Hailed as one of modem India's cultural heroes, Swami Vivekananda (1863- 1902) has been credited not only with interpreting Hinduism to the west but with interpreting it to India itself. Despite his pervasive influence, critical assessments and attempts to "demythologize" Vivekananda have been rare, and rarer still are historical and hermeneutical clarification' of his work. The Limits of Scripture offers a close examination of Vivekananda's understanding of the authority of sruti (the Vedas) and its relationship to anubhava (personal experience). Beginning with an analysis of western influences and Hindu responses in the nineteenth century, Anantanand Rambachan moves on to a careful explication of Vivekananda's understanding of the Vedas, the nature and scope of their authority, and the hermeneutical principles employed by him in his approach to the texts. Throughout the discussion, the author also clarifies the generally overlooked distinctions between Vivekananda's view of anubhava as the source of liberating knowledge and that of Sankara (ca. 788-820), the principal systematize and exponent of the Advaita tradition, who argued for the Vedas as the authoritative source of this knowledge.
The task of critically distinguishing Sankara and Vivekananda has not been thoroughly accomplished elsewhere and is crucial for understanding religious and philosophical change in modern Indian thought.
In addition this work evaluates the coherence and consistency of Vivekananda's reinterpretations, drawing attention to important problems in his claim for the supremacy of personal . experience, his arguments for "many paths to the same goal," and his attempts to reconcile the insights of Hinduism with the methods and findings of science. In undertaking this assessment and analysis, The Limits of Scripture makes a real contribution to the understanding of Vivekananda's legacy, Indian religions, and the wider study of religion.
Anantanand Rambachan is associate professor of religion at Saint Olaf College in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Philosophy East and West, Religion, Religious Studies, and Journal of Dharma.
The Various traditions of Hinduism are almost unanimous in the view that ignorance (avidyta) of absolute reality, however conceived, is the fundamental human predicament and the cause of suffering. The right knowledge of reality, therefore, becomes necessary for liberation from bondage and the attainment of happiness. Identifying the nature and source of this liberating knowledge and clarifying the means for its attainment are central concerns of these traditions.
In the particular case of the Advaita (nondual) tradition, with which this study is concerned, ignorance, as far as the individual is concerned, consists of an erroneous understanding of self (atman). The self is wrongly identified with the limited and changing qualities of the body and the mind and considered as being subject to birth, aging, and death. Its true nature as identical with the infinite reality of the universe (namely, brahman) and free from all limitations remains unknown. Liberation (moksa) is the correction of wrong notions about the self and an assimilated and doubtless knowledge of its true nature. It is the appreciation of oneself to be a full and complete being.
It will become obvious, however, that, while there is consensus within the Advaita tradition about the content of liberating knowl- edge, its interpreters cannot agree about the authoritative source of this knowledge or about' the means by which it is attained. There are differences, for example, in the significance attributed to personal experience (anubhava) or to the scripture. It is with the clarification and assessment of these differences that this study is concerned. Since liberation is the highest goal of existence in Hinduism and right knowledge the means to its attainment, it is easy to appreciate the centrality of this issue.
My first encounter with Advaita Vedanta and the literature of neo- Hinduism was through the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863- 1902). My reading of Vivekananda convinced me that, as far as Advaita, and indeed Hinduism as a whole, was concerned, the authoritative source of knowledge was a very special experience (anubhava) that revealed beyond any doubts the basic truths about the meaning of human existence.
This experience was presented as the very core of Hinduism, the only meaningful end to be sought after and the culmination of the Hindu spiritual journey. It was affirmed as offering the possibility of a direct insight into the nature of reality and, therefore, as the only ultimately credible source of spiritual knowledge. In relation to the knowledge of matters beyond the range of sense apprehension, Vivekananda asserted that this experience afforded a directness and conclusiveness that could be likened only to ordinary sense perception. Anubhava was presented by him as possessing a self-valid quality that obviated the need for faith or reliance on any source of spiritual knowledge that one could not personally verify. In fact, all authoritative sources were subordinate to anubhava, and all spiritual disciplines were intended only for its attainment.
Along with my understanding of the paramount epistemological status of this experience, I also gathered, from Vivekananda, what I considered, at that time, to be the established view of the Vedas or sruti in Advaita and Hinduism. Sruti was just a record, in words, of this experience as attained by others. At best, it informed us of what they had attained and the means that they employed. The aspirant, however, could not simply rely with faith on this testimony, which was only a secondhand report. As the testimony of another, the knowledge that one may gain by a study of the sruti lacks conclusiveness and free- dom from doubt. This knowledge is presented by Vivekananda as "theoretical" information that cannot lead to liberation (moksa). To be definitive, this knowledge had to be verified, and this was possible only through a similar direct experience. As a source of knowledge, therefore, even the sruti was subordinate to anubhava.
My subsequent study of the commentaries of Sankara (ca. 788- 820), the principal systematizer and exponent of the Advaita system, convinced me of a radically different understanding of the nature and function of the sruti in relation to the gain of liberating knowledge. This understanding centered around Sankara's treatment of sruti as sabda-pramana, a source of valid knowledge (pramana) composed of words (sabda). This view of the scripture, with all its implications, was in thorough and remarkable contrast to the status and functions assigned to sruti in Vivekananda's representation of Advaita. The sabda-pramana approach offered a very different rationale for the necessity of the scripture.
Unlike Vivekananda, who presented the affirmations of sruti as having only a hypothetical or provisional validity and needing the verification that only anubhava could provide, Sankara argued for sruti as the unique and self-valid source for our knowledge of absolute reality (brahman). In relation to the gain of this knowledge, all ways of knowing were subordinate to sruti. In important contrast to Vivekananda's argument that the declarations of sruti needed further verification to become conclusive was Sankara's contention that liberation (moksa) is the immediate result of understanding the words of the sruti. For a qualified aspirant, nothing beyond a proper investigation of the meaning of those sentences in the sruti revealing brahman is required.
I also discovered that Vivekananda's interpretation of the significance of the sruti in connection with the acquisition of the knowledge of brahman (namely, brahmajiianai was continuously identified by many modern commentators as being the original position adopted by Sankara, According to these commentators, there is little or no deviation in Vivekananda's views from the Advaita Vedanta tradition as systematized and given expression by Sankara. The late T. M. P. Mahadevan, a distinguished Hindu scholar, writes, "The Advaita which Swami Vivekananda teaches in his speeches and writings is, in essence, the same gospel whose consolidation and comprehensive exposition we owe to Sri Sankaracarya?" R. S. Srivastava comes to a similar conclusion: "The concept of salvation and jnanayoga as a path or discipline leading to it are ancient and traditional. The metaphysics and disciplines of Vivekananda do not deviate an inch from the stand- point of the Advaita Vedanta of Sailkaracarya."l Fundamental differences are uncritically overlooked, and Vivekananda is seen merely as a reviver of the Advaita of Sankara.' These opinions suggest that, like Vivekananda, Sankara also saw a special experience as the ultimately valid source of our knowledge of brahman, that Sankara accorded only a provisional validity to the affirmations of the scripture and did not perceive these texts to be, in any way, a unique source of knowledge. Many felt that the only reason for Sankara's recourse to sruti was the desire to gain the support of a traditional authority for his own views.
Brahma Sutras (81)
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