Swami Vivekananda on Buddha and Shankara

Bud­dha brought the Vedan­ta to light, gave it to the peo­ple, and saved India. A thou­sand years after his death … Shankaracharya arose and once more revived the Vedan­ta phi­los­o­phy. He made it a ratio­nal­is­tic phi­los­o­phy. In the Upan­ishads the argu­ments are often very obscure. By Bud­dha the moral side of the phi­los­o­phy was laid stress upon, and by Shankaracharya, the intel­lec­tu­al side. He worked out, ratio­nalised, and placed before men the won­der­ful coher­ent sys­tem of Advai­ta. …

In Bud­dha we had the great, uni­ver­sal heart and uni­ver­sal patience, mak­ing reli­gion prac­ti­cal and bring­ing it to everyone’s door. In Shankaracharya we saw tremen­dous intel­lec­tu­al pow­er, throw­ing the scorch­ing light of rea­son upon every­thing. We want today that bright sun of intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty joined with the heart of Bud­dha, the won­der­ful infi­nite heart of love and mer­cy. This union will give us the high­est phi­los­o­phy. Sci­ence and reli­gion will meet and shake hands. Poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy will become friends. This will be the reli­gion of the future, and if we can work it out, we may be sure that it will be for all times and peo­ples. …

It was the great Bud­dha, who nev­er cared for the dual­ist gods, and who has been called an athe­ist and mate­ri­al­ist, who yet was ready to give up his body for a poor goat. That Man set in motion the high­est moral ideas any nation can have. When­ev­er there is a moral code, it is ray of light from that Man. We can­not force the great hearts of the world into nar­row lim­its, and keep them there, espe­cial­ly at this time in the his­to­ry of human­i­ty when there is a degree of intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment such as was nev­er dreamed of even a hun­dred years ago, when a wave of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge has arisen which nobody, even fifty years ago, would have dreamed of. By try­ing to force peo­ple into nar­row lim­its you degrade them into ani­mals and unthink­ing mass­es. You kill their moral life. What is now want­ed is a com­bi­na­tion of the great­est heart with the high­est intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty, of infi­nite love with infi­nite knowl­edge. The Vedan­tist gives no oth­er attrib­ut­es to God except these three—that He is Infi­nite Exis­tence, Infi­nite Knowl­edge, and Infi­nite Bliss, and he regards these three as One. Exis­tence with­out knowl­edge and love can­not be; knowl­edge with­out love and love with­out knowl­edge can­not be. What we want is the har­mo­ny of Exis­tence, Knowl­edge, and Bliss Infi­nite. For that is our goal. We want har­mo­ny, not one-sided devel­op­ment. And it is pos­si­ble to have the intel­lect of a Shankara with the heart of a Bud­dha.

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Bud­dha was a great Vedan­tist (for Bud­dhism was real­ly only an off­shoot of Vedan­ta), and Shankara is often called a “hid­den Bud­dhist.” Bud­dha made the analy­sis, Shankara made the syn­the­sis out of it. Bud­dha nev­er bowed down to anything—neither Veda, nor caste, nor priest, nor cus­tom. He fear­less­ly rea­soned so far as rea­son could take him. Such a fear­less search for truth and such love for every liv­ing thing the world has nev­er seen. Bud­dha was the Wash­ing­ton of the reli­gious world; he con­quered a throne only to give it to the world, as Wash­ing­ton did to the Amer­i­can peo­ple. He sought noth­ing for him­self.

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Look at Buddha’s heart! Ever ready to give his own life to save the life of even a kid—what to speak of “bahu­jana hitāya bhahu­jana sukhāya—for the wel­fare of the many, for the hap­pi­ness of the many”! See, what a large-heartedness—what a com­pas­sion! … What was there in this coun­try before Buddha’s advent? Only a num­ber of reli­gious prin­ci­ples record­ed on bun­dles of palm leaves—and those too known only to a few. It was Lord Bud­dha who brought them down to the prac­ti­cal field and showed how to apply them in the every­day life of the peo­ple. In a sense, he was the liv­ing embod­i­ment of true Vedan­ta.

From The Com­plete Works of Swa­mi Vivek­a­nanda