Swami Vivekanand's name was Narendra Nath Dutta in his pre-monastic life. He was born in an affluent family in Kolkata on 12th January, 1863. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney with interest in varied subjects, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with qualities like deep devotion, strong character etc. The precocious boy, Narendra mastered music, gymnastics and studies. By the time he completed his graduation from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. He had a yogic temperament and used to practice meditation even from his boyhood, and was also involved in 'Brahmo Movement' for time being.
Meeting the Mentor
At the threshold of youth, Narendra had
to undergo a period of spiritual crisis when he was confused by doubts about
the very existence of God. And at that time, he came to know about Shri
Ramakrishna from his English professor at college. In November 1881, one day
Narendra went to meet Shri Ramakrishna at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He
straight away asked him a question, which he had asked to several others but
had received no satisfactory answer, "Sir, have you seen God?"
Without a moment's hesitation, Shri Ramakrishna replied, "Yes, I have. I can see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a much deeper sense."
Shri Ramakrishna not only removed doubts from the mind of Narendra, but also won him over through his pure, selfless love. And thus began a unique Guru-disciple relationship in the history of spiritualism. Narendra now started visiting Dakshineshwar frequently and, under the guidance of the Guru, made rapid progress on the spiritual path. At Dakshineshwar, Narendra also met many youngsters who were devoted to Shri Ramakrishna, and they all became close pals.
After a few years two incidents distressed Narendra considerably. One was the sudden death of his father in 1884, leaving his family in miserable condition. Hence, Narendra had to bear the burden of supporting his mother, brothers and sisters. The second event was the illness of Shri Ramakrishna which was diagnosed as throat cancer. In September 1885, Shri Ramakrishna was taken to a house at Shyampukur, and a few months later to a rented villa at Cossipore. At these two places the young disciples nursed their Guru with utmost care. Though there was poverty at home, as he was unemployed, Narendra had lead his fellows.
Exploring the Real India
During his travels across India, Swami Vivekanand was deeply touched by the terrible poverty and backwardness of the people. He was the first religious leader in India to understand and openly declare that the real cause of India's ruin was the neglect of the masses. The urgent need was to provide food and other bare requirements of life to the starving millions. For this, they should be trained about improved agricultural techniques, village industries, etc. It was in this context that Vivekanand grasped the core problem of poverty in India, which had never attracted the attention of social reformers of those days. Because of centuries of repression, the exploited masses had lost the confidence in their ability to improve. The priority was to instill into their minds the faith in themselves and for this they needed a revitalizing and inspiring message. Vivekanand could find this message in the principle of the Atman, the doctrine of the potential divinity of the soul, taught in Vedanta, the ancient system of religious philosophy of India. He saw that, in spite of poverty, the masses adhered to religion. But they had never been enlightened by the stimulating principles of Vedanta and how to apply them in practical life. Thus, the people needed two kinds of knowledge, firstly, secular knowledge to improve their economic condition and secondly, spiritual knowledge to infuse self-confidence and reinforce their morality. The challenge was to spread these two kinds of knowledge among the people. Education was the only answer that Vivekanand found.
Need for an Organization
Vivekanandji was very clear that to carry out his plans for the spread of education for the strengthening of the poor people, including women, an efficient organization of committed people was required. As he stated later on that he wanted to set in motion, a mechanism, which could bring the noblest of ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest. A few years later, Swamiji founded the Ramakrishna Mission to serve as a part of this 'mechanism'.
Decision to attend the Parliament of Religions
It was when these ideas were taking
shape in his mind in the course of his wanderings that Swami Vivekananda heard
about the World's Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893. His
friends and admirers in India wanted him to attend the Parliament. He too felt
that the Parliament would provide the right forum to present his Master's
message to the world, and so he decided to go to America. Another reason which
prompted Swamiji to go to America was to seek financial help for his project of
uplifting the masses.
Swamiji, however, wanted to have an inner certitude and divine call regarding his mission. Both of these he got while he sat in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanyakumari. With the funds partly collected by his Chennai disciples and partly provided by the Raja of Khetri, Swami Vivekananda left for America from Mumbai on 31 May 1893.
The Parliament of Religions
Swami Vivekanand came to know about the World's Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893 while he was touring in the country to spread the message of his Guru. His admirers and comrades wanted him to attend the Parliament. He too felt that the Parliament would provide the right platform to present his Guru's message to the world, and thus he decided to go to America. Another reason, which prompted Vivekanandji to go to America, was to seek financial help for his mission of uplifting the masses. He, however, wanted to have an inner conviction and divine call about the mission, which he got while sitting in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanyakumari. His Chennai disciples managed to collect some funds for his visit to America and rest was provided by the Raja of Khetri, and finally, Swami Vivekanand left for America to participate in the World Parliament of Religions on 31st May, 1893 from Mumbai.
After the Parliament of Religions
He became famous as an 'Orator by Divine Right' and as a 'Messenger of Indian Wisdom to the Western World', after his speeches at the World's Parliament of Religions held in September, 1893 at Chicago, America. After the Parliament, Vivekanandji spent about three and a half years mostly in the eastern parts of USA and also in London to spread the concept of Vedanta as practiced by Shri Ramakrishna.
Awakening of the Countrymen
On returning to India in January 1897, he got enthusiastic welcome everywhere. He delivered a series of lectures in different parts of India, which lead to a great movement all over the country. Vivekanandji's efforts were to do the following through his inspiring and overwhelming lectures :
Foundation of Ramakrishna Mission
Immediately after returning back to Kolkata, Swami Vivekanand accomplished one of the most important tasks of his mission. He established Ramakrishna Mission on 1st May 1897, a foundation to propagate Practical Vedanta and to carry out various forms of social service, like running hospitals, educational institutes, hostels, rural development centers etc. and conducting massive relief and rehabilitation work for victims of earthquakes, cyclones and other calamities in different parts of India and other countries, jointly by monks and lay people.
Belur Math – The symbol of unity of all religions
In early 1898, Swami Vivekanand acquired a big plot of land on the western bank of the Ganga, at a place known as Belur, to build a monastery as a permanent habitat for the monks, open to all men without any discrimination of religion, race or caste. He got it registered as 'Ramakrishna Math' after two years. Here, Swamiji recognized a new, universal pattern of monastic life which adapts ancient monastic ideals to the conditions of modern life, giving equal importance to personal enlightenment and social service.
Many people in the West were influenced by the life and message of Swami Vivekanand. Some of them even became his disciples or devoted fellows. Among them, some of the names that may be specially mentioned are of Margaret Noble (later known as Sister Nivedita), Captain and Mrs. Sevier, Josephine McLeod and Sara Ole Bull, etc. Sister Nivedita dedicated her life for the education of girls in Kolkata. Some of his Indian disciples also joined Ramakrishna Math and became Sanyasis.
During his second visit to the West in June 1899, he spent most of his time on the west coast of USA. He delivered many lectures there and returned to Belur Math in December 1900 and spent rest of his life in India, inspiring and guiding people, both monastic and lay. Constant work, especially giving lectures to motivate people, had an adverse effect on Vivekanand's health and his it started deteriorating. Eventually, he breathed his last on the night of 4th July, 1902. Prior to his 'Maha Samadhi', he had written to a Western follower that, "It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn out garment. But I shall not stop working and keep inspiring men everywhere until the whole world shall know that it is mingled with God."