In my “Five Books to Support the Churchless” post, I said I’d share what I like most about the teachings of Vivekananda, Ramana, Eckhart, Plotinus, and the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing.” Each points toward the same spiritual goal, unity with the ultimate reality of God. Yet I find that each emphasizes a different quality needed to become one with the One.
For Vivekananda the quality is strength. In his presentation of the ancient, yet still new, Vedanta philosophy he continually urges us to realize that there is nothing to fear. Only in duality can fear exist. I am only afraid of things that are not me, whether they be immaterial or physical. An attacker who tries to steal my wallet isn’t me. A cancer that upsets my body’s health isn’t me. An obsessive thought that won’t leave my mind isn’t me.
Or so I believe. Maybe, says Vivekananda, all these things really are me. For if the cosmos truly is one, not many, then there is no “other” to fear. This is the highest teaching of Vedanta, unqualified monism.
A dualistic religious perspective that sees God as separate both from nature and the human soul has to grapple with the problem of evil. “How,” Vivekananda asks, “is it possible that under the rule of a just and merciful God, the repository of an infinite number of good qualities, there can be so many evils in this word?”
The Hindus, he answers, never put the blame on God or on a separate Satan. Instead, they hold the eminently scientific view that effects spring from causes in a never-ending chain. Vivekananda says, “Therefore no other person is needed to shape the destiny of mankind but man himself….’We reap what we sow.’”
So here is one source of strength, the fact that each of us creates our own destiny. If we don’t like the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we can do something about it. Fresh causes will led to fresh effects. It isn’t necessary to passively wait for God to save us from our suffering, for our own actions have created both our joys and our despairs. What we have created, we can change.
But Vedanta goes farther than this dualistic idea that the entity known as “me” can cause effects in “not-me” that will then alter my condition (for example, if I am nice to people they will be nicer to me, thereby making me happier).
Vivekananda says, “The real Vedanta philosophy begins with those known as qualified non-dualists. They make the statement that the effect is never different from the cause; the effect is but the cause reproduced in another form. If the universe is the effect and God the cause, it must be God Himself; it cannot be anything but that.”
This means that the universe is the body of God, just as the flesh and bones writing or reading these words is the body of me or you. As the soul is considered to be immanent in the human body, so is God immanent in the body of the entire universe. Bodies come and go, whether they be individual forms or entire universes (the Big Bang may culminate in a Big Crunch), while souls and God remain unchanged forever.
So this qualified non-dualist philosophy encourages even greater strength in you and me. At heart we are not weak, isolated, limited beings who are born, live for a brief spell, and then die. We have the capacity to realize our oneness with the All—God. Vivekananda says, “There is not a particle, not an atom in the universe, where He is not. Again, souls are all limited; they are not omnipresent. When their powers become expanded and they become perfect, there is no more birth and death for them; they live with God for ever.”
Yet Vedanta urges that even this exalted conception of the soul be expanded. This is non-dualistic Vedanta or Advaita, “not two.” Namely, one. According to Vivekananda this is where human thought finds its highest expression. “It is too abstruse, too elevated,” he says, “to be the religion of the masses…It is difficult for even the most intelligent man or woman in any country to understand Advaita—we have made ourselves so weak; we have made ourselves so low.”
According to Advaita the truth is that there aren’t many souls in the universe. There is only a single soul: the Self. From one perspective this is God, Brahman. From another perspective it is an individual soul, Atman. Regardless, there is no difference between God and the soul, Brahman and Atman. All is One.
Vivekananda says, “The whole of this universe is one Unity, one Existence—physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. We are looking upon this one Existence in different ways and creating all these images upon it.”
Who then should we worship? A God far off in the heavens? No. A savior sent by God to redeem us? No. A natural world separate from ourselves? No. A book, icon, holy relic, place of pilgrimage, or other sacred object? No. Advaita Vedanta teaches that the only entity worthy of our worship is wonderfully close at hand:
Our own Self.
I’ll let Vivekanada explain this bold assertion in his own words. As you read them, feel the strength within you. I love how he reminds us that we have been beaten down for so long by religions that weaken us, we have lost touch with the power of the soul that is our birthright. And also our deathright. That power can’t be taken away from us, even though most of us have voluntarily surrendered it.
Take it back. Become spiritually independent. Let the energy of the cosmos flow through you, for it is you.
[All of the excerpts in this post are from “The Atman,” a talk delivered by Vivekananda in Brooklyn, February 2, 1896]
What does the Advaitist preach? He dethrones all the gods that ever existed, or ever will exist in the universe and places on that throne the Self of man, the Atman, higher than the sun and the moon, higher than the heavens, greater than this great universe itself.
No books, no scriptures, no science can ever imagine the glory of the Self that appears as man, the most glorious God that ever was, the only God that ever existed, exists, or ever will exist. I am to worship, therefore, none but myself. "I worship my Self," says the Advaitist. To whom shall I bow down? I salute my Self. To whom shall I go for help? Who can help me, the Infinite Being of the universe?
These are foolish dreams, hallucinations; who ever helped any one? None. Wherever you see a weak man, a dualist, weeping and wailing for help from somewhere above the skies, it is because he does not know that the skies also are in him. He wants help from the skies, and the help comes. We see that it comes; but it comes from within himself, and he mistakes it as coming from without.
Sometimes a sick man lying on his bed may hear a tap on the door. He gets up and opens it and finds no one there. He goes back to bed, and again he hears a tap. He gets up and opens the door. Nobody is there. At last he finds that it was his own heartbeat which he fancied was a knock at the door.
Thus man, after this vain search after various gods outside himself, completes the circle, and comes back to the point from which he started --the human soul, and he finds that the God whom he was searching in hill and dale, whom he was seeking in every brook, in every temple, in churches and heavens, that God whom he was even imagining as sitting in heaven and ruling the world, is his own Self. I am He, and He is I. None but I was God, and this little I never existed.