views updated May 29 2018


VIVEKANANDA was the religious name of Narendranath Datta, or Dutt (18631902), a leading spokesman for modern Hinduism and neo-Vedānta in the late nineteenth century, and the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission in India and the Vedanta Society in the West.


Narendranath came from a Bengali family, kāyastha by caste, that since the early nineteenth century had improved its social status through the process of westernization. Narendranath's great-grandfather had clerked for an English attorney in Calcutta, while his grandfather took the vow of sanyāsa (renunciation) and abandoned his family shortly after the birth of his son, Vishwanath, who would be Narendranath's father. Vishwanath became a prosperous lawyer in the Calcutta High Court. The Datta home was a cosmopolitan one, in which the worlds of Bengali Hinduism and Indo-Muslim culture merged with European learning. Vishwanath knew Sanskrit and Arabic, enjoyed the poems of āfi, and read the Bible and Qurʾān for pleasure. Narendranath received schooling in both Bengali and English, eventually earning his bachelor's degree in 1884. Narendranath had a prodigious intellect; he loved to read, ranging over Sanskrit texts, English literature, philosophy, and history. His reading in the cultures of ancient Egypt, Rome, the Muslim world, and modern Europe all provided insights into the trajectory of Indian history and contributed to his understanding of the relationship between East and West. Later in life he would elaborate these conclusions in a well-known Bengali work, Prācya o pāścātya (East and West).

During his college years, Narendranath belonged to the Brāhmo Samāj, a reformist movement begun in 1828 by Rammohan Roy (17721833) that promoted a vision of Hindu monotheism and rejected such practices as image worship and renunciation. Narendranath approved of the Brāhmos' rationalism and concern for social service, but he could not accept their repudiation of sanyāsa, a path for which helike his grandfatherfelt some affinity. In the 1870s the Brāhmos found themselves torn between the relative importance of social reform, emphasized by Sivnath Sastri (18471919), and devotional worship, promoted by Keshab Chandra Sen (18381884). While Narendranath shared Sivnath's goals, he also found himself drawn to Keshab's eclectic spiritual vision. After 1875 Keshab began visiting a little-known holy man named Ramakrishna (1834/61886), a celibate devotee of the goddess Kālī, a man unlearned in a formal sense but wise in religious experience. Narendranath first met Ramakrishna in 1881. Although impressed by the depth of Ramakrishna's renunciation and spiritual attainments, he was disturbed by Ramakrishna's image-oriented worship of Kālī and his apparent lack of social concern. While Narendranath believed in the formlessness of God, Ramakrishna urged him to meet God in person by worshiping Kālī.

Official accounts say that at their first meeting Ramakrishna took Narendranath aside and said to him, "Lord, I know you are that ancient sage, Nara, the Incarnation of Narayana, born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind." Narendranath was reportedly "altogether taken aback" by this and concluded that Ramakrishna was a madman (Life, 1989, vol. 1, p. 76). At the same time, Narendranath was captivated by Ramakrishna; here was a man who claimed to have seen God and who spoke of religion as something real to be experienced directly. Nevertheless, such mystic talk was far removed from the safety of Narendranath's rationalism.

Unable fully to come to terms with Ramakrishna's views, Narendranath withdrew periodically during his college years to immerse himself in Western philosophy and science, as well as in Indian music, for he excelled as a singer. Narendranath's singing affected Ramakrishna deeply, and he pursued Narendranath as someone who had the potential for spiritual greatness.

In 1884, Keshab died; two months later, Narendranath's father died. Keshab's death meant his followers were deprived of the spiritual charisma that united them, while the death of Vishwanath plunged Narendranath's family into financial ruin. Narendranath, at twenty-one, had to abandon his plans to go to England to study law. There were lawsuits within the family over property. In such a context, the loss of two father-figures plunged Vivekananda into the depths of spiritual uncertainty. In 1885 he accepted Ramakrishna as his guru and began a period of intensive religious training that lasted until Ramakrishna's death in August 1886. During the intervening months, Ramakrishna brought Narendranath to a personal experience of Kālī that he considered his pupil's final test.

The origins of the Ramakrishna Mission lie in the final months of Ramakrishna's life, when he nurtured Narendranath's spiritual development and prepared for his own death. Ramakrishna asked Narendranath to look after the welfare of the disciples, but left no explicit instructions beyond saying, "Keep my boys together" and "Teach them" (Williams, 1989, p. 325). Official accounts report that just before his death Ramakrishna transferred his spiritual powers to Narendranath, saying, "by the force of the power transmitted by me, great things will be done by you" (Life, 1989, vol. 1, p. 182). With his passing, Narendranath was left to make sense of the powerful mystical experiences induced by his master and to ensure that the other disciples lived up to the master's ideal of renunciation. The precise date for the emergence of the monastic movement differs "according to the perspective of the chroniclers" (Pangborn, 1976, p. 98). Some choose the day in January 1886 when Ramakrishna distributed ochre robes to the disciples; some choose Christmas eve of that year, when Narendranath led the disciples in a vigil of renunciation around a bonfire; others emphasize the day in January 1887 when the disciples held a fire ceremony at which they adopted monastic names, prefixed by the title swami (Skt., svāmī, "master"). Narendranath would initially be known as Swami Vividishananda, though this would change.

Narendranath taught the disciples as best he could for several years, yet he remained uncertain of his own religious views. In 1890 he set off from Calcutta with nothing but a staff and begging bowl on an extended pilgrimage throughout India, during which he attempted to reconcile the philosophical and devotional insights of Ramakrishna with the social concerns of the Brāhmo movement. Internally, he sought realization of the absolute; externally, he sought knowledge of India and the world. This search would eventually take him far beyond India, though India remained the focus of his patriotic spiritual vision. When he heard that a World's Parliament of Religions was to be held in Chicago in the autumn of 1893, Narendranath conceived a plan to seek Western material support for the revitalization of Hinduism and in return to share Hindu spiritual insights with the world. He obtained travel funds from the māharājā of Khetri, who suggested he adopt the religious name Vivekananda (Skt., "he whose bliss lies in discerning knowledge"). With his patron's support and a new monastic name, he left for the United States.

Although Vivekananda was not the only Hindu representative at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he was the most dynamic. In contrast to the learned dissertation by other Hindu speakers, Vivekananda gave a powerful argument for the universal truth of Hinduism, which he claimed was grounded in experience, not dogma. "The Hindu religion does not consist inattempts to believe a certain doctrinebut in realizing," he claimed (Complete Works, 1964, vol. 1, p. 7). His lectures brought him widespread attention in the press and numerous speaking engagements. Having attracted a dedicated group of Western followers, he shifted his plans from raising money for India to creating a worldwide religious movement based on the eternal truths of Hinduism. With that purpose, and with his new Western disciples as the core, he founded the Vedanta Society in New York in 1895. He soon had chapters in London and Boston, for which he summoned two swamis from India to help direct their work. The mission to the West was well under way by the end of 1896 when Vivekananda left for India to begin the second phase of his program.

Vivekananda's arrival in India early in 1897 with a group of Western disciples was treated by the Indian press as a triumphal return, but not all Hindus were happy with his aggressive proselytizing of Westerners or with his unorthodox ideas. Ramakrishna's former disciples, whom Narendranath had left seven years earlier, were themselves uncertain how to respond to Narendranath-turned-Vivekananda and his Western disciples. They were even more uncertain when Vivekananda revealed his plan to turn them into a band of modern sanyāsin s dedicated to social service (sevā ), a plan he claimed Ramakrishna had intended.

Vivekananda's dynamism and persuasive powers carried the day; the disciples were won over to his program of sevā. To implement this program, Vivekananda instituted the Ramakrishna Mission on May 1, 1897, organizing the monks in a new Ramakrishna Math (Skt., maha, "monastery"). In 1898, with money from Western disciples, he purchased a site on the Ganges near Calcutta for a center to house what would become the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. The worldwide organization was established by 1899, at which point Vivekananda turned over the active work of the movement to his Indian and Western disciples. After visiting friends in the United States and Europe from 1899 to 1900, Vivekananda returned to India in semiretirement. He died on July 4, 1902.


In less than forty years of life, and in less than ten years of intensive effort, Vivekananda redefined India's relationship to the West, prescribing Hindu spirituality as the antidote to Western materialism. Vivekananda's teaching was not the Hinduism of the orthodox, nor was it the reformed monotheism of the Brāhmos. In its eclectic universalism it shares much with Keshab Chandra Sen's spirituality, yet its spiritual fountainhead lay in the mystic insights of Ramakrishna.

Vivekananda taught the virtues of what he called "Practical Vedānta," a universal Hinduism that combined practical work for the world with the quest for ultimate union with the One. Put simply, Practical Vedānta teaches that while humans may proclaim śivo'ham, "I am God," this very insight also obliges them to acknowledge the truth of daridra nārāyaa, "God dwells within the poor." Thus, nondual insight provides an ethical imperative for social service. With fiery rhetoric, Vivekananda exhorted listeners to "Arise, awake, and stop not till the desired end is reached" (Complete Works, 1964, vol. 3, p. 318). He called upon his followers to promulgate a manly religion that would have the energy and courage to overcome India's discriminatory caste practices and interreligious strife. Such would be true service to Ramakrishna's Divine Mother as embodied in India herself.

By adopting Vedānta as the essence of Hindu spirituality, Vivekananda built upon a revalorization of Vedānta that had begun with Rammohan Roy and the Brāhmo movement. However, Vivekananda's neo-Vedānta combines Brāhmo worldliness with the mysticism of Ramakrishna, which Vivekananda understood in terms of the classical system of nondual philosophy known as Advaita Vedānta. Scholars debate whether Ramakrishna viewed himself as a Vedāntin; the case can be made that his nondualism was more Tantric than Vedāntic. What is clear is that Vivekananda's Practical Vedānta represents a creative transformation of Ramakrishna's teaching. Some argue that the officially sanctioned neo-Vedānta of the Ramakrishna movement reflects the impact upon Vivekananda of Western reconstructions of Advaita Vedānta as found in influential writers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Paul Deussen. Others view Vivekananda's concern with social service as a result of his exposure to Christianity and modern Western thought as a young man. The influence of Brāhmo thought must also be acknowledged. Clearly the genesis of Vivekananda's teaching lies in a context of cultural change in which competing Hindu philosophies like Vedānta and Tantra were actively converging with Western norms of egalitarianism, positivism, and rationality, as well as with Orientalist constructions of Hinduism and Indian culture more broadly.


Vivekananda's teaching of the universal truths of Hinduism and his example of a selfless love for the Indian people had an immense impact on modern Hindu discourse and apologetics in the early twentieth century, gaining appreciation and reinforcement from figures like Mohandas Gandhi (18691948) and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (18881975). One of his greatest legacies may be seen in the place accorded to religious experience (anubhava ) within modern Hindu thought. As we have seen, to Vivekananda, experience was the source of truth, not books or dogmas; "until your religion makes you realize God, it is useless" (Complete Works, 1964, vol. 1, p. 326). For Vivekananda, it was Hinduism's genius to have discovered the deepest truths of yogic experience through the teachings of Vedānta. In Radhakrishnan and other early twentieth-century Hindu apologists, this neo-Vedānta appeal to experience would be elevated to the very core of religion itself, providing colonized Hindus with a powerful strategy for responding to Western, Christian denunciations of Hinduism. Indeed, the neo-Vedānta evocation of India's spiritual wisdom became something of a spiritual rallying cry for nationalist mobilization.

Recognizing the degree to which the Indian nationalist movement came to be couched in Hindu idioms, scholars have raised questions regarding Vivekananda's responsibility for the subsequent development of more aggressive forms of Hindu chauvinism and for the increased polarization of Hindus and Muslims. The question is both legitimate and complex. On the one hand, Vivekananda's Vedāntic universalism does carry an implicit claim for the superiority of Hinduism; on the other, he regularly praised the spiritual ideals of Islam, the possibilities for Hindu-Muslim cooperation, and the need for religious tolerance more broadly. If Vivekananda's name and message are occasionally used to promote the idea that India is a Hindu nation, this is perhaps a case of unintended consequences, a reminder us of the complex dynamics of religion and politics in the colonial and postcolonial context.

In a similar fashion, feminist scholarship has encouraged the exploration of issues of gender, power, and identity as these are manifested in the life and teachings of Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna movement. Himself a spiritual seeker drawn to a celibate guru with a visceral fear of women and heterosexual contact, Narendranath toured the West as the dynamic and alluring Vivekananda, whose colorful silk robes and turbans captivated women in audiences from Boston to Pasadena. Indeed, he attracted a number of devoted women disciples in the West, such as Christine Greenstidel, Marie Louise, and Margaret Noble. Noble, who adopted the name Sister Nivedita, was very close to Vivekananda, traveling extensively with him in India and participating in his broader attempt to Indianize the notion of womanhood in the service of mother India. Such relationships, when set over against Vivekananda's rhetoric of masculinity, provide fruitful ground for exploring the gendering of nationalist projects, as well as the limitations imposed on women agents by this very process. As with Vedānta and Hinduism, the legacy of Vivekananda with respect to issues of gender and Indian identity is a complex and fascinating one.

See Also

Brāhmo Samāj; Ramakrishna; Sanyāsa.


Details of Vivekananda's life and career were compiled in two volumes by his followers as The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by His Eastern and Western Disciples, 6th ed. (Calcutta, 1989). Older biographical studies by disciples and enthusiasts include Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (New York, 1953) and Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, 6th ed. (Calcutta, 1965). Amiya P. Sen provides a brief, unannotated biography in Swami Vivekananda (New Delhi, 2000), while Rajagopal Chattopadhyaya scrutinizes received accounts in Swami Vivekananda in India: A Corrective Biography (Delhi, 1999). For a critical interpretation, see Narasingha P. Sil, Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment (Selinsgrove, Pa., 1997). These may be compared with Tapan Raychaudhuri's sketch of Vivekananda in Europe Reconsidered: Perceptions of the West in Nineteenth-Century Bengal (New Delhi, 1988). Early scholarly studies of Vivekananda's career and philosophy include George M. Williams, The Quest for Meaning of Svami Vivekananda (Chico, Calif., 1974) and, "Svami Vivekananda: Archetypal Hero or Doubting Saint?" in Religion in Modern India, edited by Robert D. Baird, 2d rev. ed. (New Delhi, 1989), pp. 313342. The essays in Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism, edited by William Radice (New Delhi, 1998), explore Vivekananda against the backdrop of education and socioreligious reform, while Gwilym Beckerlegge, The Ramakrishna Mission: The Making of a Modern Hindu Movement (New York, 2000) provides perspectives on several critical issues. Vivekananda's relationship to the broader Ramakrishna Mission received early attention in Cyrus Pangborn, "The Ramakrishna Math and Mission: A Case Study of a Revitalization Movement," in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions, edited by Bardwell L. Smith (Leiden, 1976), pp. 98119. In the wake of postcolonial studies, the question of Vivekananda's relationship to Indian nationalism, communal politics, and Hindu universalism has been revisited by Shamita Basu in Religious Revivalism as Nationalist Discourse: Swami Vivekananda and New Hinduism in Nineteenth-Century Bengal (New Delhi, 2002) and Brian A. Hatcher in Eclecticism and Modern Hindu Discourse (New York, 1999). For Sister Nivedita's view of Vivekananda, see her The Master as I Saw Him (Calcutta, 1910), while issues of gender are explored in Indira Chowdhury, The Frail Hero and Virile History: Gender and the Politics of Culture in Colonial Bengal (New Delhi, 1998); Parama Roy, Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Berkeley, 1998); and Kumari Jayawardena, The White Woman's Other Burden (New York, 1995). For Vivekananda's writings, the standard source is The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 8 vols., 14th ed. (Calcutta, 1964). Vivekananda's scriptural hermeneutics are investigated in Anantanand Rambachan, The Limits of Scripture: Vivekananda's Reinterpretation of the Vedas (Honolulu, 1994).

Thomas J. Hopkins (1987)

Brian A. Hatcher (2005)


views updated May 18 2018


Vivekananda (1863-1902) was an Indian reformer, missionary, and spiritual leader who promulgated Indian religious and philosophical values in Europe, England, and the United States, founding the Vedanta Society and the Ramakrishna mission.

Vivekananda was born in Calcutta of high-caste parents. His family name was Narendranath ("son of the lord of man") Datta. His father was a distinguished lawyer, and his mother a woman of deep religious piety. The influence of both parental figures clearly affected Vivekananda's early life and mature self-conception. He was a fun-loving boy who also showed great intellectual promise in the humanities, music, the sciences, and languages at high school and college. At the age of 15 he had an experience of spiritual ecstasy which served to reinforce his latent sense of religious calling—through he was openly skeptical of traditional religious practices. He joined the liberal Hindu reforming movement, the Brahmo Samaj (Association of God). But his deeper religious aspirations were still unsatisfied.

In 1881 Vivekananda met the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna, who recognized the young man's immense talents and finally persuaded him to join his community of disciples. After Ramakrishna's death in 1885, Vivekananda assumed leadership of the Ramakrishna order. He prepared the disciples for extensive missionary work, which he himself undertook throughout India—preaching both on the spiritual uniqueness of Indian civilization and on the need for massive reforms, especially the alleviation of the poverty of the Indian masses and the dissolution of caste discrimination. In 1893 his fame and brilliance gained him the nomination as Indian representative to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Vivekananda's successes there led to an extended lecture tour. He stressed the mutual relevance of Indian spirituality and Western material progress—both, in his view, were in need of each other. In Boston he found much in common with the philosophy of the transcendentalists— Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers. After touring England and Europe, Vivekananda returned to the United States, founding the Vedanta Society of New York in 1896. His lectures on the Vedanta philosophy and yoga systems deeply impressed William James, Josiah Royce, and other members of the Harvard faculty. Vivekananda then went back to India to promote the Ramakrishna mission and reforming activities.

Seemingly indefatigable, Vivekananda traveled once again to the United States, in 1898, where he established a monastic community, the Shanti Ashrama, on donated land near San Francisco. In 1900 he attended the Paris Congress of the History of Religions, speaking extensively on Indian religious and cultural history. He returned to India in December of that year, his health much undermined by his strenuous activities. His work is still maintained today internationally by the many organizations which he founded.

Further Reading

Vivekananda's writings and speeches are collected in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (7 vols., Almora, Advaita Ashrama, 1918-1922). A useful study of Vivekananda is Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (1953). Other studies include Romain Rolland, Prophets of the New India (trans. 1930); Christopher Isherwood's biographical introduction to Vivekananda's What Religion Is in the Words of Swami Vivekananda edited by John Yale (1962); and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, ed., Swami Vivekananda Centenary Memorial Volume (Calcutta, 1963).

Additional Sources

Burke, Marie Louise, Swami Vivekananda in the West: new discoveries, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, [1985 ]-1987.

Chetanananda, Swami, Vivekananda: East meets West: a pictorial biography, St. louis, MO: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1994.

The Life of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1979. □


views updated May 29 2018

Vivekānanda (1863–1902). A devout follower of Ramakrishna, and founder of the Ramakrishna Mission which now has more than a hundred centres throughout the world. After a meeting with Keshab Chandra Sen, he joined the Brahmo Samāj. All his life he acted on the principle that all people hold within themselves the means to achieve their full potential.

It was after becoming a disciple of Ramakrishna that Vivekānanda received his new name, and the honourable title of ‘swāmi’. After six years of contemplation in the Himālayan region he carried out, with missionary zeal, tours of S. and W. India, becoming the most noteworthy teacher of modern Vedānta. In 1893 a World's Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago. Swami Vivekānanda represented Hinduism with outstanding success, and, through the power of his oratory and his impressive appearance, became known worldwide.


views updated May 29 2018

Vivekananda (1863–1902) Indian religious and social reformer, b. Narendranath Datta. The most prominent disciple of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda founded the Vedanta movement in the West. Vivekananda inspired many people to convert to Hinduism in the United States and Britain. In 1893 he captivated the audience at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois. In 1897 Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission near Calcutta, e India, to serve the poor and needy.