Vivekananda, the great Indian spiritual leader and monk, was born Narendranath Datta (Narendra) in Calcutta on January 12, 1863 to a Bengali Kayastha family. His father Vishwanath Datta was attached to the Calcutta High Court.
Narendra was attracted to spirituality and monks from an early age. In his biography of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Nikhilananda writes: The youngster developed a special fancy for wandering monks, whose very sight would greatly excite him. One day when such a monk appeared at the door and asked for alms, Narendra gave him his only possession, the tiny piece of new cloth that was wrapped round his waist. Thereafter, whenever a monk was seen in the neighbourhood, Narendra would be locked in a room. But even then he would throw out of the window whatever he found near at hand as an offering to the holy man.”
Narendra’s interests ranged from philosophy and history to science and spirituality. He also studied the Hindu scriptures, learned classical music and participated in physical exercises. He studied the works of some of the finest Western minds including Baruch Spinoza, Arthur Schopenhauer, George Hegel, Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant. He corresponded with Herbert Spencer and translated his book into Bengali.
After being introduced to the saint Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the young Narendra was initially skeptical of his teachings but later accepted him as his guru. On his deathbed in August 1886 Ramakrishna asked his disciples to consider Narendra as their leader.
In 1888 Narendra decided to travel across the country as a monk. It was in a sense his spiritual discovery of India which lasted several years. He also got to know first-hand the enormous challenges facing the nation and the poverty of its people. He lived mainly on alms and travelled on foot and by train, from tickets bought by followers. He met people of all religions, castes and classes.
In Varanasi he met the writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Sanskrit scholar Babu Pramadadas Mitra and saint Trailanga Swami. After meeting him Mukhopadhyay predicted that Narendra was destined for greatness.
After Varanasi Narendra went to places like Ayodhya, Vrindavan and Rishikesh. At the railway waiting room in Hathras a railway official named Sharat Chandra Gupta invited him home and became his disciple. When the duo reached Hrishikesh, Narendra initiated Gupta into the monastic order, naming him Swami Sadananda. Narendra continued his journeys in the second half of 1890, going to places like Nainital, Rishikesh and Haridwar. He met holy men and scholars and discussed scriptures with them.
In Ahmedabad he studied Islamic and Jain beliefs. At Limbdi, Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh first gave him the idea of going to the West to spread the word of the Vedanta.
He studied subjects like Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at Porbandar. During a train journey in July 1892 he met the Indian nationalist leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He studied Christian theology atGoa.
In the south, he went to Bangalore, Trissur and Ernakulam among other places. The Raja of Ramnad Bhaskara Sethupathi became his disciple and urged him to attend the Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago. With Chicago as his final destination Narendra eventually set sail from Bombay on May 31, 1893, the trip made possible thanks to funds collected mainly by disciples, rulers and admirers in south India. Heeding a suggestion Narendra took on the name Vivekananda, which means the ‘the bliss of discerning wisdom’. On his way to the United States, Vivekananda visited Japan,China and Canada.
When in the US Vivekananda was told that he could not be a delegate to the Parliament without proper credentials, Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University famously said, “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens”.
Eventually, of course, he did speak at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, on September 11, 1893. And what a speech it was! Overcoming his initial nervousness about addressing such a large gathering in a foreign country, he began by addressing his audience as “Sisters and brothers of America!” — and the 7000 odd members stood up and applauded for two minutes.
He went on to say: “It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world…I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth…I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
Vivekananda was easily, in today’s parlance, the star speaker at the gathering. His orange robes, charming manner and obvious intellect made him popular wherever he went in the US.
He stayed in America for nearly two years visiting cities like Chicago, Boston and New York, and attracting disciples and admirers. He founded the Vedanta Society of New York. Later he went to England, twice. In course of his British lectures, an Irish woman Margaret Elizabeth Noble became his disciple. She later came to India and became the renowned social activist and Indian nationalist Sister Nivedita.
Vivekananda, who also visited Sri Lanka, continued his hectic travel schedule in India. His health however started declining after 1901. He died on July 4, 1902.
In an article on him the journalist and writer Sandipan Deb wrote in Mint in July 2013: “To read about Vivekananda today — and what he preached and practised throughout his tragically short life (he passed away at 39) — is to wonder that such a man walked the streets of this nation. Of course he was a Hindu, and he was proud to be one. But his philosophy transcended religions and he had little respect for rituals and ceremonies. His constant focus was on the spirit of Man.”
Also on this day:
1918 — Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, religious guru, was born
1972 — Priyanka Gandhi, Indian politician, was born
2004 — Ramakrishna Hegde, Chief Minister of Karnataka and union minister, passed away
2005 — Amrish Puri, Indian film actor, passed away