UNITY IN DIVERSITY – FORMULA FOR WORLD PEACE
Swami Vishnudevananda set out upon his mission of World Peace with the seemingly simple slogan – “Unity in Diversity”. Yet within this slogan lies not only the essence of the Yoga and Vedanta philosophy, but also a call to action for all who wish to realize Yoga in this life. Philosophy is a powerful tool when it helps us change the attitudes which guide the way we relate to and act in the world.
All actions are motivated by the desire to gain happiness and to escape suffering. Through ignorance we attempt to escape suffering by seeking escape in the temporary pleasure of exciting the senses without considering the long term consequences, and unwittingly subject ourselves to even more suffering. Swami Vishnudevananda would use the example of the injudicious driver who noticing a red light illumine while driving, pulls over to the side of the road to fix the problem. He pulls out a hammer from the glove compartment, smashes the light and merrily drives on. We have developed a consumer society which is based on this principle. We look back with amusement at the days when the media was inundated with advertisements like “I smoke for pleasure”; while today the consumption of pain relievers, antidepressants and other mood altering drugs and alcohol is at an all-time high. We have televisions, IPods, CD’s, DVD’s, cell-phones, radios, and computers that keep the senses constantly stimulated. The result of this consumer culture is a long list of “life-style” induced physical and mental diseases among the individual members; and collectively, as a society, we have created an economy of greed, waste and war, addicted to consuming the earth’s resources like termites.
Yet, through right understanding we can think and act in ways that promote an environment of peace, prosperity, compassion, inner strength and freedom insuring optimal health and lasting happiness. We live in a society where freedom and prosperity are taken for granted. If we responsibly share that wealth and freedom compassionately to uplift others less fortunate, we generate peace, prosperity, respect and honor for all. When the wealthy and powerful exploit their position without considering the consequences, then poverty, disease, pollution, lawlessness, and war result. Though through conscious living the planet can support the entire world population, yet the planet lacks the resources to satisfy the desires of even one greedy person.
History is witness to this karmic law of causation, as the forces of dharma and compassion confront those of greed and fear. Though it is an interesting exercise to witness the play of karma and the gunas in different eras and cultures, practically, it is only on an individual basis that we can transform the world. As is the individual so is the world. The fabric of society is woven with the threads of individual thoughts, values, perceptions and actions.
One of the great beauties of the Vedanta philosophy is its ability to look at life from multiple perspectives at once. The innate defect of the mind is to project prejudices, emotions and values to construct a personal reality. Swami Vishnudevananda used to joke, “There are always three truths in a dispute – your truth, my truth, and the Truth!’’ It is impossible to know all aspects of any situation or object with the limited instruments of our individual mind and senses. This is why whenever two or more people come together there are as many perspectives as individuals. Without an underlying understanding of the unifying “Truth”, behind different perspectives there is the clash of egos and no possibility of peace, whether in the family, at the workplace, between different communities or different countries. Without a vision of unity there is no possibility of living in peace with nature or life itself.
The philosophy of “Unity in Diversity” offers a means to honor different perspectives, different individual interests, different cultures, religions, habits, values, life forms by honoring the unifying divine essence which gives life to all beings. It has become obvious in nature, in a forest, or in a stream, or in the sea, that diversity is one most essential conditions for a healthy ecosystem, and that all the life forms contribute to the healthy complexity of the ecosystem. In human society it is no different. First we need to realize that humans make up only a part of the total ecosystem, and we must integrate ourselves into the nature where we live. Then even among the subset of the local ecosystem of human society, diversity keeps the culture alive, the consciousness expanding and even the economy sustainable. The evolutionary strength of the human species, is that we are capable to adapt to different environments by diverse individuals with diverse capabilities and responsibilities working together in community.
To “know thy Self”, the essence of all philosophy, means to both recognize our individual duty and place in the world and to recognize the Unity of existence, of consciousness and of the joy of living that connects us not only with all humanity, but with all life. This realization makes it possible for each person to “know the Self and be free”, without having to conform to others’ ideas of religion, culture or values. The Self in Vedanta is beyond all qualities. The great diversity of the perspectives and expressions of duty, only glorifies the magnificence of divine consciousness which is capable of manifesting in countless forms. Diversity is the very essence of miraculous Creation, and the limitless splendor of Spirit.
Christ taught to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Vedanta asserts that our “neighbor” is no other than our true Self, or Atman. Once we remove all the filters created on our perception by the limited awareness of individual mind and senses, this unity becomes self-evident. Thus to “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, is practical application of Vedanta philosophy. It is love that breaks the mind created barriers. Yet though our “neighbor” is recognized in Vedanta as no other than our own true Self, his or her diversity is also honored as a special manifestation of the great Mystery of Creation. It should also be noted, that our “neighbor”, includes not just the persons that we like in our community. All people and life in all of its diverse forms must be included in the embrace of that “love”. The goal of all Yoga practice, God-Realization, or Self-Realization, is the mystical experience of all life as Divine expression of all-pervasive Spirit.
Vedanta does not deny the reality as we perceive it, yet it provides the knowledge to recognize that the mind and senses not only filter all of our experience, it also acknowledges the limitations of trying to find lasting stability in the constantly shifting world continuously moved by time, space and causation. Thus, like the quantum physicist who looks at reality beyond the limitations of human perception, Vedanta recognizes the gross limitations of filtered perspective and not only postulates another reality, but states that this reality can be experienced directly through stilling the mind in meditation. This unified understanding of reality is called “Brahman”, the unqualified, all-pervading consciousness, the non changing existence, the limitless love, which animates the whole diverse creation. The power of creation is called “Brahma”; the constantly changing nature is studied as “Prakriti”, and the force of constant change, stability, and balance in nature is observed as the three “Gunas”. Thus the philosophy provides an ethical framework in which to move tactfully in a world run by intricate laws of right thinking and right action, “Dharma”, of cause and effect, “karma”; and spiritual ideals of purity and compassion “Sattwa”, while never forgetting the changeless unified reality, “Brahman”, underlying all the apparent changes in nature.
From this vedantic understanding it is impossible to reject anyone in the world as an “enemy” because all of creation is a manifestation of the one pure consciousness or Brahman. Yet to practice Vedanta it is essential to respect the laws of cause and effect or karma, in order to honor the divine Self in all. A pig or a donkey is a divine expression of absolute consciousness or Brahman, yet I know that if I allow myself to be greedy like a pig or stubborn as a donkey that I will create suffering for myself and those around me. I have the choice to cultivate guna of sattwa, or purity, in my life, to eliminate the guna of tamas, or ignorance, negativity and depression; and to control rajas, or passion and activity, that I may be better able to see the one Self in all, and to “love my neighbor as my Self”. The discrimination between what is leading towards liberation and that which is leading toward bondage and suffering is called “Viveka”, and the awareness which allows me to reject the habits and attachments which lead to suffering is called “Vairagya”. With these two powerful tools the practitioner of Vedanta can transform wrong understanding and destructive habits putting the philosophy into practice. By attaining freedom from prejudice, “raga” (likes) and “dwesha” (dislikes), one can realize the unified consciousness, Brahman, which resides in the hearts of all, as the universal Self or Atman.
Furthermore, with an understanding of the law of dharma, even though we can set the highest ethical standards for ourselves as our personal dharma, we can also accept that others’ dharma will be different from our own. Even negative roles such as a thief or a murderer ultimately serve the whole by glorifying the good. Knowing the law of karma, that every good action produces a good result and every negative action creates a negative result, a yogi will strive to do good actions and strive to eliminate negative thoughts and actions. He or she will be motivated with the belief that positive thoughts will generate good actions. Those actions will benefit the person or object of the action and contribute to the universal good while generating purity, will and positive habits within themselves. Tolerance and compassion are cultivated when the negative actions of others are attributed to ignorance. The knowledge that ignorance is the cause for our own unskillful thoughts and actions generates the courage to transform them once the errors are discovered. Cut-throat competition and self-righteousness towards others are rejected as offenses against the universal Self. This dynamic yoga becomes “skill in action” as defined in the Bhagavad Gita. With an intuitive vision of a “higher Truth” beyond the limited perceptions one’s mind and senses, the Yoga practitioner is inspired to continue growing in spiritual awareness and strength, while simultaneously developing more and more humility in the face of the universal consciousness, or Brahman. Even the spiritual merit, knowledge and discipline acquired through spiritual practice and positive actions are seen as manifestations of Universal consciousness rather than personal possessions. There is profound steadiness in honoring the absolute equality of Brahman manifest in the vast diversity of creation, while making great effort to attain perfection in Yoga. This is Unity in Diversity.
The more a Yoga practitioner is able to realize this Unity in Diversity, the healthier, happier and more peaceful their life becomes and the more they can generate positive qualities in the world around them. This is the “Divine Life” that Swami Sivananda inspired us all to lead. Whether the world is meant to achieve lasting peace at this time or not is not our concern, but how we react to the violence and waste of our age in each moment of our lives is our personal responsibility.
Fortunately, Vedanta is not the only philosophy that upholds Unity in Diversity. In fact, it is an intuitive experience at the core of all the major religions. Moreover, the sense of unity and the celebration of diversity are preconditions for all loving relationships. Yet, Vedanta with its clear concepts of Brahman, Brahma, and the three gunas, of karma and dharma and of the limitations of the mind builds a peaceful attitude toward all life; and provides a spiritual motivation to live a life of Truth and virtue.
Freedom and responsibility are the two pillars of Vedanta philosophy. It calls us to act responsibly towards all life as limitless Self, while offering freedom from the self-imposed limitations of identifying with body and mind. It is a philosophy that inspires and empowers healthy living, positive thinking and peaceful relationships with all life by embracing Unity and Diversity.