The end of the 19th century witnessed a powerful spiritual revival in Bengal. Swami Vivekananda, the illustrious disciple of Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, played the leading role in spreading his master’s message throughout India and abroad.
To the abundant masses of India, Swamiji is known primarily as a great social reformer. He tried to eradicate the social ills born of intolerance and narrow-mindedness and to instill the feeling of companionship among men. This mission was in keeping with his ideal of universal brotherhood and humanity.
But Swamiji also had a philosophical message along with his social mission, and these were an inseparable part of his total vision of life and the destiny of man.
His philosophy was essentially a philosophy of religion, the subject of which was man’s search for the divine. It says that man is a composite of animality, humanity and divinity. Its mission is to raise the brute man to the level of man and man to the level of God. So religion is an evolutionary process through which man can rise from the lowest to the highest level of existence. And in this process of development, man must make conscious efforts, efforts to make patent the divinity latent in him. Man must always strive for a greater manifestation of the divine that is inherent in him. It is this progress towards the God of Man that Swamiji calls religion.
When Swamiji attended the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, he was not as an official delegate of any particular religious organization. It represented something bigger. He came as an exponent of the ancient Upanishadic Indian philosophy of universal brotherhood and the universality of spiritual truths.
The Upanishadic philosophy of religion transcends all dogmas and rituals that vary from one religion to another. It is the dogmas and rituals, which constitute the outer layer of a religion, that breed intolerance, hatred and conflict. Once these dividing forces are overcome, it will be found that all religions, at their core, uphold the same spiritual values. Conflicts of religion will then be resolved in harmony. This Universal Religion is not conditioned by time, place and circumstances. And the different religions are nothing but different facets of this Universal Religion. The diversity of paths characterizes not only religions, but also different sects within the same religion. Ultimately, all the different paths boil down to four main paths to the realization of divinity: the path of Work, Devotion, Psychic Control, and Knowledge. Any one of these paths or any combination of these paths can lead man to the divine goal.
The path of Work, or Karma Yoga, is the path particularly suitable for a man of active temperament, that is, a man with the dominant rajo guna in him. This path requires that the work be selfless work, work done in a spirit of duty without any expectation of reward, leaving the result to the will of God. It must be “nishkama karma”. But this path also prescribes that the work done must be in a spirit of service to man. In the constant effort to selflessly do good to others, we also help ourselves to be good. It should be a humble and selfless service to man, and service rendered in this spirit will count as service to God. Karma Yoga destroys the ego, helps promote a feeling of brotherhood, and gradually purifies man so that divinity within him flourishes.
The path of Devotion, or Bhakti Yoga, demands love for God with the same strong attachment that one usually has for worldly things. This path operates on the plane of passionate emotions, feelings, and ecstasies. The heart is involved here, not the intellect or faulty rational. Here God is treated as master, child, beloved, etc. Therefore, Hanumanji’s relationship with Rama is that of servant and master. Yashoda’s relationship with Krishna is that of mother and son. Radha’s relationship with Krishna is that of a married woman and her lover. In the love of Radha there is a total surrender of your being to Krishna, without paying attention to all the consequences. Radha had the “Madhurabhava”, an unrestricted love for the Lord in total oblivion of shame or honor. This state is recognized as the highest state of love in Bhakti yoga. By the way, in Christianity we find the worship of Christ as a child and even as a loved one. Furthermore, the God that Christians seek is a personal God, as in Bhakti yoga.
The third path, the path of mind control or Raja yoga, believes in the realization of the divine through a graduated sadhana (practice), which includes Asana, Pranayama and Dhyana. It progresses from the physical to the mental and from the mental to the spiritual. The last stage, Samadhi, is the stage of superconsciousness, a transcendent state where there is a direct perception of spiritual truths.
The fourth way is the way of Knowledge or Jnana Yoga. His approach is intellectual, following the lines of reasoning, self-questioning, and rational analysis. In this sadhana, we must first discover what we are not. This “neti, neti” or negative approach will be followed by the positive approach of affirming who we really are; we must affirm that we are Brahman, whose essence is Being, Consciousness and Bliss or Satchidananda. We must meditate on this until we achieve oneness with Brahman, the Brahman who is eternal, unchanging and omnipresent. This path has been followed by several Upanisadic seers.
The four paths have been brought together and harmonized in the emblem of the Ramakrishna Order. Swmaiji cares about the essential, not the accidental, in religion, and it is no wonder that, in its universality and nobility, it has lasting appeal to all of us.