A group from the local Hindu temple recently contacted me about jointly celebrating the 150th birthday of Vivekananada, the Hindu priest who took the World Parliament of Religions by storm back in 1893 and introduced Vedanta Hinduism to the Western Hemisphere. Vivekananda spoke at the congregation where I serve as senior minister, the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, not once but twice on his initial US visit.
I enthusiastically accepted the invitation. I was pleased that First Unitarian Society had been thinking so far outside the box back in 1893 and wanted to continue that tradition.
This would not be a lecture. This would be a joint worship service—or, as we call it in my staunchly humanist congregation—Sunday Assembly. I point this out to highlight the fact that our Sunday Assembly does not tend to begin with “prayers to the guru” in the order of service.
The four tenants of Vedanta Hinduism run like this:
Definition of the Eternal Truth: Consciousness is Brahman.
Statement of Advice: That Thou Art.
Statement of Direct Experience: This Atman is Brahman.
Roar of Realization: I am Brahman!
Yes, this needs some translation. “Brahman” is the ultimate divinity in Hindu thought—all that is. “Atman” is the singular self. The ego, as Freud would say. How might such a view fit into any sort of humanist translation?
Here’s my shot at it:
Definition of the Eternal Truth: Consciousness is the ultimate.
Statement of Advice: That’s you.
Statement of Direct Experience: Your consciousness is identical with all consciousness.
Roar of Realization: The ultimate (“god” or perhaps Heidegger’s dasein, “the being (that is) there”) is all consciousness.
How far off the beam is this? Not so far, I think. Remember that “Hinduism” is what the British called the various practices of the natives of the Indian subcontinent. Indians had never considered themselves Hindu or codified a “Hinduism.” The broad brush of colonialism painted everyone in the subcontinent. “Hinduism” was, and still is, a congeries of very localized practices that are “religious” only in a Western sense. They are, actually, ways of life. Vivekananda’s gift was to take the essence of Hindu practice—developed by his master, Ramakrisna—and present a cogent philosophy that moved Indians toward an understanding of nationalism that led eventually to the overthrow of their colonial rulers. (Vivekananda is celebrated by not one but two national holidays in India.) Then, Vivekananda took the show on the road, as it were, bringing Vedanta to a world that had hitherto-fore viewed Hinduism as barbaric.
We do well to remember that “Hinduism” contains the Carvakas, from the Sixth Century BCE, the first recorded instance of a truly atheist philosophy. Explicitly atheist? Yep. A skepticism based in a deconstruction of logic. Remember, it took the Western World another 2000 years and more to produce such ideas.(And, need I mention, that that level of skepticism is still rare in the world?)
But back to Vivekananda, who once said, “He is an atheist who does not believe in himself.” At first glance, that sounds like the rankest new-ageism. But look back at those four points of Vedanta. If the self is Brahman . . .
Sounds a bit like American Transcendentalism, doesn’t it? There’s a reason for that. British philologist (and one of the colonizers) William Jones, better known as “Oriental Jones,” made Hindu thought available to early-Nineteenth Century Americans of a particular intellectual persuasion. People such as the Unitarians inclined toward Transcendentalism—including the Peabody sisters, Thoreau, and Emerson.
Vedanta’s third point is direct experience. The Transcendentalist knew what that meant. They put themselves in the way of lived experience. They lived for those moments.
What Oriental Jones, the colonialists, or even the Transcendentalists, did not know is that “Hinduism” was way ahead of Western thinking. Hindu thinkers had already realized that “religious” breaks down into very different sorts of human activity—what we might nowadays characterize as character or personality types or “intelligences.” This has been categorized in Hindu tradition as the four yogas: devotion, service, meditation, knowledge.
This about covers the waterfront, doesn’t it? For some, devotion to “the holy” is the center of meaning and of religious practice. For others, service to others—what we nowadays call social justice—is the center of meaning. For others, meditative practices calm the mind and center the self. For others, it’s study, study, study and the next theory or book. And some—some practice a combination of these or all four.
Westerners are too often “my way or the highway” sorts of folks. The insistence of belief and belief only as key to Christianity has confused Westerners for some time.
Today? Reflect on the fact that the world’s most populous democracy is not England. Or the United States. It is India. And the children of Vivekananda? They’re fine, thank you. Still multifarious, and now free, despite the broad brushes of colonialism.
And, maybe, just maybe, leading the way into a future few of us yet comprehend. I’m looking forward to celebrating Vivekananda in my congregation. When he came that first time, in 1893, he was a lone voice crying in a Europeanized wilderness. Now . . . Hindus are our neighbors and we are theirs.
And this business about consciousness being the ultimate truth?
It bears some thinking about!