A critique of the excerpts of Neo-Vedanta and Modernity

Introduction

Nineteenth century was a century of ferment in India. New ideas from the western world poured into India through the medium of British presence in India. These new ideas in science, technology, economics and other material subjects created a crisis of confidence in Hindu dharma in those parts of India most exposed to British influence. Brahmo Samaj of Raja Rammohun Roy is an example of Hindus creating a religious system as a mirror image of Christianity. Brahmos rejected "idol worship", rejected Hindu Devas and Devis, rejected polytheism and worshipped the Upanishadic Brahman as the Father of all in church like settings. It is also during this time tens of thousands of Hindus also converted to Christianity.

It was in the later half of the nineteenth century that Hindu resistance to western influence began to surface in the form of Arya Samaj of Swami Dayananda Saraswati and others. Here we will discuss the rise of the Neo-Vedanta movement centered around the figure of Sri Ramakrishna. Many people believe that Sri Ramakrishna and the movement started by him and his disciples prevented christianization of the Bengali Hindus. Later on, however, in the late 20th century western scholars and westernized Hindu scholars carried out a reappraisal of Sri Ramakrishna and his teachings. An extreme example of such a reappraisal is the obnoxious biography written by Jeffrey Kripal. A milder form of reappraisal was to claim that the man and the movement which saved Hindu Bengal from christianization actually was heavily influenced by western ideas. Prof B Mukherji's book, Neo-Vedanta and Modernity, as it appears from the excerpts posted in medhajournal is of the second type. I will here briefly point out Sri Ramakrishna's contribution in saving Hindu Bengal from Christian conversion and then discuss the points made by Prof Mukherjee. Finally, I will make a brief appraisal of Prof Mukherji.

Impact of Sri Ramakrishna on 19th century Bengal

The easiest way to show Sri Ramakrishna's impact is to post this conversation recorded in Ramakrishna Kathamrita:

M:"Sir, suppose one believes in God with form. Certainly, He is not the clay
image!"
Sri Ramakrishna (interrupting):"But why clay? It is an image of spirit."

M could not understand the significance of this "image of spirit".
"But sir," he said to the Master," one should explain to those who worship the clay image that it is not God, and that, while worshipping it, they should have God in view and not the clay image. One should not worship clay."

Master (sharply):"That's the one hobby of you Calcutta people – giving lectures and bringing others to light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get light himself. Who are you to teach others? He who is the Lord of the universe will teach everyone. He alone teaches us, who has created this universe ; who has made the sun and moon, men and beasts, and all other beings; who has provided means for their sustenance; who has given children parents and endowed them with love to bring them up. The Lord has done somany things – will He not show people the way to worship Him? If they need teaching, then He will be the Teacher. He is our Inner Guide. Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn't God know that through it He alone is invoked? He will be pleased with that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You had better try for knowledge and devotion
yourself. You were talking of worshipping the clay image. Even if the image is made of clay, there is need for that sort of worship. God, Himself, has provided with different forms of worship. He who is the Lord of the universe has arranged all these forms to suit different men in different stages of knowledge. The mother cooks different dishes to suit the stomachs of her different children. Suppose she has five children. If there is a fish to cook, she prepares various dishes from it – pilau, pickled fish, fried fish, and so on – to suit their different tastes and powers of digestion."

M, the famous writer of Ramakrishna Kathamrita, was a Brahmo at that time and did not believe in Hindu Devas and Devis. He was certainly against idol worship. The educated Hindus of that period were all against idol worship. It is also doubtful if educated Hindus accepted Hindu Devas and Devis. Such was the power of English education! So when Sri Ramakrishna told M that the murthi in the temple was not mere clay but an 'image of spirit', he was striking a powerful blow against a mindless westernization of Hindu dharma. I also invite the reader to carefully ponder over the import of Sri Ramakrishna's remarks about the hobby of you Calcutta people – giving lectures and bringing others to light. This is a powerful blow against the missionaries who were introducing westernization in Bengal. Another example of Ramakrishna's position against the westernization attempts of Christian missionaries is his remarks about the validity of various religious paths:

"God can be realized through all paths. All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole. You may say that there are many errors and superstitions in another religion. I should reply: Suppose there are. Every religion has errors. Every one thinks that his watch alone gives the correct time. It is enough to have yearning for God. It is enough to love Him and feel attracted to Him. Don't you know that God is the Inner Guide? He sees the longing of our heart and the yearning of our soul. Suppose a man has several sons. The older boys address him distinctly as 'Baba' or 'Papa', but the babies can at best call him 'Ba' or 'Pa'. Now will the father be angry with those who address him in this indistinct way? The father knows that they too are calling him, only they cannot pronounce his name well. All children are same to the father. Likewise, the devotees call on God alone, though by different names. They call on One Person only. God is one, but His names are many."

"It is not good to feel that one's own religion alone is true and all others are false. God is one only and not two. Diferent people call on Him by different names, some as Allah, some as God, and others as Krishna, Siva, and Brahman. It is like water in a lake. Some drink it at one place and call it 'jal', others at another place and call it 'pani', and still others at a third place and call it 'water'. The Hindus call it 'jal', the Christians call it 'water', and the Mussalmans 'pani'. But it is one and the same thing.

Opinions are but paths. Each religion is only a path leading to God, as rivers come from different directions and ultimately become one in the one ocean."

"I see people who talk about religions constantly quarrelling with one another. Hindus, Mussalmans, Brahmos, Saktas, Vaishnavas, Saivas, all quarrel with one another. They haven't the intelligence to understand that He who is called Krishna is also Shiva and the Primal Shakti, and that is He again, who is called Jesus and Allah. There is only one Rama and He has a thousand names."

Christians claim that their religion is the only valid and true path. Sri Ramakrishna takes the completely opposite stance. There is no doubt that Sri Ramakrishna stood for all that was wonderful in traditional India and against mindless westernization. Slowly, very slowly the westernization tide ebbed. Christianity lost out in Bengal.

Prof Mukherji's assessment of Neo-Vedanta

As I have stated previously there has been a reassessment of Sri Ramakrishna and his Neo-Vedanta in the last half of the twentieth century. Neo-Vedanta has been accused of westernization of Vedantic system. I reject that claim and I will deconstruct the excerpts of Prof Mukherji's book in MedhaJournal to show  why I take such a position. Let me debunk her positions one by one:

1. The very first line in the Introduction (More Excerpts) caught my eye

"It is said very often that Advaita philosophy reflects the general mood of the Indian people. Even when they do not intellectually subscribe to this school of thought"

Hindus do not intellectually subscribe to any school of thought. They subscribe to a school of thought if and only if they think that there is spiritual truth in that particular school of thought. It is not a matter of liking pretty writing but intuition that a particular school of thought is more correctly describing spiritual reality. An intellectual assent is a western way of thinking about religion. I found the very first line difficult to swallow since in the preliminaries it is stated that she insists …. on  the need not to reduce Vedanta to a rationalistic and intellectual ontology, but to see it fully as connected to Bliss and the spiritual experience per se. Her talk about Hindus intellectually subscribing to a particlar school of thought after stating the need not to reduce Vedanta to a rationalistic and intellectual ontology was a jarring experience! If Vedanta can not be reduced to a rationalistic and intellectual ontology, then how can hindus give intellectual assent to any Vedantic school?

2. This whole para caught my attention for the multiple errors in it:

"This book is devoted to the problem of the Westernization of Advaita Vedanta which, as neo-Vedanta, prevails as the philosophy of our own times in India. Neo-Vedanta seeks to give a realistic interpretation of Advaita and also to make it self-sufficient as a philosophy, without recourse to Scriptural texts. According to contemporary Indian thinkers, modernity can be appropriated easily to the universalism of Advaita. Without jettisoning the hard core of the tradition, Advaita could very well be re-stated in terms of modern demands for active participation in the ongoing concerns of the world."

She makes two mistakes in this single sentence," Neo-Vedanta seeks to give a realistic interpretation of Advaita and also to make it self-sufficient as a philosophy, without recourse to Scriptural texts." The first mistake is that Neo-Vedanta does not give a realistic interpretation of Advaita. It is a realistic form of Advaita Vedanta. The distinction is crucial since Sri Ramakrishna is not an intellectual merely reinterpreting Shankara's writings. He is stating his spiritual experience when he says that the world is real. Prof Mukherji basically accuses Sri Ramakrishna of borrowing western ideas of the reality of the world and grafting it on Shankara's Advaita. This is why she calls Neo-Vedanta as westernization of Advaita. So the issue of westernization boils down to why Sri Ramakrishna considers the world to be real. I give below several direct quotes from Ramakrishna Kathamrita explaining the reality of the world:

a) Brahman and Sakti are inseparable. Unless you accept Sakti, you will find the universe unreal – 'I', 'you', house, buildings, and family. The world stands solid because the Primordial Energy stands behind it. If there is no supporting pole, no framework can be made, and without the framework there can be no beautiful image of Durga.

After attaining Perfect knowledge one realizes that they are not different. They are the same, like the gem and its brilliance. Thinking of the gem, one cannot but think of its brilliance. Again they are like the milk and its whiteness. Thinking of the one, you must think of the other. But you cannot realize this non-duality before the attainment of Perfect Knowledge.

Attaining Perfect Knowledge one goes into Samadhi, beyond the twentyfour cosmic principles. Therefore the principle of 'I' does not exist in that state. A man can not describe in words what he feels in samadhi. Coming down, he can give just a hint about it. I come down a hundred cubits, as it were, when I say 'OM' after samadhi. Brahman is beyond the injunction of the Vedas and can not be described. There neither 'I' nor "you" exists.

b) At first one discriminates,'Not this, not this', and feels that God alone is real and all else is illusory. Afterwards the same person finds that itis God Himself who has become all this – the universe, maya, and the living beings. First negation and then affirmation. This is the view held by the Puranas. A vilwa-fruit, for instance, includes flesh, seeds and shell. You get the flesh by discarding the shell and seeds. But if you want to know the weight of the fruit, you cannot find it if you discard the shells and seeds.

c) Q: Is the universe unreal?

A: Why should the universe be unreal? That is a speculation of the philosophers. After realizing God, one sees that it is God Himself who has become the universe and all living beings.

The Divine Mother revealed to me in the Kali temple that it was She who had become everything. She showed me that everything was full of Consciousness. The Image was Consciouness, the altar was Consciousness, the water-vessels were Consciousness, the door-sill was Consciousness, the marble floor was Consciousness – all was Consciousness. I found everything inside soaked, as it were, in Bliss – the Bliss of Satchidananda.

After realizing God, one sees all this aright – that it is He who has become the universe, living beings, and the twenty four cosmic principles. But what remains when God completely effaces the ego cannot be described in words. As Ramprasad said in one of his songs, 'Then alone will you know whether you are good or I am good!' A man sees one way through reasoning and in an altogether different way when God Himself shows it to Him.

Why does Sri Ramakrishna consider the world to be real while agreeing with Sankara that a Jnani finds the world to be unreal!? As the above quotes show
the answer lies in the fact that as long as a man retains his ego, he remains  in the domain of sakti and the world is real for such a person. For the world
to be unreal for a man with ego would imply an unreal sakti and thus an unreal Brahman since Brahman and sakti are inseparable. How can one reconcile the illusory world of the Jnani with the real world of the man with ego? The  answer is given in the following conversation between M and Sri Ramakrishna
taken from Ramakrishna Kathamrita:

M:"May I ask you one thing? Does a man watching magic really feel compassion when he sees suffering in the performance? Does he feel, at that time, any sense of responsibility? One thinks of compassion only when one feels responsibility. Isn't that so?"

Sri Ramakrishna:"A Jnani sees everything at once – God, maya, the universe and living beings. He sees that vidyamaya, avidyamaya, the universe, and all living beings exist and at the same time do not exist. As long as he is conscious of 'I', he is conscious of 'other' too. Nothing whatsoever exists after he cuts through the whole thing with the sword of Jnana. Then even his 'I' becomes as unreal as the magic of magicians.

"The idea of responsibility! Goodness gracious! Men like Sankaracharya and Sukadeva kept the 'ego of knowledge'. It is not for man to show compassion but for God. One feels compassion as long as one has the 'ego of knowledge'. And it is God Himself who has become the 'ego of knowledge'.

"You may feel a thousand times that it is all magic; but you are still under the control of the Divine Mother. You cannot escape Her. You are not free. You must do what she makes you do. A man attains Brahmajnana only when it is given to him by Adyashakti, the Divine Mother. Then alone does he see the whole thing as magic; otherwise not.

"As long as the slightest trace of ego remains, one lives within the jurisdiction of Adyasakti. One is under Her sway. One cannot go beyond Her." (page 460; June 20, 1884)

The answer is self explanatory. It is true that the world is real for a man with ego. All bets are off, however, when an aspirant goes beyond ego, i.e., goes beyond the domain of sakti. In fact it is the Divine Mother who helps the Jnani to go beyond her domain. Only then the world appears to be illusory. The world can not be said to be illusory while we experience it with our ego. As you can see there is no trace of any westernization of Advaita Vedanta. I tis merely an interpretation of Sri Ramakrishna's experience.

The second mistake made by Prof Mukherji is her claim that Neo-Vedanta philosophy is not based on scriptural texts. In fact it is firmly based both on scripture and Sri Ramakrishna's personal experience. One can easily show Prof Mukherji's claim that 'Neo-Vedanta seeks …. to make it self-sufficient as a philosophy, without recourse to Scriptural texts' to be false by this single example of Vivekananda's writing:

Those who attain to that state where there is neither knower, nor knowable, nor knowledge, where there is neither I, nor thou, nor he, where there is neither subject, nor object, nor relation, "there, who is seen by whom?" – such persons have gone beyond everything to "where words cannot go nor mind", gone to where the Shrutis declare as "Not this, not this"; but for those who cannot, or will not reach this state, there will inevitably remain the triune vision of the one undifferentiated Brahman as nature, soul and the interpenetrating sustainer of both – Ishvara. …..Bhakti, then, can be directed towards Brahman, only in His personal aspect. (CW III.37-42)

Vivekananda uses the famous Neti Neti of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to make his point about non-dual Brahman. Prof Mukherji's mistake was to blindly accept  western scholarly claim that Sri Ramakrishna was opposed to scripture. I have  given in the appendix several direct quotes of Sri Ramakrishna on scripture. A perusal of Sri Ramakrisha's comments on scripture should convince any reader  that he valued scripture but valued direct spiritual experience more than scripture.

Appraisal of Prof Mukherji

Let me first recapitulate her errors:

1. She thinks Ramakrishna and Vivekananda are mere intellectuals who fashioned a new realistic system out of Shankara's Advaita by making use of western ideas. She makes a lot of hue and cry about the problem of the Westernization of Advaita Vedanta which, as neo-Vedanta, prevails as the philosophy of our own times in India. She completely ignores Sri Ramakrishna's explanations and his claim that the Divine Mother has given him these experiences.

2. Then she misunderstands Ramakrishna's attitude towards scripture and makes  the false claim that Neo-Vedanta philosophy is independent of scripture.

3. She also makes the outrageously false claim that the neo-Vedantins have  traversed a different path altogether in staying away from the central
teaching of Advaita regarding the non-dual Brahman. I invite the reader to reread the Vivekananda quote given earlier where he describes the non-dual
Brahman.

4. She rounds up her litany of errors by this rather useless comment that it is a well known fact that attempts at re-interpreting the Upanishadic tradition in the light of modern Western thought have not resulted in any major contribution towards meaningful living in our contemporary world. This remark is completely valueless since neither Sri Ramakrishna nor Vivekananda nor Sri Sarada Devi have attempted to reinterpret the Upanishadic tradition in the light of modern Western thought. In fact if the reader reads Ramakrishna's comment #6 given in the Appendix on scripture she will find that Ramakrishna regarded," books, scriptures and science …. as mere dirt and straw after realizing God". There would be no point in using modern western thought since modern western thought is like mere dirt and straw compared to God realization and Vedanta.

Why does Prof Mukherji make such elementary errors? I think the clue lies in her Ph d from a Canadian University. A Hindu studying in a western university
would have to toe a western line. Otherwise the possibility of getting a degree would be rather dim.

To be frank I am also doubtful of her writings on western philosophy. For example she claims that, ' Hegel by combining them, in an unprecedented way finally ushered in that age of secularity, which has come to stay in Western tradition.' It is news to me that Hegel ushered in an age of secularity. In fact Prof Mukherji herself gives the following quotation about Hegel:

'In the wonderful architectonic of Hegelian philosophy, the eschatological fulfillment of Christianity is transformed into the dialectical movement of the world-spirit, moving inevitably toward self-realization in the future. History itself is divinised and made to lead up to the historical situation in which Hegel found himself, and which, for him was the peak of cultural advancement.' Hegel, in fact, divinised history. How can such a man usher in an age of secularity? Any way I will let such an incongruity pass!

Appendix

1. Sri Ramakrishna (to the pundit Shashadhar):"There are many scriptures like the Vedas. But one cannot realize God without austerity and spiritual discipline. 'God cannot be found in the six systems, the Vedas and the Tantra'.

"But one should learn the contents of the scripture and then act according to their injunctions. A man lost a letter. He couldn't remember where he had left it. He began to search for it with a lamp. After two or three people had searched, the letter was at last found. The message in the letter was:' Please send us five seers of sandesh and a piece of wearing cloth.' The man read it and then threw the letter away. There was no further need of it; now all he had to do was to buy the five seers of sandesh and the piece of cloth.

"Better than reading is hearing, and better than hearing is seeing. One understands the scriptures better by hearing them from the lips of the guru or a holy man……

"But seeing is far better than hearing. Then all doubts disappear. It is true that many things are recorded in the scriptures; but all these are useless without the direct realization of Gpd, without devotion to His Lotus Feet, without purity of heart. The almanac forecasts the rainfall of the year. But not a drop of water will you get by squeezing the almanac. No, not even one drop.

"How long should one reason about the texts of the scriptures? So long as one does not have a direct realization of God. How long does the bee buzz about? As long as it is not sitting on a flower. No sooner does it light on a flower and begins to sip honey that it keeps quiet." (p 475-476; June 30, 1884)



2. Sri Ramakrishna:"You see there is no need to read too much of the scriptures. If you read too much you will be inclined to reason and argue. Nangta used to teach me this: What you get by repeating the word Gita ten times is the essence of the book. In other words, if you repeat 'Gita" ten times it is reversed in to 'tagi', which indicates renunciation." (p 484; June 30, 1864)



3. Sadhaka:"But the scriptures say,'From Him words and mind return baffled'. He is unknowable by mind and words."

Sri Ramakrishna:"Oh, Stop! One cannot understand the meaning of the scriptures without practicing spiritual discipline …." (P 524; September 14, 1884)



4. Sri Ramakrishna (To Hazra):"If there is knowledge of one, there is also knowledge of many. What will you achieve by mere study of the scriptures? The scriptures contain a mixture of sand and sugar, as it were. It is extremely difficult to separate the sugar from the sand. Therefore one should learn the essence of the scriptures from the teacher or from a sadhu. Afterwords what does one care for books?"
……
(To the devotees)"One should learn the essence of the scriptures from the guru and then practise sadhana. If one rightly follows spiritual discipline, then one directly sees God. The discipline is said to be rightly followed only when one plunges in. What will a man gain by merely reasoning about the words of the scriptures? Ah, the fools! They reason themselves to death over information about the path. They never take the plunge. WHat a pity!" (P 543; September 19, 1884)



5. Sri Ramakrishna:"Can one find God in the sacred books? By reading the scriptures one may feel at the most that God exists. But God does not reveal Himself to a man unless he himself dives deep. Only after such a plunge, after the revelation of God through His grace, is one's doubt destroyed. You may read scriptures by the thousands and recite thousands of texts; but unless you plunge into God with yearning of heart, you will not comprehend this. By mere scholarship you may fool man, but not God.

"Scriptures and books – what can you achieve with these alone? Nothing can be realized without His grace. Strive with a longing heart for His grace. Through His grace you will see Him and He will talk to you." (p 625; October 19, 1884)



6. Mahimacharan:"That is true, sir. Work is certainly necessary. One must labor hard. Only then does one succeed. There is so much to read! The scriptures are endless."

Sri Ramakrishna (to Mahimacharan):"How much of the scriptures can you read? What will you gain by mere reasoning? Try to realize God before anything else. Have faith in the Guru's words, and work. If you have no guru then pray to God with a longing heart. He will let you know what He is like.

"What will you learn of God from books? As long as you are at a distance from the market-place you hear only an indistinct roar. But it is quite different when you are actually there. Then you hear or see everything distinctly. You hear people saying:'Here are your potatoes. Take them and give me the money!'

"From a distance you hear only the rumbling noise of the ocean. Go near it and you will see many boats sailing about, birds flying, and waves rolling.

"One cannot get true feeling about God from the study of books. This feeling is something very different from book-learning. Books, scriptures and science appear as mere dirt and straw after realizing God." (p 645-646; October 26, 1884)



7. Narendra:"It is because everything is one."
Sri Ramakrishna:"No, it (Brahman) is beyond one and two."
Mahima:"Yes, you are right.It is neither onr nor two!"
Sri Ramakrishna:"There reason withers away. God cannot be realized through scholarship. He is beyond the scriptures – the Vedas, puranas and Tantras. .."(P 882; October 25, 1885)



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