Swami Vivekananda is one of the greatest Indian thinkers of the modern era, a man whose name hundreds of millions of Indians know from childhood. Both his personal fate and the fate of his ideas are amazing. Little known in India itself and completely unknown outside its borders in the first thirty years of his life, in his last decade, after a brilliant speech at the World Congress of Religions (1893) – he becomes a living embodiment of the hopes and aspirations of millions of people. He was a worthy disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He founded the Ramakrishna Mission which is still doing its work today when the nation is in need.

Swami Vivekananda’s life is designed to inspire, delight, comfort, and give strength. The life story of Narendra Nath Dutt, who later became Swami Vivekananda, is not just one of the waves of endless seething of various biographies of interesting people. Swami Vivekananda is a Man of complex and bright destiny, a perfect Disciple, a true Guru, a true Friend, and the Great Warrior of the Spirit.

Swami Vivekananda
Image source – Wikimedia.org

His deeds are a role model, his words are worth their weight in gold, his thoughts have an impact on the most diverse aspects of Indian life, and beyond India, they resonate in the minds and hearts of many representatives of world culture. Not being a professional philosopher, he, like no one else, determined the fate of modern Indian philosophy, the main directions of its development. Without creating special works on the history of Indian culture, he became one of the most plenipotentiary representatives of this culture in the East-West dialogue. Not being a professional politician and even treating politics most often with aloof and irony, he had a tremendous impact on the awakening of national consciousness in his country, which was noted with gratitude by the leaders of the national liberation movement in the 20th century.

Early life and Childhood

As Narendranath Dutta, Swami Vivekananda was born on January 12, 1863, during Makara Sankranti in the family of traditional Kayastha situated in Shimla Pally, Calcutta. His father, Vishwanath Dutta was a lawyer and held a post in the High Court of Calcutta. He was seen as generous and had a progressive outlook on social and religious issues. His Mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi was religious and had practiced austerities and prayed to Vireshwar, the Shiva of Varanasi, for a son. According to the account, she had a dream in which Shiva rose from his meditation and said that he would give her a son.

Narendranath’s thinking and personality were influenced greatly by his parents. From his mother, he learned the power of self-control of his mind and body. One of his mother’s sayings that Narendra, quoted a lot in the last years was: It remains pure throughout your life; guard your honour and never transgress the honour of others. Be very calm, but when necessary, harden your heart. It is reported that he was adept at meditation and could enter into the state of samadhi. In the same way, it is said that he saw a light while falling asleep and also that he had seen a vision of Buddha during his meditation.

In childhood, he had a great fascination for wandering monks and ascetics. Narendranath had a wide range of knowledge in philosophy, religion, history, social sciences, among other topics. He also showed much interest in the Scriptures: Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas. He was also well versed in classical music, both vocal and instrumental and, it is said, he underwent training with two Ustads, – Beni Gupta and Ahamad Khan. Since childhood, he has had an active interest in sports, physical exercise, and other organizational activities. He refused to accept anything without rational proof and pragmatic test.

In 1877, his father moved to Raipur for two years, Narendranath, with his family, also moved there. At that time there were no good schools in Raipur, so he spent time with his father and they were able to discuss spiritual matters. For the first time, Narendra learned the Hindi Language (as his mother tongue was Bengali) in Raipur, and the question arose in his mind about the existence of God. It is said that in this period of his life he had an experience of spiritual ecstasy.

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Education of Swami Vivekananda

Narendranath began his education at home and later joined Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution in 1871 and, in 1879, passed the entrance exam to the Presidency College in Calcutta, staying for a short time and then moving to General Assembly’s Institution. Narendranath used to read a lot, especially his favorite subjects including literature, history, philosophy. Among the books he read – the works of Kant and Schopenhauer (later Vivekananda repeatedly refer to them – he was impressed by the comparison of the ideas of Vedanta and Kant, produced by Schopenhauer’s pupil Deussen). But during this period, he was most interested in the work of the English positivists (J. St. Mill, H. Spencer).

When Vivekananda first heard of Sri Ramakrishna

According to his teachers, Narendranath was a very talented child. Dr. William Hastie, Director of Scottish Church College, the college where he studied from 1881 to 1884, wrote that Narendranath was a genius. He was regarded as a Srutidhara – a man of prodigious memory. Narendranath became a member of a group that originated from a dissent with Brahma samaj, an influential religious movement in India. His initial beliefs were modeled on the concepts of Brahma Samaj, which included belief in a formless God and disapproval of idol worship. Not satisfied with his philosophical knowledge, he wondered if God and religion could be part of man’s growth experiences and be deeply internalized. Narendra began to ask the eminent people of Calcutta if they had seen God face to face. With none of these did he get answers that would satisfy his deep concern about the topic.

He learned about Ramakrishna in a literature class at the General Assembly`s Institution, when he heard Reverend W. Hastie address a poem by William Wordsworth called The Excursion. While explaining the word trance in the poem, Hastie told the students that if they wanted to know its real meaning, they should go to Ramakrishna, in Dakshineshwar. This encouraged some of his students, including Narendranath, to visit Ramakrishna.

The first meeting between Guru and Disciple

His meeting with Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa which took place in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in his life. Narendra, on his first meeting with the Master, asked him the question he had already asked before to various spiritual preceptors, who did not give him a satisfactory answer up to that date. Has he seen God? Sri Ramakrishna immediately replied, Yes, he has seen God as clearly as he is seeing Narendranath only in a much more intense way.

Although Narendra could not accept Sri Ramakrishna and his visions at first, he could not deny them either. It had always been Narendra’s nature to test something hard before he could accept it. He tested Ramakrishna on several occasions, the Guru never asked Narendra to abandon his rationality, and he took all of Narendra’s arguments and tests patiently.

In addition to removing doubts from Narendra’s mind, Sri Ramakrishna conquered him through his purity and unselfish love, and thus the relationship between guru and disciple began. Narendranath then visited frequently to Dakshineshwar and, under the guidance of his teacher, made rapid progress on his spiritual path. Narendra also met other young people who were devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, with whom he established a great spiritual friendship.

Transformation of Swami Vivekananda

While Ramakrishna taught the philosophy of duality and the path of bhakti to his other disciples, he taught Narendra the philosophy of non-dualism, Advaita Vedanta. During his five years of training under Ramakrishna’s guidance, Narendra was transformed from a restless, perplexed, impatient young man into a mature man who was ready to renounce everything for the realization of God.

Ramakrishna developed throat cancer shortly afterward and left his body in August 1886. After that, Narendra and the main group of Ramakrishna’s disciples, which consisted mainly of young people, took monastic vows and renounced everything worldly. They began to live in a house in the Calcutta area, Baranagore. This house became the first monastery of the Ramakrishna Order. They begged for alms to satisfy their hunger, and their other needs were taken care of by the wealthy householder disciples of Ramakrishna.

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In July 1890, Vivekananda set out on a long journey, not knowing where the path should lead him. On this journey, he passed the length and breadth of the entire Indian subcontinent. At this time, Vivekananda assumed various names like Swami Satchidananda, Vividishananda, etc. It is claimed that taking the name Vivekananda, which means bliss of discrimination in Sanskrit, was proposed to him by the Maharaja Khetri before he was sent to the USA.

Journey to America

During this period of wandering, Vivekananda stayed both in the palaces of the maharajas and in the huts of the poor. He came into close contact with the culture of other regions and different classes of people in India. Vivekananda noticed the imbalance in society and the tyranny of the higher castes with the lower castes. He realized the need to rejuvenate the nation for India to survive as such. He made it to Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of the Indian Subcontinent on December 24, 1892. There, according to his followers, he swam across the strait and began to meditate on a lonely rock. There he meditated for three days and, as he said later, he meditated on the past, present, and the future of India. Now on this rock in Kanyakumari, there is a memorial dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial
Vivekananda Rock Memorial (Source)

Vivekananda traveled to Madras and spoke of his plans for India and Hindu Dharma to the youth of Madras. They were impressed with the personality and ideas of the young monk and began to persuade him to travel to the United States to represent Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions. Thus, with the help of his friends from Madras, Rajah Ramnad and the Maharajas of Mysore and Khetri, Vivekananda set off on his journey to America.

Vivekananda spoke in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where he received a standing ovation at the beginning of his speech when he addressed everyone with the words: Sisters and brothers of America. Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States is considered by many to be the starting point at the beginning of interest in Hinduism in the West.

For several years he spent in the west, he founded Vedanta centers in New York and London, lectured at major universities, and wherever he went, fuelled Western interest in Hinduism. His success was not without conflicts, most of which were associated with Christian missionaries, to whom he had a fiercely critical attitude. After four years of constant touring, lecturing, and retreating in the West, he returned to India in 1897.

Returning to his Home Country

He returned to India in January 1897. In response to the enthusiastic reception, he received in various places, he gave a series of lectures in different parts of India, which created great excitement across the country. With these inspirational and profoundly meaningful lectures, Swami Vivekananda has accomplished his goal of:

  • Awakening the religious conscience of the Indians and creating a feeling of pride in their cultural heritage.
  • Promoting the unification of Hinduism by indicating the common bases between different religions.
  • Focusing the attention of educated people on the commitment to the poor and miserable and thus developing their plan for the revaluation of the people through the application of the principles of Vedanta.

Ramakrishna Mission and Belur Math

Shortly after his return to Calcutta, Swami Vivekananda on May 1, 1897, founded a very original organization called Ramakrishna Mission, in which monks and laypeople could work together for the spread of Vedanta Philosophy and the various forms of social service. Such as directing and volunteering in hospitals, schools, colleges, hostels, rural development centers, etc. Also, conduct extensive assistance and rehabilitation work for victims of earthquakes, cyclones, and other calamities, in the most different parts of India and other countries.

Ramakrishna Math - Belur
Main temple at Ramakrishna Math, Belur (Source)

Swami Vivekananda was able to acquire a large plot of land near the western bank of Ganga River in early 1898. The place is known to be Belur and here Swami built the definitive facilities for the monastery and registered it under the name of Ramakrishna Math. Swami followed the new monastic life- the fusion of old monastic ideals with the conditions of modern life. The Math was and is open to all devotees regardless of their sex, religion, race, or caste providing equal opportunity personal enlightenment and social service.

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Last days of Swami Vivekananda

He again embarked for the West in June 1899, at a time when his health was getting worse. During this visit, he founded Vedanta Societies in San Francisco and New York. He also founded Shanti Ashrama in California, with the generous support of a 65-hectare property donated by a devoted North American. He later attended the Congress of Religions in Paris in 1900. The speeches given in Paris are memorable for the knowledge that Vivekananda’s demonstration related to the worship of Linga and the authenticity of Bhagavad Gita. From Paris, he made short visits to Brittany, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens, and Egypt. For most of this period, he was a guest of Jules Bois, the famous thinker. He left Paris on 24 October 1900 and arrived at Belur Math on 9 December of the same year.

Swami Vivekananda has written many books but Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Vedanta Philosophy: An address before the Graduate Philosophical Society, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, and Vedanta philosophy are some of his remarkable work.

Unremitting work, especially giving speeches and inspiring people has affected his health. He had asthma, diabetes, and other physical ailments. A few days before his body died, he was seen studying the almanac. Three days before his death he pointed out the place for his cremation – a place where a temple was later built in his memory. He commented to several people that he would not be forty.

On the day of his death, he took a walk with Swami Premananda, a brother-disciple, and gave him instructions for the future operations of the Ramakrishna Order. Vivekananda took Mama Samadhi at 9:10 pm on July 4, 1902. There was a little blood in his nostrils, near his mouth, and in his eyes. Doctors pointed out that this was caused by the rupture of a blood vessel in the brain, but they could not find the real cause of death. According to disciples, Brahmarandhr, the opening in the crown of the head, must have been broken when he attained Mahasamadhi. Vivekananda had thus fulfilled his own prophecy of not living to the age of 40.

Quotes and Teachings of Swami Vivekananda

  1. Take one idea. Make this idea your life, think about it, dream about it, breathe the idea, live this idea. Let your mind, muscles, nerves, every part of the body be filled with this one idea, and leave all other ideas. This is the path to success.
  2. Every soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within through the control of nature, external and internal. Do it either through work, worship, psychic control, or philosophy – by one, or more, or by all of these means – and be free. This is the totality of religion.
  3. There’s no one who can teach you, no one can force you to be spiritual. You have to learn everything from inside by yourself. There is no better teacher than yourself, your own soul.
  4. We already have all the powers of the universe. We are the ones who have put hands over our eyes and then cry for the universe being so dark.
  5. We should always be aware of the words we speak. The words we speak without thinking can make the person lose his balance. These words can hurt the person’s feelings whereas the words were spoken thoughtfully to keep the environment around us positive all the time.
  6. An uncontrolled mind leads us to negativity in life and a controlled mind protects us from this negativity and also frees us from such thoughts. Self-awareness is the best way to control your mind. Willpower and determination can also prevent the mind from wandering. Repeatedly practice the same idea to keep the mind under control. Meditation to control the mind should be done twice a day, especially in the morning and evening, as these are the quietest times of the day. A concentration separates humans from animals and due to differences in concentration, one human differs from another. Controlling the mind is not a day’s work, but it requires regular and systematic cultivation. When it is controlled, it feels as if God has been attained from inside.
(Last Updated On: January 12, 2021)
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