Swami Vivekananda is best known as the first person to introduce Hinduism to America with his famous speech that began with the words “Sisters and brothers of America …,” He called for religious tolerance and an end to fanaticism in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in the United States. During the late 19th century he garnered attention on Hinduism to give it the status of a major world religion. A follower of Vedantic philosophy, he was the forerunner introducing Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world. A Hindu monk, he was a chief disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa. In honour of his teacher, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897. The main aim of the mission was to spread the spiritual teachings of Vedanta and to improve the social conditions of the Indian people by providing better education. To honor this great religious leader, since 1984, every year on January 12, India celebrates National Youth Day.
Narendra, The Demon
Swami Vivekananda, was born as Narendranath Datta, on January 12, 1863 in a Bengali family at his ancestral home at 3 Gourmohan Mukherjee Street in Calcutta. He was one of nine siblings of Vishwanath Datta and Bhubaneswari Devi. The progressive, rational attitude of Narendra’s father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape his thinking and personality. As he child Narendra was extremely intelligent but equally naughty. His mother would often say, “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons”.
This interesting story about Swami Vivekananda when he was just 8 years old displays his fearless nature and his ability to think independently. Often Narendra would climb up a champak tree in his friend’s compound and dangle with his head down. One day an old man tried to stop him saying there was a ghost living inside the tree and it would hurt him and break his neck if he climbed the tree again. But that neither scared nor convinced Swami. He climbed the tree again. When his friend told him he should be scared of the ghost he said ‘What a silly fellow you are! Don’t believe everything just because someone tells you! If the old grandfather’s story was true then my neck would have been broken long ago.’ As an 8-year old boy he surely exhibited intelligence and ability to think clearly.
In 1871, Narendranath was sent to school at Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution.
From Narendra to Swami Vivekananda
In 1880, he joined the Presidency College. He was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading philosophy, religion, history, social science, art and literature. He was known for his prodigious memory and his ability to speed read. He continued to study Western philosophy and European history at the Scottish Church College, previously called General Assembly’s Institution. In 1884 he passed Fine Arts exam and earned a BA degree from the Scottish Church College.
It was during this time in November 1881, the young Narendra for the first time met Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in Calcutta, at the house of Surendranath Mitra. After that Ramakrishna Paramahamsa invited him to Dakshineswar. This was the start of a master and disciple bonding.
In 1885 the Master developed cancer of the throat. Narendra stayed back frequently with him taking care of his master, while simultaneously supporting his family after the death of his father. He even studied law and fought a law suit for his ancestral house.
In January 1886, the Master distributed Gerua clothes (ochre robes) to 12 disciples – the beginning of sannyasa. Narendra was one of them. This give birth to Swami Vivekananda.
- 1886 August 16, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa passes away
- 1887 Swami Vivekananda takes final vows of sannyasa at Baranagar Monastery
- 1890 to 1893 travels through India as a monk
- 1893 Gives his first address at Parliament of Religions, Chicago on September the 11th
- 1894 November establishes the Vedanta Society of New York
- 1895 continues to teach Upanishads, Gyan and Raja yoga.
- 1896 Leaves for London where he continues to teach Gyan Yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga
- 1897 returns home to Kolkata to establish Ramakrishna Mission Association
- 1898 consecrates Belur Math
- 1899 travels to US again to set up Vedanta Society in San Francisco
- 1899 on December 9th, he returns to Belur Math
- From 1901, he continued to live as a monk in the math.
On Friday, July 4, 1902 Swami Viveknanda at the age of 39 years passes away. Although he was quite ill and suffering from 31 ailments for several months at the math, death itself was sudden and unexpected. He had been meditating, had lunch and gave talks on various subjects in the morning. In the evening went for meditation to his room around 7pm. Then lay down on the bed and attained the final Samadhi around 9 pm.
Why Swami Vivekananda’s Vedanta?
During the period of British rule in India, Christian missionaries were misleading people and converting them to Christianity. Even affluent Hindus in the country began to develop inferiority complex about Hinduism. To stop more Hindus from being baptized and adopting Christianity, Swami Vivekananda whole-heartedly propagated ‘Vedanta’ in British India and around the world.
He also emphasized spiritual unity for progress. Swami Vivekananda awakened patriotism and enthusiasm amongst the youth through his spiritual discourses. He made the whole world take notice of Hindu Dharma and Hindustan. At the Chicago interfaith conference he stated Hindustan was the only land where one could experience both tolerance and affection for other religions. It was where Hinduism, Christianity and other religions would learn to live alongside for centuries to come.