“The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong,” said Swami Vivekananda.
In contrast to our image of the aesthetic, holy man of India, Vivekananda placed great emphasis on strength. To be truly religious, an individual (perhaps especially a man) had to be strong. Why?
In the modern era, spirituality, like television, is often a kind of escapism. We can imagine a world of peace and plenty, where there are no disagreements about anything worth fighting over. In such a world, all of our relationships would work out. And everyone would be our friend. Even the animals would love us.
Like the politicized, the spiritual person often thinks in slogans. Because slogans are just vacuous enough to allow everyone to fill them with their own particular fantasy. The complexity and inherent contradictions of a world that does not conform to his ideology, or, probably, to anyone’s ideology, can be ignored.
Everyone believes in hope, change (for the better), love, belief, etc., just as we all enjoy sugary treats. The problem, of course, is that abstracted from the reality of life, they are empty.
Love. Everyone loves love.
But do we love death, sickness, and pain? Can we love someone who has a gun at our head — literally or metaphorically? What about sexual love? Can we love several people, especially if they all want the same person to themselves? If I love everyone, is everyone special? Or is no one special? Or am I alone actually special?
Perhaps more than any other religion, Christianity preaches love (Agape): “love thy neighbor.” Yet, plenty of early Christians were fed to the lions for their faith. And, later, the Christians battled, killed, and defeated many pagan tribes, making them convert to the Christian faith.
Love has unexpected, real-world consequences, just as pacifism has been the prelude to war, and the call for the abolition of class distinctions the prelude to the gulags. Beautiful, sentimental ideas often lead to unanticipated and unimaginable cruelty and tragedy.
Life can be kind and sweet. But it is also raw and harsh. And it will test us in all sorts of ways — financially, intellectually, in terms of our self-image, health, in regard to those we love, and so on.
Yet, sentimentality seems an ingredient of unique importance to the modern Western mind, perhaps because we can no longer face the competitiveness of nature or the competitiveness of the modern world. Or because we have come to think of so many adults as children who need our love and protection (via state intervention, at least).
In Buddhism, in Japan, the protector deity of the faithful (Fudō Myō-ō) has a fierce expression on his face. He carries a sword, and is surrounded by fire. He is demonic looking. The prophet is a warrior; the holy man meditates in the graveyard amidst the scattered remains of corpses.
Without recourse to an ideology that promises to keep us “safe,” strength and an ability to face the harsh reality of the world are the prerequisites for awakening.
Swami Vivekananda knew this. He preached that religious devotion had to follow strength. Strength had — and has — to come first. For, at the end of the day, religion and spirituality are not — or should not be — escapes from life. Instead, they are guides that help us navigate the brutality of Samsara as we move towards the supreme Bliss of Nirvana.