Swami Vivekananda as we all know is the greatest Hindu monk who has brought a massive change during the 19th century. He was born in 1863 in Kolkata and continued his studies there. Swami Vivekananda is his renowned name due to his contribution to the Hindi Monasticism. His real name was Narendra Nath Datta known by a very few. He lived in an atmosphere where there was a debate about whether God had a form or was just in one’s belief. It was through his friend he met his Guru Sri Ramakrishna a devotee of Lord Vishnu in Dakineshwar. Naren expected that Ramakrishna was like any other man who is just another priest, but to his surprise he came across the most unique person on earth that he had ever seen. Despite the fact that initially Swami found that this man was truly mad but soon he was attracted and moved by his charismatic personality. He became the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. So long from then Swami used to visit his guru’s lectures and spend almost the entire time only with him.
Due to Ramakrishna’s wise teachings not only Naren but also a few young men used to visit his home until his death in 1886 due to cancer. Swami spent around 5 years in learning the whole concept of realization between soul and God. His teacher had initiated Swami and others to sannyasa with orange robes. As per the orders given by Ramakrishna, the young monks began living together and the community that was formed came to be known as Belur Mutt to the south of Dakineshwar. There was a time when Naren set off wandering for around 3 years leaving Kolkata, to the different parts of India was then being called as Swami Vivekananda his monastic name. He had continued his journey all the way visiting various cities and sometimes meditating in Himalayas.
In 1892 when he finally reached the southern tip of India, meditating on a rock he had a vision of the future India. Interestingly that rock bears his name even today. Due to a local Hindu ruler, Swami resolved to undertake the trip to the Chicago World’s Parliament of religions in 1893 being one of the Hindu representatives. “Sisters and Brothers of America,” began Swami Vivekananda’s renowned first address to the World’s Parliament of Religions, held at what is now the Art Institute of Chicago. India remained under the heel of British imperial rule, and most Americans of European descent still did not regard people of other ethnic groups as equals. Placing the word “sisters” before “brothers” was also significant. This was twenty-seven years before women in America were granted the right to vote.
The major theme of Vivekananda’s address would be a central one of his teaching: the idea of “toleration and universal acceptance.” Speaking of Hindus generally, he says, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” There was of course a huge uproar in the parliament and later on after that speech he was being followed immensely where a large population even though outside India was totally fascinated by him. His speech was reported in both US and India. His theme i.e. the opposites of toleration and acceptance he said “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
According to The New York Herald memorably stating, “He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” To capture the attention and make a person realize, he began with a story of a frog which lives in well. This frog had lived there for so many years and was born and brought up in the surroundings of the well. It was very happy with its home and used to regularly cleanse all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with the energy that we could credit the bacteriologists. Soon enough the little frog had become sleek and fat. One day another frog from the sea had fallen into the well. The frog in the well asked the sea frog, Where are you from?
The sea frog had told him that I have come from the sea. The frog in the well asked how big is the sea and whether the sea was bigger than the well. The sea frog found it weird but still said that how can you even compare the sea with this well it is much bigger than this well. But the frog in the well revoked that nothing can be bigger than his well and nothing in this world that is bigger than this, this fellow is a liar so turn him out. By this story Swami compared to a human that each one would say that my religion is the only one and nothing is better than this, how ironic it is to the story of a frog. We must be ready and willing to accept and tolerate the differences around us although our religion is different. We are ultimately the sons and daughters of this world. In 1900, Vivekananda explained the nature of Hindu monasticism at the Shakespeare Club of Padasena in California: “The sannyasins do not possess property, and they do not marry. Beyond that there is no organization. The only bond that is there is the bond between the teacher and the taught and that is peculiar to India.
The teacher is not a man, who comes just to teach me, and I pay him so much, and there it ends. In India it is really like an adoption. The teacher is more than my own father, and I am truly his child, his son in every respect. I owe him obedience and reverence first, before my own father even; because, they say, the father gave me this body, but he showed me the way to salvation, he is greater than father. And we carry this love, this respect for our teacher all our lives.” Vivekananda was not the first Hindu teacher to visit North America. A Brahmo Samaj representative, Pratap Majumdar, had been in America prior to Vivekananda, and also attended and spoke at the 1893 Parliament the groundwork for the reception of Swami Vivekananda’s ideas had also been laid by the intense interest in Hindu thought of such major intellectual figures of nineteenth century America as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Vivekananda was not the first, but he was the best received, becoming a celebrity figure whose travels and teachings were followed by all of the major newspapers of the day. United States was a deeply Christian nation and thus there were those who sought to counter his influence but nevertheless he had won the hearts of many and was successful in his attempt. In 1894 he started the first Vedanta Society in New York. This organization then grew, becoming nationwide in its scope soon after Vivekananda returned to India and began dispatching his brother monks to lead the centers that sprouted up from Boston on the East Coast to San Francisco in the West. During the Independence movement Swami Vivekananda though did not participate directly, but his teachings and his words were followed by the freedom fighters all over the country. It has been said that Vivekananda’s influence on the Indian movement was no less than the influence of Rousseau on the French revolution, or of Marx on the Russian and Chinese revolutions.
From all the contemporary sources it was evident that Vivekananda played a major role in bringing the national spirit. To quote Sister Nivedita, “He was a worker at foundations. Just as Ramakrishna, in fact, without knowing any books, had been a living epitome of the Vedanta, so was Vivekananda of the national life.” We shall go briefly into what happened in the national field before Vivekananda’s advent. English education, vernacular literature, the Indian press, various reform movements and political associations, including the Congress, had come and spread their influence before him. In spite of all these, a pervading national consciousness was absent.
Otherwise, how could The Hindu of Madras write in early 1893 about the religion of the major community, the Hindus, that “it is dead” and “its course is run”? But the same paper, along with others, including Anglo-Indian and missionary papers, wrote in less than one year’s time (and also afterwards) that “the present time may be described as the renaissance period in the history of Hindus” (Madras Christian College Magazine, March 1897). It was called a “national uprising” (Madras Times, 2 March 1895). How did this miracle happen? The only answer that we derive from contemporary accounts is that Vivekananda appeared at the Parliament of Religions, proclaimed there the glory of Indian religion and civilization, won recognition for his country’s ancient heritage, and thereby gave back to his countrymen their long-lost self-esteem and self-confidence. In his own words about future of India,
“Why is it?, to take a case in point, that forty millions of Englishmen rule three hundred millions of people here? What is the psychological explanation? These forty millions put their wills together and that means infinite power, and you are three hundred millions who have a will each separate from the other. Therefore to make a great future India, the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, coordination of wills. Already before my mind rises one of the marvellous verses of the Rig-Veda Samhita which says, “Be thou all of one mind, be thou all of one thought, for in the days of yore, the Gods being of one mind were enabled to receive oblations.” That the Gods can be worshipped by men is because they are of one mind. Being of one mind is the secret of society. And the more you go on fighting and quarrelling about all trivialities such as “Dravidian” and “Aryan,” and the question of Brahmins and non-Brahmins and all that, the further you are off from that accumulation of energy and power which is going to make the future India. Young men of Madras, my hope is in you.
Will you respond to the call of your nation? Each one of you has a glorious future if you dare believe me. Have a tremendous faith in yourselves, like the faith I had when I was a child, and which I am working out now. Have that faith, each one of you, in yourself—that eternal power is lodged in every soul—and you will revive the whole of India. We will then go to every country under the sun, and our ideas will before long be a component of the many forces that are working to make up every nation in the world. We must enter into the life of every race in India and abroad; we shall have to work to bring this about. Now for that, I want young men. “It is the young, the strong, and healthy, of sharp intellect that will reach the Lord,” say the Vedas. This is the time to decide your future—while you possess the energy of youth, not when you are worn out and jaded, but in the freshness and vigour of youth.Work—this is the time; for the freshest, the untouched and unsmelled flowers alone are to be laid at the feet of the Lord, and such He receives. Rouse yourselves, therefore, for life is short.
There are greater works to be done than aspiring to become lawyers and picking quarrels and such things. A far greater work is this sacrifice of yourselves for the benefit of your race, for the welfare of humanity. What is in this life? You are Hindus, and there is the instinctive belief in you that life is eternal. Life is short, but the soul is immortal and eternal, and one thing being certain, death, let us therefore take up a great ideal and give up our whole life to it. Let this be our determination, and may He, the Lord, who “comes again and again for the salvation of His own people,” to quote from our scriptures — may the great Krishna, bless us and lead us all to the fulfilment of our aims! Past history shows that, in India, religious movement has always preceded national regeneration. Here in India, no national uprising was possible without revitalizing Hinduism, the religion of the majority.
Vivekananda did that, and at the same time made it clear that Hinduism and other religions could remain in harmony and feel themselves as belonging to one nation. His primary role as a religious leader made him the undisputed spiritual father of the Indian freedom movement. His contributions towards Indian nationalism, militant nationalism in particular, included renewed self-esteem and self-confidence, dynamic spirit, dedication, a call for strength and struggle, love for the country and its people, equal rights, harmony of religions and an emphasis on social uplift and character building through mobilization of the young. After returning to India, Vivekananda called upon the people to believe in their potential strength. He exhorted his countrymen to accept new ideas and scientific knowledge that the modern machine age could offer. He showed the way for nation-building on a sound foundation. He had implanted the value of education that was missing in our country.
According to him education is not the amount of information that is stored into our brain and kept there undisturbed or undigested, he says, “If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library—“The ass carrying its load of sandalwood knows only the weight and not the value of the sandalwood.” If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world, and encyclopaedias are the Rishis. The ideal, therefore, is that we must have the whole education of our country, spiritual and secular, in our own hands, and it must be on national lines, through national methods as far as practical. Swami Vivekananda was among the first Hindu spiritual teachers in the modern era to give “seva” a central place in the spiritual path.
Vivekananda and his fellow monks of the Ramakrishna Order were derisively referred to as “scavenger monks” for their work with the poor and the ill in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in India. Before this time, the role of a sannyasin was understood by most Hindus to involve a complete withdrawal from the concerns of the world, their main focus being meditation, contemplation and teaching, rather than seva. Vivekananda, however, taught his fellow renouncers that they needed to do both. It is from the beginning that Swami had set off with a mission that would change the minds of people. His contribution is impossible to calculate.