A Swami on “Swami on the Sermon”

Cambridge, MA. In my previous blog, I mentioned that in light of my series on Swami Prabhavananda on the Sermon on the Mount, I welcomed a Hindu response, from Pravrajika Vrajaprana. I am delighted to be able to post now a second such response, this one from Swami Tyagananda of the Vedanta Society in Boston.

Swami Tyagananda writes:

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The series on “Swami on the Sermon” has provided me much food for thought and I am grateful to Francis X. Clooney for sharing his insights and thoughts with us, and grateful also for his invitation for me to contribute. As I read the seven reflections, one after another, I found myself continually nodding in agreement.

I thought of the two books that Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) carried during his several years as a wandering monk: the BhagavadGita and Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. In Vivekananda’s lectures he often quoted from the New Testament, and the one sentence that appears with amazing frequency in his lectures and writings is from the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is what Vivekananda said about this profound teaching: "In that one sentence is the gist of all religions. If you have learnt that, all that has been said in the past and all that it is possible to say in the future, you have known; you need not look into anything else, for you have all that is necessary in that one sentence; it could save the world, were all the other scriptures lost. A vision of God, a glimpse of the beyond never comes until the soul is pure” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 4.26).

In his Works, Vivekananda’s interpretation of “purity,” “heart,” and what it means to “see God” is obviously influenced by his own Hindu tradition and Indian culture. He is not offering it as a universal explanation but as a personal understanding that has enriched his own life. The point here is not so much to agree or disagree with him but (as Fr. Clooney so insightfully pointed out in Part 1) "we can always learn our own faith more deeply by learning what people of other faiths have to say about our texts and traditions.”

In that spirit, I found both Fr. Clooney’s observations and the readers’ comments educative, especially those that reflected their views of Hinduism and Hindu society.  I was intrigued by the readers’ comments about nonviolence and about who the target audience of the Sermon is. As I understand it, an ideal—any ideal— is clearly something that is yet to be attained; once attained, it can no more be considered an “ideal,” it then becomes the reality of one’s life and experience. So while perfect nonviolence of the highest kind may be the “ultimate goal,” we need several “intermediate goals” to be attained before we reach the summit, so to speak. Like most things in life, violence has its gross and subtle aspects. We can begin with avoiding gross violence, and then work, with patience and perseverance, to eliminate the subtle aspects of violence, verbal (hurtful speech, for instance) and psychological (jealousy, hatred, anger).

The Sermon on the Mount, like all great teachings, is clearly for everybody, but at any given time we can only take in what we are ready for. I like to view spiritual life as a struggle to acquire and increase our readiness (Sanskrit, adhikara). When I am fully ready—and one day every one of us will be—the complete significance of the Sermon on the Mount will be revealed to me. It will then cease to be merely a scriptural text to be “studied.” It will become a living reality in my life and it will be expressed, spontaneously and effortlessly, through the way I live; that is, it will shine through my thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. This is the way my mind, colored by its Hindu training and upbringing, thinks about it. For me personally, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” is the most compact statement of the highest truth expressed in theistic terms and comparable to the statement from a Hindu text which is expressed in nondualistic terms—“This Atman (the reality within the individual) is the same as Brahman (the reality behind the universe)” (BrhadaranyakaUpanisad, 2.5.19).

One closing thought and I am done. When we undertake the study of religion, one’s own or others‘, a study focused on a religion’s theology, history, sociology, or politics, using texts or through field work, it may be good to keep in mind that religion is more than merely a set of ideas, concepts, traditions, beliefs, doctrines and rituals. Religion is, above all, a living reality in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. The spirit transcends the limitations inherent in all human struggle and effort, and it is the spirit—the mysterious presence of God—that beckons us all. Every one of us may respond to it differently. What matters in the end is not who is right or who is wrong. Who, after all, is authorized, and by whom, to make that judgment? What matters ultimately is whether our response to the call of the spirit brings us the peace, the love, the purity “that passeth understanding.” No conflicts torment the person who dwells in that ethereal peace, love and purity. From that vantage point, all criticisms look foolish, all disagreements look petty, all quarrels look pointless. Until that blessed state is reached, the drama of the world will continue to fascinate and frustrate us.

Swami Tyagananda

Hindu Chaplain, Harvard University

Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, Boston

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