Swami Vivekananda was born to Vishwanath Datta and Bhuvaneshwari Devi, in an affluent family in Calcutta on 12 January 1863. He was christened Narendranath Datta – often colloquially shortened to Naren. Vishwanath Datta was a successful attorney with a broad range of interests, and Bhuvaneshwari Devi was a versatile lady of strong character and deep piousness. Naren was a precocious child – he was into music, sports and adventures, and he displayed a rare mental faculty when it came to studies. As he grew up, he took especial interest in history and philosophy. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, Narendranath was the very epitome of the modern, progressive Bengali youth.
Narendranath was also highly interested in yogic disciplines since boyhood. As a child, he used to meditate regularly with absolute immersion. He also displayed a powerful trait of selfless charity and concern for the needy. These qualities would play key roles to make him into what he would become.
With Sri Ramakrishna
Narendranath had intense longing for spiritual truth, but he was not one to accept anything on faith or out of blind submission. As a result, he was going through a crisis where he failed to find anyone capable enough to provide him with answers. Just about then, he heard about Sri Ramakrishna at a university lecture: the professor was discussing William Wordsworth and had mentioned Sri Ramakrishna’s name as a living example of mystic ecstasy.
One fine day in November 1881, Narendra went to see Sri Ramakrishna at the Kali temple at Dakshineshwar. He asked Sri Ramakrishna the same direct question he had fruitlessly asked to dozens of people before: ‘Have you seen God?’ – and Sri Ramakrishna openly replied, ‘Yes, I have, – much more clearly than I see you right now. And I can show you too.’
Narendranath soon became a part of Sri Ramakrishna’s intimate circle. At Dakshineshwar, he also made friends with a number of young men like himself who used to visit Sri Ramakrishna. This was a period of great spiritual progress and momentous friendships for Narendranath. The bricks of the Ramakrishna Movement were being laid, yet unseen by anyone save the architect himself.
Some years later, two incidents hit Narendranath’s life hard. Bishwanath Data passed away in 1884; this left the family penniless, as Bishwanath was charitable to a fault and had accumulated too many loans. Narendranath, now, had to support his mother and his siblings as the breadwinner of the family. The second incident was the illness of Sri Ramakrishna, owing to cancer of the throat. Sri Ramakrishna was shifted to a spacious villa at Cossipore, where his disciples tended to him night and day. Narendranath fought the battle on two fronts: providing for his family at home, and caring for his guru along with his young companions, who looked to him as the leader.
The Revolution Awakens
Sri Ramakrishna had imbued his young disciples with a spirit of fraternity and renunciation; one day he called them to him and gave out ochre robes to each – a symbol of formally bestowing monasticism on a person. Having handed them the robes, he sent them out to beg for food. This was ceremonial in spirit – like a tacit declaration of the founding of a new monastic brotherhood. Sri Ramakrishna gave specific instructions to Narendranath regarding the formation of this new order. In the small hours of August 16, 1886, Sri Ramakrishna gave up his mortal coils.
After the passing of the Master, fifteen of the young disciples – and another who joined later – banded together and started to live as monks in a dilapidated building at Baranagar in North Calcutta. Their days were spent were in material hardship and spiritual festivity. In 1887, they took the formal vows of monkhood or sannyasa, assuming new monastic names. Narendranath became Swami Vivekananda – though it was some time before he finally assumed this name.
Awareness of His Mission
The founding of the monastic order completed, but Vivekananda felt there was more for him to do; a sense of a mission on the horizon loomed on his mind. He envisioned Sri Ramakrishna as someone who was significant to not only a small group of devotees, but to India as a whole – and potentially the whole world. He didn’t have the whole answer to how this vision was to be realized, but he was willing to find out. In 1890, Swami Vivekananda set out on a journey to discover India, an odyssey that would continue for three long years. He had the blessings of Mother Sarada Devi, who was then staying in Calcutta. As the rest of the order stayed at Baranagar Math, Swamiji went out into the wide world seeking his answers.
The Discovery of India
Vivekananda’s travels all over India took him from the sheds of the humblest workers to the palaces of kings; the accounts of his touring are a tale in itself. Over these journeys, he slowly recognized the true face of his motherland. He realized that the real India lives in the dust on the streets, among the masses. He realized that the new India would have to emerge out of the ploughshares and the huts of poor peasants, the shabby cotes of fishermen and cobblers and sweepers; it would have to emerge from the factories and marts, the wildernesses and the hills and the heaths. Millions were living in hunger and ignorance, he saw, and the crying need to provide them with aid stabbed his heart.
He realized that India’s great need was twofold – a thoroughly modern system of bringing the fruits of Western civilization to the masses, i.e. – teaching them improved agricultural methods, training them in industry, inculcating scientific temper in them, and so on; and in addition to it, it was necessary to revive the Vedantic conviction that each soul is potentially divine. This sense of self-confidence, this faith in one’s own past and future – this is what could clean the rust of centuries off the downtrodden millions of India.
Vivekananda saw that religiosity was India’s life-blood. In spite of abject poverty, a sense of religious belongingness endured in Indians everywhere. He understood that to infuse these minds with the bold message of the Vedanta – as well as to re-introduce them to the grand stream of international life – one thing was needed most of all, and that was education. Education was the panacea for all of India’s problems.
Need for an Organization
In order to carry out his mission, Vivekananda needed an efficient organization of dedicated workers who would spread education among the masses and serve to lift them out of material and spiritual squalor. He wanted to ‘set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest.’ This purpose would be served when he would found the Ramakrishna Mission a few years later.
The Plan of Campaign
As these ideas were gradually crystallizing in Swamiji’s mind, word of the World’s Parliament of Religions reached his ears. This was being held in Chicago in 1893, and delegates from all over the world would be attending. Vivekananda’s friends and admirers, who had come to know him, ardently wanted him to attend the Parliament. He too felt the same – an international event of such a scale might just be the perfect impetus to kickstart his grand project of bringing Sri Ramakrishna to India and the world.
However, he was in two minds regarding this decision. Finally, after a flash of divine inspiration he received while meditating on a rock-island at Kanyakumari on the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, his mind was made up. Reassuring words of strength from Ma Sarada herself also bolstered his confidence and resolve. Supported by funds collected by his Chennai disciples and the Maharaja of Khetri, Swami Vivekananda left for America from Mumbai on 31 May, 1893.
The Parliament of Religions and Aftermath
Vivekananda’s speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in September 1893, brought him instant celebrity in the USA. He spent almost three and a half years in the West, giving public speeches and having talks and discussions in private gatherings, spreading the word of Vedanta and its new iteration as practised by Sri Ramakrishna. His scope during this period included the eastern parts of the USA, and also London.
The Clarion Call
Vivekananda returned to India in 1897, and a memorable return it was. He was greeted with effusive welcome by surging crowds everywhere – as his countrymen had been following his story abroad in the columns of the newspaper. He travelled from city to city addressing the people – a cross-country tour reminiscent of the journeys of only a few years ago when he was an unknown mendicant on an uncelebrated quest. In these lectures, Swamiji highlighted a few key points:
- India should identify her own spiritual roots and recover her pride in her cultural heritage
- Hinduism should do away with all sectarian complexities and recognize the unity of all schools of faith that come under it
- The privileged classes, who have access to education and financial means, should dedicate themselves earnestly to salvaging the downtrodden masses; the historical injustices the masses have been subjected to have to be remedied through Practical Vedanta.
Founding of Ramakrishna Mission
It was now that Swamiji’s dream of an organization that would exemplify Practical Vedanta came true. He founded Ramakrishna Mission on 1 May 1897, with the view to undertake the propagation of Vedantic lifestyle and offer various forms of social service, such as education, healthcare, rural development, etc., in the interest of the common people. In time, the scope of Ramakrishna Mission included conducting extensive relief and rehabilitation work for victims of natural disasters and epidemics in India and other countries.
An organization needs solid ground under its feet to operate well – both figuratively and literally. In 1898, Swami Vivekananda acquired a large plot at Belur, on the western bank of Ganga. This would serve as a permanent home for the monastic order that had started at Baranagar; it would also function as the headquarters of the Math and the Mission. Belur Math, as it came to known, became ground zero for the development of a new pattern of monastic life that adapts ancient ideals to modern application; that accords equal importance to secular learning and spiritual training; that treats social service with the same regard as personal practice; and that is open to everybody all over the world without discriminating on the basis of gender, race, religion, or caste.
One significant aspect of Swami Vivekananda’s work was the way he influenced and transformed the life of many admirers and pupils abroad. Many of them became his disciples or devoted friends. This was of no little importance, since India was then a colony under British rule, without any independent standing in the eyes of the world. Swamiji’s foreign admirers served to redefine India’s picture in the eyes of the West, and at the same time help the West rediscover the Orient. Prominent names among these are Margaret Noble (later known as Sister Nivedita), Captain and Mrs. Sevier, Josephine McLeod and Sara Ole Bull, et al. Nivedita is a shining example of a European completely dedicating her life to the service of India; she played major roles in educating girls in Calcutta, and also left her influence on the socio-cultural front in significant ways. Swami Vivekananda had many Indian disciples as well, many of whom joined the Ramakrishna Order as monks.
Vivekananda went to the USA for a second time in June 1899. This time he focused more on the West coast, spending time there lecturing. He returned to Belur Math in December 1900. Now onwards, his time was spent here at home, working among the people, inspiring and illuminating them to life and activity. But, over time, incessant work and self-denial told upon Swamiji’s health. It did not slow him down, though; he used to say, ‘I will wear out, never rust out.’
The end came on the night of 4 July, 1902. He passed away while in meditation. Before his Mahasamadhi, he had written to a friend and follower – “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere until the whole world shall know that it is one with God.”
Swami Vivekananda’s contributions to World Culture
Eminent historian A L Basham writes about Swami Vivekananda: “…In centuries to come, he will be remembered as one of the main moulders of the modern world…” This evaluation is based on the numerous contributions Vivekananda made to the world. Some of them are summarized as follows:
New Understanding of Religion: Swami Vivekananda interpreted religion as a universal experience of transcendent reality which is common to all humanity. He solved the problem of the apparent rivalry between science and religion by postulating that they are not contradictory to each other, but are complementary. He described religion to be the ‘science of consciousness.’ This redefining of religion made it free of all sorts of superstition, dogmatism, mystery-mongering and hegemony, and above all, inter-religious friction. Religion becomes the pursuit of ultimate freedom, eternal knowledge and immutable happiness.
New View of Humanity: Vivekananda said that each soul is potentially divine. This meant that he took the concept of God and installed it in the shrine of the human heart. The modern age has thrown humanity forward along paths of progress at such breakneck speed that it is in real danger of breaking its neck, figuratively speaking. As the poet W. B. Yeats wrote: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Vivekananda’s deifying of man goes a long way to secure the moorings of this drifting ship. The decades following Swamiji’s demise saw some of the most disheartening developments in human history; we witnessed two bloody World Wars, committed superhuman inhumanities, bore immemorial shames. It takes the adamantine faith of Vivekananda to retain faith in the divinity of the human soul after such a red storm. Today, owing to his influence, there are several neo-humanist movements all around the world that embrace spirituality to counter the cancerous growth of materialism.
New Paradigm of Morality: Vivekananda propounded a theory of morality that is not dependent on fear of punishment, like most Western systems of morality or ethics are. Western systems of ethics borrow from the Biblical idea of punishment; escaping hellfire is the greatest incentive for someone to abstain from immorality. Even Indian thinking had lapsed into fantasies of sin and hell to keep the people in check. Vivekananda didn’t care for a doctrine of fear. He urged people to be moral simply because – he said – morality is their true nature. The human soul is not tainted by sin – we are all children of Immortal Bliss. This view of morality elevated humanity on a far superior level than that of a fearful potential criminal.
Bridging the East and the West: Swami Vivekananda worked his whole life to bridge the deep gulf between the Orient and the Occident. Perhaps the best record of his thoughts on this is his book The East and the West – one of the most brilliant comparative analyses of the two cultures. He worked abroad to undo the mistaken perceptions in the minds of the Western people about India; he worked in India to restore to the common people their lost self-esteem, and to teach them which qualities to imbibe from the West and which to discard. He played a monumental role to shatter the isolation India had built around herself over the past centuries, and loosed the tide of scientific thinking and humanistic values in the spiritual sphere. Abroad, countless people, including many remarkable scholars, formed their idea of India on what they saw in him. In this his work is reminiscent of his great contemporary, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who once said: “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda.”
Swamiji’s Contributions to India
Swami Vivekananda was the only reformer in Indian history who actually travelled the length and breadth of India on foot, exposing himself to every extremity, and earning a first-hand experience of both the diversity and the unity of this country. His experience and realizations gave India a fresh idea of who we are, and what our actions need to be as we emerge as an independent entity in the modern world.
An important service he did to Indians was reminding us of our glorious past – not in a merely ruminating way but in terms of reviving the old vitality anew. He taught the Indians to discriminate between the positive aspects of Western civilization and the negative aspects, and choose to imbibe the right things. His speeches, compiled in the book Lectures from Colombo to Almora, is an excellent reference to understand this.
Vivekananda became a key source of inspiration for many of India’s freedom fighters and nationalist leaders. His ideas showed them the path to take in India’s way forward, and his burning example infused them with selflessness and bravery. Jawaharlal Nehru, later the first Prime Minister of India, wrote: “Rooted in the past, full of pride in India’s prestige, Vivekananda was yet modern in his approach to life’s problems, and was a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present … he came as a tonic to the depressed and demoralized Hindu mind and gave it self-reliance and some roots in the past.” Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who considered himself a virtual disciple of Vivekananda, wrote: “Swamiji harmonized the East and the West, religion and science, past and present. And that is why he is great. Our countrymen have gained unprecedented self-respect, self-reliance and self-assertion from his teachings.”
It is important to remember that Swami Vivekananda was, in his heart of hearts, a lover of the common masses. Unselfishness was first nature to him. Way before Karl Marx was known and read in India, it was Vivekananda who openly declared himself to be a socialist in terms of elevating the downtrodden and giving them their human rights. Religion, to him, was meant to bring everyone to the gates of God, not brand them pariahs and keep them out. He can be justly compared to Jesus in this respect, whom he held in very high esteem.
Swamiji’s Contributions to Hinduism
- Identity: Swami Vivekananda gave Hinduism a modern identity befitting the modern age. Although stemming from the same root, the different schools of Hinduism had gradually lost its true character over the many centuries of sectarianism and discrimination amongst its own masses. Swamiji went back to the neglected roots, adapted the Vedanta of the forests to a Vedanta of the hearth, and reinstalled it in the national common life. In the footsteps of Sri Ramakrishna, he accepted all religious masters to be correct, all paths of faith to be true, and all sects as equally eligible to attain the Absolute; the only thing he asked of people is mutual acceptance and harmony. Everyone is right, he insisted, but not by condemning one’s fellow being. He gave Hinduism its modern holistic structure.
- Unification: A system of spirituality as ancient as Hinduism could not be stabilized and made to agree with itself in all parts without invoking a strong sense of harmony. Vivekananda had learnt the lesson of harmony at the feet of its greatest proponent – Sri Ramakrishna. He applied that lesson in every sphere of his religious work. The historian K. M. Pannikar writes, “This new Shankaracharya may well be claimed to be a unifier of Hindu ideology.” Not only did Vivekananda assimilate all the creeds of Hinduism in his novel monastic order, but he also combined strands from other religions in it. A concrete example of this can be seen in the architecture of the main temple at Belur Math, which incorporates elements from different schools of art and different faiths from around the world.
- Defence of Indigenous Culture: Swami Vivekananda was a bold defender of Hinduism in the West, since in that time India was constantly shown in a very poor light by racially biased commentators. However, Swamiji did not counter hate with hate, since he realized that the root cause of this ill-feeling towards India was ignorance, and ignorance has to be treated not with heat but with light. He worked towards correcting the erroneous notions prevalent among Westerners, and succeeded in a large degree in winning them over to India’s cause. These positive steps also helped substantially in bringing around the youth of India from their idle imitation of the West; Vivekananda integrated the important humanistic values of the West into Hindu society, which stopped the drain effectively.
- New Ideal of Monasticism: Sri Ramakrishna’s idea of service to Jeeva as service to Shiva, i.e. – service to living beings as service to the Absolute, was given concrete form by Swami Vivekananda as he shaped the new monastic order of Ramakrishna Math and Mission. The personal disciplines of renunciation and God realization were united with the universal commitment of social service – which, of course, is divine service in the eyes of the Order.
Refurbishing of Hindu Philosophy and Doctrines: In addition to interpreting Hindu scriptures and philosophies in modern ways, Vivekananda also added his own understandings and realizations to them, giving them an unforeseen quality. A proper study of this would, however, require detailed discussions of Indian schools of philosophy, which cannot be accommodated here.