— Swami Vireshananda —
Swami Vivekananda’s personality is multi-faceted and all those facets are enlightened by his spiritual brilliance. He is like a sun with its countless rays illuminating the nook and corner of the entire world. The Kena Upanishad says that a man of realisation derives his strength from the Atman alone.1 This ideal of the Upanishad being exemplified in his personality, Swamiji’s excellence in every sphere of life is the resultant of his consciousness of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
An Adept in Meditation
What was that speciality in Narendra (Swami Vivekananda), which attracted Sri Ramakrishna towards him? In his account, the Master says: ‘He seemed careless about his body and dress, and unlike other people, not mindful of the external world. His eyes bespoke an introspective mind, as if some part of it were always concentrated upon something within. I was surprised to find such a spiritual soul coming from a material atmosphere of Calcutta.’2 Sri Ramakrishna also addressed Narendra as sage Nara, the incarnation of Narayana, born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind. When Narendra replied in affirmative to the question, ‘Do you see a light before falling asleep?’, the Master cried: ‘Ah! Everything is tallying. He is a Dhyana Siddha (an adept in meditation) even from his very birth.’3
Longing for God and Intense Sadhana
Longing for God is one of the special traits that the mystics exhibit in their lives. Swami Saradananda, the author of Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play graphically describes young Narendra’s fervent yearning for God and subsequent severe spiritual practices that he undertook under the guidance of Sri Ramakrishna. After his F.A. examination, Narendra became well acquainted with Western philosophers. But, this did not give him peace of mind, as he did not find in it any definite method of knowing God. In course of time, he became aware of the futility of trying to understand the mystery of the universe through senses, mind, and intellect. These instruments are inadequate to reveal the ultimate cause of the universe.
During the period between his F.A. and B.A. examinations, Narendra tried to understand Sri Ramakrishna’s extraordinary realisations by analysing them through scientific methods. He was now ready to pursue the truth even at the cost of his life and completely focussed on his search for the Ultimate Reality. Throughout this period, Narendra’s wonderful visions and his Guru’s grace sustained his faith in God and inspired him to pursue intense sadhana. He would meditate throughout the night banishing all thoughts, while keeping his mind as motionless as the unflickering flame of a lamp. Then onwards, he spent his whole time in seclusion, studying and practising austerities and often visiting Sri Ramakrishna. The Master would encourage him in his spiritual practices and advise him in case of difficulties.
We find the pinnacle of Narendra’s sadhana in Kashipur (Cossipore) Garden House when his hankering for realisation of God intensified under the tutelage of Sri Ramakrishna. He, along with his brother disciples, strived his best for spiritual upliftment through service to the Master and also through prayer and meditation. One day, Sri Ramakrishna initiated Narendra with the name of Rama, which stirred his emotions to tremendous heights. Later, one evening, he passed beyond all relativity and attained Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Only after a long time, he returned to the consciousness of the physical world. Sri Ramakrishna was very much pleased on hearing this, but told him that this treasure would again be his only after he finished Mother’s work.
The World Teacher
We find the saga of severe austerities repeated in Baranagar Math, after the passing away of the Master. Inspired by Narendra into burning renunciation and intense devotion, the young disciples of Sri Ramakrishna spent night after night in prayer and meditation forgetting their sleep. Now we find Narendra’s transformation into Swami Vivekananda, which an earlier edition (1960) of The Life of Swami Vivekananda describes in glowing terms:
Naren, the disciple became Swami Vivekananda—the teacher. … He, who as the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna sought for spiritual illumination, becomes himself the focus of a contagious spirituality. Narendra Nath is transformed into the monk Vivekananda and the spirit of Sri Ramakrishna pervades him.4
We find several instances in his itinerant days throughout India, in which Swamiji had experiences of exalted nature. In a place called Kakrighat, near Almora, on the lap of the Himalayas, he sat under a tree on the bank of a river, absorbed in deep meditation for a long time. Later, on regaining consciousness, he said to Swami Akhandananda that he had found the oneness of macrocosm with the microcosm. ‘In this microcosm of the body, everything that is there (in the macrocosm) exists.’5
During his travel in South India, Swamiji meditated on a rock in Kanyakumari consecutively for three days perhaps from December 24 to 26, 1892. In his letter dated 19 March 1894 addressed to Swami Ramakrishnananda, he wrote: ‘My brother, in view of all this, specially of the poverty and ignorance, I had no sleep. At Cape Comorin sitting in Mother Kumari’s temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan.’6
Man of God
In the West, Swamiji came to be regarded as a man of God not only by his followers but also by other prominent people of society. Madame Calve, a famous artist, says in her reminiscences that this man, who did not even know her name, talked to her of her secret problems and anxieties. ‘He spoke of things that I thought were unknown to my nearest friends. It seemed miraculous and supernatural!’7
Swamiji often entered into deep meditation in the US. In Thousand Island Park, on August 7, 1895, he strolled about half a mile in the forest with his companions. Then he suddenly said to them: ‘Now we shall meditate. We shall be like Buddha under the Bo-tree.’8 He became still as a bronze statue and did not even notice the thunderstorm and rain. Swami Nikhilananda, one of his biographers, writes: ‘It is reported that one day, at Thousand Island Park, he experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi.’9
Sister Christine, in her memoirs of the days she spent with Swamiji in the Thousand Island Park, recounts: ‘There was nothing set or formed about these nights on the upper veranda. He sat in his large chair at the end, near his door. Sometimes he went into a deep meditation. At such times we too meditated or sat in profound silence. Often it lasted for hours and one after the other slipped away.’10
In the cave shrine of Amarnath, Swamiji received the blessings of Lord Shiva. Sister Nivedita writes in her book The Master as I Saw Him: ‘The Swami had observed every rite of the pilgrimage, as he came along. He had told his beads, kept fasts, and bathed in the ice-cold waters of five streams in succession, crossing the river-gravels on our second day. And now, as he entered the Cave, it seemed to him, as if he saw Siva made visible before him.’11
Swamiji’s departure from this world giving up his mortal frame was also an extraordinary phenomenon. He breathed his last in Mahasamadhi, shedding his body like a great Yogi. In Chennai, on that very night, Swami Ramakrishnananda told Swami Satchidananda: ‘I saw Swamiji standing before me and he said to me, “Look here, Shashi, I threw away this body like spitting out spittle”.’12
Nature of Mysticism
Mysticism is the consciousness of union with the Divine or Ultimate Reality characterised by non-intellectual and non-sensory perception. ‘It is a manifestation of a deeper, permanent way of life, in which the purifying, illuminating and transforming power of God is experienced, effecting a transformation of the mystic’s entire being and consciousness.’13
Some scholars point out that mysticism is marked by three negative characteristics: irrationality, otherworldliness, and the absence of social and ethical concern. Ethics and mysticism, it is presumed, are if not antithetical, but certainly, unrelated. The mystics are portrayed as ‘lone rangers of the spirit’, who try to escape from their religious environments in order to find personal liberation and salvation. The mystic traditions are accused of being indifferent to moral endeavour. According to Albert Schweitzer, Hinduism is a religion in which ‘world and the life negation occupies a predominant position. … mysticism of identity, whether Indian or European, is not ethical in origin or in nature and cannot become so’.14
Steven T Katz in his article on ‘Ethics and Mysticism in Eastern Mystical Traditions’ tries to address these issues. He says that moksha or liberation in Hinduism and Buddhism is more a metaphysical state than an ethical state and in these traditions, morality is understood as an integral part of the general ontological structure. He says that ethics is very much grounded in knowledge since knowing Reality truly leads to overcoming passions, especially ahamkāra, the destructive, solipsistic assertion of ego. Katz also asserts that Sattva-śuddhi or the purification of the mind is conceived as the realisation of the moral perfection called Dharma, which is grounded on the identity of self and Brahman. He further elaborates that Self-liberation is not a task and an accomplishment disjunctive with morality and to insist on their separation in Western-style fashion, is an ‘inspired inability to locate the deeper metaphysical ground where two categories merge’.15
Regarding the question of rationality in mysticism, Celia Kourie in her article ‘Mysticism: A Survey of Recent Issues’ argues that mystical consciousness is neither rational nor is it non-rational, but supra-rational, ‘since it transcends the limits of the mind’s calculations and its very ability to grasp’.16 She also remarks that it is more precise to say that such consciousness can be described as a supra-noetic state on the upper end of the rationality scale. Celia Kourie, hence, concludes that the non-discursive, intuitive nature of mystical experience does not necessarily imply that mystical experience is irrational or that entails an abandonment of intellect.
The above arguments also counteract the misconception about mysticism to be otherworldly bereft of social concern. Steven K Katz, in this context, draws our attention to the fact that obtainment of moksha is not equivalent to inactivity. What is counselled in the Gita, is not inaction, but action without attachment. In fact, Sri Krishna cautions Arjuna that one does not attain perfection by mere renunciation. Also, the quest for liberation is not to be understood as a selfish behaviour without social concern, since in moksha, there is no ‘personal salvation’ but rather a release from the illusion of the ‘personal’.17 Sri Krishna also states that even those who are liberated have to continue to work for Loka Sangraha, the welfare of the world (Gita, 3.20).
Swami Vivekananda represents dynamic, rational, and all-inclusive mysticism practised by the Upanishadic sages of yore. What we find in him is not otherworldliness, but perpetual bubbling enthusiasm towards life blended with a deep awareness of spiritual consciousness, the backdrop of all empirical phenomenon. In this context, he stands for the Gita ideal of ‘seeing action in inaction and inaction in action’ (Gita, 4.18). He is like a great ocean, whose exterior is turbulent, but the interior is perfectly tranquil.
Swamiji’s realisation was never a selfish achievement, for he saw every human being as a manifestation of divine consciousness. Universal consciousness was his goal, which he recognised and worshipped not only in his own being but also in all entities, animate and inanimate. His idea of universal consciousness, which he had found union with, is neither exclusive nor sectarian. It is evident from his own words:
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.18
The realisation of this universal consciousness explicates Swamiji’s social concern and compassion towards the deprived classes of society. He is a great lover of humanity, not because of the status of being human beings, but due to his reverence to the presence of divinity in each of them, though in a potential form. This gives rise to the idea of Practical Vedanta, one of his consummate contributions to world thought, which calls for ‘service of God in man’, for a human being is the greatest image of God. Swamiji says: ‘It is absolutely necessary to worship God as man. … That is the natural way to see God; see God in man. All our ideas of God are concentrated there.’19
Divinity as the Basis of Morality
Swamiji’s ideas on ethics or morality in juxtaposition with religion and mysticism make an interesting study. The highest ideal of self-abnegation, where there is no ‘I’, but all is ‘Thou’, is the goal of Karma Yoga. According to Swamiji, it is the basis of all morality and the one fundamental principle running through all ethical systems.
Seen from the high pedestal of mystical realisation, ethics or morality and doing good to others are but manifestations of infinite oneness in human nature; any kind of religious inspiration is but its mere expression. The same divinity exists behind everything, and out of this comes the basis of morality. Through this idea, Swamiji rejects the utilitarian view of morality as selfish and declares that ‘all ethics, all human action and all human thought, hang upon this one idea of unselfishness’.20 Further, he adds that the idea of the struggle for freedom found in every religion is the groundwork of all morality and unselfishness. It means getting rid of the idea that humans are the same as their little body. This view of Swamiji demonstrates the umbilical relationship between mysticism and ethics.
Swamiji, in his lecture on ‘Reason and Religion’, delivered in England, upholds the efficacy of scientific investigation of religion. For him, the reasoning is to apply the discoveries of secular knowledge to religion. Swamiji outlines two principles of reasoning as follows: (1) The particular is explained by the general, the general by the more general, until we come to the universal; and (2) The explanation of a thing must come from inside and not from outside. Religion should not shy away from being rationally analysed on these two scientific principles. The more religion becomes rational and scientific, the more it would become stronger and enduring.
Swamiji asserts that the religion of Vedanta can satisfy the demands of the scientific world. Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, is the last generalisation that we can reach, as Brahman has no attributes, and is of the form of pure existence, pure knowledge, and pure bliss. Also, Brahman has nothing outside of Itself. ‘All this indeed is He; He is the universe: He is the universe Himself.’21 Swamiji also emphasises that the rationality of Vedanta ‘rests upon its all-inclusion of the searchers after God; its absolute charity towards all forms of worship, and its eternal receptivity of those ideas trending towards the evolution of God in the universe’.22
About the superconscious state, Swamiji said to a group of spiritual seekers at Thousand Island Park: ‘Remember, the superconscious never contradicts reason. It transcends it, but contradicts it never. Faith is not belief, it is the grasp on the Ultimate, an illumination.’23
Swamiji gives a glimpse of this rational and all-inclusive mystical experience that one gets on the realisation of Universal Principle in these immortal words:
The same voice, ‘I am, I am’, is eternal, unchangeable. In Him and through Him we know everything. In Him and through Him we see everything. In Him and through Him we sense, we think, we live, and we are. And that ‘I’, which we mistake to be a little ‘I’, limited, is not only my ‘I’, but yours, the ‘I’ of everyone, of the animals, of the angels, of the lowest of the low. … From the lowest amoeba to the highest angel, He resides in every soul, and eternally declares, ‘I am He, I am He’. … That is the only true knowledge which makes us one with this Universal God of the Universe.24
Swami Vivekananda is the icon of an innovative type of mysticism, which not only is all-inclusive but also all-embracing. The Vedantic Mysticism he demonstrated in his life reverberates in his lectures, writings, and conversations spread over hundreds of pages in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. In these pages, Swamiji elevates theology to philosophy and further, philosophy to mystical realisation. He begins every one of his lectures with a detailed scholarly analytical dissection of his theme, but towards the end, he takes the reader to the pristine heights of realisation. We find this seamless flight to peaks of mysticism, particularly in his Jnana Yoga lectures.
Swamiji visited Cairo, the capital of Egypt in 1900, on his return journey to India during his second visit to America. While on a casual walk, he and his companions found themselves in an ill-fame street. A group of women were seen sitting on a bench laughing. His friends tried to hurry up but Swamiji approached the bench saying ‘poor children’ and began to shed tears. The women were taken aback and one of them came forward and kissed the edge of his robe, muttering ‘Man of God! Man of God!’. Undeniably, as his master Sri Ramakrishna said about him, Swami Vivekananda does not belong to this world; he belongs to the divine realm. He is indeed a man of God!
- Kena Upanishad, 12.
- His Eastern and Western Disciples, The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2004), 1.75.
- , 1.77.
- , (6th edition, 1960), 151.
- (2004), 1.250.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 254.
- His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2017), 453.
- Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A biography (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2013), 185.
- Reminscences of Swami Vivekananda, 338.
- Sister Nivedita, The Master as I Saw Him (Kolkata: Udbodhan, 2004), 102.
- Swami Chetanananda, God Lived with Them (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1998), 286.
- Celia Kourie, ‘Mysticism: A Survey of Recent Issues’, Journal for the Study of Religion (Association for the Study of Religion in Southern Africa [ASRSA]), 5/2 (September 1992), 83–103 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/24763970>.
- Steven T Katz, ‘Ethics and Mysticism in Eastern Mystical Traditions’, Religious Studies (Cambridge University Press), 28/2 (June 1992), 253–67 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/20019543>.
- , 256–58.
- Celia Kourie, 88.
- Steven K Katz,
- Complete Works, 1.14.
- , 4.31.
- , 1.182.
- , 1.374.
- , 8.254–55.
- Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, 351.
- Complete Works,382.