Life and Thoughts of Swami Vivekananda

This is a brief piece on Swamiji based on a book published by the Ramakrishna Mission. Swamiji was born on 12/1/1863 in Calcutta. He was named Narendranath Datta by his parents Vishwanath Datta and Bhuvaneshwari Devi. Swamiji’s grandfather Durgacharan Datta was well versed in Persian and Sanskrit, skilled in law but after the birth of Swamiji’s father he became a monk at the age of 25. Swamiji’s mother had only daughters before him. Yearning for a son she asked one of her relatives at Kashi to make religious offerings to Viresvara Siva. It is said she later dreamt that Siva promised to be born as her son. Narendranath (Naren) was born some time later.

As a child he was playful, spiritually inclined, and inquisitive and demanded convincing arguments for every proposition. Naren had the build of an athlete, a resonant voice, brilliant intellect and was among his colleagues the undisputed leader. At college it was the study of Western thought that implanted a spirit of critical inquiry in his mind. Unable to find answers he tried to find comfort in the Brahmo Samaj. Dissatisfied he became restless. Then in 1881, he met Sri Ramakrishna. (SR)  Naren asked “Sir, have you seen God? SR said “Yes I have seen Him just as I see you here, only more intensely.” At last there was someone who could assure him from his own experience that God existed. His doubt removed, Naren’s training began.

Three or four days before his mahasamdhi, SR transmitted to Naren his own power and told him “ By the force of the power transmitted by me, great things will be done by you; only after that will you go to where you came.” After doing so he started weeping. On being asked why he was weeping SR said “O Naren, I have given you all and become a pauper”.

After the passing away of SR in 1886, disciples and Naren laid the foundation of the Ramakrishna brotherhood. Starting 1890, Naren travelled through out the country trying to understand it better. In July 1890 he left for the Himalayas to be in solitude. He kept on wandering through the country where the ancient glory of India came before his eyes as he also saw the poverty of the masses.

Having reached the end of his journey at Kanyakumari he prostrated himself with great feeling before the image of Mother Kumari at a temple there. Then he swam across the sea to a rock off the south coast and sitting there for the whole night went into deep meditation. It was then that he took the decision to go to the West.

At the suggestion of the Maharaja of Khetri Swamiji (SV) assume the name Vivekananda. After overcoming numerous hurdles, SV reached Chicago for The Parliament of Religions. The hall had 7,000 learned people. SV had never addresses such a large gathering and was nervous. When his turn came he mentally bowed down to Saraswati, the goddess of learning and then began. “Sisters and Brothers of America”. Immediately there was thunderous applause for two minutes.

While every speaker spoke about his own religion SV spoke of a religion that was as vast as the sky and deep as the ocean. Having made a deep impact there SV was in demand. What followed was days of hectic lecturing thru out the U.S. After that he visited England, Italy and reached India at the end of 1896.

Quoting from the Chicago Daily Tribune of 20 September of 1893, “We who come from the East have sat here on the platform day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look at history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellowmen. At such a price Hindus will not have prosperity. I have sat here today and I have heard the height of intolerance. I have heard the creeds of the Muslims applauded, when today the Muslim sword is carrying the destruction into India. Blood and sword are not for the Hindu, whose religion is based on the laws of love”.

Swamiji received a warm welcome. From Madras he moved on to Calcutta where the Ramakrishna Mission was formed in 1897. In July 1897, he visited the Amarnath shrine wearing only lion cloth, his body besmeared with ashes. His whole frame was trembling with emotion, a great mystical experience came over him, of which he never spoke, beyond saying that Siva himself appeared before him.

Swamiji left India in June 1899. He said to sister Nivedita “Social life in the West is like a peal of laughter, but underneath, it is wail. In India it is sad and gloomy on the surface, but underneath are carelessness and merriment.” The West has much to learn from the East and the East from the West.

He passed away on 4 July 1902 at the age of 39. The words uttered to in 1896 to Shri Eric Hammond in London remained to reassure everyone of his immortality. “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.” How true was he Na.? 

Below are extracts from two books ie The Nationalistic and Religious Lectures of SV and The Complete works of SV.

PARLIAMENTS OF RELIGIONS, CHICAGO - There are three religions beginning from pre-historic times – Hinduism, Zoroastriasm and Judaism. Hinduism, however, has survived the shock of numerous invasions, and in course of time, has succeeded in absorbing and assimilating most of the cultures that threatened its existence. The Hindus have received their religion from the revelations of the Vedas. By the Vedas no books are meant but eternal spiritual laws discovered by different sages of different times like scientific laws. These discoverers of the spiritual religion are called the Rishis.

Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is an attempt of the underdeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. Hindus have their faults but mark this they are for punishing their own bodies and never for cutting the throats of their neighbors.

Christians must always be ready for good criticism. You Christians are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen – why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation. During the famine you did nothing, you erect churches all through India, But the crying evil in the east is not religion but is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out with their parched throats.

Buddhism, the fulfillment of Hinduism – The relation between Hinduism and Buddhism at the present day is nearly the same as between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus Christ was a Jew while Shakya Muni was a Hindu. The Jews rejected Jesus Christ, crucified him and the Hindus have accepted Shakya Muni as God and worship him. (Buddha is considered to be one of the Avatars of Vishnu).

Like Jesus, Buddha came not to preach anything new, but for the evolution of the religion of India. But the Buddhists failed to understand this. The religion of the Hindus has two sections, namely spiritual (confined to monks) and ceremonial. Buddha was himself a monk and it was his glory “that he had the large-heartedness to bring out the truths from the hidden Vedas and throw them broadcast all over the world.” He was also the first teacher to stand mainly for the ignorant and the poor. So he insisted that his teachings not be given in Sanskrit but in Pali, the tongue of the common people those days.

Faith in God, which the followers of Buddha assailed, cannot be erased from the heart of man so long as there is death and weakness in the human heart. The disciples sought to take away from the nation that eternal God which every one, man or women cling so fondly. The result was that Buddhism as a separate religion had to die a natural death in India. By its disappearance, the religious life of India lost the reforming zeal and the wonderful sympathy, charity that Buddhism had brought to the masses. “The Buddhist cannot stand without the brain and philosophy of the Brahmana nor can the Brahmana do without the heart of a Buddhist. This separation between the Buddhists and Brahmanas is the cause of the downfall of India.

Doctrine of Mukti - The Vedas teach the soul to be divine, only held in the bondage of matter. It will be restored to perfection when this bond is burst. This state is called Freedom, Mukti and comes through the mercy of God and this mercy comes only to the pure. To the pure He reveals himself even in this life, and then all the doubts will cease all the crookedness of the heart straightened and freedom from the effects of the terrible law of causation cease to operate. This is the very center, vital teaching of Hinduism that a purified spirit can have the direct understanding of the spiritual verities like the Atman (soul) and Brahman (God).

Harmony of Religions - To the Hindu, the whole world of religions is only travelling to the same goal. The consequences of this universalism of the Hindu outlook is that throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, there is no such expression as that the Hindu alone will be saved and not others.

Much has been said about the common ground of religious unity. This unity cannot come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of others. It can come only by every religion assimilating the good points in other religions.

COLOMBO - Comparing country with country, there is no other race on this earth to which the world owes so much as the mild Hindu. Great ideas have come from the Romans, Greeks and Persians as also from modern nations. But it was as a camp follower of the conquering armies that the ideas contributed by them have penetrated into different countries. But we have never been a conquering race. And therefore we have survived in the world inspite of several millennia of foreign conquests and subjection, while those depending on military might have passed away long ago after a short period of meteoric existence and exultant dominance and of a wicked national life.

What is the secret of this strength? To other nations, religion is one of the occupations of life but here in India religion is the one and only occupation in life. As a consequence our culture and national genius have derived a special bent or direction. Referring to the flooding of the world with Indian spiritual ideas that is silently taking place, German philosopher Schopenhauer said “ The world is about to see a revolution in thought that is more extensive and more powerful than that was witnessed by the Renaissance of Greek literature.”

The Ideal of Universal Acceptance - What the world needs from India is the idea of harmony and acceptance of all religions. In the ancient world outside India among the Babylonians and the Jews, each tribe had a god known as Baal and Moloch. When the tribes fought among themselves the victor displaced the Baal or Moloch in the temple of the vanquished with its own God. Thus the supremacy of Gods was settled in battle. In India, religious evolution took a different turn. Here also there were several Gods, but it was realized in the Vedic times that Truth or God is one but the sages call him differently. Differentiation is the law of life and religious differences are bound to persist, but it does not mean that we should hate each other. This can be achieved only if the Truth of universal acceptance preached in India is spread the world over.

RAMNAD – Dangers Ahead - Each nation has got its own peculiarity and individuality with which it is born. In it lies the foundation of its national life. Religion and spirituality form the foundation and national backbone of India. India still lives as a nation inspite of the vicissitudes if centuries, because it holds fast to this spiritual ideal. The fountain of spirituality has to flood the world and bring new life to the West. India, no doubt has learnt various things from the West but if anyone wants to apotheosize the material world he has no place in this holy land.  While absorbing the Western ways of improving life in this world we should not give up our hold on the spiritual ideal. If we do so, in three generations we will become an extinct race or the foundations on which our national edifice is built will be undermined and the result will be annihilation all round.

KUMBHAKONAM – Way for the Uplift of India - Violating this great principle of Vedanta, we have for centuries treated masses of people as loathsome and untouchable. For the upliftment of these degraded Indian masses, a set of people called social reformers have come up. Their method is to condemn everything that is Indian. Instead we have to declare “Arise, awake from this hypnotism of weakness. None is really weak. Stand up, assert yourself and proclaim the God within you. The way to do is found in our sacred books. Power, Glory will come.  Mere condemnation of caste is of no help. The ideal of our social system is to make everyone a Brahmana, a spiritual man.

MADRAS – Uniqueness of Vedic thought - The teachers of every religion are now putting forward the claim that theirs is the universal religion of the world. All other religions are based on what they claim to be historical personalities and they think that their strength lies in that. But they realize that if the historicity of their founders is questioned the whole fabric tumbles to the ground. But the truth of our religion is, although we have persons by the score, do not depend on them. The glory of Krishna is not that he was Krishna but because he was the great teacher of Vedanta. Thus our allegiance is to principles and not to persons.

Solution to caste problems – Our life-blood is spirituality. If it is strong and vigorous everything will be right. The source of the vigor of our national life has always been religion. I do not mean to say that other aspects of life are not necessary or important. Ideas are. The spiritual ideas of India have in the past been hidden in the monasteries and much more in the Sanskrit language, unknown to the masses of the country. While knowledge can be given through any language but what is called culture can be imparted through Sanskrit only. Knowledge without culture is skin-deep. Disputes between castes weaken the nation. As Manu says, all these privileges and honors were given to the Brahmanas, because with him is the treasury of virtue. The Brahmana was the trustee of our culture and because he did not impart it, the Mohammedan invasion was possible.

The other caste must remember that if they remain backward, it is only because they sat down lazily and let the Brahmanas win the race. Instead of wasting their energies in quarrels, let them absorb the culture of the Brahmanas by taking to Sanskrit education because Sanskrit and prestige go together in India.

Benefits of caste system - It is owing to caste that 300 million people can find a peace of bread to eat. It is an imperfect institution no doubt. But if it had not been for caste, you would have had no Sanskrit books to study. This caste made walls, around which all sorts of invasions rolled and surged but found it impossible to breakthrough.

CALCUTTA – Common points among Vedantic schools – First is the doctrine of Samsara and reincarnation of soul. Next they agree that there is the body behind that is the subtle body consisting of mind and intellect and behind that is the Jiva or living soul. Next is the agreement that all perfection’s is in the Atman, the imperfection of living entities arises from the bodies in which it is manifested. The next point is that all sects of India believe in God. The dualists believe in a Personal God while the advaitans describe God as Personal – Impersonal.

LAHORE – Conditions for India’s Regeneration – This recognition of your Hindu heritage should make you strong and loving towards all. You are a Hindu when the very name sends through you a galvanic shock of strength. Then alone are you a Hindu, when the distress of any one bearing that name comes to your heart and makes you feel as if your own son were in distress.

Vol IV – The World needs Indian Thought – Under the onset of modern scientific research, all the old forts of Western dogmatic religions are crumbling into dust. While in such a situation, man in the West is running away from religion, it is only the Veda, namely Hinduism and Buddhism, alone that are reviving. The restless Western atheist finds in the Geeta or the Dhammapada the only place where his soul can anchor. The Hindu now finds that only his religion can stand the test of modern scientific criticism and inquiry and that others are attempting to restate their religion after the Hindu plan.

1901 Status of Women – Women are bondage and a snare to men. It is for this purpose, I suppose, that scriptural writers hint that knowledge and devotion are difficult of attainment to them? Swamiji replies – In what scriptures do you find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion. In the period of degradation, when the priests made the other castes incompetent for the study of the Vedas, they deprived the women also of their rights. Otherwise you will find in the Vedic or Upanishad age Maitreyi, Gargi and other ladies of revered memory have taken the places of the Rishis through their skills in discussing the Brahman. All nations have achieved greatness by paying proper respect to women. Manu says “Where women are respected, they are Gods delight, and where they are not all works and efforts come to naught.”

Vol VIII – Women as Mother – The mother is the ideal of Indian womanhood. The word mother calls up the idea of the mother in the Indian mind. And even God is conceived as mother. In the West, a woman is essentially the wife. In a western home it is the wife who rules but in an Indian home it is the mother who rules. Woman as mother is marvelous, unselfish and ever forgiving. In India it is the father who punishes the child, not the mother as in the West.

CALIFORNIA – The message of Krishna – He taught not to be attached to anything in the world because everything in the world is continually changing and will ultimately desert us. So be attached to God only. In other words love Him only. For, God never changes and never deserts us. All works are to be done as offering unto the Lord, and then no work is low or menial. Whosoever in the midst of intense activity finds intense peace, whosoever in the midst of peace finds the greatest activity, and he is a Yogi. The implication of the teaching is that no duty in the world deserves to be called menial.

Vol VIII – Religious Life in India when Buddha appeared – When Buddha appeared, India was in one of those ages when priestcraft and sacrificial religion dominated the country, and the ordinary man had very little to sustain his spiritual life. He could not learn the Vedas. By rules and regulations religion had become very complicated and exclusive. The Buddha cut through all the exclusiveness of priestcraft and preached a religion that was free from rituals and priestly intervention and was open to all irrespective of status. He taught the very gist of the philosophy of the Vedas.

The message of Buddha – He says “Root out selfishness, be not out of the world...” The Buddha advises the abandonment of all worldly ties and asks us to think of the misery of the millions of the world involved in it. While this is true, Krishna’s message must also have a place. Unless we take up that message of work without attachment, we cannot conscientiously and with peace, joy and duties perform any duty in our lives.

Vol IV – The Cultural Milieu in India in the mid 19th century – In the beginning of the 19th century, when Western influence began to pour into India, doubts began to arise in the minds of the Indian intelligentsia about the foundations of their civilization. A section of the people felt that they begin anew on the new Occidental Plan “tear up their books, burn their philosophies, drive away their teachers and break their temples.” Instead of driving away superstition and making a real search for truth, they came to think that the test of truth is, what does the West say? Out of this feeling on unrest arose a wave of social reform which only meant condemnation of the past of India and imitation of Western ways. But they were unaware of the secret of India’s continued existence in the world inspite of ordeals through which the country had passed.

The practical application of psychology has been taken up in India from very early times. About 1400 yrs before Christ there flourished in India a great philosopher called Patanjali. He collected all facts, evidences and experiences accumulated in the past. It is taught here in the West that society began 1800 yrs ago with the New Testament. Before that there was no society in the West. An intellectual friend asked me “But why did not your Rishis come to England and teach us?” I replied “Because there was no England to come to. Would they preach to the forests?

Message of Shri Ramakrishna to the modern world – “Do not care for doctrines, sects, temples, churches, they count for little with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality and the more this is developed in each man, the more powerful is he for good. Earn that first, acquire that and criticize no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them. Show by your lives that religion does not mean words, names, sects but that it means spiritual realization. Only those who have attained to spirituality can communicate it to others, can be great teachers of mankind. They alone are the powers of light.”

1895 NEW YORK – Jesus was imperfect, because he did not live up fully to his own ideal and above all because he did not give women an equal place to man. Women did everything for him and yet he was so bound by the Jewish custom that not one was made an apostle. Still he was the greatest character next to Buddha who in his turn was not fully perfect. Buddha , however, recognized woman’s right to an equal place in religion, and his first and one of his greatest disciples was his wife who became the head of the whole Buddhistic movement among the women of India. But I ought not to criticize these great ones; we should look upon them as far above ourselves.

1895 – Must we study the past? Swamiji says “Nowdays everybody blames those who constantly look back to their past. It is said that so much of looking back to the past is the cause of all of India’s foes. So long as they forgot the past, the Hindu nation remained in a state of stupor and as soon as they have begun to look into their past, there is on every side a fresh manifestation of life. It is out of this past that the future has to be molded”.

1894 MADRAS – It is equally untrue that I am hostile to the Christian missionaries in India. But I protest against certain of their methods of raising monies in America. What is meant by those pictures in the school books for children where the Hindu mother is painted as throwing her children to the crocodiles of the Ganga? What have the Hindus done to these disciples of Christ that every Christian child is taught to call the Hindus vile and wretches and the most horrible devils on earth? Part of the Sunday school education for children consists on teaching them to hate everybody who is not a Christian and the Hindus especially. Look again at the books published in Madras against the Hindu religion. If a Hindu writes one such line against the Christian religion, the missionaries will cry fire and vengeance. Let me tell you that neither are we devils nor are they angels as they claim to be.
Extract from Swamiji’s Lectures over.

Most of us admire Swamiji for his knowledge on religion and philosophy but he shone no less as a nation builder. He championed the cause of Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions. He shared with the West the lofty principles of Hinduism and its culture, civilization. The rationalism and reasoning of the West had put Indians on the defensive and made them feel inferior. By expounding the greatness of the Indian civilization, Swamiji restored self-confidence in the Hindus of their own culture and also quickened their sense of pride and patriotism. The thought of restoring the glory of Bharat by resuscitating the dormant spiritual vitality among her people was always uppermost in his mind.

Swamiji may well be called the father of modern Indian nationalism. Not only religion and philosophy but also History was enlisted for the cause of nationalism.

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