Narendranath Datta was born in Calcutta on this day in 1863 into the Kayastha caste, and a professional family, his father an attorney. From childhood religion was his great obsession. Studying religion and philosophy, Eastern and Western, Narendranath earned a formal degree. He then became interested in the Hindu reform movement the Brahmo Samaj, joining a breakaway branch, the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj.
He also met Sri Ramakrishna. For a time Narendranath remained more interested in the Western (and Unitarian and Transcendentalist) influenced Braho Samaj, but followng his father’s death, he gradually gravitated to Ramakrishna and his ecstatic spirituality.
His Wikipedia article tells us “Although he did not initially accept Ramakrishna as his teacher and rebelled against his ideas, he was attracted by his personality and began to frequently visit him at Dakshineswar.”
Narendranath “initially saw Ramakrishna’s ecstasies and visions as ‘mere figments of imagination’ and ‘hallucinations.’ As a member of Brahmo Samaj, he opposed idol worship, polytheism and Ramakrishna’s worship of Kali. He even rejected the Advaita Vedanta of ‘identity with the absolute’ as blasphemy and madness, and often ridiculed the idea.”
However, under Ramakrishna’s tutelage he gradually found his quest to know God overtaking everything else. Soon he found himself falling into ecstatic samadhi states. And then he had his great awakening. Named Vivekananda by his teacher he quickly became Ramakrishna’s leading disciple. When his teacher died, Swami Vivekananda became the head of what would become the Ramakrishna Math.
With his trip to speak at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions Swami Vivekananda would become one of the most important interpreters of Hinduism to the West as well as a leading spiritual figure in India itself. In the West the Vedanta Society, which represents the Ramakrishna Order, has become a significant spiritual force, influencing many people including Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.
The Wikipedia article summarizes how “Vivekananda propagated that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Nevertheless, following Ramakrishna, and in contrast to Advaita Vedanta, Vivekananda believed that the Absolute is both immanent and transcendent. According to Anil Sooklal, Vivekananda’s neo-Advaita ‘reconciles Dvaita or dualism and Advaita or non-dualism.’ Vivekananda summarised the Vedanta as follows, giving it a modern and Universalistic interpretation:
Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
His influence is near incalculable. Among other things I think he is critical in the shifting of Western Universalism from the belief that the dead are all reconciled to the divine to the belief that all religions contain the deepest truth.
Summarizing his influence, Wikipedia suggests, that Swami “Vivekananda was 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. His reinterpretation was, and is, very successful, creating a new understanding and appreciation of Hinduism within and outside India, and was the principal reason for the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West.”
An amazing figure.