I decided to post this in the net because I saw some posts on
Vivekananda which were not correct.
Before we can understand Vivekananda we must understand the state of
Hindu theology before him. My apologies if some or all of this is familiar to
some of you. I am discussing all of this since it is necessary for a proper
understanding of Vivekananda. There was Sri Shankara who interpreted the
Upanishads, Gita and the Brahma Sutras in the strict Advaita spirit. Then
there were the other Acharyas , Sri Ramanuja, Sri Ballabha, Sri Nimbarka, Sri
Madhva and Sri Chaitanya who insisted on devotion to a Personal Deity with
auspicious attributes as the means of salvation and the Jiva's distinction
from the Deity in bondage as well as salvation. There are some differences
between these Bhakti Vedanta Acharyas but those are minor.
What did Shankara say? Shankara's view is more philosophy than
theology. His philosophy has two tiers - that of the metaphysical (Paramartha)
and that of the prima facie (Vyavahara) level. Roughly Paramartha corresponds
to Mount Everest and the Vyavahara level corresponds to the base camp. At
the base camp level Shankara accepts theology and even the world. You can
start with any form of God, develop devotion and have a vision of the Personal
God. But according to Shankara there is an even higher form than that where
there is only not-two.According to Shankara the Personal form of God is
Apara Brahman a lower form of the Supreme Being identified with any Deity of
the Hindu Pantheon. According to Shankara devotion to Apara Brahman purifies
the mind and prepares the mind for the experience of the highest reality.
Since the only reality is not-two, ultimately Shankara's doctrine asserts the
non-existence of the Personal God, bondage and the world of multiplicity even
when they are being experienced. This is the doctrine of sublation (Badha).
According to Shankara, Maya is the reason why the One appears to be many. Maya
can not be said to exist since it will violate Shankara's premise that only
Brahman exists. Maya can not be said not to exist since we all experience the
diverse reality. So Shankara stresses Jnana Yoga and devalues Bhakti and
Karma Yoga. Bhakti and Karma Yoga are only useful to prepare you for your
journey to the Imoersonal Reality by purifying your mind.
Bhakti Vedanta schools of course reject this devaluation of the
Personal form of God and the world actually experienced by us. According to
these schools world is real, God is real and God is fully aware of what He is
doing. They all reject the doctrine of sublation. They all say that the Veda
does not make a distinction between the Absolute (Brahman) and God (Isvara)
or equate Jiva with Brahman. They hold that Bhakti Yoga and the associated
spiritual disciplines are not merely for purification of the mind but directly
for attainment of salvation. They say that a subject and an object is the
irreducible minimum in experience and a subject-objectless existence is a
metaphysical fiction or atmost a nihil (sunyata). They all identify Isvara
with Vishnu and hence they are also theologies. They all agree that Bhakti
yoga is the best and Karma and Jnana Yoga are preparatory for Bhakti. So
while Shankara's philosophy accomodates any theology although as a lower
stage, the Bhakti Vedanta schools only allow for Vishnu in their theology.
So this great divide has created confusion and even in the middle ages
some Vedantins like Vadiraja were aware of this. However, no fresh ideas
emerged to bridge the divide. A reconciliation has been found only in the
19th century in the Neo-Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. It
is called Neo as Vivekananda although an Advaitin elevated Bhakti and Karma
yoga as an equal to Jnana yoga. In his book Bhakti yoga he says that-- the
Upanishads distinguish between a higher knowledge and a lower knowledge (there
seems to be no support for Shankara's paramartha and vyavahara levels in the
Upanishads) and to the Bhaktas there is really no difference between this
higher knowledge and higher love (para-bhakti). He also says that Bhaktas
are those who aspire to retain their individual mind even after liberation
and to remain distinct in order to worship the Savisesa (qualified) Brahman.
The jnanis are those who attain the state where there is no creation, nor
created, nor creator, no I and thus no thou. They have gone to Nirvisesa
(unqualified) Brahman about whom Sruti says NOT THIS! NOT THIS!. Vivekananda
came to this conclusion out of his own spiritual experience. He has had
experience of both states and found both to be real.
In his conception of qualified and non-qualified Brahman he does not
accept the doctrine of sublation. The experience is of the same Reality from
different frames of reference. The experience of Nirvisesa Brahman does not
prove the unreality of the Savisesa Brahman. So Vivekananda elevates the two
powerful streams of hindu spirituality to an equal plane. He, however, does
not accept the Bhakti Vedantic identification of Vishnu as the only form of
Personal God. He accepts all Hindu deities are also forms of the Personal God.
As far as Advaita is concerned he changed it from Maya-vada to Brahma-Vada by
dropping the doctrine of sublation. So he is not a Maya-vadi but Brahma-vadi.
He interpreted --Sarvam Khalvidam Brahman (all is Brahman)-- to mean the
divinity of every soul and the possibility of every one manifesting the
divinity. He preached that one's welfare is achieved through the welfare of
all (the basis of Karma Yoga). To forget one's own salvation in the thought of
the salvation of all is the highest ideal of a Vedantin.
This is a summary of Vivekananda's teaching. A very careful reading
of Ramakrishna Kathamrita will also help you understand Vivekananda.