Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902)
The old man’s narration of the ghost story with his articulated gestures had its immediate effect on the boys. Everyone ran down the trees. Narendra too came down with the boys. But as soon as the storyteller went back to his room, Narendra got up and rushed back to the treetop to indulge in all the adventures. The other boys were quite frightened and they kept away from the tree. His friend even scolded Narendra and warned him that it won’t be long before the ghost would come and break his neck. Uni-intimidated, Narendra, retorted with laughter, ‘What a silly fellow you are! Don’t believe anything just because someone tells you! Why, my neck would have been broken long ago, if the old man’s story were true!’.
This may be mere boyish lark. But, later in his life, when the boy Narendra turned out to be a world-teacher as Swami Vivekananda, he emphasised this point to a large audience, ‘Do not believe a thing because another has said it is so! Find out the truth for yourself! That is realisation!’.
Narendranath Dutta was born on 12th January 1863 in his ancestral house of Calcutta. His father Vishwanath Dutta was a highly educated and rich attorney of Calcutta High Court. His mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi was a noble and pious lady of extra-ordinary courage and strength. Narendra was an all-rounder in his life. He regularly attended the gym and learned wrestling and boxing. He played cricket. He learned both vocal and instrumental music from many reputed musicians of his time in Calcutta. He loved playing dramas; always reserving the roles of Emperors and Kings to himself. He was serious in mastering the western philosophies of Plato, Herbert Spencer, Kant, Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, Hegel and so on.
Above all these accomplishments, Naren was a born Yogi in himself! He loved sitting cross-legged and spent many hours in meditation. His personal hero was Hanuman – renowned for physical, mental and spiritual strength.
Prof Rev William Hastie was the Principal of the Scottish Church College, where Naren was a student. That learned teacher remarked, ‘Narendranath is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, amongst philosophical students. He is bound to make his mark in life!’.
Inspite of all such appreciations, Narendra was not happy in his inner being. He had a natural tendency to lose himself in singing songs praising God for hours. Nevertheless, his mind grew restless due to rational thinking and he started questioning everybody about the existence of God. He approached many religious leaders but none could give a direct reply. Narendra became disappointed. He concluded that the concept of God was merely the creation of weak minds and lofty terms like realisation of God and vision of God were all but wild poetic imaginations.
Meanwhile, he had heard about one Paramahamsa Ramkrishna, a saint living in the Kali Temple Dakshineshwar, a suburb in Calcutta. His English Professor William Hastie mentioned about Ramakrishna in an English poetry class when analysing ‘Excursion’ by Wordsworth. The Professor was explaining the word trance, which the poet had a glimpse of while contemplating the beauties of nature. Further the teacher said, ‘Such an experience is the result of purity of mind and concentration on some particular object, and it is rare indeed, particularly in these days. I have seen only one person who has experienced that blessed state of mind, and he is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineshwar.’
The sceptic Narendra decided to approach this Saint too. But he approached Ramakrishna with less enthusiasm because all the so-called religious leaders, whom he had grilled earlier had given disappointing answers to his sincere query on God! It was in November 1881. Thus young Narendra in his teens, representing the modern rationalism and scepticism powered by an in-depth knowledge of different western philosophies and the contemporary sciences met Ramakrishna, a true representative of Upanishadic Rishis radiating universal harmony and deep spiritual wisdom generated out of his own spiritual practices and unique realisations.
Narendra simply challenged Ramakrishna, ‘Sir. Have you seen God?’. The answer from Ramakrishna was dazzling to the sceptic Narendra. Ramakrishna replied with a bewitching smile, ‘Yes, I have seen God. I have seen Him more tangibly than I see you. I have talked to Him more intimately than I am talking to you.’ Without a pause, Ramakrishna threw a counter challenge to Narendra by a simple statement of affairs of the present day devotees. He continued, ‘But, my child, who wants to see God? People shed jugs of tears for money, wife and children. But if they weep for God for only one day they would surely see Him.’ This totally unexpected and direct reply from Ramakrishna was not only a positive challenge to Narendra, but carried a very true method to see God!
Thus, a simple rustic Sage caught a modern intellectual giant in his entire splendour and the result was the emergence of one of the greatest Saints of modern time in the form of Swami Vivekananda. The Master trained him for five full years. It was an intense training, unheard of in the history of religions. Ramakrishna taught him that the Divine Mother Kali, Vishnu, Shiva and all other deities are true representations of the Supreme Reality called Brahman. He proved that all religions in the world are true and valid paths to reach God. According to Ramakrishna, knowing and loving God is the essence of religion. To know that fire exists in fuel is knowledge (Jnana); but to make use of that fuel to cook food and enjoy the cooked food is Vijnana. To know about milk is Jnana. But to drink milk and get nourished by it is Vijnana. A Vijnani (a person who has attained vijnana) sees God in all beings. Not just in the hours of intense meditation, nor, in the rare moments of God vision. Ramakrishna taught further: Serving living beings out of compassion is wrong. Serving Living Beings around us as a real worship to God is the right approach. He led Narendra step by step to the highest spiritual realisations. He transformed Narendra into a towering Apostle of Vedanta and Hinduism.
After the Master’s passing away in 1886, Narendra left his house and his beloved relatives with tears in both eyes; one eye with tears of joy of sacrifice for the lofty cause of the regeneration of Hinduism; the other with tears of sorrown naturally welled up from his heart out of his deep love to his beloved mother and his siblings. His father had passed away a couple of years earlier and the rich family was suddenly reduced to abject poverty. Finally the tear of joy of sacrifice prevailed. Narendra at the age of 23 became Vivekananda and travelled all over India by foot from the Himalayas in the North to Kanya Kumari in the South; from Puri in the East to Dwaraka in the West; through forests, cities, villages, snow clad mountains, rivers and deserts.
He met the Saints, Sages, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Parsis, kings, ministers, scholars, peasants, poor villagers and even beggars, robbers and thieves on his way. He made friends with all. He accepted praises and also scolding from many.
Later, in 1893, he went to the West to spread the glory of Hinduism by teaching Vedanta in America and England. On his return to India, he established the Ramakrishna Monastery with a band of dedicated monks in Calcutta.
He passed away in this monastery on the 4th July 1902 at the age of 39. Let us read what Vivekananda has to tell us on religion:
‘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 psychic control, 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.’