Swami Vivekananda biography

Swami Vivekananda




Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

Narendranath Vishwanath Datta
12 January 1863
Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India
(now Kolkata, West Bengal, India)
Died4 July 1902 (aged 39)
Belur Math, Bengal Presidency,British India
(now in West Bengal, India)
Founder ofBelur Math, Ramakrishna Math andRamakrishna Mission
Literary worksRaja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga


Narendra Nath Dutta better known as Vivekananda was born on 12 January 1863, in a well-to-do family in Calcutta. His father, Biswanath Dutta, was an attorney at the Calcutta high court, earning quite a handsome amount. His mother, Bhubaneswari Devi, was a moderately educated lady.
Narendra was educated at the Metropolitan Institution founded by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (now named Vidyasagar College) from where he passed his matriculation in 1879. Later, he studied at the General Assembly Institution (now Scottish Church College, graduating from the Calcutta University in 1884. During his student days, apart from his brilliance in studies, he was very fond of physical exercise and sports. He had a beautiful voice and took lessons in music and used to sing devotional songs in his melodious voice which enthralled listeners. Narendra also studied widely both Indian and Western philosophy and literature and gradually acquired a deep knowledge of both which he used to great effect in his lectures and writings later in life. Narendra Dutta grew up to be a handsome man, with a personality that attracted attention, standing at five feet eight and half inches.
Naren’s father died in 1884. Though his father used to earn a considerable amount, he was a spendthrift and had lived beyond his means. After his death, his family was in dire straits. Narendra being the eldest son, had to been the responsibility meeting the needs of the family. During this period of turmoil, Narendra had tasted poverty and misery which made him identify himself with the miserables and the downtrodden throughout his life. He tried to find a suitable job but did not succeed. However, he took an apprenticeship in an attorney’s firm and also joined a law course which he soon gave up. 1n 1885, he also served as a teacher in Metropolitan Institution for a brief period.
In spite of his robust physique and love for sports and physical exercise, Narendra Nath was a contemplative type. The study of Western philosophy and literature had instilled in him a profoundly questioning attitude towards God and to the nature of this world. He had joined Sadharan Brahmo Samaj where he met eminent personalities like Debendranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen, Sivnath Sastri and other leading lights of Calcutta but even they could not satisfy his inquisitive mind. His Search for an enlightened guru ended when he met Ramakrishna Parmahansa at the Kali temple 0f Dakshineshwar late in 1881. After initial skepticism, Narendra gradually surrendered to the master and sought his guidance. Ramakrishna had already attracted around him a band of young men who were ready to do his bidding for any cause as ordained by the great master. Unfortunately, Ramakrishna died of cancer in 1886. By that time, Narendra Nath had become his favourite disciple in whom the guru saw tremendous potential to execute the plans which he had in mind. Before his death, Ramakrishna transferred his mantle to Narendra Nath, which did not come as a surprise to anyone. All the young disciples then formed themselves into a team under the leadership of Narendra Nath to launch what is popularly known as the Ramakrishna Order. They set up a math (monastery) in 1887 in a rented garden-house at Baranagore, a few miles from Calcutta, to carry on their spiritual sadhana (quest). But their mission had to be more than just meditation. It was to spread the message of Ramakrishna to the wider public but the details were not clear to Naren or to his colleagues. To know the people whom the disciples of Ramakrishna had to serve, Narendranath set out on a wandering mission, incognito, in 1888. The mission took him to various parts of the country from the southern tip to the Himalayas. He conferred with holy men, visited sacred shrines, studied Sanskrit and the scriptures at some places, practiced incredible austerities and underwent the severest possible ordeals. Between 1888 and the early months of`1893, Naren traversed the country thrice and came in contact with all sorts of men, rajas and maharajas, the householders and the pariahs (Untouchables). Reaching Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the mainland, he swam to a rock at some distance from the mainland and meditated there, looking up to the country remembering her past glory and present degradation. While contemplating on this rock he got the enlightenment that gave him the vision about his future mission in life. This rock is now known as the Vivekananda Rock on which a beautiful memorial has beenbuilt. The mission was now clear to him. He remembered the words ofRamakrishna, ‘Religion is not for empty bellies’. The first duty of religion is to care for the poor, the hungry and raise them from their misery.
During his travels he had met maharajas of Khetri and Alwar (both in Rajasthan) and of Mysore and Ramnad in the south, who became Naren’s followers. At the end of October 1892, he had made up his mind to go to the West. He learnt that a Parliament of Religions was to be held during the following year in Chicago. He thought that it would be a great opportunity to give the message of Vedanta to the august gathering and seek help ‘to ameliorate the material condition of India’. When he told about it to the Maharajas of Mysore, Ramnad arid later to the Raja of Khetri, they enthusiastically helped him and arranged for his passage to America. The Raja of Khetri, Ajit Singh, suggested the name Vivekananda which ‘he was about to impose upon the world’. At Khetri, Naren, now Vivekananda changed his dress to a robe of red silk and an ochre turban. Vivekananda sailed from Bombay on 31 May 1893 via Southeast Asia reaching Chicago in July. But he carried no official credentials without which he would not to be permitted into the Parliament of Religions. But with the help of Professor J.H. Wright of Harvard University and some kindly Americans who saw in Vivekananda qualities of a genius, Vivekananda succeeded in participating in the Parliament of Religions, the delegates of which represented all the religions of the world, from East and West.
The first session started on 11 September. Vivekananda spoke almost at the end. But his brief speech was ‘like a tongue of “Among the grey wastes of cold dissertation it the souls of the listeing throngs. Hardly had he pronounced the very simple opening Words ‘Sisters and brothers of America’ that hundreds arose in their seats and applauded”. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of the most ancient monastic order in the world _ the Vedic order of Sanyasin’s. Vivekananda became the most sought after speaker at the Parliament of Religions. During the following few days he spoke at least ten times including at the closing session on 27 September. He was lauded by the American press. The New York Herald reported: “He 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”.
However, it was not friendly exchange of views all the time. A point was reached when sharp acerbate developed. The thin veil of courtesy was maintained, but behind it was ill feeling, especially among Christian missionaries. Rev. Joseph Cook criticized the Hindus sharply. He said that to speak of a universe that was not created is almost unpardonable nonsense and received the retort that a universe which had a beginning is a self-evident absurdity. But notwithstanding such skirmishes with Christian missionaries, Vivekananda was elated by the response which he received in America and decided to stay on; spreading the message of Vedanta and at the same time collecting money for his future plans. He stayed on for more than three years in America, lecturing and discoursing at various places from the east coast to the west coast. At New York, Vivekananda founded the Vedanta Society in 1894 (which is still functioning) and published his first philosophical treatise, Raja Yoga, in 1896 (Three other treatises: Karma Yoga Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga were published later; all were based on his lectures). From America, Vivekananda visited England, twice, in 1895 and again in 18961 where he met great Orientalist including Max Muller and Paul Deussen. He felt the seriousness of his English heaters in contrast to the ‘superficial infatuation’ of the American public- And it was England which gave Vivekananda some devoted disciples: Mr. and Mrs. Sevier (who built the Advaita Ashram in Mayavati, near Almora); a young man J.J. Goodwin who was a journalist and knew short-hand and noted down every word uttered by the Swami from January, 1896 to june, 1898 when he (Goodwin) died in Ottacamund, Henrietta Mulelr (who bought a plot of land with her money for the Belur Math in 1898). There were others like Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita) who took ‘diksha’ (initiation) from the Swami and devoted her life for the welfare of Indian­ women; Ole Bull, and Josephine Macleod, who remained friends and helpers of the Swami but were not initiated like Margaret Noble.
Though Vivekananda could not find disciples like Saviors, Margaret Noble and Goodwin in America, he was very impressed by the people and their way of life. He admired their economic policy, industrial organization, public instruction, their museums and art galleries, the progress in science, hygienic institutions and social welfare work. Above all, he was fascinated by the American women. In a letter to a ‘brother disciple’ Ramakrishnananda, Vivekananda wrote from America: “Nowhere in the world are Women like those in this country. How pure, independent, self-relying and kind-hearted! It is the women who are the life and soul of this country. All learning and culture are centered in them”. Then he laments that in our own country we call women ‘despicable worms’ and ‘gateways to hell’. We are horrible sinners and our degradation is clue to the way we treat our women and the poor and downtrodden who now form a majority. We have debased our sublimating religion by converting it into shameful and Worthless rituals?
Vivekananda voyaged back to India via Europe accompanied by the Saviors and Goodwin, reaching Colombo on 15 January 1897 and proceeding through Rameswar, Ramnad and Madras to reach Calcutta on 20 February 1897. He was accorded a rousing reception wherever he went. On 1 May -1897 he founded Ramakrishna Mission and the math at Belur, a few miles from Calcutta, with the objective of preaching the teachings of the Master (Ramakrishna) and to start work for the material and spiritual welfare of the people. This is by far the most enduring legacy left by Vivekananda for mankind and according to Christopher Isherwood ‘the most significant religious movement of our times’. The movement has a dual character _ contemplative math and the mission for social work. The latter undertakes medical service, educational work and relief Work during natural disasters. It has over 120 branches spread over eighteen countries besides India. Hundreds of ‘monks in orange robes devote their lives for the good of the poor and needy. Initially the funds came from voluntary charities but now the mission accepts.
Vivekananda left India for the second time on 20june 1899 and reached New York via London to consolidate his work done earlier. Apart from giving lectures and discourses, he set up Vedanta centers at San Francisco and sowed the seeds of more centers in the West Coast. From the WestCoast, Vivekananda reached New York and from there sailed for Europe on 26 July 1900. He had been invited to attend the Congress of the History of Religions to be held at Paris. There the Swami spoke about the distortion of Indian history. What he said in Paris in 1900 is still relevant today because the controversy about the origin of Aryans in this country goes on unabated. Vivekananda said, "What your European pundits say about the Aryans swooping down from some foreign land, snatching away the lands of the aborigines and settling in India by exterminating them, is all pure nonsense, foolish talk. Strange that our Indian scholars too say them amen; and all those monstrous lies are being taught to our boys. In what Veda, in what Sukta do you find that the Aryans came into India from a foreign country? Where you get the idea that they slaughtered the wild aborigines?” He continued, “Wherever the Europeans find an opportunity, they exterminate the aborigines and settle down in ease and comfort on their lands; and therefore they think the Aryans must have done the same”.
Vivekananda returned to India via Cairo reaching Belur Math on 9 December 1900. He paid a hurried visit to Mayavati, the ashram founded by the Saviors near Almora. Back at the Belur Math, the Swami was busy organizing the work of the mission and the math trying to put the two institutions on a sound footing. But his health was causing anxiety and he had the premonition that his end was near. In spite of his athletic physique, Vivekananda suffered from several diseases. From his early days he had diabetes and later in life he suffered from acute asthma. He also had several bouts of malaria which had weakened him. Add to these werethe deprivations he inflicted on himself during the years he travelled in India. Overwork also affected his health. He died on 4july at Belur Mark. He was only thirty-nine when he died.
Vivekananda started 0r helped to start a few journals: Brahmavadin (1895), English monthly (now titled Vedanta Kesari) from Madras; Prabuddha Bharata, English monthly started initially from Madras but later shifted to Mayavati (Almora) and Udbodhan (1899), Bengali monthly from Calcutta. Some of the writings of Vivekananda in Bengali were first published in Udbodhan.
Vivekananda has left a legacy which is still alive. What he thought and preached is still relevant today. He believed that the misery of Indian people is because they have debased their own soul inspiring religion, Vedanta, and have opted for meaningless and dehumanizing rituals. “He made a trumpet call to all Indians to shed fear of all kinds and stand forth as men by imbibing Shakti (strength), reminding them that they were the particles of the Divine according to the eternal truth preached by the Vedanta”. Vivekananda believed that non-violence was the cult of theweak and the impotent. He quotes the scriptures, “Thou are the householder, if any one smites thy cheek, and thou does not return him, and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, thou wilt verily be a sinner. Heroes only enjoy the world”. He often quoted the Gita, ‘Our Lord in the Gita is saying. ‘Always work with great enthusiasm, destroy your enemies and enjoy the world”. Of Christians he said, “The Europeans never took the words of Jesus Christ seriously. Always of active habits, being possessed of a tremendous Rajasika nature, they are gathering with great enterprise and youthful ardor the comforts and luxuries of different countries of the world and enjoying them to their heart’s content. And we are sitting in a corner, with our bag and baggage pondering on death day and night.”
We find that he did not preach religion in the conventional sense. He believed that what people in India need is not religion but service to their fellow beings. The true service of God was therefore the service of the people. This aspect of his preaching is being put into practice by the Ramakrishna Mission. However, again and again he exhorted the people to be strong and shed cowardice. “The older I grow”, he said, “the more everything seems to me to lie in manliness; this is my new gospel. The vilest of crimes is not to act.”
Vivekananda never participated in political movements but his preachings infused new hopes and inspiration to the masses. Thus he ‘gave a spiritual basis to Indian nationalism’. As his biographer, the French savant Romain Rolland puts it: “The master’s rough scourge made her (India) turn for the first time in her sleep and for the first time the heroic trumpet sounded in the midst of her dream the Forward March of India, conscious of her God. She never forgot it. From that day the awakeningof the torpid Colossus began”.

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