Swami Vivekananda is one of the beacons that showed the light of the rich culture and heritage of the Sanatana Dharma to other parts of the world.
July 4th happens to be the Mahasamadhi day of Swami Vivekananda. Let us reminisce this great soul on this day.
Bhuvaneswari Devi, a pious lady and the wife of Viswanath Datta, an attorney of Calcutta High Court, prayed and performed religious austerities to Lord Siva for a son.
The Dattas belonged to aristocratic Kayastha family. A son was born to them on January 12, 1863, on the eve of Makara Sankaranthi. The child was named Narendranath. Narendranath was a very active and mischievous. It is said that the mother remarked, “I prayed to Lord Siva to be born as my son but He has sent me one of His bhoota ganas!”
His father’s rational view and his mother’s religious mentality greatly influenced Narendra’s thinking. From his childhood he was spiritually inclined and he has said, “I am indebted to my mother for the efflorescence of my knowledge.” He showed much interest in the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, the Gita and other Holy Texts. It is said that even from his childhood he would see a light while falling asleep.
Narendra knew no fear; he was extremely compassionate. Once, during a display of physical exercises, an iron bar accidentally fell on a sailor, one of the spectators. While people ran away to avoid meeting the police, Narendra, with the help of his friends, offered fist aid to the sailor and later took him to a doctor. He also helped the sailor monetarily. There is yet another incident whence Narendra pulled a friend of his from under a wheel of a coach.
He studied in the institution of Ishwara Chandra Vidyasagar and was a bright student. He first studied in Presidency College, Calcutta and later shifted to Scottish Church College, Calcutta. He studied, Logic, Western philosophy and History of Europe. In 1884 he passed Bachelor of Arts. All his professors held high opinion of this extremely bright student. He had a remarkable memory. Young Narendra had a melodious voice and was well versed in classical music, both vocal and instrumental. He took keen interest in physical exercise and sports; and, in organizational activities.
As a young man he was greatly influenced by Keshab Chandra Sen and his organization the Brahmo Samaj. Brahmo Samaj believed in the formless aspect of God and condemned idol worship. They were committed to Social reforms. Narendra did not support blind belief and always desired first hand information. Swami Vivekananda had read most of the western authors and met many great leaders and eminent scholars. But none could satiate his questioning mind about the existence of God. The scholars who excelled in debates had no direct experience of God. Therefore, their explanations did not satisfy Narendra.
Providence led Narendra to Sri Ramakrishna, the simple illiterate priest in the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple. Sri Ramakrishna had practised not only the various paths in Sanatana Dharma but also the spiritual paths of all other religions and declared that all paths led to the same goal – realization of the Self. In all ways Sri Ramakrishna was different from the aristocratic and highly educated Narendra. But it was this simple, illiterate Kali Temple priest who drew Vivekananda to himself as would a magnet a piece of iron. To the question about the existence of God, Sri Ramakrishna replied that God did exist and that he could see him as vividly as he saw Narendra. Narendra was deeply attracted by Sri Ramakrishna though he could not accept his ideas, initially. He mistook the spiritual trances experienced by Sri Ramakrishna as mere figments of the mind.
As a member of Brahmo Samaj he could not accept Sri Ramakrishna’s worship of Kali.
But gradually, Sri Ramakrishna transformed the impatient young man into one who renounced everything for the sake of realizing the Truth. Narendra who had nurtured deep affection for Sri Ramakrishna, whole heartedly accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his Guru.
After the death of his father, Narendra realized the state of his family. His father had not saved much and relatives tried to usurp even their house. Pushed to sudden poverty, Narendra rushed to Sri Ramakrishna for help. He asked his Master to talk to Kali and remove their poverty. Sri Ramakrishna asked him to speak to Kali.
But Narendra said, “Kali speaks to you and not to me. So, please ask her to help my family.”
Sri Ramakrishna asked him to visit the Temple at midnight and assured that he would pray to Mother Kali to give him an audience. Narendra was a fearless youth and so he walked into the Temple majestically at midnight, to speak to Kali. Kali appeared before him. The moment he saw the Mother, with folded palms he prayed to her for pure life filled with Jnana, Bhakti and vairagya! He returned to Sri Ramakrishna.
Sri Ramkrishna asked him, “Did you have darshan of the Mother? Did you ask her to remove your poverty?”
Narendra said, “No. The moment I saw her I forgot about it and asked her for a pure life of Jnana, Bhakti and vairagya.”
Sri Ramakrishna smiled and ordered him to go again to the Temple. Narendra went to the Temple and the same thing happened. He was once again sent and this time again it was same prayer. Narendra then explained to the Master, “This time I did not forget my need. But I felt shameful to ask her to remove my poverty because it seemed too trivial. When a man goes to the king would it not be insulting to the king if he were to demand some trivial gift instead of seeking the costly gems?”
In 1885 Sri Ramakrishna suffered from throat cancer and the disciples shifted him to Calcutta for medical treatment. He was later taken to Cossipore. Narendra and his Guru bhais (brother disciples) took complete care of their Master. Every moment of his life, Sri Ramakrishna trained Narendra and the other chosen disciples. Narendra and the other chosen disciples were given monastic robes by Sri Ramakrishna, himself. This formed the first monastic order of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna appointed Narendra as the leader of this group. He asked him to take the brother disciples under his wings, after him. On his death bed, Sri Ramakrishna to the mental questioning of Narendra who still doubted his Master’s claim of being the Lord’s Avatar, said, “He who was Rama and He who was Krishna, is now Ramakrishna in this body.”
Sri Ramakrishma passed away on 16th August 1886. The monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, under the leadership of Narendra , were like the rudderless ship.
With none to extend financial support, they spent their days without shelter and food. Through the grace of their Master, a householder devotee offered to pay the rent for a house and they moved to a dilapidated, ghost infested house at Baranagore. The disciples took monastic vows and initially Narendra took the name of Swami Vividishananda. Later, he assumed the name Vivekananda which was suggested by the Raja of Khetri.
For five years, the Swami travelled the length and breadth of the country meeting people of all religions and people from all walks of life. At Varansai, he met Trailanga Swami, a famous Saint. During his wanderings he also met Pavhari Baba, a famous Sadhu. While in South, the Swami meditated on the rock on the sea in the southern tip of the country. This has come to be known as Vivekananda Rock Memorial. In the South, the Raja of Ramnad became his disciple and he urged the Swami to participate in the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. In Madras he met some of his close disciples, viz. Alasinga Perumal, Narasimhachari who played a significant role in the collection of funds for the Swami’s visit to the United States and also in founding the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras.
Swami Vivekananda left for Chicago in May 1893 and reached Chicago in July 1893. The Parliament of Religions had been scheduled to open on 11th September 1893. On reaching Chicago the Swami, to his utter disappointment, learnt that credential from a bona fide organization was needed for participation. However, the Swami met Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University who gave him the much needed credential. Professor Wright wrote that to ask for the credentials of the Swami was like asking the Sun to state its right to shine in the heavens.
Swami Vivekananda represented India and Hinduism. His now famous address, “Sisters and brothers of America” received standing ovation of the huge crowd. He quoted the words of the Gita which says that all paths lead to the same goal just as the different streams from different sources mingle with the sea. His unique address and the short but wonderful speech created a sensation. His speech attracted extensive attention of the press.The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.” The president of the Parliament, Dr. Barrows, said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” He spoke several times at the Parliament and his theme was ‘Universality and stressed religious tolerance’. The Parliament of Religions ended on 27th September 1893.
After the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda stayed in the United States for nearly two years, lecturing in various places. He conducted private Vedanta and yoga classes. He also conducted private lectures to his disciples. Swami Vivekananda then founded ‘Vedanta Society of New York’. The Swami also visited England. It was here that he met his famous disciple Sister Nivedita. He also met Max muller. Several sincere seekers became his disciples. The most notable amongst these were Josephine MacLeod, Miss Noble, E.T. Sturdy, Captain and Mrs. Sevier who helped in the founding of Advaita Ashrama. J. J. Goodwin became his stenographer and recorded the Swami’s teachings and lectures. He also served the Swami personally. Swami Vivekananda’s ideas were welcomed by several Scholars.
Amidst his busy schedule, Swami Vivekananda wrote inspiring letters to his brother disciples in India. Sister Nivedita was one of those who accompanied Swami Vivekananda in his return trip to India and she devoted the rest of her life to the people of India, particularly education of women. The Swami received a grand welcome back home.
Swami Vivekananda founded the ‘Ramakrishna Math’ on 1st May 1897 at Calcutta for propagating religion. He also founded the ‘Ramakrishna Mission’ for the cause of social service. Belur became the Math and Mission headquarters. Advaita Ashrama was founded at Mayavati on the Himalayas. Two journals, Prabuddha Bharata and Udbodhan (English and Bengali, respy.) were started.
During his second visit to the West in 1899 he founded the Vedanta Society at San Francisco and Shanti Ashram was founded at California. He returned to India in December 1900. The Swami spent his days guiding their various Ashramas outside and in India. His hectic tour abroad had taken its toll on his health. He already suffered from Asthma. He was now diabetic, too. He consulted the almanac to select the day of leaving his mortal coil. He also chose the place of burial. Swami Vivekananda attained Mahasamadhi on July 4, 1902.
His lectures delivered around the world and his correspondences have all been compiled into books. Swami Vivekananda’s ideas have greatly influenced the youth of India.