Vivekananda, Swami (1863-1902)

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Vivekananda, Swami (1863-1902)

Hindu monk who became the leading interpreter of Yoga and Hinduism in the West; founder of the Ramakrishna Mission. Born as Narendra Nath Dutt in Calcutta in a Bengali family, January 12, 1863, he was educated at a Christian College in Calcutta. Here he was much impressed by the analytic and scientific methods of Westerners. For a time, Narendra was influenced by the Brahmo Samaj movement, but its rationalistic spirit did not altogether satisfy him.

When eighteen years old, he first met his spiritual teacher Sri Ramakrishna, who was much impressed by the boy's beautiful singing. Within a couple of years, Narendra was won over by the deep spiritual realization of Sri Ramakrishna and became his follower.

He made a number of visits to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar, but after the death of his father he was obliged to take charge of family affairs and got a job in an attorney's office. Eventually he persuaded Sri Ramakrishna to use his spiritual powers to ensure that his mother and brothers would never lack food and clothing, then renounced his worldly life.

Sri Ramakrishna died in 1886 and Narendra adopted the name Vivekananda in 1893, when he sailed from Bombay on May 31 to attend the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in connection with the World's Fair.

In his opening address he caused tumultuous applause by commencing "Sisters and Brothers of America," and thereafter his simple trenchant style and his grasp of both Hindu and Christian beliefs won over many audiences. His book on Raja Yoga attracted the attention and respect of such enlightened thinkers as William James and Leo Tolstoy. Vivekananda lectured throughout Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York for two years, then visited England, where he also aroused great enthusiasm, before returning to Calcutta in 1897.

Back in India, he took up the cause of ordinary people with realism as well as spiritual insight, stating: "The great national sin is the neglect of the masses and that is one of the causes of our downfall. No amount of politics would be of any avail until the masses of India are once more well educated and well cared for."

Soon afterwards he established the Ramakrishna Mission for training young monks and preachers. In June 1899, he made a second journey to the West, but by now his strength was giving out. He spent some time in California, which was congenial to his health and his teachings, and in December 1900 returned to India, where he passed away July 4, 1902, in Behur Monastery.

Today there are Ramakrishna Vedanta Centers in a number of countries, and the books of Swami Vivekananda remain one of the best and clearest introductions to Hindu spiritual teachings and yoga. These books are constantly reprinted, and include such popular works as Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Karma Yoga. His Collected Works covers eight volumes. The standard biography is by Swami Nikhilananda: Swami Vivekananda; A Biography, Adraita Ashram, Calcutta, India, 1975.