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Vedanta Conference, 2013

University of Massachusetts, New Dartmouth

Swami Vivekananda and Religious Pluralism


Jeffery D. Long
Professor of Religion & Asian Studies, Elizabethtown College
Introduction:
Among Swami Vivekanandas most significant contributions to global culture are
his reflections on religious pluralism, which can be defined broadly as the idea that there
is truth to be found in many religious traditions, and not only one. Inspired by his master,
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda articulated a vision of interreligious
harmony and cooperation that is even more desperately needed today than it was over a
century ago, when Swamiji proclaimed it at the 1893 Chicago Parliament of the Worlds
Religions. This paper will present some of the main features of Swami Vivekanandas
thought on religious pluralism, such as the distinction between acceptance and tolerance,
the fact that the worlds religions are not all the same, the idea of non-conversion, and
the idea of mutual enrichment among diverse traditions.
Beyond Tolerance to Universal Acceptance
In a world marked by violence and pronounced intolerance amongst the adherents
of diverse worldviews, one hears a good deal about the virtues of tolerance, and calls for
tolerance are an increasingly prominent feature of public discourse. But well intentioned
as these calls certainly are, is mere toleration of difference the best that humanity can do?
Swami Vivekananda envisioned inter-religious relations that would go far beyond
the secular ideal of tolerance, in which practitioners of diverse traditions merely co-exist,
toward an ideal of universal acceptance. In his famous first address at the Parliament of
the Worlds Religions, he says of the Hindu tradition, I am proud to belong to a religion
which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only
in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.1 Tolerance is, of course, far
preferable to intolerance. It is, however, a lesser virtue when compared with acceptance.
1

Vivekananda, Volume 1, p. 3

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In a 1900 lecture entitled The Way to the Realisation of a Universal Religion,


Swamiji draws a stark distinction between the lesser virtue of tolerancewhich he goes so
far as to equate with blasphemyand the much greater virtue of acceptance, saying, Our
watchword, then, will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only toleration, for so-called
toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance.2 His
rejection of tolerance is clearly not an endorsement of intolerance, but a call to move to
the even higher plane of acceptance. As he explains, Why should I tolerate? Toleration
means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live? I accept all religions that were
in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him.3
As I sometimes ask my students, if one of your friends were to say to you today,
I tolerate you, would that be a compliment? How do we feel if someone tells us that
they merely tolerate us? What gives them the right to decide who is allowed to exist and
who is not? And what gives us the right to do that to another? We would of course not
want to face the alternative of intolerance, which is all too prevalent in the world today.
But tolerance alone is not enough. We can tolerate someone while ignoring them. But to
truly see the divine in all, which is what Vedanta teaches us to do, we must go beyond the
minimum requirement of tolerance and move toward acceptance. We must see the other
not as other, but as our very own.
Indeed, this is the teaching, not only of Swami Vivekananda, but also of the Holy
Mother, Sarada Devi, who tells all of us, Learn to make the world your own. Nobody is
a stranger. The whole world is your own.4 This is true acceptance, based on the deep
Vedantic insight of the fundamental unity and inter-connectedness of all beings.

Vivekananda, Volume 2, pp. 373-374


Ibid
4
Dasgupta, p. 122
3

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One can perhaps draw a parallel between these three states of beingintolerance,
tolerance, and acceptanceand the Yogachara Buddhist teaching of the three levels of
truth: falsehood (corresponding to intolerance, which sees the other as a threat that cannot
be allowed to exist), relative truth (corresponding to tolerance, which sees the other as a
being with its own integrity and value that must be allowed to exist despite its
problematic otherness), and absolute truth (corresponding to acceptance, which realizes
the ultimate non-duality of self and other). As one moves through progressively higher
states of realization, one moves from a deluded identification with the physical body and
its various adjuncts (such as relations of family, ethnicity, nationality, and even species),
which can be destroyed and therefore need to be protected from the strange and different,
to an intellectual identification with the whole (issuing in the virtue of tolerance, needed
for the survival of civilization, but woefully inadequate to a higher spirituality), to the full
realization of ones unity with the whole, issuing in and also sustained and facilitated by
the virtue of acceptance.
Were One, but were not the same
To paraphrase, however, my friend and colleague Anantanand Rambachan, nonduality is not to be confused with simple oneness. Or to quote the famous song by U2,
Were one, but were not the same. The universal acceptance that Swami Vivekananda
teaches should not be taken to mean that all religions are simply the same. Critics of
what some call Swami Vivekanandas radical universalism have either misunderstood
or distorted his religious pluralism as a teaching that all religions are the same. They
have then attacked this straw man position, which in fact bears little or no resemblance to
Swamijis actual teaching on this subject.
Some also deride this teaching as a form of relativismthe view that everything is
true, and therefore nothing is true. Relativism, a form of skepticism, is rooted in the idea
that we can never really know the truth, and therefore all attempts to express truth are of
equal value.
3

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The harmony of religions, however, is rooted not in skepticism, but rather in the
awarenessrealized by Sri Ramakrishna directly, through his many sadhanasthat truth
can be realized, and that this is indeed possible by means of a variety of paths: the many
systems of belief and practice that make up the shared human inheritance.
Contrary to the claims of some critics who, even today, deride the perspective that
he offered, Swamiji was fully aware of the logical, philosophical problems involved in
claiming that all religions are true. He even posed this question himself. How can all
these varieties be true? If one thing is true, its negation is false. How can contradictory
opinions be true at the same time?5
One approach to this question is to argue that the various contradictions among
the teachings of the worlds religions are superficial, or merely apparent, and that there is
a much deeper agreement and harmony among the religions than appears to be the case at
first glance. Swamiji hints at this approach when he asks, Are all the religions of the
world really contradictory? I do not mean the external forms in which great thoughts are
clad. I do not mean the different buildings, languages, rituals, books, etc. employed in
various religions, but I mean the internal soul of every religion.6 This suggests that one
might be able to discern an inner essence of religionstheir internal soulthat they
share, distinguishing this inner essence from that which is superficial, or merely external.
This is the idea of the perennial philosophy championed by Aldous Huxley and by
other intellectuals influenced by the Vedanta movement, such as Huston Smith. It is the
idea of the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things
and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even
identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places mans final end in the knowledge of
the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.7

Vivekananda, Volume 2, p. 365


Ibid
7
Huxley, p. vii
6

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The perennial philosophy that Huxley describes is essentially Vedanta. Vedanta


recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and mindsthe
infinite Brahman. It includes the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to,
or even identical with, divine Reality in the form of its teaching of the non-duality of the
Atman and Brahmantattvamasi, aham brahmasmi, sarvam khalvidam Brahman. And its
ethic places our final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of
all being. Swamiji taught that Vedanta was not only a Hindu system of philosophy, but
that it is a universal philosophy underlying all religions and philosophies. To be sure, it
is a philosophy that finds particularly clear and powerful expression in the teaching of the
Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. But it is nonetheless a universal, human inheritance.
Some have questioned, though, whether this response to the question of the many
disagreements among the worlds religions is too simplistic. By reducing the religions of
the world to those areas where they agree with one another and with Vedanta philosophy,
does one not do violence to their rich diversity? Is this truly acceptance, or is it forcing
the other into our own preconceived mold, perhaps in a way that would preclude any real
dialogue, where we might learn something different from the other? This question has
been posed with particular sharpness by adherents (including myself) of the perspective
known as deep religious pluralism, which seeks to advance a vision of pluralism that is
not bought at the expense of genuine differences among religious traditions.8
Significantly, Swami Vivekananda anticipated the criticism that the perennialist
approach reduces all religions to a common denominator without respecting their genuine
differences and articulated over a century ago the central point that made recently by the
proponents of deep religious pluralism. In his own words, Every religion has a soul
behind it, and that soul may differ from the soul of another religion; but are they contradictory? Do they contradict or supplement each other?that is the question.9
8
9

See David Ray Griffin, ed., Deep Religious Pluralism (John Knox Westminster Press, 2005).
Vivekananda, Volume 2, p. 365.

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Again, Swamiji does not affirm that all religions are the same. Each religion is
distinct. It has its own soul. And while contradictions may indeed obtain among the
doctrines and the practices that have been formed on the basis of its core idealsnot only
among religions, but even within the same religion, leading to division and sectarianism
Swamiji poses the question: Do the core insights of the various religions necessarily
conflict? Or might these central ideals be logically compatiblein Swamijis words
supplementary? Might it be that each religion represents a core ideal, and that these
ideals are not contradictory, despite each being distinct? Might they even be mutually
affirming?
Swamiji takes a side on this issue: I believe that they are not contradictory; they
are supplementary. Each religion, as it were, takes up one part of the great universal
truth, and spends its whole force in embodying and typifying that part of the great truth.
It is, therefore, addition, not exclusion. That is the idea. System after system arises, each
one embodying a great idea, and ideals must be added to ideals. And this is the march of
humanity.10
Swami Vivekanandas approach to religious diversity has definite implications for
human conduct in the face of the great variety of beliefs and practices that exist. When
one encounters a religious or philosophical claim that is contrary to ones own view, the
proper attitude to take is to adhere to ones own view, but simultaneously to be open to
the possibility that a kernel of trutha genuine insight into an aspect of reality that one
has not yet consideredmust rest at the core of the worldview of the other. This is not
relativismthrowing up ones hands in despair and asking rhetorically, Well, who really
knows the truth? Nor is it absolutism: clinging to ones view while rejecting all others.
It is a middle patha third waybetween these two extremes toward which conversations
about religious pluralism tend to veer.

10

Ibid, pp. 365-366

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Pravrajika Vrajaprana summarizes Vivekanandas approach to religious diversity


when she writes that, The worlds spiritual traditions are like different pieces in a giant
jigsaw puzzle: each piece is different and each piece is essential to complete the whole
picture. Each piece is to be honored and respected while holding firm to our own
particular piece of the puzzle. We can deepen our own spirituality and learn about our
own tradition by studying other faiths. Just as importantly, by studying our own tradition
well, we are better able to appreciate the truth in other tradition. 11 Swamijis emphasis
on the fact that the ideals of the religions do differ is important to highlight, particularly
given the fact that critics of religious pluralism have often attacked this position with the
argument that it is absurd to assert that all religions are essentially the same when they
are very clearly quite different from one another.12 As Vrajaprana points out, This is not
to say that all religions are pretty much the same. That is an affront to the distinct
beauty and individual greatness of each of the worlds spiritual traditions. Saying that
every religion is equally true and authentic doesnt mean that one can be substituted for
the other like generic brands of aspirin.13

A religion is like a medicine: not all

medicines are alike, but all have the power to healor to harm, if taken under the wrong
conditions.
To say the worlds religions are distinct, but that their central ideals are logically
compatible, is quite different from saying that they are the same. Swamijis teaching on
religious pluralism affirms the differences among the worlds religions: that the ideal to
which each is oriented is distinct. These ideals, however, like the pieces of a jigsaw
puzzle, are each part of the great universal truth. They are not the same, nor are they
interchangeable. But their basic truth can be accepted and affirmed, and practitioners of
each tradition can learn from and share the insights of the others.

11

Vrajaprana, pp. 56-57


See, for example, Frank Morales.
13
Vrajaprana, pp. 56-57
12

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Dialogue: Not Conversion, but Mutual Enrichment


This is a point to which Swami Vivekananda gives special emphasis: that interreligious dialogue is integral to the process of spiritual evolution for each person in every
religious tradition. The specific form that this process will take will differ from person to
person, and of course from tradition to tradition. But all who engage in it will benefit
spiritually. This is not a project of conversion, but of mutual enrichment. As Swamiji
explains, Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish
that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid. The seed is put in the
ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth,
or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant, it develops after the law of its own
growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance,
and grows into a plant. Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become
a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must
assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to
his own law of growth.14
Having been drawn, myself, from the practice of the Roman Catholic Christian
tradition in which I was raised to the practice of Hinduism, I do not believe that Swamiji
is here disallowing the fact that one might be drawn to a particular tradition and begin to
practice and identify with it, even if it is different from the tradition into which one was
born. He is saying that it is not necessary for everyone to practice the same tradition: that
what matters is not ones religious label, but the spirit behind ones practice.
The ideal of a universal religion of which Swami Vivekananda speaks is not of
a single religion conquering and replacing all others. It is an ideal, rather, of what one
might call a commonwealth of religions, each learning from and assimilating the ideals of
the others while continuing to develop in its own distinctive way.

14

CW 1, p. 24

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As Swamiji explains, My idea is that all these religions are different forces in
the economy of God, working for the good of mankind; and that not one can become
dead, not one can be killed. Just as you cannot kill any force in nature, so you cannot kill
any one of these spiritual forces. You have seen that each religion is living. From time
to time it may retrograde or go forward. At one time, it may be shorn of a good many of
its trappings; at another it may be covered with all sorts of trappings; but all the same, the
soul is ever there, it can never be lost. The ideal which every religion represents is never
lost, and so every religion is intelligently on the march.15
Conclusion
Swami Vivekanandas ideal of universal acceptance, of diverse religions as being
not so much contradictory as complementary, as forming distinct pieces of a vast jigsaw
puzzle, as participating, each in its own way, in a broader, transcendent vision of the
reality that we all share and inhabit, is even more relevant today than it was when he first
articulated it, over a century ago. It has, fortunately, become an influential ideal in the
Western world. But it is not yet shared by all.
Swamiji said at the end of his first address to the Parliament of World Religions,
I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may
be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen,
and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.16
It is a deep and tragic irony that this speech was delivered on September 11, 1893that is,
precisely 108 years to the day before the notorious attacks which, for many in our time,
have come to symbolize that very fanaticism, persecution, and hatred which Swamiji so
fervently hoped would be ended in his time. Clearly, much work remains to be done to
realize Swami Vivekanandas fervent hope.

15
16

CW 2, p. 366
Vivekananda, Volume 1, p. 4

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As long as there is religious bigotry, and as long as violence is carried out in the
name of religion, the need for Swami Vivekanandas vision will be pressing and urgent.
This becomes all the more evident when one takes into account the destructive capacities
that our ever-increasing technological abilities make available to an ever-widening pool
of actors on the global stage.
The urgent need to save our world from destruction by promoting the Vedantic
vision of universal acceptance compels us, in Swamijis words, to, Arise, awake, and
stop not until the goal is reached!

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