(The information provided is based on various books and biographies on Swami Vivekananda and the writer makes no claim on the same.)
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Swami Vivekananda (January 12, 1863 – July 4, 1902) was a great Indian sage/ monk who enlightened the lives of people not only in India but also abroad through his victorious philosophies and teachings and continues to do so even more than 100 years after his demise. He played a great role in introducing and spreading the Indian cultural philosophies of Vedanta in India and the west. His earth-shattering address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago is the biggest highlight of his life.
He was born on January 12, 1863, as Narendra Nath Datta to father Vishwanath and mother Bhuvaneswari Devi in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. It is believed that Narendra was a result of ardent prayers and worships to Lord Shiva by Bhuvaneswari Devi. Narendra’s grandfather Durga Charan Datta renounced the world and became a monk at the age of 25 while his father practiced law. Treating all human beings as equal and helping the needy was something that Narendra inherited from his parents.
As a child, Narendra was so mischievous that his mother had to hire two nurses to handle him. But even that didn’t prove enough sometimes. Hence, he gave a tough time to all. However, amidst this naughtiness, Narendra’s intelligence was par excellent. This was a result for his constant hunger for knowledge. Intelligence-wise, he was not only superior to his counterparts but also his seniors.
A famous incident from his school life in Shri Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar School is worth mentioning. Narendra was busy chit chatting with a group of friends while the teacher was teaching. Naturally this offended the teacher. He asked everyone to repeat whatever he had taught in the lecture. None of the students were able to do so as they were busy listening to Narendra. However, Narendra was able to recall everything that was taught in the lecture. The teacher was left amazed as to how can anybody pay attention to everything in the lecture while intently talking with others. This was a great example of how Swamiji’s mind could do two different things at the same time. But there was more bewilderment in store when, after passing primary school, Narendra passed the three year course of secondary school in just one year and that too with distinction!
But Narendra’s greatness is not limited to his mind. His physical personality and his built equally matched his intelligence. He used to worship his body by engaging in regular physical exercises so as to develop a great physique. After becoming a monk, he was once quoted saying, “You will understand the Bhagwad Gita better with your biceps, your muscles a little stronger. You will understand the mighty genius and the mighty strength of Krishna better with a little strong blood in you.”
As a youth, Narendra developed faith and respect towards Indian religious traditions and beliefs but at the same time, since he was a rationalist, he questioned every belief for which he demanded convincing answers. As time passed, he got caught between the two aspects which always forced him to question the existence of God. During this disturbing period, he recalled his professor WIlliam Hastie telling about a divine saint Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa living at Dakshineshwar. Narendra visited him to get answers to his questions. That one visit changed his life forever!
Narendra asked Sri Ramakrishna, “Sir, have you seen God?” Sri Ramakrishna immediately answered, “Yes, I have seen Him just as I see you here, only more intensely.” Due to this answer and Ramakrishna’s philosophies about God being present in every human, Narendra finally got answers to his questions! Needless to say, Narendra became an ardent disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
In 1884, Narendra’s father passed away due to which his family got burdened with problems. At the suggestion of his mother, Narendra prayed to Mother Kali for wealth but he found himself praying for knowledge and devotion. During this confusion too, Sri Ramakrishna consoled and calmed him down.
Later on, Sri Ramakrishna fell ill. Hence, began Narendra’s final training under his Guru. Sri Ramakrishna brought his various disciples under Narendra’s leadership. During this time, Narendra expressed his wish of being absorbed in Nirvikalpa Samadhi (highest spiritual experience). This angered Sri Ramakrishna and he criticized Narendra for only thinking about his personal liberation. He wanted Narendra to serve humanity. Narendra understood what his master meant. Before his Mahasamadhi, Sri Ramakrishna transmitted his power to Narendra and told him that by the use of this power, he would be able to do great things and shall leave the earth only after he finishes his mission.
After the demise of Sri Ramakrishna, all his disciples gathered under the leadership of Narendra and formed Ramakrishna brotherhood. On the eve of Christmas in 1886 in Antpur, they all took the vow of Sanyasa i.e they became monks. After becoming monks, they felt like living a wandering life. Thus, Narendra started his long voyage to explore India. He concealed his identity by assuming various names as he wanted to mix into the population of India. He went to Varanasi, which is considered the holiest of places, and various other place in the country. At Hathras, he met Sarat Chandra Gupta. Immensely impressed by Swamiji, Sarat became his first disciple. He resigned from his railway job to become a Sanyasi and was renamed Swami Sadananda.
In 1890, Swami Vivekananda met Pavhari Baba of Gazipur and become his ardent follower. But now he was torn between his desire to become absorbed in the eternal silence of the absolute and the desire to fulfill his Master’s mission. But Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s vision helped him continue the mission.
During his long voyage throughout India, Swami Vivekananda was pained to see the misery of the masses. When he reached Khetri, the Maharaja of that place Ajit Singh became his fast friend and ardent disciple. At Poona he met Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who became his follow after initial hesitation. The Maharaja of Mysore assured him financial support to go to the West to seek help for India and to preach the eternal religion. Then he went to Trivandrum and Kanyakumari, which was the end of his journey. After visiting few more places around the country, he visited Maharaja of Khetri to celebrate the birth of the latter’s son. It was after the Maharaja’s suggestion that Swamiji assumed the name ‘Vivekananda’. Then Maharaja’s secretary helped Swamiji to leave for America on May 31, 1893 from Mumbai (then Bombay).
But after reaching Chicago, Swamiji realized that the Parliament of Religions will take place in September and one needs a letter of introduction to preside at the event. Fortunately for him, he met Miss Katherine Sunburn, who helped her get the letter from Professor John Henry Wright to the Chairman of Parliament of Religions. In the letter Wright mentioned, “Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”
Swamiji’s troubles, however, didn’t end here. After reaching Chicago, he lost the address of the committee that was providing hospitality to the delegates. Worse, he didn’t receive help since he was ‘colored’. Once again like a divine intervention, Mrs George W. Hale, a local, offered him help. Later, her house became Swamiji’s permanent address while in the U.S.
At the Parliament of Religions, Swamiji was extremely nervous as he hadn’t spoken in front of a huge crowd of seven thousand people. When his turn came, he bowed down to Goddess Saraswati and started his speech with, “Sisters and brothers of America.” This simple address ensured tremendous standing applause for two full minutes! While representing Hinduism, he spoke about unity and the need for a universal religion. It was only after his address at the Parliament of Religions, that the west was enlightened about India’s glory. From that day onwards, Swamiji’s daily schedule become hugely hectic due to the many invitations he started receiving to speak at various events. He also formed a group of American disciples and started taking classes.
After the U.S, he also visited England and other parts of Europe. During his stay in the west, he wrote Raja-Yoga and Jnana-Yoga, which are known as the most precious spiritual books. Among his various disciples, the prominent ones include Sister Nivedita, Mrs Sevier, E T Sturdy and J J Goodwin. He also got a chance to meet the great savant Max Muller, who became his instant believer, and the famous German orientalist Paul Deussen. After a historic tour to the west, Swamiji returned to India in December 1896.
Naturally, he got a heroic reception in his motherland in each and every city, town or village he visited. His spree of lectures and speeches now began in India. In May 1897, he and the disciples of Ramakrishna Paramhansa formed the Ramakrishna Mission. The main motto of the mission was to spread spirituality and strive to serve humanity without discriminating.
When Plague broke out in Kolkata (then Calcutta), Swamiji and the monks of the mission organized relief work. When the situation got under control, he, along with his Indian and western disciples, went on a pilgrimage to various parts of India. When he returned to Kolkata in October that year, he became weak as he was suffering from various ailments. Despite that, he continued doing his good work.
The following links are useful in knowing more about the life of Swami Vivekananda: –