Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta (shortened to Narendra or Naren) in a Bengali Kayastha family on 12th January 1863. He was born at his ancestral home in Calcutta during the Makar Sankranti festival. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court. His mother, Bhubaneswari Devi, was a devout housewife.
Narendranath was interested in spirituality from a young age. He used to meditate before the images of deities such as Shiva, Rama, Sita, and Mahavir Hanuman. He was fascinated by wandering ascetics and monks. Naren was naughty and restless as a child. His parents often had difficulty controlling him.
In 1871, Narendranath enrolled at Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution. Later his family moved to Raipur in 1877. In 1879, after his family’s return to Calcutta. He was the only student to receive first-division marks in the Presidency College entrance examination. Naren was an avid reader in a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, religion, history, social science, art and literature. He was also interested in Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Puranas. In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884. While studying Western philosophers, he also learned Sanskrit scriptures and Bengali literature.
Vivekananda With Ramakrishna
In 1881 Narendra first met Ramakrishna, who became his spiritual focus after his own father had died in 1884. They probably first met personally in November 1881, though Narendra did not consider this their first meeting, and neither man mentioned this meeting later. At this time Narendra was preparing for his upcoming F. A. examination, when Ram Chandra Datta accompanied him to Surendra Nath Mitra’s, house where Ramakrishna was invited to deliver a lecture. According to Paranjape, at this meeting Ramakrishna asked young Narendra to sing. Impressed by his singing talent, he asked Narendra to come to Dakshineshwar.
In late 1881 or early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineswar with two friends and met Ramakrishna. This meeting proved to be a turning point in his life. Ramakrishna’s personality attracted Narendra. Naren began to frequently visit him at Dakshineswar.
Disciple to Ramakrishna
Narendra’s father’s sudden death in 1884 left the family bankrupt; creditors began demanding the repayment of loans, and relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Narendra, once a son of a well-to-do family, became one of the poorest students in his college. He unsuccessfully tried to find work and questioned God’s existence, but found solace in Ramakrishna and his visits to Dakshineswar increased.
One day Narendra requested Ramakrishna to pray to goddess Kali for their family’s financial welfare. Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple himself and pray. Following Ramakrishna’s suggestion, he went to the temple thrice, but failed to pray for any kind of worldly necessities and ultimately prayed for true knowledge and devotion from the goddess. Narendra gradually grew ready to renounce everything for the sake of realising God, and accepted Ramakrishna as his Guru.
In 1885, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer, and was transferred to Calcutta and (later) to a garden house in Cossipore. Narendra and Ramakrishna’s other disciples took care of him during his last days. At Cossipore, he experienced Nirvikalpa samadhi. Narendra and several other disciples received ochre robes from Ramakrishna, forming his first monastic order. Ramakrishna died in the early-morning hours of 16 August 1886 in Cossipore.
After Ramakrishna’s death, his devotees and admirers stopped supporting his disciples. Unpaid rent accumulated, and Narendra and the other disciples had to find a new place to live. Many returned home, adopting a Grihastha (family-oriented) way of life. Narendra decided to convert a dilapidated house at Baranagar into a new math (monastery) for the remaining disciples. Rent for the Baranagar Math was low, raised by “holy begging” (mādhukarī). The math became the first building of the Ramakrishna Math: the monastery of the monastic order of Ramakrishna. Narendra and other disciples used to spend many hours in practising meditation and religious austerities every day. Narendra later reminisced about the early days of the monastery.
In Antpur, in the Christmas Eve of 1886, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows. They decided to live their lives as their master lived. Narendranath took the name “Swami Vivekananda”.
Travels in India (1888–93)
In 1888, Narendra left the monastery as a wandering monk. His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff and his two favourite books: the Bhagavad Geeta and The Imitation of Christ. Narendra travelled extensively in India for five years, visiting centres of learning and acquainting himself with diverse religious traditions and social patterns. He developed sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the people, and resolved to uplift the nation. Living primarily on bhiksha (alms), Narendra travelled on foot and by railway (with tickets bought by admirers). During his travels he met, and stayed with Indians from all religions and walks of life: scholars, dewans, rajas, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, paraiyars (low-caste workers) and government officials. Narendra left Bombay for Chicago on 31 May 1893 with the name “Vivekananda”, as suggested by Ajit Singh of Khetri, which means “the bliss of discerning wisdom”.
First visit to the West (1893–97)
Vivekananda started his journey to the West on 31 May 1893 and visited several cities in Japan China and Canada en route to the United States, reaching Chicago on 30 July 1893, where the “Parliament of Religions” took place in September 1893. It was one of the more than 200 adjunct gatherings and congresses of the Chicago’s World’s Fair, and was “an avant-garde intellectual manifestation of […] cultic milieus, East and West,” with the Brahmo Samaj and the Theosophical Society being invited as being representative of Hinduism.
The Parliament of the World’s Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition. On this day, Vivekananda gave a brief speech representing India and Hinduism. He was initially nervous, bowed to Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning) and began his speech with “Sisters and brothers of America!”. At these words, Vivekananda received a two-minute standing ovation from the crowd of seven thousand.
Vivekananda attracted widespread attention in the press, which called him the “cyclonic monk from India”. 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”.
He spoke several more times “at receptions, the scientific section, and private homes” on topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony among religions until the parliament ended on 27 September 1893. Vivekananda’s speeches at the Parliament had the common theme of universality, emphasising religious tolerance. He soon became known as a “handsome oriental” and made a huge impression as an orator.
Lecture tours in the UK and US
Vivekananda spent nearly two years lecturing in the eastern and central United States, primarily in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. He founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. By spring 1895 his busy, tiring schedule had affected his health.
Back in India (1897–99)
The ship from Europe arrived in Colombo, British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 15 January 1897, and Vivekananda received a warm welcome. In Colombo he gave his first public speech in the East. From there on, his journey to Calcutta was triumphant. Vivekananda travelled from Colombo to Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Madurai, Kumbakonam and Madras, delivering lectures. Common people and rajas gave him an enthusiastic reception. During his train travels, people often sat on the rails to force the train to stop so they could hear him. From Madras, he continued his journey to Calcutta and Almora. While in the West, Vivekananda spoke about India’s great spiritual heritage; in India, he repeatedly addressed social issues: uplifting the people, eliminating the caste system, promoting science and industrialisation, addressing widespread poverty and ending colonial rule. These lectures, published as Lectures from Colombo to Almora, demonstrate his nationalistic fervour and spiritual ideology.
On 1 May 1897 in Calcutta, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission for social service. Its ideals are based on Karma Yoga, and its governing body consists of the trustees of the Ramakrishna Math (which conducts religious work). Both Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission have their headquarters at Belur Math. Vivekananda founded two other monasteries: one in Mayavati in the Himalayas (near Almora), the Advaita Ashrama and another in Madras. Two journals were founded: Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbhodan in Bengali. That year, famine-relief work was begun by Swami Akhandananda in the Murshidabad district.
He visited Punjab, attempting to mediate an ideological conflict between Arya Samaj (a reformist Hindu movement) and sanatan (orthodox Hindus). After brief visits to Lahore, Delhi and Khetri, Vivekananda returned to Calcutta in January 1898. He consolidated the work of the math and trained disciples for several months. Despite declining health, Vivekananda left for the West for a second time in June 1899 accompanied by Sister Nivedita and Swami Turiyananda. After a brief visit to the Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati Vivekananda settled at Belur Math, where he continued co-ordinating the works of Ramakrishna Mission, the math and the work in England and the US. He had many visitors, including royalty and politicians. Although Vivekananda was unable to attend the Congress of Religions in 1901 in Japan due to deteriorating health, he made pilgrimages to Bodhgaya and Varanasi. Declining health (including asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia) restricted his activity.
Death of Vivekananda
On 4 July 1902 (the day of his death) Vivekananda awoke early, went to the monastery at Belur Math and meditated for three hours. He taught Shukla-Yajur-Veda, Sanskrit grammar and the philosophy of yoga to pupils, later discussing with colleagues a planned Vedic college in the Ramakrishna Math. At 7:00 p.m. Vivekananda went to his room, asking not to be disturbed; he died at 9:20 p.m. while meditating. According to his disciples, Vivekananda attained mahasamādhi; the rupture of a blood vessel in his brain was reported as a possible cause of death. His disciples believed that the rupture was due to his brahmarandhra (an opening in the crown of his head) being pierced when he attained mahasamādhi. Vivekananda fulfilled his prophecy that he would not live forty years. He was cremated on a sandalwood funeral pyre on the bank of the Ganga in Belur.
Teaching of Swami Vivekanada
Vivekananda propagated that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Nevertheless, following Ramakrishna, and in contrast to Advaita Vedanta, Vivekananda believed that the Absolute is both immanent and transcendent.
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.
Vivekananda adapted traditional Hindu ideas and religiosity to suit the needs and understandings of his western audiences. He was attracted by western esoteric traditions and movements like Transcendentalism and New thought.
“I do not come to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief, want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”- Swami Vivekananda in America.
He believed that a country’s future depends on its people, and his teachings focused on human development. He wanted “to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest”.
Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is the way great spiritual giants are produced”.
Influence and legacy
Vivekananda was one of the main representatives of Neo-Vedanta, a modern interpretation of selected aspects of Hinduism in line with western esoteric traditions, especially Transcendentalism, New Thought and Theosophy. His reinterpretation was, and is, very successful, creating a new understanding and appreciation of Hinduism within and outside India, and was the principal reason for the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West. Vivekananda espoused the idea that all sects within Hinduism (and all religions) are different paths to the same goal.