In the current ‘flavor of the month’ controversy, a storm has been stirred by the controversial remarks of Amogh Lila Prabhu, a monk from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). His interpretation of the teachings of revered spiritual leaders Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda has sparked a heated debate, igniting a firestorm of criticism and backlash.
The crux of the controversy lies in the claim that Prabhu has taken the words of these esteemed figures out of context, distorting their teachings to fit his narrative. This is not a trivial matter. The teachings of Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda have guided millions on their spiritual journeys, their words serving as a beacon of wisdom and enlightenment. It is thus essential to correct any misunderstanding. One of the highlights of this controversy is the misunderstanding in interpreting the phrase “Joto mot toto Path,” a Bengali aphorism that translates to “As many opinions as many paths.” This phrase is a testament to Ramakrishna’s belief in the universality of different practices. Ramakrishna never said, “All religions are true.” He said that all religions are valid paths to God-Head. In essence, Sri Sri Ramakrishna taught that any religious practice if undertaken with devotion. God would correct any errors that a particular approach may have. He held the conviction that all religions, in their myriad forms and practices, ultimately lead to the same destination – the realization of God. In the face of Amogh Lila Prabhu’s controversial remarks, it is crucial to revisit and reaffirm the essence of Ramakrishna’s teachings. His message of religious tolerance and understanding is not just a historical footnote but a guiding principle that is profoundly relevant in our contemporary world. As religious differences continue to sow discord and division, Ramakrishna’s words serve as a beacon, reminding us of our shared humanity and the need to respect the beliefs of others.
The phrase “Joto mot toto Path” is not just a statement but a philosophy that encourages acceptance and respect for diversity. It underscores that there is no singular ‘right’ way to worship God. The spiritual journey is deeply personal and unique to each individual, and they must find the path that resonates with them. Moreover, the phrase is a call for compassion and understanding. Even when we encounter beliefs that diverge from our own, we should approach them with kindness and respect rather than judgment or hostility. Since the latter two are inimical to spirituality of any kind! Even Hinduism has many diverging philosophies, including Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Pūrvamīmāṃsā, and Vedānta-each propounded by giants of the likes of Rishi Gautama, Kannada and Kapila. Thus, comparing such lofty philosophical and religious ideals of Sri Sri Ramakrishna to a global positioning system road map about a physical point on earth like Mayapur or Australia stinks of a lack of spiritual depths. Moreover, such comments are not reminiscent of the highest spiritual ideals that a monk of a well-accepted and internationally revered organization like ISKCON.
Now let’s move on to his interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings that have sparked controversy, one of which is his assertion that Vivekananda placed more importance on playing football than reading the Gita. This interpretation, however, appears to be a gross oversimplification and misrepresentation of Vivekananda’s profound teachings. This statement must be analysed with the historical context. Swami Vivekananda’s teachings emerged when India was under British rule, a period marked by oppression and a loss of national identity. Britishers looted over forty-five trillion dollars from India, rendering the country poverty stricken, with millions not even affording a square meal daily. Millions had died out of famine and starvation. The rest were steeped in depression due to the “Pagan culture (read Hinduism) they inherited” from their forefathers. Britishers and other European scholars left no stone unturned to ‘reveal’ the dark, evil, and profoundly sullen religion Hinduism was compared to elitist Christianity. The youth of India were in dire need of motivation and strength, both physically and mentally. In this context, Vivekananda emphasized the importance of physical strength and activity, including playing football. Taking this particular quote out of context is unfortunate as it is overtly evident in every one of his lectures which spoke about the greatness of Hinduism, including the Gita. It may be remembered that Swami Vivekananda had the guts to talk about Hinduism and Gita in a foreign land, sometimes in front of hostile listeners.
When somebody asked Swami Vivekananda why it was necessary to play football to understand the Gita, a religious text, Vivekananda responded, “Gita is the great book of brave people and renowned persons. Therefore one who is full of valor and service only will be able to understand the secret of the esoteric verses of the Gita.” This response highlights Vivekananda’s belief that physical strength and courage are prerequisites for understanding the profound teachings of the Gita. Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis on physical strength was not a dismissal of spiritual pursuits but rather a recognition of the interconnectedness of the physical and spiritual realms. He believed a sluggish and lethargic body could not be a vessel for intense thoughts or spiritual understanding. His statement reflects this belief: “You will understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger.” Swami Vivekananda’s teachings were not about choosing football over the Gita but about understanding the importance of a healthy body for spiritual growth and realization. He believed that physical strength and activity could serve as a foundation for spiritual understanding and the practice of Karma Yoga, as described in the Gita. Just as Lord Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, motivated and inspired Arjuna to fight against injustice in the Mahabharata, Swami Vivekananda, whom some believe to be an avatar of Shiva, inspired millions to rise against the injustice of British colonial rule. His words brought strength to millions of Indian reeling under torturous British rule.
The final point of contention in Amogh Lila Prabhu’s controversial remarks revolves around Swami Vivekananda’s fish and meat consumption. Prabhu questions how Vivekananda could be considered a spiritual and enlightened being while partaking in non-vegetarian food. This perspective, however, is a narrow interpretation of spirituality and enlightenment, reducing these profound concepts to mere dietary choices. Firstly, it is essential to note that none of the ancient sacred texts explicitly ban the consumption of non-vegetarian food. The Vedas and Shastras, revered as the foundational texts of Hindu philosophy, contain numerous references to meat consumption. Even the Manu smriti, a text often cited for its strict codes of conduct, states in 5.30, “It is not sinful to eat the meat of eatable animals, for Brahma has created both the eaters and the eatables.”
Secondly, it is crucial to understand the concept of the food chain and the cycle of energy in nature. All beings, whether plants or animals, are made of energy and serve a purpose in the grand scheme of life. Whether plant-based or animal-based, food consumption is an energy transfer from one form to another. While plant-based diets have important health connotations but energy-wise, none is more spiritual than the other. If that were true, every cow on this planet should be the highest spiritual ideal. The cow is no near to God than any other animal or human being. Hinduism always considers human birth the biggest boon as it enables one to reach the Godhead.
Moreover, it is scientifically proven that plants, like animals, are living beings and respond to stimuli, suggesting that they, too, can experience pain. If we were to follow the argument that one should not consume beings that feel pain, we would also have to stop eating plants. This reasoning underscores that spirituality and enlightenment are not confined to dietary habits. Spirituality and enlightenment are profound states of being that transcend the physical realm. Dietary choices do not limit them but are instead about realizing the self and the universe. It is also true that a non-vegetarian diet, particularly meat is more likely to create an aberrant mental state perturbing meditation and other practices. But that may be for the common practitioners trying to waddle on the beach to cross the ocean. These menial considerations do not hold water for an entity believed to be an original Saptarishi (one of the seven rishis taught by Shiva, the Adiyogi, yoga for spiritual enlightenment) brought on earth by the request of Sri Sri Ramakrishna to deliver Bharat back to its pristine spiritual days! Few thinkers have had so enduring impact on both Eastern and Western life as Swami Vivekananda; he inspired the likes of Freud, Jung, Gandhi, and Tagore. He blended science, religion, and politics to explain Hinduism to an animosity-ridden Western audience. Vivekananda introduced Westerners to yoga and the universalist school of Hinduism called Vedanta. His teachings fostered a more tolerant form of mainstream spirituality in Europe and North America, forever changing the Western relationship to meditation and spirituality. Thus Swami Vivekananda’s fish and meat consumption does not diminish his spiritual stature or enlightenment. Instead, his teachings and wisdom continue to guide and inspire millions on their spiritual journeys. Instead, people stuck to such menial considerations need to exhibit more spiritual maturity that enables gathering respect for every aspect of Hinduism.
In India’s spiritual and philosophical heritage, Swami Vivekananda is a towering figure, a beacon of wisdom and inspiration. His teachings have motivated millions of people, both in India and around the world. His influence was so profound that it inspired thousands of Indian youth to join the freedom movement, ultimately leading to India’s independence. His teachings deeply influenced notable figures such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Maharishi Aurobindo. And he achieved this monumental feat without social media or paid advertisements, relying solely on the power of his words and the depth of his wisdom.
Swami Vivekananda was an ardent proponent of the Bhagavad Gita. He travelled to western shores to preach the teachings of the Gita, demonstrating his deep understanding and reverence for this sacred text. His interpretation of Gita’s teachings transcends the superficial and reaches into the profound depths of spiritual wisdom, far surpassing the understanding of many modern motivational speakers. It would serve the current generation well to delve into the teachings of Swami Vivekananda.