As we celebrate Swami Vivekananda’s birthday this month, following the native calendar, we pay our prayerful tribute to this great spiritual luminary of our times. He was destined to usher humanity into the new age of spiritual enlightenment. Revisiting his life in brief would be nothing short of a pilgrimage.
Birth of Naren
Every child that is born sees the sky overhead very far away; but that is no reason why the child should not look into the sky, its sun, stars, and moon. The limitlessness of the sky has always inspired human beings to break the walls of limitations and breathe the air of freedom. While Sri Ramakrishna, the spiritual luminary born in 1836, was positioning himself in the spiritual sky as a brilliant Sun, in the 1860s, another soul was born in Kolkata (then Calcutta), in the year 1863, on the morning of makarsankranti, when millions of Indian men and women were offering their obeisance to the sun deity, which was repositioning itself for the new course. This soul was Narendranath Datta, who later became the world-renowned Swami Vivekananda. He was born a natural lover of humankind. The one concern of his life would be to ensure that each member of humanity holds a ray of the spiritual Sun and ascends, with its own inherent strength and will, up to the glory of the Sun, far above in the sky. After all, that Sun is the Sun of freedom—freedom from every weakness of heart, every narrowness that we usually suffer from. Weakness and narrowness and the like are the defects which not only make the human being suffer but also delay his or her ascent to spiritual freedom. But Vivekananda was a person who would not brook any delay. He was in love with humanity, and couldn’t wait for every available string of divine quality to be lined up, twisted, and intertwined into a strong rope, so that humanity can hold it and advance upward. That was, in short, the burden of Swami Vivekananda’s mission.
His Childhood Influences
Swami Vivekananda, or Naren as he was endearingly called, was born with spiritual tendencies and had a noble upbringing in his family. From his devout mother he learnt the lessons of high thinking and simple living that Hinduism upheld. From his father, he inherited a love for truth and a broad-mindedness that made him see virtue even in persons usually known for their vices. All this was to go into the making of the Swami and the furtherance of his mission. At a very impressionable age, he met his Guru,Sri Ramakrishna. As the Swami himself admitted later, ‘I had a deep interest in religion and philosophy, … our books teach renunciation as the highest ideal to which man can aspire. … inmeeting with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa … I found my highest ideal realised.’1
From Naren to Swami Vivekananda
Once he had formulated his ideal or his goal, the only thing left for him was to perfect the means leading to the ideal, for himself as well for the sake of others. With the help of Sri Ramakrishna, he was slowly learning every known means the religion had to offer. In the beginning, he would believe nothing, but slowly he came to accept all of them—the personal God, or the impersonal nondual Brahman, and the different means to realize them. Just at that time, as ill-luck would have it, Naren’s father expired and he found his family in dire poverty and debt. In search of a job, he would go from one office to the other, but in vain. Onreturning home, often time he pretended he had eaten his fill so that the other family members could get more morsels of food. Harsh facts of life were taking a toll on his tender mind when a fine morning, as he left his bed singing praises of God, his mother chided him for believing in a God who did nothing in return. Her words cut him to the core. Nevertheless, he walked out of the house in search of employment, only to return emptyhanded once again. On his way back, soaked in the rain and utterly drained without food or rest, he sat by the roadside. At such an hour of utter hopelessness, a strange mystical experience unfolded in his mind. Veil after veil that hid the truth from him began to be lifted up, leading him to a new vision. This new vision presented to him the coexistence of suffering inherent in creation and God’s compassion—that too ‘without impairing His [God’s] sovereign power or touching man’s real Self.’2This admix of the opposites works towards the emancipation of the human heart as it knows to its very core that it is held up by the divine power of God. Consequentially, no suffering, no evil of creation can make this heart feel weak. In fact, more the onslaught, the stronger it becomes, as it simultaneously knows the misery, the compassion, and the unaffected nature of the true Self—all of them working together towards emancipation. This state makes the human being a god, an invincible entity.
Rejuvenated, not only did Naren return home, he decided he would take to the life of a monk. Sri Ramakrishna was alarmed at that. A monk he was destined to become, but a decision taken in haste could cause a mishap. If Naren had renounced the world prematurely, we don’t know how the successive events would have unfolded.Sri Ramakrishna paid a visit to Kolkata and sent for Naren. Eventually he took Naren back to Dakshineshwar and persuaded him not to renounce the world as long as Sri Ramakrishna was alive. The teacher had already been taming the taught,‘demanding complete obedience to moral and spiritual disciplines without which religious life cannot be built on a firm foundation.’3 The teacher wanted to tame him more, and love would be the rein for the purpose. After all, Naren was going to be the future bearer and interpreter of his message to the world. In the company of Sri Ramakrishna, Naren grew up as a sympathizer of all the faiths and their followers. Through Sri Ramakrishna he understood the meaning of the timeless teachings of the Vedas, that it is the same Truth that is called by different names. He understood that in our journey towards the sun, if we were to photograph it from different distances, every image would be different, and yet in every case it would be the photo of the same sun. This lesson was to make him a teacher who could at once go down to the level of the pupil and strike a perfect chord with him. In a similar manner, every other aspect of an able teacher was inculcated in him under the loving guidance of Sri Ramakrishna.
At last Sri Ramakrishna decided to go off the stage to his own abode high in the sky. A sun needs that height so that it can cover every direction and area of the region of darkness. But before that he also decided to impart to his disciple the highest of the spiritual experiences, discussed in Vedanta as nirvikalpa samadhi, which makes this universe a no-universe, with all its God, souls, and nature. With this experience, Naren became equipped with all that a spiritual teacher is expected to be endowed with. The rest of his life would be devoted to fulfilling his master’s wish to remove the misery of this world and show the people the path of emancipation for the new age, the yuga-dharma. Sri Ramakrishna indicated to him that until that work was done, he would be locked out of this experience, although the screen separating him from this experiencewas as thin as a glass through which he could behold his ideal. We are indebted to that screen from where the light had reflected and returned to our own world as Swami Vivekananda. If not for that screen the world would have not known its hero, its Guru, Swami Vivekananda.
Nature: the Screen that hides the Reality beyond
The entire nature is like a screen that hides the reality beyond. More the screen becomes transparent, more the truth behind shines through it. The practice of purity and the act of renunciation gradually makes the screen more and more transparent. Before we experience our Unconditional Absolute true nature, we come to know of the truth as it reflects on the screen of nature. Through the screen we catch glimpses of the light from beyond. How do we explain avataras like Sri Ramakrishna? They are like holes in the screen through which souls like us can peep into the reality beyond. If societies and nations fall in line with such holes, these holes, like ships, would ferry them across to the region of eternal
Truth and Light beyond.
The Saviour of Humankind
After the passing away of his master, Swami Vivekananda embarked upon crisscrossing the nation so that he could gain first-hand experience of the different customs and traditions existing in India from the hoary past. In their original form, these customs and traditions existed to help people practice the ideal of renunciation in their everyday life. But in their diluted and corrupted forms, these became the sources of various social evils. Among these, the genuine ones would be roped in to build the ecosystem of ferrying the souls across the ocean of the world, and the ailing and invalid ones would give way. After studying the case of India, and finding that her religion was not to beblamed for her downfall, he was destined to move in the international arena. He would pick up the central thread from there too, which would bring good to humanity. In the horizon of his heart there were no boundaries to divide East from the West.
Upon finding that the Western people were ready to receive the spiritual wisdom of India, he delivered to them the message of the Upanishads, which was the message of Hinduism, his nation, and his master. In doing so he had not only showered the divine light on the western horizon, he had also raised the pride of his people back home to its optimum. In describing the nature of the screen that stood between us and reality, our scriptures say that it has five layers. These are
physical, vital, mental, intellectual, and causal in nature. In course of addressing the Western audience, the Swami could crisscross at ease through the different layers and levels at which the listeners stood. In this manner, he captured the attention of every type of audience. Standing on their respective platforms, he equally shook hands with the spiritual, the philosophical, the intellectual, and the physical men and women of the West. Aligned with the listeners’ level on those layers, moving from minor to major details, connecting the dots between them, he would ask his listeners to see the light that shone there. And in rapt attention, his audience would catch a glimpse of the light that reflected there and would go back home elevated. Scientists, musicians, saints, sinners, as well as ordinary men and women from all walks of life returned with the light divine, lit large ontheir faces. Besides this, they would clearly see the silver lining on their respective screens, and those linings would intensify the furtherance of theircause in their own respective fields. In this way, the Swami had become a catalyst bringing about elevating transformation in the lives of everyone who came in touch with him. He made everyone come in touch with the eternal values and principles shown to humanity by Hinduism and his Guru. The Swami delivered the message of Hinduism and his master with as much an ease with which we give roses to our friends. But all this took a heavy toll on his delicate frame. Nevertheless, by now he had become the apple of the Western eyes. He became the adopted child of Western people who claimed as much right on him as the Eastern people would. However, back home, there were some important tasks still to be accomplished.
Back home—Awakening Humanity through an Awakened India
He had picked a few valuable threads from the West; the concept of organization was one of them. On returning home, he was to pour the old wine of renunciation into the new bottle of ‘service to humankind as worship of God’. This, coupled with pride in Hindu Dharma and nation, became the basis of modern nationalism. The Goddess of India liked this elixir. In his lecture tour from Colombo to Almora, he made his country people proud of Hindu Dharma and made them aware of the national ideals of renunciation and service. He spoke to them about their own great ancestors, saints and traditions, and what they had left behind. He gave them the idea of service to be done as worship of God, and ascribed to his nation the status of Goddess—Bharat Mata. By means of these, he caused the rings of ripples of ‘devotional nationalism’ to spread throughout the length and breadth of India. Those ripples joined hands and turned into a gigantic wave of change. At once the scattered masses were made to remember and realize their common nationality, based upon the common foundation of Hindu religion. As a natural corollary, India was to become independent in a few decades’ time. A peasant who sows the seeds knows exactly when the crop will be ready for harvest. Peasants can count it on their fingers and tell. The Swami knew exactly how many more years before India would shed her shackles; he had sown the seeds with his own hands. But the seeds sown by him were not the seeds of freedom movement alone, for that would have been a small task. He was sowing the seeds of the regeneration of the entire humankind through the awakening and rise of Hinduism and India.
His End, or the Beginning of a New Era
His master had given him this task, and upon the completion of this, on the fourth of July 1902, the ‘voice without a form’ that Swami Vivekananda was, passed into the source from where it had come. Countless hearts quaked, ached, and poured into outbursts of tears as this Himalayan presence and support suddenly disappeared. But before that, he had already institutionalized his heart’s aspiration into the formation of the twin institutions of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, which, to his own vision, would work for a thousand years or more and exhaust themselves in carrying the eternal message of Hinduism and his master to the world. Therefore, all was not dark with his passing away. The Sun was brilliant in the sky, the paths to the sun were chalked out, and his own aspirations to that end had been institutionalized. With the eternal legacy of this great spiritual master, the children of light would gaze at the sky far away, bask in the warm sunshine, pick up a ray, and ascend to the Light beyond.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.186.
- 2. Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama,1994), 43.
- 3. , 28.