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Vedanta and Privilege
"If you teach Vedanta to fisherman, he will say, I am as good a man as you; I am a fisherman, you are a philosopher, but I have the same God in me as you have in you. And that is what we want, no privilege for anyone, equal chances for all", so says Swami Vivekananda.
The above teaching of Swami Vivekananda should make us think deeply about the concept of privilege we usually cherish. Am I superior to others? Is one nation superior to another? Is one race better than the other? Is richness to be glorified and privilege sought by the rich therefrom? Are the poor to be looked down upon? Should a muscle-man beat up the weak in the body? Should literacy and knowledge of books make one superior to the illiterate and ignorant? Is it so? Should it be so?
Such and many similar questions crop up in the mind, and honest self-analysis makes it clear that everyone - almost everyone, tends to seek certain privileges based on superior qualities. This seeking privileges naturally leads to the concept of high and low, rich and poor, good and bad, strong and week; all kinds of differences between man and man.
Why do we take privilege as our right?
The reason is our ignorance about our true nature. We presume that we are this body-mind complex and apply the same logic to all others. For us it now becomes the truth that all individuals are separate entities different from one another. On the basis of certain physical, intellectual, or spiritual superiority a person tries to claim privileges over less qualified fellow beings. That is why we can't find sameness even if we talk about it.
Ethics and morality based on privileges cannot eradicate national, racial, social, and individual differences. Science and reason also cannot open our eyes to see the sameness all around. It can't make me believe that I and the other are one.
Only Advaita Vedanta teaches us to look upon every man, woman, and every one as God.
'You cannot help anyone, you can only serve: serve the children of the Lord, serve the lord Himself. ...Do it as a worship. I should see God in the poor, and it is for my salvation that I go and worship them. The poor and the miserable are for our salvation, so that we may serve the Lord, coming in the shape of the lunatic, the weak, the poor, and the sinner!'
Such strong words echoed in the lectures and talks of Swami Vivekananda both in the East and the West. His clarion call reverberated with message of Divinity of every soul. He was not satisfied with the teaching of 'partial manifestation of God in each soul'; for him everyone was 'whole' God!
Like seers of ancient India, like his teacher Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda had also realized this Truth of Divinity of all beings and unity of existence. It was not a philosophical argument but the truth of his experience. The unity finds its basis in the Divinity of all. We cannot be equal in our looks, intelligence, or color of the skin, and etc. How can a Mr. John be equal to Mrs. Smith? It is absurd to equate the beings on the basis of nama - rupa-name and form. The basis of unity is at the level of Atman, the inner Self of all.
This has to be experienced and actualized in one's life by regular spiritual disciplines. In every religion, in every era, and in every country such wise men and women are born who come face to face with the Truth. Their teaching, based on their experiences, endures for ages and enriches science of spirituality. Otherwise by now, the human race would not have shown any signs of coming out of "beastly ethics" of jungle Raj.
Religion is an attempt to give up privileges which we, out of ignorance and infatuation, cling to. The spiritual practice to free oneself from the deathly stranglehold of privileges takes the form of 'renunciation and service', which Swami Vivekananda says is the twin ideal of this age to make the humanity free. The values of humility, love, and selflessness are born out of such spiritual disciplines.
Swami Vivekananda's views on ethics and privilege:
"The rational West is earnestly bent upon seeking the rationality, the raison d etre of all its philosophy and its ethics, and you all know well that ethics cannot be derived from the mere sanctions of any personage, however great and divine he may have been. Such an explanation of the authority of ethics appeals no more to the highest of the world's thinkers, they want something more than human sanction for ethical and moral codes to be binding, they want some eternal principle of truth as the sanction of ethics. The infinite oneness of the Soul is the eternal sanction of all morality, that you and I are not only brothers-every literature voicing man's struggle towards freedom has preached that for you -but that you and I are really one. This is the dictate of Indian philosophy. This oneness is the rationale of all ethics and spirituality."
"In the second place, Advaita and Advaita alone explains morality. Every religion preaches that the essence of all morality is to do good to others. What is the reason that I should be moral? Know through Advaita that whomsoever you hurt, you hurt yourself, they are all you. Herein is morality. Here, in Advaita alone, is morality explained. The others teach you, but cannot give you its reason."
With these convictions based on his knowledge of Vedanta, Swamiji was very much grieved to see people seeking privileges on the grounds of wealth, muscle-power, or intellect. He said:
"There is the still subtler and more powerful privilege of intellect; because one man knows more than others, he claims more privilege."
And he further added:
"Apply the same idea to the modern world: excess of knowledge and power, without holiness, makes human beings devils. Tremendous power is being acquired by the manufacture of machines and other appliances, and privilege is claimed today as it never has been claimed in the history of world. That is why the Vedanta wants to preach against it, to break down this tyrannizing over the souls of men."
No doubt, revival of ethics is fraught with many difficulties, but despite many constraints we should continue our spiritual practice-sadhana-- to break the stranglehold of these privileges. One cannot do away with the difference between person and person; but, as Swami Vivekananda has said:
"What can be attained is elimination of privilege. That really is the work before the whole world."
C S Shah
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