“Rooted in the past and full of pride in India’s heritage, Vivekananda was yet modern in his approach to the problems and was a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present.”
The most notable thing about Vivekananda was his flaming zeal for reviving the greatness of Hinduism and the Motherland.
We must go out and conquer the world through our spirituality and philosophy—this was the noble idea he stood for.
In the words of Sir Valentile Chirol, “Vivekanand was the First Hindu whose personality won demonstrative recognition abroad for India’s ancient civilization and for her new borne claim to nationhood.”
Swami Vivekanand was born Narendranath Dutta, son of a well-known lawyer in Calcutta, Biswanath Dutta, and a very intelligent and pious lady, Bhuvaneswari Devi in the year 1863. Biswanath often had scholarly discussions with his clients and friends on politics, religion and society. He used to invite Narendranath to join the discussions. Narendra, never embarrassed, would say whatever he thought was right, advancing his arguments, in support of his stand. Naren learnt the Epics and Puranas from his mother. He also inherited her memory among other qualities. He, in fact, owed much to her as he used to say later. He was a natural leader and much sought after by the people because of his various accomplishments.
Naren passed Entrance Examination from the Metropolitan Institute and FA and BA Examinations from the General Assembly’s Institution (now Scottish Church College). Hastie, Principal of the College, was highly impressed by Naren’s philosophical insight. It was from Hastie that he first heard of Sri Ramakrishna.
As a student of Philosophy, the question of God very much attracted his mind. Was there a God? If there was a God, what was he like? What were man’s relations with him? Did he create this world which was so full of anomalies? He discussed these questions with many, but no one could give him satisfactory answers. He looked to persons who could say they had seen God, but found none. Meanwhile, Keshab Sen had become the head of the Brahma Movement. He was a great orator and many young people, attracted by his speeches, enrolled as members of the Brahma Samaj, Naren also did the same. For some time he was satisfied with what the Brahma Samaj taught him, but soon he began to feel that it did not quite touch the core of the matter, so far as religion was concerned. A relation of his used to advise him to visit Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar, who he said, would be able to remove all his doubts about religion. He happened to meet Ramakrishna at the house of a neighbour but there is nothing on record about the impression that he created on Naren’s mind. He, however, invited Naren to visit him at Dakshineswar someday. He went to Ramakrishna one day and asked him straightaway if he had seen God. He said he had, and if Naren so wished, he could even show God to him. This naturally took Naren by surprise. But, he did not know what to make of it, for though his simplicity and love of God impressed Naren, his idiosyncrasies made him suspect if Ramakrishna was not a ‘monomaniac’. He began to watch him from close quarters and after a long time he was left in no doubt that Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man. Naren loved and admired Ramakrishna but never surrendered his independence of judgment. Nevertheless, Naren gradually came to accept Ramakrishna as his master.
Ramakrishna suffered from cancer and passed away in 1886. During his illness, a group of selected young men had gathered around him and began to nurse him while receiving spiritual guidance from him. Naren was the leader of this group. Ramakrishna wanted that they should take to monastic life and had symbolically given them Gerua cloth. They accordingly founded a monastery at Baranagar and began to live together depending upon what they got by begging. Naren also would sometimes go travelling. It was while he was thus travelling that he assumed the name of Swami Vivekanand.
Vivekanand travelled extensively throughout India sometimes on foot. He was shocked to see the conditions of rural India people ignorant, superstitious, and half-starved and victims of caste-tyranny. If this shocked him, the callousness of the so-called educated upper classes shocked him still more. In the course of his travels, he met many princes who invited him to stay with them as their guest. He also met city-based members of the intelligentsia-lawyers, teachers, journalists and government officials. He appealed to all to do something for the masses. No one seemed to pay any heed to him except the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Khetri and a few young men of Madras. Swami Vivekanand impressed on everybody the need to mobilize the masses. He wanted the masses educated. The ruler of Mysore was among the first to make primary education free within his State. This, however, was not enough in Swamiji’s view. A peasant could not afford to send his children to school, for he needed help in his field. He wanted education taken to the peasant’s door-step, so that the peasant’s children could work and learn side-by-side. It was a kind of ‘non-formal’ education which perhaps he visualized.
Other princes, or the intelligentsia as a whole, were impressed by Swamiji’s personality, but were much too engrossed with their own affairs to pay any heed to his appeals. Swamiji could guess the reason why the so-called leaders of the society ignored him. Who was he? A mere wandering monk. Why should they pay any special attention to him? By and large, they followed only Western thinkers and those Indians who followed the West and had some recognition in the West by doing so. It was a slave mentality, but that was what characterized the attitude of the educated Indians over most of the matters. It pained Swamiji to see Indians strutting about in Western clothes and imitating Western ways and manners, as if that made them really Western. Later he would call out the nation and say, ‘Feel proud that you are Indians even if you’re wearing a loin-cloth’. He wanted India to learn science and technology from the West and its power to organize and its practical sense, but at the same time, retain its high moral and spiritual idealism.
As Swamiji arrived in Madras, young people gathered round him, drawn by his bright and inspiring speech. They begged him to go to the USA to attend the forthcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago to represent Hinduism. They even started raising funds for the purpose. Swamiji was first reluctant but later felt some good might come of his visit to the West, if he could make some impression there. Swamiji made a tremendous impression, first in the USA and then also in England. The press paid him the highest tributes as an exponent of India’s age-old values; overnight, he became a great national hero in India. Suddenly, it was brought home to them that there must be something in Indian thought that Western intelligentsia feel compelled to admire. They began to suspect that perhaps they were not as backward as they once thought, and in areas like religion and philosophy, in art and literature, they were perhaps more advanced than the Western people. They had always felt sorry about themselves, but, now for the first time, they awoke to the richness of their heritage. This was the starting point of the Indian renaissance, one hears about. A long success of national leaders starting from Tilak has drawn inspiration from Swami Vivekanand. They ‘discovered’ India-her strong and weak points-through him. ‘If you want to know India, study Vivekanand’, was Tagore’s advice to Romain Rolland. This holds true even today, indeed no one has studied India’s body and mind so thoroughly as Swamiji did.
What strikes us as the most striking facet of his personality was his infinite dynamism. Passivity he hated; and he worshipped manliness, energy, vitality, sometimes to the extent of (just to drive home his point) approving some of the traits of Napoleon and Chengiz Khan. And in just 12 years, he packed intense spiritual meditation, travelled as an itinerant monk all over India, carried the message of the Vedanta to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago held in 1893, went on an extensive travel of Europe, Far-East and Japan, wrote books, articles, poems and appraisals and gave moving lectures and discourses. What gave him strength to do all these? He himself remarked once: “Something has possessed me and is giving me no rest.”
Regarding-his message, the first thing to be noted is that it was he who acted as the messenger of the ideas of Ramkrishna just as St. Paul did as of Jesus and Anand of the Buddha. It was under the Swami’s direct inspiration that the Ramakrishna Mission was founded in 1897. This mission in all its 69 years of experience has probably alleviated more human suffering and spread more education than any other institution in this period. Two cardinal principles guide this Mission—”Religion is not for empty bellies” (Ramakrishna) and “If you want to find God, serve man” (Swami Vivekanand). That is why the befitting tribute of Nehru “Rooted in the past and full of India’s heritage, Vivekanand was yet modern in his approach to life’s problems and was kind of bridge between the past of India and her present.”
The message that he preached was remarkably modern. He denounced in vigorous terms the ‘touch-me-notism’ of religions. The very fact that the Ramakrishna Mission celebrates the birth-days of the prophets of different faiths bears out this truth. Secondly, Vivekanand made it more than clear that there is a potential divinity in each one as a true Vedantin. Thirdly, he believed in the upliftment of the masses, although he rather stood for a cultural and spiritual fraternity in which there would be not only economic, social and political freedom, but also moral and intellectual kinship. “In short, he did not believe in leveling down, but rather in leveling up. His conception of Golden Age was an age in which privilege would be totally unknown. This required a root and branch reform but that reform could not come through a revolution based on cultural and mutual esteem. His motto seems to have been from caste to socialism through peaceful and cultural evolution.”
Further, the social slant that he gave to spirituality, too, is of remarkable importance. What made Vivekanand’s belief great was that it sought man before seeking God. He strongly advocated the worship of God as service to mankind. In the language of SC Dasgupta “Swami Vivekanand did not believe in a religion which could not give a morsel of food to the mouth of the hungry. He diagnosed that all the ills and evils of life are due to weakness and ignorance. Strength was life and weakness death. He advocated muscles of iron and nerves of steel; and if necessary to throw away the Bhagwat Gita and acquire strength in the field of games-by playing foot-ball.” Swami Vivekanad said “I want men whose muscles are of iron and nerves made of steel and who possess minds wrought from thunder.” ‘Stand up’, he said, “Do not be afraid. Stamp upon fear and it dies. Be free.”
True to his spirit, he was a great champion of women too. Basing his thoughts on the ideals set by Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and such other great women etc, he stated that an Indian woman was the living embodiment of universal motherhood. He also enjoined that a few of them must come out of their homes and hearts and become sanayasins in order to give lead to others in spiritual and difficult matters.
Although, Swami Vivekanand once remarked that he had nothing to do with the nonsense of politics, his contribution to the resurgence of India was indisputable. Too often he sang the glories of Mother India in his writings, one of his exhortation for his country is “Say brother—’the soul of India is my highest heaven, the good of India is my good’, repeat and pray day and night: ‘First Mother India, take away my weakness, take away my unmanliness and make me a man, a true son, an unfailing patriot.” More than this, he gave a human interpretation to Vedanta. Too often Swami Vivekanand referred to the strength of masses. “Let new India arise from these masses. Let India arise out of the peasant’s cottage, grasping the plough, out of the huts of the fishermen, cobbler and the sweeper. Open the treasure chests of your glorious heritage and you will hear the inaugural shout of renaissant India – ringing with the voice of millions of thunders and reverberating throughout the universe -victory to India’s gospel of Vedanta.” In conclusion, we must mention that in spite of the phenomenal zeal and strength that he showed, he was a remarkably humble man. He remarked: “After me, hundreds of Vivekanandas will be born and each of them hundred times greater than I.” If this man is not a God-man who else is?