, you will not go far wrong.

    BUT… if you want to discover the original teaching of Advaita according to Shankara, and you want to avoid being confused by apparent contradictions, then you should not refer to Vivekananda as source material. I hope this resolves any confusion that might have resulted from what I said!

    Best wishes,

  5. Shishya,

    Thanks for the comment by Ramesam. As he hints at, the problem with TRADITION-al teachers is that they are more focused on dissecting and commenting on the pointing finger, rather than looking in the direction at which it points. For a Ramesam, it is more important to understand and appreciate truth, whosoever articulates it.


  6. An interesting and relevant extract from:

    Swami Vivekananda: His Life, Legacy, and Liberative Ethics, edited by Rita D. Sherma

    Did India need despotic government? . . .

    Macaulay told the story . . . of the extraordinary conquest of India by a “handful of adventurers from an island in the Atlantic” who “subjugated a vast country” . . . but whose forms of governance must now be transformed to “enlightened and paternal despotism.” (Hall 2012, 209)

    There are chapters in the volume that address these issues with a renewed vigor that has otherwise been relatively rare in recent international scholarship on Vivekananda. His understanding of the relevance and application of the classical system of thought of Advaita Vedānta—stemming from the non-dualist teachings in the Upaniṣads and their refined systematization in the work of Śaṅkara—the tenth century doyen of Indian philosophical theology and, arguably, the first Hindu systematic theologian—is a subject of much discussion. The chapters in the volume that address this question argue that Vivekananda’s programmatic agenda was to release Advaita Vedānta from the boundaries of exegetical-textual analysis on Śaṅkara’s work alone. He brought the tradition into deep engagement with social justice, interreligious dialogue, and communitarian concerns in alignment with its keystone doctrines, and in keeping with the principles set forth by medieval and early modern advaitic forms of Vedānta.

    It can be argued that Vivekananda positioned Advaita Vedānta in a way that opened up the potential arguably inherent in the principle of non-duality. It can be surmised that his interpretations further moved Advaita toward the expression of its deeper metaphysical and cosmological insights applied to lived experience itself, with all its vagaries and challenges. The argument that weaves through these chapters goes further still in suggesting and demonstrating that Swami Vivekananda, the pragmatist, advanced the work of earlier Advaita-influenced Vedāntins by promulgating a constructive theological agenda underscoring the non-otherness of fellow human beings and by framing this position in a moral philosophy and practical ethics that are consistent with a broader universalistic perspective—but contiguous with the historical development of an overarching non-dualistic ontological vision.

    • I find it difficult to take Ramakrishna seriously and that is, I am sure, solely my misfortune. But here is a snippet from William Radice’s essay – Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics – (Debendranath Tagore below is Rabindranath’s father)


      It is surely likely that Tagore found Ramakrishna distasteful.When the saint asked Maharshi Debendranath Tagore to ‘remove his shirt in order to examine his chest with a view to ascertaining the great aristocrat’s spiritual potential’,10 we can assume thatTagore must have felt as disgusted as his father did himself; and Keshabchandra Sen’s interest in Ramakrishna must have seemed utterly suspect to the Adi (‘Original’) Brahmos, led by Debendranath and adhered to by Rabindranath, after Keshab broke with them in the schism of 1866…Tagore would also not have been amused by the insolent way inwhich Ramakrishna teased Isvarchandra Vidyasagar during theirfamousmeeting,andbyhispatronizingcommentsonhimafterwards.11
      Vivekananda’s infatuation with the largely illiterate Ramakrishna puzzles me, especially in My Master, his bio of Ramakrishna who was probably ill, IMVHO.

      • Sorry, the complete title of William Radice’s essay is:

        Atheists, Gurus and Fanatics: RabindranathTagore’s ‘Chaturanga’ (1916)

  7. Thank you Shishya. I have not read as extensively as you, but that was my impression of him. Manifesting the understanding, the insight, that ‘I’ have the same level of importance as all that I perceive.

    VS Iyer, an early philosophical teacher of the Ramakrishna monks, wrote something that struck me, which most of the current crop of Traditional teachers don’t seem to grasp:

    “In dream all the scenes and all the people are made of the same essence as yourself, they are as real as you are. Do not treat other people as mere ideas but your own self as real. If they are ideas, so are you. If you are real, so are they. Hence you must feel for them all just what you feel for yourself.”

    Judge a man by the legacy he left behind. Vivekananda left behind an institution that not only served the poor, but produced successive generations of monks of the calibre of Nikhilananda, Gambhirananda etc, and now Sarvapriyananda.

    What has D left behind? Modi, a right wing Hindu chauvinist. That is what happens when you focus on the finger rather than the direction in which it points.

  8. The Logo of the RK Mission which was established by Swami Vivekananda reads, “Atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya ca (For one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world). It is said that Swami Vivekananda was highly driven by a motivation to do “service to humanity.”

    The aupanishadic Advaita says that “service” is one of the tools that comes under the remedies suggested for the removal of “mala” (blemishes resulting from past stored impressions – demerit) which acts as a “block” in the mind in grokking the Advaitc Truth. The other two “blocks” are vacillating mind and ignorance in the mind. The respective suggested remedies are upAsana (meditation) and gain of Self-knowledge.

    Sw-V chose the motto of the Mission to do “service” (which removes the first block on the Knowledge Path) along with Self-realization.

    I remember Swami Sarvapriyananda saying that the Advaita of Shri Ramakrishna was more akin to Shivadvaita.

    Do these things then imply that, the Advaita promoted and propagated by Sw-V, believes in the continuity of a world needing ‘service’ even after one’s Self-realization ?

    Or rephrasing the question, does Sw-V consider the visible world as ‘anya’ or ‘ananya’ to oneself, after Self-realization?


  9. Dear Ramesam

    I was wondering when this question would come up.

    From my understanding . . .

    Only a jnani can know what his/her anubhava is, and whether the world continues to appear or not. But from a teaching perspective, jnanis have to address their comments at the level of ajnanis. And given the rarity of self-realisation, therefore it is not surprising that jnanis would emphasise karma yoga and service, which at least help to attenuate the ego. Simply jumping to the end-conclusion can only cause confusion. And as Vivekanada’s written and spoken works were addressed to large diverse audiences, his main focus would have been to capture the interest of the mass of people.

    Let’s do a thought experiment. We are agreed that the world is not real, and nor are we. And yet we have, in our perception, the Upanishads that seek to enlighten us. So, in the same way we have jnanis that can only address us at our level. IF they all just said that it is all unreal, and nothing matters, then you have neo-advaita and arguably a strengthening of the ego (under the guise of ‘non-doership’). In which case you don’t need the upanishads or these teachers, as self-realisation just doesn’t matter.

    So, for whatever unfathomable reason, Brahman has spun out the illusion and has placed pointers in that illusion for the illusion to be dissolved. As you know, words cannot tackle it.

    But the undisputable essence is that our body-minds are non-different from all else that we perceive and none of it is real. So, as Sankara pointed out, there are only two alternative for jnanis: for some, it may manifest in abandoning all interest in the world and so living on what comes by chance (a wandering ascetic); for others it may manifest as action for the good of the whole (ie a life of service).

    best wishes,

  10. Dear Venkat,

    Thank you for your observations.
    What you say is, I guess, about the best way to explain the position.

    What I am asking is, however, slightly different. Do you think Swami Vivekananada’s Non-dual philosophy exactly conforms to that of the Upanishads?


  11. Hi Ramesam,

    That is a bit of a broad question – and I am not a Vivekananda expert. You clearly have something in mind – in what way do you believe it does not conform?


  12. Thanks Venkat.
    Maybe Dennis, if he is following this thread, can throw some light on this question especially since he was referring to his comments at the Advaitin group.
    Rick Riekert: Are you there? Any ideas?


  13. Ramesam

    For the prospectus of the Advaita Ashrama, Vivekananda wrote the following:

    “The Advaita is the only system which gives unto man complete possession of himself, takes of alll dependence and its associated superstitions, thus making us brave to suffer, brave to do, and in the long run attain to Absolute Freedom.

    Hitherto it has not been possible to preach this Noble Truth entirely free from the settings of dualistic weakness; this alone, we are convinced, explains why it has not been more operative and useful to mankind at large.

    To give this ONE TRUTH [emphasis his] a freer and fuller scope in elevating the lives of individuals and leavening the mass of mankind, we start this Advaita Ashrama on the Himalayan heights, the land of its first expiration.

    Here it is hoped to keep Advaita free from all superstitions and weakening contaminations. Here will be taught and practiced nothing but the doctrine of unity, pure and simple; and though in entire sympathy with all other systems, this Ashrama is dedicated to Advaita and Advaita alone”

    One can surmise from his words that he was fully aware that the teaching of Advaita Vedanta to most people required compromises. Hence his dedication to setting up this branch. And subsequently evidenced by the faithful translations and commentaries of advaita scriptures that have subsequently issued from the monks of this order.

  14. Just a couple of comments/responses:

    Venkat said: “there are only two alternative for jnanis: for some, it may manifest in abandoning all interest in the world and so living on what comes by chance (a wandering ascetic); for others it may manifest as action for the good of the whole (ie a life of service).”

    My response: Clearly, then, you accept that the world DOES continue to appear after enlightenment.

    Ramesam asked: “Do you think Swami Vivekananada’s Non-dual philosophy exactly conforms to that of the Upanishads?”

    Here is a quote from the section on VIvekananda in Vol. 1 of the ‘Confusions’ book:

    Vivekananda’s understanding differed from Shankara’s because the former’s knowledge and understanding of scriptures was only partial. He never belonged to any sampradAya and was influenced as much by Brahmo Samaj, Ramakrishna, and science as he was by scriptures and their interpretation. Inevitably, without the benefit of clear guidance on these, he both devalued them and misunderstood them. The vast majority of material related to Vivekananda comes from the talks that he gave around the world, especially in India and the USA, on many topics related to Vedanta. It is interesting to note that the only scriptural commentary he wrote is on the ‘Yoga Sutras’! Here is evidence of the influence of Yoga. (This translation and commentary occurs in Volume 1 of Ref. 49 in the section on Raja Yoga.)

    He disapproved of all scriptures, including the Vedas:

    “Each religion, again, lays claim that its particular book is the only authentic word of God; that all other sacred books are false and are impositions upon poor human credulity; and that to follow another religion is to be ignorant and spiritually blind.

    “For instance, the orthodox followers of the Vedas claim that the Vedas are the only authentic word of God in the world; that God has spoken to the world only through the Vedas; not only that, but that the world itself exists by virtue of the Vedas… A cow exists because the name cow is in the Vedas… The language of the Vedas is the original language of God, all other languages are merely dialects and not of God. Every word and syllable in the Vedas must be pronounced correctly, each sound must be given its true vibration, and every departure from this rigid exactness is a terrible sin and unpardonable.” (Ref. 49, Vol. 6)

    Best wishes,

  15. Vivekananda certainly perceived himself as a Vedantin and believed his message to be a commentary on Sri Ramakrishna’s re-living and re-interpreting the Upanishads for the modern era.

    Vivekananda was unsparing in his criticism of what he saw as the text-torturing of traditional commentators such as Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva: “Coming to our commentators again, we find another difficulty. The Advaitic commentator, whenever an Advaitic text comes, preserves it just as it is; but the same commentator, as soon as a dualistic text presents itself, tortures it if he can, and brings the most queer meaning out of it….In the same way, if not in a still worse fashion, the texts are handled by the dualistic commentator. Every dualistic text is preserved, and every text that speaks of non-dualistic philosophy is tortured in any fashion he likes.”

    In other words, Vivekananda accuses the traditional commentators of lapsing into eisegesis, the practice of imposing one’s own philosophical assumptions and doctrines onto the scriptures instead of trying to understand the scriptures on their own terms. Vivekananda remarks that ‘all the great commentators…were at times “conscious liars” in order to make the texts suit their philosophy.

    Vivekananda called for a new hermeneutic approach that sought to harmonize the various apparently conflicting passages of the scriptures without resorting to text-torturing. Significantly, Vivekananda credited Sri Ramakrishna for inspiring him to interpret the ancient scriptures on an ‘independent and better basis than by blindly following the commentators.’

    Vivekananda championed a non-eisegetic hermeneutic approach to the prasthanatraya that refrains from one-sidedly privileging certain teachings of the scriptures while denigrating or distorting other teachings. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to carry out the full-blown reinterpretation of the prasthanatraya he envisioned.

    Anyone who wishes to gain a fuller understanding of Vivekananda’s complex approach to the Upanishads could do worse than consult Sister Gayatriprana’s online text “Swami’s Vivekananda on the Vedas and Upanishads”. Sister Gayatriprana is a retired neuroscientist and former monastic member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

  16. You never disappoint Rick Riekert. Thanks for the excellent observations with real meat and very much to the point.
    One can easily say that the Testimonial you give to Swami Vivekananda far surpasses that of even Sw- Sarva. One wonders if you are a follower of the RK Mission! 🙂

    Today I have learnt a new word, highly appropriate to the present times. Thank you. The word is “eisegesis.” I wonder how can anyone claim to be free from being a victim of that – even Vivekananda!

    Thanks also for the link to the over 400-page essay of Sister G with a very promising title. I could read through the first 20 pages or so. So far it appeared to be an unending loquacious list of disclaimers etc etc. clothed in an unabashed eulogistic laudation of the Swami and his work. Everywhere, it is said that the Swami explained the Vedas and the deep meaning in them to his colleagues etc., though it was initially said that he was reluctant to study the scriptural texts. The Vedic Sanskrit and its grammar, the word meanings etc. are very unlike the modern day Sanskrit and a complete study of the four Vedas requires as much as 12-15 years of intense study. I have yet to know from whom Naren learnt the Vedas and the Vedic Sanskrit, besides, of course, the teaching of Paramahamsa Ramakrishna.

    The revolutionary twin concepts of an egalitarian bill of rights and uniformitarianism and the presence of an ever-benevolent Godhead that emanated from the West are very alluring and undoubtedly captivating. However, sadly, there is neither uniformity nor equality in Nature (prakRiti). The prey-predator struggle for very living itself is a disheartening example for unequal justice. Misery and pain are assured for the victim. Even in our body, there is no uniformity — hands do not look like or perform like what an eye does or what the legs do. How can the society be any different? Secondly, The Vedas do not talk or teach about a compassionate Godhead but assert the truth of Newton’s 3rd Law several centuries, if not thousands of years, before Newton. One reaps the consequences of his / her actions.

    The nature is red in tooth and claw. It is quite unnatural to wish to steamroll everything and everyone into a uniformly single mold. Harmonizing diversity is merely a political slogan.

    I guess, I have digressed quite a bit. I have to still study a large part of Sister G’s document. Hope to get to the real substance of the issue soon.


  17. “I have yet to know from whom Naren learnt the Vedas and the Vedic Sanskrit, besides, of course, the teaching of Paramahamsa Ramakrishna.”

    Even as a little boy Naren had memorized the aphorisms of the Sanskrit grammar ‘Mugdhabodha’. All through his parivrajya, wandering, days he studied deeply various subjects. In Jaipur he met a noted Sanskrit grammarian. He decided to study grammar (Panini’s ‘Ashtadhyayi’). Later at the Khetri palace he became acquainted with Pandit Narayandas, a foremost Sanskrit scholar, and decided to resume his study of the ‘Mahabhashya’ (Patanjali’s great commentary) on the Sutras of Panini. Again in Porbandar he finished his study of the ‘Mahabhashya’, helped Pandit Shankar Pandurang with the translation of the Vedas, and for a little relaxation took up the study of French.

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