Shankaracharya & Swami Vivekananda


                                                    (Interactive session on 14.12.2013)

Keynote address by Mr. Asim Banerjee

(Other participant speakers: Mr. Amitava Tripathi, Ashok Kumar Sengupta, Mr R. K. Gupta, Mr. N. N. Sarkar, Mr. S. K. Ganguly, Mr. Gautam Kanjilal, Mr. Ramesh Chandra Chanda, Dr. Bhawal & Ms. Sharmila Bhawal)

[Devotional song by Ms. Jayanti Das Gupta

Anchor, Introduction & Conclusive Remarks: Asish K.Raha



Adi Shankaracharya, the great exponent of Advaita Vedanta and a reformer of Hindu religion who is also credited with reviving and restoring the Vedic religion to its pristine purity can possibly be compared only with Swami Vivekananda, considering the enormous contribution of the both in the fields of religion, philosophy and spirituality. A. L. Basham, the reputed British historian and Indologist, while dwelling on Vivekananda’s contribution observed that “in centuries to come he will be remembered as one of the main moulders of the modern world, especially as far as Asia is concerned, and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion, comparable in importance to such great teachers as Sankara and Ràmànuja.” Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, while on the contribution of Vivekananda, observed: “If you really believe in the divine spark in man, do not for a moment hesitate to accept the great tradition which has come to us, of which Swami Vivekananda was the greatest exponent.”

There were striking similarities between the two spiritual titans of India. Both had profound respect and sense of duty to their mother, so much so that they did not care for the traditional monastic norm of complete separation of tie with her. They both travelled through the length and breadth of the country after Sannyas (monkhood). Both of them were exponents of Advaita Vedanta. Both were against the rigours of caste system. Both revolted against ritualistic religion, exploitation, and superstitions and both were out and out non-conformists. Both gave their own interpretation about Brahman and the Vedanta and both gave a new direction to the contemporary society. Last but not the least, both are remembered and revered as the saviour of Hindu religion in the face of grave crisis and threat of near extinction.

The above similarities in thought and action notwithstanding, there were some striking differences in the understanding, approach and interpretation of the Vedanta by Swami Viveananda vis-à-vis Adi Shankaracharya. Before we dwell upon those differences, we will first present a life sketch of both the luminaries. 

Life sketch of Adi Shankara:

Adi Shankara was a Hindu philosopher from Kaladi in present day Ernakulam district, Kerala, who consolidated the doctrine of advaita vedānta.

His works in Sanskrit established the doctrine of advaita, the unity of the ātman and nirguna Brahman (brahman without attributes). His works dwell on ideas found in the Upanishads. He wrote copious commentaries on the Vedic canon (Brahma Sutra, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita) in support of his thesis.

The main opponent in his work is the ‘Mimamsa’ school of thought, though he also offered arguments against the views of some other schools like ‘Samkhya’ and certain schools of ‘Buddhism’.

Shankara travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He established the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, in a time when the Mimamsa school established strict ritualism and ridiculed monasticism. He is reputed to have founded four mathas (“monasteries”), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta of which he is known as the greatest revivalist. Adi Shankara is believed to be the organiser of the Dashanami monastic order and the founder of the Shanmata tradition of worship.

Traditional accounts of Adi Shankara’s life can be found in the Śankara Vijaya, which are poetic works that contain a mix of biographical and legendary material, written in the epic style. The most important among these biographies are the Mādhavīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Mādhava, c. 14th century), the Cidvilāsīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Cidvilāsa, c. between the 15th and 17th centuries), and the Keraļīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of the Kerala region, extant from c. the 17th century).

Shankara’s miraculous birth:

788–820 CE: This is the mainstream scholarly opinion, placing Shankara in mid to late 8th century CE. These dates are based on records at the Śṛṅgeri Śāradā Pīṭha, which is believed to be the only matha to have maintained a relatively unbroken record of its Acharya. However, other Mathas such as Kancheepuram, Dwaraka, and Govardhana Matha (Puri) are inclined to place him between 509 BC and 477 BC, based on their records. However, historians are more inclined toward the Sringeri records, according to which Shankara was born in 788, in a Nampurdi– Brahmin family at  Kaladi, (Kerala). According to lore, it was after his parents (Father: Shivaguru and Mother: Bishishtha/ /Aryamba ), who had been childless for many years, prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple, Thrissur, ( another book says Chandramouliswar Shiba temple near to their house), that Shiva appeared to both husband and wife in their dreams, and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the later; thus a son was born to them. He was named Shankara (Sanskrit, “bestower of happiness”), in honour of Shiva. His father died while Shankara was very young. His upanayanam (sacred thread ceremony, the initiation into Brhamchari life, had to be delayed due to the death of his father, and was then performed by his mother. As a child, he showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. 

Sannyasa (renunciation of the worldly life):

At the age of 8, Shankara decided to lead a life of sannyasa, but it was only after much persuasion that his mother finally gave her consent. According to legend, he received her consent in a very interesting manner too. While bathing in the river Poorna ( river Alwai) one day, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and appeared to be about to devour him. Shankara appealed to his mother, who had arrived at Poorna (Alwai), asking for permission to become a sanyasi at least in these last moments of his life. His mother finally gave consent, only to have the crocodile let go of young Shankara. After Shankara was saved from the jaws of crocodile, his mother was reluctant to permit her son to renounce the world and follow a Sannaysa life. She was particularly feeling insecure, in the event of her son after becoming sannyasi might move away to distant places leaving her alone in the ancestral home. Understanding the predicament of his mother, he assured her that the God who saved him from the jaws of crocodile will also take care of her during his absence. He also assured her that after her death, he will perform the last rites. On the assurance of her son, finally she gave her consent.

While studying in the Gurukul, his teacher was astonished to see his scholastic caliber, and here he had told him about the location and name of his Guru who was in linage of Patanjali Rishi, for pursuing his advance studies in religious scriptures. After his Mother’s consent, he was free from family bondage, and then left Kerala and travelled towards North India in search of his guru. Finally, he arrived at the banks of the Narmada River, a pilgrimage place Omkareswar, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada (Givindapadacharya) the disciple of Gaudapada. His Guru was inside a cave and he was in deep meditation since last several years. When Shakara met Govindapada, he asked his identity, and he replied with an extempore verse that brought out the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

“I am neither the earth, nor water— but one change less Shiva”.

Govindapada was impressed and took Shankara as his disciple. The Master instructed Shankara to write a commentary on the ‘Brahma Sutras’ and propagate the Advaita philosophy. Shankara travelled to Kashi,  an importamt pilgrimage place of Hindu’s.  According to legend, while on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, an untouchable accompanied by four dogs came in the way of Sankara. When asked to move aside by Shankara, the untouchable replied: “Do you wish that I move my everlasting Ātman (“the Self”), or this body made of flesh?” Realizing that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva himself, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam. At Badari he wrote his famous Bhashyas (“commentaries”) and Prakarana granthas (“philosophical treatises”).

Debate with Mandana Mishra

One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the ritualist Maṇḍana Miśra. He held the view that the life of a householder was far superior to that of a monk. This view was widely shared and respected throughout India at that time. Thus it would have been important for Shankara to debate with him. It took place in Mahishmati (present name Mandla) on the banks of river – Narmada, in M. P.

Shankara, after debating for over fifteen days, Madana Misra accepted  defeat. In this debate, Maṇḍana Miśra’s wife Ubhaya Bhāratī acted as referee. She then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to ‘complete’ the victory. She asked him questions related to sexual congress between man and woman – a subject in which Shankaracharya had no knowledge, since he was a true celibate and sannyasi. Sri Shankracharya asked for a “recess” of 15 days. As per legend, he used the art of “para-kaya pravesa” (the spirit leaving one’s own body and entering another’s) and exited his own body, which he asked his disciples to look after, and psychically entered the dead body of a king. The story goes that from the King’s two wives, he acquired all knowledge of “art of love”. Thereafter, Shankara entered his own body and regained consciousness. Finally, he answered all questions put to him, related sexual congress between man and woman by Ubhaya Bhāratī; and she allowed his husband Maṇḍana Miśra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name Sureśvarācārya, as per the agreed-upon rules of the debate.

Philosophical tour: 

Adi Shankara then travelled with his disciples to Maharashtra and Srisailam. In Srisailam, he composed Shivanandalahari, a devotional hymn in praise of Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam says that when Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, the god Narasimha appeared to save Shankara in response to Padmapadacharya’s prayer to him. As a result, Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimha stotra. 

He then travelled to Gokarṇa, the temple of Hari-Shankara and the Mūkambika temple at Kollur. At Kollur, he accepted as his disciple a boy believed to be dumb by his parents. He gave him the name, Hastāmalakācārya (“one with the amalaki (Awla) fruit on his palm”, i.e., one who has clearly realised the Self). Next, he visited Sringeri to establish the Śārada Pīṭham- Sarada Temple and made Sureśvarācārya his disciple. After this, Adi Shankara began a Dig-vijaya “tour of conquest” for the propagation of the Advaita philosophy by controverting all philosophies opposed to it. He travelled throughout India, from South India to Kashmir and Nepal, preaching to the local populace and debating philosophy with Hindu, Buddhist and other scholars and monks along the way.

Proceeding to Saurashtra (the ancient Kambhoja) and having visited the shrines of Girnar, Somnath and Prabhasa and explaining the superiority of Vedanta in all these places, he arrived at Dwarka. Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara of Ujjayini, the proponent of Bhedābeda philosophy, was humbled. All the scholars of Ujjayini (also known as Avanti) accepted Adi Shankara’s philosophy.

He then defeated the Jainas in philosophical debates at a place called Bahlika. Thereafter, the Acharya established his victory over several philosophers and ascetics in Kamboja (region of North Kashmir), Darada and many regions situated in the desert and crossing mighty peaks, entered Kashmir. Later, he had an encounter with a tantrik, Navagupta at Kamarupa. 

Adi Shankara visited Sarvajñapīṭha (Sharada Peeth) in Kashmir (now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam states this temple had four doors for scholars from the four cardinal directions. The southern door (representing South India) had never been opened, indicating that no scholar from South India had entered the Sarvajna Pitha. Adi Shankara opened the southern door by defeating in debate all the scholars there in all the various scholastic disciplines such as Mimamsa, Vedanta and other branches of Hindu philosophy; he ascended the throne of Transcendent wisdom of that temple. 

Shankara’s Mahasamadhi:

Towards the end of his life, Adi Shankara travelled to the Himalayan area of Kedarnath-Badrinath and attained videha mukti (“freedom from embodiment”)

He passed away in the year of 820 when he was just 32 year old. There is a samadhi mandir dedicated to Adi Shankara behind the Kedarnath temple.                           

Sources of information:

The advent of a religious leader Shankarachary was in the 8th century, and after a gap of almost 1000 years, another religious leader descended on this earth, Swami Vivekananda. There are some controversies about Shankaracharya’s birth period and his philosophical tour too, since in those days no proper records were maintained, particularly about great saints and sears, since they lead a very secluded life. Whatever we have known, was only through their established Mutts, and from the recordings of their teachings by the disciples and some from their manuscripts.. In the course of time, some of these manuscripts were worn out and hence became unreadable. In the present age, with the development of science and technology, there was no problem to maintain records about the life of this class of people such as Swami Vivekananda, and thus we are able to know in greater details about him in comparison to Shankarcharya.

Birth of Vivekananda:

Like Shankara his birth was too with the blessings of Siva. His mother Bhubaneswari Devi’s first two children died at an early age, and later she had three daughters. She was very eager to have a son and she through one of her family members in Varanasi, asked her to make offerings to Vireswara Shiva Temple for His blessings to bear a male child. Simultaneously, she herself practiced on every Monday’s special austerities, devotedly worshipped Shiva in her home shrine. (If one visit Swami Vivekananda’s renovated ancestral home in Kolkata, will see a replica of Shiva Lingam in the shrine room). One night she saw in a dream that Lord Shiva appeared before her and took the form of a child. She awoke, and was excited remembering her dream, and now onward she was sure that she would have a son with the blessings of Shiva. In the wee hour of the morning, the much expected son (future Swami Vivekananda) was born to her on Monday, January 1863 on the day of Makara Sankranti, an auspicious day according to Hindu calendar. She named him ‘Vireswara’, remembering her son was born only due to blessings of ‘Vireswara Shiva’. Later, his name was changed to Narendranath Dutta (Naren), son of Viswanath Dutta who was an attorney in the Kolkata High Court.  His family belonged to the second highest cast, Khatriyas while Shankara was a Brahmin, considered to be the highest cast in the Hindu society. We notice a lot of similarities between Naren and Shankara right from their childhood. Shankara was a gifted divine soul so was Naren. This can be further amplified from some of his childhood incidences.


From childhood, he used to see a marvelous point of light between his eye brows no sooner he shut down his eyes to go to sleep. He used to amazingly

watch this light changing colours and getting bigger and bigger until it took the form of a ball and there after burst and covered his entire body. No sooner this happened, he lost outer consciousness and fallen into sleep.

Another phenomenon was noticed by his family members that Naren used to sit for meditation along with his friends for long hours. He had to be shaken to bring back to normalcy. One incidence is quoted here to illustrate what a great concentration power he possessed right from his early age:

“One evening when they were seated for meditation, suddenly one boy noticed a Cobra snake slowly crawling on the floor. Seeing the snake, one of them alerted their friends, but Naren was unmoved and remain totally absorbed in meditation.   Hearing the noise, Naren’s parents came, and seeing the cobra, they were nervous, but preferred to remain silent, lest the snake is disturbed and provoked to bite. Fortunately, the snake moved away without harming Naren. After this, his parents enquired, as why he didn’t run away from the scene. He quietly replied that he was not at all aware about the presence of snake or any other thing, since he was in inexpressible bliss.

All these incidences showed that he was born with special power of controlling his mind, which usually takes years for sages/yogis to attain to such a level of concentration. In due course Naren showed his exceptional memory, intelligence, and leadership qualities, and he excelled in singing. On the whole, he revealed his capabilities in all spheres of life. With growing age his personality was very attractive, particularly his glowing face with bulging eyes, and all these were essentially came out from his within solemnity and inner peace.

College days:

While he was a college student, he studied both, Indian philosophy (Vedas, Upanishads, Gita etc.) as well as Western philosophy written by philosopher like John Stuart and Herbert Spencer etc. He came in contact with Devendra Nath Thakur (Father of Rabindra Nath Thakur) and Keshab Chandra Sen, and they were the leaders of Brhamo Samaj. Right from college days, the monastic tendency was natural to him, and he decided to remain celibate and lead the life of a sage.  

Meeting Ramkrishana:

One question was haunting his mind, whether anybody had actually seen God face to face?  He enquired from many learned scholars and teachers, but he didn’t get a clear answer. Ultimately, on the recommendation of his maternal uncle, around the year 1982, Ramchandra Datta, who took him to Ramkrishna at Dakshineswar when he was just 19 years old. To his great surprise here he found a man who could confidently say that not only he has seen God but he can show him too.   Ramakrishna further told him, who wants to see God? The worldly people are attached to ‘Kamini and Kanchan’ (women and gold), and they have no interest to see God.

This meeting with Ramkrishna was a turning point in his life. Subsequently, Naren started visiting Him at Dakhineswar, but initially he didn’t accept him, rather opposed him on His several beliefs like worshipping the idol of ‘Goddess Kali’ in the Dakshineswar temple as a living God. He also didn’t accept Ramakrishna’s often going into trance (Samadhi), loosing outer consciousness. He felt, it was nothing but some kind of mental disease. Ramkrishna was least perturbed since knew who he was. He in his vision had seen that Naren was not an ordinary mortal, but actually he was a ‘Nara’, the ancient age, the incarnation of Narayana, and one day he will be forbearer of his mission.. Without feeling least disturbed, He very patiently tried to convince him that form and formless are one and the same, like Ice and water.  As regards His going into trance, He said that when the mind is totally absorbed in God, there is no more body consciousness. On attaining Samadhi, the body falls off like a dry leaf falls off from the tree.  But, the Awatar’s (Incarnation), can only return from Samadhi to a normal state for the welfare of the people such as Narada and Sukhdeva. 

Father’s demise:

His father’s sudden death in 1884, was the biggest blow in Naren’s life. He left the family bankrupt; creditors began demanding the repayment of loans, and relatives thrown them out from their ancestral home. Naren, once a son of a well-to-do family, suddenly became poor. Being the eldest of the family, he realized that he has to take care of the family burden. He tried for a job but miserably failed. Under such a distress situation, he requested Ramakrishna to pray to goddess Kali for their family’s financial welfare. Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple and pray for himself. Following Ramakrishna’s advice, he went to the temple thrice, but failed to pray for any kind of worldly necessities after visualizing a living Kali, instead he prayed for knowledge and devotion. That day on word he realized Idols are only a means to realize truth and hence it cannot be rejected. Ramakrishna was very happy to see that Naren has at last accepted His mother Kali, and surrendered himself at the feet of Ramakrishna as his Guru.  His association with Ramakrishna was for around six years and that was enough to transform him as future Vivekananda to lead monastic life initially along with 12, and later another 4 of His direct disciples.

Ramkrishna’s Mahasamadhi:

Sri Ramakrishna developed throat cancer, and was transferred from Dakhinesewar to Kolkata and later to a garden house in Cossipore. Narendra and other disciples took care of him during his last days, simultaneously their spiritual training continued under His guidance. During his stay at Cossipur, doubt arose in his mind, “Is really Ramakrishana an incarnation of Rama and Krishna”? Just at that time, Ramkrishna called him in his room, and told him, “Do you have still doubt about Me”?. Ramakrishna said, “Yes I am the incarnation of Rama and Krishna, but not according to your Vedanta philosophy”. He knew Naren is a follower of Advaita Vedanta, does not believe in the existence of God in any form. There is another incidence took place, which was life’s lesson for him. One day Ramakrishna asked Naren, about his goal of life. He replied that he wants to remain absorbed in “Nirvikalpa Samadhi”. Hearing this, Master rebuked him, and said that how could you be so selfish? You want only your personal liberation (Mukti)? He further said, “I had expected you to be like a Banyan tree, where people from all walks of life will shelter under you to free themselves from their mental worries.”. Naren realized his mistake. There after a day came, when Master passed off his inner spiritual power to Naren to carry forward his message to the people. He also entrusted the responsibility to him, to take care of His direct disciples, and to ensure that they lead a monastic life. The final Samadhi was at Cossipore on 16 August 1886.

Establishment of first Monastic center at Baranagar, October, 1886

After the passing away of Ramakrishna, Naren’s main task was to establish a Centre, where all the direct disciples of Master could reside and continue spiritual practices as taught by Him lest they should not return to their home, and become a householder. If this happens, all the effort of the Master to spread his messages will be lost.

Leaving aside this, he was quite worried about the lack of any financial support for the survival of his family members (Widow Mother, brothers and sisters). What will happen to them, if he joins the monastic order? If he neglects the family, they are bound to die. He felt, no matter, even if they die, he will not give up the responsibility entrusted to him by his Master. There is no harm, if I sacrifice my family for the sake of a greater cause.

With the financial help of one the Master’s house hold devotees, Surendra Nath Mitra, Narendra established first center in a dilapidated house at Baranagar. Here they kept the ashes of Ramakrishna and daily offered prayer and practiced meditation. They lead a very hard monastic life, since they had very little fund at their disposal to meet expenditure on food and other daily needs. All these hardships didn’t deter them and they continued to practice prayer and meditation with all the sincerity and made a very good spiritual progress.

Ramkrishna, during his last days at Cossipore had already given ochre colored clothes to His disciples, but none of them had formally taken Sannysa as per Hindu rites. Therefore in 1887 on an auspicious day, Naren and his brother disciples performed ‘Biraja Hom’ (a formal monastic vows) in Baranagar and had  taken ‘Sannyasa names’ as per guidance of Naren. Naren,  himself had taken the name ‘Bibidishananda’. At a later period, at the request of Ajit Singh (Raja of Khetri), his  sannyasa name was changed to Vivekananda, before his departure to America. (There are controversies about his taking this name).

Parivrajaka (Wandering in India) (1888–1893):

(His wandering was not continuous, but often there were breaks, and he returned to Kolkata to meet his mother for whom he had great weakness, and also to meet his brother disciplse at Baranagar.)

In 1888, Swamiji left the Baranagar monastery, as a Parivrâjaka, without any fixed travel plan. His only possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff and three books: the Bhagavad Gita, Vivek Chudamani, and The Imitation of Christ. He travelled extensively from North to south and East to West, particularly in Himalaya, Tarai regions and places, of pilgrimage. During his journey he lived on alms, or as guest of Temples in holy places, householders, and occasionally as guest of state officials, as well as rich people like Maharajas.  His main purpose of this tour was to know more about this country, people, their customs, cultures, religious faith of various sects, and the living condition of the poor and down trodden. His Parivrajka days and have been well complied by several authors. Most authentic book has been written in Bengali language by Shri Shankari Prasad Bosu, in six volumes: Vivekananda and Samakalin Bharat Barsha’ (Vivekananda and contemporary India).

Visit to Kanykumari Rock:

Kanyakumari, is located at the southern tip of India, where Bay of Bengal meets Arabian Sea. This place is well known for the temple of Kanyakumari. Here, Swamiji swam across the sea and sat on the rock for meditation at a stretch for three days. Later, this place is known as ‘Vivekananda Memorial Rock’ where a temple has been constructed, and a statue of ‘Vivekananda’ has been installed.

Sitting on the rock, he passed into a deep meditation. He had the vision of the present and future of India. He could understand the reasons for downfall of India from its past glory. He realized, “India shall rise only through a renewal and restoration of that highest spiritual consciousness that has made her, at all times, the cradle of the nations and cradle of Faith”.  He saw her greatness: he saw her weaknesses as well- the central one of which was that the nation has lost its individuality. There is only hope lay in a restoration of the culture of Rishis. Religion was not the cause of India’s downfall; but the fact that true religion was nowhere followed: for religion, when lived, was the most potent force.

(This paragraph is taken from the book, ‘Life of Swami Vivekananda by His

Eastern and Western disciples, page 341’.) 

Meeting Shankar Rao Panduramga at Porbunder:

He was the Dewan of the Porbunder state, located in the western part of Gujarat.  He was a great scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy, besides he knew French language very well. He had visited several European countries along with the maharaja.  Swamiji was his personal guest for about nine months. Swamiji took lessons from him on Panini Byakaran (grammar) of Sanskrit language.   Moreover, he learnt French language too from him. He was very much impressed finding his in-depth knowledge of Hindu philosophy, and his capacity of expression in English language. Panduranga was the first person to advise him to visit Western countries and deliver talk about Hindu religion, since during his couple of visits to those countries he felt that they have very poor impression about our religion. Swamiji smilingly said, I am a wanderer, and as such I have no Plan, even then I will keep in mind your suggestion.

Meeting of Raja of Ramnad Bhaskara Sethupathi at Madurai:

Swamiji had a meeting with the Raja of Ramnad Bhaskara Sethupathi The raja was a graduate of Madras Pesidency college. He used to read over- seas news- papers to keep himself well informed about the happenings in those countries.

He had read that there would be a ‘World Parliament of Religion in Chicago’. After meeting Swamiji, he felt that he will be an ideal representative of Hindu religion in the forthcoming conference. He requested him to participate in the conference and was willing to bear his expenditure. Swamji, here too said he will think over his proposal.

Meeting Alasinga Perumal at Madras:

He meet Alsinga Perumal at Madras. He was a teacher in a college but he was very popular amongst the students. Alasinga meet Swamii, during his stay at Madras. He was very much impressed after attending his public lectures. He persuaded Swamij to attend Parliament of religion at Chicago.  For His foreign trip, he started collecting fund from the public, with the help of his students.  Swamiji conceded to their request after he had a vision of his master, who gave order to proceed for this conference.

Meeting Ajit Singh, Raja of khetri:

During his parivrajak days, he was at Mount Abu, where he first meet the Raja. He became his disciple and later he had taken him to his state khetri. Swamiji had spent long time with him, and both of them had developed a great liking for each other. Raja had persuaded him to change his name from Swami Bibidishananda to Swami Vivekananda. He fully supported his visit to Chicago. He purchased a first class ticket for his sea voyage. Not only this, he sent his dewan Jagmohan to see him off at Mumbai sea port.

Swami Vivkananda’s Visit to America:

First visit to the West (1893–1897)

With the help of Alasinga Perumal, and Raja Ajit Singh, Vivekananda ailed from Mumbai to America on 31 May 1893 for America, via Ceylon, Japan, China, Canada and finally arrived at Chicago on 30 July 1893. On arrival, he was disappointed since organizers of the Parliament of Religion refused to accept him as delegate without proper credentials. Vivekananda came in contact with Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University, who recommended his participation in the conference by writing a letter to the Chairman of the conference, Mr. Barrows. Prof. Wright in his letter wrote “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens”. Finally with the help of the professor, he could participate in the conference as representative of Hindu religion.

Parliament of the World’s Religions:

The Parliament of the World’s Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. On this day, Vivekananda delivered a brief speech addressing the audience, “Sisters and brothers of America”. On uttering these words, Vivekananda received a two-minutes standing ovation from the crowd of seven thousand.

 Selective extracts from the Swami’s speech:

“When silence was restored he began his address, greeting the youngest of the nations on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sanyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance”.

“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both the tolerance and Universal acceptance. We believe not only universal toleration, but we accept as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religion and all nations of the earth”.

“As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!”

“Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.” (Gita)

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth.——- But their time is come: and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning honor of this convention may be death knell of this fanaticism, of all persecution with the sword or with the pen, and all uncharitable feelings between persons wending to the same goal”.

His lecture was non-sectarian, broad based. Obviously, this had very much impressed the guests present in the conference. Here some of the quotes given below from the reports as appeared in the newspapers:

The New York Herald noted, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation”. American newspapers reported Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.

He spoke several times at the Parliament of Religions on topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony among religions until the parliament ended on 27 September 1893. Vivekananda’s speeches at the Parliament had the common theme of universality, emphasizing religious tolerance.

Thereafter he went on a lecture tour to several states of America and later to England. During his lecture tour, there was great appreciation as well as criticism from the Christian missionary groups. After the lecture, one lady asked him, “Is it true that in India, Mother throw their first child to the river in order to feed crocodiles”? Swami Vivekananda replied, ‘Yes Madam’. My mother had thrown me to the river, but I was so fatty that the crocodile could not gulp me. So madam, I am here to answer your question. On hearing this, the audience gave a big laugh.

One person told Swamiji that ‘I consider that this world is like a school, and here we are all students’. Swamiji said, “I consider the world is like a circus, where we are all jokers, and trying to entertain people with the expectation to receive applause”.

Vivekananda spent nearly two years lecturing in USA. Later he realized that lectures alone would not help to establish Vedanta thoughts in this country. He founded the Vedanta Society of New York and started taking classes from his residence, It had good effect. This helped to establish permanent Vedanta centers in New York. He invited two of his brothers monks from India to continue his works from these centers. By now, America has almost 29 centers. Beginning in June 1895, Vivekananda gave private lectures to a dozen of his disciples at Thousand Island Park in New York state, and his lectures were compiled and a book was published ‘Spiritual Talks’. During his stay in USA he had attracted several men and women, and some of them became very close to him. One of them was Josephine MacLeod (claimed herself as friend), and she said that it was my second spiritual birth. Besides her, Sara Bull, Christine and many others became his disciples. Miss Margret Nobel, later Sister Nivedita from England was one of his  most devoted disciple who spent her life in India offering her services to educate women and in relief works.

During his stay in USA, Miss Macleod had engaged a stenographer, Mr. J. J. Goodwin, who used to take dictation of his lectures and classes. Today, we are able to read his Complete works (initially it was in 7 volumes) in 9 volumes only due to Goodwin who served his Master without taking any remuneration, and later he became his disciple.

After his triumphant visit to the West, he returned to India in 1997. On return, he delivered lectures at several parts of the country, and those were compiled into a book, named, ‘Lectures from Colombo to Almora”. 

He remembered his problem to participate in the World parliament of religion due to lack of any credential. He had also seen how well Christian Missionaries have established institutions through which they are able to Influence people. Therefore on his return, the first job he had taken up was the establishment of Ramakrishna Mission and Math at Belur. (For more information about his institution building see the Chapter on: “Comparison between Shankara and Swami Vivekananda”.)

Second visit to the West: 

His second visit to the West was in 1899-1900, along with his brother disciple Swami Turiyananda and Sister Nivedita. His purpose of visit was to install Swami Turiyananda in Sanfrancisco, (California), where he had already established a Vedanta Center, and he wanted to reinforce the two centers established in New York and at Green peace.

By the time he returned, he was not in good health. He started distancing himself from all the activities of the Mission. He started telling, “I will not cross 40 years”.

Some believe, his detachment from all activities came after his visit to the temple of ‘Khir Bhawani’ at Srinagar (Kashmir). While at Srinagar, he went to this temple, and was disgusted looking at the dilapidated condition of the temple which was damaged by the fanatic Muslims. He questioned to himself, “Was there no one to protect Her? If I were there—”. Then he heard a voice coming from the Mother,  “Do you protect me or I protect you? If I want, I can construct a seven story temple building”. On hearing this he started saying, “Who am I? It is the ‘Mother’, She knows all. No more planning, no more work”. After this unexpected incidence, one could see the kind of disenchantment in the later part of his life. This can be made out from the extract of his letter written to Miss Macleod around this time. 

“I am glad I was born, glad I suffered so and glad I did make great blunders, glad to enter peace. Whether this body will fall and release me or I enter into freedom in the body, the old man has gone, gone forever, never to come back again! Behind my work was ambition, behind my love was personality, behind my purity was fear. Now they are all vanishing and I drift.” 

Vivekananda passed away while meditating in his room at the Belur Math on

the night of July 4th, 1902, At that time, he was 39 years five months old.

Vivekananda was not only a great teacher, a great saint patriot, and an inspirer of people down to the present generation. His mortal body has gone, but he will always remain alive in the heart of people. He dedicated his life to his Master, Ramkrishna. His mission was spiritual combined with effort to revitalize the society.

A Comparison of Life and works of Swami Vivekananda and Shankara’ 

Respect and duty to Mother even after Sannayasa: 

Shankaracharya promised to his mother that he will meet him at the time of his death. He did it. When he arrived at his mother’s house, she was in death bed. After her passing away, he wanted to perform last rites. But the neighbors strongly opposed him. Without any help from the neighbors, he alone performed her last rites and thus he kept his words.

Similar was the love of Vivekananda for his mother. He loved his mother very much. On return from the West, he had taken his mother for a pilgrimage to some of the notable places in Bengal and Assam.  Besides, he tried to arrange financial help through some of his contacts. But he was not very successful. He very much dependent on Ajit Singh, Raja of Khetri, who initially helped her, but within a short period he met with an accident and passed away. This shows, even after accepting monastic life he tried to do his best to help his mother but his mother continued to live under financial distress. 

Rejuvenation of Hindu religion or Santana Dharma: 

Several Leaders have periodically appeared to preserve and further Indian’s ancient culture, one of the foremost was Shankara in eighth century and Swami Vivekananda in the nineteenth century, and they revealed essence of Vedas and propounded the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

What is Advaita Vedanta? Advaita Vedanta is the one which that deals with the identity of the jiva and Brhaman. In this respect, Ramakrishna explained all the three Vedantic- philosophy with a very simple example quoting a conversation between Rama and Hanuman:

Rama asked Hanuman, “What do you think of me”?

Hanuman replied in the following lines:

Sometimes, I see you as my Master and I am your servant. (Dvaita Vedanta)

Sometimes, I see myself as part of you. (Vishishta-Advaita, propounded by Ramanujam)

Sometimes, I see you and me as one and the same. (Advaita Vedanta)

During the eighth century, under the influence of Buddhism and Jainism, and numerous other Hindu sects, Hinduism was on the decline.  Hinduism was divided into innumerable sects, each quarrelling with the others. The followers of Mimamsa and Sankhya philosophy were atheists, inasmuch as  they did not believe in God as a unified being. Besides, there were numerous theistic sects. There were also those who rejected the Vedas, like the Charvakas. During this period Tantrik cult was adopted by several Buddhist sects, and in turn they too attracted many Hindus in their fold. Due to the influence of Buddha religion, the prominent temples in Gaya, Ayodha, Kamykha (Kamrup) and Pashupatinath in Nepal, were practically closed, and there was no more regular worship of the Idols. Shankara re-instated the deities in these temples, removed many religious and social superstitions, and formulated the essentials of formal worship, which is even followed to day.

Shankara held discourses and debates with the leading scholars of all these sects and schools of philosophy to controvert their doctrines. In his works, Shankara stressed the importance of the Vedas, and his efforts helped Hinduism regain strength and popularity. He reintroduced a purer form of Vedic thoughts.

Shankara, followed by Madhava and Ramanuja, was instrumental in the revival of Hinduism. These three teachers formed the doctrines that are followed by their respective sects even today.

However, by the nineteenth century, India was first ruled by the Islamic rulers followed by the British, and as a result a substantial number of Hindus were converted to Islam and Christian religions. Leaving aside conversion, the base of Hindu religion was weakened due to caste system. The upper castes and priests exploited the lower caste.  Moreover, a large percentage of lower caste people were treated as untouchable. That apart, there was infighting among various sects of Hindus, such as Vaishnavas, Saivas, Tantrik etc. The rituals and dogmatism were prevalent in the society. All these had weakened the base of Hinduism. To break away from this caste-ridden, superstitious and divisive society, Raja Ramomohan Roy introduced a new sect known as Brhamo Samaj, following path of original Vedic teachings. The Brahmos were against caste system and idol worship. This had influenced the educated classes in Bengal. Initially Swami Vivekananda joined this sect, but later he came in contact with Ramakrishana and accepted his opinion about religions, ‘Jato Mat tato path’ (Various are the ways to God).

Vivekananda,  an Advaita Vedantist, followed his Mater’s foot step, and re-oriented the traditional Hindu religion on the line of Sanatana Dharma in order to free the contemporary society from the overwhelming problems of casteism, superstition and sectarian fights. The emphasis was laid on devotion rather than rituals, and Monks of the order took active part in serving people on the principle of ‘Shiv Gyane Jeeb Seva’ (Offering service to the people as Shiva). This new approach to the religion had gradually attracted people and in due course there were increasing number of followers of Ramkrishna.

Vivekananda’s visit to the West:

Though Shankara as well as Swami Vivekananda travelled through the length and breadth of the country, Swami Vivekananda was the first Monk to visit Western countries, to spread the message of Vedanta and to remove misconception about Hindu religion. He was also the first Monk to establish Vedanta centers in the Western countries and could influence a large number of intellectual, and people from high society which helped him to receive donation from them to establish first Ramakrishna Math and Mission at Belur (Kolkata).

Building Religious Institutions:


Buddha was the pioneer to build religious Institution, to spread His message to the people. This considerably helped to establish Buddhist religion in India as well as in other countries. After him, it was Adi Shankara who established four Maths and Dashnami Sampradayas solely to spread the message of the Vedanta and to revive Sanatan Dharma in the face of the Buddhist influence.

The Dashanami Sampradaya, a section of the Ekadandi monks under an umbrella grouping of ten names. Several other Hindu monastic and Ekadandi traditions remained outside the organisation of the Dasanāmis.

Adi Sankara organised the Hindu monks of these ten sects or names under four Maṭhas (monasteries). Each math was headed by one of his four main disciples, where each continues the Vedanta Sampradaya. All these Maths are independent in their belief and practices. Besides, the advaita sampradaya is not a Saiva sect, despite the historical links with Saivaism. The names of the four Maths, location, follower of particular Veda out of four Vedas and designated Sampradayas out of the ‘Dashnami Sampradyas’ are given below:

*(Reproduced from the book, ‘Shakaracharya’ written by Swami Apurbananda of Ramakrishna Mission.)

-On the western part of India at Dwraka, ‘Sarada Math’: follower of Shambeda-

“Tattomasi”  Sampradyas: Tirtha, Ashram

-On the Eastern part, at Puri, ‘Govardhan Math’: follower of Rigveda- “Pragyanam Braham” Sampradayas:  Jana and Aryanay.

– On the northern part at Jyotirdham, ‘Jyotir Math’ or Joshi Math on the way to Badrinath, follower of Athrbaveda- “Ayang Atma Brhama”

Sampradayas: Giri, Parbat, and Sagar

-On the Southern part at Chikmagaluru district in Karnataka ‘Sringeri Math’ follower of Yajurveda – “Aham Brhamsmi” Sampradaya: Saraswati, Bharati, Puri.

Swami Vivekananda:

While in the West, Vivekananda spoke about India’s great spiritual heritage; in India, he repeatedly addressed social issues: uplifting the people, service to the poor and the downtrodden, education to all especially to girls, eliminating the caste system, promotion of science and technology to uplift the economic condition of the mass.

In this respect he had written a letter from Chicago on March 19, 1894 to one of his brother disciples in India, a part of it is reproduced here:

“We are so many Sannayasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics – it is all madness. Did not our Master say, “An empty stomach is no good for religion”. Therefore, the foremost need of the hour is to remove hunger, upgrade people to lead a moderate life, before teaching them about religion.

He realized that there are needs to build institutions also to attract youths to carry forward his message. On 1st May, 1987, he called a meeting at the house of Ramakrshna’s household disciple Balaram Bose, and there he proposed to establish Ramakrishna Mission, and Ramakrishna Math or Monastery.  The role of Math was limited to spiritual activities. But the Mission was designated to offer services to the people, such as relief work, establishment of dispensaries and hospitals for medical aid, schools and colleges for education. He entrusted the responsibility to Sister Nivedita to start girl’s school. He felt that the India cannot progress unless women are educated. He said it’s like a bird, which cannot fly only with one wing. He was very much interested in setting up Monastery for women too. But during his life time he could not do that. Later, women Monasteries were established after the name of Holy Mother Sarada Devi. In India they are addressed as Sarada Mission/Math and in the West, Sarada Convents.

Ramakrishna Math was consecrated later at Belur on the bank of river Ganga. The Belur Math is the headquarter of all the Maths, and Missions along with their sub-centers totaling around 70 numbers in India, and around 50 numbers in Asia, and Western countries. Swamiji firmly believed such centers should be near the locality to serve as a role model to the house holders and also to attract youths to join the mission. Of course with the help of Captain Savier, Advaita Ashram was established at Mayavati, in the Uttrakhand, at the foothills of Himalaya Mountain. This center is located in a very isolated place, exclusively for spiritual retreat.

Not only this, these Mission centers are essential to train new generation in accordance to the teachings of Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, and of His Master’s teachings. He gave a clarion call to the youths of India, ‘Arise Awake and Stop not, till the Goal is reached.” He told the youths, ‘Why are you worried about death? You are destined to die one day or the other. Be strong, Have a goal in life, Strive for it and don’t give it up, till you achieve it’.   He also said that ‘What country needs, is Muscles of Iron and Nerves of Steel’? His powerful statements had great impact, on the youths, particularly amongst the freedom fighters, and several of them later joined Ramkrishna Mission.  He also firmly believed, the youths should be a blend of good points exists in other faith,s such as Hindu’s spirituality, Buddhist karuna (unselfish love for humanity), Christian Missionary spirit of serving the society, and Muslim’s spirit of brotherhood.

Universal Religion:

As already stated above,  Swami Vivekananda’s outlook of religion was non- sectarian and broad based, which appealed to the people of the East and the West.  He introduced in all the Ramkrishna Math and Mission the traditional pujas such as Durga puja, kali puja, Saraswati puja,  Janmastami, Sivratri,  and birth days – tithi pujas of great saints and prophets including Jesus and Buddha.. He was very much interested in establish Universal religion or Sanatana Dharma, to stop infighting between different sects and religion.

Some of his concepts about Universal Religion are quoted from the book, “What religion is’ by John Yale, (Later Swami Vidyatatmananda) This book is a compilation of the Swamis books on Yogas and lectures.

The Ideal of Universal Religion: 

“Each soul is potentially divine

The goal is to manifest this divinity within

Controlling nature external and internal.

Do this either by work or worship or psychic

Control or philosophy- by one or more

Or all of these- and be free.

This is the whole of religion. Doctrines or dogmas

Or rituals or books or temples are but

Secondary details.”


Vivekananda felt the need to publish journals in English and other Indian languages to spread the taechings of Ramakrishna’s as wel as teachings from other religious scriptures and books. In this respect, first publication was made from Chennai math, monthly. Journal, ‘Brhamabadin’, later name was changed to ‘Vedanta Kesari’.

From Belur math, ‘Udbodhan’, a Bengali monthly journal, and from Advaita Ashram, Myavati, another English monthly journal ‘Prabuddha Bahrat’ were published. Subsequently, all these journals along with many other journals in English as well as in other vernacular languages are published these days, having a wide circulation.

Literary works:

Shankarcharya was a great composer of Verses and Bhashyas.

His Bhashyas and commentaries on the Prasthana –traya three fundamental scriptures – Upanishad, Brhmasutra and Bhagbat Gita are the basis of Hinduism.

He also wrote prakarana grathas , primars on Advaita philosophy, and numerous  strotas, hymns, to Gods and Goddesses.

Shankarcharyas Bhashyas on the ten Upanishads  had great impact on the people.

The mantra in Katha Upanishad, ‘Arise, Awake, and learn by approaching the excellent ones’ was frequently quoted by Swami Viveananda. Shankara  commented

On this Mantra, ‘ You creatures who are sleeping in ignorance that has no beginning, arise, turn towards the knowledge  of the self; awake, put an end to the sleep of ignorance which is terrible by nature  and is the seed of all evil”

Other Upanishadic statements, have in Indian traditional values and worship are:

“Matri devo bhava/ pitri devo bhavo/ acharaya devo bhavo/athithi devo bhavo’.

Shankara composed several verses which are very popular amongst the spiritual seekers and devotees. Through these verses, he conceptualized the dictum – ‘Brahama Satya and Jagat Mithya’ (Brahman is the only Truth, this world is unreal). Here we quote few verses from two of his well- known books: ‘Bhaja Govindam’  (which contains-32 verses) and ‘Vivekcudamani’: (which contains 500 verses). Another book in verses, ‘Shivananda lahari’ is also quite popular amongst the devotees.

Bhaja Govindam:

Verse No. 1.

Renounce, O fool, your ceaseless thirst

For hoarding gold and precious gems;

Through deeds performed in earlier lives;

Devote your mind to righteousness

And dispassion be your law.

Verse no. 3

Uncertain is the life of man

As rain drops on a lotus leaf ;

The whole of human kind is prey

To grief and ego and disease.


Verse no. 5

For what greater fool can there be than

The man who has obtained this rare human birth

Together with bodily and mental strength and yet

Fails, through delusion, to realize his own highest good?

Verse no 7.

The scriptures declares that immortality cannot

Be gained through work or progeny or riches,

but by renunciation alone. Hence it is clear that

work cannot bring us liberation.

Swami Vivkanannda has composed 50 numbers of songs, poetries, and Sanskrit verses. 

Barring songs and verses,, most of the poems were written by the Swami in English language. In his pre-monastic days, he had written a book along with another musician on Classical Music. He was himself a great singer. He always delivered lectures extemporary, but thanks to the free service of J. J. Goodwin, a professional and highly proficient stenographer,  we could read his complete works (9 Volumes) which also includes his personal correspondence.   Another book titled ‘Inspired talk’, was a compilation of his teachings during his stay for about six months along with his 12 disciples, at Thousand Island Park, USA. The influence of his teachings turned two of his disciples to monks, and five of them to Brhamacharya life.

His writings on Yoga’s:

There are 18 chapters in Gita on Yoga’s, but Swamiji compiled them into four Yoga’s namely: (1) Bhakti Yoga, (2) Gyan Yoga, (3)Karma Yoga, and (4)Raj Yoga.

Of all these Yoga’s; Raj yoga is most popular in the Western countries. Surprisingly, Beijing University in China has translated and published ‘Raj Yoga’, which is now a very popular book amongst the University students.

Karma Yoga:

It means, “ Self realization  Through Selfless Work” . Some of his sayings on Karma Yoga arecited below.

“The Karma Yogi is the man who understands that the highest ideal non-resistance. Before reaching the highest ideal, man’s duty is to resist evil. Let him work, let him fight; let him strike straight from the shoulder. Then only, when he has gained the power to resist, will non-resistance will be a virtue”.

“The whole gist of the teaching is you should work like a master and not as a slave; work incessantly but do not do slave’s work. Work through freedom! Work through love!”

“The main effect of work done for others is to purify ourselves. By means of constant effort to do good to others we are trying to forget ourselves; this forgetfulness of self is the great lesson we have to learn in life. Every set of Charity, every thought of sympathy, every action of help, every good deed, take so much of self- importance away from our little selves and makes us think ourselves as the lowest and the least; and, therefore, they are all good”.

“The world’s wheel within a wheel is a terrible mechanism. There are only two ways out of it. One is to give up all concern about the machine, to let it go and stand aside – to give up our desires. That is very easy to say, but almost impossible to do. The other way is to plunge into the world and learn the secret of work. Do not fly away from the wheel of the world machine, but stand inside it and learn the secret of work. Through proper work done inside, it is also possible to come out”.

Concluding remarks:

Just as in physical science, the researchers from the time of Einstein have been striving, though without success, to crack the mystery of ‘the Theory of Everything’, by knowing which nothing would be left to know in science, the pursuers of spiritual science from the days of Upanishad have strived to resolve the same mystery underlying the creation, expressed in following words:  “Kasmintu vagvo vignate sarva midam vignatam Bhavati” or “What is that knowing which we know everything”? To the Vedantists, THAT by knowing whom everything is known is BRAHMAN, the Supreme Consciousness, WHO is immanent in every being and in every particle.

Just as physicists have by now explored the mystery of creation of universes from the microscopic Cosmic Egg through Big Bang and have also concluded that this process of expansion/creation continues as long as vibration in the cosmic strings/membrane continues, the Vedantists had come to the same finding a few millenniums ago in spiritual cum phenomenal domain.

The Vedanta have defined Prana (life), the source of life in phenomenal world, as Spandan or vibration, which pervades entire cosmos (Akasha). According to the Vedanta, Brahman evolves into Purusha (Hiranyagarbha or golden egg) and Prakriti which are at the root of entire creation of the phenomenal as also noumenal (spiritual) world. At the time of dissolution, entire creation gets involved in Brahman. This evolution and involution are a continuing process in cyclical order. In the dissolved state, all three Gunas, viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas remain in perfect equilibrium. When Brahman chooses to get into creative mode, the said equilibrium is upset with the pre-eminence of one of the Gunas. This leads to spandan (prana) or vibration and the said vibration leads to the creation of the Prakriti and the Purusha. The first manifestation of the Prakriti is known as Mahat or Intelligence, followed by Aham or universal egoism, Panchendriyas or five organs, Pancha Tanmatra or five subtle elements, Pancha Mahabhoota or five prime elements viz. land, water, fire, air and sky/ether. The Purusha is known as the Hiranyagarbha, from which all souls/lives sprout and pervade the entire creation. All souls are endowed with the three Gunas (viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas) of the Prakriti. This in sum is the mystery of evolution and involution of Brahman, according to the Vedanta.

While the above Vedantic postulate, spelt out in the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Srimad Bhagavat Gita, is accepted by our great spiritual Masters such as  Shankaracharya, Sri Ramanuja, swami Vivekananda etc. their approach, interpretations, teachings and preaching have not been quite the same. As for instance, according to Shankara, Brahman is the ultimate and the only Truth and all else is just Maya or illusion, and untrue. Since the world is in a flux and hence, impermanent, the transient world is illusory and untrue. Thus this mortal world that we actually see and experience is in reality nothing but Brahman. It is like seeing the rope as snake. From the above postulate what logically follows is: all is Brahman (Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma) and there is nothing outside of Brahman. This being the basis of Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy of Shankara, he is inclined to dismiss entire phenomenal world as unreal and illusory and suggest that the ultimate pursuit of a Truth seeker ought to be to know and realize self as Brahman (Aham Brahmashmi or I am Brahman). In this philosophy there is no scope for reconciling the actual to the ideal. True, that Shankara had composed verses to glorify Lord Shiva, Sri Krishna, Goddess Saraswati, Ganga, Durga etc. and had also been instrumental in restoring several Hindu temples to encourage commoners to pursue their devotion to their respective Gods and Goddesses. But the fact remains that through his commentaries on the Gita and the Brahma Sutras and numerous debates with the most reputed scholars of his time what he tried to establish was that Brahman was the sole reality and the only Truth, while the rest was all delusion or illusion. He, however, did not oppose idol worship or caste system even though the same were strictly not in conformity with his Vedantic philosophy.

Swami Vivekananda, on the other hand was a firm believer in the reconciliation of the actual to the ideal. Thus while Shankara was dismissive of the world as illusion on the ground that the world being transient could not be real and the only reality was Brahman, Vivekananda was of the view that reality was subjective, depending on the level of the perceiver. Thus when a person sees the rope as snake, to him the snake is the reality, not the rope. When his vision gets clearer, the rope surfaces and the snake vanishes. Similarly, if a man sees the world as world and not as Brahman, to him the world is the reality, and not the Brahman. However, to a Vedantist everything that exists is Brahman in varied impermanent forms. If that be so, the question that arises is why should not the Vedantist serve Brahman in various forms, ignoring the form or its impermanence. This, according to the Swami, would be in consonance with the Vedantic concept of Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That). Since it is the poor, the downtrodden and the sufferers who need our service the most, the Swami urged his followers to render selfless service to those people as if they were serving God. He even went to the extent of suggesting that serving those hapless people was more important than studying the Gita or the Vedanta. The Swami’s empathy toward the suffering multitude emanated from the Vedantic concept of Tat Tvam Asi and not out of pity or compassion. This explains why he proclaimed that he was prepared to die several times in this world so as to be able to serve the poor and the sufferers.

In sum, therefore, despite ex-facie similarities in the philosophy, belief, sense of duty to mother, extra-ordinary talent as also contribution toward revival of the Vedanta and the saving of the Hindu religion in the face of a threat of near-extinction, their difference lies in their perception of the same TRUTH in different perspectives. While Shankara’s perspective was entirely intellectual, Vivekananda listened primarily to his heart. It was, therefore, not difficult for Vivekananda to reconcile the actual to the ideal so as to make the present lives coincide with life eternal. To Shankara such reconciliation was patently impossible.























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24 Responses to Shankaracharya & Swami Vivekananda

  1. RKGupta says:

    First of all my compliments to Mr Banerjee for an excellent and well researched presentation and then I seek the liberty to add a little more.
    I wish to add a few things on the facts, concerning these two great personalities, which reflect upon some important aspects of their personality:
    Acharya Shankar untouchability and Kumbh Mela: It is said that once Lord Vishvanath appeared before Shankaracharya in the attires of a Chandal (a low caste man), who was surrounded by four dogs. He obstructed Shankar’s path. Shankar asked him to move away. He politely replied, ‘You are a preacher of ‘Advait’ (non-duality), and you say that the entire world is pervaded by the Lord. It is, therefore, surprising that a person like you believes in untouchability.’ Shankar appreciated the argument and stated that the Chandal, who perceived the presence of same Soul in all the creatures, is also my Guru. Shankar was then surprised to see Lord Vishvanath himself standing in place of the Chandal. Lord Vishvanath then showed him his divine appearance, asked him to write a commentary on the Brahmasutra and to proclaim ‘Advait Brahmatatva’ (non-duality of all beings) in it and also asked him to propagate religion. With a view to spread the message of religion Shankaracharya started holding of Kumbha Mela (the famous Kumbha festivals) at the interval of every twelve years at Nasik, Ujjain, Prayag and Haridwar, which are continuing and gaining strength year after year. This is a great contribution of Shankaracharya to the Indian culture.
    Swami Vivekanand and idol worship: The Diwan (a high ranking official of the princely-state) of Alwar invited Swami Vivekanand at his residence. The king of Alwar also was present, who told Swamiji that he did not believe in idol-worship. A photo of the king was hanging there in the room. Swamiji asked the Diwan to spit on it. He did not do so saying that it was his king’s photo, who was respected and revered by him. Swamiji then asked others to spit on the photo but they also refused. Swamiji then told the king that although the photo was merely a paper but in the mind of people it represented the king. Similarly, an idol is not a statue of stone in the minds of devotees. The Maharaja of Alwar understood the message and fell at the feet of Swamiji taking him as his Guru.
    On the aspect of their role as great reformists, I hold a different view point. In my humble opinion, Saints and Mahatmas are the expressions of different attributes of the Almighty. They are sent to the world according to the needs of time, in accordance with the principle enunciated in the Srimadbhagwat Gita. They serve the humanity with their mere presence. They are like trees, the spiritual trees. While the trees purify air and provide the life-force for the creatures standing at their own place, the saints purify the minds of people and pray for the well beings of all creatures. They are the source of sanity and purity for the human beings. It is in this context that their role as reformists for the society is to be seen. In my humble opinion considering them as reformists is too myopic a view about them. They do not do anything deliberate with a motive to set an example for the society, but because of their exalted position and because of their self-less actions, they achieve perfection in what they do or say and, therefore, their conduct sets an example for the society, It is like the gold, which adores being gold. Similarly, the words and action of great people sets an example for the society, as stated in the Srimadbhagwat Gita also.
    Because of their constant merger in the Truth, the saints and Mahatmas also become a reflection of the Truth. Their body cells get so energised that they become bundles of energy/light. Their mind becomes such a super conductor that it transmits the divine will without any resistance or obstruction. It is because of this that their actions and words carry such strength that it has the power to affect and change the whole society. The saints do not do anything on their own, rather they act according to the Divine will. This is also the difference between saints and Rishies. If any mistake is committed by saints, they are given an opportunity to correct it. They are like the children of God, who are allowed to evolve and grow and treated with love and mercy. Rishies on the other hand are like grown-up adults, who are responsible for their deeds.

  2. akraha1948 says:

    Guptaji, thanks at the outset for explaining the difference between saint & Rishi according to your personal view which I always hold in high esteem.

    In your view, “saints & Mahatmas are sent to the world according to the needs of time, in accordance with the principle enunciated in the Srimadbhagwat Gita. They serve the humanity with their mere presence”. I believe, the above observation does not apply to liberated souls like Shankara and Vivekananda who take birth of their own accord for the good of humanity. Besides, your observation is contrary to Advaita philosophy of Sohahm or Aham Brahmashmi in which state a person becomes one with God or Brahman. While in that state, it’s that Yogi or person who takes the decision whether to take re-birth or not. Hence, when re-incarnated they come with a purpose or mission. However, your view may apply to a person who is not liberated yet but very close to it, and is sent to the world to fulfill a purpose or accomplish a task, or to work further for their own liberation.

    In regard to the saints and Mahatma you have further observed: “If any mistake is committed by saints, they are given an opportunity to correct it. They are like the children of God, who are allowed to evolve and grow and treated with love and mercy.” This observation of yours is also contrary to Advaita Vedanta philosophy and, therefore, would not apply to a realized & liberated soul like Shankara & Vivekananda. Your observation is more akin to Abrahamic traditional belief that God is an external entity Who controls & governs our life & destiny, and none can become God.

    Your observation: “In my humble opinion considering them as reformists is too myopic a view about them. They do not do anything deliberate with a motive to set an example for the society, but because of their exalted position and because of their self-less actions, they achieve perfection in what they do or say and, therefore, their conduct sets an example for the society”, has been very nicely worded and would apply to most of the saints like Kabir, Ruidas, but not to those who came to the world to awaken or liberate others.

    You have very correctly referred to Gita in support of your view that what a superior man does, others follow. This has been conveyed in verse 21, chapter 3 of the Gita. In verse 26, chapter 3, it is further enjoined that the enlightened man should not create disturbance in the belief of the ignorant who are attached to work. Working with diligence, he should make such people do all the duties. This explains why Shankara introduced the ritual of Kumbh Melas to re-inforce the faith of the Hindus in traditional values & beliefs, though he himself was a non-conformist non-dualist and a non-believer of rituals. Whether Shankara did it at the direction of Lord Shiva or following the prescription of Sri Krishna in the Gita, or of his own accord, matters hardly. His above action and many others would undoubtedly pass him for a great reformer, apart from being a dynamic spiritual leader.

  3. RKGupta says:

    Sir, thanks for your erudite comments. To all your observations, however, I have only one answer, an iron rod in fire alone is fire. When out of fire the iron rod is cold, hard and angular. The question is whether the iron rod is always in fire. We know for sure that many of the great saints had their on ups and downs and times of frustration, experimentation and so on. The point I am trying to make is that it is not correct to say for all saints and Mahatmas that hey come as free or realised souls to liberate others. It is only a few and far in between that such souls descend. I am no one to say who they are?
    As regards the authority to reform, I think there lies the difference between the incarnations and saints. The incarnations come with the authority to reform and there is nothing good or bad for them since they come for a duty to be performed, whereas in the case of saints they are the instruments in the hands of the God, who do not use authority to reform but mostly work through persuasion and service.
    I do not believe in the God and creatures standing in juxtaposition but then the question is that of relativity. Which part of the chariot is the chariot? Unless one has realised the Truth and firmly rooted in Truth, the relativity does not cease to exist and one does not lose the separate identity. It is only when the realization dawns that these words are meaningful otherwise words are words and merely an intellectual exercise. Regards, RKGupta

  4. akraha1948 says:

    Guptaji, it’s no body’s case, not certainly that of an Advaitavadi that the iron rod put in fire loses its character as iron and becomes fire, or the part of the chariot becomes chariot. As a matter of fact, such allegory for Advaita philosophy of Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma (all is Brahman) does not do justice to Advaita Vedanta. When Upanishad says we all are Purna, or whole, we have no reason to think that we are just parts of the chariot or iron rods in fire so as to get back to another shape when out of it and can never become fire. As a matter of fact, instead of looking to the gross if we look to the core element that has evolved into other elements eventually entangling in right combination to make fire and also the iron rod, or the chariot as also its part, we will know the real meaning of Advaita Vedanta. It’s for the sentient core to decide whether it will evolve or involve. Every gross form that we see or experience is the core element evolved. An awakened soul has the choice of getting involved into the core element or Brahman, shedding off all external attributes. In that state, he becomes Brahman, not part or fraction but the whole. However, such person may chose to retain separate identity. In that case, instead of shedding off all attributes they retain fraction of it so as to remain slightly grosser than the core. Such liberated souls reincarnate with a purpose or mission primarily to awaken people. The question whether Shankara and Vivekananda can be considered as falling in that class is a matter of opinion, which is purely academic. What is important is their messages to humanity and the example they have set for us.

  5. RKGupta says:

    Sir, you mentioned about their message in your concluding part “What is important is their messages to humanity and the example they have set for us.” The difference in my view lies in the fact that they themselves are the ‘message’. The knowledge exists at all the time but it gets into oblivion or is corrupted from time to time and needs to be again resurfaced. The saints and Mahatmas through their presence, through their conduct and through their grace put that knowledge in the form that could be understood and appreciated by the people of that time.

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