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The Legacy of Vivekananda

Engagement with Christianity

Print edition : Feb 08, 2013 T+T-
Chennai, 09-01-2013: Swami Vivekananda's bedroom. (Picture recopied from the archives of Vivekananda Illam)

Chennai, 09-01-2013: Swami Vivekananda's bedroom. (Picture recopied from the archives of Vivekananda Illam)

“Better Be Ready To Live In Rags With Christ Than To Live In Palaces Without Him.”

—Swami Vivekananda in Detroit, 1894.

SWAMI VIVEKANANDA IS ARGUABLY THE MOST INFLUENTIAL interpreter of the Hindu tradition in recent times to both India and the West. His eloquent speeches at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 aroused the pride of Hindus in India and deeply influenced the understanding of Hinduism in both the East and the West. Vivekananda was also one of the earliest Hindus to comment in detail on Christian doctrine and practice and to evaluate these in the light of his own tradition. He not only influenced the Hindu understanding of Hindu traditions but also offered an interpretation of Christianity that informed Hindu responses to Christianity. Vivekananda’s views, therefore, while being historically significant, are also important for their impact on the continuing relationship between both traditions.

Vivekananda’s earliest known views about Christ and Christianity were expressed in a preface that he wrote to his Bengali translation of The Imitation of Christ ( Complete Works , 8:159-161), a work attributed to the medieval Catholic monk Thomas Kempis 1 . He translated six chapters of this work, added appropriate quotations from Hindu texts, and contributed these to a Bengali monthly journal. The Imitation of Christ engaged Vivekananda, and it was the only text, other than the Bhagavad Gita , that he kept with him during his years of travelling around India after the death of his revered teacher, Sri Ramakrishna.

Vivekananda translated and published The Imitation of Christ in order to present to Hindus what he understood to be the true spirit of Christianity. This spirit, Vivekananda felt, was absent from the lives of most Christians whom Hindus encountered in day-to-day situations. In the context of the unequal power relationship between these two traditions in colonial India, and missionary attacks on Hinduism, Vivekananda’s attempt to speak for Christianity to Hindus is an eloquent testimony of his readiness to receive and share religious wisdom from traditions other than his own. It was a remarkable effort by a leading Hindu interpreter to save Christianity from Christians.

Look where we may, a true Christian nowhere do we see. The ugly impression left on our mind by the ultra-luxurious, insolent, despotic, barouche-and-brougham-driving Christians of the Protestant sects will be completely removed if we but once read this great book with the attention it deserves (CW8: 160).

In seeking to win legitimacy for the text among Hindus, Vivekananda was aware of the need to overcome the antagonism towards Christianity generated by missionary denunciations of Hinduism and aggressive proselytisation. The catholicity of his viewpoint is reflected in the manner in which he employs the views of one of the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy to make his argument.

To those of my countrymen, who under the influence of blind bigotry may seek to belittle this book because it is the work of a Christian, I shall quote only one aphorism of Vaisheshika Darshana and say nothing more. The aphorism is this: âptopadeœhavakyam œabdah: which means that the teachings of Siddha Purushas (perfected souls) have a probative force and this is technically known as Shabda Pramana (verbal evidence). Rishi Jaimini, the commentator, says that such Apta Purushas (authorities) may be born among the Aryans and the Mlechchhas (CW8: 160-161).

The preface that Vivekananda wrote to his translation of The Imitation of Christ is important because, besides being his earliest written work (1889), it reflects faithfully the features of Christianity that he found attractive. He could understand and identify with the author of this work whose ideals and way of life closely resembled the aspirations and values of a traditional Hindu renunciant ( sannyâsin ). Vivekananda admired the author’s radical renunciation, his thirst for purity and his unceasing spiritual effort ( sâdhana ). Vivekananda likened The Imitation of Christ to the Bhagavad Gîtâ in its spirit of complete self-surrender and saw the author as embodying the Hindu ideal of devotion to God as a servant to a master ( dâsya bhakti ).

In his preface, one finds, for the first time, Vivekananda’s often-repeated complaint about the divergence between Christian ideal and practice. He also chastised Hindus for the chasm between ideal and reality. This was an observation that he made on various occasions during his visits to the United States. In a lecture that he delivered at the Unitarian Church of Detroit on February 20, 1894, he lamented the absence of deep religious commitment and the prevalence of complacency.

Religion nowadays has become a mere hobby and fashion. People go to church like a flock of sheep. They do not embrace God because they need Him. Most people are unconscious atheists who self-complacently think that they are devout believers (CW8: 203).

Vivekananda often challenged Christians for having a shop-keeping attitude to religion and denounced what he described as a beggarly attitude to God. The Christian emphasis, Vivekananda argued, should be on generosity and on the fulfilment of the ideal of love for love’s sake. Such an ideal he found to be best expressed in the songs of Solomon (CW7: 415; CW8: 202-203). In a lecture reported in Detroit Free Press on February 18, 1894, Vivekananda offered an interesting and unusual comment on the golden rule.

How exclusively vulgar, stated Vivekananda, was the golden rule! Always self! always self! was the Christian creed. To do unto others as you would be done by! It was a horrible, barbarous, savage creed, but he did not desire to decry the Christian creed, for those who are satisfied with it to them it is well adapted (CW3: 500).

One wonders what comments Swami Vivekananda would offer today on the spread of consumerism, associated with the phenomenon of globalisation, and what words of caution he would speak to Hindus in India and abroad.

It was on the subject of renunciation that Vivekananda’s disappointment with the dichotomy between ideal and practice in Christianity became most evident. He felt strongly that Christians had strayed far from the ideals of Jesus. In the city of Detroit on February 21, 1894, Vivekananda was fiery and eloquent and held before his audience the model of Jesus as renunciant ( sanyâsin ).

You are not Christians. No, as a nation you are not. Go back to Christ. Go back to him who had nowhere to lay his head. “The birds have their nests and the beasts their lairs, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Yours is religion preached in the name of luxury. What an irony of fate! Reverse this if you want to live, reverse this. It is all hypocrisy that I have heard in this country.... All this prosperity, all this from Christ! Christ would have denied all such heresies .... If you can join these two, this wonderful prosperity with the ideal of Christ, it is well. But if you cannot, better go back to him and give this up. Better be ready to live in rags with Christ than to live in palaces without him (CW 8: 213).

No person coming from outside of the Christian tradition had ever addressed Christians in such a passionate appeal for fidelity to Jesus’ ideal of freedom from greed. His words assume new significance with the rise of what is named as the “prosperity Gospel”, or the belief that affluence is a sign of God’s favour.

Vivekananda commented, more than any earlier Hindu exegetes, on specific Christian doctrines. In his apologetic method, his normative standpoint was non-dual Advaita. He questioned Christian eschatological doctrines, especially those that represented heaven or hell as eternal. Any effect is commensurate with its cause, and if the cause is finite, the effect, of necessity, will be finite. Any number of good works, therefore, cannot produce an infinite or permanent result. By the same reasoning, hell cannot be a place of eternal suffering. Vivekananda is, of course, drawing on the Advaita understanding of heavenly or hellish worlds as temporary post-mortem destinations before rebirth. He was foreshadowing a discussion that continues in some Christian theological circles today.

Vivekananda also questioned the Christian doctrine of original sin and compared this with the Advaita understanding of the inherent purity of the âtmâ. He felt, on the whole, that the Christian tradition, as he encountered it, emphasised, too much, human depravity and sinfulness.

Be not deluded by your religion teaching original sin, for the same religion teaches original purity. When Adam fell, he fell from purity. Purity is our real nature and to regain that is the object of all religion (CW 7: 418).

He expressed abhorrence at the idea of salvation gained through the shedding of blood, anticipating concerns among some Christians about the meaning of atonement. The Hindu, according to Vivekananda, understood sacrifice to mean the receiving of that which is offered to God. Vivekananda also marshalled Advaita arguments to evaluate the Christian understanding of the soul’s eternal nature. In the Advaita tradition, the doctrine of the eternal nature of the âtmâ implies that it is also without beginning. Claiming immortality for anything created is irrational.

Sometimes people get frightened at the idea, and superstition is so strong that thinking men even believe that they are the outcome of nothing, and then, with the grandest logic, try to deduce the theory that although they have come out of zero, they will be eternal afterwards.… Neither you nor I nor anyone present, has come out of zero, nor will go back to zero (CW 2: 217).

Vivekananda had much less to say about Christ than Christianity. Unlike Swami Dayananda Saraswati of the Arya Samaj, and the Brahmo Samaj leaders, who rejected the Hindu doctrine of divine descent ( avatâra ) into the human world, Vivekananda interpreted the meaning of Jesus through the Hindu affirmation of multiple divine manifestations. Vivekananda, however, like Hindu interpreters following him, disagreed with Christian claims for the uniqueness of Jesus. “He was a manifestation of God; so was the Buddha; so were some others, and there will be hundreds of others. Do not limit God anywhere” (CW 4: 29). It contradicted God’s love and infinity to claim that divine revelation has occurred only once, and Vivekananda appealed to Christians to acknowledge the many incarnations of God, both in the past and yet to come.

Let us, therefore, find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth but in all the great ones that have preceded him, in all that came after him, and that are yet to come. Our worship is unbounded and free (CW 4: 152).

Interestingly, Vivekananda thought that Jesus would not want to be proclaimed as the only Son of God and he blamed the disciples of Jesus for putting greater emphasis on the person of Jesus at the expense of his teachings. The consequence of this, according to Vivekananda, is the reluctance of major Christian denominations to acknowledge any other expression of the divine besides Jesus. In this view of the meaning of Jesus, Vivekananda anticipated an interpretation that would be advanced in more detail by some Christian theologians in the late 20th century. Some offer the argument that Jesus himself had a theocentric focus.

Swami Vivekananda’s engagement with Christianity was guided by his larger view of human religious history and evolution. Movement in religion, according to Vivekananda, is not a growth from falsehood to truth, but from a lower to a higher truth. The world of religions is, as he puts it, “only a travelling, a coming up of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances to the same goal”. For Vivekananda, the climax of this journey is the awakening to the non-dual reality underlying the universe and constituting the self ( âtmâ ) of all. This awakening is available in all the religions of the world. Paths may be different, but the goal of non-duality is one and the same. Vivekananda positions religions at various evolutionary locations on the journey to non-dualism:

All religions are so many stages. Each of them represents the stage through which the human soul passes to realise God. Therefore, not one of them should be neglected. None of these stages are dangerous or bad. They are good. Just as a child becomes a young man, and a young man becomes an old man, so these are travelling from truth to truth; they become dangerous only when they become rigid, and will not move further— when he ceases to grow (CW 2: 500).

Vivekananda traces three stages in the development of all religions. In the first stage, God is understood as an extra-cosmic being, both omnipotent and omniscient. There is little human intimacy with God at this stage, and the emphasis is on divine transcendence. The second stage emphasises panentheism. God is understood to be present not only in the heavens but also in our world and, most importantly, in the human being. In the final stage of religious evolution, the human being discovers unity and identity with the all-pervasive, non-dual truth of the universe. “The gulf between God and man is thus bridged. Thus we find, by knowing God, the kingdom of heaven within us.” All religions, according to Vivekananda, reflect these three phases, since the evolution to a higher stage does not imply the discarding of any earlier phase.

Vivekananda applied this evolutionary theology to his understanding of Christianity and to his dialogue with Christians. He saw no difference between what he understood to be the religion of Jesus and the teaching of Advaita. Employing the same principle that he used to reconcile the dualistic and non-dualistic traditions in Hinduism, Vivekananda claimed that Jesus taught at different levels to disciples of varying religious aptitudes.

To the masses who could not conceive of anything higher than a Personal God, he said, “”Pray to your father in heaven.” To others who could grasp a higher idea, he said, “‘I am the vine, ye are the branches,” but to his disciples to whom he revealed himself more fully, he proclaimed the highest truth, “I and my Father are One” (CW 2: 143).

Unlike the Arya Samaj founder, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who rejected both Christ and Christianity and did not think that Hindus could learn anything from the Christian tradition, Vivekananda commended the teachings of Jesus while turning away from the institution of the Church. He valued Jesus as an exemplar of renunciation and non-dual truth. At the same time, he was vigorous in defending the Hindu tradition against missionary attacks. He was self-critical, defensive and appreciative.

Vivekananda’s positive attitude to Jesus, though based on his own distinctive Christology, found no similar echo on the Christian side. Missionaries did not exemplify a similar discernment and found little to appreciate about the Hindu tradition. Interreligious dialogue, therefore, was reduced to attacks and counterattacks. Valuable opportunities for deeper dialogue were lost. Missionary onslaught in a colonial political context did not allow the self-critical space and vulnerability that made dialogue on such issues, as the relationship between religion, justice and socio-economic issues, possible and fruitful. It is important to note also that, in his engagement with Christianity, Swami Vivekananda did not uncritically affirm the validity of all religious teachings. Advaita was normative for him and, from this location, he contested Christian eschatological doctrines, their emphasis on human sinfulness, and the contradiction of arguing for the eternity of a created soul. He exercised a discernment based on what he considered to be the validity of Advaita and its rational claims. Gandhi would follow Vivekananda in this regard and contest Christian claims for the uniqueness of Jesus and the doctrine of atonement.

Today, there is much uncertainty about Hindu-Christian engagement, dominated as it is by anxieties and contests over Christian proselytizsation. Hindus, with some justification, think that conversion remains the principal concern of Christians. There are anti-intellectual trends in both traditions that lead to disinterest in the sharing of wisdom and mutual learning, reflected in the approach of Swami Vivekananda. There is, however, a rich history of rational reflection in both traditions, exemplified in the works of saintly scholars such as Sankara and Aquinas, Ramanuja and Augustine. Contemporary engagement must include a focus on this rich theological heritage. Engagement must be concerned also with justice and with the role of religion in overcoming oppression. Swami Vivekananda had a deep interest in theological inquiry, across religious traditions and in the social role of religion. He believed that traditions could learn from each other and labour together to overcome human suffering. We honour his anniversary by ensuring that interreligious engagement between Hinduism and Christianity be energetic and enriching, committed to mutual learning and to labour on behalf of those who suffer.

Anantanand Rambachan is Professor of Religion, St. Olaf College, Minnesota, U.S.


1. All references are taken from The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (abbreviated CW), 8 Vols., Mayavati Memorial Edition (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1964-1971). Volume and page numbers are indicated after the letters CW.