Jeffery D. Long
The question of how we ought to feel and act towards those whom we perceive as ‘other’ has become quite urgent in the Trump era. Are those who are differ from us, whoever ‘we’ happen to be, to be feared and hated for these differences? Should we be building walls, both literally and figuratively, between ourselves and these others, with whom we inhabit this planet? To cite the title of a recent album by Roger Waters, “Is this the life we really want?”
What might Swami Vivekananda have said about the subject of tolerance and intolerance, were this wise sage with us today? Answering this question, actually, does not require much speculation, because Swamiji spoke on a number of occasions on this very topic.
In his first major public appearance in the West, at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Swamiji said of the Hindu tradition, which he represented, “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.”
This ideal of universal acceptance, and of accepting all religions as true, is often attacked today as incoherently teaching that “all religions are the same”–a statement which is quite easily refuted as false. But the statement that “all religions are the same” is not, in fact, an accurate summary of Swami Vivekananda’s teaching; for Swamiji was well aware of the deep differences amongst the world’s religions. He addressed this objection in a 1900 lecture called “The Way to the Realisation of a Universal Religion.” He said, “How can contradictory opinions be true at the same time? This is the question which I intend to answer. But I will first ask you: 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. 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?”
Swamiji immediately answers his own question by saying, “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.” Rather than seeing the various religions as mutually exclusive, Swamiji expresses a vision of each religion as adding something to humanity’s total vision of the truth. “It is, therefore, addition, not exclusion. That is the idea. And this is the march of humanity. Man never progresses from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lesser truth to higher truth–but it is never from error to truth.”
This last point about proceeding from lesser truth to higher truth is important; for what Swami Vivekananda is expressing is not what is often called “relativism,” if we take this to mean the view that all perspectives are of equal value. Swamiji does have an idea of “lesser truth” and “higher truth,” which of course implies a standard by which the degrees of truth are to be determined.
For Swami Vivekananda, a committed Hindu, this standard is the Vedas. He says in a 1902 essay titled “Hinduism and Shri Ramakrishna,” “Although the supersensuous vision of truths is to be met with in some measure in our Puranas and Itihasas [stories of deities and histories of human dynasties] and in the religious scriptures of other races, still the fourfold scripture known…as the Vedas being the first, the most complete, and the most undistorted collection of spiritual truths, deserve to occupy the highest place among all scriptures, command the respect of all nations of the earth, and furnish the rationale of all their respective scriptures.”
Before we conclude, though, that Swami Vivekananda, like so many religious people, is simply affirming the superiority of his own tradition, we need to note that he also states that the written Vedas, although having the pride of place among the world’s scriptures he describes, are but a manifestation of the eternal, non-man-made (apaurusheya) Veda: “It may sound ludicrous to this audience–how a book can be without beginning or end; but by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.”
In summary, for Swami Vivekananda, those scriptures known as the Vedas and held to be sacred by Hindus are the pre-eminent scriptures, “the first, the most complete, and the most undistorted collection of spiritual truths.” But they are not the only true scriptures, for “the supersensuous vision of truths is to be met with in some measure…in the religious scriptures of other races,” and the Vedas in the highest, eternal sense, refer to “the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.” In other words, Veda, for Swami Vivekananda, refers to all spiritual truth, found in many religions and philosophies, as well as in modern science. The Sanskrit word Veda, at its root, means knowledge; and knowledge, according to Swami Vivekananda, is universal.
If one’s perspective is informed by Swami Vivekananda, then, one will view the various religions with, on the one hand, a critical eye, mindful that religions are not all the same, and that there are lesser and higher levels of truth, but also with an open mind, aware also that the eternal Vedas have been manifested everywhere, in various forms, appropriate to the times and places and peoples to whom they were revealed.
The attitude that stems from this perspective is not one of mere tolerance, according to Swami Vivekananda. Tolerance is certainly better than intolerance. But even tolerance falls far short of the highest ideal. Swamiji asks, “Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a 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.” “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.”
It is not clear whether he was aware of this, but when Swami Vivekananda, at the end of the nineteenth century, was proclaiming universal acceptance as the Hindu ideal, he was echoing the similar words of George Washington, written a century earlier to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island. Eschewing mere ‘tolerance,’ Washington writes, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean [conduct] themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
The Hindu and American traditions, at their best, converge upon this ideal of acceptance, as opposed to mere tolerance: seeing the other as a potential holder of universal wisdom, not as a threat to be feared.
Jeffery D. Long is Professor of Religion and Asian Studies at Elizabethtown College.