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Vedanta and the Masses

by Swami Sivananda

edanta is the highest rung in the spiritual ladder of the Hindu philosophy. Some over-enthusiastic religious leaders, in their impatience to get the masses overnight to the zenith of Vedanta, overlook and ignore the initial steps of Karma and Bhakti, with the inevitable result that the ignorant masses neither reach the top nor catch a glimpse of the first stages. The masses do not understand the subtlety and the ultimate import of the Advaita thought, much less do they apply it in the everyday routine of life. It is a matter of common experience that only a microscopic minority of the religious-minded people is putting Vedanta into practice; but with the majority Vedanta does not go beyond a mere intellectual assent. It is not for nothing that Sastras have laid down a certain course of Sadhana after which an aspirant can be initiated into this sublime thought. Only very few are eligible for Vedanta, because only a very few people are capable of that rigorous and sincere Sadhana. The masses require to be taught Bhakti and Karma which are easily intelligible to them. It is said that Swami Rama Tirtha repented for preaching Vedanta because he realised that all his gigantic efforts had brought forth no corresponding substantial result. Swami Vivekananda was severely criticised in his life for overstressing Vedanta and ignoring Bhakti. People want facts, hard and tangible facts, practical principles which they can easily grasp, easy clues to solve the riddles of life, intelligible and concrete ways to feel the nearness of God. Vedanta seems to them a science meant for intellectual jugglers and dry Pandits, its teachings fall upon their minds like rain on arid sands. They would rather have a grain of a practical hint than bushels of theoretical knowledge.

No doubt Vedanta contains the sublimest of truths, truths that need to be comprehended and applied in the daily walk of life but that is no excuse why one should ignore the allied truths which are equally great, if not greater. The Gita has elucidated in an inimitable manner the complementary nature of these various paths and has shown that Karma, Bhakti and Jnana are not competitive or alternative but the different ways to the same goal. So to preach Vedanta and especially the Advaita philosophy irrespective of time, place and person is carrying water in a sieve. You cannot teach Vedanta to anybody and everybody. The whole affair will become a square peg in a round hole.

In proportion to the greatness of a truth, misapplications and misinterpretations are bound to crop up round it. Just as many thoughtless politicians have misused the weapon of Satyagraha to enforce their selfish desires, many unwary lovers have brought about grim and poignant tragedies under the shelter of Platonic love, even so many crooked persons have exploited this weapon of Vedanta for their personal ends. Vedanta is a sharp razor which can be trusted only in the hands of a skilful and a saintly warrior, not in the hands of a child or an ignorant man. Tat Tvam Asi, Aham Brahmasmi are the watchwords of Vedanta and under their pretext many sins are committed, sometimes consciously, and sometimes unconsciously. A man who has imperfectly understood the real significance of these Mahavakyas and easily poses himself as knowing God without considering others as such, easily deceives himself about his intellectual and spiritual superiority and commits countless sins, because he thinks and foolishly thinks, that he is not the doer but only the witness in justification of wicked deeds.

Vedanta must be taught to a select few. Udia Baba teached Bhakti and Karma to the masses, to his disciples. He teached Vedanta to a select few only and did not allow the Bhaktas to attend his classes. Every intelligent teacher gives his teachings according to the temperamental leanings of the disciple. A promiscuous preaching of Vedanta will land the teacher and the taught in difficulties which may not be easily surmounted.

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