Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born into an affluent family in Kolkata on 12 January 1863. His father was Vishwanath Datta, a well-known Kolkata attorney, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with deep devotion, strong character and other noble qualities. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics and academic studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. Born with a yogic temperament, he used to practise meditation even from his boyhood, and was associated with the Brahmo Samaj reform movement for some time.
However, his philosophical mind was restless, and the Brahmo Samaj could not satisfy his quest for the true meaning of life. Encouraged by one of his relatives, Naren met the Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna in November 1881. This incident affected Naren a great deal, and he gradually came to realise that Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man. Spending quality time with the saint, Naren gradually began to look upon him as his guide. He eventually accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his master and became completely dedicated to him.
A group of chosen young men had gathered around Sri Ramakrishna and had begun to receive spiritual guidance from him. When he developed throat cancer, they undertook to nurse him. Naren was the leader of this group. Ramakrishna had wanted them to take to monastic life and had symbolically given them saffron clothes. Keeping in line with their master’s wish, the group founded a monastery at Baranagar and began to live together. They supported themselves by begging, without knowing where this journey would take them. It was during this time that Naren took for himself the name Vivekananda (meaning “the bliss of discernment”), in keeping with the monastic traditions of India.
After the Master’s passing away, Vivekananda set out on a long, extensive pilgrimage throughout India, and came to realise the abject poverty, illiteracy and degradation of the Indians at large. Later, in 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a parivrajaka—a wandering monk, “without fixed abode, without ties, independent, and a stranger wherever he goes.” His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff, and his two favorite books—The Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ. Vivekananda travelled the length and breadth of India for five years, visiting important centres of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life. He developed a sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the masses and resolved to uplift the nation. Living mainly on bhiksha (alms), Vivekananda travelled mostly on foot and by railway, using tickets bought by admirers whom he met on the way. During these travels he met and stayed with scholars, dewans, rajas and people from all walks of life—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pariahs (low-caste workers) and government officials.
He approached many Indian princes of the time to see if they could do anything for the common people of India. Gradually this idea spread amongst the leaders, and a slow change began to take place. The ruler of Mysore was among the first to make primary education free within his state. This, however, was not enough in Swamiji’s view. He wanted education taken to the peasant’s doorstep, so that the peasant’s children could work and learn at the same time. His correspondence with the Maharaja of Mysore on the subject reveal how genuine and palpable his ideas were. Vivekananda reached Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent, on 24 December 1892. He swam through the sea and started meditating on a lone rock for three days on the past, present and future of India. The rock is today a primary tourist destination and is called the Vivekananda Rock Memorial.
Vivekananda attended the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, and earned great applause for beginning his address with the famous words, “Sisters and brothers of America.” It was Vivekananda’s arrival in the USA that started the beginning of Western interest in Hinduism—not as merely an exotic Eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition. A few years after the Parliament, Vivekananda started Vedanta centres in New York City and London, and lectured at major universities on Hinduism.
From the West, he also set his Indian work in motion. Vivekananda wrote a stream of letters to India, giving advice and sending money to his followers and brother monks. His letters from the West in those days laid down the motive of his campaign for social service. He constantly tried to inspire his close disciples in India to do something big. His letters to them contain some of his strongest words. In one such letter, he wrote to Swami Akhandananda,
“Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying “Ramakrishna, O Lord!”—unless you can do some good to the poor.”
Eventually, in 1895, the periodical called The Brahmavadin was started in Madras, with money supplied by Vivekananda, for the purpose of teaching Vedanta.
After spreading India’s ancient wisdom in the USA and England for four years, he returned to India in 1897. Soon after his arrival, he inaugurated the Ramakrishna Mission, a unique organization in which monks of the Ramakrishna Order work together with lay devotees for the uplift of the poor masses through social service programmes, being inspired by the ideal that Sri Ramakrishna gave to Swami Vivekananda:
“Serve the jiva (living being) as Shiva (God Himself)”.
He founded two other monasteries—one at Mayavati, near Almora in the Himalayas, called Advaita Ashrama; and another at Madras. Two journals were also started: Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbodhan in Bengali. The same year, famine relief work was started by Swami Akhandananda in Murshidabad district.
His tours, hectic lecturing schedule, private discussions and correspondence, not to mention the privations he had endured during his early years of wandering, had taken their toll on his health. He was suffering from asthma, diabetes and other physical ailments. A few days before he died, he was seen intently studying the almanac. Three days before his death he pointed out the spot for his cremation, where a temple in his memory stands today.
Vivekananda died at ten minutes past nine p.m. on July 4, 1902, while he was meditating, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would not live to be forty.
My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.
– Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy, based on the interpretation of Adi Shankara. He summarized the Vedanta’s teachings as follows:
- 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
According to Vivekananda, an important teaching he received from Ramakrishna was that “Jiva is Shiva” (each individual is divinity itself). This became his Mantra, and he coined the concept of daridra narayana seva – the service of God in and through (poor) human beings. “If there truly is the unity of Brahman underlying all phenomena, then on what basis do we regard ourselves as better or worse, or even as better-off or worse-off, than others?” – This was the question he posed to himself. Ultimately, he concluded that these distinctions fade into nothingness in the light of the oneness that the devotee experiences in Moksha. What arises then is compassion for those “individuals” who remain unaware of this oneness and a determination to help them.
Swami Vivekananda belonged to that branch of Vedanta that held that no one can be truly free until all of us are. Even the desire for personal salvation has to be given up, and only tireless work for the salvation of others is the true mark of the enlightened person. He founded the Ramakrishna Math and Mission on the principle of “Atmano Mokshartham Jagat-hitaya cha” (for one’s own salvation and for the welfare of the World).
Vivekananda advised his followers to be holy, unselfish and have shraddha (faith). He encouraged the practice of Brahmacharya (Celibacy). In one of the conversations with his childhood friend Priya Nath Sinha he attributes his physical and mental strengths, and eloquence to the practice of Brahmacharya.
Vivekananda did not advocate the emerging area of parapsychology and astrology saying that this form of curiosity doesn’t help in spiritual progress but actually hinders it.
Some teachings of Swami Vivekananda:
- Our first duty is not to hate ourselves; because to advance we must have faith in ourselves first and then in God. He who has no faith in himself can never have faith in God.
- Every duty is holy, and devotion to duty is the highest form of worship of God.
- That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical.
- Faith, faith, faith in ourselves, faith in God – this is the secret of greatness… Have faith in yourselves, and stand up on that faith and be strong; that is what we need.
- The Hindus were bold, to their credit be it said, bold thinkers in all heir ideas, so bold that one spark of their though frightens the so-called bold thinkers of the West.
- In my opinion, a race must first cultivate a great respect for motherhood, through the sanctification and inviolability of marriage.
- Sita is the name in India for everything that is good, pure, and holy; everything that in woman we call woman.
- Renunciation and service are the twin ideals of India. Intensify here in these channels and the rest will take care of itself.
- My ideal indeed can be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.
- My whole ambition in life is to set in motion a machinery which will bring noble ideas to the door of everybody, and then let men and women settle their own fate. Let them know what our forefathers as well as other nations have thought on the most momentous questions of life. Let them see specially what others are doing now, and then decide. We are to put the chemicals together, the crystallisation will be done by nature according to her laws.
- Truth is my God, the universe my country.
- I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.
- Our watchword, then, will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only toleration… I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?
- Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries. What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless. That love will make every word tell like thunderbolt.
- The religion of the Vedanta can satisfy the demands of the scientific world, by referring it to the highest generalisation and to the law of evolution. That the explanation of a thing comes from within itself is still more completely satisfied by Vedanta. The Brahman, the God of the Vedanta, has nothing outside of Himself; nothing at all.
- One idea that I see clear as daylight is that misery is caused by ignorance and nothing else. Who will give the world light? Sacrifice in the past has been the Law, it will be, alas, for ages to come. The earth’s bravest and best will have to sacrifice themselves for the good of many, for the welfare of all. Buddhas by the hundred are necessary with eternal love and pity.
- Would to God that all men were so constituted that in their minds all these elements of philosophy, mysticism, emotion, and of work were equally present in full! That is the ideal, my ideal of a perfect man.
- The ideal of womanhood in India is motherhood – that marvelous, unselfish, all-suffering, ever-forgiving mother.
- On Education
- Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.
- By education I do not mean the present system, but something in the line of positive teaching. Mere book-learning won’t do. We want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one’s own feet.
- The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life, which does not bring out strength of character, a spirit of philanthropy, and the courage of a lion–is it worth the name? Real education is that which enables one to stand on one’s own legs.
- By work alone men may get to where Buddha got largely by meditation or Christ by prayer.
- These conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit, and in the cottage of the poor man, with the fishermen that are catching fish, and with the students that are studying. They call to every man, woman, and child whatever be their occupation, wherever they may be. And what is there to fear! How can the fishermen and all these carry out the ideals of the Upanishads? The way has been shown. It is infinite; religion is infinite, none can go beyond it; and whatever you do sincerely is good for you. Even the least thing well done brings marvellous results; therefore let everyone do what little he can. If the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student. If the lawyer thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better lawyer, and so on…
- So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them!