Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), born Narendranath Datta, was a Bengali Indian Hindu monk and chief disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. He played a pivotal role in introducing Vedanta and Yoga philosophies to the Western world, and is credited with helping raise Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century.
As a child in India, Narendra was curious about many things in life – especially the wandering ascetics and monks. His father was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court, while his grandfather was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar who left his family to become a monk at age twenty-five. Though both were well-educated and played a significant role in Narendranath’s scholastic achievement, he credits his mother, a devout housewife, for the ‘efflorescence of (his) knowledge’. Schooled at the Western-style Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution, Narendra excelled in Western and Eastern philosophy, and was recognized for his remarkable memory and intellectual capacity.
In his late teens, Narendra joined the Brahmo Samaj – a reform Hindu organization founded in 1828 by Rammohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore. Brahmo Samaj promoted a universalistic interpretation of Hinduism, echoing some of the ideas of Unitarianism (a Christian theological movement that emphasized a single God rather than the Trinity). Led by Keshab Chandra Sen and Tagore when Narenda joined, the Brahmo Samaj rejected traditional Hindu idol worship in favor of a belief in a formless God. The “streamlined, rationalized, monotheistic theology” was “strongly coloured by a selective and modernistic reading of the Upanisads and of the Vedanta.” During his tenure, Tagore pushed this ‘neo-Hinduism’ closer in line with western esotericism. This was furthered by Sen, who was fascinated by transcendentalism, the American philosophical-religious movement that emphasized personal religious experience over mere reasoning and theology. These events shaped Narendra’s view towards a more interpretive, intimate view of God.
“Where can we go to find God if we cannot see Him in our own hearts and in every living being.”
In 1881, Narendra met Sri Ramakrishna – then widely considered a Hindu saint and spiritual Master. Narendra was drawn to Ramakrishna’s magnetic personality and became a frequent visitor, though he initially had trouble accepting all of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings. Ramakrishna followed a simple and more traditional devotional path, with particular dedication to Mother Kali (the Divine Mother), which ran contrary to Brahmo Samaj teachings. Over time, however, Narendra’s spiritual experiences with Ramakrishna caused him to embrace Ramakrishna as his Guru, and leave the Brahmo Samaj.
Following the death of Narendra’s father in 1884, Narendra became responsible for trying to feed his family, though he had little money. To the annoyance of his mother, Narendra put earning money behind his spiritual disciplines, leaving his family with very little to survive on. Just two years later, Sri Ramakrishna passed away. Although it had been just five years since the two met, Ramakrishna designated Narendra as the leader of his monastic disciples.
Despite this recognition, life remained difficult, as former Ramakrishna devotees and admirers stopped supporting his disciples. As a result, rents accumulated and many disciples dispersed, leaving Narendra to look for a new math (monastery). He found a low-rent space in Baranagar, India, where he and the remaining disciples created the Belur math. Paying rent through “holy begging,” he and the disciples continued to absorb themselves in intense spiritual practices. Two years later (1888), he left Belur to become a wandering sannyasin (ascetic), visiting many holy places around India. During this time, Narendra lived day to day, begging for food while immersed in his own spiritual quest:
“Many times I have been in the jaws of death, starving, footsore, and weary; for days and days I had no food, and often could walk no further; I would sink down under a tree, and life would seem to be ebbing away. I could not speak, I could scarcely think, but at last the mind reverted to the idea: “I have no fear nor death; never was I born, never did I die; I never hunger or thirst. I am It! I am It!”
In early 1893, despite having little money and few contacts, Narendra accepted an invitation to speak at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as a representative of the Hindu religion. It was at this point that Narenda took the name we now know: “Vivekananda,” as suggested to him by Ajit Singh of Khetri. “Vivekananda” is a concatenation of the Sanskrit ‘viveka’ and ‘ānanda’, literally ‘discernment + bliss,’ or “the bliss of discerning wisdom.”
Upon arriving in Chicago and learning that he could not be admitted to the Parliament without an accredited sponsor organization, Vivekananda reached out to Professor John Wright of Harvard University. Upon meeting, Wright was so astonished by Vivekananda that he invited him to stay in his house as a guest, and enthusiastically sponsored him for the Parliament.
Opening a short speech on the opening day of the conference, Vivekananda bowed to Saraswati (the goddess of learning), and greeted the crowd with “Sisters and Brothers of America!” His reputation preceding him, a two minute standing ovation from the gathered crowd of seven thousand ensued before he could continue. Following the speech, Vivekananda attracted widespread attention in the press, which called him “the most popular and influential man in the parliament.”
Following this successful introduction in the U.S., Vivekananda spent nearly two years touring and lecturing in the eastern and central United States, promoting the idea that Hinduism was best expressed in Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Two years later, he founded the Vedanta Society of New York. Throughout his speeches, Vivekananda emphasized the universality of his religion:
“The universe is you yourself, the unbroken you; you are throughout the universe. “In all hands you work, through all mouths you eat, through all nostrils you breathe through all minds you think.” The whole universe is you; the universe is your body; you are the universe both formed and unformed. You are the soul of the universe and its body also. You are God, you are the angels, you are man, you are animals, you are the plants, you are the minerals, you are everything; the manifestation of everything is you. Whatever exists is you. You are the Infinite. The Infinite cannot be divided. It can have no parts, for each part would be infinite, and then the part would be identical with the whole, which is absurd. Therefore the idea that you are Mr. So-and-so can never be true; it is a day-dream. Know this and be free. This is the Advaita conclusion.”
His growing success led to a new mission, namely the establishment of Vedanta centers in the West (Later, once his reputation had grown, he was wholeheartedly welcomed back to India and successfully revived his work there as well). Traveling extensively throughout the United States and the UK, he spread the word of Advaita, and the accompanying Monist view of God:
“The doctrine of monism holds that this universe is all that exists; gross or fine, it is all here; the effect and the cause are both here; the explanation is here. What is known as the particular is simply repetition in a minute form of the universal. We get our idea of the universe from the study of our own Souls, and what is true there also holds good in the outside universe. The ideas of heaven and all these various places, even if they be true, are in the universe. They altogether make this Unity. The first idea, therefore, is that of a Whole, a Unit, composed of various minute particles, and each one of us is a part, as it were, of this Unit. As manifested beings we appear separate, but as a reality we are one. The more we think ourselves separate from this Whole, the more miserable we become. So, Advaita is the basis of ethics.”
Vivekananda continued sharing these Monist views in hectic world travels, eventually suffering from declining health as a result of his schedule. He died in 1902 at the site of his first monastery, Belur math, following a lesson to his disciples earlier in the morning. To this day, he is 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. Vivekananda’s reinterpretation created a new understanding and appreciation of Hinduism throughout the East and West, and was the principal reason for the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West. For pantheists, Vivekananda is remembered as a man of great vision, who clearly saw the connection in all things:
“All differences in this world are of degree, and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.” ~Swami Vivekananda