Swami Vivekananda is one of the most renowned figures in the world of Indian saints and reformers. His motivational words are widely circulated across social media to stir and inspire. He is presented as an inspiration to young people struggling with the responsibilities of their lives. However, in discussions on a deeper level, we realise that not many know much about him. What was his life’s work? How did he become the magnetic personality we all know him to be? What was his message to the youth of India and the world? Why is his birthday celebrated as national youth day?
Born as Narendranath Dutta into an aristocratic Bengali household on January 12, 1863, Swami Vivekananda displayed signs of greatness from an early age. In his childhood, he was mischievous and playful, but also had a serious side to him. He delved into the powers of meditation and restraint from an early age and was deeply fascinated by wandering monks.
As he grew up, he developed a profound interest in philosophy, evolutionism, Sanskrit and Bengali literature. He displayed extraordinary academic prowess, with a masterful memory and a sharp, analytical mind.
A young, angst-filled Narendranath was influenced by the firebrand, revolutionary ideas of the Brahmo Samaj, rejecting the caste system, idol worship, and even the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which he regarded as ‘madness and blasphemy’ at the time. He embraced the monotheistic thought of the Brahmo Samaj.
The life of the young Naren saw two major turning points- his relationship with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the death of his father.
Naren began visiting Sri Ramakrishna while still a teenager in around 1881, though he did not agree with his philosophy. Attracted to Sri Ramakrishna’s magnetic personality, he attempted to challenge his ideas and debate with him.
After about two years in 1884, his father passed away, shaking the world and ideas of the young Naren, who had not been exposed to poverty and hardships at all. This led him to question the existence of God, but he kept visiting Ramakrishna. After his father’s death, he grew closer to him, and gradually accepted his ideas and became ready to renounce the world. In 1886, as Ramakrishna lay on his deathbed due to throat cancer, he passed on the ochre robes of Brahmacharya to a few of his disciples, including Naren. Later the same year, Narendranath officially donned the robes and became a Brahmachari taking a new name- Swami Vivekananda.
After a brief stint in a monastery, Swami Vivekananda set off to live as a wandering monk in 1888. He aimed to explore the entirety of the length and breadth of India, witnessing everything in the country from the darkest to its brightest moments and ideas. He became grounded as he witnessed and stayed with people from all religions, financial statuses and walks of life. He developed a strong resolve to uplift the nation.
To the West
In 1893, he started off to the West to spread the word about the great ideas of India’s ancient civilisation. He travelled through several countries including China, Japan and Canada en route to America. He wished to speak at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, and struggled to secure a slot to speak as well as to physically travel there. However, as he made his brief speech on the eleventh of September, 1893, in the parliament of Religions, he became astoundingly famous in America for his oratorical skills and wisdom.
Thereafter, he became a sensation in the West. Many Newspapers covered the mysterious ‘Orange Swami’ from India, and he was visited by aristocrats, public figures and ordinary people alike. He spent the next few years touring the US and the UK, giving free lectures on Vedanta. He attracted several prominent followers during his time in the West, from Nikola Tesla to the Countess of Sandwich, and became wildly popular. During this time, he established several Vedanta societies in the US as well as a peace retreat or Shanti Ashram amidst the mountains in San Jose, California. He had successfully introduced Hinduism to the West.
Return to India
In 1897, he returned to the East after four years as his ship docked in Colombo. He gave his first public speech in the East here and his welcome to India, thereafter, was triumphant. He gave multiple public addresses en route to Calcutta in Rameshwaram, Kumbakonam, Chennai, Madurai and many other cities. He attracted such great audiences that trains were stopped by people sitting on the tracks just so they could listen to him speak. Rajas and Aristocrats from across the country visited him. He spoke of eliminating poverty and caste discrimination, national unity and strength of character while he was in India, because he believed these were important for the Indian audience.
When he reached Calcutta, he founded the Ramakrishna mission and started journals to inspire the youth of the country- Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbodhan in Bengali. He continued to travel up to the Himalayas in Almora, where he set up the Advaita Ashrama, a monastery. Thereafter, he mobilised social workers, trained disciples and even mediated disputes between communities while travelling the country. He was even asked to head the Research Institute of India(Now, the prestigious Indian Institute of Science), but he declined.
In 1899, he set off for another visit to the west and visited Europe and the middle east. After returning, he settled in Calcutta, administering the Ramakrishna Math’s activities across the world. His health was seeing a severe decline at this point, with severe chronic Asthma, diabetes and insomnia. On 4 July 1902, while he was meditating at night, he finally attained Samadhi. He was cremated on the banks of the Ganga.
Philosophy and teachings
Swami Vivekananda believed in Advaita Vedanta, and believed that Adi Shankara’s interpretation of Hinduism was the best representation of the religion. However, he believed in a slightly different version of Vedanta, which reconciled both the Dvaita and Advaita schools- simultaneously accommodating for the transcendental and immanent nature of God according to the two schools. This came to be known in a few circles as Neo-Vedanta. He was also influenced by western universalism and interested in esotericism. He summed up his understanding of Vedanta as the following-
Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
Throughout his life, he inspired young people to be dynamic and work for the welfare of the country, getting many of them involved in social welfare activities and the study of Vedanta. He believed in the revolutionary spirit of young people to resolve problems that were, and still are, plaguing our country and made an effort to reach out to them in monthly magazines, journals and speeches.
Swami Vivekananda was one of India’s greatest thinkers in the recent past. He popularised Vedanta in the West as well as amongst the youth of India and inspired them to think nobly for the good of the country. He also encouraged the people of our country to think progressively- persuading everyone to reject the caste system, develop scientific rigour, adopt industrialisation and dynamically fight colonial rule. The organisations he founded continue to spread his ideas, changing the lives of many even today.