Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Swami Vivekanda — A life sketch


Swami Vivekananda is one of the most enduring icons of the rise of Indian nationalism in modern India. We know him today as being one among the first generation of leaders who raised the voice of Indian nationality. Equally important is that he was an intensely religious man who lived a life immersed in spirituality. His position was unique in that along with a modern education which gave him a critical attitude, he was also the disciple of a mystic who was a living example of the highest Truth in Hinduism. Through this man, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, he also experienced the ultimate stage in Yoga, the stage of Samadhi, and his account of his experience and the importance of this in his life is as important as his work in nation building.


Indian society in the nineteenth century had fallen into a stage of degeneration after centuries of Afghan and Mughal, and then British rule. The British rule, specially, had created widespread poverty and hunger, and the propaganda of their missionaries had created a sense of insecurity among the people about their traditional customs and beliefs. Faced with this threat, the caste–ridden society had retreated into a shell, and in order to protect themselves from this attack became more orthodox and repressive. At this crucial period rose a number of important reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda. They strived ceaselessly to reform the Indian society, and in doing so, raised a new voice of pan– Indian nationalism. They were thus the vanguards of the Freedom Movement. This first voice of protest was not so much against the political exploitation by the British but against their moral exploitation of the Indian society, and this was to guide and provide the unique feature of the Indian Freedom struggle.


Among these leaders, Vivekananda’s position was unique in that he was in close touch with both the core of Hindu religious thought and with the Western philosophy. He was thus able to take up the best features of both in his work and attempt to fuse them in his dream of the future.


Born Narendra Dutta in a wealthy Kayastha (a Kshattriya subcaste) family of West Bengal on January 12, 1863 in Calcutta, he acquired a good education in the Western style under the British system and also his command over English. With his commanding intellect, he devoured books on Western philosophers and thus acquired a strong grounding in Western philosophical thinking. His traditional family background also ensured that he acquired a formidable knowledge of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts. But it was something else that was to open his eyes to the meaning of these texts.


In his early twenties, Vivekananda, wrestling with philosophical questions to which he did not find any answers in his books, wandered around meeting holy men to put his questions. His test question to them was, ‘ Have you seen God?’ The answer was always a vague one, couched in metaphysics. But in 1881, he met one man, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, whose answer Vivekananda recorded for posterity, ‘ Yes, I have seen him, only far more intensely than I see you’. One can well imagine the effect this had on him. He had found his Guru, but there were many more trials to go through before Vivekananda would put his whole faith in this mystic, who recognized in him the ideal disciple he had been waiting for. In one of his early meetings, he was also given the experience of Samadhi, the final stage of contact with the Absolute in Hinduism, by a touch from Ramakrishna. His record of his experience is important, because it was probably the only record we have of this stage from a mind that was completely unbiased and critical. Eventually Vivekananda became the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna and was entrusted by him on his deathbed to carry out his work.


The religion preached by Ramakrishna was Hinduism in its very essence. He showed the synergy between the two divergent streams of Hinduism, Bhakti with its Personal God and rituals, and the Monoism of the Upanishads, with its Impersonal God and renunciation. This idea, that there was no conflict between the Impersonal and the Personal God, was to provide the intellectual basis for Hindu customs, and thus revitalize Hinduism in modern times.


With Ramakrishna’s death on August 15, 1886, Vivekananda set out on a pilgrimage throughout India for seven and a half years. He never gave a detailed account of his travels, but a few accounts show the strong effect he had on others. Both the Raja of Khetri and Bal Gangadahar Tilak, whom he met, recorded the strong influence that this unknown monk had on them. His moment of revelation came in Kanyakumari in the Southern tip of India, on a small rocky island. Reaching the end of his travels, he meditated intensely through the night of Christmas of 1892 for three nights, and found the answer to his life. He decided to dedicate his life to revitalizing the country and serving the people of India. His service was not to be restricted to the material plane, but would be on a deeper level, on the spiritual plane which he considered to be the core of India.


The message he preached in India was not the one of renunciation and mysticism that she was used to hearing. Instead he cried for work – work for the downtrodden and poor of the country, work to revitalize the society as a whole. Strength, strength was his message to Indians– physical strength, moral strength, strength to work for others. He railed against the weakness that had crept into the society, and preached self control for the young. And it was a message powered by his own example and his tireless work throughout the country.


Vivekananda wanted to spread his message not just in India but throughout the world. But the message he had for Westerners was a different one. Vivekananda believed in preaching to each according to his needs, and he felt that while it was the weakness in society that had paralyzed India, Westerners were afflicted by an excessive fascination for materialism, and to them he preached the ancient spiritualism of Hindu philosophy. In Vivekananda’s brilliant speeches in the Western world, we find for the first time a clear enunciation of the Advaita Vedanta and its philosophy. He was able to show the strong intellectual basis of Advaita Vedanta, and demonstrated its precepts as being the foremost among all philosophical speculation. His ideas were to revolutionize the Western view of Hinduism, which till then had been regarded as a primitive religion without any rational basis.


On hearing of the World Convention of Religion to be held in Chicago in 1893, he at once saw a way of taking the message of Indian spirituality to a much larger audience. He received the patronage of the Raja of Khetri, and reached Chicago. At the convention, he was a tremendous success, right from his inaugural address. He followed up his success by touring the US, and then the UK, with the added aim of earning enough money to finance his dream of setting up the Ramakrishna Mission, and doing his work in his master’s name.

He was lionized in both the US and the UK, and gathered a large number of followers and also set up many centers for propagation of this teaching. He was the first teacher from India who brought the message of Yoga and Indian Philosophy to the shores of the West, and the power behind his message ensured that it continues to spread to this day. His message also excited Indians, for most of whom the logic of the Advaita Vedanta, which was considered an esoteric philosophy even in India and rarely taught, was as new as it was in the West.


The news of his success reached India, and when he returned in 1897, he received a triumphant welcome and became famous throughout the country, This helped him to establish the Ramkrishna Mission and begin his work of social reform along with the other disciples of the master. He also attracted a wide circle of followers throughout the country and was able to establish the master’s presence in all corners. In 1899, he returned to the West for a second time and reenergized the old centers and his followers. But by this time, he had become seriously ill from diabetes which had been troubling him from some time. He returned in 1901 to his beloved Belur Math, the center of the Ramakrishna Mission. He immersed himself in his work but his illness became more severe and he had to take longer and longer periods of rest. He died in July 4, 1902, probably of renal complications, at the age of 39. But the work he had done had created its own momentum, and his message continues to grow and spread till today.

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