Swami Vivekananda-His New Monastic Order

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Swami Vivekananda brought about some vital changes in Hindu monasticism. This article explores those changes and the reasons why he brought them into effect.

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  • Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order

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    Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order

    [Swami Nirvanananda Memorial Lecture at Ramakrishna Math, Bhubaneswar on 25th July 2015]

    Om sthapakaya cha dharmasya sarva dharma svarupine

    Avatara varishtaya Ramakrishnaya te namaha.

    Revered Secretary Maharaj, dear Mihir Maharaj and dear devotees and friends, generally, in our

    Order, we do not speak after our Revered Secretary Maharaj has spoken. Today I am making an exception

    because Revered Maharaj has himself asked me to speak after him.

    I have come from Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, Belur Math. It is a Polytechnic College

    where we give training to Diploma students. Belur Math, as you all know, is the headquarters of the

    worldwide Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, two organizations started by Swami

    Vivekananda.

    Todays topic for deliberation is Swami Vivekananda: His new monastic Order. The topic has

    the words New monastic Order. This suggests that there are at least two types of monastic orders the

    old one and the new one. I will tell you some things about the old monastic order so that you will be able

    to appreciate the new one founded by Swamiji.

    Who is a monk? Or, what is monasticism? And what is a monastic order? A monk is person who

    has dedicated his life for God realization. That is the single aim of his life. Monasticism is therefore a way

    of life, distinct from that of the majority of the people in the world. What do I mean? The majority of the

    people in the world are born, go to schools and colleges, learn some skills, engage in some profitable

    activity, earn money, get married, have children, grow old and die. The Hindu way of life has designed

    that all these activities be sanctified by certain rituals called Samskaras, so that by participating in these

    activities, he or she may also further ones spiritual evolution. A person is born. There is a samskara to be

    done. Then the child is named and that has another samskara or ritual. Then the first food, weaning away

    from the mothers breast and that has another ritual. Then marriage, another ritual. And so on until death,

    which is the final rite or Antima Samskara. Thus, society has prescribed specific rules and regulations

    on every person born into society.

    Thousands of years ago, there arose a rebellion against being bound like this by social rituals.

    They claimed that they be allowed to lead a life unfettered by social bindings and their claim was based

    on the fact that right from childhood or youth, that is, after their formal education, they would like to

    delve into the method and means of God realization directly. They did not want to go through the

    circuitous route of the society. They would stay away from society and achieve the same goal. Society

    also prescribes the same goal for those who stay inside its confines. Their goal is also God realization.

    However, there are too many rules, regulations, duties, and responsibilities associated with life in society.

    Some people wanted to be freed from all those bindings and be allowed to engage in self-discovery

    directly, by the path known as Yoga. These were actually social outlaws. They are the monks. They

    perform a grand ritual known as Viraja Homa and sever all connections with society. They will not

    produce anything. They will not produce wealth or children. They are out of all competition. If you

    analyze the innumerable activities that people do in this world, you will find that all of them will fall into

    these two categories production of wealth and production of progeny. A monk declares that he is out of

    both of these. What else is there to do? Does he not eat and wear clothes? Where does he get them?

    The only activity of the monk is to realize God. His only activity is meditation. When he does not

    meditate, he may spend some time talking to people about his spiritual practices, his own realizations and

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    discussing the practices and realizations of other monks of the past, which are enshrined in our holy

    books. That is all he is allowed to do. Society in India, even thousands of years ago, acknowledged this

    mode of living and said that it would support such people with bare food and clothing. That is how monks

    came into existence. When their numbers grew, there came about classifications among them too. There

    were rules worked out for them too, but these rules were mainly codes of conduct for the monks. This led

    to the formation of Monastic Orders. Monks who followed a certain set of rules of conduct claimed to

    belong to a certain monastic order. Over the centuries, [and I am speaking of a time much before the

    Buddha here], these monks got classified into two types the wanderer and the settler. They were called

    Bahudaka and Kutichaka.

    The Hindu society did one more grand thing. When they recognized the validity of this claim of

    some people to be let free from the social bindings, they tried to incorporate this urge for freedom into

    their social structure itself. The leaders of society declared that every person would be accorded this

    freedom in the last stage of his life on earth. A person would study, set up a house, rear up his kids and

    get them settled in life and then, he and his wife could take monastic vows. This decision was a stroke of

    genius, for, it ensured that there wouldnt be an exodus of people away from society into monasticism. If

    such an exodus occurred, society would crumble down. In due course of time, certain other conditions too

    got added on concerning caste. Slowly, all learning got accumulated among these forest recluses, and

    hence their power grew to a great extent. These subtle oppressions necessitated a transformation in

    monasticism that the Buddha brought about.

    Buddha himself was a Bahudaka monk. He was a Vedantic monk. Later on, he brought about

    some vital changes into monasticism. These changes were so drastic that those monks had a tough time

    integrating with the mainstream Hindu monks and hence they developed as a separate type of monks

    called Buddhist monks.

    These Buddhist monks spread all over the known world and from some of those monks, Jesus

    Christ was deeply influenced. And from him grew yet another category of monks called the Christian

    monks. We must understand that the Christian monks lived in a society that was totally different from the

    Indian society that had given birth to the monastic lifestyle. Hence, the Christian monks lived by working

    and producing things of value for the society. Of all the known religions of the world, only Hinduism,

    Buddhism and Christianity have monastic orders. [Jainism recognizes monasticism, but then, Jains are

    generally considered as a part of Hinduism.]

    Hindu monasticism underwent three major transformations before Swamiji. The Buddhist

    transformation was the first. Centuries before the Buddha, Hindu monasticism had started and had thrived

    in India. But, there were some criteria for allowing a person to leave the society and take up monkhood.

    Also, more often than not, monkhood was considered as the last stage of life. A person was directed to

    live a full life in society, following all its rules and regulations, contribute in terms of wealth and progeny

    to society and when he reached an age of retirement, he was allowed to accept monastic vows. Therefore,

    we find even today that the purificatory mantras one chants before becoming a monk expiates him from

    all sorts of sins, even the sins of killing Brahmins, warriors and fetuses! But, people were not allowed to

    become monks without first having lived in society and served the society by contributing wealth and

    progeny. So, typically, a person was supposed to have picked up some skills in life during his youth; then

    he was supposed to have engaged in some gainful activity and produced wealth. Then he was supposed to

    have married and set up house. Then he was supposed to have produced a couple of children and reared

    them up. When the children had married and had set up their own houses, he was given permission from

    society to leave his own house and all that he had created in society and retire to the forest. In the forest,

    he generally set up a small hut, lived with his wife, and engaged in spiritual pursuits. Often, young boys

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    and girls would also come from society and live with him. He would teach them the various skills he

    knew. Sometimes, the monk would remain a wanderer, without any fixed hermitage, especially if he was

    a widower. This was the scene until Buddha came.

    Buddha brought about a great change in Hindu monasticism by relaxing many of these norms. He

    allowed anyone, at any stage of life, to become a monk. This transformation was so drastic that finally

    Hinduism had to dissociate itself from Buddhas ideas. But the one change that remained in Hindu

    monasticism was the concept of the Akhada. Before Buddha, Hindu monks either lived in small

    hermitages or were free wanderers. Buddhas influence remained in Hindu monasticism in the form of

    Akhadas. These were very large hermitages with an Abbot. The daily activities of the Akhada were

    managed by the Abbot and a team of monks. Apart from this Abbot & his team, innumerable monks lived

    in the Akhadas, without any fixed duties, engaged in spiritual pursuits, free to come and go as they

    fancied. There were general rules of conduct to be followed.

    Later on, Acharya Shankara brought about tremendous systematization into Hindu monasticism.

    He classified Hindu monks into ten different orders of monks. All the extant Vedas and Upanishads were

    allotted to the various orders of monks for safekeeping and cultivation of the spiritual culture. He further

    established four monasteries in India and gave charge to the Abbots of these monasteries for these ten

    orders of monks. He felt the need to start these four monasteries because in the wake of the Buddhas

    revolutionary transformations, the forest hermitages had lost their relevance, and they needed to be

    revived.

    Gradually, Islam entered into India and started persecuting the Hindu monks. Innumerable monks

    died in the onslaughts of Islamic rulers. Another monk called Madhusudhana Saraswati brought about

    another transformation at this time. He started a new wing in each of the ten orders of Vedanta monks

    called the Naga wing. These monks were warriors and monks at the same time. If any attack occurred on

    the monasteries or on wandering monks, these Naga monks would fight back for self-protection. They

    carried all sorts of arms but followed a policy of not-attacking-first.

    Now, the traditional Hindu monasticism is as I have described until now.

    As I said, the old monastic orders prescribed that the only goal of a monk was to realize God.

    And the path for realizing God also was prescribed. It was a complete negation of everything of this

    world. For, it is the things of this world that held us back from God. Hence, the monk renounced

    everything of this world, that is, of this society. The motto of the traditional monk was Atmano

    mokshartha sanyasahrama grahanam that is, Embracing monasticism for the sake of self-liberation

    (i.e. God realization). The conception of the goal was also a very interesting thing. I told you about the

    three reformations in Hindu monasticism that happened before Swami Vivekananda. One of the important

    things that Acharya Shankara introduced into monasticism was a particular conception of the goal. He

    specified that the goal was Nirvikalpa Samadhi and nothing else. Until that time, the goal was quite

    flexible. There used to be monks who strove to obtain a vision of a particular deity; that was the

    proclaimed goal for which they had renounced society. But Acharya Shankara changed that. He directed

    that nothing less than Nirvikalpa Samadhi would the goal of monks and that all monks who wished to

    adopt monasticism under the Vedanta tradition would have to compulsorily accept Nirvikalpa Samadhi as

    the goal.

    This had a strange fallout on the monastic society as well as the Indian society. Acharya

    Shankara, apart from proclaiming the goal of monks, also prescribed the particular path along which the

    monks had to tread in order to realize that goal. That path was the path of negation in accordance with

    the Advaita Vedanta School of philosophy that he had rigorously established through his treatises and

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    commentaries on the Upanishads, Gita and Brahma Sutras. As a result, everything belonging to this world

    had to be renounced as useless. Every pursuit or activity pertaining to this world was condemned as a

    distraction and hence had to be rejected. The goal was one of perfect inactivity; it was a state of pure

    Being; doing was a fall from that supreme state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Hence, a gradual devaluation of

    all kinds of activity occurred in the monastic society. This slowly rubbed itself onto the larger Indian

    society as a whole, since, it was these monks who taught religious pursuits to the people in the society.

    The first two transformations wrought by Buddha and then by Acharya Shankara had another

    very detrimental repercussion on the Indian society. Before Buddha, Hindu monasticism was open mainly

    to persons who had lived a full life in society. By a full life, I mean, they had worked hard in some gainful

    activity, produced wealth, got married, begot children, strove to get their children educated and married

    and only then were they eligible for monastic life. In this scheme of things, the presence of these social

    outlaws did not affect the efficacy of the society. Buddha changed this delicate structure and declared that

    anyone, in any stage of life, could take monastic vows. This change had on the one hand completely

    disturbed the delicate balance of the economy and on the other hand had brought in unspeakable

    degradation into monastic society. Of course, we must understand that these detrimental changes occurred

    over a period of a few centuries and they were simply fallouts of Buddhas policy and were not intended

    specifically by the Buddha at all! So Acharya Shankara made it a norm that only those people could

    become monks who decided to do so right from their childhood and not later on. Married people couldnt

    become monks. Further, women were deprived of the right to become nuns, since much of the post

    Buddhist degradation could be traced to the free intermixing of monks and nuns.

    Both these developments led to a very strange outcome in the Indian society. Firstly, the man in

    the society started developing an inferiority complex with respect to oneself. Secondly, marriage was

    considered as a compromise to ones inability to lead a celibates life and hence the married man was

    always lower in spiritual stature compared to...