Oneness in practice: “Serve man Serve God”

Swami Vivekananda on his return to India, in his very first lecture reminded India that it was the message of Oneness that she had to give to the world. For that she would have to prepare herself. But how the Oneness is manifested in life? Not by just chanting of Vedas but by feeling for all those who are suffering and are in need of help. Unfortunately, the degradation that had come in the society due to various invasions was such that this Oneness was almost missing in the lives of those very people who were supposed to guide the society. They needed to be woken up from their stupor and fall. That could be done only by stating the truth forthrightly. Swami Vivekananda did not mince the words when he touched upon the hypocrisy of our practice of Dharma. He said,

“A dreadful slough is in front of you -- take care; many fall into it and die. The slough is this, that the present religion of the Hindus is not in the Vedas, nor in the Puranas, nor in Bhakti, nor in Mukti -- religion has entered into the cooking - pot. The present religion of the Hindus is neither the path of knowledge nor that of reason -- it is "Don't - touchism". "Don't touch me!" "Don't touch me!"-- that exhausts its description. See that you do not lose your lives in this dire irreligion of "Don't - touchism". Must the teaching, "looking upon all beings as your own self"-- be confined to books alone? How will they grant salvation who cannot feed a hungry mouth with a crumb of bread? How will those who become impure at the mere breath of others purify others? Don't - touchism is a form of mental disease. Beware! All expansion is life, all contraction is death. All love is expansion, all selfishness is contraction.”

Another hypocrisy was, though the people were very god-ward, the worship of God was limited to one’s poojarooms while the starving and suffering people that swarmed around were neglected. Swami Vivekananda told them,

“For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote -- this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race --"everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything." All other gods are sleeping. What vain gods shall we go after and yet cannot worship the god that we see all round us, the Virat? When we have worshipped this, we shall be able to worship all the other gods. Before we can crawl half a mile, we want to cross the ocean like Hanuman! It cannot be. Everyone going to be a Yogi, everyone going to meditate! It cannot be. …Is it a joke? It is all nonsense. What is needed is Chittashuddhi, purification of the heart. And how does that come? The first of all worship is the worship of the Virat -- of those all around us. Worship It. …These are all our gods -- men and animals; and the first gods we have to worship are our countrymen. These we have to worship, instead of being jealous of each other and fighting each other. It is the most terrible Karma for which we are suffering, and yet it does not open our eyes!”

Dharma (Way of life based on Oneness) has been life center of India. In spite of invasions after invasions she held on to her life center. Whenever there were challenges in her national life, India responded by drawing her strength and also the validation for the solution to the problems facing then on this grand truth of Oneness. For example during Islamic invasions when temples were broken and people were persecuted for going to temples and pilgrimages, came the traditions of great saints who told to worship God in the house, as God is not limited to temples and can be worshiped anywhere. Thus each house got its own temple and people could stick to their God. The British rule exploited our lands and wealth which led to utter poverty that our country had never known. A country which had the share of 33% in the world production was brought down to 1.5% by the British due to their policies of bleeding India white to death. And thus famines became the routine affairs. At times even one third population would perish in the famine affected area. At such times the earlier practice of holding on to Dharma by pooja, pilgrimages, Japa etc was improper. It did not reflect the feeling of oneness but rather a lack of it. But in a country obsessed with one's own mukti and with earlier practices for holding on to God it was a difficult task to convince people to work for the masses - the living Gods. Tirelessly, Swami Vivekananda worked to explain the concept and need of Service and to inspire the young generation to take to it. Again it was on basis of Oneness of Vedanta that Swami Vivekananda explained how ‘service to man’ is worship of God.


Selfless Service is the manifestation of the feeling of Oneness

Swami Vivekananda explained how the Selfless Service is expression of Oneness in practice, expression of God-realization and also a way for God-realization. Swamiji told to do ‘the service of Jivas in a spirit of oneness’. (Volume VII 198) For all those quoting Vedas and Vedanta he asked sternly, “Must the teaching ‘looking upon all beings as your own self"-- be confined to books alone? (VI 319)

Not even a Sanyasi according to Swami Vivekananda could be permitted to not to take to service of the needy. He wrote to his brother disciple Swami Akhandananda,

“It is preferable to live on grass for the sake of doing good to others. The Gerua robe is not for enjoyment. It is the banner of heroic work. You must give your body, mind, and speech to "the welfare of the world". You have read --"look upon your mother as God, look upon your father as God"-- but I say "-- the poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted -- let these be your God." Know that service to these alone is the highest religion.” (Vol VI 288)

That One who has manifested as many is our real Self. Aim of life is to realize that Self. Thus serving others is for one’s good as the other is only an extended form of oneself. When once a disciple asked that “What is the necessity at all for doing good to others?” Swamiji replied,

“Well, it is necessary for one's own good. We become forgetful of the ego when we think of the body as dedicated to the service of others -- the body with which most complacently we identify the ego. And in the long run comes the consciousness of disembodiness. The more intently you think of the well - being of others, the more oblivious of self you become. In this way, as gradually your heart gets purified by work, you will come to feel the truth that your own Self is pervading all beings and all things. Thus it is that doing good to others constitutes a way, a means of revealing one's own Self or Atman. Know this also to be one of the spiritual practices, a discipline for God – realization. (Volume VII p 111)

To the god-oriented society of ours which had passed through many trials and tribulations to keep its religion alive, the society which had found the way to hold on to its religion by chanting names and doing poojas in the homes when the temples for pooja and social regeneration were destroyed, he told,

"After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth -- god is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. `Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed'." (volume VII 247)


The distorting thoughts that keep us away from service

The Truth of Oneness of existence is ultimate but it needs to be applied and practiced in life as per the needs of the time. When a society is vibrant and free, then it is bold and confident enough to apply the ultimate truth to the needs of life. But when society degenerates, declines, then it holds on to the old forms which have ceased to reflect the principle. But as in earlier days those old forms had served the purpose, the society refuses to let go the old forms just like holding a body of the dear one even though the life is gone. Not ready to take to the new ways of practicing the grand truth, it gives lot of arguments. The invasions and the colonial rule had incapacitated Indians for the dynamic application of the grand truth of oneness of the existence. Swami Vivekananda worked ceaselessly through his lectures, discourses, dialogues etc to correct the distorting thoughts that kept us away from the service. The few of the distorting thoughts that even today keep us away from vibrant and dynamic service of the society are as below.

If you do not feel happy, this is not your way! Sometimes we do start working for the society but we have to work in an organized way. When we work in an organized way many a times our ego is hurt, we have to submit to others, we have even to swallow the hurts and humiliations that make us unhappy. In such a situation the argument is, 'this must not be my path as I do not feel happy. One should take to only that what makes one happy. I am not cut for this!' But this is again an escape route. It is our Dharma to serve the society – the extended form of our own self. Dharma is one of the purushartha. Purushartha means striving. Even if we feel unhappy this Dharma of fulfilling our obligations to our family, society, nation, humanity and the whole creation should not be given up. The manliness is in doing what we are supposed to do even if it is not giving happiness or fulfillment. Initially, it would not give happiness if we are too much bound to our strong notion of 'I'. But actually to get rid of this binding and blinding 'I' we have to employ ourselves in the selfless service of the society. Swami Vivekananda explains,

“As by continuing our religious practices we gradually develop a certain determined tendency for it, so by performing disinterested work over and over again, even unwillingly, we gradually find the will merging itself in it. The inclination to work for others develops in this way, do you see? Just do some such work even though unwillingly, and then see if the actual fruit of Tapasya is realised within or not. As the outcome of work for the sake of others, the angularities of the mind get smoothed down, and men are gradually prepared for sincere self - sacrifice for the good of others.”

I am spiritual; I do not want to fall into this entanglement of service to society! We have many such seekers in our society who feel that service to the society etc is a lower practice. A spiritual Seeker should not waste his time in such things as it would not help him in spiritual advancement. Such service activities may be alright in the beginning but these may be binding or may worn out the seeker who is longing for the absolute and not the relative. One of the dialogues of a disciple with Swami Vivekananda is very revealing on this issue.

Disciple asked: But, sir, what is the necessity at all for doing good to others?

Swamiji: Well, it is necessary for one's own good. We become forgetful of the ego when we think of the body as dedicated to the service of others -- the body with which most complacently we identify the ego. And in the long run comes the consciousness of disembodiness. The more intently you think of the well - being of others, the more oblivious of self you become. In this way, as gradually your heart gets purified by work, you will come to feel the truth that your own Self is pervading all beings and all things. Thus it is that doing good to others constitutes a way, a means of revealing one's own Self or Atman. Know this also to be one of the spiritual practices, a discipline for God - realisation. Its aim also is Self - realisation. Exactly as that aim is attained by Jnana (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion) and so on, also by work for the sake of others.

Disciple: But, sir, if I am to keep thinking of others day and night, when shall I contemplate on the Atman? If I rest wholly occupied with something particular and relative, how can I realise the Atman which is Absolute?

Swamiji: The highest aim of all disciplines, all spiritual paths, is the attainment of the knowledge of Atman. If you, by being devoted to the service of others and by getting your heart purified by such work, attain to the vision of all beings as the Self, what else remains to be attained in the way of Self - realisation? Would you say that Self - realisation is the state of existing as inert matter, as this wall or as this piece of wood, for instance?” (VII 111)

Such service activities actually become the source of bondage: Another distortion that is there with respect to service to the society is that such type of work makes man more tense, restless. If looking after one family can create so many tensions then looking after the society can create much more tensions. There are such persons who work for few years for the society and then tell that 'I have to go for a Sadhana or I need a break for a Sadhana.' It means the work itself had not become Sadhana for such a person. This is where the role of selfless service comes, a service which is rendered in the spirit of offering to God that is without the fruits of action, or done as the instrument of God where the thought that 'I am doing this' is absent. If service is done with selfish desires whether for name or fame it can become the source of tensions. In a dialogue a disciple asked, '...But may not that kind of continuous work become a source of bondage in the long run?' To that Swamiji replied,

“If you have no eye to the fruits of work, and if you have a passionate longing to go beyond all selfish desires, then these good works will help to break your bonds, I tell you. How thoughtless of you to say that such work will lead to bondage! Such disinterested work is the only means of rooting out the bondage due to selfish work. "There is no other way out" (Shvetasvatara Upanishad, III.8).” (Volume VII 160)

First realize the truth and then do service to the society: One more distortion that is often heard is 'unless you realize the truth you have no right or you cannot really do service to others. So first strive for the realization and then enter the service.’ Swami Vivekananda himself had first realized God and then he worked for humanity.' It is worth seeing as to what Swami Vivekananda himself says on this in his dialogue with his disciple? When the disciple asked that, 'Some say, "First of all become a Siddha (one who has realised the Truth), and then you have the right to Karma, or work for others", while others say that one should work for others even from the beginning. How can both these views be reconciled?' Swamiji answered,

“You are confusing one thing with the other. Karma means either service to humanity or preaching. To real preaching, no doubt, none has the right except the Siddha Purusha, i.e. one who has realised the Truth. But to service everyone has the right, and not only so, but everyone is under obligation to serve others, so long as he is accepting service from others.” (Volume V 319)

First set your own home in order and then think of service to others! - This is one more routine argument that is used. 'I know we should work for the society. I too want to do such work but my family; parents have taken so much care of me so first I have to fulfill their desires. I should first take care of my family, my wife, children etc who are dependent on me. Then later I shall see. Ignoring my own family how can I work for the society?' In this argument generally we forget that it is not just the family but the whole society, culture, traditions that we belong to have worked to mould us. Thus we owe to them too. And in a vision of Oneness we should clearly understand that when we take care of the 'Whole'; the Whole being interconnected, interrelated and interdependent; if it taken care of by offering our time, energy and money then part is also taken care of. This is what Sri Krishna explains in Bhagavadgita. Swami Vivekananda thus quoting the Bhagavadgita clears the doubt of his disciple in following conversation.

Disciple: What will become of those, then, who depend on me?

Swamiji: If you are ready to sacrifice your life for others, God will certainly provide some means for them. Have you not read in the Gita (VI. 40) the words of Shri Krishna, "never does a doer of good, O my beloved, come to grief"?

Disciple: I see, sir.

Swamiji: The essential thing is renunciation. Without renunciation none can pour out his whole heart in working for others. The man of renunciation sees all with an equal eye and devotes himself to the service of all.”(Volume V 381)

Let one rascal be less! There are some persons who say that, 'If I stay good that itself is a service to the world at least one rogue is less! If everyone takes care of oneself, that is enough!' But in a vision of oneness there is no ‘I’ and others. And thus for the well-being of oneself one has to be good and also do good to others who are only the extended form of the self. Swami Vivekananda says,

“The internal man is to be purified by not speaking falsehood, by not drinking, by not doing immoral acts, and by doing good to others. If you do not commit any sin, if you do not tell lies, if you do not drink, gamble, or commit theft, it is good. But that is only your duty and you cannot be applauded for it. Some service to others is also to be done. As you do good to yourself, so you must do good to others.” Volume III 360

Ultimately a person starts evolving, can raise himself higher only if he is doing good to others because 'others' are the higher, the expanded manifestation of the Self. Thus by ignoring the society there is no personal good.


The way of doing this Selfless Service

Just start doing the work, the required means would come to you - Generally the inhibition is - how can we serve people, it needs money and we do not have it. The solution is just start doing whatever you can do and the means keep coming, the plan gets unfolded. The point is worrying about many things we do not start the work. Desire remains at the desire and then eventually evaporates. While encouraging his disciple to start feeding the infirm people Swami Vivekananda told,

“In a truly noble work, not to speak of men, even God Himself befriends the doer. When people have thus been attracted, you will be able to stimulate the desire for learning and spirituality in them. Therefore the gift of food comes first. …You just find out one or two blind or infirm people and apply yourself to their service. Go and beg food for them yourself; cook with your own hands and feed them. If you continue this for some days, you will find that lots of people will be coming forward to assist you with plenty of money. "never, my son, does a doer of good come to grief." (Gita, VI.40) (Volume VII 160).”

As we work for others the inner strength is enhanced - Many a times we hesitate to start the work thinking do we have really the capacity to work for others? But as we start doing work, the inner strength increases. When once Swamiji instructed his disciple to

“Impress upon their (masses) minds that they have the same right to religion as the Brahmins. Initiate all, even down to the Chandalas (people of the lowest castes), in these fiery Mantras. Also instruct them, in simple words, about the necessities of life, and in trade, commerce, agriculture, etc. If you cannot do this, then fie upon your education and culture, and fie upon your studying the Vedas and Vedanta!

To this disciple asked apprehensively, “But where is that strength in us? I should have felt myself blessed if I had a hundredth part of your powers, Swamiji.” Swamiji thundered,

“How foolish! Power and things like that will come by themselves. Put yourself to work, and you will find such tremendous power coming to you that you will find it hard to bear. Even the least work done for others awakens the power within; even thinking the least good of others gradually instills into the heart the strength of a lion. I love you all ever so much, but I wish you all to die working for others -- I should rather be glad to see you do that! …Don't you see how Sister Nivedita, a British lady, has learnt to serve Indians so well, by doing even menial work for them? And can't you, being Indians, similarly serve your own fellow - countrymen? Go, all of you, wherever there is an outbreak of plague or famine, or wherever the people are in distress, and mitigate their sufferings. At the most you may die in the attempt -- what of that? How many like you are being born and dying like worms every day? What difference does that make to the world at large? Die you must, but have a great ideal to die for, and it is better to die with a great ideal in life. Preach this ideal from door to door, and you will yourselves be benefited by it at the same time that you are doing good to your country. On you lie the future hopes of our country. I feel extreme pain to see you leading a life of inaction. Set yourselves to work -- to work! Do not tarry -- the time of death is approaching day by day! Do not sit idle, thinking that everything will be done in time, later on! Mind -- nothing will be done that way!” (Volume V 381-382)

Do it in an organized way – Selfless service needs to be done in an organized way so as to reach out to many, to bring and involve those who want to work, to learn to be part of the bigger ‘I’ and to give permanency to the work. Swami Vivekananda saw that in America the people did not wait for some superman to come and do the difficult task. But they organized themselves and combining the good in them achieved great things. Swami Vivekananda continuously wrote to his disciples and brother disciples to organize to do good to the people. In one of his letters to his brother disciple he wrote,

“I am giving you a new idea. If you can work it out, then I shall know you are men and will be of service. . . . Make an organized plan. …You have got lots of poor and ignorant folk there. Go to their cottages, from door to door, in the evening, at noon, any time -- and open their eyes. Books etc., won't do -- give them oral teaching. Then slowly extend your centres. Can you do all this? Or only bell - ringing?” (Volume VI 289)

Do it without any expectations- When one starts working for the others it is again getting entangled in so many tensions and stresses. Thus many feel that it is better not to get caught into this. But when we are part of the world can we stand aside? Many start the work either themselves or in some organization and then experience lot of blows to their ideas and feelings. Whether for others or for our selfish end, every action does bring the bondages and tensions. Does that mean we stay without actions? Is it really possible? Swami Vivekananda explained this,

“This world's wheel within wheel is a terrible mechanism; if we put our hands in it, as soon as we are caught we are gone. …There are only two ways out of it; one is to give up all concerns with the machine, to let it go and stand aside, to give up our desires. That is very easy to say, but is almost impossible to do. …The other way is to plunge into the world and learn the secret of work, and that is the way of Karma-Yoga. Do not fly away from the wheels of the world - machine, but stand inside it and learn the secret of work. Through proper work done inside, it is also possible to come out. Through this machinery itself is the way out.

…Although this universe will go on always, our goal is freedom, our goal is unselfishness; and according to Karma-Yoga, that goal is to be reached through work. …The Karma-Yogi asks why you require any motive to work other than the inborn love of freedom. Be beyond the common worldly motives. "To work you have the right, but not to the fruits thereof." Man can train himself to know and to practise that, says the Karma-Yogi. When the idea of doing good becomes a part of his very being, then he will not seek for any motive outside. Let us do good because it is good to do good; he who does good work even in order to get to heaven binds himself down, says the Karma-Yogi. Any work that is done with any the least selfish motive, instead of making us free, forges one more chain for our feet.

So, the only way is to give up all the fruits of work, to be unattached to them. Know that this world is not we, nor are we this world; that we are really not the body; that we really do not work. We are the Self, eternally at rest and at peace. Why should we be bound by anything? It is very good to say that we should be perfectly non - attached, but what is the way to do it? Every good work we do without any ulterior motive, instead of forging a new chain, will break one of the links in the existing chains. Every good thought that we send to the world without thinking of any return, will be stored up there and break one link in the chain, and make us purer and purer, until we become the purest of mortals.” (Volume I 114)


Let us organize ourselves in the name of Swami Vivekananda to serve others

Swami Vivekananda after his hectic tour in the West return to India thinking he could have some respite to recoup his health. But he found India was eagerly waiting to listen to him, to receive his message, to get his guidance. Naturally he could not back out. He had a message and a very bold message at that! He knew India who has to guide the world in spirituality, in acquiring this vision of Oneness, first needs to be capable of delivering the message. India needed to be awakened to her heritage and purpose so that the world could be enlightened, the humanity could further proceed. Thus he worked relentlessly, toured from Columbo to Almorah, gave lectures, met groups of people, made disciples, moulded them, inspired youth to work for the country. This message of 'Serve man Serve God' which he gave boldly inspired many men and women. The freedom movement itself owes its inspiration and momentum to this great soul. He revitalized India, she started surging ahead. If today the world looks towards India as the up-coming world-power the inspiration has been of Swami Vivekananda’s.

The 150thBirth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda is a great occasion again to take up his message, to put it in action in various fields. Swami Vivekananda had great faith in the younger generation. Youth can come forward on this occasion and organize themselves in their own locality, college or village and take up some work for service of the society. Youth can render organized service in the name of Swami Vivekananda in that field which is their core strength or their interest or the need of the area. It would be a great tribute to Swami Vivekananda on his 150th birth anniversary.

The youth can organize themselves to guide regularly the younger students of local schools in their studies. As Swamiji had told 'muscles of iron and nerves of steel', the youth could start an Akhada – a body building association where everyday exercises, sits-up, suryanamaskars etc are done. It is the confidence in the strong body that can help youth to develop their personality as well as for self-protection. Youth can also organize themselves to work among the people either in a locality or a village to create awareness and suitable action about the water-management, cleanliness, upgradation of knowledge, protection of environment, the consumerism that is consuming our families, traditions, natural resources etc. First take up a simple survey to assess the need of the area where work is to be done, then make a plan with the basic core team available and start the work without any expectations of name, fame or wealth. To keep the vision of the work clear and also for maintaining the team dynamics, weekly meets can be organized for review and planning and also for studying Swami Vivekananda and the application of his ideas in the field selected for the service. If this self-less service is not lost sight of, then the selflessness of the youth coupled with their dynamism and their organized strength would create immense impact on the society. This practice of oneness would help raise the society. Oneness is not a subject to be taught but it is radiated when lived and practiced. Selfless service of the people is the best means to practice it. Swami Vivekananda’s clarion call is propelling us today,
“Arise! Awake!! And stop not till the goal is reached!”

published date: 
Wed, 02/29/2012
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