From Lectures from Colombo to Almora of Volume 3 of Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
(Delivered at Lahore on the 9th November, 1897)
There is a sound which comes to us like a distant echo in the midst of the roaring torrents of the Upanishads, at times rising in proportion and volume, and yet, throughout the literature of the Vedanta, its voice, though clear, is not very strong. The main duty of the Upanishads seems to be to present before us the spirit and the aspect of the sublime, and yet behind this wonderful sublimity there come to us here and there glimpses of poetry as we read; न तत्र सुर्यो भाति न चंन्द्रतारकं नेमा विद्युतो भान्ति कुतोऽयमग्निः — “There the sun shines not, nor the moon, nor the stars, what to speak of this fire?” As we listen to the heart-stirring poetry of these marvellous lines, we are taken, as it were, off from the world of the senses, off even from the world of intellect, and brought to that world which can never be comprehended, and yet which is always with us. There is behind even this sublimity another ideal following as its shadow, one more acceptable to mankind, one more of daily use, one that has to enter into every part of human life, which assumes proportion and volume later on, and is stated in full and determined language in the Purâna, and that is the ideal of Bhakti. The germs of Bhakti are there already; the germs are even in the Samhitâ; the germs a little more developed are in the Upanishads; but they are worked out in their details in the Puranas.
To understand Bhakti, therefore, we have got to understand these Puranas of ours. There have been great discussions of late as to their authenticity. Many a passage of uncertain meaning has been taken up and criticised. In many places it has been pointed out that the passages cannot stand the light of modern science and so forth. But, apart from all these discussions, apart from the scientific validity of the statements of the Puranas, apart from their valid or invalid geography, apart from their valid or invalid astronomy, and so forth, what we find for a certainty, traced out bit by bit almost in every one of these volumes, is this doctrine of Bhakti, illustrated, reillustrated, stated and restated, in the lives of saints and in the lives of kings. It seems to have been the duty of the Puranas to stand as illustrations for that great ideal of the beautiful, the ideal of Bhakti, and this, as I have stated, is so much nearer to the ordinary man. Very few indeed are there who can understand end appreciate, far less live and move, in the grandeur of the full blaze of the light of Vedanta, because the first step for the pure Vedantist is to be Abhih, fearless. Weakness has got to go before a man dares to become a Vedantist, and we know how difficult that is. Even those who have given up all connection with the world, and have very few bandages to make them cowards, feel in the heart of their hearts how weak they are at moments, at times how soft they become, how cowed down; much more so is it with men who have so many bandages, and have to remain as slaves to so many hundred and thousand things, inside of themselves and outside of themselves, men every moment of whose life is dragging-down slavery. To them the Puranas come with the most beautiful message of Bhakti.
For them the softness and the poetry are spread out, for them are told these wonderful and marvellous stories of a Dhruva and a Prahlâda, and of a thousand saints, and these illustrations are to make it practical. Whether you believe in the scientific accuracy of the Puranas or not, there is not one among you whose life has not been influenced by the story of Prahlada, or that of Dhruva, or of any one of these great Paurânika saints. We have not only to acknowledge the power of the Puranas in our own day, but we ought to be grateful to them as they gave us in the past a more comprehensive and a better popular religion than what the degraded later-day Buddhism was leading us to. This easy and smooth idea of Bhakti has been written and worked upon, and we have to embrace it in our everyday practical life, for we shall see as we go on how the idea has been worked out until Bhakti becomes the essence of love. So long as there shall be such a thing as personal and material love, one cannot go behind the teachings of the Puranas. So long as there shall be the human weakness of leaning upon somebody for support, these Puranas, in some form or other, must always exist. You can change their names; you can condemn those that are already existing, but immediately you will be compelled to write another Purana. If there arises amongst us a sage who will not want these old Puranas, we shall find that his disciples, within twenty years of his death, will make of his life another Purana. That will be all the difference.
This is a necessity of the nature of man; for them only are there no Puranas who have gone beyond all human weakness and have become what is really wanted of a Paramahamsa, brave and bold souls, who have gone beyond the bandages of Mâyâ, the necessities even of nature — the triumphant, the conquerors, the gods of the world. The ordinary man cannot do without a personal God to worship; if he does not worship a God in nature, he has to worship either a God in the shape of a wife, or a child, or a father, or a friend, or a teacher, or somebody else; and the necessity is still more upon women than men. The vibration of light may be everywhere; it may be in dark places, since cats and other animals perceive it, but for us the vibration must be in our plane to become visible. We may talk, therefore, of an Impersonal Being and so forth, but so long as we are ordinary mortals, God can be seen in man alone. Our conception of God and our worship of God are naturally, therefore, human. “This body, indeed, is the greatest temple of God.” So we find that men have been worshipped throughout the ages, and although we may condemn or criticise some of the extravagances which naturally follow, we find at once that the heart is sound, that in spite of these extravagances, in spite of this going into extremes, there is an essence, there is a true, firm core, a backbone, to the doctrine that is preached. I am not asking you to swallow without consideration any old stories, or any unscientific jargon. I am not calling upon you to believe in all sorts of Vâmâchâri explanations that, unfortunately, have crept into some of the Puranas, but what I mean is this, that there is an essence which ought not to be lost, a reason for the existence of the Puranas, and that is the teaching of Bhakti to make religion practical, to bring religion from its high philosophical flights into the everyday lives of our common human beings.
[The lecturer defended the use of material helps in Bhakti. Would to God man did not stand where he is, but it is useless to fight against existing facts; man is a material being now, however he may talk about spirituality and all that. Therefore the material man has to be taken in hand and slowly raised, until he becomes spiritual. In these days it is hard for 99 per cent of us to understand spirituality, much more so to talk about it. The motive powers that are pushing us forward, and the efforts we are seeking to attain, are all material. We can only work, in the language of Herbert Spencer, in the line of least resistance, and the Puranas have the good and common sense to work in the line of least resistance; and the successes that have been attained by the Puranas have been marvellous and unique. The ideal of Bhakti is of course spiritual, but the way lies through matter and we cannot help it. Everything that is conducive to the attainment of this spirituality in the material world, therefore, is to be taken hold of and brought to the use of man to evolve the spiritual being. Having pointed out that the Shâstras start by giving the right to study the Vedas to everybody, without distinction of sex, caste, or creed, he claimed that if making a material temple helps a man more to love God, welcome; if making an image of God helps a man in attaining to this ideal of love, Lord bless him and give him twenty such images if he pleases. If anything helps him to attain to that ideal of spirituality welcome, so long as it is moral, because anything immoral will not help, but will only retard. He traced the opposition to the use of images in worship in India partly at least to Kabir, but on the other hand showed that India Has had great philosophers and founders of religions who did not even believe in the existence of a Personal God and boldly preached that to the people, but yet did not condemn the use of images. At best they only said it was not a very high form of worship, and there was not one of the Puranas in which it was said that it was a very high form. Having referred historically to the use of image-worship by the Jews, in their belief that Jehovah resided in a chest, he condemned the practice of abusing idol-worship merely because others said it was bad. Though an image or any other material form could be used if it helped to make a man spiritual, yet there was no one book in our religion which did not very clearly state that it was the lowest form of worship, because it was worship through matter. The attempt that was made all over India to force this image-worship on everybody, he had no language to condemn; what business had anybody to direct and dictate to anyone what he should worship and through what? How could any other man know through what he would grow, whether his spiritual growth would be by worshipping an image, by worshipping fire, or by worshipping even a pillar? That was to be guided and directed by our own Gurus, and by the relation between the Guru and the Shishya. That explained the rule which Bhakti books laid down for what was called the Ishta, that was to say, that each man had to take up his own peculiar form of worship, his own way of going towards God, and that chosen ideal was his Ishta Devatâ. He was to regard other forms of worship with sympathy, but at the same time to practice his own form till he reached the goal and came to the centre where no more material helps were necessary for him. In this connection a word of warning was necessary against a system prevalent in some parts of India, what was called the Kula-Guru system, a sort of hereditary Guruism. We read in the books that “He who knows the essence of the Vedas, is sinless, and does not teach another for love of gold or love of anything else, whose mercy is without any cause, who gives as the spring which does not ask anything from the plants and trees, for it is its nature to do good, and brings them out once more into life, and buds, flowers, and leaves come out, who wants nothing, but whose whole life is only to do good” — such a man could be a Guru and none else. There was another danger, for a Guru was not a teacher alone; that was a very small part of it. The Guru, as the Hindus believed, transmitted spirituality to his disciples. To take a common material example, therefore, if a man were not inoculated with good virus, he ran the risk of being inoculated with what was bad and vile, so that by being taught by a bad Guru there was the risk of learning something evil. Therefore it was absolutely necessary that this idea of Kula-Guru should vanish from India. Guruism must not be a trade; that must stop, it was against the Shastras. No man ought to call himself a Guru and at the same time help the present state of things under the Kula-Guru system.
Speaking of the question of food, the Swami pointed out that the present-day insistence upon the strict regulations as to eating was to a great extent superficial, and missed the mark they were originally intended to cover. He particularly instanced the idea that care should be exercised as to who was allowed to touch food, and pointed out that there was a deep psychological significance in this, but that in the everyday life of ordinary men it was a care difficult or impossible to exercise. Here again the mistake was made of insisting upon a general observance of an idea which was only possible to one class, those who have entirely devoted their lives to spirituality, whereas the vast majority of men were still unsatiated with material pleasures, and until they were satiated to some extent it was useless to think of forcing spirituality on them.
The highest form of worship that had been laid down by the Bhakta was the worship of man. Really, if there were to be any sort of worship, he would suggest getting a poor man, or six, or twelve, as their circumstances would permit, every day to their homes, and serving them, thinking that they were Nârâyanas. He had seen charity in many countries and the reason it did not succeed was that it was not done with a good spirit. “Here, take this, and go away” — that was not charity, but the expression of the pride of the heart, to gain the applause of the world, that the world might know they were becoming charitable. Hindus must know that, according to the Smritis, the giver was lower than the receiver, for the receiver was for the time being God Himself. Therefore he would suggest such a form of worship as getting some of these poor Narayanas, or blind Narayanas, and hungry Narayanas into every house every day, and giving them the worship they would give to an image, feeding them and clothing them, and the next day doing the same to others. He did not condemn any form of worship, but what he went to say was that the highest form and the most necessary at present in India was this form of Narayana worship.
In conclusion, he likened Bhakti to a triangle. The first angle was that love knew no want, the second that love knew fear. Love for reward or service of any kind was the beggar’s religion, the shopkeeper’s religion, with very little of real religion in it. Let them not become beggars, because, in the first place, beggary was the sign of atheism. “Foolish indeed is the man who living on the banks of the Ganga digs a little well to drink water.” So is the man who begs of God material objects. The Bhakta should be ready to stand up and say, “I do not want anything from you, Lord, but if you need anything from me I am ready to give.” Love knew no fear. Had they not seen a weak frail, little woman passing through a street, and if a dog barked, she flew off into the next house? The next day she was in the street, perhaps, with her child at her breast. And a lion attacked her. Where was she then? In the mouth of the lion to save her child. Lastly, love was unto love itself. The Bhakta at last comes to this, that love itself is God and nothing else. Where should man go to prove the existence of God? Love was the most visible of all visible things. It was the force that was moving the sun, the moon, and the stars, manifesting itself in men, women, and in animals, everywhere and in everything. It was expressed in material forces as gravitation and so on. It was everywhere, in every atom, manifesting everywhere. It was that infinite love, the only motive power of this universe, visible everywhere, and this was God Himself.