Social philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

by Baruah Debajit | 2017 | 87,227 words

This study deals with Swami Vivekananda’s social philosophy and his concept of religion. He was the disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. Important subjects are discussed viz., nature of religion, reason and religion, goal of religion, religious experience, ways to God, etc. All in the context of Vivekananda....

Chapter 1.2 - Social Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

Social philosophy is the branch of philosophy which discusses the philosophical basis of social processes and social institutions. It determines the ultimate value of social life in the light of that ideal. After studying the different departments of society, social philosophy tries to give us a total view of society. Social philosophy not only studies the significance and justifiability of the concepts used in social science, it also makes a comparative study of the different ideals that society has. It is the duty of social philosophy to critically evaluate these ideals. In this way, social philosophy helps the society to stand on stable basis by removing the social evils. Therefore the value of social philosophy cannot be belittled. The following are main points of discussion of social philosophy.

(i) Social philosophy tries to get the picture of the total life of man in relation to his fellow lives. Social philosophy studies all those factors which affect the life of human beings.

(ii) It is concerned with the study of social life of man and its relation of culture, natural environment, heredity and the group. Man lives in society. The social nature of man, the relation between the society and individual, common good and the good of the individual etc. are the subject matters of social philosophy.

(iii) Social philosophy includes in its discussion the psychological as well as philosophical basis of the different social groups of human beings that are found in society. Social philosophy deals with the nature and ideal of family, educational institution, state and other social institutions.

(iv) Social philosophy also deals with the nature of social progress. It determines whether the social progress is in conformity with the social ideal.

(v) Religion occupies a prominent place in the society. Religion is the basis of social unity. Therefore, the meaning and characteristics of religion, its social value and its relation to education, state etc. are included in the subject matter of social philosophy. (vi) Social philosophy studies the culture.

(vii) There are many social evils in every society. Social philosophy deals with the social maladies and also the conditions that lead to such evils. It is also the duty of social philosophy to point out how these social evils can be eradicated.

Vivekananda has given us a full-fledge social philosophy. His social philosophy includes all those subjects which fall in the fold of discussion of social philosophy. We can mention here his concept of religion, culture, education, social evils etc. He in his philosophy has tried to give a total concept of man. We have to mention here that he has not written any treatise on social philosophy. But his life’s mission was nothing except regeneration of the Indian society through the lectures based on Vedanta. It was his conviction that, India to rise again has to give emphasis on spirituality. It is because spirituality is the life-centre of India. During his travels all over India, Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the extreme poverty and backwardness of the masses. He openly declared that the real cause of India’s ruin was the neglect of the masses. The immediate need was to provide food and other basic necessities of life to the neglected masses. Because of centuries of oppression, the downtrodden masses had lost faith in their capacity to improve their lot. So first of all it was necessary to instil into their minds faith in them. What they needed was a life-giving, inspiring message. He found this message in the principle of the Atman, the doctrine of the potential divinity of the soul, taught in Vedanta. He saw that, in spite of poverty, the masses clung to religion. But they had never been taught the life-giving, ennobling principles of Vedanta. And they had never been taught how to apply them in practical life. Thus the masses needed two kinds of knowledge, First of all, spiritual knowledge to instil in them faith in themselves and strengthen their moral sense. Secondly, secular knowledge to improve their economic condition. The next question was how to spread these two kinds of knowledge among the masses? Education was the answer that he found. Thus we can see that Vivekananda used education in two purposes. First of all, to disseminate the message of Vedanta among the downtrodden masses and secondly, to improve their economic condition.

One thing became clear to Vivekananda that to carry out his plans for the uplift of the poor masses, an efficient organization of dedicated people was needed. He wanted to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of everyone. It was to serve as this ‘machinery’ that Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission. When these ideas were taking shape in his mind in the course of his wanderings, he heard about the World’s Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893. His friends as well as his admirers in India wanted him to attend the Parliament. He also felt that the Parliament would provide the right platform to present his Master’s message to the world. So he decided to go to America. There was, of course, another reason which motivated Vivekananda to go to America and that was, to seek financial help for his mission of uplifting the masses. Vivekananda however, wanted to have an inner certitude and divine call regarding his mission. Both of these he got while he sat in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanyakumari.

His speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions made him famous as an ‘orator by divine right’ and as a ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world’. It is already mentioned that he returned to India in January 1897. He received enthusiastic welcome in India. He delivered a series of lectures in different parts of the country. His lectures created a great stir all over the country.

Through these significant and inspiring lectures Vivekananda attempted to do the following:

First of all, to rouse the spiritual consciousness of the people and create in them pride in their cultural heritage.

Secondly, to bring about unification of Hinduism by pointing out the common bases of its sects.

Thirdly, to focus the attention of educated and higher class peoples on the plight of the downtrodden masses, and to expound his plan for their uplift by the application of the principles of Practical Vedanta.

Vivekananda is one of the outstanding philosophers of contemporary India. His social philosophy is wholly pervaded by religious ideas and values which have their root in Vedanta philosophy. He finds positive roles for religious values and ideals in solving the problems rooted in the complexity of modern society. That is why he rejects all attempts to find any substitution for religion. Vivekananda was deeply influenced by the monistic nature of the Advaita Vedanta Philosophy. And he tried to shape his philosophy on this monistic characteristic. For the spiritual regeneration of India he gave us a religion which is nothing but Self-realization, i.e. realizing our true self. Actually he has not given us any new independent religion like Hinduism, Christianity, Mohhemedanism etc. He just preached that religion means self-realization. And he very sincerely pointed out that the essence of all the religions of the world is this realization.

The most important place in all the writings and utterances of Vivekananda has been occupied by man. In India, his life’s mission was to see a free society where man enjoyed full freedom to realize his true self. Vivekananda is convinced that behind the differences of creed, caste etc., there is the Real Man, which may be called the Universal Man. And this is the real nature of man. To bring out the real nature of man he took shelter in religion. This religion, in his view is supremely expressed in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. He conceived that Vedanta should never be treated as a philosophy for ascetics. Rather it should be treated as a great factor in the advancement of Indian civilization. He tried to make Vedanta a practical philosophy. So he says “The Vedanta, therefore, as religion must be intensely practical.”[1] He did not accept the view that Vedanta teaches quietism and renunciation. He did not also reconcile himself to the view of individual salvation when the rest of humanity sighed in misery. It is to arouse the latent divinity of man he preached Vedanta as a religion.

Swami Vivekananda gives utmost importance to faith and he urges every individual to keep faith in himself. He feels that the ideal of faith in ourselves is of the greatest help to us. If faith in us had been more extensively taught and practiced, a very large portion of the evils and miseries would have vanished. Throughout the history of mankind, if any motive power has been more potent than another in the lives of all great men, it is that of faith in them. In Vivekananda’s words, “Faith, faith, faith in ourselves, faith in God-this is the secret of greatness. If you have the faith in all the three hundred and thirty millions of your mythological gods, and in all the gods which foreigners have now and again introduced into your midst, and still have no faith in yourselves, there is no salvation in for you Have faith in yourselves, and stand up on that faith and be strong; that is what we need.”[2]. Vivekananda opines that if we have faith in all God, but no faith in ourselves, there is no salvation for us. The history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within. We can do anything. We fail only when we do not sufficiently try to manifest our infinite power. Therefore Vivekananda says, “As soon as a man or a nation loses faith, death comes”[3]. According to him, to get success in life, man must have perseverance as well as tremendous will. If a man really wishes to reach his goal, he must work hard. If a man makes mistake, may fail for sometimes, but he should not be in despair. Though the way to reach the goal is very difficult like walking on the edge of a razor; yet he must awake, and arise and try to find out the goal.

He boldly asserts, “…he is an atheist who does not believe in himself.”[4] He asks man never to mind his struggles or failures and never to think something to be impossible for man. It is the greatest heresy to think so. This is the only sin in the world to say that we are weak. If a man thinks himself as weak, he will be a sinner. If he thinks himself strong, so he will be strong. Therefore Vivekananda suggests, “The remedy for weakness is not brooding over weakness but thinking of strength”[5]. But we must mention here that he not only gave importance on mental strength only, he gave importance on physical strength also. Therefore he says “Be strong, my young friends; that is my advice to you. You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita. These are bold words; but I have to say them, for I love you. I know where the shoe pinches. I have gained a little experience. You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.”[6] He adds that this is the great fact that strength is life, weakness is death. Strength is felicity, life eternal, immortal, on the other hand weakness is constant strain and misery, weakness is death. He urges the youths to have faith in themselves, and then all powers will come in them. They are to be conscious of it and to bring it out.

Vivekananda feels the urgency of the spirit of self-reliance, the immovable fortitude, that dexterity in action, the bond of unity of purpose and the thirst for improvement. He suggests men not to look back to the past constantly, they must look forward. He says that we need that intense spirit of activity which flows through our every vein from head to foot. If a man keeps on thinking that he is miserable or low or nothing, so he is. But if he thinks that he is the son of the Almighty, the spark of the Infinite Divine Fire, he will get immense faith in himself. He will be ready to do everything. Indeed according to Vivekananda a man must do everything. He needs in man perfect holiness, sincerity, gigantic intellect and all-conquering will. If a few men with such qualities work, the whole world will be revolutionized. He emphasizes on mass upliftment. So he suggests people to “work hard, be steady and have faith in the Lord. Keep the motto before you-‘Elevation of the masses without injuring their religion.”[7]

In the view of Swami Vivekananda, each man is the sharer of immortal bliss, holy and perfect. Each man is divine on earth. Man has come out of one protoplasmic cell, and all the power we possess were coiled up in that cell. The infinite power is inherent in the soul of man. Its manifestation is only a question of being conscious of it. This infinite power is slowly waking, arousing him. More the man becomes conscious; more the chains of ignorance are broken and surely a day will come when a man becomes fully conscious of his infinite power and wisdom.

Vivekananda had great faith in the infinite potentialities of man. To him, man is like an infinite spring, coiled up in a small box, and the spring is trying to unfold itself. All the social phenomena that we see are the result of this trying to unfold. Everyman has an opportunity of making himself better. We cannot unmake ourselves, nor can we destroy the vital force within us. We have the liberty to give it different directions. Vivekananda says that men should be taught to be practical and physically strong. A dozen of such lions will conquer the world and not millions of sheep.

Thus Vivekananda has given us a dynamic and progressive idea of man. His concept of man as a divine spirit is the peerless gift to both the East and the West. Through his own soul Man may see the soul of the universe. The Katha Upanishad maintains that the non-dual Brahman, Pure consciousness, ever calm and blissful enrols all individuals and yet transcends them all. So also Vivekananda holds that through everyman reveals the Infinite self-consciousness. The important fact in human being is the heightened self-awareness that distinguishes them from all other beings. With the power of introspection, man can recognize his true self, he knows within from his psychophysical constitution. The difference between one Jiva and another lies in their psychological and physiological structure. It does not lie in the nature of the indwelling self. The self is in essence pure, luminous, free and identical with Brahman. The inner self of all Jivas is the same Brahman. But its manifestation varies from man to man. Difference in manifestation is due to his psycho-physical constitution. As the same Sun shines variously through different mediums, so also the Pure Consciousness is immanent in the whole universe as the supreme principle; only it manifests differently through various beings. Man is not merely an aggregate of the senses or the sum total of molecules of matter; he is much more than his psychophysical constitution. The eleven organs (panca Jnanedriyas and panca Karmendriyas and mind) with the body constitute only the outward covering of man. They have no real connection with true nature of man. Consciousness is the real essence of man and the organs are only instruments.

Thus, according to Vivekananda, the real nature of man is neither physical nor psychological, but it is Pure Consciousness, Pure Bliss and Pure Existence. There is the bright body inside the gross body of man. This bright body has no destruction; it remains even after the death of a man. It is believed that the gross body is manipulated by something else which is not material. It is the Atman through which the bright body works on the gross body.

We find that, in Vivekananda’s philosophy man has the highest importance. Having seen the miserable condition of the poor people of India Vivekananda first tried to infuse faith in them. On the Advaitic line he clearly said that man is non-different from Brahman. The soul of man is nothing but the Brahman. He urged on people to realize this. Though there are physiological and psychological differences among man, essentially all are the same. It is because we are the part of the same Universal, which is Brahman. While preaching such message Vivekananda has two basic aims in his mind. To boost self-confidence in man and to arouse the sense of service in the minds of the educated and higher class peoples for the downtrodden class thinking the essential unity of all, Vivekananda delivered his philosophical lectures in India and abroad. Practical Vedanta, concept of religion, universal religion, education etc. all are included in his social philosophy. In the following pages very brief explanations of all these subjects are given.

It is one of the greatest contributions of Swami Vivekananda to give emphasis on the practical nature of Vedanta. In his various lectures he clearly shows that Vedanta was a practical philosophy in the past and that many of the Vedanta thoughts emanated from persons who lived the busiest lives, namely, the ruling monarchs of ancient India. He also points out that the Bhagavad Gita, which is the quintessence of Vedanta philosophy, was taught to Arjuna by Sri Krishna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. Swami Vivekananda maintained that the Vedanta philosophy must be intensely practical. He says, "We must be able to carry it out in every part of our lives. And not only this, the fictitious differentiation between religion and the life of the world must vanish, for the Vedanta teaches oneness -one life throughout."[8] The central ideal of Vedanta is oneness. There are no two in anything, no two lives. There is but one life, one world, one existence. Everything is that One, the difference is in degree and not in kind. It is the same life that pulsates through all beings, from man to amoeba. The difference is only in the degree of manifestation. Therefore, we must not look down with contempt on others. All of us are going towards the same goal. We have no right to look down with contempt upon those who are not developed exactly in the same degree as we are. So Vivekananda says, “Condemn none, if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers and let them go their own way.”[9]

He maintained that Vedanta can be carried into our everyday life. It can be carried out in the city life, the country life, the national life. For, if a religion cannot help man wherever he may be, wherever he stands, it is not of much use. Such a religion will remain only a theory for the chosen few. So Vivekananda says, “Religion, to help mankind, must be ready and able to help him in whatever condition he is, in servitude or in freedom, in the depths of degradation or on the heights of purity; everywhere, equally, it should be able to come to his aid.”[10] The principles of Vedanta, or the ideal of religion will be fulfilled by its capacity for performing this great function. According to Swami Vivekananda, Vedanta calls upon us to have faith in ourselves. All the difference between man and man is due to the existence or nonexistence of faith in him. Faith in ourselves will do everything. But we must remember that it is not selfish faith, because the Vedanta is the doctrine of oneness. It means faith in all because we are all the same, that we are one with the Absolute. It is the great faith which will make the world better. As Swami Vivekananda says "He is the highest man who can say with truth, I know all about myself.’'[11]

Another most important concepts of Vivekananda by which he tried to reform the Indian society is his idea of religion which has Vedanta as its foundation. As a matter of fact Vivekananda tried to preach Vedanta as a religion. Advaita Vedanta declares that man is non-different from Brahman. And according to Vivekananda religion is nothing but realization of this truth. So he says that religion is not in books, theories, dogmas, talking, not even in reasoning. Man is already divine and religion is the manifestation of this Divinity. This divinity is nothing but the realization of God within man. Vivekananda teaches the eternal communion of man with the Infinite through a religion of universal oneness and cosmopolitanism. His religion was universal in the sense that it excludes none, includes everyone. He does not regard the various religions as contradictory. Like other great religious teachers he also believed that various religions are different ways to realize the same God, working for the good of humanity. He thinks that every religion is progressive.

As a staunch Vedantist, Vivekananda realized that the same Brahman resides in all irrespective of higher and lower. Vivekananda had deep faith in man and he realized the dignity and diversity of human beings. In fact, he finds supreme manifestation of God in man. And the same God resides in every individual man. There is no difference among man. Hence on the Advaitic line he says, “see God in every person working through every all hands walking through all feet and eating through every mouth. In every being He lives, through all minds He thinks. He is evident nearer unto us than ourselves. To know this is religion, is faith, and may it please the Lord to give us this faith! When we shall feel that oneness we shall be immortal.”[12] Thus, it is Vivekananda’s conviction that the only God is the human soul, in the human body. But he does not deny the presence of Brahman in other living beings. According to him all living beings are temples, but man is the highest temple. He wants to worship in that temple alone.

To Vivekananda, it is the direct realization of the spiritual world that forms the essence of religion. True religion is nothing except a direct, transcendental experience of the Ultimate Reality. This idea of direct realization is common to all religions of the world. The chief objective of all religions is the realization of God in the Soul, and this is the one Universal Religion. If there is one Universal Truth, in all religions, it is the realization of God within us. Methods of fulfilling that objective may differ from religion to religion, but they all lead to the same goal. Swami Vivekananda built his theory of the Transcendental Unity of all religions based on the direct experience of the Ultimate Reality. He spoke on the oneness of all religions with regard to the transcendental aspect of each religion. Differences among religions would not be the cause of conflict. We have to understand various religions to be mutually complementary, not contradictory. For Swami Vivekananda, religion is a total concept and various religions of the world together constitute one whole. For him, there existed only one Eternal Religion and all other religions were only variations of that eternal religion.

To put into practice the universal religion he showed the easy way, which is the idea of God. Then, he turns it as the universal existence of God, the ultimate unity in the whole universe. According to him, we are all one. He preached that a religion to be universal should be equally acceptable to all mind, it must be equally philosophic, equally emotional, equally mystic, and equally conducive to action. To promote this situation, man and his nature should be perfect. Hence he suggested four yoga, the methods to achieve that position. He classified the nature of man in to four categories. Those are the active type, the mystic type, the philosophic type, the devotional type. Four yogas based on those four types of nature of man. It is his conviction that by realizing the divine man becomes himself divine.

To say the truth these metaphysical speculations have little relation to gross reality of life. Condition of suffering humanity has little relevance into his highly philosophic speculations. Vivekananda was not aloof from life’s terrible reality. He had the bare eyes (as he had also the divine vision) to see the plight of wretched beings undergoing brutal hardships, oppressions, and hatred from the upper class society. His deep human spirit revolted like a blazing fire at this injustice done to the downtrodden masses. So he tried to uplift the Indian masses both spiritually and materially. To uplift the neglected, oppressed section of the society Vivekananda used education as the only tool. According to him education is the panacea of all social evils.

He wanted a pragmatic education system. He says that the education which does not help the common peoples to equip themselves for the struggle for life, which does not bring out strength of character and the courage of a lion, is not true education. According to him real education is that which enables one to stand on one’s own legs. At this point Vivekananda has criticized the modern education. This is clearly understood in his words: “The education that you are receiving now in schools and colleges is only making you a race of dyspeptics. You are working like machines merely and living a jelly-fish existence.”[13] He says that the peasant, the shoe maker, the sweeper and such other lower classes have much work and self-reliance than that of the educated youth. These classes have been silently working through long ages and producing the entire wealth of the land without a word of complaint. They will get higher position than the educated youths, because capital is drifting into their hands. Vivekananda says that modern education has changed our fashion. But new avenues of wealth lie yet undiscovered for heart of the inventive genius. The educated youths, in his view, will become extinct in vain search for employment and end-all of their life.

To bring humanity to a unity is the work of true religion. It was done by the great sages of the Upanishads, by Buddha, by Shankara, and by the large galaxy of reformers in the past, and by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, in our time. It is this role of a spiritual teacher that shone through him when he addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893; he reminded the audience that man is not a sinner, that he is not a creature of circumstances, but that he is a spark of the Divine. This is the saving message of Indian wisdom.

Therefore, it was this work of awakening of the human spirit from the sleep of ignorance and delusion that Swami Vivekananda accomplished in the East and the West. But the method he adopted to achieve this goal was different in the two hemispheres. In India, he saw that the work of awakening was needed mainly in the socio-political field. He saw that the Indian peoples had to be educated into the values of citizenship, of social awareness, into the capacities for practical efficiency and organized co-operative efforts. The creation of such free and self-disciplined citizens in India was the aim of his message of practical Vedanta. Virtues and graces so gained alone can become the basis of the highest spiritual development of man. Without this moral basis, religion becomes cheap, and spirituality a shame. So, when he spoke of religion in India, he used a beautiful expression to characterize its content; he called it ‘man-making religion’. Similarly, he called his scheme of education for India ‘manmaking education’. He wanted to make men of us; he saw that the masses of India had not achieved the full glory of human beings. If the Indian people cannot co-operate with each other, if they cannot help each other, they can not achieve the glory of human existence. Manliness connotes the virtues of strength, freedom, mutual help and equality. Man-making religion and Man-making education are meant to create a pattern of excellence in the society as well as within its individual members.

This was a man-making message; it combines man-making religion with manmaking education. Vivekananda called it ‘Practical Vedanta’. We have read Vedanta in our books; we have seen Vedanta in the lives of the great sages and saints of our country; but Vedanta as a dynamic social policy, as a policy of nation-building by which the masses become transformed into dynamic centres of all-round social development-this type of practical application of Vedanta we had never witnessed in our country before Vivekananda. It was the supreme glory of Swami Vivekananda that he preached the life-giving message of Vedanta to everyone.

He proclaimed the universal message of the Vedanta in the East and the West. In this great message, he emphasized two values, and they are tyaga, renunciation, and seva, service. He considered these two values as the central values of Indian culture and civilization. We are to mention two points here. Firstly, though spirituality is dominant in Vivekananda’s philosophy, yet it is mingled with humanitarianism. Secondly, Vedanta is used by him as an instrument for regenerating and revitalizing Indian society by making the masses spiritually and morally strong and self-reliant. In his philosophy a fusion of ancient Indian thought and the democratic ideas of the modern West can be clearly seen. Equilibrium and synthesis were the watchwords of Vivekananda. Contemplation and devotion to duty were unified in his words and deeds. He tried utmost to inspire his contemporaries to work hard. His concept of universalism was later developed by R.N, Tagore and Gandhi. The awakening and liberation of modern India as viewed by Vivekananda was a stage for the realization of universal love and brotherhood. He was one of the first Indian thinkers who offered a sociological interpretation of Indian history. He marshalled into service all possible aids for the cultural revivalism of the 19th century.

Vivekananda was really a great synthesizer. From his guru Ramakrishna he learnt the characteristics and lessons of a perfect ‘Yogi’. But his own experience received from intensive journey made him a noble ‘Karma-Yogi’. He became a Karma Yogi for the cause of humanity. His philosophy was in fact a Philosophy of action combining the intellect of Sankara and the heart of Buddha. He wanted every man to realize the glory of the Atman or Brahman which resides in all without any discrimination of high or low.

Footnotes and references:


Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, p-291.


Ibid, Vol.3, p-190.


Ibid, Vol.8, p-228.


Ibid, Vol.2, p-301.


Ibid, Vol.2, p-300.


Ibid, Vol.3, p-242.


Ibid, Vol.5, p-29. 


Ibid, Vol.2, p-291.


Ibid, Vol.2, p-299.


Ibid, Vol.2, p-300-301.


Ibid, Vol.2, p-301.


Ibid, Vol.1, p-341.


Ibid, Vol.7, p-148.

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