Narendra Nath Dutta, as Swami Vivekananda was known in his premonastic days, was born on 12 January 1863 in a well-to-do family in Kolkata. His parents were Viswanath Datta, an attorney, and Bhuvaneswari Devi. In his boyhood, Naren was endowed with strong physique, brilliant intellect and mystic temperament. After graduating in mathematics, history and philosophy, he studied law. At the age of 18, while studying in college, he met Sri Ramakrishna, and became his staunch follower.
Under the loving guidance of the Master, Naren blossomed into a spiritual luminary. After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, fourteen of the Master’s young disciples (two more joined later), under the leadership of Swami Vivekananda, formed a monastic brotherhood known as the Ramakrishna Math (Order). After staying in this monastery for two years, Swami Vivekananda spent a few years travelling all over India as a mendicant monk. During these travels he was deeply moved to see the appalling poverty and backwardness of the millions of poor people in India. However, he also saw that, in spite of poverty, the people still clung to religion, and the ancient spiritual culture was a living force in their lives. At a time when social reformers were busy with widow remarriage and abolition of idol worship, Vivekananda perceived that the real cause of India’s backwardness was the neglect and exploitation of the masses, all of whom produced the wealth of the land. In order to improve their economic condition it was necessary to teach them improved methods of agriculture, village industries and hygienic way of life. But owing to centuries of exploitation and social tyranny, the poor people, especially those who belonged to the lower castes, had lost their sense of worth, hope and initiative. The people therefore needed a message of strength that would infuse faith in themselves. Vivekananda found this message in Vedanta. Thus Swamiji saw that in order to uplift the masses it was necessary to spread both secular and spiritual education among them. And for this what was needed most was an organization, ‘a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest’.
During his travels in India Swami Vivekananda heard about the plans to hold a World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He 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 Swami Vivekananda to go to America was to seek financial help for his project of uplifting the masses. His speeches at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in September 1893 made him world famous. In the West Swamiji found that the people there had solved their socio-economic problems to a great extent and were seeking the ultimate meaning of Life. Swamiji believed that Vedanta would fulfil their higher needs.
Further, Swamiji had developed the insight that Sri Ramakrishna was the embodiment of the eternal truths of Vedanta, that the Master’s life was the fulfilment of all the promises of the supreme Vedantic vision of Reality and, as Romain Rolland expressed it some years later, Sri Ramakrishna ‘was the consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million people’. Therefore, the best way to make the true and full significance of Sri Ramakrishna’s life understood in the modern world was to expound Vedanta in the modern idiom in the light of Sri Ramakrishna’s Life and experiences.
After spreading Vedanta in the West for nearly three and a half years, Swami Vivekananda returned to India in January 1897. In response to the enthusiastic welcome that he received everywhere, he delivered a series of lectures in different parts of India. In Kolkata, Swamiji convened a meeting of the disciples and devotees of Sri Ramakrishna on 1 May 1897 and inaugurated a new organization bearing the name Ramakrishna Mission. He intended it to be a unique organization in which monks and lay people cooperated in providing educational, medical and other forms of social service especially to the poor and the disadvantaged. After setting in motion the machinery in the form of Ramakrishna Mission for the propagation and practical application of the life-giving principles of Vedanta lived and taught by Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda left the mortal world on 4 July 1902 at the age of thirty-nine and a half years.
Some of his sayings are:
- Truth, purity, and unselfishness-wherever these are present, there is no power below or above the Sun to crush the possessor thereof. Equipped with these, one individual is able to face the whole universe in opposition.
- The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.
- All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to women. That country and that nation which do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future.
- This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.
- He is an atheist who does not believe in himself. The old religions said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God, the new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself.