06 August, 2013

Swami Vivekananda - An Extended Essay by Aparna Venkitaraman

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda was a monk, a poet and the chief disciple of the saint Ramakrishna. He is also considered to be one of the key figures who introduced the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world. He is also credited for publicizing Hinduism and bringing it to the status of a world religion by the end of the 19th century.

Swami Vivekananda was born into a rich Bengali family in Calcutta on the 12th of January in 1863 and was originally given the name Narendra Nath Datta. He was one of nine siblings and his family belonged to a traditional Bengali Kayastha family. The word “Kayastha” is the Sanskrit word for “Scribe” and it is one of the castes in the Hindu caste system. 
Vishwanath Datta, Narendra’s father, was an attorney of the Calcutta High Court while his grandfather, Durgacharan Datta, was a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian who left the family to become a monk at the age of 25. His mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi was a very religious housewife. The combination of his father’s rational and reasonable methods with his mother’s religious character helped shape his way of thinking as well as his personality and beliefs. As a child, Narendra was very interested in spirituality. He used to “play” by meditating before images of different Indian deities such as Rama – an avatar of Vishnu (the protector/preserver), Sita – Rama’s wife and Shiva (the destroyer/transformer). He was also very intrigued by the monks that used to pass by his home and wander around regularly. He was also known to be rather mischievous and his parents found it hard to control and discipline him. His mother once said — “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons.”

Datta first studied at the school of Sri Eswar Chandra Vidya Sagar and completed his primary education there. In 1871, he went to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's Metropolitan Institution where he studied until 1877 when his family had to move out of Calcutta to Raipur. He returned to Calcutta with his family in 1879 to attend university at Presidency College. He received first division marks for the entrance examination there and he was the only student in the college to do so that year. Narendra was an enthusiastic reader and he was very interested in a wide range of subjects including philosophy, history, religion, art, social sciences and literature. He also displayed an interest in various Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He was a gifted musician and he had an aptitude for a variety of musical activities. He was also trained in Indian classical music and had a great singing voice, although he didn’t aim to pursue a professional career in music. Apart from this, he also participated in various sports and physical activities. Datta went on to study western logic, western philosophy and European history at the General Assembly's Institution in Calcutta (now known as the Scottish Church College). In 1881, he passed the Fine Arts exam at the institution and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree three years later. He managed to master the English language and he proved to be a very eloquent public speaker. Soon after he received his degree, he began to study the works and compositions of many of the known philosophers and scientists of the time including David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Baruch Spinoza, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. This was when Narendra Datta developed a fascination with Herbert Spencer’s works about evolutionism and coordinated with him by translating Spencer’s book, Education into Bengali. But whilst he was studying western philosophy, he also managed to familiarise himself with different Sanskrit scriptures as well as Bengali literature. Several descriptions of Narendra describe him as a srutidhara—a man with an extraordinary memory. The principal of General Assembly's Institution, Dr. William Hastie said – “Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.”

However, even after he completed his education, he wasn’t very interested in world affairs. He let his parents know about his thoughts before travelling to witness the famous mystic, Swami Ramakrishna, deliver a lecture. Narendra Datta first heard of Swami Ramakrishna while he was still studying at the General Assembly’s Institution. During a literature class, Professor William Hastie was lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. While explaining the importance of the word “trance” in the poem, Professor Hastie suggested that the students should visit Swami Ramakrishna to know the real meaning of a trance. With a further positive recommendation from one of his relatives, Ramchandra Datta, he knew that he simply had to visit Swami Ramakrishna. In November 1881 Narendra went over to Surendra Nath Mitra's house where Swami Ramakrishna was scheduled to give a lecture. Surendra Nath Mitra was one of the major devotees of Swami Ramakrishna who happened to live on the same street as Narendra Datta at the time. During the meeting, Swami Ramakrishna asked Narendra to sing. He impressed Swami Ramakrishna with his singing talent and this prompted the mystic to ask Narendra to come to Dakshineshwar to meet him. Later on in 1881 or in early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineshwar to meet Swami Ramakrishna along with two of his friends. At first, he did not agree with his ideas and did not accept him as his guru. But, his personality drew him back to Dakshineshwar frequently to meet Swami Ramakrishna. Although he thought that Swami Ramakrishna’s trances were simply mere figments of his imagination, he kept coming back to test him with his arguments. Swami Ramakrishna simply responded with patience and once replied – “Try to see the truth from all angles.” In 1884, Narendra’s father suddenly passed away, leaving the family bankrupt and desperate due to the lack of money. Money collectors started to ask his family to return the money that his father had borrowed while his relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Although Narendra attempted to find a job in order to help his family, he was unsuccessful. During this unfortunate period of time, he began to wonder if god really existed and his visits to Dakshineshwar increased to gain support from Swami Ramakrishna. He slowly began to get ready to give up everything in order to realise and understand God. He eventually accepted Swami Ramakrishna as his guru too. 

Unfortunately, Swami Ramakrishna developed throat cancer in 1885 and was transferred from his home in Dakshineshwar to Calcutta. He was later transferred again from Calcutta to a garden house in Cossipore, a neighbourhood in the north of Calcutta. Narendra took great care of the Swami along with the rest of his disciples. Even during his last days, Swami Ramakrishna still continued to teach Narendra spiritual education. While Narendra was in Cossipore to take care of the ill Swami, he experienced Nirvakalpa. Nirvakalpa is a state where one realizes that he/she is finally with God and is in union with God. Several of the disciples including him received ochre-coloured robes from Swami Ramakrishna in order to form the first monastic group created by the Swami. Ramakrishna asked Narendra to take care of the rest of the disciples of the order while asking the other disciples to treat Narendra as their leader. The Swami died during the early hours of the 16th of August 1886 at the age of 50. Soon after his death, many of his admirers, devotees and followers stopped funding and giving donations to pay for the group’s expenses. This forced them to find a new place to live. Many of the remaining disciples returned to their homes and started to lead a normal family life. During this time, Narendra found an old, shabby house in Baranagar and decided to make it the new monastery that would also act as accommodation for the remaining disciples. The monastery was rather cheap and all expenses were funded by “holy begging”. This monastery was the first building of the Ramakrishna Math – the monastery of the monastic order of Swami Ramakrishna. Narendra and the disciples went through a lot of religious practice during their stay at the monastery. They used to wake up at 3am to do japa and meditate. In early 1887, Narendra first chose to take the name Swami Bibidishananda. The Maharaja of Khetri gave him the name Swami Vivekananda two years later.

Narendra decided to leave the monastery in 1888 to become a Parivrâjaka – a Hindu, wandering monk. During this period of time, his only possessions were a kamandalu (a water pot) and two of his favourite books – the Bhagavad Gita and Imitation of Christ. Swami Vivekananda travelled to various destinations all over India, stopping at places where he could learn about the different religious traditions that existed while also learning to understand and accept the different social, community systems and patterns in the residents’ lives. As he travelled further, he started to develop sympathy for the poor and those living in dire poverty. During his expedition, he survived mainly on bhiksha (alms) and travelled on foot. His railway tickets were usually bought for him by his admirers when he met them during his travels. Wherever he went, he met people from various societies, religions and castes. He met scholars, administrators, monarchs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, pariahs and government officials and made acquaintance with them.

One of his first destinations was the holy town of Varanasi where he wanted to visit the famous places where Gautam Buddha and Adi Shankara lectured and taught their own disciples. While he was in Varanasi, he also met Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, a Bengali writer, Trailanga Swami, a Hindu saint and Babu Pramadadas Mitra, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He worked with Babu Pramadadas Mitra on the interpretation and meaning of various Hindu scriptures. After he completed his stay in Varanasi, he travelled to Ayodhya, Lucknow, Agra, Vrindavan, Hathras and Rishikesh. After his visits in the north of India, he visited Vaidyanath and Allahabad. After his stay there, he travelled to Ghazipur to meet Pavhari Baba, an ascetic who spent most of his time in deep meditation. But, at the time, Pavhari Baba was suffering from lumbago, which made it impossible for him to meditate. Swami Vivekananda requested to be his new disciple and he accepted. But, the night before Vivekananda’s initiation as a disciple, he dreamt of Ramakrishna looking at him with a dejected face which caused him to withdraw his wish to become one of Pavhari Baba’s disciples. He returned to the Ramakrishna Math in 1890 due to fact that he was slightly ill, but also because he had to arrange for a new source of funds to cover the monastery’s expenses. He left in July of the same year to visit the Himalayas. He was accompanied by Akhandananda who was also a disciple of Swami Ramakrishna.  They visited Nainital, Almora, Srinagar, Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar during this particular visit to the north. On the way, he met Swami Brahmananda, Swami Saradananda, Swami Turiyananda and Swami Advaitananda. The pair stayed in Meerut for a while to pray, engage in meditation and study scriptures and they left for Delhi at the end of January in 1891.

After visiting several historically famous sites in Delhi, Swami Vivekananda decided to travel to Alwar – a city in Rajputana (now known as the state of Rajasthan). He also travelled to Jaipur where he met up with a Sanskrit scholar to study Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. Panini was a grammarian of Sanskrit in the north-west of Iron Age India (now known as Charsadda district in Pakistan). After this, he travelled to Ajmer to visit the well-known palace of the Mughal emperor, Akbar as well as the Dargah Sharif. The Dargah Sharif (also known as the Ajmer Sharif) is a Sufi shrine of the Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chishti. When he visited Mount Abu, he met Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri who became Swami Vivekananda’s zealous supporter and devotee. A senior monk who was also part of the Ramakrishna order, Swami Tathagatananda described and wrote about their relationship saying – “Swami Vivekananda's friendship with Maharaja Ajit Singh of Khetri was enacted against the backdrop of Khetri, a sanctified town in Northern Rajasthan, characterized by its long heroic history and independent spirit. Destiny brought Swamiji and Ajit Singh together on 4 June 1891 at Mount Abu, where their friendship gradually developed through their mutual interest in significant spiritual and secular topics. The friendship intensified when they travelled to Khetri and it became clear that theirs was the most sacred friendship, that of a Guru and his disciple.” Swami Vivekananda also delivered lectures to the Raja during his stay in Khetri and got to know the pandit, Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasu. They studied the Mahābhāṣya (a commentary about a selection of Sanskrit grammar rules) together in Khetri. After around two months in Khetri, Swami Vivekananda proceeded towards the state of Maharashtra.      

Swami Vivekananda began to travel towards the western side of India and started off by visiting Ahmedabad. In Ahmedabad, he managed to complete his studies of Islamic and Jain culture. He then travelled to Wadhwan and Limbdi – two cities that are situated in the state of Gujarat. When he visited the city of Limbdi, he met Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh. Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh had been to England and North America and Swami Vivekananda got the idea of preaching about Vedanta in countries that were situated in the western world. Later on, he visited Jugarnadh at the foot of the Girnar hills in Gujarat. He was the guest of the administrator of the state, Haridas Viharidas Desai. Swami Vivekananda impressed the dewan to an extent that Haridas Viharidas Desai and many of the other state officals of Gujarat would chat to the Swami every evening. These conversations would usually continue until late at night. After his stay in Jugarnadh, Swami Vivekananda also visited Girnar, Kutch, Porbander, Dwaraka, Palitana, Nadiad and Baroda. He stayed in Porbander for three quarters of a year to further his philosophical understanding and his Sanskrit studies with learned pandits in the area. Some of his next destinations included Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Khandwa and Indore and Kathiawar. While he was at Kathiawar, he heard about the Parliament of Religions for the first time and was encouraged by his followers to go to it. After a short stay in the city of Bombay during July in 1892, he managed to meet Bal Gangadhar Tilak during a train journey to Pune where Tilak was his host. He then travelled to Belgaum, Panaji and Margao in Goa where he spent a few days at the Rachol Seminary where rare religious manuscripts were preserved. While he was at the seminary, he studied Christian spiritual works.

Following his visit to cities in the west, Swami Vivekananda proceeded to travel to the south of India. First, he visited K. Seshadri Iyer, the administrator of the state of Mysore in Bangalore. He stayed at the palace as a special guest of Charmarajendra Wadiyar, the maharaja of Mysore. K. Seshadri Iyer described Swami Vivekananda as “a magnetic personality and a divine force which were destined to leave his mark on the history of his country.” Maharaja Charmarajendra Wadiyar also gave Vivekananda a letter of introduction meant for the Dewan of Cochin. He also supplied him with a railway ticket. After he left Bangalore, he visited Trichur, Kodungalloor, and Ernakulam. While he was in Ernakulam, he met up with Chattampi Swamikal – the partner of Narayana Guru who was also a Hindu saint. This took place in December, 1892. From Ernakulam, he then travelled to Trivandrum and Nagercoil. From Nagercoil, he travelled further and reached Kanyakumari on foot during Christmas Eve. At Kanyakumari, he swam to what he called “the last bit of Indian rock” and meditated on it. This rock was later known as the Vivekananda rock memorial. Swami Vivekananda had a vision that is now known as the “Vision of One India” or “The Kanyakumari resolve of 1892.” He wrote – “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, 'An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses.” Soon after, he visited Madurai where he came across the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Sethupati. The Raja soon became another one of Vivekananda’s disciples and urged him to be present at the Parliament of Religions which was scheduled to take place in Chicago. After travelling to several other places in southern India including Rameswaram, Pondicherry and Madras, he collected enough money from his admirers and disciples to fund his trip to the United States. He left for Chicago on the 31st of May 1893 from Bombay.

Swami Vivekananda visited some cities in China and Japan en route to Chicago. When he arrived, he was disappointed at the fact that he wouldn’t be accepted as a delegate at the Parliament of Religions unless he got approval from a legal, legitimate organisation. Professor John Wright of Harvard University invited him to lecture at the university and was shocked at the fact that he couldn’t speak at the Chicago Parliament simply because he lacked an approval. Wright supposedly said – “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens.” The Parliament of World Religions opened on the 11th of September in 1893 at Chicago’s Art Institute. During the day, Swami Vivekananda gave his first brief speech and started it off by saying “Sisters and Brothers of America!” This triggered a standing ovation from an audience of 7000 people which lasted for two whole minutes before silence was restored. He greeted the nation on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” He also quoted two expressive paragraphs from the Shiva Mahima stotram – “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!" and "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.” Although his speech wasn’t very long, it was filled with the spirit of universality and unity. Dr. Barrows, the head of the parliament praised the Swami by saying – “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” Swami Vivekananda also attracted attention from the press as many newspapers began to publish articles about him, complimenting his eloquence while he spoke. He spoke several more times at the parliament about various topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and the harmony of all religions. All of his speeches had the common theme of universality and they also emphasized religion tolerance.

Subsequent to the parliament of Religions, the Swami spent almost two years travelling to various parts of eastern and central areas in the United States to lecture his newfound admirers, although most of his lectures took place in Chicago, Boston, Detroit and New York. They became so popular that he founded the “Vedanta Society of New York” in 1894. Unfortunately, his busy schedule led to his poor health and he was too ill to continue his lecturing tours by early 1895. Although he was rather unwell, he started to give free and private lessons about Yoga and Vedanta. He also started to give private lectures to around a dozen of his disciples in June 1895 and these lectures took place at the Thousand Island Park in New York and continued for two months. He travelled to England twice – In 1895 and 1896. His lectures were successful there too. During his visit in 1895, he met an Irish woman named Margaret Elizabeth Noble who was one of his admirers in the UK. She later became Sister Nivedita who was one of the major contributors to the monastery and to Swami Vivekananda’s goal (spreading Yoga and Vedanta to the western world). During his second visit to England in May 1896, Vivekananda met Max Müller, a distinguished Indologist from Oxford University who wrote Swami Ramakrishna’s first biography in the western world. In the same year, he also visited several other countries in Europe. He met Paul Deussen, another Indologist in Germany. He was offered two academic leadership positions in two different American universities – one for the chair of Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University as well as a similar position at the Columbia University. But, he declined these positions, since they would cause problems due to the fact that he had a commitment as a monk. Swami Vivekananda attracted many fervent followers and admirers in the United States as well as in Europe, such as Josephine MacLeod, William James, Josiah Royce, Robert G. Ingersoll, Nikola Tesla, Lord Kelvin, Harriet Monroe, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Calvé, and Professor Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz. He also admitted some of his followers into his mission. For example, a French woman name Marie Louise became Swami Abhayananda. Even though he wasn’t in India at the time, he still communicated with his followers and fellow monks in India from where he was while also offering funds. His letters clearly reflected his intention to spread religion while also reflecting the motives of him campaign for social service around India. A letter to Swami Abhayananda from Swami Vivekananda said – “Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying "Ramakrishna, O Lord!"—unless you can do some good to the poor.” He left for India on the 16th of December in 1896 from England with three of his disciples – Captain Sevier, Mrs Sevier, and J.J. Goodwin.

The ship from Europe arrived in Colombo on the 15th of January 1897 where Swami Vivekananda received an enthusiastic welcome. While he was in Colombo, he gave what is known to be his very first speech in the East – India, the Holy Land. From there, he journeyed to Calcutta, stopping at places on the way to give lectures. From Colombo, he travelled to Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Madurai, Kumbakonam and Madras before finally reaching Calcutta. During his train journeys, people would frequently squat on the tracks in front of the oncoming train to force the train to stop, just so that they could meet him hear him speak. After he reached Calcutta, he continued his journey and travelled to Almora – a town in Uttarakhand. Although he talked about the great spiritual history in the west, he addressed social issues and problems while speaking in India. Some of his ideas included the uplift and improvement of the population, getting rid of the caste system, promoting science, industrialising the country, addressing the widespread poverty and also ending the colonial rule. These lectures were compiled and published as Lectures from Colombo to Almora and they demonstrate his passion for his country. His speeches and lectures influenced and inspired several Indian leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. On the 1st of May in 1897, Swami Vivekananda created the Ramakrishna Mission. The Ramakrishna mission was created to be the organisation to promote social service and its motives and ideas were based on Karma (also known as Karma-Yoga). Its leading body consisted of representatives of the Ramakrishna Math and they were responsible for carrying out any work related to religion. The headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission are situated in Belur. In addition to his first monastery, Vivekananda also founded two other monasteries. One was situated in the Himalayas and was known as the Advaita/Mayavati Ashram while the other was located in Madras. He started two journals – Prabuddha Bharata was written in English while Udbodhan was written in Bengali.      

Regardless of his worsening health, Swami Vivekananda decided to travel to the west for the second time. He left in June 1899 and was accompanied by Sister Nivedita and Swami Turiyananda. After a short stay in England, he travelled to the United States once more. During this particular visit, he launched Vedanta societies in San Francisco and New York. He also founded the Shanti Ashram (Peace Retreat) in California. After the founding of various societies, he reached Paris in time to attend the Congress of Religions in 1900. While he was in Paris, he lectured mainly about the worship of a Shiva-linga and also about the validity of the Bhagavad Gita. After he completed his lectures in Paris, he visited Brittany, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens and Egypt before returning to Calcutta in December. He took a short trip to visit the Advaita Ashram in the Himalayas and then settled down in Belur to coordinate the works of the Ramakrishna Math, the Ramakrishna Mission and the work that was being done in the United States and in England. He was visited frequently by many people including royalties and even politicians. Unfortunately, he was unable to join the Congress of Religions in Japan in 1901 due to his deteriorating health. But, he did go on pilgrimages to Varanasi and Bodhgaya, but he wasn’t able to do much because ailments such as asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia restricted his activities there.

On the 4th of July 1902, Swami Vivekananda woke up early in the morning to go to the chapel of Belur to meditate for three hours or so. He then taught Sanskrit grammar and yoga philosophy to some of his pupils who had lessons with him that day. He also shared his idea to start a Vedic college in the Ramakrishna Math with his colleagues. At around 7pm, he went into his room and requested that he didn’t want to be disturbed. He died at 10 past nine while he was meditating. According to several of his disciples, he experienced Mahasamadhi – the act of consciously leaving one’s own body at the time of enlightenment.  A rupture in the blood vessels in the Swami’s brain were reported as the probable cause of his death, but his disciples believed that the rupture was due to Brahmarandhra (the hollow place in the crown of the head) being pierced while he experienced enlightenment and when his soul left his body. He was cremated on a sandalwood pyre on the banks of the Ganges in Belur, near the spot where his guru, Swami Ramakrishna was cremated too.

Although Swami Vivekananda died more than a century ago, his teachings still live among a population of modern Vivekananda admirers and followers. He was an extraordinary man with a ready mind and he had the gift of speaking in front of large groups of people with elegance and articulation – a skill which I admire and one that I hope to acquire in the near future. His hard work and dedication definitely paid off in the end, due to the fact that he was able to bring Hinduism to the status of a world religion while publicizing the works and philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga as I have mentioned in the introduction. Even though he was considered to be a spiritual genius, he was still able to think rationally because of his upbringing which had an effect on the way he thought about certain things. Once he knew exactly what he wanted to do, he never gave up and always worked to pursue and achieve his goals in life. Although I’m not a strong believer of spiritualism, Swami Vivekananda has definitely taught me several things while inspiring me to become a better person as I have studied not only his life, but also his personality. Whilst he was a Parivrâjaka, he used to travel to many different places and meet many different types of people, not caring about their social status, religion or their way of life. He wasn’t judgemental in that way, something that many humans currently lack. I know that I can be very judgemental in certain situations, and I know that I shouldn’t be. So this is one thing that I can work on. He didn’t give up easily, even if problems arose or if people on the side lines were possibly commenting on his methods. This is one thing that I place near the top of my list about things that I need to change about myself. I tend to think about what other people think about me, even though I really try not to. I am also quite sensitive, even though I have become better than I used to be. Bullying is one thing that has affected me during my primary school life (and possibly even now, though it isn’t as severe), and Swami Vivekananda has definitely inspired me to forget about what anybody else thinks about me so that I can try as hard as I can to achieve my own goals. In conclusion, I believe that Swami Vivekananda was a very inspirational character to many people. He still inspires people today, including me. His teachings have not been forgotten and he is still recognised as one of the spiritual geniuses of the 19th century. I admire his great personality and I hope to improve myself in several different ways to become a better person altogether.    


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