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 3.1 - Swami Vivekananda’s concept of Religion

In a broad sense religion consists of ideas, aims, activities and experiences of human beings that pass from generation to generation. Religion can be rightly said to be the most important power, moulding and regulating human lives. If we take a comprehensive survey of human experiences then it will be found that religion has from the earliest times and throughout the ages occupied an important place in life and history of human civilization. But in ancient time religion consisted of some crude, superstitious and miraculous beliefs used in a very narrow meaning. Though in the present time it is seen that religion has been developed, yet it is not free from all kinds of superstitions. Through the progress of science, technology and knowledge modern man has stopped to keep belief blindly in heaven-hell, virgin birth and many such stories of miracles. The development of religion starts with the belief in most a host spirits wielding mysterious power which can be influenced by certain rites duly practiced. It is an aspiration of man to proceed from lower level to higher level. Man is completely aware of becoming a higher being. Presently we detect that many thinking minds have become very critical of conventional religions. Now, religion has been utilized in a very wider sense. Yet, it should be noted that there has been no completely new religion since the very beginning of the world. The element and root of religion were as far back as we can trace the history of human being.

Defining religion is not an easy task. It is because religion is a growing, dynamic thing, elemental, personal and broad in scope. Etymologically the term ‘Religion’ means two things. According to Cicero, the word ‘Religion’ comes from the word ‘Relegere’ which means ‘together’ signifying performances of certain activities to show respect and reverence towards God. The Roman Lactantius derived the word ‘Religion’ from ‘Religare’ which means ‘to bind together’ signifying that religion is essentially a bond of piety. So literally speaking, religion means, “a bond of unity, a principle of unification and humanization.”[1]

Edward Burnett Taylor defined religion as "the belief in spiritual beings."[2] He argued, back in 1871 that narrowing the definition to mean the belief in a supreme deity or judgment after death or idolatry and so on, would exclude many peoples from the category of religion, and thus ‘has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them’. He also argued that the belief in spiritual beings exists in all known societies. According to him religion is a principle of life. It is the feeling of a living relation between human being and the power of which this universe is the manifestation.

Hegel says, “Religion is the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as Absolute mind, Divine Spirit’s knowledge of itself through the meditation of the finite.”[3] Frazer says, “By religion…..I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and human life. Thus, defined religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate them.”[4] Frazer goes on to add, “Belief clearly comes first, since we must believe in the existence of a divine being before we can attempt to please him. But unless the belief leads to a corresponding practice, it is not a religion but merely a theology.”[5]

Psychologist William James defined religion in his book ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine."[6] By the term "divine" James meant "any object that is godlike, whether it be a concrete deity or not" to which the individual feels impelled to respond with solemnity and gravity. G. Galloway defines religion as “Man’s faith in a power beyond whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gains stability of life and which he experiences in acts of worship and services.”[7] According to Max Muller, “Religion is a mental faculty or disposition which enables man to apprehend the Infinite.”[8] For him religion is a perception or apprehension of the Infinite. Again Friedrich Schleiermacher defines religion as “the feeling of Absolute dependence on God.”[9] For him pure religion is pure feeling. Religion has nothing to do with knowledge.

Mathew Arnold, who was basically a moralist, gave emphasis on the moral side of religion. To him religion is morality touched with emotion. He says, “Religion is nothing but morality touched with emotion.”[10] Robert Flint defines religion in this way, “Religion is man’s belief in a being or beings mightier than himself and inaccessible to his senses but not indifferent to his sentiments and actions with the feeling and practices while flow from such belief.”[11] According to Flint there can be no religion if feeling and affection are not added to knowledge.

The Indian term ‘Dharma’ is used for the word religion, although the word ‘dharma’ bears much wider significance than that of religion. The word ‘dharma’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘dhri’ which means to uphold, to support, to nourish. In the Rg-Veda, the term is used in the sense of ‘upholder or supporter or sustainer’. In the Chandogya Upanishad, it means the peculiar duties of ‘Asrams’. Dharma refers to the social, spiritual, ethical and humanistic aspects of man. In the words of Annie Besant “Dharma has come to acquire a deep and rich meaning in the course of long development of Hindu thought, which can not be conveyed by any single term like religion, law, morality, goodness etc. It signifies all these things and many others besides. Conformity to scriptural rules and regulations is certainly a part of its meaning, but it also involves the observance of moral principles and the performance of good acts. Whatever promotes individual and social welfare through the efficient regulation and control of the physical, political, economic, and social environment come within its purview. It may be called Abhyudaya.”[12] Therefore, passing through several transitions in meaning, the word ‘Dharma’ assumes its commonly accepted importance “the privileges, duties and obligations of man, his standard conduct as a member of Aryan community, as a member of one of the castes as a person in a particular stage in life.”[13]

Swami Vivekananda says that though the various definitions of religion that have been given by different scholars are not wrong, they invariably miss one or the other aspect of religion. Therefore, according to Vivekananda no description of religion can be exact. The best way to appreciate the nature of religion is not to try to define it, but to highlight such aspects of religion without which it would be difficult to call a religious act religious. He says “I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future. Is God’s book is finished? Or is it still a continuous revelation going on? It is a marvellous book-these spiritual revelations of the world. The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran and all other sacred books are but so many pages and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded……we stand in the present but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take all that has been in the past, enjoy the light of the present and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the fiture.”[14]

Thus it is not good to define religion to understand it in the true sense of the term. Religion is highly complex and it comprises of different aspects. Therefore, it is, necessary to make an analysis of the nature of religion for a systematic and comprehensive understanding of religion itself. Religion is an internal element of human nature. It has always been a dominant tendency in the history of human civilization. So long as man is attached to the truest vision of religion, the greater is the worth of his life. Religion may be said to be the most important characteristics which has found its relations in human art, literature and his different functions more in the ancient past than in the modern times. So to understand the basic nature of religion one has to study the architecture of temples, idols, hymns religious poetry of the Zend Avesta, Rig-Veda, the Bible, the Koran and so on. Some of the beautiful poetries in the world have been dedicated towards religion. For example, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Dante’s Divine comedy etc.

In almost all the religions of the world, man has been given a very high as well as respectful status. As for example, Buddhism and Jainisim have regarded man as the highest being as because they do not believe in God. Man’s actual nature is temporarily hidden due to ignorance. When he realizes his real nature he becomes infinite and free from all limitations. Again, in Hinduism, man is not only the highest creature of the world; he is often given a status equal to God. The concept of Nar-Narayana (Man God) in Hinduism amply speaks of the Godly status that man has been given. Judaism and Christianity make man the greatest of all creatures. In accordance with them, God made man in his own image and man has made to establish the complete reign of good on earth by eradicating evil. Zoroastrianism also offers a high status to man by giving him the significant status of being a partner with God in his ultimate scheme of establishing complete good all over the world by defeating the force of evil. According to Zoroastrianism, the world is a ground of struggle between the forces of good and evil and man has to play his role in it. Thus all major religions of the world give very high status to man.

The fundamental motive of religion is that which binds men together and also binds the desires and different process of every man. From this point of view, religion, collectively and individually, is an integrative experience of men. Though there are many forms of religion, they all agree in one factor, that is all of them are occupied with the work of living adjustment to the different demands of life and society. Successful adjustment needs an understanding of the world where individual lives. He lives in a physical and social environment. Social environment consists of his fellowmen with their histories and prophecies that have evolved as a result of competitive and co-operative enterprise of numerous generations.

Religion may be said to have its roots in the tendency of mankind to look upward. That is to say, if a man has to proceed, religion must live. The social momentum towards progress is maintained by religion. Everywhere religion has connection with social and cultural ideals. With the transformation of social ideal religion has also been transformed. Religion is an index of man’s expectation for and a guide towards future. Religion is a force that can be used both for good and evil. The more it approaches spirituality the more it serves its true purpose, as spirituality is its fulfilment and culmination. It is through religion community rises higher in culture.

Spirituality is the ideal of religion. The spirituality does not negate life and if spirituality aims at life-negation, religion has nothing to do with social development. Religion should satisfy the whole being of mankind. It should make perfect man’s physical, vital and mental beings. In this way, spirituality is the essence as well as the criterion of religion. The success of religion as a method of social development depends upon the spiritual element in it. Religions are serviceable merely so far as they are spiritual. Where the spirituality is not present, religion is only an activity of man. It may be powerful yet never be a principle of guidance in his life. Spirituality is the very opposite of limitation, fixation, systematization. Each and every form of religion requires us to look upon life as an opportunity for self-realization. Universal brotherhood will be established when mankind awakes to the truth. One whose life is rooted in the experience of the supreme, it spontaneously develops love for all. Such a person will be free from hatred for any person. One should boldly work for a society where man can get freedom and fearlessness as a subject not as an object. Then he will oppose terror and cruelty.

Footnotes and references:


Seligman, E., Encyclopedia Of Social Sciences, p-228-229.


Galloway, G., Philosophy Of Religion, p-181.




Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough, p-50.




James, William, Varieties of Religious Experience, p-32.


Devi, Pranita, Vivekananda’s Philosophy of Man, p-84.


Maxmuller, Lectures On the Origin and Growth of Religion, p-22.


Edwards, D.M., Philososphy of Religion, p-81.


Ibid, p-141.


Flint, Robert, Theism, p-32.


Suda, J.P. Religion in India, p-87.


Sharma, Chandrakanta, Phycho Analytic Concept of Religion, Chapter 1, Preamble.


[Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda] VOl.2,p-374.

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