Well, not many of you may be familiar with the name “Swami Vivekananda”. I am sure you must have heard this quote:
“Arise! Awake! and stop not till the goal is reached.”-Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda was an Indian philosopher, spiritual leader, and guide for numerous students. He had a high command and great knowledge of literature. Do not be surprised if I say that he was also a linguist with immense knowledge. Although he is regarded as an Indian monk, he has delivered countless lectures on Hindu philosophy across India, the United States of America, Europe and England. Commemorating his birthday, which falls on January 12th, India celebrates “National Youth Day” every year.
Doesn’t it sound strange when I say that an Indian saint was heard in an international audience, even when his lectures were about spirituality? And that too, in the early 19th century!
This intriguing life history of his is an example of how a thoughtful person can emerge as a powerful leader with courage, charisma, composure and confidence. Let us begin with his childhood.
Early Life of Swami Vivekananda
Birth and Family
Swami Vivekananda was born on 12 January 1863, into an aristocratic Bengali family in Calcutta, India. He was named as Narendanath Datta by his father, Vishwanath Datta, and mother, Bhubaneswari Devi. His father was an attorney in the Calcutta High court, the capital of British India. His grandfather was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar who turned into a monk at the age of 25 years. Born among nine siblings, he was a naughty and active child who was drawn to spirituality all the more.
Narendranath was a student of the Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s school called the Metropolitan Institute from 1871 to 1877. He was an ardent learner and loved his mother tongue. It seems that he once said in his school, “I shall not learn the language of the white master”. He also kept away from learning English for about a few months but learnt it eventually due to compulsion. Then his family moved to Raipur in 1877 and they came back by 1979 when he was admitted to the Presidency College in Calcutta. Also, he was the only student to clear the entrance exam with first-division marks. He pursued an M.A. in philosophy at this college.
His interests in subjects varied from philosophy to history and much more. His keen interest in Hinduism, Vedas, Hindu Scriptures, Upanishads, Bhagavd Gita, Ramayana, Mahabarata and other Puranas was evident from his speeches. But it did not stop him from pointing out the flaws in Hindu customs that were partial. Being an avid reader with exotic memory powers, he surprised many eminent people with these astonishing skills. His speed-reading is something that many appreciate.
For example, in one of his speeches he had quoted a couple of pages from the book “Pickwick papers”, the first novel of Charles Dickens. Also, in another incident, while he was in Germany with his friend, professor of philosophy Dr. Paul Deussen, Narendra was voraciously reading some poetry. So, he couldn’t reply to Paul when he was talking to him. But then he got back to Paul, apologizing that he was too drawn in to reading. But the professor was not convinced, so he quoted verses from the book and interpreted the meanings, which left the professor awestruck.
Spiritual Affiliation before meeting his Guru
By 1881, Narendra was a part of “Brahmo Samaj”, a society started in 1828 to promote Brahmoism which was instrumental in Hindu reforms at that time in British India. This was founded by Raja Rammohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore primarily. It began in the Bengal Renaissance and grew to be more influential across the nation.
Keshub Chandra Sen, was a Hindu philosopher who attempted to imbibe Christian theology in the Hindu framework. Strongly believing in Unitarianism, he was a member of Brahmo samaj and was a close acquaintance of Narendra. He influenced Narendra on the idea of an “accessible, non-renunciatory, every-man type of spirituality”.
Meeting his Guru
Swami Vivekanada was a disciple of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a Hindu spiritual leader. There are two interesting incidents that eventually led him to meet his Guru.
Firstly, he was persuaded by his relative Dr. Ramchandra Dutta to meet Ramakrishna. When Dutt grew up in Narendra’s house and observed him growing up asking questions about God, existence, renunciation, he once said to Narendra, “Brother, if your only goal in life is to further the enhancement of our religion, then do not get involved in the Bramho Samaj or others. You go to Dakshineshwari and meet Shri Ramkrishna.”
Secondly, in the English literature class by professor William Hastie at the General Assembly Institution, he was teaching William Wordsworth’s poem “The Excursion”. In this class, he was trying to explain the meaning of the word ‘trance’ and suggested that his students meet Ramakrishna at Dhakshineshwar to understand what it really means.
The Face to Face meeting
In November 1881, Narendra finally met Ramakrishna face-to-face for the first time. When Ramakrishan was invited to deliver a lecture at Surendranath Mitra’s house, Ramachandra Dutt accompanied Narendra. Surendra was also the neighbor of Narendra. During this lecture, Ramakrishna asked young Narendra to sing. Impressed by this, he had invited Narendra to Dhakshineshwar.
Following this, in late 1881 or early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineshwar and met Ramakrishna, who actually drove him to the path of spirituality even more. Being a person striving for logic, reasoning and rational questions, Narendra was not ready to agree with Ramakrishna on many aspects. But his conviction drew him more to his eventual Guru, who he later accepted completely as his Guru.
Ramakrishna’s personality, charisma, answers and patience were the key reasons why Narendra was attracted to him and frequently visited Ramakrishna thereafter. For example, when Narendra asked “Have you seen God?”, he did not get a satisfactory answer from anyone. Debendraneth Tagore replied “My boy, you have Yogi’s eyes.” Then he got his answer from his Guru – “Yes, I see Him as I see you, only in an infinitely intenser sense.”
Hearing such enlightening answers from him and patient guidance, even when he disagreed with Ramakrishna’s opinions, made him a devoted follower of Ramakrishna himself.
Following the path of his Guru
Ramakrishna was fond of his student Narendra and used to always have him by his side. One day he wrote, “Narendra will perform the task of enlightening the masses.” While Narendra hesitantly replied, “I won’t be able to do all this.”, Ramakrishna said,”What? Won’t it be possible? Will your bones do this task?”
In 1885, Ramakrishna was diagnosed with throat cancer and was transferred to Calcutta, then to Cossipore. Narendra, along with other disciples, took care of their Guru while Narendra continued his spiritual education. On August 16, 1886, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa passed away and attained Mahasamadhi in Cossipore.
After the demise of his Guru, there was a growing debt for house rent and hence Narendra and other disciples were forced to find an alternative shelter. While few gave up and went to become Grihastha or a family man, Narendra pursued his mission and converted an old house in Baranagar into a monestary/math. The rent for this space was very low and they raised it by “Holy begging” (madhukari).
Having spent most of his time in meditation and religious austerity, Narendra indulged in spiritual life. In December 1886, when he was invited by the mother of Baburam along with other disciples to Antput village. On Christmas Eve of 1886, Narendra and others took monastic vows to follow and live like their master.
The Rise of Swami Vivekananda
In 1888, he left the Baraganar Math and started the journey of spiritual exploration and teachings across India. He set out as “Parivrajaka”, that is, a monastic wanderer. His pilgrimage tour spans across states from North to South. It was during this period that he got the monastic name “Vivekananda”, as suggested by Ajith Singh. This means the “bliss of discerning wisdom”, from the Sanskrit derivatives, “vivek” and “ananda”.
During his extensive travels through the length and breadth of the country, he realized two things:
- People are severely poverty-stricken and something ought to be done to advance them.
- Religion is the backbone of the country and any attempt to reform that may not succeed in this land.
Treating people of any religion or social status equally, he survived by biksha/alms and carried only kamandalu/water pot, staff and his two favorite books: “The Bhagavad Gita” and “The Imitation of Christ. After years of travel, in December 1892, he sat on a rock in Kanyakumari, the southern most tip of the country, for meditation. He realised that renunciation and service were two ideals on which any nation-building or uplifting could be done. Therefore, he understood that there cannot be isolated progress in specific parts of the world.
In order for India to progress and prosper, the world must be uplifted. The idea and knowledge of Hinduism and its deep meaning of divinity in every person must be preached to the entire world. Later, the place where he sat and meditated became a memorial.
Eminent contributions of Swami Vivekananda
After Swami Vivekananda’s journey of pilgrimage throughout India, he decided to participate in the “World’s Parliament of Religions” to be held in Chicago.
First Journey to the West
In order to meet his worldly mission of preaching humanity, peace, Hinduism, spirituality and other values, he wanted to take part in the meeting. His disciples like Raja(The King) of Ramnad, Raja of Khetri were supportive, and a few others in Madras (currently known as Chennai) started raising funds for his trip. With this, he set his foot on a ship to the U.S from the shores of Bombay on May 31, 1893. The ship sailed through China and Japan, and reached Vancouver, from where he went to Chicago by July.
Swami Vivekandanda addressed his first international audience on September 11, 1893 at the “Art Institute of Chicago“. Not knowing that this chapter of his life was going to be an impactful turning point, not for him, but for the world, he began his speech with these words – “Sisters and Brothers of America!”. Instantaneously, Vivekandanda received a two-minute standing ovation from the entire seven thousand audience there. While he continued, he addressed the youth of the nation and greeted them on behalf of – “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.”
He also quoted a couple of passages from “Shiva Mahima Stotram”. It was a short speech but extremely influential that the Parliament president, John Henry Barrows said, “India, the Mother of religions, was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors”.
The acclaimed success story that he became
After this historic break, Swami Vivekananda became a buzz word in America and the press referred to him as the “cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation”. With widespread attention, he attracted more people with his wisdom and ideology. He delivered about five more lectures at the Parliament in the same month.
After the closing of Parliament, he became the most sought-after personality and this marked the beginning of his first journey in the West from 1893 to 1896. He travelled across the East Coast and Mid-west America and London in Europe to spread the knowledge of ancient India’s spiritual wisdom, vedanta and Hindu philosophy.
Return to India
From London, accompanied by other disciples, he sailed from Naples to India on December 30, 1896. He reached Colombo on January 15, 1897. At the request of locals, he delivered lectures in Colobo, Ceylon, Pamban. He then travelled across Tamil Nadu and finally reached Madras. From here he proceeded to Calcutta, where he established Shri Ramakrishna Matt and Ramakrishna Mission on May 1, 1897.
The motto of this organisation is to spread the teachings of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the values of the ancient teachings of Upanishads to help in one’s spiritual liberation and for the welfare of the world.
Second Journey to the West
On June 20, 1899, Swami Vivekananda left for London and reached there on July 31, 1899. He taught in New York, California and was a part of the “Congress of the History of religions” held in Paris in 1900. During this period, he found the “Vedanta Society” in San Francisco and New York. He then reached Belur Math in December 1900.
Death of Swami Vivekananda
For the next two years, he was actively coordinating the works of Ramakrishna Math and societies in the U.S and England. Owing to declining health, he couldn’t be a part of the “Congress of Religions” in 1901 held in Japan. He suffered from diabetes, insomnia and asthma.
Swami Vivekananda was a vital and famous personality who was often visited by politicians and royals. On July 4, 1902, he passed away while meditating in his room after a very normal and ordinary day. He attained mahasamadhi in Belur math and was cremated on the banks of Ganga, opposite to his Guru Ramakrishna who was cremated sixteen years ago.
Interesting highlights from Swami Vivekananda’s life
In a rare incident, an American woman expressed her desire to marry Swami Vivekananda. When asked why, she said that she had admired Swami’s intellect and wanted a child like him who was also wise. To her, Swami Vivekananda replied – “I understand your wish. It will take a long time to get married and bring a child into this world and then to know whether he is intelligent or not. There is no guarantee that this will happen. Instead, I can give you a suggestion to fulfill your wish immediately. You accept me as your child. In this way, you will become my mother and thus your desire to have a wise child like me will also be fulfilled. “
The first speech by Swami in the U.S, opened doors to peace and humanity, being heard through the voice of an Indian monk. He stirred the audience with his charismatic words and excellent speaking abilities, and he was given a standing ovation.
Owing to his achievements and honorable thought of universal upliftment, who only strived to make a better human race and not convert anyone from one religion or faith to another, the Indian government launched around eight stamps in his name.
Swami Vivekananda is an idol and an inspiration to the youth of the world. He has played a pivotal role in introducing Hinduism, Vedic culture, the values of ancient Indian tradition like Yoga and meditation to the West. He was a person who practiced what he preached. A man of dignity and wisdom. He is the founder of Ramakrishna Mutt, which is still a successful institution determined to achieve the goal and vision of Swami Vivekananda.
He has been an integral part of various Hindu reform movements in British India, when Christianity was being propagated. He was also keen to bring about the idea of Nationalism during colonialism, as he believed that the nation as a whole must be educated and enlightened. Being a rebel as well as a spiritual leader is a rare combination. However, they sealed the deal with him. Extending his thoughts on worldly happiness, he went on to spread this idea of wolistic development.
Swami Vivekananda, being an influencer and a strong orator capable of captivating his audience with his eloquent speech, had a great command over languages. Therefore, he published about five books during his lifetime. His works were also compiled and published later after his demise.
Some Enlightening Quotes
As a concluding remark and an example of how impactful a speaker he is, here is a saying by Swami Vivekanda on self-love.
While the above is on compassion and embracement, here is another quote which is powerful and motivational.
“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”— Swami Vivekananda
While his teachings and philosophy are an abundant ocean of knowledge, the above couple of quotes are just a speck of stardust from the mighty sky of limitless legacy.