The Spiritual Genius of Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda (Bengali pronunciation: [pic]Shāmi Bibekānando (help·info)): Bengali pronunciation: [ʃami bibekanɒnɖo]) (12 January 1863–4 July 1902), born Narendra Nath Datta[3] (Bengali pronunciation: [nɔrend̪ro nat̪ʰ d̪ɔt̪t̪o]), was an Indian Hindu monk. He was a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world[4] and was credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion in the late 19th century.[5] He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India and contributed to the notion of nationalism in colonial India.

[6] He was the chief disciple of the 19th century saint Ramakrishna and the founder of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission.[4] He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech beginning with “Sisters and Brothers of America,”[7] through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Born into an aristocratic Bengali family of Calcutta,[8] Vivekananda showed an inclination towards spirituality.

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He was influenced by his guru Ramakrishna from whom he learnt that all living beings were an embodiment of the divine self and hence, service to God could be rendered by service to mankind.[9] After the death of his guru, Vivekananda toured the Indian subcontinent extensively and acquired a first-hand knowledge of the conditions that prevailed in British India.[10] He later travelled to the United States to represent India as a delegate in the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. He conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating tenets of Hindu philosophy in the United States, England and Europe.

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In India, Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint and his birthday is celebrated as the National Youth Day.[11] Vivekananda was born as Narendranath in Calcutta, the capital of British India, on 12 January 1863 during the Makar Sankranti festival.

He belonged to a traditional Bengali Kayastha (a caste of Hindus) family and was one of the nine siblings.[13] Narendra’s father Vishwanath Datta was an attorney of Calcutta High Court.[14] Narendra’s mother was a pious woman and a housewife. The progressive rational approach of his father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape his thinking and personality.[15][16] Young Narendranath was fascinated by the wandering ascetics and monks.[16] Narendra was an average student, but a voracious reader.[17]

He was interested in a wide range of subjects such as philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, arts, and literature.[18] He evinced interest in the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He trained in Indian classical music,[19] and participated in physical exercise, sports, and organisational activities.[18] Narendra joined the Metropolitan Institution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in 1871 and studied there until 1877 when his family moved to Raipur.[20] The family returned to Calcutta two years later.

College and Brahmo Samaj

In 1879 after his family moved back to Calcutta, Narendra passed the entrance examination from the Presidency College. He subsequently studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations in the General Assembly’s Institution (now known as the Scottish Church College).[21][22] In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination and in 1884 he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree.[23][24] Narendra studied the works of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Baruch Spinoza, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin.[25][26] Narendra became fascinated with the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and had correspondence with him;[27][28] he translated Spencer’s book Education (1861) into Bengali. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works.[26] Dr. William Hastie, principal of General Assembly’s Institution, wrote, “Narendra is really a genius.

I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.”[25] Some accounts regard Narendra as a srutidhara—a man with prodigious memory.[29][30][31] Narendra became the member of a Freemason’s lodge and of a breakaway faction of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen.[22] His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo concepts, which included belief in a formless God and deprecation of the worship of idols.[32] Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, he wondered if God and religion could be made a part of one’s growing experiences and deeply internalised.

Narendra went about asking prominent residents of contemporary Calcutta whether they had come “face to face with God” but could not get answers which satisfied him.[33][34] His first introduction to the saint Ramakrishna occurred in a literature class in General Assembly’s Institution, when he heard Hastie lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion.[35][36] While explaining the word “trance” in the poem, Hastie suggested his students to visit Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar to know the real meaning of trance. This prompted some of his students, including Narendra, to visit Ramakrishna.[22][37][38]

With Ramakrishna

Ramakrishna, guru of Vivekananda.

Narendra’s meeting with Ramakrishna in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in Narendra’s life.[39] Narendra said about this first meeting that “Ramakrishna looked just like an ordinary man, with nothing remarkable about him. He used the most simple language and I thought ‘Can this man be a great teacher?’. I crept near to him and asked him the question which I had been asking others all my life: ‘Do you believe in God, Sir?’ ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Can you prove it, Sir?’ ‘Yes’. ‘How?’ ‘Because I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense.’ That impressed me at once. […] I began to go to that man, day after day, and I actually saw that religion could be given. One touch, one glance, can change a whole life.”[39][40] Though Narendra did not accept Ramakrishna as his teacher initially and revolted against his ideas, he was attracted by his personality and started visiting him at Dakshineswar frequently.[41] He initially looked upon Ramakrishna’s ecstasies and visions as “mere figments of imagination”,[15] and “hallucinations”.[42] As a member of Brahmo Samaj, he was against idol worship and polytheism, and Ramakrishna’s worship of Kali.[43] He even rejected the Advaitist Vedantism of “identity with absolute” as blasphemy and madness, and often made fun of the concept.[42] Though at first Narendra could not accept Ramakrishna and his visions, he did not neglect him. Instead, he tested Ramakrishna, who faced all of his arguments and examinations with patience—”Try to see the truth from all angles” was his reply.[41]

His father’s untimely death in 1884 left Narendra’s family bankrupt. Unable to find employment and facing poverty, Narendra questioned God’s existence.[44] During this time, Narendra found solace in Ramakrishna, and his visits to Dakshineswar increased.[45] Narendra gradually became ready to renounce everything for the sake of realising God. In time, Narendra accepted Ramakrishna as his guru.[41] In 1885, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer and he was transferred to Calcutta and later to Cossipore. Narendra and Ramakrishna’s other disciples took care of him during his final days. Narendra’s spiritual education under Ramakrishna continued.

At Cossipore, Narendra reportedly experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi.[46] During Ramakrishna’s last days, Narendra and some of the other disciples received the ochre monastic robes from Ramakrishna, forming the first monastic order of Ramakrishna.[47] Narendra was taught that service to men was the most effective worship of God.[15][48] During his final days, Ramakrishna asked Narendra Nath to take care of other monastic disciples and in turn asked them to look upon Narendra as their leader.[49] Ramakrishna died in the early morning hours of 16 August 1886 at his garden house in Cossipore.[49]

 Founding of the Ramakrishna Math

Vivekananda (standing, 3rd from left) and other disciples of Ramakrishna in Baranagar Math, in 1887[50] After the death of Ramakrishna, his devotees and admirers stopped funding the Cossipore math. The unpaid rents soon piled up and Narendra and other disciples of Ramakrishna had to find a new place to live.[51] Many of his disciples returned home and became inclined towards a Grihastha (family-oriented) life.[52] Narendra decided to make a dilapidated house at Baranagar the new math (monastery) for remaining disciples. The rent of the Baranagar Math was cheap and it was funded by “holy begging” (mādhukarī).

In his book Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment, Narasingha Prosad Sil writes, “the Math was an adult male haven, a counter–culture community of freedom–seeking youths on the fringe of society and the city”.[53] The math became the first building of the Ramakrishna Math—the monastery of the first monastic order of Ramakrishna.[39] Narendra later reminisced about the early days in the monastery:[54] In January 1887, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows. Narendra took the name of Swami Bibidishananda. Later he was given the name Vivekananda by Ajit Singh, the Maharaja of Khetri.[55] In January 1899 the Baranagar Math was transferred to Belur in the Howrah district, now known as the Belur Math.[56] Swami Vivekananda location unknown, ca.1888–1893[57]

In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a Parivrâjaka— the Hindu religious life of a wandering monk, “without fixed abode, without ties, independent and strangers wherever they go.”[58] His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff, and his two favourite books—Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ.[59] Vivekananda travelled extensively in India for five years, visiting centres of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life.[60][61] He developed a sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the masses and resolved to uplift the nation.[60][62] Living mainly on bhiksha (alms), Vivekananda travelled on foot and railway tickets bought by his admirers whom he met during the travels. During these travels he made acquaintance and stayed with Indians from all walks of life and religions—scholars, dewans, rajas, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, pariahs (low caste workers) and government officials.[62]

Swami Vivekananda on the platform of the Parliament of Religions September 1893. On the platform (left to right) Virchand Gandhi, Dharmapala, Swami Vivekananda[85] Parliament of the World’s Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition.[86] On this day Vivekananda gave his first brief speech. He represented India and Hinduism.[87] He was initially nervous, bowed to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and began his speech with, “Sisters and brothers of America!”.[83][88] To these words he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes.

When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.”[89] He quoted two illustrative passages from the Shiva mahimna stotram—”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!” and “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.”[89]

Despite being a short speech, it voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality.[89][90] Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.”[88] He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as the “Cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.”

The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda 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.”[91] The American newspapers reported Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.[92] The Boston Evening Transcript reported that Vivekananda was “a great favourite at the parliament…if he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded”.[93] He spoke several more times at the Parliament on topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony of religions. The parliament ended on 27 September 1893. All his speeches at the Parliament had the common theme of universality, and emphasised religious tolerance.[94]

Lecturing tours in America and England

“I do not come”, said Swamiji on one occasion in America, “to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”[95] Following the Parliament of Religions, Vivekananda spent nearly two years lecturing in various parts of eastern and central United States, mostly in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. He founded the “Vedanta Society of New York” in 1894.[96] By the spring of 1895, his busy and tiring schedule led to poor health.[97] He stopped lecturing tours, and started giving free and private classes on Vedanta and Yoga. Starting in June 1895, he conducted private lectures to a dozen of his disciples at the Thousand Island Park in New York for two months.[97] During his first visit to the West, he travelled to England twice—in 1895 and 1896.

His lectures were successful there.[98] There in November 1895, he met Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish lady, who would later become Sister Nivedita.[97] During his second visit to England in May 1896, Vivekananda met Max Müller, a noted Indologist from Oxford University who wrote Ramakrishna’s first biography in the West.[90] From England, he also visited other European countries. In Germany he met Paul Deussen, another Indologist.[99] Vivekananda was offered academic positions in two American universities—one for the chair of Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University and another similar position at Columbia University—which he declined since such duties would conflict with his commitment as a monk.[97]

Vivekananda attracted several followers and admirers in the US and Europe, such as Josephine MacLeod, William James, Josiah Royce, Robert G. Ingersoll, Nikola Tesla, Lord Kelvin, Harriet Monroe, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Calvé, and Professor Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz.[15][97][99][101] He initiated several followers into his mission; Marie Louise, a French woman, became Swami Abhayananda, and Mr. Leon Landsberg, became Swami Kripananda.[102] From West, Vivekananda also set his work back in India in motion. He was in regular correspondence with his followers and brother monks,[nb 1] offering advice and monetary funds. His letters in this period reflect motives of his campaign for social service,[103] and often contained strong words.[104] He wrote to Swami Akhandananda, “Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion.

Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying “Ramakrishna, O Lord!”—unless you can do some good to the poor.”[105][106] Eventually in 1895, money sent by Vivekananda was used to start the periodical Brahmavadin, for the purpose of teaching the Vedanta.[107] Later, Vivekananda’s translation of first six chapters of The Imitation of Christ was published in Brahmavadin (1889).[108] Vivekananda left for India on 16 December 1896 from England with his disciples, Captain and Mrs. Sevier, and J.J. Goodwin. On the way they visited France and Italy, and set sail for India from the Port of Naples on 30 December 1896.[109] He was later followed to India by Sister Nivedita. Nivedita devoted the rest of her life to the education of Indian women and the cause of India’s independence.[97][110]

Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, a branch of the Ramakrishna Math, founded on 19 March 1899, later published many of Swami Vivekananda’s work, now publishes Prabuddha Bharata journal

On 1 May 1897 at Calcutta, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission—the organ for social service. The ideals of the Ramakrishna Mission are based on Karma Yoga.[115][116] Its governing body consists of the trustees of the Ramakrishna Math—the organ to carry out religious works.[117] Both Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission have their headquarters at Belur Math.[90][118] He founded two other monasteries—one at Mayavati on the Himalayas, near Almora, called the Advaita Ashrama and another at Madras. Two journals were started, Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbhodan in Bengali.[119] The same year, the famine relief work was started by Swami Akhandananda at Murshidabad district.[90][117] Vivekananda had earlier inspired Jamsetji Tata to set up a research and educational institution when they had travelled together from Yokohama to Chicago on Vivekananda’s first visit to the West in 1893.

Now Tata requested him to head the Research Institute of Science that Tata had established; he declined the offer citing conflict with his “spiritual interests”.[120][121][122] Vivekananda visited Punjab where he tried to mediate ideological conflict between Arya Samaj (a reformist movement of Hinduism) and Sanatans (orthodox Hindus).[123] After brief visits to Lahore,[117] Delhi and Khetri, he returned to Calcutta in January 1896. He consolidated the works of math and trained disciples over the next several months. He composed Khandana Bhava Bandhana, a prayer song dedicated to Ramakrishna in 1898.[124] Vivekananda left for the West for the second time in June 1899 despite his declining health.[126] He was accompanied by Sister Nivedita and Swami Turiyananda.

He spent a short time in England, and went on to the United States. During this visit, he established the Vedanta societies at San Francisco and New York. He also founded “Shanti Ashrama” (peace retreat) at California.[127] He attended the Congress of Religions in Paris in 1900.[128] From the US, he went to Paris. His lectures in Paris dwelt on worship of Linga and authenticity of the Gita.[127] From Paris he visited Brittany, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens and Egypt. The French philosopher Jules Bois was his host for most of this period.[127]

He returned to Calcutta on 9 December 1900.[127] Following a brief visit to Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, he settled at Belur Math from where he continued to coordinate the works of Ramakrishna Mission and Math, and also the works in England and America. Many visitors came to him in these days, including royalties and politicians. He was unable to join the Congress of Religions in 1901 in Japan due to deteriorating health. He, however, went for pilgrimages to Bodhgaya and Varanasi.[129] Declining health and ailments such as asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia restricted his activities.[130]


On 4 July 1902, the day of his death, Vivekananda woke up very early in the morning, went to chapel and meditated for three hours. He taught Shukla-Yajur-Veda, Sanskrit grammar, and yoga philosophy to pupils in the morning at Belur Math.[131][132] He discussed with colleagues a plan to start a Vedic college in the Ramakrishna Math, and carried out usual conversation. At seven p.m. he went into his room and asked not to be disturbed.[131] Vivekananda died at ten minutes past nine p.m. while he was meditating.[133] According to his disciples, Vivekananda attained Mahasamadhi.[134] Rupture of blood vessels in the brain was reported as a possible cause of the death.[135] His disciples believed that rupture was on account of Brahmarandhra —the aperture in the crown of the head —being pierced when he attained Mahasamadhi.

Vivekananda had fulfilled his own prophecy of not living to be forty years old.[136] He was cremated on sandalwood funeral pyre on the bank of Ganga in Belur. On the other bank of the river, Ramakrishna had been cremated sixteen years before.[137] Vivekananda believed a country’s future depends on its people; his teachings focused on the development of the mass.[138] He wanted “to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest.”[139] Vivekananda believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy, based on the interpretation of Adi Shankara.

He summarised the Vedanta’s teachings as follows:[140] Vivekananda linked morality with the control of mind. He saw truth, purity and unselfishness as traits which strengthened the mind.[141] He advised his followers to be holy, unselfish and have Shraddha (faith). He supported practice of Brahmacharya (celibacy),[142] and believed that such practice was the source of his physical and mental stamina, as well as eloquence.[143] Vivekananda emphasized that success was an outcome of focused thought and action. In his lectures on Raja Yoga, he said, “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced.”[144]

Swami Vivekananda statue near Gateway of India, Mumbai.

Vivekananda revitalised Hinduism within and outside India. He was the principal reason behind the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West.[145] Professor Agehananda Bharati explained that, “…modern Hindus derive their knowledge of Hinduism from Vivekananda, directly or indirectly.”[146] Vivekananda espoused the idea that all sects within Hinduism and, indeed, all religions, are different paths to the same goal.[147] This view, however, has been criticised for oversimplification of Hinduism.[147] In the background of germinating nationalism in the British-ruled India, Vivekananda crystallised the nationalistic ideal. In the words of the social reformer Charles Freer Andrews, “The Swami’s intrepid patriotism gave a new colour to the national movement throughout India. More than any other single individual of that period Vivekananda had made his contribution to the new awakening of India.”[148] Vivekananda drew the attention towards the prevalence of poverty in the country, and maintained that addressing such poverty was prerequisite for the national awakening.[149]

His nationalistic thoughts influenced scores of Indian thinkers and leaders. Sri Aurobindo regarded Vivekananda as the one who awakened India spiritually.[150] Gandhi counted him among the few Hindu reformers “who have maintained this Hindu religion in a state of splendor by cutting down the dead wood of tradition.”[151] The first governor general of independent India, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, said “Vivekananda saved Hinduism, saved India.”[152] According to Subhas Chandra Bose, a major proponent of armed struggle for Indian independence, Vivekananda was “the maker of modern India”;[153] for Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda’s influence increased his “love for his country a thousandfold.” Vivekananda influenced India’s independence movement;[154] his writings inspired a whole generation of freedom fighters such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bagha Jatin.

Many years after Vivekananda’s death, Rabindranath Tagore told French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland,[155] “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative.” Rolland himself wrote that “His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Händel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!” [156] Jamsetji Tata was influenced by Vivekananda to establish the Indian Institute of Science—one of India’s best known research universities.[122] Abroad, Vivekananda had interactions with Max Müller. Scientist Nikola Tesla was one of those influenced by the Vedic philosophy teachings of Vivekananda. On 11 November 1995, a section of Michigan Avenue, a major thoroughfare in downtown Chicago, was renamed “Swami Vivekananda Way”.[157] National Youth Day in India is observed on his birthday, 12 January.[158]

He is projected as a role model for youth by the Indian government as well as non-government organisations and personalities.[158][159] In September 2010, India’s Finance Ministry highlighted the relevance of teachings and values of Vivekananda in the modern competitive environment. The Union Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, approved in principle the “Swami Vivekananda Values Education Project” at the cost of [pic]100 crore (US$18.2 million) with the objectives such as involving the youth through competitions, essays, discussions and study circles and publishing Vivekananda’s complete work in different languages.[160] In 2011, West Bengal Police Training College was renamed as “Swami Vivekananda State Police Academy, West Bengal”.[161] The state technical university of Chhattisgarh has been named as Chhattisgarh Swami Vivekanand Technical University.[162] In 2012, the airport in Raipur was renamed as Swami Vivekananda Airport.[163]

Manuscript of “Blessings to Nivedita” a poem written by Swami Vivekananda in his own handwriting.[164] Vivekananda was a powerful orator and writer both in English and Bengali.[165] Majority of his published works were compiled from lectures given around the world. Vivekananda was a singer and a poet,[166] and composed many songs and poems including his favourite Kali the Mother. He blended humour in his teachings; his language was lucid. His Bengali writings stand testimony to the fact that he believed that words—spoken or written—should be for making things easier to understand rather than show off the speaker or writer’s knowledge

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The Spiritual Genius of Swami Vivekananda

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