Customised Vedanta

What is Vedanta? This question can be answered in two ways. One is by mentioning the word-meaning of ‘Vedanta’, and that would be ‘the end of Vedas’ or ‘the gist or summary of the Vedas’. This is the meaning of the term ‘Vedanta’. The teachings of Vedanta are contained mostly in the Upanishads, which are, mostly found towards the later or end part of the Vedas. That is a more scholarly way of defining it. But is that the definition or meaning that a common person observes in society or in people who profess to practise or preach Vedanta?

There is another, more observable a method of defining Vedanta. That is probably how ordinary people understand it. This way of defining is to see, observe, and understand the speech, beliefs, and behaviour of those who claim to understand or practise Vedanta. It is just as a person would have to observe a doctor, to know what a doctor does and from that infer the nature of the practice of medicine or the greater field of medicine. Similarly, to understand Vedanta, an ordinary person sees the activities of a follower of Vedanta. This definition has an inherent flaw, and that arises from the fact that usually there are huge gaps between the theory and the practice of any discipline, much so when it is a spiritual discipline, as it is highly difficult to grasp spiritual truths. Still, it is the nature of the practice of something that creates an impression on people’s minds, and it is mostly in that manner that they understand that particular thing. So, then comes the question, how is Vedanta practised in general or how do people claiming to practise it behave?

Vedanta practitioners are of two broad categories: monastic or dedicated and non-monastic.

Some people believe that monasticism is integral to Vedanta though that is far from the truth. These followers of Vedanta might belong to various schools and have different rituals, sacred books, temples, doctrines, or ways of spiritual practice. However, all followers of Vedanta are unanimous about three things: the acceptance of a supreme divine principle, the impermanence of this universe, and the importance of moral and ethical values. If probed further, all followers of Vedanta would agree that one common thread of divinity permeates all beings, though they might differ on the exact details of the nature of that divinity. This should be then the sum of Vedanta as perceived by the ordinary person.

Unfortunately, that is seldom how Vedanta is popularly perceived. Followers of Vedanta are popularly seen as some people who wear a particular kind of costume or at least decorate their body with different marks, perform some prayers and rituals, follow dietary restrictions of various kinds, chant mantras, sing devotional songs, read books in Sanskrit, and generally relate to an ancient Indian tradition. And it is here that the problem of customisation of Vedanta comes into the picture.

Many teachers and also many practitioners of Vedanta believe that Vedanta needs to be modified to suit the needs and context of the person to whom it is being taught. This raises many points of concern. Is Vedanta something that can be modified to suit the needs of anyone? If one modifies this philosophy according to one’s understanding, eventually will it retain its true original form? What can be changed in Vedanta? The emphatic answer to the first question is no, Vedanta cannot be changed. How it is preached—the language, medium, and style—can be and should be changed to suit the audience.

Before we proceed any further, we need to understand certain things about the propagation or teaching of any philosophy. It is the medium that can be changed, not the message. It is the body that can be changed, not the spirit. Some self-styled followers of Vedanta find it fashionable nowadays to say that one can live as one pleases and still practise Vedanta. This cannot be because the practice of any form of Vedanta requires one to be established on the bedrock of ethics and morality. But, this is what is compromised when one says that one can live as one pleases and still practise Vedanta. This is told on the pretext that the ancient philosophy of Vedanta should be modified to suit the present-day needs. And often, Swami Vivekananda is quoted to justify this kind of approach. Swamiji never wanted the tenets of Vedanta to be modified or diluted. He was a strong advocate of following the Upanishadic dicta. All he wanted was to set up a mechanism that would disseminate these abstruse philosophical concepts to everyone, in a language even a toddler can understand. It is unfortunate that some have misinterpreted this lofty message of Swamiji.

For instance, truthfulness is a discipline that all followers of Vedanta have to follow, and one cannot attain the ultimate realisation that different schools of Vedanta promise if one is not truthful. Similarly, one cannot attain the goal of Vedanta if one is engrossed in bodily pleasures.

Does it mean that Vedanta has to be practised in the same manner as the ancient rishis did? The reader should not mistake this discussion to be a call to obstinately hold on to age-old customs and rituals that have nothing to do with the values and teachings of Vedanta. The lesson is that one should stick to the essence—particularly a strong ethical and moral practice, a belief in the impermanence of this universe, and the acknowledgement of an underlying divinity in all beings—but one can change the external forms and media to suit the needs of the time and place. One should, of course, make use of technology and the Internet. One should use all other aids that the modern civilisation provides us, but one should not lose sight of the core of Vedanta.

The problem in understanding when and what can be modified in Vedanta is better solved when one is focussed on having Vedanta as a personal, subjective, private experience. The true aim of Vedanta is to make one understand that the individual self and the ultimate Self or Brahman are identical. If this is considered to be the life-mission by a follower of Vedanta, then such a person would have no trouble in seeing what is essential and what has to be practised.

Change in religion is essentially a change in its form. The cardinal values of religion are the same since the birth of humanity. The forms in which these values are practised and also the method in which they are preached are all that keep changing. Innovations in religious traditions should focus more on the comprehension of the values of a particular faith tradition. Forms are secondary and many times irrelevant. The secret of the fulfilment of spiritual life lies within the aspirant and not without.

Author is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

To read all articles by Swami Narasimhananda 

This article was first published in the Prabuddha Bharata issue of March 2018, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more

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