Once, in 1901, Ranada Prasad Dasgupta, the founder and professor of Jubilee Art Academy, Calcutta, paid a visit to Swami Vivekananda at Belur Math. Ranada Babu, as he was popularly called, was an expert artist, well read in his field, and an admirer of Swamiji. During his visit, Swamiji discussed with him various topics related to art and architecture. In the course of their conversation, Swamiji showed him the sketch of the Emblem depicting this synthesis of yogas that he had in mind. An excerpt from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda:
Then Swamiji had the design which he had sketched for the seal of the Ramakrishna Mission brought, showed it to Ranada Babu and asked his opinion on it. It depicted a lake in which a lotus blossomed, and there was a swan, and the whole was encircled by a serpent. Ranada Babu at first could not catch the significance of it and asked Swamiji to explain. Swamiji said, ‘The wavy waters in the picture are symbolic of Karma; the lotus of Bhakti; and the rising-sun, of Jnana. The encircling serpent is indicative of Yoga and the awakened Kundalini Shakti, while the swan in the picture stands for the Paramatman (Supreme Self). Therefore the idea of the picture is that by the union of Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, and Yoga, the vision of the Paramatman is obtained.’
Thus Swami Vivekananda summarized the ideal of harmony of Yogas. Let us try to understand how different aspects of the emblem symbolically represent the four yogas.
1. Wavy Waters (karma yoga)
Swamiji points to the wavy waters as symbolic of Karma. Karma means activity. According to Sri Ramakrishna, the Ultimate Reality has two inseparable characteristics—static and dynamic. The same reality, which is static, when active, becomes dynamic. He said that these two sides of the Ultimate Reality are as inseparable as fire and its burning power.
Wavy waters represent the dynamic aspect of reality. Water is one of the five elements, which, according to Hindu cosmology, constitute the whole of the visible and invisible material world. Purusha Sukta says, ‘From water came creation (adbyah sambhutah).’ This idea of creation states that though One, the Ultimate Reality, decided to become many. From this was born Hiranyagarbha (the Golden Womb) and from that came all elements of nature including water.
Like wavy water, this world of Karma is always in motion. It is ever changing, ever taking new forms, creating fresh situations and perspectives. That is what this world is—a bundle of constant change. In Sanskrit, this ever-changing world is often called bhava-sagara, the ocean of relative existence. A karma yogi learns to travel through this restlessness of change by remaining calm and detached. He is like the proverbial lotus leaf which never gets wet though it is in touch with water always. Sri Ramakrishna best describes the ideal of a karma yogi when he likens the human mind to a boat. He said that the boat can be in water, but the water should not be in the boat.
Karma Yoga is the art of remaining detached, unaffected by the results of action, good and bad. It is not running away but facing the challenges of life through skilful action. As Swami Vivekananda said, ‘Do not fly away from the wheels of the world-machine, but stand inside it and learn the secret of work. Through proper work done inside, it is also possible to come out.’
Water, thus, is a symbol of Karma Yoga.
2. Lotus (bhakti yoga)
Lotus represents heart. It is not the physical heart but the spiritual heart that the lotus represents. Mahanarayana Upanishad says, ‘In the citadel of the body, there is the small sinless and pure lotus of the heart which is the residence of the Supreme.’
The lotus also represents purity and non-attachment, and is a symbol of Bhakti or love for God. Most people let their love flow towards the world. But a devotee redirects his love only towards God, who resides in one’s heart. Though God is present everywhere, it is in the heart, our spiritual centre, that he manifests most. The heart of the devotee is the ‘Lord’s drawing room.’
Loving God does not mean offering an elaborate ritualistic worship but offering one’s love and heart to him. God is pleased not by what is given to him but how that is given to him. Narada calls Bhakti or love of God as its own greatest reward. Bhakti is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.
Lotus, thus, is a symbol of Bhakti Yoga.
3. Rising Sun (jnana yoga)
Knowledge is always compared to light. For, like light, knowledge reveals the truth. It removes the cover of ignorance. Traditionally, sun has been considered the God of knowledge or light. Millions of Hindus chant Gayatri Mantra everyday, praying for knowledge and awakening of the higher intellect to the presiding deity of the sun (savitr). According to Swamiji, rising sun represents Jnana or the path to Jnana. Jnana yoga aims at removing the covering of ignorance that envelops the atman by purification of mind and negation of the very existence of ignorance. It is the path of ‘not this, not this.’
Jnana yoga is not about gaining more and more knowledge about the objects of the senses, or to have more ideas contained in books, but it is a process of dis-covering the inherent Self. It is a search for the subjective knowledge, and ultimately, through that, discovering the underlying existential foundation of the whole world and even beyond. It is a journey of the alone to the Alone, which is of the nature of Existence-Knowledge-Bliss (sat-chit-ananda).
Rising Sun, thus, is a symbol of Jnana Yoga.
4. Encircling Serpent (raja yoga)
Serpent represents Kundalini. Kundalini actually means ‘coiled up.’ Hindu scriptures emphatically confirm the presence of a latent spiritual power present in everyone and call it Kundalini. In the physiological framework, Kundalini is supposed to lie at the base of the spinal column—the first and the lowest of the six chakras (centres) along the spinal column. When this kundalini power is asleep, as it were, one remains busy with eating, sleeping and procreating. For such a person, the world begins and ends only in attending to one’s material needs. It is only when he begins to live a life of self denial, service, and prayer (i.e., when the higher life begins to appeal to him), the upward journey to higher centres commences.
A systematic approach to channelling and guiding of one’s spiritual power has been expounded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The basic principle of this yoga of mind control is to dis-identify us from the body-mind through meditation and concentration. This path is called the Royal Path, Raja Yoga, because it is the most direct approach to the science of spirituality.
Encircling Serpent, thus, is a symbol of Raja Yoga.
5. Swan (paramatman)
The swan is a symbol of the Ultimate Reality for more than one reason. Swan represents knowledge born of the discrimination between the Real and the unreal. This is based on the belief that if milk diluted with water is given to a swan, it sips only the milk, leaving the water behind. Water represents ignorance or the unreal. Milk symbolizes knowledge or the Real. Upanishads speak of Hamsa-Gayatri (mantra in praise of hamsa or swan), which is chanted during certain rituals.
Om hamsa hamsaya vidhmahe paramahamsaya dhimahi / Tanno hamsah prachodayat Om. May we know the Light of lights. For that, we meditate on the Supreme Light. May the Divine Light impel us towards it.
One of the interpretations of hamsa is Sun, representing Light and Knowledge. Srimat Bhagavatam (11.13:15-21) even mentions imparting of knowledge by God in the form of a hamsa.
Swami Vivekananda believed that by the combination of these four yogas (Karma, Bhakti, Jnana and Raja Yoga), the experience of the Supreme Reality (represented by Swan) can be had. Not only that. Realizing the Supreme Reality is the real, ultimate aim of human existence, too. Religion becomes fulfilled only when one experiences that Reality. Says Swamiji, ‘If there is God, we must see Him; if there is a soul, we must perceive it . . . ’
The ideology of Ramakrishna Math and Mission consists of the eternal principles of Vedanta as lived and experienced by Sri Ramakrishna and expounded by Swami Vivekananda. This ideology has three characteristics: it is modern in the sense that the ancient principles of Vedanta have been expressed in the modern idiom; it is universal, that is, it is meant for the whole humanity; it is practical in the sense that its principles can be applied in day-to-day life to solve the problems of life. The basic principles of this ideology are given below:
1. God realization is the ultimate goal of life:
One of the important discoveries made in ancient India was that the universe arises from and is sustained by infinite consciousness called Brahman. It has both impersonal and personal aspects. The personal aspect is known by different names, such as God, Ishvar, Jehovah and so on. Realization of this Ultimate Reality is the true goal of life, for that alone can give us everlasting fulfilment and peace.
2. Potential divinity of the soul:
Brahman is immanent in all beings as the Atman which is man’s true self and source of all happiness. But owing to ignorance, he identifies himself with his body and mind and runs after sense pleasures. This is the cause of all evil and suffering. As ignorance is removed, the Atman manifests itself more and more. This manifestation of potential divinity is the essence of true religion.
3. Synthesis of the Yogas:
The removal of ignorance and manifestation of inner divinity leading to God realization are achieved through Yoga. There are four main Yogas: Jnana Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge); Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion); Raja Yoga (Yoga of Meditation); Karma Yoga (Yoga of Work). Each Yoga is an independent means of realizing God. But since each Yoga involves the cultivation of one of the faculties such as reason, feeling or will, a combination of all the four Yogas is necessary for the development of a balanced, ‘fully functioning’ personality. It is this synthesis of Yogas that Swami Vivekananda regarded as the ideal of Ramakrishna Math and Mission. This ideal finds expression in the EMBLEM of the twin organizations shown here, which was designed by Swamiji himself. In the emblem the wavy waters represent Karma Yoga; the lotus flower represents Bhakti Yoga; the rising sun represents Jnana Yoga; the coiled serpent represents Raja Yoga; and the Swan represents the Supreme Self. The meaning of the ensemble is: by the combined practice of all the four Yogas the Supreme Self is realized.
4. Morality based on strength:
According to Swami Vivekananda, weakness is the main cause of immorality, evil and suffering in life, and the cause of weakness is ignorance about one’s true nature as the Atman. Knowledge of the Atman gives us tremendous strength to overcome our weakness and lead a virtuous life. Everyone is endowed with so many potentialities, but owing to fear and weakness, most of these potentialities remain unactualized. When, through knowledge of the Atman, fear and weakness are overcome, these potentialities manifest themselves. Swamiji called this process ‘man-making education’.
5. Harmony of Religions:
Although the idea that ‘one Reality is known by different names’ (Vedas) and the idea that ‘different spiritual paths lead to the same goal’ (Gita) are found in the Hindu scriptures and in the teachings of several Hindu saints, Sri Ramakrishna was the first person in history to show through direct experience the transcendental unity of all religions. His message implies two kinds of religious harmony: harmony within Hinduism and harmony among world religions.
a. Harmony within Hinduism:
Sri Ramakrishna did not identify himself with any particular sect of Hinduism but accepted Hinduism as a whole. He showed that Dualism, Non dualism and other schools of Hindu philosophy represent different stages of the integral experience of Reality, and that the various Hindu Deities are different aspects of one supreme Godhead. His message has brought about a great deal of harmony among the Hindu sects, and Sri Ramakrishna himself has become the symbol of the unity of Hindu religion.
b. Harmony among world religions:
It should be noted that Sri Ramakrishna recognized the differences among religions but showed that, in spite of these differences, they lead to the same Ultimate Goal. This is the meaning of his famous maxim, Yato mat, tato path, “As many faiths, so many paths”.
Apart from this, Swami Vivekananda also held that the religions of the world are expressions of one eternal Universal Religion. Since Vedanta contains all the basic principles and laws of the spiritual world, Swamiji regarded Vedanta as that eternal Universal Religion. That is to say, Vedanta can serve as the common ground for all religions.
6. Avatarhood of Sri Ramakrishna:
According to the Hindu religious tradition, God incarnates himself as the Avatar in every Age in order to give a new message to humanity suited to the needs of each Age. In the Ramakrishna Movement, Sri Ramakrishna is adored as the Avatar of the Modern Age. What this means is that his life and teachings have opened a new way of salvation for humanity. The uniqueness of Sri Ramakrishna’s Avatarhood is that it embodies the spiritual consciousness of earlier Avatars and prophets, including those who are outside the Hindu fold, and is in harmony with all religious traditions. In all the institutions of the Ramakrishna Order, worshipful reverence is shown to all Avatars and the founders of all religions.
7. A New Philosophy of Work:
Swami Vivekananda has given a new philosophy of work for the modern world. All work in the Ramakrishna Math and Mission is done according to this philosophy of work, which is based on the following principles:
- According to Vedanta, the physical universe is a manifestation of God known as Virat. Hence, as Sister Nivedita has stated, there is ‘no distinction between the sacred and the secular’. What this statement means is that all work is sacred. Even menial work such as sweeping the floor or mending shoes is to be done with as much attention and devotion as work in the shrine.
- The Gita (18.46 & 9.24) states that the all-pervading God is the ultimate source of all work and the enjoyer of the fruits of all sacrifice. Hence all work is to be done as worship and the fruits of actions are to be offered to the Lord.
- One of the important principles Swami Vivekananda learned from his Master was Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva, ‘to serve Jiva as Shiva’. Since man is potentially Divine, service to man is indeed service to God. Instead of looking upon a needy person as an object of pity, he is looked upon as an object of worship. Such an attitude elevates both the giver and the recipient.
- Swami Vivekananda was the first religious leader in India to speak for the poor and the downtrodden and to state boldly, ‘He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak and the diseased, really worships Shiva; and … with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.’ It was Swamiji who coined the word daridra-narayana to refer to the poor. Swamiji’s love and concern for the poor continues as a directive principle in Ramakrishna Mission’s service programmes.
- When work, any work, is done fulfilling the above conditions, it becomes a spiritual discipline: the mind gets purified and the potential Divinity of the soul manifests itself more and more. Thus work done as worshipful service benefits the doer himself spiritually: it becomes a spiritual discipline or Yoga. It is with this understanding of work as a spiritual discipline (Karma Yoga) that all the service activities of the Ramakrishna Mission, such as giving food and clothing to the poor, nursing the sick etc, are undertaken. Thus service done as worship of God in man helps in two ways: it helps physically or mentally the person who is served, and it helps spiritually the person who serves.
This two-fold aim of service activities, indeed the whole ideology of Ramakrishna Math and Mission, has been put in a nutshell in the MOTTO of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission,
Atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha, ‘For one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the world’, formulated by Swami Vivekananda.