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(Click here for Infrequently Asked Questions)

Do I have to believe in reincarnation to practice Vedanta?
You don't have to believe in anything. But if you are an adventurous soul you might want to search for truth. Vedanta is the perfect philosophy and religion for an atheist or agnostic. For that matter, one path in Vedanta, Jnana-yoga, teaches that we must constantly challenge what appears to us as real-saying to oneself, "not this, not this" in order to find the true reality. As for reincarnation, you might say -- not this, not this!
Do we need a spiritual teacher? If so, why?
Except possibly for the rare spiritual genius, we all need a teacher. There are many reasons for this, one of which is this: in our day-to-day living we find that there are both helpful and obstructive forces constantly affecting our minds. The spiritual teacher has the power to help us encourage the positive forces and neutralize the negative forces and guide us to where all dualities are resolved.
Doesn't our present scientific knowledge answer most of the questions about the universe?
The current Western cosmological paradigm is only the tip of the iceberg. Through the means of intense spiritual disciplines the mind acquires new ways of knowing the deeper levels of reality, culminating in the mind-transcending realization of pure Consciousness...Infinite Being, Knowledge, Bliss Absolute.
How do you explain the widely different concepts of the various religions?
The Divine Reality is not a concept that can be thought of, written about, or spoken of. In the attempt to conceptualize the inconceivable, differences of interpretation are bound to arise - hence different religions. As one grows in spiritual awareness these differences fall away leading to a unitive experience beyond all concepts.
I don't believe in incarnations and saints, do you?
Hmm, do you think all people are born with the same intelligence and abilities? Aren't there some who are more intelligent than others, and some who have artistic or other abilities way beyond what we can do? Likewise, some souls are more advanced along the spiritual path. Do you think Mother Teresa, for instance, is just your ordinary woman? You may not want to call her a saint, but you have to admit she is not just your ordinary woman. Perhaps "saint" would be a good name for her.
I notice that in the Readings that Vivekananda has only used the masculine gender in his talks. Did he ever address women or any women's issues?
Your question deals with the conventions of language, but also with what Vivekananda actually did. Regarding language, until very recently in America the word "man" was equated with the word "mankind" and in meaning could include both men and women which is how Vivekananda used the word "man." At times, however, Vivekananda makes specific references to women, and he also used the phrase "men and women." But more importantly he advocated independence for women. And in his usual way, left it up to those who need it, women, to nail down what "independence" really means. When Vivekananda came to America, his chief supporters and helpers were almost all women. And since then American women have been exceedingly important in maintaining the Vedanta movement in the U.S. Vivekananda was full of praise for American women, appreciating their get-up-and-go, their participation in the social and political life, as well as their abilities to be mothers, wives, sisters and enter the labor market if they wished. But it should be noted that he scolded American women too, actually he scolded everyone for not grounding one's life in divinity.
If we did have another life before this one, how come we don't remember it?
We don't remember our babyhood, so why should we remember a previous life? It is a blessing that we do not remember our previous life. If we did remember, how could we function in this present one? We'd be thinking about our past life all the time, wouldn't we? We have to put all of our attention into our present life and try to live it in the best way we can.
Vivekananda asked man to believe in himself rather than God. But when I believe in myself and try to do things, they don't always work out, so I seek help from God who bails me out. Am I not able to understand Swami Vivekananda?
When Swami Vivekananda asked man to believe in himself, he was referring to much more than the little ego-self; rather, he was asking one to believe in his/her real Self. From the point of view of Advaita or Monism, the real Self is the Divine Reality Itself, non-different from the Godhead. When you say "God bails me out," this help is coming as much from your Real Self as God. (The word "God" usually implies the dualistic viewpoint--that is, that God and you are different.) To the extent that the ego is attenuated, to that extent divinity manifests in one's life. If you read more of Vivekananda while always keeping mind that you are, in fact, the complete divine reality, and of, course, act in accordance with that idea of yourself--that you are divine--I believe these questions will be clarified for you. Go deeper into the woods. P.S. The ego-self is but a dim and distorted reflection of the Self on a part of the mind. The whole purpose of spiritual life is to purify, unify, and transform the instrument, that is the mind, so that the Self can be realized as it is in Itself--pure and infinite.
What can Vedanta or Vivekananda’s teachings do for a poor person?
That Vivekananda wanted his message sown "broadcast" shows that he was acutely aware of the problem of his countrymen. He knew, however, that spiritual knowledge must precede social effort. His idea was that the message of the individual person's innate divinity would stir men and women to action. He said, "Meddle not with so called social reform for there cannot be any reform without spiritual reform first." (CW 5:74) Thus the downtrodden must catch the spirit one way or another, but some awakening must precede social action if it is to be sufficiently effective to raise the populace to higher levels. If one puts into practice the tenets of Vedanta all of one's problems are resolved whether the person is rich or poor, healthy or ill. All of life's problems are caused by the absence of full knowledge (avidya) of our true nature. Sincere spiritual practice shifts our sense of identity from the human, with its various limitations to the fullness of the Divine Self (Atman). The consequence of this change is self-confidence, strength and other divine virtues which brings complete transformation of the person. Even a little of this realization will have a tremendous effect.
What do we gain when we attain spiritual realization? Is it worth the effort?
Actually, in truth, we gain nothing when we attain realization. We are always that ineffable Divine Being. All spiritual practice is for the purpose of removing our ignorance of our real nature. All that we seek in life is attained in its infinite fullness in the experience of Self-realization.
What is the difference between the New Age philosophy and Vedanta as taught by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
The key difference between New Age teachings and Vedanta or any other valid spiritual tradition is in how the nature of the human being is understood. In most New Age teachings the ego-bound personality is regarded as real, while in Vedanta the ego is regarded as the principle of limitation and separateness. As such, the ego must be transcended in order to realize the Self or God. From the Vedantic viewpoint the goal and purpose of life is complete transcendence of the human condition. Methods which reinforce the ego as real are counter productive to efforts toward illumination or transcendence.
You have mentioned that the True goal of a man's life is to discover one's true nature in him. If Man's true nature is divine, how did he become ignorant in the first place? How did we get ignorant of our true nature? Being truly a divine and perfect soul, should we not have remained that way?
Congratulations! You have asked one of the prime questions in spiritual philosophy for which there is no clear-cut answer. The non-dual Vedanta philosophy, subscribed to by Swami Vivekananda, gives the clearest answers as far as it is possible to do in human language. There have always been among us a few human beings who have actually realized the Truth, in the process of which they have transcended all phenomena and re-dentified with the Eternal Reality, Buddha, Jesus, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda. Their answers are our scriptures. There we find our answers. In answer to your last question, "Being truly a divine and perfect soul, should we not have remained that way?" We are ever that Perfect Being whether we are aware of it or not. This veil of ignorance limits our awareness of ourselves and the world. Spiritual practices remove this ignorance. This is possible because ignorance is ultimately unreal, being but the play of an inscrutable divine energy. Why this is so cannot be answered. Our goal is to find the Reality of our true nature, not get lost in endless questioning. There is a lecture by Swami Vivekananda in Vol. II of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, entitled, "The Real and the Apparent Man" which should be most helpful to you. I hope this helps answer your question and spurs you onwards in your spiritual search.

Infrequently Asked Questions

How can we recognize a Jivanmukta?
"Recognizing" a Jivanmukta can be difficult if not purely subjective. Although "inner" change is uniform in the enlightened state (absence of ignorance re: one's true nature) it's "outer" manifestation can take various forms. Not everyone could recognize even Ramakrishna's divinity in his lifetime and even afterward--and he was not just a jivanmukta, he was an avatara! So there is no reason to suppose everyone can recognize a jivanmukta when they see one. And it is not necessary either. The point is that, according to Vedantic understanding of reality and the human situation, it is possible to be "free" here and now. Enlightenment doesn't have to be an after- death experience. If that were to be so, there would be no enlightened teachers around, as they would drop dead the moment they attained enlightenment. Whether or not we meet a jivanmukta or can recognize one in our lifetime, according to Vedanta each of us has the potential to become a jivanmukta ourselves. When we become jivanmuktas, I don't think we'd care if anyone recognized us as such or feel offended if they didn't. Nor would we want to advertise our achievement. The "I" of a jivanmukta is very different from the "I" of an unenlightened person.
I have found Dvaita (dualism), Advaita (nondualism), and Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism) on the Web. Please explain the differences among these three philosophies and the implications of each of the philosophies for the spiritual seeker.
The basic difference between these philosophies is in how we understand our self. With Dvaita we look upon our self as one soul among many souls which are all different and separate from God. With Vishishtadvaita, we regard our soul as a part of God. With Advaita, we realize that the Soul or Self is non-different from the Absolute or Brahman. One implication of the three philosophies is that there is a progression in the awareness of our spiritual nature culminating in the unitive nondual realization in which the sense of separation and difference fades away and disappears in the Advaitic realization.
Some Vedanta sites on the Web seem to emphasize the personal God and others no recognizable God at all, but a vast abstraction called Brahman. Why do these differences exist in one religion?
Vedanta encompasses multiple approaches to the Divine Reality because the actual experience of Divine Reality differs from person to person. Furthermore, those who have not actually experienced the Divine Reality may conceive of God in highly individual or personal ways which are in accord with their temperament. For example, some persons may think of God as personal, others as impersonal. Vedanta recognizes these differences and supplies the practical support (yogas) and philosophies corresponding to the different paths to the goal. Because Vedanta is based on the actual spiritual experiences of seers which may differ from one seer to another, Vedanta encompasses multiple approaches to the Divine Reality. All people do not conceive of the Divine in the same way. Many people think of God as personal, others conceive of God as impersonal. Vedanta recognizes these differences and supplies both practical support with the different yogas and differing philosophies corresponding to the different paths to God.
Who is a Jivanmukta? Which Vedanta texts refer to the concept of a Jivanmukta?
Translated literally, the Sanskrit word "Jivanmukta" means "living-free": it's an epithet given to a person who becomes spiritually enlightened, because only such a person is really "free" in the truest sense of the term. We don't have to die in order to taste this freedom. We can experience it right here, right now. Such spiritually free people do exist in every generation and it is they who keep the lamp of spirituality burning brightly. The concept of Jivanmukta appears in many Vedanta texts. See especially the following Upanishads: Brihadaranyaka 3.8.10 and 4.4.14, Kena 2.3.5, Katha 2.3.4; and the Gita 5.23 and 5.26. In addition, of course, see the characteristics of the Sthitaprajna (a person of "established wisdom") Gita 2:55-70, which describe how a Jivanmukta lives. The jivanmukta category is also identified with a person who has gone "beyond the gunas" (gunatita) in the Gita and the characteristic of such a person are also given. The "Vivekachudamani" and other Vedanta works also describe (usually toward the end) the characteristic of a jivanmukta. There is one entire text titled "Jivanmukti- Viveka" which deals with this subject.

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