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Vedanta and Liberalism || Acharya Prashant, at Arth : A Culture Fest (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
10 min
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Questioner (Q): For the uninitiated, the common people, many people ask because of the various concepts and regions around the world — Heaven, Hell, ‘you will get that’, hell fire. So many concepts are there. Are they fanciful imaginations or were they merely symbolic or are they metaphoric?

Acharya Prashant (AP): They are neither imaginary nor symbolic. They are very, very real. In fact, they're more real than the life we lead, the breath we take. Vedant, it's Niralamba Upanishad, I suppose, that puts it very succinctly: Right company is heaven. Wrong company is hell. You don't have to think of heaven and hell as afterlife. You don't have to think of other dimensions or other worlds, other lokas (worlds). Both heaven and hell are here right now. And this is not a recent, modern or liberal point of view. This is coming from our most ancient scriptures. They are saying, “You don't have to look towards the future, you don't have to look towards anywhere else. Heaven and hell are both exactly where you are standing right now in this moment. If you are someone who loves to be with people who will take him towards truth, towards joy, towards simplicity, you are in heaven already. And if you surround yourself with people who pull down your consciousness, who muddle up your mind, then verily you are, right now, in hell.

Q: Just being the devil’s advocate. I'm not calling your liberal friends devils, but just asking a question from their point. Being a devil advocate, many people say what is presently described as Vedic wisdom was to a large extent initiated and reinterpreted by Swami Vivekananda in the last century. I know they say that the word ‘Karma’ used to mean rituals in Vedas, signifying ‘Yajña’ (sacrifice) but Vivekananda reinterpreted through the modern sensibilities. So, ‘Karma’ originally meant something else. Right now, it is being reinterpreted as actions.

AP: Those who say this are probably factually right, and yet, totally wrong when it comes to the truth. You see, please understand. The Vedas are literature and Vedanta is their philosophy. There's a difference between literature and philosophy, and it’s juvenile to talk of literature sans its underlying philosophy. It's very right that the opening part, the first part of the Vedas is mostly ‘Karm-Kand’, ritualistic and it's right that the second part, the latter part is Vedanta, specifically the concluding part. They are inseparable. To pit these two against each other is not wise at all. So more importance, when it comes to philosophy, has to be given to the Upanishads and the Upanishads have no place for rituals or Karm-Kand as such. They are the Gyan-Khand or Gyan-Kand (realm of knowledge). So, it's not as if the intellectual part or the philosophical part has been recently superimposed upon or rather foisted on the Vedas. Vedanta is the very juice, the very essence of Vedas and all that Swami Vivekanand was doing was that he was bringing out the Vedantic essence as against mere ritualism.

Unfortunately, it had happened in his time around a hundred, hundred fifty years back that people had become more interested, as they actually always have been, in mere mechanical repetition of traditions and this and that and rituals and very little attention comparatively was being paid towards the Jewels, the fundamental philosophy, which is contained in the Upanishads. So, that's the reason he stressed so much on Vedanta. He stressed on Vedanta. He didn't reinterpret Vedanta as per the liberal values. Stressing on something is one thing, and the thing that he's stressing on has been ever existent since the ancient times.

Q: I believe that's beautifully articulated rather than reinterpreting, Vivekananda reemphasized, stressed or highlighted the Veda part.

There is another aspect, especially since these things are intimately connected to our history, many people say that India had a very vibrant pre-Vedic civilization and yoga, temples were a part of it. But this Vedic wisdom is not indigenous in one sense, or it was not very true to us. So, this Vedic wisdom was more of a pastoral nature, what they call our own name and the Aryan stuff. So, how do you respond to such a historical representation?

AP: First of all, the most fundamental thing is, that seekers of Truth are concerned with the Truth, not really with the personalities surrounding it or the historical source it is coming from. However, if rather than the Truth, one is more interested in the historical facts, then let us please understand that Vedanta itself is totally independent of all histories and personalities and everything that is contained in time.

Does Vedanta tell you that you have to listen to a particular person? That you have to listen to a particular Rishi or Sage? Even the names of the sages that blessed us with the verses are not all known to us. We do not have to follow the name of one towering personality, be it a Buddha, or our prophet, that's not how Vedanta works. So, it might be so that the Sages were looking in all possible directions to seek knowledge, to seek inspiration, to observe everything that is available to them. And I would say that this is their greatness. If you are really a Sage, why would you confine yourself to your narrow courtery or something? And that's the reason why we have so many Upanishads, and that is the reason Upanishads were compiled over a period of so many centuries, and that is also the reason why, at the superficial level, you sometimes also see contradictions there.

This is the greatness, this is the beauty of a real seeker that he doesn't care for boundaries. And also, when he teaches, he says, “This teaching is not limited to the boundary of my persona. Sometimes, I'm not even willing to tell you my name.” I'm not saying that the world of some heavenly power has come down through this particular person or that this particular stream has to be named after a particular person or a series of persons or one group or something. It's an open-source thing. And that makes it all the more venerable.

Q: And just imagine the greatness of those timeless saints who gave us eternal wisdom and didn't even bother to write their names. It is eternal wisdom. It doesn't belong to you or me.

AP: They were not very particular to not write their names. It didn't mean to them enough even to make it a rule that they have to remain anonymous. So, sometimes we do get to hear their names, as if names don't matter at all.

Q: Are they not the real egoless or that selfless wisdom? And especially, in the past century, we can see that ‘Back To Vedas’ was a great moment initiated by all the great reformers. And Acharya Prashant is one of those rare people who still can take on blind superstitions and can fight against it. You know, it's a very politically inconvenient topic and incorrect topic. So, when you deal with such things, what is the social reaction you get?

AP: See at the superficial level, we get battered from all sides. But at a deep level, I very well know that what I'm saying is something each of us is thirsty for. So, even if people resist and they resist for various reasons. There are some who resist because I am talking of Vedanta, which is quite old and then there are some who say that “The ‘Sanghita’ part of the Vedas is older than Vedanta, why aren't you talking of that?” So, people on the left and people on the right, all find their own reasons to offer resistance. Irrespective of that, the fact is the ones we are, we all want the light. We all want to be liberated. We all have a certain hidden love for Truth. It's that love I am banking on.

I know that my best friend lives even within my most rabid opponent. And it's that best friend, I rely so much on. Your depths; the core of your mind, is seeking exactly what Vedanta is bringing to you. You will have to go to Vedanta even if in some other name. You may not call it ‘Vedanta’, you may go to Vedanta via some, let's say, an author who is relying on Vedant and yet not acknowledging it, but it's ultimately Vedanta that would redeem you.

Q: So call Rose by any other name? And how can Vedanta, now connecting to nation building, how can this Upanishadic wisdom bring forth a national rejuvenation; a nation building process?

AP: You see, we just talked of what heaven is and what hell is. We do require the right company. The right Company is very important. What really is a nation? A nation is people brought together by shared values, by something that they share. That something that they share could be ethnicity, could be language, could be their formal religion could even be their dress or their food habits. We will have to live together, since we are born as bodies, we will seek company. The question is: What is the foundation of that company? On what basis are we having that company? So, it translates into ‘What really is the basis of the nationhood?’ Now nations will exist, I'm not talking of countries, I'm talking of nations. Nations will exist. It's just that they must exist on the right foundations.

And I take Vedanta as just the right foundation for any nation, specifically the Indian nation. In fact, I clearly see that the true foundation of the Indian nation is any way Vedanta. Today, we don't really have much time, but another day, another opportunity, I would love to elaborate on how anyway, Bharat has nothing but Vedanta as its glue; as the point where everything emanates from.

So, that has to be recognized and that has to be acknowledged. And that is not something sectarian or region specific. That's not something divisive. If you acknowledge that, then you really get people on one platform based on extremely sublime values. And that would do good to all of us, irrespective of our faith, irrespective of our gender, irrespective of our persuasions and ideology. The foundation of the Indian nation is Vedanta and has to be Vedanta.

Q: And Vivekananda used to brilliantly articulate that every nation has a character and that character of India is spirituality.

AP: Yes. Wonderful!

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