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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 20, May 4, 2013

Swami Vivekananda: A Life Divine

Saturday 4 May 2013

by Sudhanshu Tripathi

Swami Vivekananda endeavoured throughout his life to see God face to face and for this end he got the blessings of his guru, Swami Ramkrishnaparam-hans.Although apparently an iconoclast in the early years prior to coming into contact with his guru, he was reformist to the core of his heart always craving for welfare of the downtrodden and hapless humanity since the very beginning. He progressed well with his missionary devotion of spiritual perfection as well as social service, thereby making his temporal life a perfect embodiment of the Life Divine.

Swami Vivekananda’s birth was an exceptional phenomenon and India, particularly the soil of Bengal, was certainly graced by his birth and eventful course of life which epitomised his eternal journey towards the unquenchable quest for Truth, thereby, converting his temporal life into a passionless, sacred and pious Life Divine in the immortal words of an exceptional saint as well as a revolutionary philosopher in the person of no less than Maharshi Aurbindo. In fact, India has produced a galaxy of prophets, saints and seers, mystics, philosophers, poets, revolutionaries and patriots who, by their rare intellect, unblemished character, spirit of selfless service and compassion for humanity, dedication and devotion for their motherland and with so many unique and unparalleled qualities have not only made India proud but also a land of wonders inspiring a renowned Western historian and philosopher, A.L. Basham, to define India as The Wonder that was India. 

Swami Vivekananda, known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, was born in an affluent and aristocratic but traditional Bengali Kayasth family in Kolkata on January 12, 1863 during Makarsankaranti festivals.His father,Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney with interests in a wide range of subjects, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with deep devotion, strong character and other qualities. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics and studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. Like a scientist, influenced under the Western scientific outlook, he believed in the law of evolution, that is, everything comes up from the lower level and progresses to the higher. He refuted the theories mentioned in the religious scriptures that man and the whole universe was the creation of God. At that time he explained that man is the creator of God and not God the creator of man.

In fact, he wanted real progress, peace and spiritual development for the welfare of millions of poverty ridden, hungry, and ignored hapless common people characterised by him as daridranarayan—a term later used by Mahatma Gandhiwho were indeed made scapegoats for centuries by the so-called agents of God or religion in the name of such archaic religious customs and conventions or superstitions. Therefore, he exhorted Indians to adopt a scientific outlook and to pull off the wrap that had covered the true religion which really stands for true love and welfare of the entire humanity.

His interpretation of religion as a universal experience of transcendent Reality, common to all humanity, is one of the most significant contributions to the modern world. Swamiji met the challenge of modern science by showing that religion is as scientific as science itself; religion is the ‘science of consciousness’. As such, religion and science are not contradictory to each other but are complementary and supplementary to each other. This universal conception frees religion from the hold of superstitions, dogmatism, priestcraft and intolerance, and makes religion the highest and noblest pursuit—the pursuit of supreme Freedom, supreme Knowledge and supreme Happiness. Evidently, hisiconoclastic ideas caused a stir wherever he spoke. He was also associated with Brahmo-Samaj Movement for some time perhaps, under influence of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Yet, born with a yogic temperament, he used to practise meditation even from his boyhood and was inclined towards spirituality and realisation of God.

After a few years two events took place which caused Narendra considerable distress. One was the sudden death of his father in 1884. This left the family penniless, and Narendra had to bear the burden of supporting his mother, brothers and sisters. The second event was the illness of Sri Ramakrishna which was diagnosed as throat cancer. In September 1885, Sri Rama-krishna was moved to a house at Shyampukur, and a few months later, to a rented villa at Cossipore.

In these two places the young disciples nursed the Master with devoted care. In spite of poverty at home and inability to find a job for himself, Narendra joined the group as its leader. But, despite these hardships, the impact of his guru was so overwhelming that it firmly streng-thened his resolve towards achieving divinity as Truth which, for him, was epitomised in the temporal life of his guru. Hence he devoted all his life to this end. He left this world on July 4, 1902, at the age of 39 years, five months and 24 days. In such a short span of life, he immensely contributed towards rousing his countrymen not only against the foreign rule but also for making a better world wherein all could live happily and in harmony without any discrimination and exploitation. Since the prevalent morality, in both individual and social life, is mostly based on fear—fear of the police, fear of public ridicule, fear of God’s punishment, fear of karma, and so on and the current theories of ethics also do not explain why a person should be moral and good to others, he gave a new theory of ethics and new principle of morality based on the intrinsic purity and oneness of the Atman. We should be pure because purity is our real nature, our true divine Self or Atman. Similarly, we should love and serve our neighbours because we are all one in the Supreme Spirit known as Paramatman or Brahman according to the divine scheme or consciousness resolving all contradictions.

At the threshold of his youth, Narendra had to pass through a period of spiritual crisis pertaining to the very existence of God. It was at that time that he first heard about SriRama-krishna from one of his English professors at college. One day in November 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He straightaway asked the Master a question which he had put to several others but had received no satisfactory answer: “Sir, have you seen God?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna replied: “Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a much more intense sense.” Apart from removing doubts from the mind of Narendra, Sri Ramakrishna won him over through his pure, unselfish love with serene blessings and mystical aura. He taught him Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism); that all religions are true and that service to man was the most effective worship of God. Thus began a guru-disciple relationship which is quite unique in the history of spiritual masters. Narendra now became a frequent visitor to Dakshineshwar and, under the guidance of the Master, made rapid strides on the spiritual path. At Dakshineshwar, Narendra also met several young men who were devoted to Sri Ramakrishna, and they all became close friends forever towards realisation of God with the help of the spiritual teachings of their Guru who had instilled in these young men the spirit of renunciation and brotherly love for one another which became the foun-dation of their cosmopolitan outlook. One day he distributed ochre robes among them and sent them out to beg for food. In this way he himself laid the founding stone for a new monastic order. He gave specific instructions to Narendra about the formation of the new monastic order. In the small hours of August 16, 1886 Sri Ramakrishna gave up his mortal body.

After the passing away of his Guru, fifteen of his young disciples (one more joined them later) began to live together in a dilapidated building at Baranagar in North Kolkata. Under the leadership of Narendra, they formed a new monastic brotherhood, and in 1887 they took the formal vows of sannyasa, thereby assuming new names. Thus, Narendra became Swami Vividishananda and, afterwards, Vivekananda (although this name was actually assumed much later; and it has characterised the very purpose of his life by symbolising a perennial quest for Truth). After the death of his Guru, Vivekananda became a wandering monk, extensively touring the Indian subcontinent and acquiring first-hand knowledge of conditions in India. He later travelled to the United States and represented India as a delegate in the 1893 Parliament of World Religions. He conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating the tenets of Hindu Philo-sophy in America, England and Europe. He established Vedanta Societies in America and England. In America Vivekananda became India’s spiritual ambassador. His mission there was the interpretation of India’s spiritual culture and heritage. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of Americans through the teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. Here Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint of modern India and his birthday is celebrated as the National Youth Day. In Swami Viveka-nanda’s own words, he was “condensed India”. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called Vivekananda the “paragon of Vedantists”. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s suggestion to Nobel Laureat Romain Rolland was: “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative.”

There were certain unusual or mystical experiences in Vivekananda’s life as quoted by Swami Saradananda, one of his monastic brothers, who had described about the “vision” he (Vivekananda) had had after meditation at his home during his college days, something that was wonderful and uncommon: ”When I kept my mind still and devoid of all objects, there flowed in it a current of serene bliss. Under its influence, I felt a sort of intoxication for a long time even after the end of the meditation; so I did not feel inclined to leave my seat and get up immediately. One day when I was sitting in that condition at the end of the meditation, I saw the wonderful figure of a monk appear suddenly—from where I did not know—and stand before me at a little distance, filling the room with a divine effulgence. He was in ochre robes with a Kamandala (water-pot) in his hand. His face bore such a calm and serene expression of inwardness born of indifference to all things, that I was amazed and felt much drawn to him. He walked towards me with a slow step, his eyes steadfastly fixed on me, as if he wanted to say something. But I was seized with fear and could not keep still. I got up from my seat, opened the door, and quickly left the room. The next moment I thought, ‘Why this foolish fear?’ I became bold and went back into the room to listen to the monk, who, alas, was no longer there. I waited long in vain, feeling dejected and repenting that I had been so stupid as to flee without listening to him. I have seen many monks, but never have I seen such an extra-ordinary expression on any other face. That face has been indelibly printed on my heart as well as mind. It may have been a hallucination; but very often I think that I had the good Fortune of seeing Lord Buddha that day.”

After establishing the new monastic order, Vivekananda heard the inner call for a greater mission in his life. While most of the followers of Sri Ramakrishna thought of him in relation to their own personal lives, Vivekananda thought of his Guru in relation to India and the rest of the world. As the prophet of the present age, what was Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the modern world and to India in particular? This question and the awareness of his own inherent powers urged Swamiji to go out alone into the wide world. So in the middle of 1890, after receiving the blessings of Sri Sarada Devi, the divine consort of Sri Ramakrishna, known to the world as the Holy Mother, who was then staying in Kolkata, Swamiji left the Baranagar Math and embarked on a long journey of explo-ration and discovery of India.

During his travels all over India, Swami Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the appalling poverty and backwardness of the masses. He was the first religious leader in India to understand and openly declare that the real cause of India’s downfall was the neglect of the masses. The immediate need was to provide food and other bare necessities of life to the hungry millions. For this they should be taught the improved methods of agriculture, village industries, etc. It was in this context that Viveka-nanda grasped the crux of the problem of poverty in India (which had escaped the attention of the social reformers of his days): owing to centuries of oppression, the down-trodden masses had lost faith in their capacity to improve their lot. It was first of all necessary to infuse into their minds full and firm faith in themselves. For this they needed a life-giving and inspiring message. Swamiji found this message in the principle of the Atman, the doctrine of the potential divinity of the soul, taught in Vedanta, the ancient system of the religious philosophy of India. He saw that, in spite of poverty, the masses clung to religion, but they had never been taught the life-giving, ennobling principles of Vedanta and how to apply them in practical life which can improve their living as well as their lot.

Thus the masses needed two kinds of knowledge: secular knowledge to improve their economic condition, and spiritual knowledge to infuse faith in themselves and strengthen their moral sense. The next question was: how to spread these two kinds of knowledge among the masses? It is possible only through education—this was the answer that Swamiji found among several other options. Because he considered that knowledge or gyan is inherent in each one of us since birth and the role of education as well as that of a teacher is to make him or her aware of this quality or capacity so as to enable him or her make progress in all walks of life and also to know the ‘Truth’. One thing became clear to Swamiji: to carry out his plans for the spread of education and for the uplift of the poor masses, and also of women, an efficient organisation of dedicated people was needed. As he said later on, he wanted “to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest”. It was to serve this purpose that he founded on May 1, 1897 a unique type of organi-sation known as the Ramakrishna Mission.

Meanwhile, Vivekananda heard about the World’s Parliament of Religions being held in Chicago in 1893. His friends and admirers in India wanted him to attend the Parliament. He too felt that the Parliament would provide the right forum to present his Master’s message to the world, and so he decided to go to America. Another reason which prompted Swamiji to go to America was to seek not only financial assistance for his project of uplifting the masses but also to popularise Indian knowledge and culture and its unique metaphysical richness all over the world so that real India may come out before them. However, Swamiji wanted to have an inner certitude and divine call regarding his mission. Both of these he got while he sat in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanya-kumari.

With the funds partly collected by his Chennai disciples and partly provided by the Raja of Khetri, Swami Vivekananda left for America from Mumbai on May 31, 1893. His speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in September 1893, made him famous as an ‘orator by divine right’ and as a ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world’. After the Parliament, Swamiji spent nearly three-and-a- half years spreading Vedanta as lived and taught by Sri Ramakrishna, mostly in the eastern parts of USA and also in London.

He returned to India in January 1897. In response to the enthusiastic welcome that he received everywhere, he delivered a series of lectures in different parts of India, which created a great stir all over the country. Through these inspiring and profoundly significant lectures Swamiji attempted to do the following: to arouse the religious consciousness of people and self-respect and self-pride about their rich cultural heritage particularly the metaphysical advance-ment in India; to bring about unification of Hinduism by pointing out the common bases of its sects, particularly to remove their mutual differences for common benefit for the entire humanity. In fact, it was Swami Vivekananda who gave to Hinduism as a whole a clear-cut identity, a distinct profile. Before Swamiji came to the forefront, Hinduism was a loose confe-deration of many different sects. Swamiji was the first religious leader to speak about the common bases of Hinduism and the common ground of all sects. He was the first person, as guided by his Master Sri Ramakrishna, to accept all Hindu doctrines and the views of all Hindu philosophers and sects as different aspects of one total view of Reality and way of life known as Hinduism.

Speaking about Swamiji’s role in giving Hinduism its distinct identity, Sister Nivedita wrote: “... it may be said that when he began to speak it was of ‘the religious ideas of the Hindus’, but when he ended, Hinduism had been created.” Before Swamiji came, there was a lot of quarrel and competition among the various sects of Hinduism. Similarly, the protagonists of different systems and schools of philosophy were claiming their views to be the only true and valid ones. By applying Sri Ramakrishna’s doctrine of Harmony (Samanvaya) Swamiji brought about an overall unification of Hinduism on the basis of the principle of unity in diversity. Highlighting Swamiji’s role in this field K.M. Pannikar, the eminent historian and diplomat, wrote: “This new Shankaracharya may well be claimed to be a unifier of Hindu ideology.”

Another important service rendered by Swamiji was to raise his voice in defence of Hinduism. In fact, this was one of the main tasks that he carried out in the West. Christian missionary propaganda had given a wrong understanding of Hinduism and India in Western minds. Swamiji had to face a lot of opposition in his attempts to defend Hinduism and to focus the attention of educated people on the plight of the downtrodden masses, and to expound his plan for their upliftment by the application of the principles of Practical Vedanta because that way both spiritual and worldly purposes of human life can be accomplished by everyone to perfection and towards sublimation. The Ramakrishna Mission was to serve this purpose, in which monks and lay people would jointly undertake propagation of Practical Vedanta, and various forms of social service, such as running hospitals, schools, colleges, hostels, rural development centres etc., and conducting massive relief and rehabilitation work for victims of earthquakes, cyclones and other calamities, in different parts of India and other countries in the larger interest of humanity.

It is in this context that he brought out his conception of ‘potential divinity of the soul’ in full conformity with the present age of humanism which holds that man should be the chief concern and centre of all activities and thinking. Through science and technology man has attained great prosperity and power, and modern methods of communication and travel have converted human society into a ‘global village’. But the degradation of man has also been going on apace, as witnessed by the enormous increase in broken homes, immorality, violence, crime, etc. in modern society. Viveka-nanda’s concept of potential divinity of the soul prevents this degradation, divinises human relationships, and makes life meaningful and worth living. Swamiji laid the foundation for ‘spiritual humanism’, which is manifesting itself through several neo-humanistic move-ments and the current interest in meditation, yoga and other spiritual exercises etc. all over the world.

In early 1898 Swami Vivekananda acquired a big plot of land on the western bank of the Ganga at a place called Belur to have a perma-nent abode for the monastery and monastic order originally started at Baranagar, and got it registered as the Ramakrishna Math after a couple of years. Here Swamiji established a new, universal pattern of monastic life which adapts ancient monastic ideals to the conditions of modern life, which gives equal importance to personal illumination and social service, and which is open to all men without any distinction of religion, race or caste so that all artificial differences in this worldly society may get eliminated forever.

It may be mentioned here that in the West many people were influenced by Swami Viveka-nanda’s life and message, particularly due to his relentless efforts to build a bridge between Indian and Western cultures. He did it by interpreting Hindu scriptures and philo-sophy and the Hindu way of life and institutions to the Western people in an idiom which they could understand. He made the Western people realise that they had to learn much from Indian spirituality for their own well-being. He showed that, in spite of her poverty and backwardness, India had a great contribution to make to world culture. In this way he was instrumental in ending India’s cultural isolation from the rest of the world and was aptly recognised as India’s first great cultural ambassador to the West.

Some of those Westerners became his disciples or devoted friends. Among them the names of Margaret Noble (later known as Sister Nivedita), Captain and Mrs Sevier, Josephine McLeod and Sara Ole Bull deserve special mention. Nivedita dedicated her life to educating girls in Kolkata. Swamiji had many Indian disciples also, some of whom joined the Rama-krishna Math and became sannyasis. In June 1899 he went to the West on a second visit. This time he spent most of his time in the West coast of the USA. After delivering many lectures there, he returned to the Belur Math in December 1900. The rest of his life was spent in India, inspiring and guiding people, both monastic and lay. Incessant work, especially giving lectures and inspiring people, affected Swamiji’s health which deteriorated. And the end came quietly on the night of July 4, 1902. Before his Mahasamadhi he had written to a Western follower: “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere until the whole world shall know that it is one with God.” Evidently, this was the purpose of his life and that has made his life’s journey an endless or eternal one.

Although Vivekananda desired to remain a monk throughout his life devoted to pure medi-tation, his Guru prevailed upon him towards discharging social obligations as an essential adjunct of meditation, thereby perfecting his ongoing journey towards salvation, which in fact is the culmination of Hinduism. And he perfected it (Hinduism) with the rejuvenation and modernisation of monas-ticism. In this new monastic ideal, followed in the Ramakrishna Order, the ancient principles of renunciation and realisation of God are combined with service to God in man (Shiva jnanejivaseva). Evidently, he elevated social service to the status of divine service. Hence, despite being a monk, he considered his life as a platform for action, in consonance with the karma theory of the Gita, which ought to be utilised for upliftment and progress and welfare of the ignored, hungry, downtrodden and wretched humanity on earth.

Vivekananda did not merely interpret ancient Hindu scriptures and philosophical ideas in terms of modern thought. He also added several illuminating original concepts based on his own transcendental experiences and vision of the future. Although India as a nation, despite of its innumerable linguistic, ethnic, historical and regional diversities, has had since time imme-morial a strong sense of cultural unity, it was he who revealed the true foundations of culture and thus clearly defined and strengthened the sense of unity as a nation. Swamiji gave Indians proper understanding of their country’s great spiritual heritage and thus injected in them pride in their past. In fact, he did succeed in bringing about cultural awakening among all such people in the world thereby arousing them from their deep slumber of inaction, confusion and a directionless life. Furthermore, he pointed out to Indians the drawbacks of Western culture and the need for India’s contribution to overcome these drawbacks. In this way Swamiji made India a nation with a global mission.

All these, indeed, gave real strength and purpose to India’s nationalist movement as a perennial source of inspiration among Indians, imparted in them the concept of unity, pride in the past and a sense of mission. Several eminent leaders of India’s freedom movement have acknowledged their indebtedness to Swamiji. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose wrote: “Swamiji harmonised the East and the West, religion and science, past and present. And that is why he is great. Our countrymen have gained unprecedented self-respect, self-reliance and self-assertion from his teachings.”

Swamiji’s most unique contribution to the creation of new India was to open the minds of Indians to their duty to the downtrodden masses. Long before the ideas of Karl Marx were known in India, Swamiji spoke about the role of the labouring classes in the production of the country’s wealth. Swamiji was the first religious leader in India to speak for the masses in consonance with the spirit of the famous adage—

the voice of people is the voice of God.

He also formulated a definite philosophy of service, and did organise large-scale social service. Thus Vivekananda’s life symbolised a perfect union of an ideal of action with that of sublimation for the entire humanity thereby attaining his Guru’s divinity by wholeheartedly submitting to his (the Guru’s) desire. As a matter of fact, the Guru had transferred into Vivekananda all his life-earned spiritual attainments, residing in him as Maa—divine Kali as supreme deity—through yogic-kriya, just a day or two before his Mahasamadhi or Nirvaana. 

Dr Sudhanshu Tripathi is an Associate Professor of Political Science, MDPG College, Pratapgarh (UP).

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