Swami Vivekananda, or Narendranath Datta, or simply Naren, as he was called in his pre-monastic days, was born to Vishwanath Datta and Bhuvaneswari Devi in Calcutta on Monday, 12th January 1863. The Datta family was rich, respectable, and renowned for charity, learning, and a strong spirit of independence. Narendranath’s grandfather, Durgacharan Datta, was well versed in Persian and Sanskrit and was skilled in law. But after the birth of his son Vishwanath, he renounced the world and became a monk. He was then only twenty-five years of age.
Vishwanath Datta was an attorney-at-law in the Calcutta High Court. He was proficient in English and Persian, and took great delight in reciting to his family the poems of the Persian poet Hafiz. He also enjoyed the study of the Bible and of the Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit. Though charitable to an extravagant degree and sympathetic towards the poor, Vishwanath was rationalistic and progressive in outlook in matters religious and social, owing perhaps to the influence of western culture. Bhuvaneswari Devi was an accomplished lady with a regal bearing. She was deeply religious. Before the birth or Narendranath, though she had daughters, she yearned for a son and asked one of her relatives at Varanasi to make religious offerings to Vireshwara Shiva. It is said that she dreamt later that Shiva promised to be born as her son. Narendranath was born some time afterwards.
In his early childhood, Narendranath was rather restless and given to much fun and frolic. But at the same time, he had a great attraction for spiritual matters and would play at worshipping or meditating on the images of Rama-Sita, Shiva, etc. The stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which his mother told him, left an indelible impression on his mind. Traits such as courage, sympathy for the poor, and attraction towards wandering monks appeared spontaneously in him. Even in childhood, Narendranath demanded convincing arguments for every proposition. With these qualities of head and heart, he grew into a vigorous youth.
At the feet of Sri Ramakrishna
As a youth, Narendranath’s leonine beauty was matched by his courage. He had the build of an athlete, a resonant voice, and a brilliant intellect. He distinguished himself in athletics, philosophy, and music, and among his colleagues was the undisputed leader. At college, he studied and absorbed western thought, and this implanted a spirit of critical inquiry in his mind. His inborn tendency towards spirituality and his respect for ancient religious traditions and beliefs, on the one side, and his argumentative nature, coupled with his sharp intellect, on the other, were now at war with each other. In this predicament, he tried to find comfort in the Brahma Samaj, the popular socio-religious movement of the time. The Brahma Samaj believed in a formless God, deprecated the worship of idols, and addressed itself to various forms of social reform. Narendranath also met prominent religious leaders, but could not get a convincing answer from them to his questions about the existence of God. This only accentuated his spiritual restlessness.
At this critical juncture, he remembered the words of his Professor, William Hastie, who had mentioned that a saint lived at Dakshineshwar, just outside Calcutta, who experienced the ecstasy described by Wordsworth in his poem, The Excursion. His cousin Ramachandra Datta also induced him to visit the saint. Thus came about, in 1881, the historic meeting of these two great souls, the prophet of modern India and the carrier of his message. Narendranath asked: ‘Sir, have you seen God ?’ Sri Ramakrishna answered his question in the affirmative: ‘Yes, I have seen Him just as I see you here, only more intensely.’ At last, here was one who could assure him from his own experience that God existed. His doubt was dispelled. The disciple’s training had begun.
While Sri Ramakrishna tested him in so many ways, Narendranath, in turn, tested Sri Ramakrishna in order to ascertain the truth of his spiritual assertions. At one stage, after the passing away of his father in 1884, Narendranath’s family suffered many troubles and privations. At the suggestion of his Master, Narendranath tried to pray to Mother Kali at Dakshineshwar for the alleviation of the family’s distress. He found, however, that although his need was for wealth, he could pray only for knowledge and devotion.
Gradually, Narendranath surrendered himself to the Master. And Sri Ramakrishna, with infinite patience, calmed the rebellious spirit of his young disciple and led him forth from doubt to certainty and from anguish to spiritual bliss. But, more than Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual guidance and support, it was his love which conquered young Narendranath, love which the disciple reciprocated in full measure.
With Sri Ramakrishna’s illness and his removal to Cossipore, on the outskirts of Calcutta, for treatment, began Narendranath’s final training under his guru. It was a time remarkable for the intense spiritual fire which burned within him and which expressed itself through various intense practices. The Master utilized the opportunity to bring his young disciples under the leadership of Narendra. And when Narendra asked that he might be blessed with nirvikalpa samadhi, ordinarily regarded as the highest spiritual experience, the Master admonished him saying: ‘Shame on you ! I thought you would grow, like a huge banyan, sheltering thousands from the scorching misery of the world. But now I see you seek your own liberation.’ All the same, Narendra had the much-coveted realization, after which the Master said that the key to this would thenceforth remain in his keeping and the door would not be opened till Narendra had finished the task for which he had taken birth. Three or four days before his mahāsamādhi, Sri Ramakrishna transmitted to Narendranath his own power and told him: ‘By the force of the power transmitted by me, great things will be done by you; only after that will you go to whence you came.’
After the passing away of the Master in August 1886, many of the young disciples gathered together in an old dilapidated house at Baranagore under the leadership of Narendranath. Here, in the midst of a life of intense austerity and spiritual practices, the foundation of the Ramakrishna brotherhood was laid. It was during these days that Narendranath, along with many of his brother disciples, went to Antpur; and there on Christmas Eve (1886), sitting round a huge fire in the open, they took the vow of sannyāsa. The days at Baranagore were full of great joy, study, and spiritual practices. But the call of the wandering life of the sannyāsin was now felt by most of the monks. And Narendranath, too, towards the close of 1888, began to take temporary excursions away from the Math.
The Wandering Monk
A remarkable change of outlook came over Narendranath between the closing of 1888, when he first left on his temporary excursions, and 1890, when he parted finally from his brethren and travelled alone as an unknown mendicant. He began to assume various names in order to conceal his identity that he might be swallowed up in the immensity of India.
Now it was that the natural desire of an Indian monk for a life of solitude gave way to the prescience that he was to fulfill a great destiny; that his was not the life of an ordinary recluse struggling for personal salvation. Under the influence of his burning desire to know India better and the mute appeal rising all around him from oppressed India, he went first to Varanasi, the holiest city of the Hindus. After Varanasi, he visited Lucknow, Agra, Vrindavan, Hathras, and Rishikesh and then returned to Baranagore for a time. At Hathras, he met Sharath Chandra Gupta who became his first disciple (Swami Sadananda). He revealed to him the mission entrusted to him by his Master, namely, the spiritual regeneration of India and the world. Sharath, who was on the staff of the railway station at Hathras, resigned his post and followed his guru to help him in his mission.
An important event in the Swami’s life at this time occurred in 1890, when he met Pavhari Baba of Gazipur, for whose saintliness he had the greatest admiration throughout his life. At this time, he was torn between the desire, on the one hand, to become absorbed in the eternal silence of the Absolute and on the other, the desire to fulfil his Master’s mission. He hoped that Pavhari Baba would appease the remorse gnawing at his heart, which was due to the fact that fervour for the highest absorption in the Divine drew him away from the work entrusted to him by his Master. For twenty-one days, Naren was on the point of yielding to this temptation, but the vision of Sri Ramakrishna always came to draw him back.
In July 1890, the swami took leave of Sri Sharada Devi, the holy consort of Sri Ramakrishna, who was the spiritual guide of the young monks after the Master’s passing away. He also took leave of his brother monks, with the firm resolve to cut himself free from all ties and to go into the solitude of the Himalayas, for he felt it essential to be alone. In the words of Romain Rolland: ‘This was the great departure. Like a diver, he plunged into the Ocean of India and the Ocean of India covered his tracks. Among its flotsam and jetsam, he was nothing more than one nameless sannyāsin in saffron robe among a thousand others. But the fire of genius burned in his eyes. He was a prince despite all disguise.’
His wandering took him to various places of pilgrimage and historical interest in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Mysore, Kerala, Madras, and Hyderabad. Everywhere the glory of ancient India vividly came before his eyes, whether political, cultural, or spiritual. In the midst of this great education, the abject misery of the Indian masses stood out before his mind. He moved from one princely State to another, everywhere to explore avenues of mitigating their lot. Thus he came to meet many leading personalities and rulers of the princely States. Among them, Maharaj Ajit Singh of Khetri became his fast friend and ardent disciple. At Alwar, he studied the Mahābhāshya of Patanjali. At Poona, he stayed with Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the great national leader. At first, Tilak talked with the Swami somewhat ironically, but later his depth of learning and profundity of thought impressed him, and he invited the Swami to stay with him. From there, after a stay at Belgaum, he went to Bangalore and Mysore. The Maharaja of Mysore gave him the assurance of financial support to enable him to go to the West to seek help for India and to preach the eternal religion. From Mysore, he visited Trivandrum and Kanya Kumari.
Wherever he went, it was not the important places and people that impressed him most. It was the terrible poverty and misery of the masses that caused his soul to burn in agony. He had travelled through the whole of India, often on foot, for nearly three years, coming to know India at first hand. Now he had reached the end of his journey, as it were. He prostrated himself with great feeling before the image of Mother Kumāri at the Kanya Kumāri temple. Then he swam across the sea to a rock off the south coast, and sitting there for the whole night went into deep meditation. The vast panorama of his experiences during his travels passed before his mind’s eye. He meditated on the past, the present, and the future of India, the causes of her downfall, and the means of her resurrection. He then took the momentous decision to go to the West to seek help for the poor of India and thus give shape to his life’s mission.
With this decision, he journeyed to Rameshwaram and Madhurai. He then went on to Madras, where a group of young men, headed by Alasinga Perumal, were eagerly awaiting his arrival. To them, he revealed his intention of visiting America to attend the Parliament of Religions that was being convened at Chicago. His young disciples forthwith raised a subscription for his passage. But the Swami was not yet certain that it was the Divine Mother’s will that he should go, and so he asked them to give away the money to the poor. At this juncture, the Swami had a symbolic dream in which Sri Ramakrishna walked out into the sea and beckoned him to follow. This, coupled with the blessings and permission of Sri Sharada Devi, who also in a dream, had received Sri Ramakrishna’s consent, settled the question for him, and his young friends again set about collecting the necessary funds.
He next paid a short visit to Hyderabad. Then, while arrangements were being made for his journey to America, there came a sudden invitation from the Maharaja of Khetri to attend celebrations in connection with the birth of his son. The Swami could not refuse this invitation from his disciple. The Maharaja received him cordially and promised to help him in every possible way. And it was here, at his suggestion, that the Swami assumed the name ‘Vivekananda’. True to his word, the Maharaja sent his personal secretary with the Swami to equip him for the journey and see him off at Bombay. His journey to America commenced on 31st May 1893.
On the World Stage
Swami Vivekananda travelled to America via China, Japan, and Canada, and reached Chicago about the middle of July. At Canton, he saw some Buddhist monasteries; in Japan, he noted with admiration the industrial progress and cleanliness of the people. Now, at Chicago, so dazzling with riches and the inventive genius of the West, he was puzzled like a child. To his disappointment, he learnt that the Parliament of Religions would not be held until September, and that no one could be a delegate without credentials. He felt lost, but resigning himself to the will of Providence, he went to Boston which was less expensive than Chicago. In the train, he happened to become acquainted with Miss Katherine Sanborn, who invited him to be her guest at Boston. Through her, he came to know Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University, who gave him a letter of introduction to the Chairman of the Parliament of Religions. In the course of this letter, Dr. Wright said: ‘Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.’
The Swami returned to Chicago a couple of days before the opening of the Parliament of Religions, but found to his dismay that he had lost the address of the committee which was providing hospitality for the oriental delegates. After a night’s rest in a huge box in the railway freight-yard, the Swami set out in the morning to find somebody who could help him out of this difficulty. But help for a coloured man was not readily available. Exhausted by a fruitless search, he sat down on the roadside resigning himself to the divine will. Suddenly, a lady of regal appearance emerged from the fashionable house opposite, approached him, and offered him help. This was Mrs. George W. Hale, whose house was to become in future the permanent address of the Swami while in the United States, for the Hale family became his devoted followers.
The Parliament of Religions opened on 11th September 1893. The spacious hall of the Art Institute was packed with nearly 7000 people, representing the best culture of the country. On the platform, every organized religion from all corners of the world had its representatives. The Swami had never addressed such a huge and distinguished gathering. He felt extremely nervous. When his turn came, he mentally bowed down to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, and then began his address with the words, ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’. Immediately, there was thunderous applause from the vast audience, and it lasted for full two minutes. ‘Seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something, they knew not what.’ The appeal of his simple words of burning sincerity, his great personality, his bright countenance, and his orange robes was so great that next day the newspapers described him as the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. The simple monk with a begging bowl had become the man of the hour.
All the subsequent speeches of the Swami at the Parliament were listened to with great respect and appreciation. They all had one common theme — universality. While all the delegates to the Parliament spoke of their own religion, the Swami spoke of a religion that was vast as the sky and deep as the ocean. When the Parliament ended, the days of quiet had ended for the Swami. What followed were days of hectic lecturing in almost every part of the United States. Having signed a contract for a lecture tour with a bureau, the Swami had to be constantly on the move, speaking to all sorts of audiences. Though this tour provided him with opportunities of knowing the different aspects of western life at first hand, he found that the bureau exploited and embarrassed him. He felt disgusted and severed his connection with it. Now he wanted to form a group of earnest American disciples, and began classes, free of charge, for sincere students. His stay in the West, which lasted till December 1896, was packed with intense activity: besides innumerable lectures and classes at New York, he founded a Vedanta Society there; he trained a band of close disciples at the Thousand Island Park; and he wrote Rajayoga and paid two successful visits to England, where he gave the lectures which now form Jnānayoga. There he made some disciples prominent among them being Capt. and Mrs. Sevier, Sister Nivedita, and E. T. Sturdy. Earlier, in New York, J. J. Goodwin, a young English stenographer had been accepted as his disciple. It was during these visits that he had the pleasure of meeting the great savant Max Muller. During his tour of Europe in the summer of 1895, he also met the famous German orientalist Paul Deussen.
He had laboured hard to give to the West his message of Vedanta as the universal principle basic to all religions, and his effort had by now resulted in the establishment of the Vedanta work on a permanent basis in the United States. The London work, too, had made some progress. Now his motherland was calling him and was eager to receive his message. So, from London, he started for India at the end of 1896. Besides his American and English disciples, he left behind his brother disciples Sharadananda and Abhedananda to carry on the work.
Swami Vivekananda left London with the Seviers on 16th December 1896, and after a visit to Rome and other places in Italy, he took the boat for India at Naples on 30th December. At Naples, Mr. Goodwin joined the party. They reached Colombo on 15th January 1897. The news of the Swami’s return had already reached India, and the people everywhere, throughout the country, were afire with enthusiasm to receive him. He was no more the unknown sannyasin. In every city, small or big, committees had been formed to give him a fitting reception. As Romain Rolland rays, the Swami replied to the frenzied expectancy of the people by his Message to India, a conch sounding the resurrection of the land of Rama, of Shiva, of Krishna, and calling the heroic Spirit, the immortal Atman, to march to war. He was a general, explaining his Plan of Campaign, and calling his people to rise in mass : “My India, arise! Where is your vital force? In your Immortal Soul.” At Madras, he delivered five public lectures, every one of which was a clarion call to throw away weakness and superstition and rise to build a new India. He emphasized that in India ‘the keynote of the whole music of the national life’ was religion, a religion which preached the ‘spiritual oneness of the whole universe’, and when that was strengthened, everything else would take care of itself. He did not spare his criticism, however, castigating his countrymen for aping the West, for their blind adherence to old superstitions, for their caste prejudices, and so on.
From Madras the Swami sailed for Calcutta and arrived there on 20th February. His native city gave him a grand welcome, and here the Swami paid a touching tribute to his Master: ‘If there has been anything achieved by me, by thoughts, or words, or deeds, if from my lips has ever fallen one word that has helped anyone in the world, I lay no claim to it, it was his. . . . If this nation wants to rise, take my word for it, it will have to rally round his name.’
To establish his work on a firm basis, the Swami summoned all the monastic and lay disciples to a meeting at Balaram Bose’s house, and the Ramakrishna Mission was formed in May 1897. The aims and ideals of the Mission propounded by the Swami were purely spiritual and humanitarian. He had inaugurated the machinery for carrying out his ideas.
When plague broke out in Calcutta in May 1898, he organized relief work with the help of the members of the monastery and lay disciples. After the plague was under control, the Swami and his western disciples left for Naini Tal and Almora. This was a period of great preparation and training for his western disciples, especially Sister Nivedita. On 16th June, the Swami left for Kashmir with some of these disciples. This trip to Kashmir was an unforgettable experience both for the Swami and for the disciples. At the end of July, the Swami journeyed with Sister Nivedita to the holy shrine of Amarnath. Observing meticulously every little practice demanded by custom, the Swami reached the cave of Amarnath on 2nd August, wearing only loin-cloth, his body besmeared with ashes. His whole frame was trembling with emotion; a great mystical experience came over him, of which he never spoke, beyond saying that Shiva Himself appeared before him‘. This was followed by a lonely visit to Kshir Bhavani, the shrine of the Mother Goddess, a few miles away from Srinagar. This proved to be another memorable experience for the Swami. He was full of the Mother and said, quoting from his own poem : ‘It all came true, every word of it; and l have proved it, for I have hugged the form of Death.’
When he reached Calcutta on 18th October, he was pale and weak and suffering from various ailments. Despite this, he engaged himself in numerous activities. A piece of land had been acquired at Belur on the west bank of the Ganga, five miles above Calcutta, and the construction of the monastery had started. In January 1899, the monks moved to the new monastery, the now famous Belur Math. The Nivedita Girls’ School had been inaugurated earlier. The Bengali monthly Udbodhan was also started at this time. And the Seviers fulfilled the Swami’s dream of having a monastery in the Himalayas, by starting the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati (Almora) in March 1899. The English monthly Prabuddha Bharata had been started at Madras earlier, but on the untimely passing away of its editor in 1898, it ceased publication for a month. The monthly started again at Almora under the editorship of Swami Swarupananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, and in 1899, it was transferred to the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati.
During this period, the Swami constantly inspired the sannyasis and brahmacharis at the Math towards a life of intense spirituality and service, for one’s own emancipation and good of one‘s fellow men – Ātmano mokshārtham jagat hitāya cha, as he put it.
But the Swami’s health was failing. And his plan to revisit the West was welcomed by his brother monks, in the hope that this would improve his health.
Across the World Again
Swami Vivekananda left India on 20th june 1899, taking with him Swami Turiyananda and Sister Nivedita. The journey with the Swami was a great education to both of them. Sister Nivedita wrote: ‘From the beginning to the end, a vivid flow of stories went on. One never knew what moment would bring the flash of intuition and the ringing utterance of some fresh truth.’ After touching Madras, Colombo, Aden, and Marseilles en route, the ship arrived at London on 31st July. The trip was beneficial to the Swami’s health.
After spending two weeks in London, he sailed for New York. Arriving there, he went with Mr. and Mrs. Leggett to their beautiful country home called Ridgely Manor on the River Hudson. The Swami stayed at this country retreat until 5th November and then went to the west coast. He visited Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, and also made short trips to Chicago and Detroit. Now the conviction that the East and the West ought to be mutually helpful and must co-operate with each other grew stronger upon him. The mere material brilliance of the West could not dazzle him, nor could the emphasis on spirituality in India hide her social and economic drawbacks.
He said to Nivedita: ‘Social life in the West is like a peal of laughter; but underneath, it is a wail. It ends in a sob. . . . Here in India, it is sad and gloomy on the surface, but underneath are carelessness and merriment.’ The West had tried to conquer external nature, and the East had tried to conquer internal nature. Now East and West must work hand in hand for the good of each other, without destroying the special characteristics of each. The West has much to learn from the East, and the East has much to learn from the West; in fact, the future has to be shaped by a proper fusion of the two ideals. Then there will be neither East nor West, but one humanity.
The main event of this period was the starting of the Shanti Ashrama in Northern California, which he placed under the charge of Swami Turiyananda. A Vedanta centre at San Francisco was also inaugurated. He also delivered a number of lectures in the western cities during this period. But the Swami was becoming more and more aware of the approaching end. He wrote to Miss MacLeod: ‘My boat is nearing the calm harbour from which it is never more to be driven out.’
On 1st August 1900, he arrived in Paris to participate in the Congress of the History of Religions, held there on the occasion of the Universal Exposition. With some friends, he left Paris in October and visited Hungary, Rumania, Serbia, and Bulgaria, before arriving at Constantinople. Then they proceeded to Athens and Cairo. In Cairo, the Swami suddenly became restless to return to India; he had a premonition of Capt. Sevier’s death. He took the first available boat and hurried back to India and reached the Belur Math on 9th December 1900, without any previous intimation. It was a pleasant surprise to his brother monks and disciples, who greatly rejoiced at his return.
The Journey’s End
At the Math, Swami Vivekananda heard that Capt. Sevier had passed away on 28th October, and he left immediately for Mayavati to console Mrs. Sevier. Arriving there on 3rd January 1901, he stayed for a fortnight. The grandeur of the scenery of this Himalayan Ashrams, dedicated to Advaita delighted him. In spite of his ill health and the severe cold, he wandered in the woods and around an artificial lake, happy and carefree.
Returning to Belur, he stayed there for seven weeks and then left for East Bengal and Assam. His mother, who had expressed an earnest desire to visit the holy places there, went with him. “This is the one great wish of a Hindu widow’, he wrote to Mrs. Bull. ‘I have brought only misery to my people. I am trying to fulfill this one wish of hers.’ He returned to the Math in the second week of May 1901, after visiting Nangalbandh, Kamakhya, and Shillong during the tour, and delivering a few lectures at Dacca and Shillong.
Now the Swami tried to lead a carefree life at the monastery. He would roam about the Math grounds, sometimes clad only in his loin-cloth; or he would supervise the cooking; or sit with the monks singing devotional songs. Sometimes, he would be seen imparting spiritual instructions to the visitors at other times engaged in serious study in his room or explaining to the members of the Math the intricate passages of the scriptures and unfolding to them his schemes for future work. He freed himself entirely from all formal duties by executing a Deed of Trust in favour of his brother disciples, transferring to them all the properties, including the Belur Math, so far held in his name.
Towards the end of 1901, two learned Buddhists came from Japan to invite him to attend the forthcoming Congress of Religions there. The Swami could not accept their invitation, but went with them to Bodh Gaya and from there to Varanasi. At Varanasi, he was delighted to see a few young men who, under the inspiration of his message, had started nursing the poor and the needy. Their work formed the nucleus of the future Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service.
The Swami knew his end was nearing. All his actions during the last days were deliberate and significant. He said that smaller plants cannot grow under the shade of a big tree. On 4th July 1902, he meditated from 8 to 11 in the morning, rather unusually. In the afternoon, he went out for a walk with Swami Premananda and explained his plan to start a Vedic school. In the evening, he retired to his room and spent an hour in meditation. Then he lay down quietly and after some time took two deep breaths and passed into eternal rest.
He had renounced his mortal body, but his words uttered in 1896 to Mr. Eric Hammond in London remained to reassure everyone of his immortality: ‘It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.’