International Forum for NeoVedantins

Life and Teachings of Swami Vivekananda: Part 1

Swami Vivekananda: The Universal Man
[B. 12 January 1863; S. 4 July 1902]
Narendra = Narendranath = Naren = Swami Vivekananda
Master = Thakur = Sri Ramakrishna


Rarely does humanity witness a combination of a great Guru (Spiritual Teacher) and equally capable Shishya (spiritual disciple) as Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were. The Upanishads and the Gita do mention of such noble pairs, when a yearning aspirant seeking higher knowledge humbly bows down to the Teacher and says, 'Sir, please tell me: Which is that thing which having been known, all this becomes known, and nothing else remains to be known? Give me that, acquiring which all desires nullify. O gracious one, I surrender at your feet; please tell me what is right for me.' And the compassionate Teacher describes the nature of Self or Atman, starting as external reality and culminating into the true knowledge of our inner Self. As the Guru speaks, so does the aspirant (sadhaka) experience the Truth contained in those words. It is as if a film on Brahman is being run in front of the yearning aspirant.

One such pair flourished in the last but one decade of nineteenth century, when Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa sculpted the most wonderful masterpiece in the form of Swami Vivekananda out of skeptical and rational, but fearless and dynamic Narendranath. Their association has unleashed a tremendous spiritual force that has started destroying dreary ignorance covering the minds and hearts of mankind all over the globe. Then, scientific knowledge based on reason and rationality was ushering in the era of Industrial Revolution; however, it also brought skepticism and contempt for religion.

Science appeared to be partial and sectarian in its study of various phenomena, for it tried to leave religion out of its purview. As a result, the majority of people started believing that the goal of life was material progress alone. Religion was on the defensive in the face of clattering advances of modern technology. Decline in religion (Dharma Glani) manifested as ritualistic monotony, crass materialism, and excessive engagement in sense pleasures with resultant lack of discrimination and renunciation. Values of kindness and generosity, of forbearance and simplicity were relegated to the back seat. The priests and the rulers, the rich and the privileged became the custodians of religious truths. Selfishness replaced altruism, and religious fanaticism erupted as a legitimate weapon to spread "true religion" and destroy "false beliefs".

Such states of decline in Dharma come in cycles. However, as the Gita says, a Man of God also comes on the scene to destroy wickedness and to reestablish the path of spirituality. These great seers and teachers come to 'set in motion the wheel of dharma,' as did Lord Buddha 2500 years ago. Such incarnations come from time to time, in every era, in every land, and help revive the noble path of transcendental realization as the source and proof of Knowledge and Truth. They give the sagging wheel of spirituality a powerful push for moving it again in right direction. In recent times world faced such a situation when, to revive the declining faith in religion and to instill knowledge of the true goal of humankind, Swami Vivekananda entered the world arena as a great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.

Swami Vivekananda revived Hinduism on the basis of the interpretations and meaning given to the philosophy of Vedanta by great Rishis at various time-periods of history. The externals of Hinduism appear to change from Sri Rama to Sri Krishna, from Sri Chaitannya to Sri Ramakrishna, but the core of Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Religion) remains the same. Swami Vivekananda preached the essence of religion by way of finding newer insights in and application of Eternal Religion as per the requirement of modern times and global perspective. He highlighted the truth of the 'divinity of each soul' and the constant struggle and evolution of an individual to manifest this divinity fully. Transcendental realization of our true nature, i.e. pure consciousness, is what Hinduism (Vedanta) preaches right through the eternity. This is the essential teaching mentioned and elaborated in the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahma-sutras. The attempt to realize this truth is the beginning of religion, and getting established in transcendental divine state is the aim of human birth. Every person succeeding in this attempt is the basis and hope for fresh human endeavour and struggle for self-realization in future.


Swami Vivekananda was born in an educated and well-to-do family of Calcutta on 12th January 1863. His father, Vishwanath Dutta, was a famous lawyer with progressive, liberal, and scientific outlook. He was widely travelled and knew many languages including Persian and English. Swami Vivekananda's mother, Bhuvaneshawaridevi, was a pious and wise lady devoted to God. She inspired the latent virtues of fearlessness, honesty, justice, and devotion in her son, Narendra (as Swami Vivekananda was called in his childhood). She told him the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great Indian Epics, which influenced later life of Swami Vivekananda.

From his early childhood Narendra was naughty, brave, and fearless. He did not approve of injustice or sycophancy. But his peculiar tendencies in the childhood were 1) the ease with which he could get absorbed in deep meditation, and 2) the unusual capacity of intense mental concentration, which made him learn and remember the essence of his studies even by reading just once. As an example, let me cite the following incident from his later life:

Once Swami Vivekananda was reading 'Encyclopedia Britannica'. His disciple (Sharatchandra Chakravarti), seeing those twenty-odd volumes, remarked, "It is difficult to master the contents of so many volumes in one life." He did not know at the time that the Swami had already finished ten volumes and was reading the eleventh.

"What do you mean?" said Swamiji. "Ask me whatever you like from those ten volumes and I can tell you all about it."

The disciple, out of curiosity, brought down the books and asked Swamiji many questions on difficult and varied topics, selecting from different volumes. Swami Vivekananda not only replied each correctly, but also in many instances quoted the very language of the books.

At other time, Swami Vivekananda happened to turn the pages of a book in quick succession after looking at them just once. The disciple asked as to what Swamiji was doing. Swami Vivekananda replied, "Why, I am reading the book." The disciple was greatly surprised to see such odd method of reading the book. Then the Swami explained: Just as a child reads every letter of a word, and most of adults read a cluster of words or a part of a sentence, one can read paragraph to paragraph. Thus, just three glances and he could read the whole page. Later he greatly emphasized the need to cultivate powers of mind in the form of purity and concentration for spiritual gains. Concentration of mind also led to perfection in many other branches of knowledge including art and science, he maintained.

College Days

The young and versatile Narendra was well versed with both Indian and Western philosophical thought, including the

Vedanta philosophy of the Upanishads and newer trends in Western philosophies like those of Schopenhauer, Kant, and Hegel. He once said, "Kant's great achievement was the discovery that 'time, space, and causation are modes of thought,' but Vedanta taught all this ages ago and called it 'Maya'. Schopenhauer stands on reason only and rationalizes the Vedas... Shankara maintained the orthodoxy of Vedas."

It was a rare combination of science and philosophy that flourished in the mind of this young man, hungry as he was for knowledge in all the fields. He even went to Calcutta medical school to see for himself the arrangement of brain, spinal cord, and the nerves in cadavers kept in the anatomical museum. He wanted to understand the flow of energy currents etc. in relation to Kundalini charkas, etc. He was equally adept in the art of music and singing. His voice was clear, pure, and full of emotion that was sure to bring tears to the eyes of the listeners. Even Sri Ramakrishna used to say, 'no one sings as touchingly as Naren does'. He was expert in playing percussion instruments like tabla, mrudungam, and pakhavaz.

Thus, equipped with the knowledge of various languages (Bengali, Sanskrit, English, and Hindi), art and literature, music and singing (he also did a few remarkable paintings), philosophy and science, Swami Vivekananda presented himself at the holy feet of Sri Ramakrishna in the year 1881 at the tender age of eighteen.

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