Vedantic universalism, Indic civilisational renaissance & diversity

Swami Vivekananda’s note of caution serves to highlight his vision which is truly Bharatiya and civilisational because it encompasses every dharmic tradition/sampradaya within its ambit without an iota of condescension.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have tried to understand Swami Vivekananda at various stages of my life through his writings and through those of others who have attempted to capture his majestic and impactful life. At every stage, his words and his life have moved me and conveyed a message which was relevant to a given phase or which answered questions that occurred to me then. This doesn’t mean I am remotely spiritual or that I have lived up to the values he preached and embodied; it only means that Swamiji’s profound and powerful thoughts are capable of moving even spiritually uninitiated and imperfect individuals.

Swamiji’s first-hand and acute diagnosis of what ails Bharat and the treatment it needs have always arrested me the most as a layperson. In fact, his teachings on Vedanta through his lectures on the subject reveal that Swamiji’s take on Vedanta could serve as a key foundational building block for an Indic Renaissance i.e. the rejuvenation of Bharat as a living civilization which still has a lot to offer to the world. I believe so because Swamiji’s Vedantic worldview exhorts us to put faith in ourselves first and to realise that all knowledge and divinity are within us and are merely waiting to manifest. This is precisely the treatment the doctor prescribed for the Indic civilization in its direst hour of self-doubt. Swamiji’s recognition that Vedanta is not merely an ideal but is firstly practical and must be practical, is what strengthens the case for its relevance to civilizational resurgence.

True to his broad nature and keeping with the spirit of Vedanta, Swamiji’s dissection of Advaita Vedanta, while appealing to the intellect thanks to his piercing logic, lays emphasis on acknowledgement of the oneness of spirit and the need to rest the very foundation of the concept of religion on universalism. However, the true genius of Swamiji lay in his unapologetic and unequivocal articulation of a critical layer of nuance which contemporary, urbanised and chic Vedantins conveniently seem to gloss over. In every lecture of his, Swamiji cautioned against the eviscerating and patronising use of Vedanta to submerge all other traditions as being less evolved and primitive which seems to be the fashionable trend these days among the elite.

Swamiji’s note of caution serves to highlight his vision which is truly Bharatiya and civilizational because it encompasses every Dharmic tradition/sampradaya within its ambit without an iota of condescension. His emphasis on inclusivity was not based on any cloying consideration or because it made for good diversity optics or widened the reach of his vision, but because of his clear realization that every tradition/sampradaya fulfilled the deepest spiritual and societal needs of that section of the society it catered to. Therefore, according to him, it was no one else’s business to sit in judgement over a sampradaya.

Instead of using the cliché that all religions or sects are the same, Swamiji believed that the validity and value of a sampradaya was to be assessed based on the needs of its followers which it fulfilled, and so long as it did that and retained its core message, its relevance would be self-evident. In other words, the day a sampradaya loses its core and its ability to fill the spiritual voids of its followers, it will organically cease to exist or merge with another school of thought without the need for any external stimulus. This is why Swamiji’s position on diversity is so practical and rooted in the Dharmic tradition that redundancy of a sampradaya need not and should not be induced until it becomes apparent and takes effect on its own.

In fact, the ideal situation, according to Swamiji, is when there are as many sampradayas as people so that every layer of nuance and every subtle individual need is addressed instead of requiring a seeker to compromise on his or her genuine needs in order to conform to a particular school of thought. The degree of maturity such a vision requires of the society is clearly mind-boggling, but the fact that the Dharmic worldview endorses and envisages such a vision speaks volumes of its commitment to a pluriversal approach and its unshakeable belief that humanity is capable of realising this vision. The Indic civilization is, in fact, a living testament to the practicality of the vision because it is a product of this very worldview that accommodates within its bosom perhaps the most diverse agglomeration of sampradayas and panths, which the world knows as Hinduism. Critically, the fact that Dharmic tradition places a premium on diversity for very practical and spiritual reasons, is an important lesson that must be understood by those that erroneously use Vedanta to question and undermine the legitimacy of sampradayic or denominational diversity and autonomy within the Dharmic fold.

Also, at the individual level, Swamiji minces no words in warning that a true seeker should not try to reduce an ideal to suit his or her convenience, and must instead aspire to elevate his reality to the ideal. Therefore, if one believes that a particular school of thought is best suited to one’s nature, then one must commit oneself to that school with dedication instead of diluting the core principles and expectations which form part of that school of thought. So, while a seeker can choose from an array of options presented by Dharma, once the choice is made, the goal must be to live up to it and not dumb it down. Importantly, the corollary is that the rules of one school of philosophy or spirituality must not be applied to another to avoid the rigours of the choice one has made.

This caveat assumes importance when understood in the backdrop of ongoing controversies such as the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple Entry case. The religious practices of that Temple and its restrictions have often been challenged in contemporary debates citing the practices of other Temples within the same tradition or outside of it, neither of which is warranted nor holds water. Every Temple must be understood in the light of its own object of consecration and worship because even within a given tradition, each institution that broadly falls within that tradition evolves its own individual expression which is consistent with its beliefs.

What most people do not realise is that it is this propensity of Bharat for spiritual innovation that the framers of the Constitution were aware of, which explains the language of Article 26 of the Constitution that recognizes the fundamental rights of “every religious denomination or any section thereof” to manage its own religious affairs subject to public order, morality and health. Therefore, even a single institution can constitute a denomination in itself under Article 26, which is perfectly consistent with Swamiji’s Vedantic take on spiritual diversity. Pertinently, Swamiji did not see any conflict between his love for his motherland and his commitment to Vedantic fraternity. His universalism was not the rootless kind which passes off as global citizenship today. He was as much a Bharatiya as he was of the world and if the latter required the abandonment of the former, Swamiji would have resisted it with his characteristic outspokenness.

One would have expected that with political independence, Bharat’s civilizational confidence would have only improved and strengthened with time. Surprisingly, or not, this is not the case; on the contrary, it has only waned and worsened with time. Consequently, today Bharat is at a precarious juncture, perhaps more than ever before, when the struggle for its soul and identity is playing itself out at every level and the churn in the society is visible. Not only does Bharat have external challenges, it also faces serious challenges from within its own civilizational weave because those who claim to be its most ardent proponents seek to recast it in an alien mould which could kill the very essence of Bharat. This is what reinforces the relevance of Swamiji and his teachings, for those whose hearts beat for this civilization as well as its message of universalism would do well to draw from Swamiji’s life and teachings and apply the lessons to their own lives and civilizational endeavours.

Finally, Swamiji’s interpretation of Vedanta is one that is full of energy and life. He was not the one to believe in a selfish, lifeless and inert pursuit of individual liberation. Action was his motto, ceaseless activity and boundless energy were his mantras, and the heart of the society was the field of his work. At a time when social media has elevated arm-chaired hand-wringing into an art, Swamiji’s clarion call to action is the only way forward for Bharatiyas if they are to pass the test of time and history.

J. Sai Deepak is an Advocate practising as an arguing counsel before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.

Swamiji’s first-hand and acute diagnosis of what ails Bharat and the treatment it needs have always arrested me the most as a layperson.