Swami Vivekanada, the disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, was a great believer in action. One of his most famous quotes is “Arise, Awake, and stop not till the goal is achieved”. There can be no simpler, yet more powerful call to action. So, what is this “goal” that Swami Vivekananda is challenging us to work towards? To find the answer, we have to go to the source and the context of the quote.
In his short life of thirty nine years, Swami Vivekananda gave many lectures, both in the West (mainly in the USA and the UK) and in India. One of his lectures, simply titled “Vedanta”, was given at Lahore (now in Pakistan, then, part of undivided India) on 12th November 1897. Towards the end of this lecture, which offers an excellent explanation of Vedanta, the Swami must have felt compelled to talk about practical Vedanta and its relevance in everyday life. To this effect, he stated
Young men of Lahore, raise once more the mighty banner of Advaita, for on no other ground can you have that wonderful love, until you see that the same Lord is present everywhere. Unfurl that banner of love! Arise, Awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.
The context of the call to action is thus established. And the goal – to unfurl the banner of love – is established too. The Swami seeks to establish that there can be no greater goal in our daily lives than to perform our actions with love. If there were any doubt about this goal, the Swami continues
Arise, arise once more, for nothing can be done without renunciation. If you want to help others, your little self must go. Have Vairagya – your ancestors gave up the world for doing great things.
Immediately following the call to Arise, Awake, the Swami reiterates that we need to Arise, Arise once more… We need to keep rising up, again and again, repeatedly, with a sense of renunciation, if we are to do great things. If we are to unfurl the banner of love, if we are to help others, our little self must go. The Swami throws down a tremendous challenge to us. To give up our little self. But why is it necessary – this adoption of vairagya?
At the present time, there are men who give up the world to help their own salvation. Throw away everything, even your own salvation, and go and help others. You are always talking bold words, but here is practical Vedanta before you. Give up this little life of yours.
So, Swami Vivekananda puts it right on the line for us. If we are to truly help others, we have to even throw away our personal salvation. That is practical Vedanta according to him – not the mere talking of bold words, but of action. Action in the form of renunciation of the little life in exchange for the higher and greater good. And what is this greater good for which we are to Arise, Awake?
Arise, Awake, with your hands stretched out to protect the spirituality of the world. And first of all, work it out for your own country. What we want is not so much spirituality as a little of the bringing down of the Advaita into the material world. First bread and then religion. No dogmas will satisfy the cravings of hunger.
The essence of practical Vedanta, practical spirituality and practical religion is perhaps stated here – First bread and then religion. Too many times, we ignore their hunger for bread to feed them religion. The Swami states in no uncertain terms that this is highly impractical, if not downright selfish. We are further implored, to be aware of, and get rid of, two things
There are two curses here. First our weakness, secondly, our hatred, our dried-up hearts. You may talk doctrines by the millions, you may have sects by the hundreds of millions; ay, but it is nothing until you have the heart to feel. Feel for them as your Veda teaches you, till you find they are parts of your own bodies, till you realize that you and they, the poor and the rich, the saint and the sinner, are all parts of One Infinite Whole, which you call Brahman.
And so it is. The call to Arise, Awake, to recognize the One Infinite Whole, to feel it with every pore of our being. The call to action – to get rid of our hatred, our dried-up hearts, to develop the heart to feel. The call to action. To Arise, Awake – Unfurl the banner of Love.
Will we Arise, Awake? Do we have the courage to renounce our little self? Or will we keep talking our bold words while continuing to plant seeds of hate in our dried-up hearts? The world awaits our answer. What will it be?