MY MOTHER PRESENTED ME with a few small books of Swami Vivekananda when I was ten. Looking back, I am amused by how quickly I became attached to those books, since at that age I understood very little of the ideas and ideals presented in them. As years rolled along, I continued to read Vivekananda’s books, gradually moving on to his set of complete Works- and I have continued to read them to this day. What little I have understood of life is mostly from Vivekananda’s words and to him I owe everything.
Spread over nine volumes, Vivekananda’s Complete Worls are a collection of his lectures, class talks, interviews, conversations, letters, and writings. It is helpful to analyze the nature of their contents. By far the largest segment of the Complete works is the transcripts of Vivekananda’s lectures, which occupy about 2000 pages, or 40% of the material. His writings occupy 13% of the works and his letters 20%. Amazingly, nearly 20% of the works are written not by Vivekananda but by others; these include the notes of his class talks and conversations. Nearly 300 pages, or 6% of the material, are actually newspaper clipping of his lectures and interviews reported in the media. We can be certain about the accuracy of the lecture-transcripts, since most of them were taken down by J.J.Goodwin, an expert stenographer whose efficiency and skill were acknowledged by Vivekananda’s writings and letters is beyond doubt, the same cannot be said about the media reports and the notes others took of his class talks, interviews and conversations. Their accuracy can be affirmed only to the extent that they are in harmony with the ideas presented in his lectures and writings.
All in all, the Complete Works are a mixed bag. They are filled with ideas, an overwhelming abundance of them, but these ideas are scattered all over the nine volumes, and come from sources of variable accuracy. Moreover, the core of Vivekananda’s thought is gleaned from the lectures he gave to different audiences at different times in America, Europe and India. All of his lectures were extempore. Their contexts were different, the times were different, and the audiences were different. Given the circumstances, a systematically organized presentation of ideas is not what one looks for in the Complete Works. They are not a book that Vivekananda wrote. They are a compilation. Had Vivekananda written a book, it would have been far easier to study and understand his philosophy of life. But his time was short. He wrote no books. This has presented no small difficulty to serious students of his life and works.
The only instance when we are able to get a reasonably good idea of Vivekananda’s thoughts on a specific subject is when he gave a series of lectures or class talks on a focused theme to more or less the same audience. The most significant among these were the series he gave on the yogas, all of which were later compiled into successful books and also included in the Complete Works. These are among the most widely read books in Vivekananda literature. He spoke a these as the “text-books” which would be the basis of work after his passing. These books are also among the most inspiring to serious spiritual seekers, for the emphasis in them is on practice. As authentic and honest transcripts of his class talks, their value is inestimable. They encourage the reader to not only understand the path but also to practice it.
Both understanding and practice require a deeper engagement than merely reading of those texts. We wonder what Vivekananda said to his students before he gave the formal class, what he said to them afterward, what personal instructions he gave them, what questions they asked him and what his answers were- but we are completely in the dark on all of this, except for occasional hints which we get from other books containing reminiscences of his friends and students. Once again we wish Vivekananda had written a book. If wishes were horses, they would take us galloping back in time to be in Vivekananda’s presence when he gave the teaching! But our wishes are not horses and, even if they were, time travel still belongs to science fiction. One solution is to find a competent teacher, as many have done since Vivekananda’s passing, and learn the method systematically in order to begin the practice. Another solution is to find a dependable text and learn from it. No text can substitute for a living teacher, but it can at least help us begin our study and practice as best we can.
Such secondary texts are not new in religious literature. In Vedanta, for instance, the tradition holds that there are three primary texts (prasthana-traya), namely, the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma-Sutras. What has made these primary texts accessible, intelligible, and eminently practicable is a plethora of secondary texts comprising commentaries (bhasya), critiques (vartika), and explanatory notes (tika) on the primary texts. Such commentarial literature, prevalent in all religions, elaborates on what may be terse, supplements what may seem insufficient, modifies what may need revision, and applies the wisdom to the changing realities of social life and to the unchanging truth that lies within.
Vivekananda’s teachings are a commentary on Vedanta, not unlike the commentaries of the great acaryas of the past but in a style and format more suited to our present needs. Take the case of Sanskaracarya’s commentaries: those that came after him annotated his work by writing supplementary commentaries, critiques and explanatory notes, responding to questions, doubts, and criticisms of others, especially of competing schools of thought. This dialectic resulted in a philosophically robust and spiritually rich tradition that continues to nourish the lives of truth seekers to this day. A similar phenomenon is yet to occur in a serious way with regard to Vivekananda literature. There is a real need for commentaries, critiques and explanatory notes on Vivekananda’s teachings and this book dares to take the first small step in that direction.
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