The valiant monk who proclaimed in America the greatness of Hinduism and of Indian culture at a time when the West regarded India as a land of barbarians. He dedicated his life to the country and yearned for the progress of the poor, the helpless and the downtrodden. He was the great thinker and mighty man of action whose ringing words galvanized the slumbering Indians. For ages to come he will be a source of inspiration. Some examples are here:
“Brothers and sisters, the long night is at last drawing to a close. Miseries and sorrows are disappearing. Ours is a sacred country. She is gradually waking up, thanks to the fresh breeze all around. Her might no one can overcome.”
“Are you prepared for all sacrifices for the sake of our motherland? If you are, then you can rid the land of poverty and ignorance. Do you know that millions of our countrymen are starving and miserable? Do you feel for them? Do you so much as shed a tear for them?”
“Have you the courage to face any hurdles, however formidable? Have you the determination to pursue your goal, even if those near and dear to you oppose you? You can be free men only if you have confidence in yourselves. You should develop a strong physique. You should shape your mind through study and mediation. Only then will victory be yours.”
“I loved my motherland dearly before I went to America and England. After my return, every particle of the dust of this land seems sacred to me.”
Real name Narendra Nath Dutta. His father was Vishwantha Datta and mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi. Narendra was born on 12th January 1863 in Calcutta. As a child he was very lively and naughty. When Narendra stepped into boyhood, his naughtiness grew. Once a landlord threatened the children saying, “There is a demon in the tree and he swallows children.” Narendra was not impressed by this threat. He settled down on a branch. The other boys took to their heels. Narendra waited for several hours, but the demon did not appear. So, he declared that the landlord’s story was a spoof.
Narendra’s father was a lawyer. So every day his house used to be crowded with his clients belonging to different castes. The clients had breakfast and lunch there. It was the custom to provide the guests with hukkas (long pipes) for smoke after food. There was a different pipe for clients of each caste. Narendra wondered what would happen if he smoked the pipe meant for people of a different caste. Finally he experimented and nothing strange happened. He concluded that caste had no meaning.
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. By 1880, Narendra passed his Matriculation and Entrance Examination. He joined a college. Day by day, his thirst for knowledge increased. He would borrow books from the library which are not related to the prescribed courses and read them to satisfy his thirst. 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 a 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. 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. He patted Narendra on the back and said, “My child, why are you so late? I have grown weary, waiting for all these days. I wanted to share my experiences with the right person.” And he broke down. Sri Ramakrishna’s behavior 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, but , 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; 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. One day Narendra hid a rupee under his pillow. Sri RamaKrishna, who had gone out, came into the room and stretched himself on the cot. At once he jumped up as if bitten by a scorpion. When he shook the mattress, the rupee coin fell down. Later he came to know that it was the doing of Narendra.
Narendra was Ramakrishna’s favorite 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 by saying, “There are many roads to reach a destination. No one has the right to say that the path the other man takes is not the right one. It is improper to pass judgement on anything that one does not understand.” One day Sri Ramakrishna took Narendra to a secluded place. He said, “I have attained some powers after a long period of meditation. They will give whatever a man wants. I have given up all desire, and so I have no use for these powers. Shall I bestow these powers on you?” “But will they help me to realize the self?” – asked Narendra. “No,” said Sri Ramakrishna. “Then I do not want them. More than anything, I want to realize God.” Narendra’s reply filled Ramakrishna with joy. The Master had tested Narendra, and Narendra had passed the test. Gradually Narendra turned towards renunciation, giving up all worldly desires. The parents came to know of this. He was then studying for his BA degree examination. In 1884, Narendra passed the BA 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 moneylenders 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.” One day he said to himself: “God gives whatever my Guru seeks. So it is best to seek my Guru’s help.” He went straight to his Guru and said, “On my behalf kindly pray before the Goddess to rid me of this poverty. She will give you whatever you wish for, won’t she?” The Guru said, “My child, you have no faith in Her, why then will she listen to my prayer? You approach Her yourself. Then she will fulfil you need.” So in the dead of night Narendra stood before the idol of Goddess Kali. He lost himself in deep meditation. He begged the Goddess, “O Mother, bestow on me the spirit of renunciation. Let me see you, that is all I beg of you.” When he came out, the Guru asked, “Did you submit your prayer to Her? And what did She say?” Narendra said in dismay, “O! Forgot about it completely.” “Then go back and ask Her,” said the Guru. Again he forgot to speak about his poverty in his prayer to the Goddess. Again the Guru sent him. Back came Narendra and the same thing happened. The Guru’s joy knew no bounds. “My child, you should not crave for only food and clothes. They are not the ultimate goals of man. Have faith in God. He will look after the welfare of your family,” said the Guru.
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’s health broke down. Sri Rama krishna developed a tumor in the throat. Narendra gave up both his job and his studies and devoted all his time to nursing his Master. Once, while Narendra was in meditation he shouted, “Where is my body?” Others had to touch his body and convince him of its existence. When Sri Ramakrishna heard this episode, he was happy that at last his desire to find a worthy disciple had been fulfilled.
The disciples nursed the Guru to the best of their ability. But the thought that the Guru would not recover from the illness agonized them. His 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 Rama Krishna, 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. As a sannyasi, one cannot be tied to a particular place. Even the Mutt is a kind of a prison. Attachment to a particular place is also wrong.
It was the great good fortune of India that Narendra took to sannyasa and became ‘ Vivekananda’. India 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 satisfied his hunger by begging for food. 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. Varanasi was the first city that Vivekanda visited. During his stay there, he met many scholars and exchanged ideas with them. In philosophical disputations he triumphed over them. In Ayodhya, his imagination pulsated with the memory of Sri Rama and Sita. In Agra the Taj Mahal filled him with wonder. On his way to Brindavan, he smoked a hukka borrowed from a passer-by that was a fisherman; he drank water in a pariah’s house; begged for alms and accepted food from a cobbler. As he stepped into Brindavan (where Lord Krishna is believed to have lived); he was in ecstasy.
At Alwar, some Muslims became his disciples. While Swamiji used to eat in their houses, he became acquainted with Maharaja Mangal Singh. Initially the Prince had no faith in the Swami. There was a heated debate between the two. “Swamiji, I have no faith in idol worship,” said the Maharaja. The Swamiji replied, “An idol is only a symbol. It is not something to sneer at. Every devotee has his own way of realizing God. It depends on the individual’s devotion.” The Prince was not satisfied with Swamiji’s explanation. There was a portrait of the Maharaja on the wall. The Swamiji asked the Diwan (chief minister) by his side, “Whose picture is that?” “The Maharaja’s,” replied the Diwan. Vivekananda said, “Spit on it.” The Diwan was taken aback. “Why are you unhappy?” asked the Swamiji. The Diwan thought this man was certainly mad. Swamiji explained: “After all, the photograph is just a shadow of your Maharaja. It is devoid of flesh and blood.” “But then it reminds us of the Maharaja, does it not?” said the Diwan. Wisdom then dawned on the Maharaja. He apologized to the Swamiji. Later the Swamiji went to Mount Abu, passing through jaipur and Ajmer. He spent some time intapas (prayer and meditation) in a cave. While Swamiji was travelling by train, in Rajasthan an interesting incident took place. He was resting in a second class compartment. Two Englishmen were profusely hurling abuses at him. They were under the impression that the Swamiji did not know English. When the train reached the station. Swamiji asked an official, in English, for a glass of water. The Englishmen were surprised; they asked Swamiji why he was silent though he could understand them. Swamiji snapped back, “This is not the first time I have met fools.” The Englishmen were enraged, but Swamiji’s formidable physique silenced them. 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. Once it happened that a merchant travelling with him was helping himself to varieties of eatables. Swamiji was hungry and tired. But he did not beg for food. The merchant spoke to him tauntingly and said, “You are an idler. You wear the saffron clothes only because you do not want to work. Who will ever feed you? Who cares if you die?” Just then, a sweetmeat seller offered Swamiji some eatables and said, “I saw you in my dream this morning. ” The haughty merchant was put to shame when he saw all this.
In Mysore, Swamiji got to know Diwan Swashadri Iyer and also the Maharaja of Mysore. The Swamiji’s discourse in Sanskrit at a gathering of scholars deeply impressed the Maharaja. One day he questioned the Swamiji as to his future plans. “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. 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. Swamiji next visited Ramanad. Bhaskara Setupati was the ruler of Ramanad at that time. He discussed with Swamiji the problems that the country was facing. 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. The thought of the poverty of the masses in this country made him miserable. He decided that unless casteism was rooted out, there could be no salvation for his countrymen. He concluded that his first task was to go Western countries and expose the spiritual values of India. He would then return to awaken his own slumbering land.
It was in Madras that the little lamp that appeared in Bengali Narendra became the blazing light of all India as Vivekananda. It was there that pressure mounted on him to go to America. The fame he won in Madras traveled to Hyderabad. Thousands gathered at the meeting addressed by him there. It was the first ever-public meeting addressed by Swamiji. After he returned to Madras from Hyderabad, he started making preparations for his tour abroad. 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.
Swamiji reached the city of Chicago in the middle of July. On his way he touched at the ports of Colombo, Singapore, Hongkong and Tokyo. He chose a hotel for his stay. He made inquiry about the opening of the Conference of World Religions. It was still three months away. How was he to stay so long in a strange place? The money he had was fast disappearing. Meanwhile, an international fair was going on. Swamiji was wandering in the premises of the fair. Just then he spotted a Maharaja from India. He approached the Maharaja. But the Maharaja turned away with wry face. Since Chicago was a big city and very expensive, Swamiji moved to the city of Boston. On the way he met a lady. She was from Boston. She was amazed at Swamiji’s strange attire, his magnificent physique, and his bright eyes. She decided that he was no ordinary man. She 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. He was greatly impressed by Swamiji’s scholarship. 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.” Swamiji went back to Chicago. When he reached the city he found that he had lost the addresses of some people. The people of the city were mostly Germans and could not understand English. As a consequence, Swamiji could not stir out. Finding no way out, Swamiji curled himself in an empty box, which was lying in the railway station. The next morning he wandered about in the streets. Unable to bear his hunger, he begged for alms at some houses. He could not get anything. On the contrary he was insulted and humiliated. He was sitting on the footsteps of a playground. A lady came out of a house facing the playground and asked him, “Are you a delegate to the conference of World Religions?” The Swamiji replied, ‘Yes’. The lady said, “Please come to my house. You can bathe and have food. Then I shall take you to the Conference.” Her name was Mrs. George Hails. The conference started on 11th September 1893. Thousands of delegates belonging to deferent countries of the world had gathered at the conference. Vivekananda was the youngest of them all. When it was his turn to speak, his throat went dry. Besides, he did not have, like the other delegates, a prepared speech. He requested the President to let him be the last speaker, His turn did come as the last speaker. He prayed fervently to Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Sarada Devi, 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. When it subsided at last he continued his short speech. He said that people born in different religions finally reach the same God, as river born in different places finally reaches the sea. He emphatically declared that no religion is superior and none is inferior. The delegates, every one of them, praised his speech. Newspapers carried his photographs and his speech. In later days people flocked chiefly to listen to 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 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.
“He speaks without a scrap of paper in his hand. We see in him some of the qualities of Jesus himself. 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 age. We are fortunate that we can see him and hear him, “- thus the newspapers went into raptures. Till then Americans had the impression that Indians were superstitious and ignorant. Thanks to Swamiji’s persistent efforts, India was elevated to an honored 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 honored guest. They would entertain him lavishly. At such times, Swamiji was constantly and painfully reminded of the poverty and squalor of India. The opulence around him would become unbearable. He spent many a sleepless and tearful night.
Meanwhile, he received pressing invitations from England. 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 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 there was an unprecedented crowd at the railway station. 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. To his fellow monks he explained the importance of dedicated service. He repeatedly told them that it was mere selfishness to look for personal salvation. He used to say, “I do not want salvation, as long as there is a single sorrow-stricken man in India.” He had realized that social service was possible only through the concerted efforts on an organized mission. That is why 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 many hill resorts in the Himalayas. But even there his missionary work continued. He visited many cities in North India in response to public demand. He visited America again at the invitation of his American disciples. He participated in the Conference of Religions in Paris and returned home. In spite of the entreaties of his disciples he would not rest. He became more inward looking. The body grew weak, but the mind and the soul remained alert and active. On 4th July 1902 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.
Although Swamiji is no longer with us, his words live. His message has continued to inspire millions of his countrymen. His voice can comfort the suffering and sanctify their lives. Listen again: “You rejoice that you belong to the race of the great sages. But until those who belong to the upper classes help to uplift the downtrodden, and until exploitation ends, India will only be a grave. May Mother India step forth anew from the humble dwelling of the peasant! May she appear in the hut of the fisherman! May she step forth from the cottages of the cobbler and the sweeper! May she become manifest in godowns and factories! May the song of New India echo and reverberate amidst mountains and in forests and valleys! “