‘Progressive Reading of Spirit into Matter’ — Swami Vivekananda on History and Civilisation

— Swami Vireshananda —

History is the story of human life told in the collective sense. It is a saga of the triumph of the human spirit throughout the ages against all odds. Swami Vivekananda not only studied the history of global events thoroughly but he also could draw resul­tant deductions out of it, which are intuitive as well as universal. They form an inherent part of his innumerable innovative thoughts, which are part and parcel of his unparalleled contribution to the world culture.

What is History?

Swamiji’s definitions of history, being sublime and unique, are a class in themselves, which is the characteristic of his ideas on any given subject. He sees history through the lens of a spiritual man; and hence, gives history a universal realm, terming it to be a cosmic phenomenon. In his lecture on the ‘Cosmos and the Self ’, Swamiji says that everything in nature rises from fine seed-forms, becomes grosser and grosser, exists for a certain time, and again goes back to the original fine form. According to him, ‘This is the whole history of man, the whole history of nature, the whole history of life.’[1] Swamiji explains such a cycle of evolution and involution based on suppositions from modern Cosmology. The earth, which has come out from a nebulous form, turns into a crystallised planet upon cooling for an extensive time. However, the time will come in future, when the earth will again go to pieces and return to its nebulous form. This process, Swamiji says, is iterating from time immemorial.

Swamiji makes use of the profound views of Vedanta to answer what history is. This extraordinary thought process leads him to a transcendental definition that ‘the history of civi­lisation is the progressive reading of spirit into matter’ (8.429). The gist of Vedanta is the process through which matter changes into spirit by the utter force of love. The truth is One, which is seen as ‘matter’ by the ignorant, and as ‘God’ by the wise. The ignorant sees a person in the non-person, while a sage sees the non-person in the person. The whole history is a process of learning this lesson of truth through pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow.

Swamiji also gives two mundane definitions of history, which though seemingly contradictory, are noteworthy when viewed from different perspectives. Swamiji says that ‘the history of the world is not of its great men, of its demigods, but it is the little islands of the sea, which build themselves to great continents from fragments of the sea drift’ (8.240). According to him, ‘the history of the world is in the little acts of sacrifice performed in every household’ (ibid.). In another place, Swamiji points out that ‘the history of the world is the history of persons like Buddha and Jesus’ (8.226). It is the passionless and unattached who do most for the world.

The general view of history is that it is an authentic account of the great deeds of kings and other leaders who influenced humanity from immemorial times. However, the role the common people play in shaping the destiny of a society is generally ignored and hence unaccounted for. Saying that it is the sacrifice of each household that shapes the history of the world, Swamiji pays a glowing tribute to the countless common people, who contributed much to the advancement of humanity through their acts of heroism and dedication. At the same time, history is also the story of those mighty spiritual personalities, who were far more powerful and dominant than the ruling class in turning the tide of the times they lived in, by bringing millions of people into the spiritual fold.

Swamiji’s personality and ideas represent the greatest of Eastern and Western cultures. He studied the history of both extensively and so, understood the ideals they stand for. Swamiji says: ‘Europe has always been the source of social, and Asia of spiritual power, and the whole history of the world is the tale of the varying combinations of those two powers’ (8.336). This is a very important statement in historical studies since both the oriental and occidental histories are generally studied from the Western perspective and the materialistic ideal it stands for. It is time to change this long drawn misrepresentation of India and other oriental cultures in the light of the value system advocated by the Western world, and study them through the perspective of their own age-old ethos and traditions.

Swamiji further adds that ‘slowly a new leaf is being turned in the story of humanity. The signs of this are everywhere. Hundreds of new plans will be created and destroyed. Only the fit will survive. And what but the true and the good is the fit?’ (8.337). His conviction in the power of truth and good is very much evident here. He firmly believed that in the long run, those values which stand for truth and good alone will be of enduring stimulus in the history of the world. This finds resonance with the great declaration of the Mundaka Upanishad: ‘Satyam-eva jayate; Truth alone triumphs.’[2]

Swamiji also dwells on the question ‘What is History?’ in a profound philosophical realm. He applies another well-known statement from Mundaka Upanishad to bring home the idea. At the beginning of the Upanishad, a disciple called Shaunaka questions Angiras, his spiritual Master: ‘Kasmin nu bhagavo vijñāte sarvamidaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavatīti; Revered sir, what is that by the knowing of which all this becomes known?’[3]

Swamiji takes up this idea and says that if we know one lump of clay, we know the whole mass of clay. The whole universe is built on the same plan. The individual is only a part, as the lump of clay. Through this analogy, Swamiji says that if we know the beginning and general history of the human soul, which is one atom in Nature, then we will be able to know the whole of Nature.[4] The sequence is the same in nature as well as in the plant and the human. The difference is only in time. ‘The whole cycle may be completed in one case in a day, in the other in three score years and ten; the methods are the same’ (ibid.). The explanation of the whole history of human progress either in the material, intellectual, or spiritual plane lies in the eternal human spirit, which Swamiji firmly believes as the conscious and unconscious basis of all religions, and in general, of all human endeavours. It is because the same Spirit is manifesting in different planes.

Salient Features of History

In his numerous lectures and writings, Swamiji has indicated some of the common characteristics that make up the history of humanity. They explicitly indicate his extraordinary ingenuity in understanding the complexities involved in the historical process.

(1) History is Always the Same: Considering the history of the human race, as we know it today, we do find the same miseries and happiness, pleasures and pains. ‘So far as history is known, it has always been the same’, says Swamiji (1.112). However, even though we run through all these incurable differences of pleasure and pain, there has always been a struggle to alleviate them. This struggle against the laws of nature is the real story to be told of humanity.

(2) Talk about the Millennium: In every period of history, we find thousands of people working hard to make others’ lives better. How far have they succeeded? Swamiji says that it is like that picture in Dante’s hell, where the misers roll a mass of gold up a hill. ‘Every time they rolled it up a little, it again rolled down’ (ibid.). All nations dream of some heavenly millennium for their people, and think that of all people in the world, they will have the best of it, which is nice as a utopian story for school children but unrealistic.

(3) Competition, Struggle, and Evil: Swamiji says that competition, struggle, and evils are not inherent characteristics of the history of humanity. They are but the results of hostile environments. It is God who has come out and manifested Himself in the form of the world. Hence, evil, competition, or struggle cannot cause evolution, because, as Swamiji puts it, even if they did not exist, still, humans would go on and evolve as God. He remarks in this context: ‘To my mind this seems very hopeful, instead of that horrible idea of competition. The more I study history, the more I find that idea to be wrong’ (5.278). He also prophesies that a day will come when history would be studied in a different light, revealing that competition is neither the cause nor the effect, but simply a thing on the way, not necessary for evolution at all.

(4) The Idea of Freedom: Swamiji disagrees with the idea that freedom is obedience to the laws of nature. He says that according to the history of human progress, it is disobedience to nature that has constituted the progress. He also explains ‘what life is’ in splendid terms: ‘This life is a tremendous assertion of freedom; and this obedience to the law, carried far enough, would make us simply matter—either in society, or in politics, or in religion’ (8.258).

(5) A National Purpose: According to Swamiji, every nation has a purpose of its own. The social manners and customs of every nation are moulded in such a way that the national purpose is brought to fruition. Everything is superfluous other than those factors which are nece­ssary to effect that purpose. It does not matter whether the superfluous customs survive or not, but a nation is sure to die when the main purpose of its life is hurt. However, Swamiji asserts that a nation reacts with a tremendous power if a slightest blow is inflicted on the purpose on which its national life rests. Every nation should be judged from the standpoint of that purpose alone. ‘The Westerners should be seen through their eyes; to see them through our eyes, and for them to see us with theirs—both these are mistakes’ (5.514).

(6) Progress of Civilisation: Swamiji ridicules the so-called ‘Progress of Civilisation’ boasted by the Europeans. He says it is nothing but the successful accomplishment of the desired object by a justification of the wrong means, that is, by making the end justify the means. Giving the example of the European conquest of America, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific Islands, and South Africa, Swamiji points out: ‘And may I ask you, Europeans, what country you have ever raised to better conditions? Wherever you have found weaker races, you have exterminated them by the roots, as it were. You have settled on their lands, and they are gone forever. … It is only where you have not the power to do so, and there only, that other nations are still alive’ (5.536).

(7) Conquest of Nature: Though Swamiji emphasises the conquest of nature as an important ingredient in human life, such an attempt, Swamiji laments, is rarely seen in human society. Most of the religious workers have really been political leaders who have rarely tried to live up to the truth uncompromisingly. They do not try to conquer nature but to fit into nature. Swamiji highlights that ‘that has been the history of human beings’ (8.159). In contrast to this general drift of history, it is India that really preached a new creed of conquering nature, though the rest of the world did not listen to it.

(8) Union of Outer Life and Inner Life: Swamiji says that the historical past in India is the striving to develop the inner life, while in the West it is the outer activity. So far, such attempts were segregated, but the time has now come for them to unite. The life dream of Swamiji was that India should be the crucible for such a blending of inner life and outer activity.

(9) Fight between Secular and Religious: The religions, quite often, claim the superiority of spiritual knowledge over secular knowledge. Swamiji says that all along in the history, the religions have refused to take the help of secular knowledge to justify themselves. As a consequence, history records several instances of conflict between secular knowledge and religious knowledge. This can be avoided only when religions allow themselves to be scrutinised by scientific methods and become rational in their approach.

(10) Faith and Character: Swamiji asserts that the world needs people who are mad with the love of God. ‘The history of the world is that of six men of faith, six men of deep pure character’ (6.144). Swamiji exhorts us to develop three things if we want to make a mark in history: ‘the heart to feel, the brain to conceive, the hand to work. First, we must go out of the world and make ourselves fit instruments. Make yourself a dynamo. Feel first for the world. At a time when all men are ready to work, where is the man of feeling?’ (6.144–45).

(11) Power of the Rich: Swamiji lays bare another tragic fact of history that in no period of time did rich men, noblemen, priests, and potentates took any thought for the poor, ‘the grinding of whose faces is the very life-blood of their power’ (8.330). It is alright for those who have plenty of money and position to let the world roll on such. Swamiji calls such a person a traitor, who having been educated and nursed in luxury by the heart’s blood of the downtrodden millions of toiling poor, has never even taken thought for them.

Indian History

Swamiji succinctly captures the whole of Indian history in a short compass in this interesting passage in his article ‘Aryans and Tamilians’ that first appeared in the Prabuddha Bharata (January 1901):

A veritable ethnological museum! Possibly, the half-ape skeleton of the recently discovered Sumatra link will be found on search here, too. The Dolmens are not wanting. Flint implements can be dug out almost anywhere. The lake-dwellers—at least the river-dwellers—must have been abundant at one time. The cave-men and leaf-wearers still persist. The primitive hunters living in forests are in evidence in various parts of the country. Then there are the more historical varieties—the Negrito-Kolarian, the Dravidian, and the Aryan. To these have been added from time to time dashes of nearly all the known races, and a great many yet unknown—various breeds of Mongoloids, Mongols, Tartars, and the so-called Aryans of the philologists. Well, here are the Persian, the Greek, the Yunchi, the Hun, the Chin, the Scythian, and many more, melted and fused, the Jews, Parsees, Arabs, Mongols, down to the descendants of the Vikings and the lords of the German forests, yet undigested—an ocean of humanity, composed of these race-waves seething, boiling, struggling, constantly changing form, rising to the surface, and spreading, and swallowing little ones, again subsiding—this is the history of India.

Swamiji was a great patriot and at the same time, was always very objective and factual about the historical truths concerning India, even though they are bitter sometimes. Swamiji says that keeping aloof from the community of nations is the only cause for the downfall of India. It is the English conquest that forced India to communicate with other nations after a long period. It will benefit India if its citizens move out from time to time and witness the advancements in other nations, since that alone will expand their horizon. A nation will die if it commits the fatal mistake of contracting itself and thus cutting off all the expansions of life.

However, India enjoyed throughout its history the freedom of religious thought, which Swamiji alludes to be one of the good effects of Vedanta. ‘It is something to glory in, that it is the land where there was never a religious persecution, where people are allowed perfect freedom in religion’ (1.425). Not only in matters of religion, but also in fine arts, India is the primal Guru of the whole world, which will be proved when the real history of India is unearthed. So, it is telling when Swamiji boldly declares: ‘Study the history of the whole world, and you will see that every high ideal you meet with anywhere had its origin in India’ (5.355).

Swamiji analyses the uniqueness of the Indian mind when he says that for a Hindu, the political and social independence are all good, but the real thing is Mukti or spiritual independence. This, he calls, the national purpose of India. The vitality of the Indian race lies in their religion and other institutions. If they change them, Swamiji warns that there will be no more India. The failure of the foreign invaders lies in their inability to appreciate the religious nature of this nation. In this context Swamiji observes: ‘Look here, how in the modern period the Pathan dynasties were coming and going, but could not get a firm hold of their Indian Empire, because they were all along attacking the Hindu’s religion’ (5.459).

Swamiji pays a glowing tribute to India, which for him is the sacred land, whose beginning, history fails to trace, and where the living thoughts of the earth’s best and purest have been working to raise the animal to the divine through centuries. He also compliments his countrymen that their nation has performed best under terrible conditions it was put in: ‘This is what I say to my countrymen. I do not condemn them. I look into their past. I find that under the circumstances no nation could do more glorious work. I tell them that they have done well. I only ask them to do better’ (5.214).


[1] The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 8.185.

[2] Mundaka Upanishad, 3.1.6.

[3] Mundaka Upanishad, 1.1.3.

[4] Complete Works, 6.41.

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