BORN: January 12, 1863 • Calcutta, West Bengal, India
DIED: July 4, 1902 • Calcutta, West Bengal, India
Indian religious leader; philosopher
During the nineteenth century Hinduism was largely unknown in the West (the countries in Europe and the Americas). Swami Vivekananda, one of Hinduism's great modern teachers, is credited with almost single-handedly changing that view by introducing the teachings and philosophy of the religion to the West. Philosophy is the study of ideas through which to gain a better understanding of values and reality. Originally named Narendra Nath Datta (or Narendranath Dutta), he was born into an educated, wealthy family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, on January 12, 1863. Indians now celebrate this date as National Youth Day in his memory. His father was Viswanath Dutta, a successful lawyer, and his mother was Bhuvaneswari Devi.
"The Hindu believes that he is a spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce—him the fire cannot burn—him the water cannot melt—him the air cannot dry."
Early life and education
Narendra grew up in a home in which learning was encouraged. From childhood he showed an impressive skill for absorbing and remembering what he read, including, by some accounts, the contents of the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica. In addition to his studies he organized a theatrical troupe and enjoyed rowing, fencing, wrestling, and other athletic pursuits. He also practiced meditation and even as a child began to ponder spiritual matters and the nature of God. Meditation is quiet, focused thought to gain greater spiritual awareness and understanding. Narendra was stubborn, temperamental, and given to playing pranks on others. Later in life he was usually seen wearing an unusual turban, which he claimed he styled after the turban worn by a poor taxi driver he had seen during his childhood.
In 1879 Narendra enrolled in Presidency College (formerly called Hindu College), a liberal arts institution associated with the University of Calcutta. After a year he transferred to another University of Calcutta organization, a Christian missionary institution called the Scottish Church College. At both of these schools he acquired a broad education in science, philosophy, European history, and religion. He learned to speak several languages, including English, and was particularly attracted to the study of Western logic. He was also an accomplished musician, singer, and poet.
During his years in college Narendra began to see many similarities between the principles and beliefs of Western science and philosophy and those found in Hindu sacred texts written thousands of years before. Indeed, he came to see little conflict between the teachings of Hinduism and the findings of modern science. For example, Hinduism sought to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe and the energy that existed throughout all of creation. In this respect, it was seeking the same ends as scientists such as Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), the Yugoslavian physicist (a scientist who studies the interactions between energy and matter) who used Sanskrit words to refer to matter and energy because he believed that the Hindu concept was accurate. He also began to question the nature and presence of God and to reject some of the features of Hinduism, primarily its acceptance of castes, the social classes into which Indians are born.
For a while Narendra followed the system of thought of the Brahmo Samaj, a social and religious movement that had been founded in Calcutta (now Kolkata) earlier in the century. The movement rejected the caste system, believed in the authority of the Vedas, the oldest of Hindu sacred texts, and sought to bring worshippers together to read from these texts in a group setting, which was new to Hinduism. The Brahmo Samaj, however, ultimately failed to provide Narendra with the answers he was seeking.
At the feet of the master
A turning point in Narendra's life came in 1881, after one of his professors at the Scottish Church College told him about the great religious teacher Shri Ramakrishna (1836–1886). At this stage in his life, Narendra was doubtful about religion and was unsure about the existence of God. He was not prepared to accept Ramakrishna as a spiritual guru (guide or teacher), as he did not believe that the guru could truly experience and understand the nature of the divine. Narendra's opinions would change, however, after he underwent a dramatic experience during his second meeting with Ramakrishna. He later said, as quoted on the Manas: Religions Web sit e of the University of California-Los Angeles:
My eyes were wide open, and I saw that everything in the room, including the walls themselves, was whirling rapidly around and receding, and at the same time, it seemed to me that my consciousness [awareness] of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void. This destruction of my consciousness of self seemed to me to be the same thing as death. I felt that death was right before me, very close.
Swami Vivekananda's Thoughts on Women
Early in his life, Swami Vivekananda shared the viewpoint of many Hindu holy men regarding women, seeing them as an obstacle to purity of thought and action. Later in life, after he had examined many of the social problems that affected India and tried to help correct them, he changed his attitude, at one point saying, "The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women." He believed that no country could develop and progress if it continued to treat its women badly.
He based his belief on the teachings of the Vedanta, which makes no distinction between men and women and indeed teaches that all people, of either sex, take part in the same universal soul. One reason that he changed his thinking about the role of women was that in the United States, he came to admire the greater education and achievement of women compared to women in his native India at that time.
Narendra's words express the essence of the branch of Hindu philosophy taught by Ramakrishna, called Advaita Vedanta. As advaita means "not two," this school of philosophy rejected existential dualism, or the separation of the self from the universe. The school instead taught monism, or the "oneness" of the self with the universal whole, called Brahma (or Brahman). Vedanta means "end of the Vedas," referring to the Upanishads. The Upanishads are texts that are included within the Vedas and contain the core of Hindu beliefs. Later, in his address to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Narendra would state the principle of the unity of the self with the universe, which he had learned from Ramakrishna, in this way, as quoted on UniversalWisdom.org:
The Hindu believes that he is a spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce—him the fire cannot burn—him the water cannot melt—him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference [boundary] is nowhere but whose center is located in the body, and that death means the change of the center from holy to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter.
For five years Narendra studied under Ramakrishna, who recognized the remarkable abilities in his new student and patiently tried to help him "see God." To expand Narendra's knowledge, he read to him from the Christian Bible, placing emphasis on passages dealing with Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce; see entry), as an example of divine love. During these years Narendra explored the basic principles of Hindu thought: Brahma, the nature of the soul, meditation, yoga (a discipline aimed at preparing the mind for perfect spiritual insight), karma (the belief that one's destiny is affected by the sum total of one's deeds), and reincarnation (the belief that one's soul is reborn in another body). He also studied the Hindu sacred texts, particularly the Vedas and the Upanishads.
After Ramakrishna's death in 1886, Narendra inherited the elder's role as a spiritual master. He and a group of Ramakrishna's followers took vows as monks and lived in a house in the Indian city of Baranagar. At this point Narendra took the monastic name Vivekananda, formed from the words vivek, meaning "conscience" or "mind," and ananda, meaning "joyous." The title swami, which means "owner" or "lord" in Hindi, is used to identify a teacher and ascetic, or one who gives up worldly possessions and lives a life of self-denial. During this period Vivekananda and his fellow monks survived by begging.
In 1890 Vivekananda and some of his fellow monks set out on a two-year pilgrimage throughout India. At times he stayed in palaces, and at other times he stayed in the huts of the poor. During his travels he became more aware of the poverty and hunger that affected many of his countrymen. He also came to recognize that under British rule and the forces of modernization, Indians were losing their faith in their ancient religion. (The British had established control of India in the mid-1800s.) On December 24, 1892, Vivekananda arrived at Kanyakumari, a town at the tip of southern India. According to his followers, he swam out to a small island in the ocean, where he meditated for three days. When he returned he expressed his determination not only to help improve the condition of Indians but also to preach the message of the divine unity of humankind. The island became the site of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial.
World Parliament of Religions
Vivekananda then traveled to Madras, India, where he attracted a larger number of followers. The young men of Madras had learned about the upcoming first-ever meeting of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, which was scheduled for September 1893, at the same time as the Chicago World's Fair. They urged Vivekananda to attend the parliament as a representative of Hinduism. He agreed, and with the financial help of his followers he made the trip to the United States.
When he arrived in Chicago Vivekananda did not even know the exact dates when the World Parliament of Religions was scheduled to be held (September 11-27), nor did he carry any credentials, or documents establishing authority, that entitled him to speak. Nonetheless, as a highly respected guru, he was given permission on three occasions to address the seven thousand people in attendance, at times bringing his listeners to their feet in applause. In the eyes of many observers, including the newspaper reporters who covered his speeches, Swami Vivekananda was the most dominant figure at the parliament.
Vivekananda delivered his most important address on September 19, when he presented the "Paper on Hinduism." In this speech he expressed a number of views that were new to most people in the West. He explained the concept of reincarnation, in which souls are believed to last through many bodily lives, and why people are unable to remember their past lives. He stated that the universe was eternal, not something that had been created at a given point in time, which was the Jewish and Christian belief. He also stated his philosophical belief that the goal of human life was to realize the divinity that lies within and express that divinity through concern for the welfare of others. Perhaps most importantly, he rejected the concept, prominent in Christianity, that all people are naturally sinners.
His primary goal in attending the parliament was to promote religious tolerance. In his address, Vivekananda quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, a well-known Hindu text, and recounted at SriRamakrishna.org: "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee." In later years historians would assert that Swami Vivekananda's appearance at the World Parliament of Religions, and specifically his "Paper on Hinduism," marked the beginning of Western interest in Hinduism and of the awareness that India's ancient religion had something to teach the West.
Realizing the greatness of the opportunity before him, Swami Vivekananda spent the next four years in the West, traveling and giving lectures at universities. He became a great admirer of the United States and England, and he opened centers for the study of Vedantic philosophy (the philosophy of the Vedas) in New York City and London. After returning to India he toured the West again from early 1899 to late 1900.
Vivekananda's views and actions sometimes sparked controversy: Some observers believed that he exaggerated the impact that he was having on Western thought, especially since he claimed to have "conquered" the West with Vedantic philosophy. He also attracted opposition from Christian missionaries in India, whom he fiercely criticized. Devout Hindus believed that he had discredited himself by traveling in the West, which they believed was impure and overly concerned with material goods. They felt that he had abandoned his monastic life for fame and celebrity. Indian nationalists, who were calling for independence from Great Britain, resented the fact that he was on such friendly terms with the British.
Final return to India
Despite these criticisms, Swami Vivekananda returned to India at the end of 1900 to great acclaim. Many Hindus were proud of his accomplishments in the West. During the remainder of his life he devoted himself to addressing the difficulties of the poor in India and to speaking out about social problems. With the help of the Ramakrishna Math, the order of monks formed after the death of Ramakrishna, he established the Ramakrishna Mission. Among its many other accomplishments, the mission provided care for Indians during an outbreak of the deadly infectious disease called the plague, saving many lives.
Although Swami Vivekananda died at the age of thirty-nine, on July 4, 1902, the work of the Ramakrishna Mission continued throughout the world into the early twenty-first century. Its motto, Atmano mokshartham jagad-hitaya cha, means "For one's own salvation, and for the good of the world." Under the alternate name of Vivekananda Vedanta Society, the organization maintains more than one hundred missions worldwide, including twelve in the United States.
For More Information
Ghosh, Gautam. The Prophet of Modern India: A Biography of Swami Vivekananda. New Delhi, India: Rupa, 2003.
Vivekananda, Swami. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. 8th ed. West Bengal, India: Advaita Ashrama, 1989.
"Paper on Hinduism." September 19, 1893.UniversalWisdom.org. http://www.theuniversalwisdom.org/hinduism/paper-on-hinduism-vivekananda/ (accessed June 2, 2006).
"Ramakrishna Order." Vivekananda Vedanta Network: Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Boston. http://www.vivekananda.org/RKOrder.asp (accessed June 2, 2006).
"Swami Vivekananda: A Short Biography." Vedanta Society of Southern California. http://www.vedanta.org/rko/vivekananda/sv_bio.html (accessed June 2, 2006).
"Swami Vivekananda: Chicago Address. Addresses at the Parliament of World Religions." September 11, September 15, and September 27, 1893. SriRamakrishna.org. http://www.sriramakrishna.org/chicago.htm (accessed June 2, 2006).
"Vivekananda." Manas: Religions. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/gurus/Vivek.html (accessed on June 2, 2006).
Vivekananda, Swami. "Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda." Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/vivekananda/volume_1/vol_1_frame.htm (accessed on May 26, 2006).