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Swami Vedananda: Seeking the Unity Within and Without
Swami Vedananda: Seeking Unity Within And Without
Once in a while we are blessed with the opportunity to listen to and learn from spiritual beings that are truly walking their talk. Listening to Swami Vedananda on our Global Awakin Call felt as if we were sitting under an ancient banyan tree, the kind with roots reaching deep across Mother Earth, committed to a purpose of life giving truth.
Swami Vedananda is a senior monk of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, which was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1900. Belonging to an order of monks of an unbroken, ancient lineage dating back to the pre-BC Vedic period, Swami Vedananda holds a Ph.D. in physics, a compassion quotient that overflows from his heart, and a sense of humor that will fill you with lightness and joy.
Commitment and Inspiration
Our conversation with Swami Vedananda covered everything from atheism to the existence of free will, illustrating the breadth of the wisdom he has steadfastly cultivated through a lifetime of truth seeking.
How does a man that is studying physics decide to change course and take serious vows that will devote him to the life of a monastic?
Guided by the influence of his teacher who was Swami Ashokananda, once Swami Vedananda made the decision to become a monk he says it was nonstop all the way.
“Swami Ashokananda could express the very essence of spirituality in such a clear way that it became so lucid, so transparent that it was like an acid that cut through the tough steel of my resistance and wore it down. It took me several years to admit that there could be a possibility of truth in what he was saying but I finally decided this had to be the way to go.”
As part of the process for becoming a monk in the Vedanta tradition, Swami Vedananda made a set of declarations about his understanding of the reality of things, the way he was going to live, and his total commitment to this purpose. Once these declarations are made, the question of living or not living in a certain way simply fell away. As he explained, it’s a one-way street without a destination because the way itself becomes the goal.
“Once you’ve committed yourself, there is no question of a path, you’re not going anywhere, it’s nothing you have to attain, you are that already and the commitment is to live like that and to overcome any attempt to deviate from that firm commitment.”
In the same light, this steadfast commitment in Swami Ashokananda is what inspired Swami Vedananda. Reflecting on his teacher, Swami Vedananda explained that what was most influential was that it was so transparent and visible that Swami Ashokananda was intensely committed to this concept and living in this way. There was no question of there being two things or a choice between this and that, the reality was this - the Brahman, the atma, the Buddha nature - whatever name you want to give it. Swami Ashokananda was the embodiment of what he spoke.
“What is it that keeps us on the path when it’s a matter of our own inner development, our own welfare, our own higher nature that we’re trying to reach? It strikes me that the thing that’s most powerful is to be inspired by something or someone in such a way that you’ve seen something so fascinating, so intriguing, that you just stay committed to that path. Nothing will get you off that path, because you’ve seen a bright light.”
On Atheism and Faith
Vedanta holds that all religions lead to the same goal. Further, Vedanta reveres all great teachers and prophets, such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Sri Krishna, and respects their teachings as the same eternal truth adapted to the needs of different times and peoples.
People who have interacted with Swami Vedananda walk away with a deep regard of all faiths. Even atheists have enjoyed interacting with him without feeling the need to change their beliefs. When asked what is the core of the belief system that makes this possible, Swami Vedananda responded:
“I don’t believe that there is a category of people that’s called atheist. They may not believe in theism so in that sense they can be called atheist but the fact that each person can say, “I exist,” makes them a believer. The point is do you believe in a traditional sense or not a traditional sense, that’s the only difference.”
Swami Vedananda elaborated by saying that every expressed religion or philosophy is subject to being challenged because it’s formulated by human beings, it’s expressed in a certain way or in a certain context and one could maintain that one expression of it is more satisfactory than another. There are certain commonalities that we can share and it’s these common things that should be emphasized.
“Everyone in a very real sense makes their own religion even if you’re officially following a certain doctrine because your understanding is unique to you. Everyone has that truth within them whether they admit it or not, their very existence radiates the idea that they understand a certain basic truth, a certain basic reality and which ever religion you adopt becomes an attempt to clarify that within yourself.”
The struggle then becomes to actually experience what we believe. Swami Vedananda explained that while we may profess so many things, how much have we dedicated ourselves to experience what we believe in?
Many have lost their faith along the way. Is it possible to re-instill faith into one’s heart?
Similar to his belief about atheism, Swami Vedananda explains that you cannot lose your faith. The very fact that you might have this question means that faith is there.
“In the Bible, Moses asked God to define himself and God said, ‘I am that I am.’ That feeling of ‘I am’ is the basic feeling without which life is impossible. ‘I am’ means also that everything I perceive is. If I am and others are, that means a universal bond is already created, that is universal oneness, that is spirituality, and you cannot lose it. Once you have that feeling of oneness, then everything else follows. How you specify it and how you make it particular in your own case, that is up to you, those are details.”
Awareness of the Changeless Beneath the Changing
One caller asked, “What does one hold onto when one realizes that everything around including one’s ideas of ‘I am’ are changing all of a sudden? How does one maintain equanimity in that state and understand what the changed self is? When you say that there is something beneath everything that does not change, what are you referring to and how do you know?
“In order to be aware of the changing, in order to be aware of that which changes, in order to be aware of our own selves in a particular context in the world, in order to be aware of one’s own existence, one has to be aware of the changeless.”
Swami Vedananda reflected on something Swami Vivekananda used to say to try and explain this better. “Unless there is a changeless screen, you will never see a movie.” In order to perceive anything there has to be a changeless background or a changeless reality on which the changing is perceived.
“Who is it that is perceiving the changeless? Who is asking the question about the changing and what is the basis of the changing if there were nothing changeless?”
Swami Vedananda used a solid object and a microscope to explain further. If we look at the solid object through a microscope it will look different. Where one thing ends and another thing begins you don’t know precisely. You can’t tell where a solid object ends because there is a gradation in density of molecules so that which is solid, that which is real, seems to vanish. From molecules to protons, neutrons, and electrons, you just keep looking and you never come to the end of it. There is always something else, there are even vibrating strings now. So you never come to the end of looking at the multiplicity.
“That which is the many can never be perceived unless there was a consciousness. Your consciousness is the one steady point in the constantly changing universe, everything around us is changing all the time and it’s indefinable in its precision. The more I know about one thing, the less I would know about something else, so these are all different aspects of the same question.”
Science is characterized by this thing, that if I want to understand something fundamentally, I can look more closely and say, “This thing is made up of certain particles, and then we ask, “What are these particles made of?” and we break those down further and then we ask, “What are those broken down elements made of?” until we come down to vibrating strings, and then ask, “What is this made of?” But we never answer the question, what is it actually?
“The basic question, “What is it?” is never answered and when we rephrase the question, we can realize that the essence of everything is not the material that it’s made of but the consciousness through which I’m seeing it and consciousness is the basic reality.”
God Has Not Fallen Asleep
Swami Vedananda has been known to say that when something bad happens in the universe, God has not gone to sleep, God is still right there.
He explains that this is the most puzzling aspect of Hinduism for people that are not used to it. On a superficial level, that which is terrible may be terrible to one group of people but may not be terrible to others. On a deeper level, Swami Vedananda asks that when something terrible happens, “How do we react to it when it does?”
“If we can, we should do everything we can to prevent misery from happening. If cruelty comes, we have to stop it from occurring. If injustice comes we have to strive with all our might for justice, for fairness, for equality, for generosity, for love. There is no question about that. But that is not the basic question when you’re talking in a philosophical way. The basic question philosophically is what is this cruelty?”
Cruelty seems to be concurrent with the existence of the universe; it just seems to be there. Is how we are to think about it differentiated from what are we to do about it?
“Neither cruelty nor generosity is at the heart of the matter, that is at the level of behavior and action and there we have to protect the good and chastise evil. But what is good and what is evil and are they separate things?”
From a philosophical standpoint, there is only one reality and that reality sometimes manifests itself as good and sometimes as evil. What is reality itself? Does reality have a good and bad aspect? No, reality is only itself, it exists in consciousness and in infinite joy. We see it as evil as it operates on the surface of things, but the fundamental reality is characterized by infinite consciousness and calmness that comes from seeing non-duality everywhere. The essence of things is neither good nor evil, it manifests that way and on that level we have to do something about it but fundamentally there is only that one consciousness.
To further elaborate, Swami Vedananda referred to a story from the Bhagavad Gita. In this story, Arjuna, a member of the Pandava royal family, is resistant to fighting his brothers on the battlefield but Lord Krishna urges him to fulfill his duty and fight for truth. Swami Vedananda explains that Krishna did not ask all of his disciples to fight, in fact another disciple was asked to go into the mountains and meditate. So the question becomes, “At what level are we operating in this world?” There are certain times when resistance is necessary in this world, for example when you see someone harming someone else. But if you see the presence of God everywhere, then it won’t be a question of youur seeing the suffering. When you see God present everywhere, there is no question of resistance. However, when you see someone being hurt, then to maintain that you’re not going to do anything about it is disingenuous. If a question arises as to whether you should act or not, that means you haven’t reached that state of equanimity and you should definitely act.
“Feeling God’s presence everywhere is the essence and then whatever else happens is individual to each one of us. If we feel God’s presence everywhere, the struggle then is to live in that, to maintain ourselves in that. As it becomes evermore real, as this doing of good becomes ever more real to us, then whatever we do will be filled with God’s reality, with God’s presence. It sort of culminates in a total absorption, that’s the principle.”
One caller asked, “When I’m wrapped up in my day to day routine the fear or the experiences from the past make me react and it could be my ego or it could be my fear. When I’m quiet on a Saturday morning I can think of consciousness but it doesn’t happen so easily on Tuesday afternoon. What can I do to feel that consciousness when I’m angry or feel that anxiety?”
“If one feels the presence of God everywhere, that is the major tool. What is God for one person is not God for another person but it helps if one can choose one of these great luminaries of the world or some symbol of divinity and have a personal relationship with it through prayer.”
Swami Vedananda gave the example of a child that begs his mom for a cookie. This child’s begging is almost like a prayer to the mother. “Mommy, please give me a cookie, please.” The child may understand that the cookie is not good but it feels satisfied when the mother responds to it in some way. That personal connection with divinity is one of the greatest tools that we have for making all these ideas real.
“In our hearts we’re all children, we all need that divine, that motherly affection and if we can establish a relationship with a divine reality that enables one to control the things that one wants to control, that is one way, but not the only way.”
Do We Have Free Will?
Free will is a misnomer. If anything is will, it can’t be free. Will is a finite idea and anything that is finite is bound to be influenced by other things that are finite. Free will means “can I do what I want to do when I want to do it?” It seems that this is true but when you examine or think about it later in very specific detail, you find that most of what happened was influenced by past actions that guided you to act in a certain direction. So the recommendation is do good and be good (which he pointed out was also the Buddha's recommendation) so it can lead you to whatever ultimate good there is. “If you do good and are good in the highest sense that you understand goodness, you will create a habit in yourself to do good and then after some time it will be impossible to do evil and then as you rise higher and higher in that practice of only being concentrated on the good, you will get to a point where it will be impossible for you to think of anything that is not good, not eternal, not real.” This is how doing good and being good, being true, being totally devoted to these ideas can make it impossible to act contrary to those ideas. You’ve created a habit that will force you to do good and be good and head towards that which is good, which in the ultimate sense will lead to that which is beyond good and evil, that is the essence of the universe, that feeling of oneness."
A Story about Swami Vivekananda
Once Swami Vivekananda was walking up and down a porch and he was weeping. At one time he put his head on the rail and wept bitter tears and someone asked him, “ Swamiji, why are you so sad?” and he said, "Oh! I feel a terrible catastrophe must have happened somewhere in the world. People are suffering so much. That is why I am overcome with great feeling of sorrow.” And the person that was watching him felt that the whole universe was sympathizing with Swami Vivekananda in his great sorrow. Later on it was found that there was a great catastrophe somewhere and many people had perished.
The Basis for Compassion
How does one advocate compassion and at the same time equanimity to both good and evil? For someone like Swami Vivekananda who is so tuned into the changeless, why would he be in so much grief and feel compassion for others? What is the basis of compassion?
Swami Vedananda explained that Swami Vivekananda’s compassion came from a feeling of oneness.
“I feel the sorrows of others because I feel one with others. The basic idea of any religion really and Vedanta certainly, is that feeling of oneness. I and my brother are one. That is the point. If anyone in this universe suffers, it’s my suffering. If anyone in this universe is full of joy, it’s my joy. I am one with everything and I am one with all. That feeling of being one with the universe, of not being separate from anything, that is spiritual realization.”
He pointed out that this realization is at the heart of spirituality. Oneness, if traced to its core, is the feeling of non-differentiation, which is the basic teaching of all religions. Swamiji noted Jesus saying, “I and my Father are one.” The teachings can be interpreted in various ways, but the words indicate the same spirit of oneness. Even when you feel that oneness there is still a sense of suffering and pain that you would feel for other people.
“If I feel a hurt within myself, I feel the pain and want to do something about it. If I feel that the whole universe is one, the reality of the whole universe pulses in my whole heart. I see no difference. I react to the pain everywhere. I also react to the joy everywhere. But this pain in particular enlarges our heart.”
The Liberation of All
The idea of "sarvamukti" (or liberation of all) was something Swami Vivekananda was asked about. The idea is that "I will not accept liberation until all are liberated." In Buddhism also, this is the essence of the Bodhisattva vows. From a strictly Vedantic orthodox standpoint, one can question this. What do you mean you will not accept liberation till all are liberated? Because there is only this idea of oneness. But Swami Vivekananda's answer was, "Yes. You are right. From a philosophical stand point that is true. But imagine the greatness of heart of those persons who will not accept liberation until they have striven and succeeded in bringing all others to liberation before them. Then they will attain that state." Swami Vedananda quoted the story of the warrior-king Yudhishtira accepting liberation only after all under care, including his dog, had been liberated.
Mortality and the Essence of the Universe
One caller asked what Swamiji thought of Jesus' resurrection story. Swamiji made a distinction between the philosophical and the traditional standpoints. There is difference of opinion on the specifics of the traditional beliefs, whether he died on the cross and was then laid to rest in the Sepulchre, or as some people believe, he did not actually die on the cross, but went on to travel, may be even to India. One has to decide for oneself what is reasonable. But there is no controversy on the fact that the body of Jesus had to pass away. In the Yogic traditions there are stories of yogis like Trailanga Swami in Varanasi who lived to be 320 years of age, and another yogi was supposed to have lived for 800 years. However, after that, their bodies had to pass on.
“The question of physical survival is beside the point. The point is, did the spirituality of Jesus pass away? Did the real essence of Jesus pass away? No. Because, the essence of Jesus is the essence of the universe. And that will not pass away as long as we are conscious of the existence of ourselves, and of the universe. So the essence of spirituality can never pass away. It is the essence of everything. It is the essence of Jesus and it is the essence of ourselves. It's the oneness between us and Jesus. "I and my father are one", he said. That is what that enables us to understand and realize and appreciate and reach for the infinite which is present everywhere.”
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