The sources of the philosophy of Vivekananda are three fold. First, the great Vedic and Vedantic tradition. Sankaracharya, acknowledged as one of the great meta-physician of the world, and also Ramanuja and Madhava, Vallabha and Nimbarka have drawn inspiration for their thought from these works. Vivekananda was a titanic intellect. He is said to have gone through the eleven volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He had a deep understanding, not only of the literature of our land but also of Western metaphysical thought. He had also some knowledge of western scientific achievements.

Vivekananda was an apostle of the Advaita Vedanta and he belongs to the tradition of the commentators on the Advaita system. But although an Advaitist and Mayavadi, his reconciling mind adds peculiarities to his interpretations, and his Vedantic writings are never a mere English or modern edition of Shankara’s system. He had original powers of perception of his own which are apparent in his writings.

Secondly, a powerful source of Vivekananda’s philosophy was his contact with Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1836-1886) one of the greatest mystic saints of Modern India. Mysticism has sometimes given aid to philosophy. In the case of Pythagoras and Plato we know that the philosophy of these two thinkers was partly inspired by the teachings of the Greek mystic sects. Shri Ramakrishna’s mystic realisations were obtained almost in the same way as Buddha’s – by intense self-castigations and mortifications and by spending a number of restless days and nights in search of Truth. While Ramakrishna had preached his sermons in a style of prophetic simplicity and clarity, Vivekananda was the philosopher with the religious teacher. Hence, he preached some of these same truths in a more philosophical language and used modern logical terminology.

Thirdly, a rich source of Vivekananda’s philosophy was his own experience of life. He traversed the wide world and to the interpretations of his experiences thus gained, he brought a virile and keen intellect. Thus some of the truths that he preached were acquired by reflections on his own experiences. Hence his philosophy has its roots in life. It is not merely essentialistic and conceptualistic but has an existential character. The great defect of Modern European and American philosophy is that it has lost contact with life. It is getting lost in the thick jungles of linguistic analysis. Hazy logical symbolism losing touch with life is useless and barren. But the philosophy of Vivekananda is life-giving and dynamic.

For getting an account of Vivekananda’s philosophy, one has to turn to his complete works. The strictly philosophical portions of his writings are: (i) the Gnana Yoga (ii) his commentary on the aphorisms of Patanjali and (iii) the various lectures on the Vedanta philosophy delivered in India or in the West. His political philosophy is contained in his lectures from Colombo to Almora, the East and the West and Modern India.

The central concept of Vivekananda’s system is Brahman – the highest reality or the Sacchidananda – purest existence, knowledge and bliss. These three Sat, Chitt and Anand are not the attributes (gunas) of the Supreme Real but are the very being of the Absolute. These are not three entities but are really three-in-one. The Brahman is the highest reality and the highest truth and is revealed in mystical realisations. The Vedantic Brahman accepted by Vivekananda is neither the concrete Absolute of Hegel nor the sunya of the Madhyamikas nor the Alayavignana of the Yogacharas. It resembles to some extent the Tathata of Aswaghosa, but the difference is that the latter (Aswaghosa) is nto very emphatic on the mystical perception of Tathata.
Swami Vivekananda accepts the philosophy of Maya. He, thus, regards time, space and causation as relevant only to the phenomenal world. He has attempted an inspired and rhetorical defence of Mayavada in his Jnana-Yoga. Maya, to him is not a theory but a statement of facts. But several critics regard the theory of Maya as the weakest spot in Advaita. On grounds of pure logic and science it seems impossible to defend the theory of Maya. Vivekananda’s defence of the theory of Maya is also, to some extent, based on verbal quibbles. He says, “The very question why the Infinite became the Finite is an impossible one for it is self-contradictory”. His defence of Maya is characterised by great rhetoric as it is adequate for establishing the unreal character of the world. From the standpoint of individual death and extinction, the world is illusory, but regardless of the death of individuals, the world-process, as a whole, goes on.

At the level of supreme gnosis, highest reality is conceived as the Brahman. The same reality, at the level of religious worship is regarded as the Ishwara. Vivekananda says, “In the Advaita philosophy, the whole universe is one in the self which is called Brahman. That self when it appears behind the universe is called God. The same self when it appears behind this little universe, the body, is the soul… Universal self which is beyond the universal modifications of Prakriti is what is called Ishwara, the Supreme Ruler, God”. Vivekananda emphasised the adoration of the Lord or Ishwara. Ishwara is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world process. He is the personal ruler of the world and its destiny. Vivekananda and Ramakrishna were also influenced by Tantricism, which believes in the divinity of the cosmic creative force regarded as the Supreme Mother.

Jiva, according to Vivekananda is the Brahman in essence. He was influenced, in this regard, by Sankhya Darshana to some extent. The belief in the multiplicity of Jivas, he inherits from the Sankya, but like the true Advaitist he believes in their ultimate identity with Brahman. The Atman, in material and mental bondage, is called Jiva. Vivekananda was an eloquent advocate of the purity and innate goodness of the human soul. The perversities of the soul, however are generated by the impact of the Prakriti. Vivekananda was greatly shocked at the Christian conception of the soul as the sinner. He considered it blasphemous to regard the soul as sinner. He defined the character of a man as the sum total of the impressions and tendencies generated by his actions. Karma thus constitutes the character of man. Man is the architect of his own fortunes and hence constant efforts at the control of internal and external nature would lead to the divinisation of man. He regarded man as the highest being in creation because he alone attains to freedom.

Vivekananda hails Kapil as the father of Indian rationalistic philosophy and believes in the influence of the Sankya on the growth of ancient Greek philosophy. He interprets the Gunas as forces and thus tries to provide somewhat of a scientific interpretation of the Sankya system.

Vivekananda criticises the atomic theory on the ground that particles without magnitude even though multiplied infinite number of times would not produce the world. He wrote, “But the dissolution of the atom into electromagnetic energy only proves the Vedantic contention that not infinite physical atoms but subtle energy can be the ground work of the cosmos. Here, as in many things, science proves the contention of Vedanta”. There has been various interpretations of the electromagnetic theory. Dialectical materialists interpreted it to substantiate the concept of ceaseless motion in the universe. Vivekananda, to the contrary, believed that this theory will strengthen the contention of Vedanta regarding the primacy of unitary all pervasive energy.

1. The life of Swami Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western Disciples – Adavaita Ashram, Almora.
2. The complete works of Swami Vivekananda (Mayavati Memorial Edition, 1945)
3. The Atman: Its Bondage and Frredom
4. B.C. Pal – The Spirit of Indian Nationalism


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