Swami Vivekananda (January 12, 1863 – July 4, 1902), whose pre-monastic name was Narendranath Dutta, was one of the most famous and influential spiritual leaders of the philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga. He was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the founder of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. He is a major figure in the history of Hinduism and India.
While he is widely credited with having uplifted his own nation, simultaneously he introduced Yoga and Vedanta to America and England with his seminal lectures and private discourses on Vedanta philosophy. Vivekananda was the first known Hindu Sage to come to the West, where he introduced Eastern thought at the World’s Parliament of Religions, in connection with the World’s Fair in Chicago, in 1893. Here, his first lecture, which started with this address: “My Dear Brothers and Sisters of America”, made the audience clap for two minutes just to the address, for prior to this seminal speech, the audience was always used to this address: “Ladies and Gentlemen”. It was this speech that catapulted him to fame by his by wide audiences in Chicago and then later everywhere else in America, including far flung places such as Memphis, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis.
Birth and early life
Narendranath Dutta was born in Shimla Pally, Kolkata, West Bengal, India on January 12, 1863 as the son of Viswanath Dutta and Bhuvaneswari Devi. Even as he was young, he showed a precocious mind and keen memory. He practiced meditation from a very early age. While at school, he was good at studies, as well as games of various kinds. He organized an amateur theatrical company and a gymnasium and took lessons in fencing, wrestling, rowing and other sports. He also studied instrumental and vocal music. He was a leader among his group of friends. Even when he was young, he questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discrimination based on caste and religion.
In 1879, Narendra entered the Presidency College, Calcutta for higher studies. After one year, he joined the Scottish Church College, Calcutta and studied philosophy. During the course, he studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations.
Questions started to arise in young Narendra’s mind about God and the presence of God. This made him associate with the Brahmo Samaj, an important religious movement of the time, led by Keshub Chunder Sen. And along with his classmate and friend Brajendra Nath Seal, he regularly attended meetings of the breakaway Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Later they would part ways with Dutta aligning himself with Keshub Chunder Sen’s Nava Vidhan and Seal staying on as an initiated member. During this time spent together, both Dutta and Seal sought to understand the intricacies of faith, progress and spiritual insight into the works of John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer and G.W.F. Hegel.
But the Samaj’s congregational prayers and devotional songs could not satisfy Narendra’s zeal to realize God. He would ask leaders of Brahmo Samaj whether they have seen God. Their answers did not satisfy his quest for knowledge. It was during this time that Reverend William Hastie, the Principal of the Scottish Church College told him about Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar.
Narendra met Ramakrishna for the first time in November 1881. He asked Ramakrishna the same old question he has asked others so often, “Mahashaya (Venerable Sir), have you seen god?.” The instantaneous answer from Ramakrishna was, “Yes, I see God, 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.”. Narendra was astounded and puzzled. He could feel the man’s words were honest and uttered from depths of experience. He started visiting Ramakrishna frequently. At first he did not believe that such a plain man could’ve seen god but gradually he started having faith in what Ramkrishna said.
Though Narendra could not accept Ramakrishna and his visions, he could not neglect him. It had always been in Narendra’s nature to test something thoroughly before he could accept it. He tested Ramakrishna to the maximum, but the master was patient, forgiving, humorous, and full of love. He never asked Narendra to abandon reason, and he faced all of Narendra’s arguments and examinations with infinite patience. In time, Narendra accepted Ramakrishna, and when he accepted, his acceptance was whole-hearted. While Ramakrishna predominantly taught duality and Bhakti to his other disciples, he taught Narendra the Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-dualism.
During the course of five years of his training under Ramakrishna, Narendra was transformed from a restless, puzzled, impatient youth to a mature man who was ready to renounce everything for the sake of God-realization. Soon, Ramakrishna’s end came in the form of throat cancer in August 1886. After this Narendra and a core group of Ramakrishna’s disciples took vows to become monks and renounce everything, and started living in a supposedly haunted house in Baranagore. They took alms to satisfy their hunger and their other needs were taken care of by Ramakrishna’s richer householder disciples.
Wanderings in India
Pencil drawing of VivekanandaSoon, the young monk of Baranagore wanted to live the life of a wandering monk with rags and a begging bowl and no other possessions. On July 1890, Vivekananda set out for a long journey, without knowing where the journey would take him. The journey that followed took him to the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. During these days, Vivekananda assumed various names like Vividishananda (in Sanskrit, Vividisha means “the desire to know” and Ananda means “bliss”), Satchidananda, etc., It is said that he was given the name Vivekananda by Maharaja of Khetri for his discernment of things, good and bad.
During these wandering days, Vivekananda stayed in kings’ palaces, as well as the huts of the poor. He came in close contact with the culture of different regions of India and various classes of people in India. Vivekananda observed the imbalance in society and tyranny in the name of caste. He realised the need for a national rejuvenation if India was to survive at all. He reached Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent on 24 December 1892. There, he swam across the sea and started meditating on a lone rock. He thus meditated for three days and said later that he meditated about the past, present and future of India. The rock went on to become the Vivekananda memorial at Kanyakumari.
Vivekananda went to Madras and spoke about his plans for India and Hinduism to the young men of Madras. They were impressed by the monk and urged him to go to the United States and represent Hinduism in the World Parliament of Religions. The Raja of Ramnad, who was originally invited for the conference, promoted Vivekananda as the right person to represent the views of Hinduism in the Parliament. Thus, helped by his friends at Chennai, Bhaskara Sethupathi, Raja of Ramnad and Maharajas of Mysore and Khetri, Vivekananda set out on his journey to the USA.
In the West
Vivekananda was received well at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where he delivered a series of lectures. He also earned wild applause for beginning his address with the famous words, “Sisters and brothers of America.” A newspaper account described him as “an orator by divine right and undoubtedly the greatest figure at the Parliament”. Vivekananda’s arrival in the USA has been identified by many to mark the beginning of western interest in Hinduism not as merely an exotic eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition that might actually have something important to teach the West.
Vivekananda successfully introduced yoga and Vedanta to the West and lectured around America introducing the topics (1894-6). He taught hundreds of students privately in free classes held in his own room beginning in New York in 1895. Later, he started Vedantic centers in New York City and London, lectured at major universities and generally kindled western interest in Hinduism. His success was not without controversy, much of it from Christian missionaries of whom he was fiercely critical. After four years of constant touring, lecturing and retreats in the West, he came back to India in the year 1897.
Back in India
Admirers and devotees of Vivekananda gave him an enthusiastic reception on his return to India. In India, he delivered a series of lectures, and this set of lectures known as “Lectures from Colombo to Almora” is considered to have uplifted the morale of the then downtrodden Indian society. He founded one of the world’s largest charitable relief missions, the Ramakrishna Mission and reorganized the ancient Swami order by founding one of the most significant and largest monastic orders in India, the Ramakrishna Math.
However, he had to bear great criticism from other orthodox Hindus for having traveled in the West. In his day there was hardly a Hindu in America and he received criticism for crossing the ocean, at that time a cause for “outcasting.” Vivekananda scoffed at these critiques from the orthodox saying “I cannot be outcast – As a monk, I am beyond caste.” His contemporaries also questioned his motives, wondering whether the fame and glory of his Hindu evangelism compromised his original monastic vows. His enthusiasm for America and Britain, and his spiritual devotion to his motherland, caused significant tension in his last years.
He once again toured the west from January 1899 to December 1900. He inculcated a spirit of respect and good will for exchanges between the East and the West. He had American disciples whom he brought to India and initiated as Swamis and brought Indian Swamis to America where they and their successors have been ever since.
On July 4, 1902 at Belur Math near Calcutta, he taught Vedanta philosophy to some pupils in the morning. He had a walk with Swami Premananda, a brother-disciple and gave him instructions concerning the future of the Ramakrishna Math. Vivekananda passed away in Mahasamadhi after a session of prayer at Belur Math. He had predicted that he would die before the age of 40, which proved to be true when he died at the age of 39.
Vivekananda left a body of philosophical works (see Vivekananda’s complete works) which Vedic scholar Frank Parlato has called, “the greatest comprehensive work in philosophy ever published.” His books (compiled from lectures given around the world) on the four Yogas (Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga) are very influential and still seen as fundamental texts for anyone interested in the Hindu practice of Yoga. His letters are of great literary and spiritual value. He was also a widely considered a very good singer and a poet. He had composed many songs including his favorite Kali the Mother. He used humor for his teachings and was also an excellent cook. His language is very free flowing. His own Bengali writings stand testimony to the fact that he believed that words – spoken or written should be for making things easier to understand rather than show off the speaker or writer’s knowledge.