One day in the midst of some devotees, which included Narendra, the future Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), Sri Ramakrishna said that there were three cardinal principles of the Vaishnava religion: repeating the name of God, service of devotees, and compassion toward all beings. No sooner did he complete the last principle than he went into Samadhi and said that it was absurd for an insignificant creature like man to show compassion to others; it must be through service. “Recognize them as God’s manifestations and serve them,” said he.
Vivekananda understood the subtlety of this remark of the Master and wondered how neatly did it reflect the essence of his non-dualist Vedanta philosophy. If Brahman existed in all men, then a Vedantist must love and serve them all. He wrote to a brother monk from America that he would make it his life’s mission to serve the poor and downtrodden. Said he: “May I be born again and again and suffer a thousand miseries, if only I may worship the only God in whom I believe, the sum total of all souls, and above all, my God the wicked, my God the afflicted, my God the poor of all races.”
In a talk at the Thousand Island Park, New York, the Swami outlined the manner of serving the poor. ‘It is our privilege to be charitable. The poor man suffers so that we may be helped. Let the giver kneel down and give thanks; let the receiver stand up and permit. See the Lord back of every being and give to Him. Serving all these is the same as serving God Himself.’ Later on his return to India, he founded the monastic Order of Ramakrishna with the twin objectives of liberation for oneself and service to God in man.
Vivekananda was born as Narendranath Datta on January 12, 1863, in Calcutta. In 1893, he traveled to the United States of America to attend the first World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago to represent Hinduism. When called upon by the president the Swami rose, and bowing mentally to Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, he began: “Sisters and Brothers of America.” Instantly, the audience of seven thousand rose to their feet and clapped for full two minutes.
Vivekananda’s concluding remarks ended on a note of quick end to bigotry, fanaticism, and sectarianism. His message focused on the divinity of the soul, oneness of existence, unity in diversity, and harmony of religions, and not a single word of condemnation of other religions came from his lips. Overnight Vivekananda became a celebrity and received many speaking contracts.
For Vivekananda, the Western trip was the culmination of his education at home under his pious mother and sadhana at the lotus feet of His Master Sri Ramakrishna. Of the latter, he once remarked: ‘If I have said anything original, noble and good, I owe it to him.’ On his part, the Master too was very proud of his beloved disciple and missed no opportunity to praise him before everybody. He once said: ‘Narendra is a boy of a very high order. He excels in everything, vocal and instrumental music and studies. Again, he has control over his sense organs. He is truthful and has discrimination and dispassion. So many virtues in one person!’
As a boy, Narendranath practiced meditation and would lose consciousness of his body. During one of his experiences, he saw a vision of Buddha. Before falling asleep at nights, he used to see light between his eyebrows which would grow bigger and bigger until it engulfed his whole body. He was extremely intelligent, and a very fast reader.
Despite his meditations and spiritual experiences, he was a rationalist and agnostic. He never believed in the words of anyone unless it stood the test of rational inquiry or of his direct perception. So he asked Sri Ramakrishna during one of his early meetings, Sir, have you seen God? The latter answered: “Yes, certainly. I have seen God. I have seen Him more tangibly than I see you.” That statement coming from a person who seemed to have direct experience of God cleared his mind of all doubts.
The Master wanted to train Narendra in the teachings of the non-dualistic (Advaita) Vedanta. But Narendra found such teaching atheistic and blasphemous. Talking to a friend he said: “How silly! This jug is God! This cup is God! … And we too are God! Nothing could be more absurd.” The Master came out of his room and gently touched him. Spellbound, he immediately perceived that everything in the world was indeed God. Returning home in a dazed state, he found the food, the plate, and people around him were God. When he walked in the street, he saw that the cabs, the horses, the streams of people were all Brahman. While walking in Cornwallis Square he struck his head against the iron railings to see if they were real or just a dream. Such a state lasted for several days, and he soon realized that the words of the Master were indeed true.
From now on he never doubted the veracity of his Master’s words on Advaita Vedanta, the religion of oneness. In fact, it is this, the crown jewel of Hinduism, which he preached in the West. He never failed to impress on all people the moral implications of strength, unselfishness, fearlessness, and love that flow from Advaita. So back in India, he embarked on a lecture tour throughout India, which can be read in a book, Lectures From Colombo to Almora. These lectures provide us the patriotic side of Swami Vivekananda, his love for his country, which had remained under foreign domination for centuries. Said the patriot-saint Swami:
"What our country now wants is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, gigantic will, which nothing can resist, which will accomplish their purpose in any fashion, … That is what we want, and that can only be created, established, and strengthened by understanding and realizing the ideal of Advaita, the ideal of oneness of all. … Our aristocratic ancestors went on treading the common masses of our country underfoot till they became helpless, till they forgot that they were human beings. … Let them [people] hear of the Atman—that even the lowest of the low have the Atman within, who never dies and never is born—Him whom the sword cannot pierce, nor the fire burn, nor the air dry, immortal without beginning or end, the all-pure, omnipotent, and omnipresent Atman."