Christians may find a somewhat natural, spontaneous entrance into the thought world of Vedanta, and perhaps especially Vivekananda’s Vedanta, since he taught it as a kind of export from India to the rest of the world which supplies humanizing sources of wisdom that teach people about their inherent ‘divinity’, and in ways that appeal to universal human understanding. Review of his various lectures given in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere makes it clear that much of his communication was to first-timers, people who knew little or nothing about Hinduism or the Vedas but perhaps a lot about what suffering and ignorance feel like. His charismatic and straightforward language can help Christians to recognize his diagnosis of the human condition as resonant or familiar. In the fourth and last lecture he gave on the topic of ‘Practical Vedanta’ in November 1896, Vivekananda offered what he called ‘the highest prayer that the Advaita teaches’. It reads as a summons:
Rise thou effulgent one, rise thou who art always pure, rise though birthless and deathless, rise almighty, and manifest thy true nature. These little manifestations do not befit thee (Vivekananda 1976d, 357).
So stark, so pristine that last statement: these little manifestations do not befit thee, disclosing what should be recognized upon examination, namely, that much conditioned thinking and acting diminishes persons’ presence in the world because it dissociates them from the true self which is non-different from the ground of all being, or Brahman.
A few sentences later he continued:
So if we are advaitists, we must think from this moment that our old self is dead and gone. The old Mr., Mrs., and Ms. so-and-so are gone, they were superstitions, and what remains is the ever-pure, the ever-strong, the almighty, the all-knowing – that alone remains for us, and then all fear vanishes from us. Who can injure us, the omnipresent? All weakness has vanished from us, and our only work is to arouse this knowledge in our fellow beings. We see that they too are the same pure self, only they do not know it; we must teach them, we must help them to rouse up their infinite nature (Vivekananda 1976d, 358).
Christians reading these words from his fourth lecture on Practical Vedanta may feel at home. The old self: gone. Upon conversion from the tattered and defeated old self to the real, pure, and all-knowing self: fearlessness. From recognition of the self as one’s true ground erupts a confidence in a whole new horizon of truth and meaning that have just opened up to perception. Clearly Vivekananda is calling for a kind of conversion experience, akin to what Christians would call metanoia, a turning away from brittle narrowness and constriction and a turning toward magnanimity and charity that is all-inclusive and synced with the depth of reality (Barron 1998). Or we might enlist the language of “vocation,” which in my tradition functions as a call or imperative more fully to become the person (the imperative) one already is on account of divine action (the indicative). The revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ discloses persons to be God’s good creatures who are fallen or broken creatures, but whose brokenness is not the last word or the most definitive word about them. For, as creatures of God, persons are defined through the creative and redemptive action of God which makes and remakes them in ways that are more profound and constitutional than the brokenness they inherit and in turn replicate in their own lives with others. Christians familiar with this trope can therefore hear resonance in Vivekananda’s call to transition away from the old self which is experienced as weakness even in its illusory reality toward the new – or real – self, described as an “infinite” and “all-knowing” nature, which constitutes already the depth of one’s identity even as the knowledge of this identity remains to be “aroused” in oneself and in others.
Could this be relatable to what Paul meant in various letters recounting his experience of receiving and accepting through faith the new life given him from God, in Christ? For example, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul recounts a salvific vision similar in its structural claims and call for transformation to what is found in Vivekananda’s lectures on Practical Vedanta. Resonance is not identity of course; while Paul and Vivekananda operate with distinctive theological horizons of meaning, one may yet determine whether some resonance and dialogue between the two is possible. In Ephesians 2 Paul writes,
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:1–10).
To oscillate back and forth between this selection from Paul and that selection from Vivekananda helps one learn into a perennial human experience or condition – call it ignorance or misapprehension (avidya), sinfulness, or by another category that instructs us not especially of guilt but the clear ways in which our lives proceed against their natural grain, against their most true identity, distorted not in some fixed or static manner yet in one that while pervasive is susceptible to change, conversion, growth in identity. To use the language of the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth, we live in self-contradiction, but in Christ are shown what ‘real humanity’ looks like, how it is responsive to God and responsible to others. Realization, in other words, is crucial to the spiritual projects of both Paul and Vivekananda (Sharma 2003, 91).
The convergence of voices notwithstanding, clear differences between Paul and Vivekananda emerge in the second half of each man’s statement, namely, that for Vivekananda the path out of the muck and misunderstanding is through self-realization of one’s own inherent divinity; in short the position of Vedanta, that the self or atman is one with the universal self or Brahman, such that the deeper “reality in every man [sic] should be the object of worship” (Vivekananda 1976d, 358). Whereas for Paul, human subjects are acted upon by God in Christ, and only then are able to become active in the faith that trusts in God and works in love for all. Faith here signals ‘trust’; trust that in Jesus Christ God has confirmed and raised the human person to dignity, to reconciliation with God and with fellow persons, and that as a consequence of such divine action and human response, one is now free to live rightly in covenant relationship. The soteriologies – if we can use the term “vaguely” – of the two men signal clear distinctions in their understandings of the human person as well as consonance in their shared sense of the difference right understanding makes, the difference made in an identity-confirming positive response to vocation (Neville and Wildman 2001, 198; Sheveland 2011, 1–3). This difference is spelled out powerfully in a life of authenticity with and in the company of others, in what Paul refers to as ‘new life’ and ‘good works’ and Vivekananda as ‘seeing every man as God’ (Vivekananda 1976b, 326).
Many know that Swami Vivekananda was uncomfortable with the language of ‘sin’. No doubt some of the Christian missionaries in India about whom he was rightly concerned are to blame in part. Analogously, many Christians today are themselves uncomfortable with sin-talk. For many it connotes an unavoidable condition of guilt implicating the physical and indeed sexual self. Even worse, for some, sin-talk connotes a twisted creator who in the words of Christopher Hitchens “creates people sick and commands them to be well”c.
While none of these reactions to the doctrine of sin are doctrinally adequate or pastorally sensitive, these misunderstandings have become regnant in the minds of many Christians due to a complex of factors and conditions, among which can be included inadequate pastoral leadership and religious education. Still, what Vivekananda rejects in the language of sin, Christians can likewise reject. In his first lecture on Practical Vedanta Vivekananda remarks on sin in a way that suggests not merely intellectual or philosophical dispute with the doctrine, but a dispute grounded as well in the historical and cultural context through which he learned it.
The Vedanta recognizes no sin, it only recognizes error. And the greatest error, says the Vedanta, is to say that you are weak, that you are a sinner, a miserable creature, and that you have no power and you cannot do this and that. Every time you think in that way, you, as it were, rivet one more link in the chain that binds you down, you add one more layer of hypnotism on to your own soul. . . . The veil drops away, and the native purity of the soul begin to manifest itself. Everything is ours already – infinite purity, freedom, love and power (Vivekananda 1976a, 295).
A highly suggestive remark on the category of sin at the close of the nineteenth century, these words seem to bear a thick colonial and evangelical missionary experience inflecting them with additional meaning beyond the theological. While one can debate the degree to which Vivekananda’s construal of the doctrine was conditioned by missionaries through whom he and many Indians came into contact with the teaching, neither his speeches nor Lectures on Practical Vedanta offer any clear evidence that he was aware of the connective tissue between sin and grace. In the emphasis he gives to sin as constitutive of persons, of sin as a belief which erects prohibitions and incorrectly binds one down finally against one’s true nature as a creature of God, Swami Vivekananda does not appear aware of the narrative of grace by which sin-talk can be meaningfully Christian. In this disagreement, Swami Vivekananda and the Catholic tradition actually find themselves in substantive agreement despite appearances. For both can agree that the human person is most adequately appreciated and addressed in terms of her nondual “native purity” (Vivekananda) or redetermination by God in Christ (Paul) rather than the distortions and suffering to which she frequently succumbs.
Certainly Vivekananda’s nondualism looms large in this statement. But also looming large in Vivekananda’s lived-experience are some poor ambassadors of the gospel who tried to evangelize the sub-continent in a climate of not just colonial oppression but also – and Vivekananda picked up on this – a climate wherein Indians themselves had internalized a colonial, Western, Christian critique of them as weak and emasculated, as idolaters, and as sinners acutely in need of redemption from some external source. According to the Christian message as he understood it, as he received it, sin simply designates what human beings most basically are in a static, fixed manner. As we now know very well, one of the most pernicious traits of colonial oppression is that the oppressed internalize, adopt, or begin to see themselves through the eyes of their oppressors. The sort of optic lens that appears to have been thrust upon Vivekananda is one through which Christians themselves see poorly and should, with Vivekananda, eschew (Sharma 2003, 84). If Christians give the impression that sinfulness simply spells human negativity and weakness in absolute or fixed terms, they’ve not told their story well (Vivekananda 1976a, 300). His polemic makes sense as a pastoral intention to empower colonized Indians who may have internalized oppressive religious judgments, more sense than an abstract or doctrinal disagreement with Christianity.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and systematic theological issue, in the context of this Catholic interreligious engagement with Vivekananda, four ground rules for sin talk can be outlined which stress the pastoral function of the teaching and may, therefore, help to recover the salutary nature of the doctrine. First, it disabuses one from the habit of mis-taking subjective experience as somehow exhaustive of objective reality or fact; in other words we chronically suffer from hubris. Despite his discomfort with the term, Vivekananda happens to reference this dynamic of sin throughout his writings in the terms of the rope and snake analogy he learned from the Upanishads; partiality and misapprehension have one confusing a rope for a snake, with the all the consequent fear and anxiety. The perception of self and other needs attention, for our current modus operandi offends not only the Creator but perhaps most significantly the creature’s own given nature or being as a creature of God. Second, and as a consequence of such hubris or failed perception, we tend to fall out of right relationship with others in direct proportion with ego-conditioning, for the ego conditions the terms of our relating with others in the world. Sin is not well understood merely as a vertical offense against God, nor reductively as transgressive acts; the nature of it as offense is made incarnate and visible through the distorted horizontal relationships with others that ensue as its consequence. Perhaps more pivotal than failures of personal piety or rectitude, the category of sin underscores dissociative and dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics scarring concrete human lives in encounter in a way that both precedes and perpetuates all encounters as their conditioning factor.
Third, the reality and depth of sinfulness or self-contradiction is disclosed precisely in the experience of being healed in Christ, in the experience of being personally and gratuitously the subject of divine grace experienced as mercy, healing, and reconciliation. This means the word ‘sin’ functions like an ungrammatical utterance when ripped from the grammar of grace which provides rules for its coherence as a Christian category. Without the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ, one lacks even the insight to name what sin is, much less diminish its effects of personal and interpersonal brokenness. Fourth, sin-talk actually helps to clarify victimization and redress its destructiveness more accurately and sensitively. The sort of victimization entailed in, for example, sexual abuse of children has been explored as one such example (O’Laughlin 2013). Recent research argues persuasively that sin-talk meaningfully captures the dynamics of pathology that begin in the abused themselves; never mind the abuser for the moment. Consider the experience of young children abused in developmentally sensitive periods of their childhood: the violation of body and self by persons perceived as trustworthy and in positions of authority gives rise subsequently to victims’ total relational disorientation that ruins their cognitive and emotional capacities to enter into rightly ordered relationships in the future. If this weren’t enough personal loss, consider the statistics demonstrating that the majority of abusers were, themselves, previously victims of abuse. Distorted and distorting, this pattern of human relating represents the pathology of sin (McFadyen 2000, 57–79, 228–229).
Because there is such connective tissue between ‘sin’ and ‘grace’ in the Christian imaginary, we might notice one theme in Vivekananda’s writings that seems to function as the corollary. For him as well, the purpose of sin-talk in Vedanta is to cast greater light upon the oneness of all life. Scattered throughout his Lectures on Practical Vedanta, the oneness of all life surfaces as a repetitive trope. But let me back into Vivekananda’s treatment by addressing it first in my own tradition.
The principle of solidarity is an important category in modern Catholic Social Teaching; most often we hear ethicists make use of the category, and while there is a small canon of papal and Vatican texts that call for greater attention to solidarity in our globalized world, in my view solidarity as a theological category suffers from underdevelopment, not terribly well differentiated from neighbor love even as it signals dispositions and a level of conversion upon which acts of neighbor love would be reliant. Use of the principle must confront some conceptual vagueness. Use of the principle might also confront the failure of Christians to apply the discipline of solidarity consistently in their daily lives, political commitments, international politics, ecological care, border crossings or any other arena in which the principle of solidarity, when rightly understood, succeeds in illuminating moral blind spots. We do not have a theologically developed and nuanced statement that defines theologically what solidarity is, nor have we statements that explore how we might develop and deepen our appreciation for it through interreligious consultations through which Christians can gain exposure to the wisdom of other religious paths by taking seriously the permission given in Nostra Aetate 2 to embrace and internalize the elements of truth and goodness in other religions. There is a world of difference between tacitly acknowledging the possibility of truth and goodness in other religions versus internalizing one’s exposure to concrete experiences of truth and goodness in other religions so as to recast and deepen the attitudes and actions of solidarity. Solidarity is at once a tremendous yet underdeveloped resource for Christians, complicated by the fact that it targets blind spots, our preferences and biases to which we become attached, including biases of religious preference.
Because the principle of solidarity addresses persons and communities in their blind spots or unconscious and distorting ideological views, with injunctions that might be understood tacitly and abstractly but not quite grasped or acted upon in the radical ways demanded by the Gospel, solidarity functions like a prophetic category redirecting persons to right relationship, and in so doing it exposes the chronic failure to cope with the radical care enjoined in the Gospel. In this way, solidarity is like conversion, in that both need care, nurture, and growth, and one should expect setbacks while inclining oneself to critical voices and perspectives. Solidarity does not denote moral rectitude or purity, but grounds the brokenness of the human condition in a framework of unity, healing, and acceptance.
Christians grappling with the meaning and compass of solidarity may benefit from Vivekananda’s vision available in his first lecture on Practical Vedanta:
The old religions said he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself. But it is not selfish faith, because the Vedanta, again, is the doctrine of oneness. It means faith in all, because you are all. Love for yourselves means love for all, love for animals, love for everything, for you are all one. It is the great faith which will make the world better. I am sure of that. He is the highest man who can say with truth, ‘I know all about myself’. Do you know how much energy, how many powers, how many forces are still lurking behind that frame of yours? What scientist has known all that is in man? Millions of years have passed since man first came here, and yet but one infinitesimal part of his powers has been manifested. Therefore you must not say that you are weak. How do you know what possibilities lie behind that degradation on the surface? You know but little of that which is within you. For behind you is the ocean of infinite power and blessedness (Vivekananda 1976a, 301–302).
Poetic and edifying, this passage reveals so much of his thought: the inadequacy of categories like theism and atheism to depict Vedanta; the search for self not as a selfish enterprise but one that explodes into a felt sense of unity with all creatures beyond conventional boundaries viewed as real by social consensus; and a gentle pastoral encouragement to go beneath the surface of our degradation or self-contradiction to discover, trust, and live into a whole new world of authenticity and recognition, where all are one.
He seems to want to expand into social consciousness the principle of unity with which Vedanta Hinduism is familiar. A few pages later he writes,
To be able to use what we call Viveka (discrimination) to learn how in every moment of our lives, in every one of our actions, to discriminate between what is right and wrong, true and false, we shall have to know the test of truth, which is purity, oneness. Everything that makes for oneness is truth. Love is truth, and hatred is false, because hatred makes for multiplicity. It is hatred that separates man from man; therefore it is wrong and false. It is a disintegrating power; it separates and destroys (Vivekananda 1976a, 304).
One begins to get a handle on the radical challenge of his interpretation of Vedanta in this statement upon considering his historical moment with its multiple fractures in the human community and in Indian society, certainly among them being the Hindu-Muslim tensions stemming from the hundreds of years of Mughal Islamic rule in India only to give way to the British East India Company and then eventually to the Raj, which coincided with the life of Vivekananda and with the more prejudicial, racist, and exclusivist Christian presence in India (Sharma 2003). This is a man intimately acquainted with human division and destruction in his own life span and in his people’s historical memory under systemic oppression. The ‘purity’ of ‘oneness’ to which he referred in the statement above must have been an urgent pastoral need in his time and place, not merely a philosophical insight. Perhaps it is in the light of the Islamic and British colonial phases that Vivekananda can write:
So, it is not right to say that the Impersonal idea will lead to a tremendous amount of evil in the world, as if the other doctrine never lent itself to works of evil, as if it did not lead to sectarianism deluging the world with blood and causing men to tear each other to pieces. ‘My God is the greatest God, let us decide it by a free fight’. That is the outcome of dualism all over the world. Come out into the broad open light of day, come out from the little narrow paths, for how can the infinite soul rest content to live and die in small ruts. Come out into the universe of Light. Everything in the universe is yours, stretch out your arms and embrace it with love. If you ever felt you wanted to do that, you have felt God” (Vivekananda 1976b, 322–33).
Perhaps words like these are best interpreted in silence. But if we are to speak, then those words relate well to an incredibly brief yet revealing statement made by a noted Indologist, Christopher Key Chapple, in his book Yoga and the Luminous. At one point in the book Chapple records his early reflections on yoga discipline as a young man, particularly his growth in understanding the virtue of satya, which in yoga practice is the cultivation of truthfulness or honesty in a plain sense as well as in the more nuanced, reflective and felt sense of moral accountability toward others discovered through right encounter with them. He welcomes the reader into his own discovery when he realizes quite plainly yet powerfully that ‘truth necessitates care’ (Chapple 2008, 42). As though in the form of a rahasya (secret mystery), these three words approach what Vivekananda expresses in his rejection of dualism in favor of unity, of multiplicity in favor of simplicity, of hatred in favor of love, of disintegration in favor of integration, of a heart that is brittle and unreconciled over one that is magnanimous and capable of seeing one in all and all in one. To see truthfully and act in truth is to be redirected – through practice – to encounter and care for others out of a felt sense of connectedness between oneself and others (Chapple 2008, 33–38).
Should one persist in misapprehending Vedantic Hinduism as still somehow self-centered, as a religion driven by self-discovery in some small, reductive sense, Vivekananda says:
The watchword of all well-being, of all moral good, is not ‘I’ but ‘thou’. Who cares whether there is a heaven or hell, who cares if there is a soul or not, who cares if there is an unchangeable or not? Here is the world, and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt. Forget yourselves; this is the first lesson to be learnt, whether you are a theist or an atheist, whether you are an agnostic or a Vedantist, a Christian or Mohammedan [sic]. The one lesson obvious to all is the destruction of the little self and the building up of the real self (Vivekananda 1976d, 353).
Here Vedanta can help to develop Christian understandings of solidarity, especially where the meaning and impact of solidarity takes on a cruciform hue. Consider the definition by James Keenan, S.J.:
Solidarity is not first and foremost a principle for action; solidarity is affective and spiritual union with others whose life situations are being challenged and compromised. From that union we are called to act in justice. Solidarity is then first a fundamental, existential, deeply felt sense of union; but secondly it is a call to engage in certain moral practices to better the life situation of the other (Keenan 2009, 50).
Another attempt to develop the teaching theologically draws support from the writings of St. Paul while utilizing some Buddhist features that are not different from what Vivekananda offers up for consideration.
Solidarity is an active empathic response to neighbors near and far which senses them as dear and spontaneously gives rise to active resistance of structures of oppression. Far more than a passive sentiment of sympathy for the other, solidarity is active, transformative, and valorized by specifically theological commitments. That is, it is a spiritual virtue predicated on the radical, objective unity of persons with each other as constituent members of the reconciled body of Christ whose vocation it is to re-member that body, such that all members of that body are treated as ‘somebodies’ rather than ‘nobodies’, indeed, as ‘somebodies’ to whom I am spontaneously responsible (Sheveland 2010, 595).
Where Vivekananda can help to deepen – even radicalize – the meaning of solidarity for Christians is in the dawning realization of interpersonal union. In such union the conventional borders we habitually support and defend are shown to be something like the ‘little narrow paths’ and ‘small ruts’ to which he referred. He rests the performance of solidarity on the shoulders of a deep spiritual interiority. To be sure, the theological terms from which Vedanta and Christian sources derive the truth of unity are distinct. But the outcome and perhaps the method appear to be highly analogous, namely, that solidarity is first a spiritual realization before it can become spontaneous redemptive action that reconciles living beings to each other. In other words, ‘truth necessitates care’. Certainly by now one can appreciate why Vivekananda is still held in such high esteem by people today, whether Hindu or not, for it is simply edifying to peer into the reconciled and pristine mind of a person whose interior experience and realization not only resonate deep truth, but can be interfaced as a dialogue partner with Christian experience and hope.