Sublime thoughts
Ashok Vohra
The Philosophy of Vivekananda
ed. Rekha Jhanji. Aryan Books International, New Delhi.
Pages XX+206. Rs 495.

Vivekananda in his teachings synthesised ‘immense idealism’ of the Advaita Vedanta with ‘immense practicality’ of our workaday life. The outcome of such a synthesis is a philosophy, which far from being abstruse and abstract compendium of theories understandable only to the experts becomes a ‘living-poetic’ that can be grasped even by a child. He believed that "out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms." That is why he is said to be the founder of practical Vedanta. His teachings had an enormous appeal for all but more so for the youth of the country, to whom he gave the clarion call: Uttishathata, jagrata praapya vraannibodhata (arise, awake and stop not until the goal is reached).

Vivekanada’s writings cover almost all areas, concerns and aspects of human life. He deals with each one of them from the standpoint of practical Vedanta. He had a conviction that traditionally, all religions prescribe the path through which their vision for the full flowering of the concrete individual and humanity at large can be achieved. Testing these visions against the context of contemporary reality, he advocated, is a fresh way of examining their relevance.

This elegantly produced volume consists of 16 essays. Each essay in its own way attempts to understand one aspect or the other of Vivekananda’s philosophy and praxis. Some are quite pedantic in their approach, while the others have made an indepth analysis of Vivekanada’s teachings and examined their worth in the contemporary scenario. Few essays make unnecessary comparisons and are irrelevant to the central theme of the book—the philosophy of Vivekanada. Some are repetitive, written in rather ‘loose’ language and are duplication of what has been said by the others, while the others give a novel interpretation of Vivekanada’s theories. Had the editor, who is a very competent and renowned scholar in her own right, used her editorial prerogative of eliminating the former, the collection would have become more focused, useful and interesting both for the researchers and scholars as well as the lay readers.

The essays have been grouped into three sections—Religion, Society and Ethics; Nature of Man, Creativity and Art; and Indian Philosophical Systems. These sections contain essays on ‘religion and ethics and their significance for Indian society and nation’; ‘human nature and its manifestations in different forms of culture like language, art and literature’; and the exposition of ‘Vivekananda’s views on traditional Indian philosophies,’ respectively. The rationale for such a classification is not clear from otherwise lucidly written introduction by the editor.

Despite an apparent disparity in the outer forms, the real aim of every religion, according to Vivekanada, is to lead a person to realise his true nature. Unlike many other religions, which hold that the very life of man is the result of the original fall, which in turn is the result of original sin, he believes that man is amritsya putrah, children of immortal bliss. Every soul on this view is potentially divine. Man, on this view, is not a sinner, nor has he to be remorseful about his being, his very existence. He does not have to continually look for his redemption with the help of an outside agency. By controlling our own mind we can make a decisive move towards perfection. This is what forms the kernel of religion, and is called by Vivekanada the eternal or the universal religion. Whether holding such a position leads to essentialism or relativism is purely an academic exercise and is irrelevant to the practitioners like Vivekananda.

Besides religious, it is the aesthetic experience, which helps us lead a life filled with joyfulness. Because of the impact of Advaita Vedanta, most of the commentators ignore what a spiritual leader thinks about art and beauty for it is generally believed that a saint has nothing to do with the worldly objects. However, the essays do not ignore the sublime experience aroused in us on seeing an innovative symbol, use of refreshing political idioms and the presence of objects of art and beauty. All the essays in this section, and the section on Vivekananda’s observations on ‘classical Indian philosophical systems’ are my reason for recommending this anthology to the lay reader and the scholars alike.