The Secret of Work by Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda, the most well-known of disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, is well know for his extensive exposition of the four types of Yoga – Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga. The lecture titled “The Secret of Work” belongs to his extensive commentaries on the Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga). This blog post serves as the first in a series of posts that will explore this Vivekananda lecture.

Why should we be concerned with exploring “The Secret of Work”? What is this secret that needs to be revealed? Doesn’t the revered Bhagavad Gita in its famous shloka which states: “karmanye vaadhikaa raste, maa phaleshu kadaachanaa” reveal the secret of work to us? Swami Vivekananda does use this Gita shloka as a foundational cornerstone for this lecture which serves as a commentary for those who wish to implement its message in their daily lives.

Helping others physically, by removing their physical needs, is indeed great; but the help is greater according as the need is greater and according as the help is far-reaching. If a man’s wants can be removed for an hour, it is helping him indeed; if his wants can be removed for a year, it is more helpful; but if his wants can be removed forever, it is surely the greatest help that can be given him. Spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can destroy our miseries forever; any other knowledge satisfies wants only for a time. It is only with the knowledge of the spirit that the faculties of want are annihilated forever; so, helping man spiritually is the highest help that can be given.

This is the opening paragraph of Vivekananda’s lecture. The reader may note that the Swami does not waste any time in getting straight to the point. So, if one were to stop here, and not even read the rest of the lecture, they would have gained at least something useful. He further explains his assertion that “spiritual help is the highest help” by stating that “spirituality is the true basis of all activities in life”. Those of us who grew up in India know this to be true to some degree – even though we need to be aware that “religious practice” and “spirituality” can be very different from each other.

Vivekananda in Boston

…the real life of man consists of knowledge. Ignorance is death, knowledge is life. Life is of very little value, if it is a life in the dark, groping through ignorance and misery. …The misery that I feel when I am hungry is satisfied by eating, but hunger returns; my misery can cease only when I am satisfied beyond all want. So, that help which tends to make us strong spiritually is the highest, next to it comes intellectual help, and after that, physical help.

The Swami continues his explanation of the nature of real life and its relationship to knowledge. The lack of spiritual knowledge and the addiction to wants is true misery. So, as and when we help others in this aspect of life, we have the potential to do greatest good. However, elsewhere, Vivekananda has also said – “One cannot give spirituality and religion to a physically hungry person…” – for that is their primary want. This is not a contradiction. We help them physically. But, if possible, we are not to stop there. We open the door for them to intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Why? The Swami continues…

Until man’s nature changes, these physical needs will always arise, and miseries will always arise. The only solution of this problem is to make mankind pure. Ignorance is the mother of all the evil and all the misery we see. Let men have light, let them be pure and spiritually strong and educated. Then alone will misery cease in the world, not before. We may convert every house in the country into a charity, we may fill the land with hospitals – but the misery of man will continue to exist until man’s character changes.

The building of good character. Yes. That becomes the basis of our work. We will explore this basis in the next post, in our examination of “The Secret of Work”. Stay tuned.

In the interim, we invite you to comment on Vivekananda’s assertion that spiritual help is the greatest help. Do you agree? What is the possible drawback of taking this assertion at face value and ignoring the other aspects in which we may be able to help others? Please do share in the comments below. Namaste!