Explorations in Neo-Vedanta and Perennialism Informal Essays and Book Reviews Examining Basic Themes and Ideas in Neo-Vedanta, Neo-Advaita, Perennialism, and Transpersonal Theory
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 The Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda: Part Two Introduction
Part Two of this essay will look at the Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda in greater detail by way of a direct examination of his writings, specifically those contained in the convenient one volume anthology, Selections from Swami Vivekananda. In the first five sections of Part Two, particular attention to the rhetorical features of Vivekananda's writings. The seven sections that follow (which will be posted at a later date) will look at some of the more original aspects of Vivekananda's Neo-Vedanta, and close with a brief look at Vivekananda's Indian addresses with the hope that they will help put into relief those writings that were intended for Western audiences. Where relevant, Vivekananda's ideas will be related to those of his Neo-Hindu "forerunners," the European philosophy he had been exposed to as a youth, and to the traditional Vedanta and Yoga of classical India.
Several related themes emerge from a critical reading of Vivekananda. Many of these themes reappear in the writings of later scholars of Indian thought, such as T.M.P Mahadevan and Chandradar Sharma, and in the writings of later Neo-Vedantins and perennialists, such as Sarvapella Radhakrishnan, Aurobindo Ghose, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Rama, Adi-Da (Franklin Jones), Georg Feuerstein, and Ken Wilber. Some of the more prominent of these themes involve various dichotomies. These dichotomies are used toward particular rhetorical effects by Vivekananda...
In contrast to Shankara, Vivekananda treats the Vedic scriptures in toto, as well as the revealed word of other traditions, as instances of the "ossification" of religion...As already noted, Vivekananda replaces traditional revelation with personal "experience." Like Debendranath and Keshab, Vivekananda views religious experience as the essential core of religion...The idea of religions "quarrelling with each other" because they are based on different doctrines is similar to an argument used by Shankara, namely, that the different heterodox darshanas, such a Buddhism, Samkhya, etc., are all mutually contradictory (paraspara-viruddha) because they are based upon heterogenous teachings. Shankara's solution to this problem of the "multivalency of truth" is to insist upon the authority of the authorless Veda. Vivekananda's solution is to replace scripture with "experience." The implication appears to be that if people recognized that all religion is based upon experience, quarrelling among the various religions would disappear. Here, Vivekananda hastily infers the uniformity of religious experience from the premise of its universality. He does not stop to consider the possibility that personal experience too is multiform.Like the other world religions, Hinduism too, for Vivekananda, is based upon experience. Drawing on classical authors like Yaska and Vatsyayana, and possibly moderns like Debendranath, Vivekananda argues that the Veda itself finds its basis in the experience of the ancient seers, the rishis...Like Vatsyayana, Vivekananda insists that the Vedas are intuited or "seen" through super-sensory (ati-indriya) perception (pratyaksha)...If experience is the source and basis of all religion, then it is also the supreme authority. Accordingly, for Vivekananda, personal religious experience is the basis of the authority of the guru...
While Vivekananda's relationship towards the Vedas remains ambiguous, it is at least clear that, for Vivekananda, the authority of the Vedas does not have to do with their being anonymous revealed scripture (shruti) per se, but with their being the "record" of the religious experience of certain individuals. In other words, it is not scripture here that grounds and authenticates personal religious experience, but religious experience that grounds and authenticates scripture. What this does, in effect, is wrest control away from the perceived traditional mediators of authority, represented here by the "Pundits," and sets up in their stead a new priest-craft, the "Gurus," whose claim to authority is based not on the Veda but on their own personal experience. The oligarchy of the "Pundits" and their scripture has effectively been replaced by the tyranny of the Guru and his "experience." It is sometimes claimed that Shankara also downplayed the importance of the role of scripture. I would like to briefly examine the basis of this claim. The point in doing so will not be to assert the superiority of Shankara's Vedanta over that of Vivekananda. (Shankara's own position on the authority of scripture vis a vis the authority of his Advaitic interpretation of Vedanta is not without its own share of problems.) The point here is simply to compare how Shankara dealt with the issue of authority and the role of experience... posted by kelamuni at 2:42 PM About Me Name: kelamuni Location: Victoria, Canada View my complete profile Previous Posts The Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda: Part One