Swami Vivekananda, born Narendra Nath Datta on January 12th, 1863, was an Indian Hindu monk. He was a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world and was credited with raising interfaith awareness around the world. A spiritual genius of commanding intellect and power, Vivekananda crammed immense labor and achievement into his short life.
Born in aristocratic Bengali family of Calcutta, the youthful Vivekananda embraced the agnostic philosophies of the Western mind along with the worship of science. The rational approach of his father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape young Narendra’s thinking and personality.
During his childhood, he showed an inclination towards spirituality. He was adept in meditation and could enter the state of samadhi (a higher level of concentrated meditation). Young Narendra would often visualise a light while falling asleep and had visions during his meditation. He was fascinated by the wandering ascetics and monks.
He regularly participated in physical exercise, sports, and organisational activities. Even when he was young, he questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discrimination based on caste and refused to accept anything without rational proof and pragmatic test. Narendra studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations and was as thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works.
According to his professors, Narendra was a student prodigy. Dr. William Hastie, wrote, “Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.” He was regarded as a man with prodigious memory.
Meeting his guru Ramakrishna
Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, he wondered if spirituality could be made a part of one’s growing experiences and deeply internalised. Narendra’s meeting with Ramakrishna in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in Narendra’s life. Narendra said about this first meeting that:
“Ramakrishna looked just like an ordinary man, with nothing remarkable about him. He used the most simple language and I thought ‘Can this man be a great teacher?’. I crept near to him and asked him the question which I had been asking others all my life: ‘Do you believe in God, Sir?’ ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Can you prove it, Sir?’ ‘Yes’. ‘How?’ ‘Because I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense.’ That impressed me at once. […] I began to go to that man, day after day, and I actually saw what spirituality was all about – one touch, one glance, can change a whole life.”
His guru, Ramakrishna, taught him Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), that service to man was the most effective way of leading a spiritual life, gave him God vision, and transformed him into sage and prophet with authority to teach.
In January 1887, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows. Narendra took the name of Swami (mystic teacher) Vivekananda.
After the death of his guru Ramakrishna in 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a wandering monk, “without fixed abode, without ties, independent and strangers wherever they go.” His sole possessions were a water pot, staff, and his two favourite books Bhagavad Gita and the Imitation of Christ.
Vivekananda travelled extensively in India for five years, visiting centres of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life and acquiring first-hand knowledge of conditions in India
Vivekananda travelled on foot and railway tickets bought by his admirers whom he met during the travels. During these travels he made acquaintance and stayed with Indians from all walks of life and religions—scholars, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, pariahs (low caste workers) and government officials.
Lecturing Tours in The United States and England
His mounting compassion for India’s people drove him to seek material help from the West. Accepting an opportunity to represent Hinduism at Chicago’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, Vivekananda won instant celebrity in America and a ready forum for his spiritual teaching.
In America, Vivekananda became India’s spiritual ambassador. His mission there was the interpretation of India’s spiritual culture and heritage. He also tried to enrich the spiritual consciousness of Americans through the teachings of the Vedanta philosophy.
For three years he spread the Vedanta philosophy in America and England and then returned to India to found the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. Exhorting his nation to spiritual greatness, he wakened India to a new national consciousness.
On the day of his death he woke up very early in the morning, went to the chapel and meditated for three hours and sang a song. He taught the Vedas to some pupils in the morning, took a walk with a brother-disciple, and gave him instructions on the future of his mission -the Ramakrishna Math.
Vivekananda died on 4 July, 1902 while he was meditating. The doctors reported that they could not find the real cause of death. Vivekananda had fulfilled his own prophecy of not living to be forty years old. He was cremated on sandalwood funeral pyre on the bank of Ganga in Belur, India.
In India Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint of modern India and his birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day.
He summarised the Vedanta’s teachings as follows:
- Each soul is divine and is an expression of the universal and collective soul.
- The goal in life is the progressive expansion of happiness and manifesting our Divinity.
- We can manifest our Divinity through work (service to others), worship of the Divine, the practice of meditation, development of our intellect and the study of philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—you will discover your Divinity.
- This is the whole of spirituality. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
Swami Vivekananda remains the most influential figure in our understanding of spirituality. Vivekananda was the principal reason behind the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West. Vivekananda espoused the idea that all sects within Hinduism and, indeed, all religions, are different paths to the same goal.
In Swami Vivekananda’s own words, he was “condensed India”. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called Vivekananda the “paragon of Vedantists”. Rabindranath Tagore’s suggestion to Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland was– “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative.”