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Swami Vivekananda: life of an extraordinary human being

Indrani Dutta
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His achievements could fill an entire library, and yet the evaluation would remain incomplete

Swami Vivekananda with fellow saints and people who visited him at Vivekanandar Illam (then known as Ice House ) at Triplicane, Chennai, on the shores of the Marina.— Photo Courtesy: Sri Ramakrishna Mutt
Swami Vivekananda with fellow saints and people who visited him at Vivekanandar Illam (then known as Ice House ) at Triplicane, Chennai, on the shores of the Marina.— Photo Courtesy: Sri Ramakrishna Mutt

He walked the earth for only about 39 years. Yet in that brief period, he accomplished so much that it would fill a library and still the evaluation of this extraordinary man would remain incomplete. Such was the life of Narendranath Dutta, known the world over as Swami Vivekananda.

Only ten years of his life were devoted to public activities — but his whole life was one of struggle and physical suffering. Although he was born to affluence, the generosity of his father, coupled with the machinations of some of his relatives, left his widowed mother in penury, and the responsibility to keep the home and hearth together fell upon the young Narendranth.

For several days during this period, he would roam the streets of the city in search of a livelihood and then go sleep on an empty stomach so that his mother and his siblings could have the meagre food at home . He would invent friends to say that he has feasted at their place, when in reality he may have had little more than a few gulps of water to snuff out the hunger-pangs of a youth in his twenties.

Ramakrishna’s influence

This was also the time when he had come into contact with his guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, who as though to test him, sent him to pray for his family’s well-being before Goddess Kali at the temple built by Rani Rashmoni at Dakshineswar.

Taking the first steps towards the extraordinary path that his life would chart, he failed to pray for the Goddess’s benediction at a time when his family faced starvation. “Have you made your wish,” Ramakrishna asked ... “No I could not,” he replied. ‘Naren’ (as he was fondly called), could not bring himself to ask the Goddess for material benefits, and Sri Ramakrishna finally assured his favourite disciple that his family would never be in want of the basic necessities of life.

Narendranath was now ready to embark on what can only be described as a blitzkrieg journey through life. During this time he preached, he wrote, he composed (the Ramakrishna Mission evening prayer song was his creation), he took Vedanta to the West, he plunged headlong into the task of ameliorating human suffering, and besides all these, he founded an institution that immortalised his master, Sri Ramakrishna, and thus securing his own immortality in the process.

Yet it is not as if Narendranath had accepted Sri Ramakrishna unquestioningly. For long years he would pester him with questions such as, “Have you seen God?”

Even as a naughty child, Naren seldom accepted things unquestioningly. He challenged social mores such as untouchability at a very young age. However, he was extremely intelligent, pure at heart and adventurous.

His true mettle at that time was only known to Ramakrishna who, days before his ‘Mahasamadhi,’ decided to pass on his spiritual powers to Naren through a barely-legible scribble. Ramakrishna also asked Naren to take care of the 15-young men who would later coalesce into a monastic brotherhood.

The concept of the monastic germinated at a garden-house (now called Udyan Bati) on the northern outskirts of the city. But it was only in 1898 that he moved to the permanent headquarters of the Order at Belur Math.

The years in interlude were spent at a decrepit, haunted house, where the young men stayed in acute penury begging in the neighbourhood for food, singing hymns to drive away their hunger and sharing clothes. A spot at the Baranagar Math marks the place where the 16 men took their vows of sanyas and did the viraja homa to turn their past life to embers before entering the life of a monk.

Leading from the front was Vivekananda, who would soon take up the life of an itinerant monk. Commencing his Indian sojourn in the last decade of the 19{+t}{+h}century he reached Kanyakumari and Secunderabad before setting sail for Chicago from Mumbai in May 1893. This was also the time when Narendranath was increasingly turning to the ‘Divine Mother’ Sri Sarada Devi (Sri Ramakrishna’s consort) for guidance.

Famous voyage

to Chicago

While his southern admirers in Chennai, led by Professor Alasingha Perumal raised funds to send him to the Chicago Parliament of Regions, with the Raja of Khetri in Rajasthan also helping out, it was not until he felt ordained to undertake the task, that he finally agreed to set sail. The direction came through a ‘vision’ during a state of ‘sleepful awakenness,’ when Sri Ramakrishna was seen crossing the seven seas and exhorting his favourite disciple to follow him. A similar apparition before Sarada Devi helped her make up her mind to allow her beloved Naren to undertake the journey, which took two months to complete, and was arduous due to the conditions in which the Swami undertook it.

The soul-stirring and transformational speech at the Chicago Art Institute is well-known. What is perhaps less known is the hardship that Vivekananda had to undergo in the days preceding it. Having arrived mistakenly a month and a half ahead of the actual event, he ran out of money and spent his days at times on a sidewalk and at times in a box-wagon, even as winter approached. It is perhaps only through the help and kindness of women like Sara Bull, Mrs. Halle and some others, that he could pull through and carry on with his mission in America.

Vivekananda reportedly suffered stage fright and kept postponing his slot at the Parliament of Religions at the Chicago Art Institute; but once he had completed his address, people tried to leap over boundary rails to reach out to him . He later delivered speeches at the Harvard University and the Green Acre Religious Conference, before finally founding the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. He then went to Europe where too he delivered lectures.

He returned to the subcontinent through Colombo, and at Jaffna, according to his stenographer J.J Goodwin, there was a procession of 20,000 people.

Goodwin said in a letter to Mrs. Bull that “India is mad with enthusiasm for him … At Pamban, our first place in India, the Raja of Ramnad received him in person, prostrating himself at Swami’s feet, weeping for pure joy and afterwards helping to drag his chariot in place of horses … Everyone says that his work in the West has caused tremendous spiritual revival.” .

Drawing from Goodwin’s eye-witness versions, however, we also find that “people have been killing him with kindness and he is suffering for it.” The Swami’s health also started failing at that time and his scorching work-pace had to be paused occasionally as he was forced to rest awhile to mend his health.

Second trip to the West

After the consecration of the Belur Math in May 1898, and the establishment of the Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati in the Himalayas with Mr. Sevier and his wife , Vivekananda set sail once again for the West, and founded the Vedanta Society of San Francisco during this leg of the journey. He toured Europe extensively during this visit which stretched for around two years. However, his health at that time was on the brink of a total collapse due to over-exertion . He returned to the Belur Math 1900; by then he was suffering from asthma, diabetes and extreme exhaustion.

The end came quietly on the night of July 4, 1902, but not before the patriot-saint, had laid the foundation of the twin organisations, the Ramakrishna Math for carrying forward the Vedanta movement the world over, and the Ramakrishna Mission for serving mankind by following his ideal, atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya cha (for one’s liberation and for the welfare of the world).


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