About Swami Vivekananda | Biography of Swami Vivekananda

About Swami Vivekananda | Biography of Swami Vivekananda January 12, 2015

Since it is Swami Vivekananda’s birthday today, on January 12, I thought I would write a bit about him. His birthday happens to be celebrated as National Youth Day in India.

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At the time when Swami Vivekananda was born, India was waiting going through numerous trials and she had lost touch with those noble spiritual ideals the pursuit of which save her that rare combination of beauty and power which even now is the wonder of the world. The spiritual and political preeminence had been plucked from earlier times. Her house had become divided against itself, and darkness and dissensions had usurped the fair seats of light and of love. False prophets had risen and deluded her children with sophisms and erroneous doctrines. And she had lived through the desolate centuries not with that radiant loveliness and royal grace of hearing that distinguished her of old, but with bowed head and diminished power.

It was at this critical period of India’s history, there was born that great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. He lived the life that the Rishis had lived in ancient days, and thought once more in deathless words, the golden truths that are enshrined in our scriptures. His beloved disciple, Swami Vivekananda, bore aloft the torch so lit by Sri Ramakrishna to the ends of the earth, and shed the light of spiritual knowledge over the whole world.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: EARLY LIFE

He was born on the 9th January, 1862, in one of the oldest Kayastha families, known as the Datta family of Simoolia. His grandfather, who, it is said, resembled him in appearance became a Sanyasin in the evening of his life. His father was Vishwanatha Datta, an Attorney at Law practising in the Calcutta High Court. His mother who died but recently was a remarkable lady, having had such an excellent faculty of memory that she could reproduce any song after hearing it only once. During childhood he used to he called Vireshwara, because he was born after a long and devoted worship of Shiva at Varanasi. His name was changed to Narendra Nath when he entered school.

Even during youth he showed that wonderful memory, that burning love for the lowly and the oppressed, that passion for holiness and spirituality that distinguished his later career. As he grew into manhood, lie became a close student of English Philosophy, and while he was at College, he sent, to Herbert Spencer a criticism of Spencer’s philosophic doctrines. Spencer was very much struck with the performance, and encouraged him in his inquiry after truth. During his collegiate career, the study of Western philosophy led him into agnosticism. Soon after he, left College, he came under the influence of Brahmoism. But when he found that the shining lights of Brahmoism had no real spiritual experiences, he gave up his connection with that religion.

This was a period of acute spiritual suffering for him, for he yearned to have a glimpse of the shining countenance of Truth and yearned in vain. He went to the teachers of the various faiths and asked them if they had realised the spiritual truths they taught and invariably got a negative answer. He was eagerly, looking for a teacher who would resolve his disputes and lead him on to a full realisation of the truths of the spirit.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: DISCIPLESHIP

He had now passed the B. A. Degree Examination of the Calcutta University, and was preparing himself for becoming a lawyer. At this time, an uncle of his, who was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, took him to that great saint. Narendra went to the saint in an utterly sceptical frame of mind. Sri Ramakrishna at once recognised him as the man for whom he had waited, so long, and who was destined to rouse India from her sleep of ages. The first interview between them is affecting to a degree. Sri Ramakrishna asked him if he coursing religious songs. “Narendra said yes, and sang two or three songs in his glorious voice. Sri Ramakrishna was so moved by them, that he sat for some time rapt in ecstatic contemplation of God. Narendra at last took leave of him, promising that he would come alone .some other day. Finally, he became the inseparable disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It was at that great sage’s feet that he learnt the great truths to which he afterwards gave expression in words of imperishable beauty.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: TRAVELS

When Sri Ramakrishna passed away on the 16th August, 1886, his disciples resolved to tread in the holy path which he had trod, and give up the worldly life altogether. There were considerable trials before them; their relations and friends were dissuading them from sacrificing their lives at the altar of truth. But they had already devoted themselves to the cause of India and Hinduism. They exchanged their worldly careers’ for the beggar’s bowl; their contemplation of the life of their master kept them true to their ideal.

Some time afterwards Swami Vivekananda wanted to meditate in solitude, and went alone to the Father of mountains. He lived there for six years, and attained that luminous spiritual perception which distinguished him from other men. During that period he went to Tibet and studied Buddhism there. Then he came down from the heights into the world of men and travelled all over India. He went to Khetri, where the Maharajah became his disciple. Then he went along the west coast, as far south as Trivandrum, and from there he went to. Madras. Wherever he went he extorted admiration, and succeeded in making young India alive to the glory of her past.

At this time the Parliament of Religions was held at Chicago in 1893. Some people in the Madras Presidency thought that it would be a very good thing if Swami Vivekananda could be sent over to America to represent Hinduism. He was delighted at the opportunity offered to him of showing his love for his Motherland, and revealing to the West the beauty of the Hindu religion. ‘Funds were subscribed and’he went to America via Japan.


When he went to Chicago, his little stock of money had run out and he was for a while on the brink of starvation. One day when he was disconsolately walking about the streets of a village near Boston, an old lady who was struck with his appearance and costume, accosted him and asked him his business. Learning from him who he was, she “asked him to dinner intending to afford a pleasant surprise to her friends by exhibiting this curious specimen of Eastern humanity. But they found that the specimen exhibited a high order of intelligence and a sweetness of manner that” were but rarely met with even in the centres of Western civilisation. They could not understand his philosophic expositions and so invited a professor of philosophy to meet him.

He met the Swami and recognised his merit. He introduced him to Dr. Barrows, the President of the Parliament of Religions, and the latter put him down as the representative of Hinduism in the Parliament. His opening speech brought him instantaneous fame, and he became at once the central figure of the Parliament. When he read his epoch-making paper on Hinduism, it was received with a storm of applause. The New York Critique said: 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 said : 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, ‘”The most learned societies in the land vied with one another in honouring him with invitations to lecture before them.” Before the first year of his stay in America was over he had two American disciples, Madam Louise who became Swami Abhayananda and Mr. Sandsberg, who became Swami Kripananda. He lectured in various places, and made Vedantism popular in America.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: ENGLAND

From America he went over to England and stayed three. months there. He held many classes and gave lectures in various places. An English newspaper said: All sorts and conditions of men are to be found in London, but the great city contains just now none more remarkable than the philosopher, who represented the Hindu Religion at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago.

He made the acquaintance of Professor Max Muller, and induced him to publish the life and sayings of Sri Ramakrishna. Miss Margaret Noble, who is now known as Sister Nivedita, became one of his most devoted disciples. Another disciple was the late J. J. Goowin, who accompanied his master wherever he went. A third was the late Captain Sevier, who helped in founding the Advail, Ashrama at Mayavati in “the Himalayas.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: RETURN TO INDIA

On the 16th December, 1896, Swami Vivekananda, with a handful of English disciples, started for his Motherland. He landed at Colombo, arid, from there, his journey to Almora was a brilliant triumphal progress. His brethren received him with open arms and gave him a magnificent reception. At every halting place he was surrounded by the leaders of the Hindu community and idolised by them.

With untiring energy he delivered address after address, evoking enthusiasm for the noble religion of the Vedanta. His health was affected by the continuous strain to which he had been subjected ever since he left India. He retired from the platform for some time, and devoted himself to the consolidation of the work he had set himself to do. He established two monasteries for training Brahmacharins, one about six miles north of Calcutta, and the other in the Himalayas.. He organised the Ramakrishna Mission, and settled the lines on which it was to work for the betterment of the people of the land. He also started the Ramakrishna Mission Relief Works at various places, during the famine of 1897. Under such continued exertion his health gave way, and medical experts advised a short residence in England and America.

He went to England, and from there to America. After a short stay at California, his health improved, and he again took up platform work. He established a Vedanta Society and an Ashrama called ‘Shanti Ashrama’ in San Francisco which are now in a flourishing condition. In New York he accepted an invitation to attend the Congress of Religions to be held in Paris in 1900. He delivered addresses on Hindu philosophy in French. From there he returned to India, with his health utterly shattered. But his fiery nature could not brook the dictates of doctors, and as soon as he saw work to do, he would be restless till it was done.

He started the Ramakrishna Shevashrama for helping Sadhus. Another Ashrama was opened at Benares for teaching Brahmacharya to the young men of India, He started also a Training Home for students, called the ‘Ramakrishna Patasala.’ He established also the Ramakrishna Home of Service at Benares to relieve the distress of the poor and the helpless. At this time some leading Japanese came to invite him to attend the Religious Congress to be held there, as Japan was in great need of ¦a religious awakening.

But his health still continued to be uncertain, and so the visit was put off. On the 9th July, 1902, he became very meditative. He was then in good health. He held a class during the day on Panini’s Grammar, and in the afternoon discoursed upon the Vedas. He then went out on a walk, and returned. In the evening he again sat in meditation. At about nine o’ clock he went into Mahasamadhi, and passed away from the world of men.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: VIVEKANANDA THE MAN

It will now be proper to under, stand what it was that made him wield such extraordinary influence over men, what brought him at one bound to the front rank of teachers and kept under a lasting spell the minds of those who had the rare good fortune of meeting him arid learning from him the truths that lie hidden in Hindu scriptures. It is always difficult to find out the elements that go to make ‘up what is generally known as personality. But in his case certain traits stood out clear and distinct, and contributed to his influence over his brethren. First and foremost he had those noble characteristics which have always distinguished the greatest religious leaders love and tenderness, towards all things, and a deep overmastering desire to make the whole world participate in the life of the spirit and its perfect bliss.

Not inconsistent with this was his passionate adoration for India, and a burning eagerness to restore her to her ancient supremacy in the realm of. religion. Another characteristic was his thorough hatred of shams, his desire to let the daylight of reason stream over all things, and his wish to reject all things that had no justification in reason. He was utterly fearless in his exposure of national defects, and denounced in deathless words superstitious clinging to forms that had long survived their usefulness.

He was always sanguine, always confident of the final triumph of truth. His courtesy and affability were also marvelous. To these moral traits, he added intellectual gifts of a high order. He had wonderful versatility; he was an orator of the highest type; his style was unique for its union of simplicity and force: he was a master of many languages; he was one of the most learned men of his time ; he was a great musician, and also wrote fine poems in his mother tongue; and his conversational powers were of the highest order. When to these characteristics, he added a striking presence, a face lit up by a pair of shining eyes, and a voice that had a richness and musical quality seldom seen among men, we can understand in some measure the wonderful charm of his personality.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: SOME ASPECTS OF HIS GENIUS

Before dealing with his teachings, we should consider certain aspects of his genius. As a thinker, he possessed two great virtues. He evinced great speculative boldness, and followed in the wake of reason without shrinking or fear. Also, he tried to appreciate the conclusions of thought in other countries, and attempted to make a new synthesis in which all “truths could find their proper place. His method as a thinker was the method that had always been adopted in India, the method of introspection and self analysis.

What success he achieved as a thinker, we shall consider later on. Another aspect of his genius was his poetic gift. His was a poet’s soul, to which the world had messages unknown to the ordinary man, and which revealed them in words of imperishable loveliness. He wrote very few poems. But his great poetic gift finds its best expression in the wonderfully imaginative passages that illumine his writings. As a writer he displayed a mastery of a clear, simple, and forcible style, an erudition that was but rarely equaled even by the best Western savants. The beauty of his letters is also well known.

Many of his friends will realise what a balm his letters were to their suffering souls. As an orator and it is as an orator that he will be longest remembered his chief (characteristics were a passionate enthusiasm for noble causes, and energy and felicity of utterance. He never prepared his speeches. The stream of his eloquence came from his heart, and the spontaneity of his speeches enhanced their effect. It was this unique combination of various excellences that gave such currency to his great teachings, and made them powerful agencies in the building up of a new India which will be the spiritual leader of humanity in the future as she was in the past.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: MESSAGE TO INDIA

What were his services to India, and what was the special mission that he was charged to deliver to India? He vindicated her position as the leader of the nations in the realm of thought and religion. The New York Herald said: Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.

The great message which he delivered to India was that the mission of India was to teach spirituality to the world, that the true sign of life 2 is expansion and we must bring into existence a new aggressive Hinduism, a dynamical religion, whose votaries will go the ends of the earth and spiritualise the world, that to effect this object we must get rid of our un-manliness, care for the spirit rather than for the letter, and have once again that passion for the life of the spirit that distinguished the India of the past.

In answer to a question by an interviewer about the distinguishing feature of his movement, he said: Aggression. Aggression in a religious sense only. Other sects and parties have, carried spirituality all over India, but since the days of Buddha we have been the first to break bonds and try to flood the world with missionary zeal. He next beautifully describes his method: Our method is very easily described. It simply consists in reasserting the national life. Buddha preached renunciation. India heard, and in six centuries she reached her greatest height. The secret is there. The national ideals of India are renunciation and service.

Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself. The banner of the spiritual cannot be raised too high in this country. In it alone is salvation. He held that with an increasing realisation of the truth of the doctrine of the Atman must come strength and union, and taught the need for manliness and corporate life with the full conviction that if Indians would only retain their spirituality, and be manly and united, they would be able to take their proper place in the scale of nations.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: MESSAGE TO THE WEST

The task he set himself was the harmonisation of the East and the West, and the bringing into existence of that higher Aryan type, which will be the result of the interaction of Eastern and Western ideals. To the West, his special message was that materialism can never permanently satisfy the soul of man, that there is a nobler quest than the accumulation of wealth, or the acquisition of an extensive empire, that religion and science are in essential harmony, and that man can best achieve the object of his existence only by living a spiritual life. He taught them to give up the silly notion that man was a sinner, and to think that man was essentially divine. He denounced bigotry and taught universal toleration, and made the Western nations realise the harmony of religions. He made them give up the Christian dogma of creation out of nothing and placed before them the Vedantic conception of evolution.

Swami Vivekananda Biography: HIS TEACHINGS

Every great man has after all to base his claim to the admiration of posterity on the volume of helpful thought that he gives to the world. Before considering Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, it will be in place to consider briefly his position as one of the Hindu religious leaders who have handed on in undimmed luster from generation to generation the lamp of truth lit by the sages of old, and as the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in particular.

His position as a religious teacher is best stated in his own eloquent words: My teaching is my own interpretation of our ancient books, in the light which my master shed upon them. I claim no supernatural authority. Whatever in my teaching may appeal to the highest intelligence and may be accepted by thinking men, the adoption of that will be my reward.Above all, I teach no authority proceeding from hidden beings speaking through visible agents, any more than I claim learning from hidden books or manuscripts. I am the exponent of no occult societies nor do I believe that good can come of such bodies. Truth stands on its own authority, and truth can bear the light of day.

He says in his Lecture on Cosmos: We do not pretend to throw new light on these all absorbing problems; our proposal is to attempt to put before you the ancient, the only truth, in the language of modern times, to speak the thoughts of the ancients in the language of the moderns, to speak the thoughts of the angels in the language of poor humanity, so that men will understand it. Some of these new statements of old truths are very beautiful and suggestive. He defined the Vedas as “the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by men in different times.” He defined destruction as the gross becoming fine,’ that instinct is involved reason and stated that every evolution is preceded by an involution.

Special mention should be made of his learned and lucid papers on Reincarnation and the Freedom of the Soul; and his books on Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, ‘Gnana Yoga and Karma Yoga. (This was long before Hatha Yoga hit western shores, and yoga for weight loss became the trend!) The messages that he bore to the world from his master were the fruitful and valuable ideas’ that religion is realisation, that the religions were so many paths to reach the temple of truth, and that God should be realised as Mother. These truths he expressed in language which was remarkable for its combination of beauty and power, and won for them the loving approval of the world.


We shall now consider his distinctive contributions to the world of thought. One of the valuable ideas that he gave us is that the origin of religion should be found not in any theory of ghost worship or ancestor worship, but in the struggle to transcend the limitations of the senses, and that ‘man is man so long as he is struggling to rise above nature.’

Again, he pointed out that every religion consists of three parts the philosophy and ideals of the religion, mythology, and ritual, and that though the last two varied in the various religions, there was an essential identity as regards the first. The religions of the world are not contradictory or antagonistic; they are but various phases of one eternal religion. One Infinite Religion existed all through eternity and will over exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries, in various ways: therefore, we must respect all religions, and we must try to accept them all as far as we can. To learn this central secret that the truth may be one and yet many at the same time, that we may have different visions of the same truth from different standpoints, is exactly what must be done.

Then, instead of antagonism to anyone, we shall have infinite sympathy with all. At the same time, he taught that universal religion ought to embrace different types of minds and methods. It ought to find a place for the three types of humanity the worker, the thinker, and the man of devotion. It was on this ground that he maintained that the Vedanta had the “best claim to be recognised as the Universal Religion.

He says: All the other religions of the world are included in the nameless, limitless, eternal Vedic Religion. Again he says in his Bhakti Yoga : Every sect of every religion presents only one ideal of its own to mankind, but the eternal “Vedantic religion opens to mankind an infinite number of doors for ingress into the inner shrine of Divinity, and places before humanity an almost inexhaustible array of ideals, there being in each of them a manifestation of the eternal one. Again he taught the Dualistic, Vashishtadvaitic, and Advaitic schools of thought are not in conflict with each other, as they had been long supposed to be. He showed how the monistic conception is the fulfilment of the other conceptions.

He says: Just as in the case of the six darshanas of ours we find they are a gradual unfolding of the grand principles, the music beginning in the soft low notes, and ending in the triumphant blast of the Advaita, so also in these three systems we find the gradual working up of the human mind towards higher and higher ideals, till everything is merged in the wonderful unity that is reached in the Advaita system. Our solution is Advaita is not antagonistic to the dualistic.”

“We say the latter is only one of three steps. Religion always takes three steps. The first is dualism. Then man gets to a higher state, partial non-dualism. And at that instant finds he is one with the universe. Therefore the three do not contradict, but fulfil. Again, he proved the hollowness of the theory that the Vedanta has no satisfactory basis of morality.

He said: The infinite oneness of Foul is the eternal sanction of all morality. This oneness is the rationale of all ethics and all spirituality. He said also: Every time that your heart goes out towards the world, you are a true Vedantist, only you do not know it. They are moral without knowing why; and the “Vedanta is the philosophy which analysed and taught only to be moral consciously. It is the essence of all religions. Another teaching of his was that the Vedanta is neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

He says in his Maya and Illusion: Thus the Vedanta philosophy is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It preaches both of these, and takes things as they are. This world is a mixture of good and evil, happiness and misery; increase the one, and the other must increase with it. There will never to a good world, because the very idea is a contradiction in terms; nor can there be a bad world. At the same time it finds out one great secret by this analysis, and it is this, that good and bad are not two cut and dried, separate existences. There is not one thing in this world of ours which you can label as good and good alone, and there is not one thing in this world of ours which you can label as bad, and bad alone. The Vedanta says, there must come a time when we will look back and laugh at these ideals of ours which made us afraid of giving up our individuality. He also told us that religion is not a mere matter of belief, but is realisation.

He says: The Vedas teach three things; this self is first to be heard, then to be reasoned, and then to be meditated. When a man first hears it he must reason on it, so that he does not believe it ignorantly, but knowingly; and after reasoning what he is, he must meditate upon it and then realise it; and that is religion. Belief is no part of religion. “We say religion is a superconscious state. Again, he gave a strikingly original explanation of Maya. He says: But the Maya of the “Vedanta, in its last developed form, is neither Idealism nor Realism, neither is it theory. It is a simple statement of facts, what we are and what we see all around us. He said in his Lecture on the Vedanta : This theory of Maya has been the most difficult to understand to all ages. Let me tell you that it is surely no theory, it is the combination of the three ideas, Desakala Nimisha, Time, Space and Causation, and which Time, Space and Causation have been further reduced into namarupa.

It is again no theory, but a statement of facts. He was always unsparing in his analysis of the question, what is the cause of the illusion. He says: The question has been asked for the last three thousand years, and the only answer is, when the world is able to formulate a logical question, we will answer it. The question is contradictory. Our position is that the Absolute has become this relative only apparently, that the unconditioned has become the conditioned only in Maya. By the very admission of the unconditioned, we_admit that the Absolute cannot be acted upon by anything else. It is uncaused, which means that nothing outside itself can act upon it.

First of all, if it is unconditioned, it cannot have been acted upon by anything else. In the unconditioned there cannot be time, space, or causation. That granted, your question will be: “What caused that which cannot be caused by anything to be changed into this?” Your question is only possible in the conditioned. But you take it out of the conditioned, and want to ask it in the unconditioned. Only when, the unconditioned becomes conditioned, and space, time, and causation come in, can the question, be asked. We can only .say ignorance makes the illusion. The question is impossible. Nothing can have worked in the Absolute. There was no cause. Not that we do not know, or that we are ignorant; but it is above knowledge, and cannot be brought down to the plane of knowledge.

We can use the words “I do not know” in two senses. In one way they mean that we are lower than knowledge, and in the other way that the thing is above knowledge. The X rays have become known now. The very causes of these are disputed, but we are sure that we shall know them. Here we can say we do not know about the X rays. But about the Absolute we cannot know. In the case of the X rays we do not know, although it is within the range of knowledge; only we do not know it yet. But, in the other case, it is so much beyond knowledge that it ceases to be a matter of knowing. ” By what means can the knower be known?” You are always yourself, and cannot objectify yourself. ‘This was one of the arguments used by our philosophers to prove immortality. If I try to think I am lying dead, what have I to imagine? That I am standing and looking down at myself, at some dead body. So that I cannot objectify myself. We owe to him another valuable idea, viz., that the ideals and methods of religion can bear daylight and the searching examination of reasons and that mystery mongering ought to beshunned like the plague by every earnest seeker after truth.

He says in his introduction to Raja Yoga: The best guide in life is strength. In religion, as in everything else, discard everything that weakens you, have nothing to do with it. All mystery mongering weakens the human brain. He taught also that true spiritual progress cannot be made except with the help of a guru. He did not share in the opinion of those who hold that study of sacred books by itself can lead us to the desired goal.

In his book on Bhakti Yoga he says: The soul can only receive impulses from another soul, and from nothing else. We may study books all our lives, we may become very intellectual ; but, in the end, we find that we have not developed at all spiritually. It is not true that a high order of intellectual development goes hand’ in hand with a proportionate development of the spiritual side in man. In studying books we are sometimes deluded into thinking that thereby we are being spiritually helped ; but, if, we analyse the effect of the study of books on ourselves, we shall find that, at the ‘utmost, it is only our intellect that has derived profit from such studies.’

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