It is a Privilege to Serve Mankind
(From “Vedanta and Privilege” Delivered in London, 1896)
It is a privilege to serve mankind; for this is the worship of God. God is here in all these human souls. He is the soul of man; what privilege can men ask? There are no special messengers of God, never were, and never can be. All beings, great or small, are equally manifestations of God; the difference is only in the degree of manifestation. The same eternal message, which has been eternally given, comes to them all. The eternal message has been written in the heart of every being; it is there already, and all are struggling to express it. Some, in suitable circumstances, express it a little better than others; but as bearers of the message they are all one. What claim to superiority is there? The most ignorant man, the most ignorant child, is as great a messenger of God as any that ever existed and as great as any that is yet to come. For the infinite message is there imprinted once for all in the heart of every being. Wherever there is a being, that being contains the infinite message of the Most High. It is there.
The task of Advaita, therefore, is to break down all these privileges. It is the hardest work of all; and curious to say, in the land of its birth Advaita has been less active than anywhere else. If there is any land of privilege, it is the land which gave birth to this philosophy – privilege for the spiritual man as well as for the man of birth. In India there is not so much the privilege of money (that is one of the benefits, I think); but the privilege of birth and spirituality is everywhere.
Once a gigantic attempt was made in India to preach Vedantic ethics, which succeeded to a certain extent for several hundred years; and we know historically that those years were the best times for the country. I mean the Buddhist attempt to break down privilege. Some of the most beautiful epithets addressed to Buddha that I remember are: “Thou the breaker of castes, destroyer of privileges, preacher of equality to all beings.” He preached this one idea of equality. Its power has been misunderstood to a certain extent in the brotherhood of Shramanas, where we find that hundreds of attempts have been made to form them into a church, with superiors and inferiors. You cannot make much of a church when you tell people that they are all gods. One of the good effects of Vedanta has been freedom of religious thought, which India has enjoyed throughout its history. It is something to glory in, that it is the land where there was never a religious persecution, where people are allowed perfect freedom in religion.
This practical side of Vedantic morality is necessary as much today as it ever was – more necessary, perhaps, than it ever was; for all this privilege-claiming has become tremendously intensified with the extension of knowledge. The idea of God and the Devil, or Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, has a good deal of poetry in it. The difference between God and the Devil is in nothing except in unselfishness and selfishness. The Devil knows as much as God, is as powerful as God, only he has no holiness: that makes him the Devil. Apply the same idea to the modern world: excess of knowledge and power, without holiness, makes human beings devils. Tremendous power is being acquired through machines and other appliances, and privilege is claimed today by those in power as it never has been claimed in the history of the world. That is why Vedanta wants to preach against it, to break down this tyrannizing over the souls of men.
Those of you who have studied the Gita will remember the memorable passages: “He who looks upon the learned Brahmin, upon the cow, the elephant, the dog, or the outcaste, with the same eye, he indeed is the sage and the wise man.” “Even in this life he has conquered relative existence whose mind is firmly fixed on sameness; for the Lord is one and the same to all, and the Lord is pure. Therefore those who feel this sameness for all and are pure are said to be living in God.” This is the gist of Vedantic morality, this sameness for all. We have seen that it is the subjective world that rules the objective. Change the subject, and the object is bound to change; purify yourself, and the world is bound to be purified. This one thing requires to be taught now more than ever before. We are becoming more and more busy about our neighbors, and less and less about ourselves. The world will change if we change; if we are pure the world will become pure. The question is why I should see evil in others. I cannot see evil unless I am evil. I cannot be miserable unless I am weak. Things that used to make me miserable when I was a child do not do so now. The subject changed, and so the object was bound to change – so says Vedanta. All these things which we call causes of misery and evil, we shall laugh at when we arrive at that wonderful state of equality, that sameness. This is what is called in Vedanta attaining to freedom. The sign of approaching that freedom is the realization of more and more of this sameness and equality. In misery and happiness the same, in success and defeat the same – such a mind is nearing the state of freedom.
From “Vedanta and Privilege” by Swami Vivekananda, quoted from “VIVEKANANDA, WORLD TEACHER: His Teachings on the Spiritual Unity of Humankind”, Edited and with an Introduction by Swami Adiswarananda.