Swami Vivekananda

vivekananda1One 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!’

vivekananda2As 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.”