Vivekananda was born Narendranath Dutta, son of a well-known lawyer
in Calcutta, Biswanath Dutta, and a very intelligent and pious lady,
Bhuvaneswari Devi, in the year 1863. Biswanath often had scholarly
discussions with his clients and friends on politics, religion and
society. He would invite Narendranath to join in these discussions.
Narendra, not in the embarrassed, would say whatever he thought was
right, advancing also arguments, in support of his stand. Some of
Biswanath's friends resented Naren's presence among them, more so
because he had the audacity to talk about matters concerning adults.
Biswanath, however, encouraged him. Naren would say: Point out where
I'm wrong, but why should you object to my independent
Naren learnt the
Epics and Puranas from his mother, who was a good story-teller. He
also inherited her memory among other qualities. He, in fact, owed
much to her as he used to say later. Naren was all-round. He could
sing, was good at sports, had a ready wit, his range of knowledge
was extensive, had a rational frame of mind and he loved to help
people . He was a natural leader. He was much sought after by the
people because of his various accomplishments.
Entrance Examination from the Metropolitan Institute and F.A. and
B.A. Examinations from the General Assembly's Institution (now
Scottish Church College). Hastie, Principal of the College, was
highly impressed by Naren's philosophical insight. It was from
Hastie that he first heard of Sri Ramakrishna.
As a student of
Philosophy, the question of God very much his mind. Was there a God
? If there was a God, what was He like ? What were man's relations
with Him ? Did He create this world which was so full of anomalies ?
He discussed these questions with many, but no one could give him
satisfactory answers. He looked to persons who could say they had
seen God, but found none. Meanwhile, Keshab Sen had become the head
of the Brahmo Movement. He was a great orator and many young people,
attracted by his oratory, enrolled as members of the Brahmo Samaj.
Naren also did the same. For some time he was satisfied with what
the Brahmo Samaj taught him, but soon he began to feel it did not
quite touch the core of the matter, so far as religion was
concerned. A relation of his used to advise him to visit Ramakrishna
at Dakshineswar, who, he said, would be able to remove all his
doubts about religion. He happened to meet Ramakrishna at the house
of a neighbour, but there is nothing on record about the impression
that he created on Naren's mind. He, however, invited Naren to visit
him at Dakshineswar some day. As the days passed, Naren began to
grow restless about the various riddles that religion presented to
him. He particularly wanted to meet a person who could talk about
God with the authority of personal experience. Finally, he went to
Ramakrishna one day and asked him straightaway if he had seen God.
He said he had, and if Naren so wished, he could even show God to
him. This naturally took Naren by surprise. But he did not know what
to make of it, for though his simplicity and love of God impressed
Naren, his idiosyncrasies made him suspect if Ramakrishna was not a
'monomaniac'. He began to watch him from close quarters and after a
long time he was left in no doubt that Ramakrishna was an
extraordinary man. He was the only man he had so far met who had
completely mastered himself. Then, he was also the best illustration
of every religious truth he preached. Naren loved and admired
Ramakrishna but never surrendered his independence of judgment.
Interestingly, Ramakrishna himself did not demand it of him, or of
any other of his disciples. Nevertheless, Naren gradually came to
accept Ramakrishna as his master.
suffered from cancer and passed away in 1886. During his illness, a
group of select young men had gathered round him and began to nurse
him while receiving spiritual guidance from him. Naren was the
leader of this group. Ramakrishna had wanted that they take to
monastic life and had symbolically given them Gerua cloth. They
accordingly founded a monastery at Baranagar and began to live
together, depending upon they got by begging. Sometimes they would
also wander about like other monks. Naren also would sometimes go
travelling. It was while he was thus travelling that he assumed the
name of Swami Vivekananda.
travelled extensively through India, sometimes on foot. He was
shocked to see the conditions of rural India-people ignorant,
superstitious, half-starved, and victims of caste-tyranny. If this
shocked him, the callousness of the so-called educated upper classes
shocked him still more. In the course of his travels he met many
princes who invited him to stay with them as their guest. He met
also city-based members of the intelligentsia-lawyers, teachers,
journalists and government officials. He appealed to all to do
something for the masses. No one seemed to pay any heed to
him-except the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Khetri and a few
young men of Madras. Swami Vivekananda impressed on everybody the
need to mobilize the masses. A few educated men and women could not
solve the problem of the country; the mass power had to be harnessed
to the task. He wanted the masses educated. The ruler of Mysore was
among the first to make primary education free within his State.
This, however, was not enough in Swamiji's view. A peasant could not
afford to send his children to school, for he needed help in his
field. He wanted education taken to the peasant's door-step, so that
the peasant's children could work and learn at the same time. It was
a kind of 'non-formal' education which perhaps he visualized. His
letters to the Maharaja of Mysore on the subject show how much he
had given to the subject and how original he was.
or the intelligentsia as a whole, were impressed by Swamiji's
personality, but were much too engrossed with their own affairs to
pay any heed to his appeals. Some of the young men of Madras,
Perumal specially, dedicated himself to the ideas Swamiji propounded
and his contributions to the success of his mission were
significant. Swamiji could guess the reason why the so-called
leaders of the society ignored him. Who was he ? A mere wandering
monk. There were hundreds of such monks all over the country. Why
should they pay any special attention to him ? By and large, they
followed only Western thinkers and those Indians who followed the
West and had had some recognition in the West by so doing. It was
slave mentality, but that was what characterized the attitude of the
educated Indians over most matters. It pained Swamiji to see Indians
strutting about in Western clothes and imitating Western ways and
manners, as if that made them really Western. Later he would call
out the nation and say, 'Feel proud that you are Indians even if
you're wearing a loin-cloth'. He was not opposed to learning from
the West, for he knew the Western people had some great qualities
and it was because of those qualities that they had become so rich
and powerful. He wanted India to learn science and technology from
the West and its power to organize and its practical sense, but, at
the same time, retain its high moral and spiritual idealism. But the
selfishness of the so-called educated people pained him more. They
were happy if they could care for themselves and they gave a damn to
what happened to the people. Swamiji wanted to draw their attention
to the miserable condition of the masses-illiterate, always on the
verge of starvation, superstitious and victims of oppression by the
upper castes and the rich landlords.
arrived in Madras, young people gathered round him drawn by his
bright and inspiring talks. They begged him to go to the USA to
attend the forthcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago to
represent Hinduism. They even started raising funds for the purpose.
Swamiji was first reluctant but later felt some good might come of
his visit to the West, for if he could make some impression there,
his people back at home, who always judged a thing good or bad
according as the Western critics thought of it, would then give him
a respectful hearing. That is exactly what happened : Swamiji made a
tremendous impression, first in the USA and then also in England.
The press paid him the highest tributes as an exponent of India's
age-old values; overnight he became a great national hero in India.
Suddenly it was brought home to them that there must be something in
Indian thought that Western intelligentsia feel compelled to admire.
They began to suspect that perhaps they were not as backward as they
once thought, and in areas like religion and philosophy, in art and
literature, they were perhaps more advanced than the Western people.
They had always felt sorry about themselves, but, now for the first
time, they awoke to the richness of their heritage. This was the
starting point of the Indian renaissance one hears about. A long
successful of national leaders starting from Tilak have drawn
inspiration from Swami Vivekananda. They 'discovered' India-her
strong and weak points-through him. 'If you want to know India,
study Vivekananda', was Tagore's advice to Romain Rolland. This
holds true even today, indeed no one has studied India's body and
mind so thoroughly as Swamiji did.
It was Swamiji's
hope that India would create a new social order and a new
civilization by combining her best spiritual traditions with the
latest advancements in science and technology. She would be rich
both materially and spiritually. He knew affluence was not enough,
man had to be human, too. He wanted India to set an example in