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On Darwin, Evolution, and the Perfect Man

by Swami Vivekananda



"The whole object of [the Hindu religion] is, by constant struggle, to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God, and see God. . . . Every religion is evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them." These words were spoken by the great Indian sage Swami Vivekananda to the Parliament of World's Religions in 1893. So striking was the impact of Swami Vivekananda's words and presence on those gathered at the conference that many say the beginning of the modern East-West spiritual dialogue can be traced back to that summer day in Chicago more than a century ago.

A student of the renowned Indian spiritual master Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda was the first great Hindu teacher to bring the message of the mystical East to the Western world, opening doors that many more would walk through in the twentieth century. A champion of the Hindu tradition, a passionate advocate for tolerance and respect among the world's religions, and a social revolutionary whose words strengthened and inspired a nation, Vivekananda was a true renaissance figure, a spiritual and intellectual giant of his time, who embodied the best of East and West in his spiritual values and personal character. Familiar with the story of his extraordinary life, none of us at WIE had any doubt about the well-deserved place that Vivekananda occupies in religious history nor about his groundbreaking attempts to lower the barriers between East and West. But what we did not know was that he was also one of the first Eastern teachers to grapple with Darwin's evolutionary theory and to formulate a Hindu philosophy that sought to embrace the emerging evolutionary worldview of the Western scientific community.

Living just decades after Darwin published The Origin of Species, Vivekananda was well versed in Western science and philosophy, and saw no inherent conflict between an evolutionary cosmos and the great tradition of Indian Vedanta. Indeed, like Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, and other twentieth-century visionaries, Vivekananda saw the evolution revolution not as a threat to the spiritual life but as an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the movements of spirit in all aspects of the material world. His work was an inspiration to many, in particular to Sri Aurobindo, another great champion of Mother India, who considered himself something of a student of Vivekananda's life and work.

So as we set out in this issue of WIE to explore the new evolutionary spirituality that is emerging from the intermingling of Eastern and Western worldviews, we were curious to take a closer look at the words of the man who did so much to pave the way for the future. More than a century after Swami Vivekananda's short but extraordinary life left its distinct mark on the pages of world history, his words seem more relevant than ever. And his unrelenting call to evolve, to rise up, to struggle to perfect ourselves in the image of God is a powerful antidote to a postmodern spiritual culture that too often forgets that inherent in the evolution of the spirit is the demand for a profound and personal transformation of the "material man."

Note: We chose to keep Vivekananda's original use of the male gender pronoun, as in "Perfect Man" and "He," to denote God or universal intelligence, as a function of his time and culture.

The following chapters are excerpted from The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1989), and appear here by permission of the publisher.

–Carter Phipps


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This article is from
Our Evolution Issue