We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far. – Swami Vivekanand.
Narendranath Dutta, popularly known as Swami Vivekananda was an Indian Hindu monk and the chief disciple of the great mystic Ramakrishna. Best known for his speech introducing Hinduism at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago,1893; which began with the words – “Sisters and brothers of America …,” he is a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world and is credited with raising interfaith awareness and bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century.
He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India and contributed to the concept of Indian nationalism as a tool of a fight against the British empire in colonial India. Due to this and his natural inclination to spirituality, he is regarded as the patriot saint.
Swami Vivekananda was born in an aristocratic Bengali Kayastha family in Calcutta on January 12th, 1863. His father, Vishwanath Dutta, was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court. His mother, Bhubaneswari Devi, was a devout housewife. The progressive, rational attitude of Narendra’s father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape his thinking and personality.
Narendranath was interested in spirituality from a young age and used to meditate before the images of deities such as Shiva, Rama, Sita, and Mahavir Hanuman. He was fascinated by wandering ascetics and monks. Naren was naughty and restless as a child, and his parents often had difficulty controlling him. His mother said, “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons”.
He was an exceptional student and avid reader in a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, religion, history, social science, art, and literature. He was also interested in Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas. Narendra was trained in Indian classical music and regularly participated in physical exercise, sports, and organized activities. Narendra studied Western logic, Western philosophy, and European history at the General Assembly’s Institution (now known as the Scottish Church College). In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884.
Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, Narendra came to “the question which marked the real beginning of his intellectual quest for God.” He asked several prominent Calcutta residents if they had come “face to face with God”, but none of their answers satisfied him. At this time, Narendra met Debendranath Tagore (the leader of Brahmo Samaj) and asked if he had seen God. Instead of answering his question, Tagore said “My boy, you have the Yogi’s eyes.”
According to Banhatti, it was Ramakrishna who really answered Narendra’s question, by saying “Yes, I see Him as I see you, only in an infinitely intense sense.” Nevertheless, Vivekananda was more influenced by the Brahmo Samaj’s and its new ideas, than by Ramakrishna. It was Keshubchandra Sen’s influence who brought Vivekananda fully into contact with western esotericism, and it was also via Sen that he met Ramakrishna.
In late 1881 or early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineswar with two friends and met Ramakrishna. This meeting proved to be a turning point in his life. Although he did not initially accept Ramakrishna as his teacher and rebelled against his ideas, he was attracted by his personality and began to frequently visit him at Dakshineswar. He initially saw Ramakrishna’s ecstasies and visions as “mere figments of imagination” and “hallucinations”.
As a member of Brahmo Samaj, he opposed idol worship, polytheism, and Ramakrishna’s worship of Kali. He even rejected the Advaita Vedanta of “identity with the absolute” as blasphemy and madness and often ridiculed the idea. Narendra tested Ramakrishna, who faced his arguments patiently: “Try to see the truth from all angles”, he replied.
Narendra’s father’s sudden death in 1884 left the family bankrupt; creditors began demanding the repayment of loans, and relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Narendra, once a son of a well-to-do family, became one of the poorest students in his college. He unsuccessfully tried to find work and questioned God’s existence, but found solace in Ramakrishna and his visits to Dakshineswar increased.
One day Narendra requested Ramakrishna to pray to goddess Kali for their family’s financial welfare. Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple himself and pray. Following Ramakrishna’s suggestion, he went to the temple thrice, but failed to pray for any kind of worldly necessities and ultimately prayed for true knowledge and devotion from the goddess. Narendra gradually grew ready to renounce everything for the sake of realizing God and accepted Ramakrishna as his Guru.
In 1885, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer and was transferred to Calcutta and (later) to a garden house in Cossipore. Narendra and Ramakrishna’s other disciples took care of him during his last days, and Narendra’s spiritual education continued. At Cossipore, he experienced Nirvikalpa samadhi. Narendra and several other disciples received ochre robes from Ramakrishna, forming his first monastic order. He was taught that service to men was the most effective worship of God. Ramakrishna asked him to care for the other monastic disciples, and in turn, asked them to see Narendra as their leader. Ramakrishna died in the early-morning hours of 16 August 1886 in Cossipore.
After Ramakrishna’s death, his devotees and admirers stopped supporting his disciples. Unpaid rent accumulated, and Narendra and the other disciples had to find a new place to live. Many returned home, adopting a Grihastha (family-oriented) way of life. Narendra decided to convert a dilapidated house at Baranagar into a new math(monastery) for the remaining disciples. Rent for the Baranagar Math was low, raised by “holy begging” (mādhukarī). The math became the first building of the Ramakrishna Math: the monastery of the monastic order of Ramakrishna. Narendra and other disciples used to spend many hours in practicing meditation and religious austerities every day.
Vivekananda propagated that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Nevertheless, following Ramakrishna, and in contrast to Advaita Vedanta, Vivekananda believed that the Absolute is both immanent and transcendent. According to Anil Sooklal, Vivekananda’s neo-Advaita “reconciles Dvaita or dualism and Advaita or non-dualism”. Vivekananda summarised the Vedanta as follows, giving it a modern and Universalistic interpretation:
Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
Nationalism was a prominent theme in Vivekananda’s thoughts. He believed that a country’s future depends on its people, and his teachings focused on human development. He wanted “to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest”.
Vivekananda linked morality with control of the mind, seeing truth, purity, and unselfishness as traits that strengthened it. He advised his followers to be holy, unselfish, and to have shraddhā (faith). Vivekananda supported brahmacharya, believing it the source of his physical and mental stamina and eloquence. He emphasized that success was an outcome of focused thought and action; in his lectures on Raja Yoga, he said, “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, the 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, that is the way great spiritual giants are produced”.
Vivekananda was one of the main representatives of Neo-Vedanta, a modern interpretation of selected aspects of Hinduism in line with western esoteric traditions, especially Transcendentalism, New Thought, and Theosophy. In the background of emerging nationalism in British-ruled India, Vivekananda crystallized the nationalistic ideal. In the words of social reformer Charles Freer Andrews, “The Swami’s intrepid patriotism gave a new colour to the national movement throughout India. More than any other single individual of that period Vivekananda had made his contribution to the new awakening of India”. Vivekananda drew attention to the extent of poverty in the country and maintained that addressing such poverty was a prerequisite for national awakening. His nationalistic ideas influenced many Indian thinkers and leaders. Sri Aurobindo regarded Vivekananda as the one who awakened India spiritually. Mahatma Gandhi counted him among the few Hindu reformers “who have maintained this Hindu religion in a state of splendor by cutting down the deadwood of tradition”.
Although Vivekananda was a powerful orator and writer in English and Bengali, he was not a thorough scholar, and most of his published works were compiled from lectures given around the world which were “mainly delivered impromptu and with little preparation”. His main work, Raja Yoga, consists of talks he delivered in New York.
According to Bhatti, “[a] singer, a painter, a wonderful master of language and a poet, Vivekananda was a complete artist”, composing many songs and poems, including his favourite, “Kali the Mother”. Vivekananda blended humor with his teachings and his language was lucid. His Bengali writings testify to his belief that words (spoken or written) should clarify ideas, rather than demonstrating the speaker (or writer’s) knowledge.
Bartaman Bharat meaning “Present Day India” is an erudite Bengali language essay written by him, which was first published in the March 1899 issue of Udbodhan, the only Bengali language magazine of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission.
The essay was reprinted as a book in 1905 and later compiled into the fourth volume of ‘The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.’ In this essay, his refrain to the readers was to honour and treat every Indian as a brother irrespective of whether he was born poor or in a lower caste.
Swami Vivekanand breathed his last on 4th July 1908. At seven o’clock in the evening, the bell rang for worship in the chapel. Swami went to his room and told the disciple who attended him that none was to come to him until called for. He spent an hour in meditation and telling his beads, then called the disciple and asked him to open all the windows and fan his head. He lay down quietly on his bed and the attendant thought that he was either sleeping or meditating.
At the end of an hour, his hands trembled a little and he breathed once very deeply.
There was a silence for a minute or two, and again he breathed in the same manner. His eyes became fixed in the center of his eyebrows, his face assumed a divine expression, and eternal silence fell.
‘There was,’ said a brother disciple of the Swami, ‘a little blood in his nostrils, about his mouth, and in his eyes.’ According to the Yoga scriptures, the life-breath of an illumined yogi passes out through the opening on the top of the head, causing the blood to flow in the nostrils and the mouth.
The great ecstasy took place at ten minutes past nine. Swami Vivekananda passed away at the age of thirty-nine years, five months, and twenty-four days, thus fulfilling his own prophecy: ‘I shall not live to be forty years old.’
The brother disciples thought that he might have fallen into samadhi, and chanted the Master’s name to bring back his consciousness. But he remained on his back motionless.
Physicians were sent for and the body was thoroughly examined. In the doctor’s opinion life was only suspended; artificial respiration was tried. At midnight, however, Swami Vivekananda was pronounced dead, the cause, according to medical science, having been apoplexy or sudden failure of the heart. But the monks were convinced that their leader had voluntarily cast off his body in samadhi, as predicted by Sri Ramakrishna.