Swami Vivekananda

He came to be known as Swami Vivekananda only when he became a sannyasi or monk. His parents called him Narendra. His father Vishwanatha Datta was a lawyer. Narendra was born on 12th January 1863 in Calcutta. As a child he was very lively and naughty. Even as a child Narendra had great respect for sannyasis or ascetics. He would give away anything to anybody if asked for. The spirit of sacrifice and renunciation was already blossoming in him.

Narendra excelled not only in sports; he was quick and alert in his studies as well. After a single reading he could remember any lesson. His memory was amazing. Concentration was the key to his success in studies. By 1880, Narendra passed his Matriculation and Entrance Examination. He joined a college. Day by day, his thirst for knowledge increased. He was particularly fascinated by the secrets of God's. creation. Apart from history and science, he was well read in Western philosophy. As he advanced in his studies, his thinking faculty developed. Doubts and uncertainties overtook him. He gave up blind beliefs but could not realize the Truth.

He placed his doubts before eminent scholars and sought their guidance. These scholars excelled in debate. But their logic did not convince Narendra. Their line of thinking was stale. It did not convince him, for none of them had direct experience of God.

Sri Ramakrishna was a priest in the temple of Goddess Kali. He was not a scholar. But he was a great devotee. It was being said of him that he had realized God. Scholars who went to him became his disciples. Once, Narendra went with his friends to Dakshineswar to see him. Sri Ramakrishna sat surrounded by his disciples; he was immersed in discussions about God. Narendra sat in a corner with his friends. All at once Sri Ramakrishna's eyes turned to him. Sri Ramakrishna's mind was in a turmoil. He was thrilled. Indistinct thoughts upset his mind. Memories of an earlier meeting seemed to stir in him. For some time he sat still as if in a trance. Narendra's attractive figure and shining eyes filled him with wonder. "Can you sing?" he asked Narendra. Narendra sang a couple of Bengali songs in a melodious voice. As he listened to the music, the Bhagavan went into a trance. After some time he took Narendra into a room. He patted Narendra on the back and said, "MY child, why are you so late? I have grown weary, waiting for you all these days. I wanted to share my experiences with the right person. You are not an ordinary man. You are Lord Vishnu in human form. Do you know how much I have been craving for you?" And he broke down.

Sri Ramakrishna's behaviour puzzled Narendra. He thought the elderly man was mad. "Will you come again? Promise me you will", pleaded Ramakrishna. Eager to escape from him, Narendra said, "Yes." After the Bhagavan finished his discourse Narendra asked him, "Have you seen God ?" "Of course I have. I have seen him just as I' m looking at you. I have even talked to him. I can show him to you. But who is yearning to see God?" replied Ramakrishna. Narendra said to himself, "Till today no one had told me he had seen God. This man looks mentally deranged; possibly he is even mad. However, it is not proper to judge without investigating."

A month passed. Narendra went alone to Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna was resting on a cot in his room. He was pleased to see Narendra; he made him sit on his cot. He went into a trance and put his leg on Narendra's lap. Narendra forgot the outer world. He felt that he was dissolving. He shouted, 'What's this you are doing to me? My parents are still alive. I should go back to them." Smilingly Sri Ramakrishna said, "Enough for today,' and drew back his lap. Narendra became normal once again. As days passed, each was attracted towards the other. Neither could bear to be parted from the other.

It did not take a long time for Sri Ramakrishna to realize the greatness of Narendra. Moreover, he was guided by the will of Goddess Kali. But young Narendra would not accept Ramakrishna as his guru without a test. Ramakrishna used to say that, in order to realize God, one should give up the desire for money and women.Narendra was Ramakrishna's favourite disciple. But he would not accept as gospel truth all that Narendra said. Narendra was highly critical of people who worshipped idols. He rejected the theory of "Advaita" (Monism). He had no faith in mystic experiences. Advaitic assertions such as "I am Brahman", "I am Shiva- did not impress Narendra. But Sri Ramakrishna would always bring him back to the right path.

Gradually Narendra turned towards renunciation, giving up all worldly desires. The parents came to know of this. He was then studying for his B. A. degree examination. In 1884, Narendra passed the B. A. degree examination. A friend of his hosted a party. As Narendra was singing at the party, the news of his father's death came like a bolt from the blue. Poverty hit the family immediately after the father's death. The money-lenders began to harass the family. Some of them even went to a court of law. Narendra wandered far and wide looking for a job. His clothes were tattered and torn; and it was difficult even to get one meal a day. Many a day he fasted so that -his mother and his brothers and sisters might have something to eat. He would tell them that he had eaten with a friend. Sometimes he would faint with hunger and fall down in the street. But in spite of such overwhelming misfortune he never lost faith in God. Sri Ramakrishna would console him saying "You are here to serve mankind and do mother Kali's work. You should be brave."

Later Narendra took up the profession of teaching. For some time he taught in the Vidyasagar School. Now the family had at least enough food. While he worked as a teacher he continued his study of law. His Guru' health broke down. Sri Ramakrishna developed a tumor in the throat. Narendra gave up both his job and his studies and devoted all his time to nursing his Master. Sri Ramakrishna's end was drawing near. On the last day he called Narendra to his bedside and touched him. He invested Narendra with all his spiritual powers. He said, "Naren, now you are all-powerful. All these are my children. It is your. duty to take care of them." These words filled Narendra's heart with grief. He went out of the room weeping like a child. After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna, the young disciples went to live in a rented house in Baranagar. Although old, the house was far away from the noise and bustle of the city; and it was on the banks of the river Ganga. It was very close to the tomb of Sri Ramakrishna. So, the Mutt (monastery) was opened there. The young monks had two goals salvation and the service of fellow-men. Some young men left their homes and became monks and joined the Mutt. Narendra became a monk and headed the institution. The young sannyasis were unmindful of lack of food and clothing. But even when they fasted they did not neglect their studies and meditation. Narendra taught his brethren Sanskrit and Philosophy. To visitors he expounded the teachings of the Master.

It was the great good fortune of India that Narendra took to sannyasa and became 'Vivekananda'. Bharat became his home and its inhabitants his brothers. The sacred task of wiping the tears of his unfortunate brothers was dear to his heart. He had to travel all over the country. His assets were - a saffron robe, 'Kamandalu' (an ascetic's waterpot) and 'danda' (staff). On his way he visited many holy places. He lodged at huts and choultries and slept on the bare ground. He was in the company of sadhus, spending the time in religious discussions and holy rituals. He traveled on foot or by any vehicle whose driver was hospitable. At Alwar, some Muslims became his disciples. During his travel, Swamiji could travel by train only if somebody bought him his ticket. Otherwise, he had to travel on foot. He had to starve most of the time for he had no money.

In Mysore, Swamiji got to know Diwan Seshadri Iyer and also the Maharaja of Mysore. The Swamiji's discourse in Sanskrit at a gathering of scholars deeply impressed the Maharaja. "India is the land of many religions and schools of philosophy. The Western world has progressed in science. Human welfare is possible only by a reconciliation of the two. Therefore, I want to go to America in order to propagate Vedanta," said Swamiji to the Maharaja. The Maharaja said, "Then I shall bear all the expenses of the visit." Swamiji thanked the Maharaja for his offer and promised him that he would make use of it when he needed it, and took leave of him.

Swamiji next visited Ramanad where Bhaskara Setupati was the ruler. The prince treated him with great respect. "You should attend the Conference of World Religions in America. I shall bear all your travel expenses," said the ruler. Assuring the prince that he would give serious thought to his suggestion, Swamiji went to Rameshwaram and from there he finally reached Kanyakumari. He swam to a rock and sat on it. Surrounded there by the sea, he reflected on the state of affairs in India. He concluded that his first task was to go to Western countries and expose the spiritual values of India. He would then return to awaken his own slumbering land. Contributions towards his travel expenses poured in from all parts of the country. But he kept with him only as much money as he needed for the journey. He returned the rest of the money to the donors. The ship set sail from the Bombay harbour on 31st May, 1893.

Swamiji reached the city of Chicago in the middle of July. On his way he touched at the ports of Colombo, Singapore, Honk Kong and Tokyo. He chose a hotel for his stay. He made inquiries about the opening of the Conference of World Religions. It was still three months away. Since Chicago was a big city and very expensive, Swamiji moved to the nearby city of Boston. On the way he met a lady. She decided that he was no ordinary man and begged Swamiji to be her guest. He agreed. Occasionally he addressed meetings at small clubs. The subject of his talk was Indian Culture and the Hindu Dharma. Gradually many scholars became his friends. One of them was John Henry Wright. He was professor of Greek at Harvard University. The delegates to the Conference of World Religions had to submit their letters of introduction to the organizers. But Swamiji had lost his letter of introduction. Wright himself wrote the letter of introduction, in which he called Swamiji "A scholar who surpasses all of us professors." Swamiji went back to Chicago. The conference started on 11th September, 1893. Thousands of delegates belonging to different countries of the world had gathered at the conference. Vivekananda was the youngest of them all. When it was his turn to speak, his heart was pounding. Besides, he did not have, like the other delegates, a prepared speech. He requested the President to let him be the last speaker. At his turn, he prayed fervently to Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Sharadadevi, and stood up to speak.

When he began his address in his pleasing voice with the words "Brothers and Sisters of America," there was a thunderous applause; it lasted for a full three minutes. When it subsided at last he continued his short speech. The delegates, every one of them, praised his speech. Newspapers carried his photographs and his speech. He became the darling of the crowds. Whenever he rose to speak there was deafening applause. Even as the conference was in session, many institutions and associations extended invitations to Swami Vivekananda. Within a short time he became world famous. Wherever he went, he dwelt at length on the greatness of Indian Culture. He spoke with spontaneous ease on every topic, be it History, Sociology, Philosophy or Literature. A strange attire, a radiant personality, a rare elegance, the skill to epitomize Hinduism superbly - with these gifts he has won the hearts of our people." He is mesmeric. He is unsurpassed in conversation. His mastery of English is exceptional. A man like him appears only once in an age. We are fortunate that we can see him and hear him," - thus the newspapers went into raptures.

Thanks to Swamiji's persistent efforts, India was elevated to an honoured position not only in America, but in the entire comity of progressive nations. Wherever Swamiji went, people flocked to listen to him and waited patiently. After the speech they would invite him to their houses and treat him as an honoured guest. He received pressing invitations from England and a rousing reception awaited him in London when he arrived there. The newspapers were all praise for the Hindu Yogi's oratory and outlook. Many became his disciples. Among them was Margaret Noble who later became famous as 'Sister Nivedita'. She came to India and settled here.

Swami Vivekananda returned to India after his foreign tour lasting four years. By the time he arrived in India, Swamiji's fame had spread far and wide. When he landed in Colombo on 15th January 1897, he was accorded a welcome that befitted an Emperor. When he reached Madras , he was carried in procession in a coach drawn by an admiring crowd. Innumerable addresses and garlands were presented to him. Thereafter, wherever Swamiji went, he disseminated the message of his master. To those who came to him for guidance he taught the importance of spiritual development. He started Sri Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 and formulated its ideology and goal. During the next two years he bought a site at Belur on the banks of the Ganga, constructed the buildings and established the Ramakrishna Mutt.

Swamiji's health was constantly eroded owing to tireless work. He visited America again at the invitation of his American disciples. He participated in the Conference of Religions in Paris and returned home. He became more inward-looking. The body grew weak, but the mind and the soul remained alert and active. On 4th July 1902 he performed his daily routine. He taught his disciples as usual. He rested for a while after food; after some time he had a shock. He spent a pleasant time talking to his followers and even cracking jokes. That night at nine o' clock he looked tired and his hands were trembling. He cried and sat up. He breathed a deep sigh and went to sleep. Within a short while he attained eternal bliss. His disciples and fellow-teachers felt orphaned and cried like children.