International Forum for NeoVedantins

Life and Teachings of Swami Vivekananda: Part 5

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

Practical Vedanta

Narendra had developed peculiar sharpness of perception and assimilation that helped him pick up 'many gems' from the talks of Sri Ramakrishna. He could, as compared to others, easily 'see' the deep meaning in the words of Sri Ramakrishna, even though Sri Ramakrishna told them in simple language, and never as a preaching. Thus, gradually Swami Vivekananda started assimilating tips and hints on practical Vedanta that could benefit individual and collective life in society.

Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva (Service of Man as God)

The invaluable mantra "Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva" (serving every being as the full manifestation of God) Narendranath received from Sri Ramakrishna.

For instance, sometime in 1884, once Sri Ramakrishna was sitting in the room surrounded by his devotees including Narendranath. In the course of conversation there arose a topic on Vaishnava religion, and explaining the essence of that doctrine Sri Ramakrishna said, "That doctrine teaches that one should always be careful to observe three things, namely, a taste for God's name, kindness to all beings, and the service of co-devotees. ...One should have the conviction in one's heart that the whole universe belongs to Krishna, and therefore, one should have compassion for all beings." No sooner did Sri Ramakrishna utter the words 'compassion for all beings' than he suddenly went into ecstasy. Regaining partial normal consciousness, he continued, "Talk of compassion for beings. Insignificant creature that you are, how can you show compassion for all beings? Who are you to show compassion? You wretch, who are you to bestow it. No, no; it is not compassion to jivas, but service to them as Shiva."

All listened to those words of Sri Ramakrishna spoken in the ecstatic mood, but none could detect and understand their hidden import at that time. It was Narendranath alone who, coming out of the room at the end of Sri Ramakrishna's ecstasy, said, "Ah, what a wonderful light have I got today from Sri Ramakrishna's words. What a new and attractive Gospel have we received today through those words of his, wherein a synthesis has been effected of sweet devotion to the Lord with Vedantic knowledge, which is generally regarded as dry austere and lacking in sympathy with the suffering of others. Whenever shall I get the opportunity I will preach this wonderful doctrine of 'Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva', serving God in each living being."

To give an example how in later life Swami Vivekananda actually put this mantra in practice, the following incidence is worth mentioning:

After his return from USA, around 1898, Swami Vivekananda had acquired land at Belur and constructed the Temple of Sri Ramakrishna and the Math for sannyasins. He was not keeping well and had gone to Darjeeling hill station for rest. Meanwhile plague broke out in Calcutta, and panic set in all over. People were running in fear, leaving Calcutta. Many died and there was no one to take care of the sick or dispose of the dead bodies. The news reached the broad-hearted Swami who immediately returned to Calcutta and ordered all the inmates of Belur Math to get busy in the service and care of the affected. Many a sannyasin protested, 'this is not our work; Sri Ramakrishna had never told us to do social service. Our main aim is to seek God and perform sadhana.' This was the argument put forward by some of the sannyasins.

Swami Vivekananda thundered at them saying, "O my brothers, have you forgotten the mantra of our Sri Ramakrishna: 'Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva'. By serving human beings we are serving the highest expression of God on this earth. Love the Lord in these suffering patients. I appeal to you to come forward in this calamity and serve the living God."

The monks were stunned to listen to those powerful words of their leader and many of them saw the truth therein. But someone still protested, "O Swami, from where would the money come?" To this the Swami retaliated, 'If need be, sell off the Belur Math. The money thus gathered would be put to the service of these men. I care not for home or shelter for ourselves; we are sannyasins, and we have taken the vow of poverty. Tree shade would be our roof and a loin cloth would be enough for us to cover our bodies.'

Thus were engaged all the monks, householder devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, and inmates of Belur Math in the service of the afflicted. The British authorities in their report on the epidemic had recorded that due to the timely help from the Math mortality was less and moreover, the epidemic was brought under control much quickly.

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