Swami Vivekananda endeavoured throughout his life to see God face to face, and for this end he received the blessing of his guru, Swami Ramkrishnaparamhans. Swami Vivekananda was a social reformist who devoted his life to the welfare of the downtrodden and impoverished. He triggered a new spiritual wave with his missionary devotion, leaving a legacy of spiritual fulfillment and social service. Swami Vivekananda’s birth was an exceptional event in India, particularly for the region of Bengal, a northeast region of India.
Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born to an aristocratic Bengali Kayasth family in Kolkata on January 12th, 1863. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was a very spiritual person herself. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics, and academics. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he was well versed in Western philosophy and history. He was heavily influenced by the western scientific outlook and was fascinated by Darwin’s theory of evolution. He actively refuted the genesis theories contained in the religious scriptures. He believed that the sciences would free religion from the hold of superstitions, dogmatism, priestcraft, and intolerance.
Swami Vivekananda practiced meditation as a child, thus was already inclined towards a life of spirituality and religious realization. In the years to come, two events took place which caused Vivekananda, still known as Narendra, considerable distress. One was the sudden death of his father in 1884. The death left his family penniless, and Narendra had to bear the burden of supporting his mother, brothers, and sisters. The second event was the illness of Narendra’s spiritual mentor, Sri Ramakrishna, who was diagnosed with throat cancer. In September of 1885, Sri Ramakrishna was moved to a house in Shyampukur, and a few months later, to a villa at Cossipore.
During a particularly defining moment of his youth, Narendra experienced a period of spiritual crisis, during which he questioned the existence of God. It was during this time that he first heard about Sri Ramakrishna from one of his English professors at Calcutta University. One day in November of 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He asked the Master a question which he had asked several others but had received no satisfactory answer: “Sir, have you seen God?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna replied: “Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a much intenser sense.” Apart from removing doubt from Narendra’s mind, Sri Ramakrishna won him over with his pure, unselfish, and mystical aura. He taught him Advaita Vedanta; that all religions are true and that service to man was the most effective worship of God. Thus began an extraordinary guru-disciple relationship that proved to be one of the most unique in the history of India’s spiritual masters.
After the passing away of his Guru, fifteen of Narendra’s young disciples began to live together in a dilapidated building at Baranagar in North Kolkata. Under the leadership of Narendra, they formed a new monastic brotherhood, and in 1887 they took the formal vows of sannyasa, thereby assuming new names. Thus, Narendra became Swami Vividishanand, and afterwards, Vivekananda. Vivekananda became a wandering monk, extensively touring the Indian Subcontinent and acquiring first-hand knowledge of conditions in India. He later travelled to the United States and represented India as a delegate in the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. He conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating tenets of Hindu Philosophy in America, England and Europe. He established the Vedanta Societies in America and England. In the United States, Vivekananda became India’s spiritual ambassador. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of Americans through the teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. In India, Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint of modern India and his birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day. The renowned Harvard philosopher of the 19th century, William James, called Vivekananda the “paragon of Vedantists.”
After establishing a new monastic order, Vivekanandaa heard the inner call for a greater mission in his life. While most of the followers of Sri Ramakrishna thought of him in relation to their own personal lives, Vivekananda thought of his responsibilities as a guru in relation to India and the rest of the world. During his travels all over India, Swami Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the appalling poverty and backwardness in Indian society. He was the first religious leader in India to understand and openly declare that the real cause of India’s downfall was the neglect of its people.
In 1893, Vivekananda was encouraged by his devotees to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions, set to be held in Chicago. He too felt that the event would provide a forum to present his Master’s message to the world. Another reason that prompted Vivekananda to consider attending the event was to seek financial assistance for his project of alleviating the extreme poverty in India. However, Vivekananda sat in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanyakumari to further contemplate the trip. With the funds partly collected by his Chennai disciples and partly provided by the Raja of Khetri, Swami Vivekananda left Mumbai for the United States on May 31st, 1893. The speeches he made at the World’s Parliament of Religions garnered him such titles as ‘orator by divine right’ and ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world’.
After the Parliament, Swamiji spent nearly three and a half years spreading Vedanta in the eastern parts of the United States and also in London. He returned to India in the January of 1897. By this time he had gained acclaim for his moving lectures that addressed both the condition of India and the unification of Hinduism.
Many people were influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s life and message, particularly due to his relentless efforts to build a bridge between Indian and Western cultures. He made Westerners realize that they had much to learn from Indian spirituality. In this way, he was instrumental in ending India’s cultural isolation from the rest of the world, and was rightly accorded India’s first great cultural ambassador to the West.
Some of the Westerners he came into contact with even became his devoted disciples or friends. Among them are Margaret Noble (later known as Sister Nivedita), Captain and Mrs Sevier, Josephine McLeod and Sara Ole Bull. Sister Nivedita in particular dedicated her life to educating girls in Kolkata. The rest of his Swami Vivekananda’s life was spent in India inspiring and guiding both monastic and lay people. As a result of his lifestyle of laborious travelling and lecturing, his health deteriorated, and the end came quietly on the night of July 4th, 1902. Before his Mahasamadhi he had written to a Western follower: “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 whole world shall know that it is one with God.” Truly, he was a global citizen.