Swami Vivekananda





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Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda's inspiring personality was well known both in India and in America during end of the nineteenth century and start of the twentieth. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented Hinduism.

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda
Date of death 4 July 1902
Death place Belur Math, Bengal Presidency
Date of birth 12 January 1863
Birth place Calcutta
Father Vishwanath Datta
Mother Bhubaneshwari Datta

Swami Vivekananda was one of India's greatest spiritual teachers who is credited with the rejuvenation of the Hindu faith in India after centuries of medieval decline. His role in stirring the spiritual consciousness of a colonised populace was immense, and many consider him to be a modern Adi Shankaracharya. Swami Vivekandanda's great success lay in his spectacular blending of Western science and rationality with Indian philosophical traditions. He was one of the first Indian religious teachers to have consciously engaged with the West in its own language. Being the great spiritual genius, and excellent communicator that he was, Swami Vivekananda grew popular worldwide as a true ambassador of Hindu Dharma and India in an incredibly short period of time. His Life and his Teachings have invigorated generations of spiritual seekers and common folk alike, and he remains an inspiration for millions worldwide even today.

Life and Times

Childhood and Early Life

Swami Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta on the auspicious day of Makar-Sankranti (12 January) in 1863 to Vishwanath Datta, a well-known attorney at the Calcutta High Court and Bhubanesheari Devi, a deeply religious homemaker. Naturally then, young Narendra's immediate milieu exposed him to the frictions of both- a newly emerging English-educated, aspirational professional class , as well as the traditional conservatism of a Bengali Hindu household in 19th century colonial India.

From a very young age, it was becoming increasingly clear that Narendra was remarkably different from others his age. He is known to have been a deeply reflective and sensitive child, always involved in questions and activities beyond himself. Throughout his childhood, one comes across multiple encounters which portray him as someone very interested in questions of existence and reality. Many holy seers and sadhus were frequent visitors at the Datta household at Gour Mohan Mukherjee Street in Central Calcutta, and Narendra seems to have been fascinated with their presence, often giving away valuable items as alms, much to the dismay of his family. 

After having completed his primary education at the Metropolitan Institution, set up in Sukia Street by the educationist and social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Narendra's family moved to Raipur in 1877. On their return to Calcutta in 1879, Narendra appeared for and successfully cleared the Entrance Examination to Calcutta's Presidency College, then the premier educational institution in all of Easter India. Narendranath entered the first year Arts class of the General Department of Presidency College in January 1880. Though Narendra was an exceptionally bright student, almost unparalleled in his intelligence and scholarship, having contracted malaria in his second year and fallen short on attendance, he was not allowed to sit for the First Arts examination, forcing him to shift to the General Assembly's Institution (now known as the Scottish Church College) for the remainder of his degree. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1884. Narendra's College days were marked by tremendous intellectual ferment and spiritual upheaval. They were to prove instrumental in developing young Narendra's worldview and character in fundamental ways. 

Narendra read widely and wildly in his college days seeking to quench his undying thirst for knowledge. By the time he had completed his degree, he was generally considered a master of Western Logic and Philosophy, having thoroughly studied many times over most masterpieces in the disciplines and was also particularly well-versed with the ancient and modern histories of most European nations. He also actively sought to gain a command over the the English language, especially in the arts of conversation and debating, in which he became the unquestioned leader of the college. Narendra did not believe in limiting his study to the prescribed university curriculum and undertook advanced studies in philosophy and literature, stemming from his conviction that they, best of all conduced to the development and refinement of the mind and sensibility. He was devoted to literature, and made great headway in the arts of composition and rhetoric.

His ability to read and recollect information with relative ease was astounding. In his own words, the to-be Vivekananda explains the way he went about perusing a book -

'I could understand an author without reading every line of his book. I would read the first and last lines of a paragraph and grasp its meaning. Later I found that I could understand the subject-matter by reading only the first and last lines of a page. Afterwards I could follow the whole trend of a writer's argument by merely reading a few lines, though the author himself tried to explain the subject in five or more pages.' [ref]

His versatile personality is most emphatically evident by the fact that he was proficient in both instrumental and vocal music, and spent a lot of time in college sharpening his vocal abilities. He got associated with Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, led by stalwarts like Keshab Chandra Sen and Debendranath Dutta. In his youth, he was influenced by Brahmoism, that largely emphasised on a formless god and rejection of idolatry.

Association with Sri Ramakrishna and Spiritual Clarity

It was in November 1881, while Narendranath was in the second year of F.A. classes, that he met for the first time Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa at the house of Surendranath Mitra of Simulia. It will be interesting to note here how he first came to hear of the great saint. Principal William Hastie, the noted scholar, was then the Principal of the General Assembly's Institution. One day during the absence of the Professor of English, he took over the literature class. He was explaining Wordsworth's 'Excursion' where the state of trance is referred to, and of which the poet had had a glimpse of while contemplating the beauties of nature. Professor Hastie then said, " Such an experience is the result of purity of mind and concentration on some particular object, and it is rare indeed, particularly in these days. I have seen only one person who has experienced that blessed state of mind, and he is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineshwar." It was thus that Narendra first heard of his future Master.

Even after all of his intellectual study and discussions with many learned men, Narendra remained dissatisfied with the answers they offered. With the rest of the Brahmo Samaj, he believed in a formless god with attributes (as distinguished from the Absolute of the Advaita Vedanta), but, unlike the others, he was convinced that if God really existed he would surely appear in answer to the sincere prayers of the devotees. He felt that there must be a way of realizing him, else life would be futile, and increasingly it began to dawn on him that if God was to be realized, he was no nearer to the goal than before he had joined the Samaj.

In his longing to know the Truth, Narendra next approached Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the time. He asked the Maharshi- " Sir, have you seen God?", the Maharshi was unable to answer and contented himself with: "My boy, you have the Yogi's eyes." Narendra came away disappointed, and went seeking an answer to the same question to the leaders of other religious sects, and not one of them could say that he had seen God. Where then should he go? He then remembered Shri Ramakrishna, whom he had met at the house of Surendranath Mitra. Narendranath had gone there to sing, and the Master, greatly attracted by his music, had made inquiries about him, and had even invited him to Dakshineshwar. Narendranath now decided to visit Dakshineshwar and and put the question to Sri Ramkrishna.

There are many conflicting accounts of the Dakshineshwar meeting between the two. Here is what Swami Vivekananda later recalled about the same -

'I sat and watched him. There was nothing wrong in his words, movements, or behaviour towards others. Rather, from his spiritual words and ecstatic states he seemed to be a man of genuine renunciation; and there was a marked consistencuy between his words and life. He used the most simple language and I thought, " Can this man be a great teacher?" I crept near him and asked him the question which I had asked so often: "Have you seen God, Sir?" "Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense." " God can be realized", he went on; "one can see and talk to him as I am seeing and talking to you. But who cares? People shed torrents of tears for their wife and children, for wealth or property, but who does so for the sake of God? If one weeps sincerely for Him, He surely manifests Himself." That impressed me at once. For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he had seen God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. As I heard these things from his lips, I could not but believe that he was saying them not like an ordinary preacher, but from the depths of his own realizations. But I could not reconcile his words with his strange conduct with me. So I concluded that he must be a monomaniac. Yet I could not help acknowledging the magnitude of his renunciation. " He may be a madman", I thought, " but only the fortunate few can have such renunciation. Even if insane, this man is the holiest of the holy, a true saint, and for that alone he deserves the reverent homage of mankind!" With such conflicting thoughts, I bowed before him and begged leave to return to Calcutta.'

This was only to be the first of many such visits. A simple exchange of views in the auspices of the temple sowed the seeds for an association that became a blessing in disguise for Indian spiritual thought. Narendranath visited Sri Ramakrishna regularly and had many discussions on topics ranging from philosophy to religion. Many of his nagging doubts on God, Advaita and Hindu philosophy were cleared in this phase. Sri Ramakrishna too became very fond of him, and it is said that he often considered Narendra to be the embodiment of 'Narayana'.

Sri Ramkrishna represented traditional India, with its spiritual perspective, its ascetiscism and its realizations- The India of the Upanishads. To him Naren came with all the doubts and scepticism of the modern age, unwilling to accept even the highest truths of religion without verification, yet with a zeal for Truth burning within him. Naren had yet to learn that reason, though the best instrument in the relative world, could not carry one beyond relativity to the Absolute where the truth of religion abides. The result of this contact between Sri Ramkrishna and Narendranath was Swami Vivekananda- he who was to become the heart and mind of a New India, its ancient spiritual perspective, heightened, widened and strenghthened to include modern learning. The intense activity of the West was to be combined with the deep mediatation of the East. Ascetiscism and retirement were to be supplemented by work and service to others. From the merging of these two currents came the New Hinduism- the faith of a glorious Tomorrow, in which all would be fulfillment and nothing denial. 

Narendra was at that time a sceptic, with no faith in the Hindu Gods. He laughed at many of the injunctions of the Hindu scriptures. His soul was open to all that might come to it. The more Naren struggled against doubt, the more insistently it arose within the silence of the soul. He was however a born sailor on the ocean of the struggle for Reality, and his sailor's instinct kept him afloat. He was confident that the beatific knowledge would come as a triumphant climax to all his struggles and sufferings. Sri Ramakrishna understood and loved Naren the better for all this turmoil. He saw that Naren's intellect, because of the very intensity of his desire for the Truth, would for long doubt; but he also saw that Naren would conquer in the end, that he would transcend all limitations and become a spiritual giant, and so continued his instruction with love and patience.

Hereafter, Naren's life is that of the saint-in-the-making. It is no longer his mind to which one's attention is chiefly drawn, though that does indeed grow more and more luminous as the years go on; it is his heart, his soul, his vision that captures attention. He was to attain to the highest possibilities of the mystical consciousness, wherein the soul and the Supreme Reality are revealed as a perfect and distinctionless Unity. In the imperious question- ' have you seen God'- was the dawn of his spiritual life. The inner story of Naren's conversion and illumination is too subtle to be described: the Guru brought about these in an inscrutable manner. Only the outer strife and intellectual struggle Naren's friends observed and knew. But the inner processes are a mystery, known only to the teacher, and perhaps the disciple.

In 1885, Sri Ramakrishna developed a throat infection that was later diagnosed as cancer. He passed away on 16 August 1886. Seven of his disciples, led by Vivekananda, established the Ramakrishna Math in Baranagar, very close to Calcutta.

Travels and Reception Abroad

Swami Vivekananda represented Hinduism at the 1893 Worlds Parliament of Religions convened during the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With his opening words, 'Sisters and brothers of America', he brought the crowd to its feet. Subsequently he was invited to speak all over America and Europe.

In America Vivekananda's mission was the interpretation of India's spiritual culture, especially in its Vedantic setting. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of the Americans through the rational and humanistic teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. In America he became India's spiritual ambassador and pleaded eloquently for better understanding between India and the New World in order to create a healthy synthesis of East and West, of religion and science.[ref]

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