The Treasures found in Books: Swami Vivekanda

I stumbled upon Swami Vivekananda in a used books store--a small red book with $3.50 inscribed in pencil on the inside cover page: Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga.  (You can download pdf's by clicking on the link.)  The book was in excellent condition, and there was not a mark in it.  But the cover opened easily and the pages were not compacted together.  So assume that it was read, but never marked.  Not one dog-eared page.
Swami Vivekanda from Siliconeer, click to see article
Like my first Santayana book, found in the used stacks of the Little Givens Book Store in Lynchburg, as soon as I opened this book and read a page, here, then there, I felt as if the words from the page sang a tune that immediately felt in harmony with my ear.  Such is the thrill of finding passed-on books that no longer have a use for the owner or whose owner has passed.

"Swami."  The word sounds exotic to our Western ear.  Swami V was one of those wise souls that pass through and through his/her teachings lift us from confines of our desirous natures.  These books came about from his lectures when he was visiting the US.  He was a delegate to the World Parliament of Religions held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

For the two months of December 1895 and January 1896, he delivered a series of lectures from his rented rooms in New York City at 228 W 39th St.  He delivered a morning and evening class, free of charge.  These lectures were recorded by a professional stenographer, Joseph Josiah Goodwin who later became a disciple of the Swami and form the basis of five books.

In the first book, Karma-Yoga, the ideals of work, duty, mercy, nonattachment, charity, selflessness, and sacrifice.  These are universal ideas but they are nearly always reflected through a cultural lens.  Swami V writes (italics mine)

Therefore the one point we ought to remember is that we should
always try to see the duty of others through their own eyes, and
never judge the customs of other peoples by our own standard. I
am not the standard of the universe. I have to accommodate
myself to the world, and not the world to me. So we see that
environments change the nature of our duties, and doing the duty
which is ours at any particular time is the best thing we can do in
this world. Let us do that duty which is ours by birth; and when
we have done that, let us do the duty which is ours by our position
in life and in society.

Swami Vivekananda, Karma-Yoga, p. 39

Swami V goes onto say:  "There is, however, one great danger in human nature, viz. that man never examines himself."

Self-examination can be a painful thing.  And I was reminded of one of my favorite books, Jose Ortega y Gasset's Meditations on Quixote:
"Man reaches his full capacity when he acquires complete consciousness of his circumstances. Through them he communicates with the universe". (p.41). . . .I am myself plus my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I cannot save myself." (p. 45)
And it is surely true, that if we are not conscious of our circumstances, we cannot possible communicate with the universe.  As we are the equation of ourselves and our circumstances, if we cannot save our circumstances, then we cannot possible save ourselves.  The great social, religious, economic reformers are those who transcend the pettiness of our human nature that strives for power, wealth, recognition, indulgence of our senses, and see the 'customs' that encroach on the freedoms and rights of others (slavery, voting rights, social/economic injustices) yet are accepted without examination for what they truly are by those who enjoy such right.

It is too easy in our country to forget that work of any nature if valuable.  I remember a 60 Minutes episode, long ago, of a man who was a city rat catcher in New York. He went about his work with the single-minded knowing that when the subway tunnels were free of rats, then the homeless, who often sought refuge in the tunnels, would be safe from bites and disease.  He had kind words, money and sometimes food for those that he found huddled in the tunnels. 

He saw his job as a rat catcher, as a sacred duty.  He lived modestly.  He saved his money.  He gave his daughters the gift of a loving home, and a college education. I will forever remember his humility, and the great lesson in listening to the story of this man who through his work,  an occupation that would be viewed as 'beneath' that of many, helped so many.

We can find inspiration from many different people--no matter what their cultural background as it compares to ours.  Ultimately, the litmus test is do the words that we  read or hear resonate within us and incite us to want to be a better person.  Swami V is one such person for me.  The ratcatcher in New York subway another.  Jesus, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the person that feeds the feral cats at a client's workplace.  We needn't look far to find inspiration.  We needn't look far to find how easily our lens on the universe can be be corrupted.  I will leave this post, now, with a final quote from Swami V

He who does the lower work is not therefore a lower man. No man is to be judged by the mere nature of his duties, but all should be judged by the manner and the spirit in which they perform them.

Swami Vivekananda, Karma-Yoga, p. 39
Such are the treasures found in books.


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