Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902) is one of the major thinkers of modern India. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented Hinduism. His vast knowledge of Eastern and Western culture as well as his deep spiritual insight, enchanting eloquence, brilliant conversation, broad human sympathy, colourful personality, and handsome figure made an irresistible appeal to the millions of people all over the world.
In the west Vivekananda’s mission was the interpretation of India’s spiritual culture, especially in its Vedantic setting. In his own motherland Vivekananda is regarded as the patriot saint of modern India and an inspirer of her dormant national consciousness. He wanted to obtain from the West money, scientific knowledge, and technical help for the regeneration of the Indian masses, and, in turn, to give to the West the knowledge of the Eternal Spirit to endow their material progress with significance.
The author has offered a clear and accessible, appreciative but not uncritical account of the whole range of Vivekanda’s thinking in this bold and challengingly provocative book the author charts the shifting dynamics of religion, community, nationalism, colonialism and modernity. It is hoped that after reading The Radical Monk others will be persuaded to follow the path of Swami Vivekananda and will reject religious fundamentalism, jingoistic nationalism, crash materialism and false patriotism in favour of creating and nurturing a healthy and humane society based on universal brotherhood.
Dr. B.N. Ray is former Professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry Central University. Prior to that he had taught in Delhi University for 42 years. At present, he is Senior Professor in Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, KIIT University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
Swami Vivekananda’s inspiring personality was well known both in India and in America during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented Hinduism. His vast knowledge of Eastern and Western culture as well as his deep spiritual insight, magical eloquence, brilliant conversation, broad human empathy, colourful personality, and handsome figure made an irresistible appeal to the many types of Americans who came in contact with him. People who saw or heard him even once still cherish his memory after a lapse of more than half a century.
In America Vivekananda’s mission was the interpretation of India’s spiritual genius, especially in its Vedantic setting. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of the Americans through the rational and humanistic teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. In America he became India’s spiritual ambassador and pleaded eloquently for better understanding between India and the New World in order to create a healthy synthesis of East and West, of religion and science.
In his own motherland Vivekananda is regarded as the patriot- saint of modem India and an inspirer of her dormant national consciousness. To the Hindus he preached the ideal of a strength- giving and man-making religion. Service to man as the visible manifestation of the Godhead was the special form of worship he advocated for the Indians, devoted as they were to the rituals and myths of their ancient faith. Many political leaders of India have publicly acknowledged their indebtedness to Swami Vivekananda.
His mission was both national and international. A lover of humankind, he strove to promote peace and human brotherhood on the spiritual foundation of the Vedantic Oneness of existence. A mystic of the highest order, Vivekananda had a direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that unfailing source of wisdom and often presented them in the soul-stirring language of poetry.
The natural tendency of Vivekananda’s mind, like that of his Master, Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering in East and West alike.lt might appear that his mind seldom found a point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man. Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his mission on earth; and this choice has endeared him to people in the West, Americans in particular.
In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years, of which only ten were devoted to public activities - and those, too, in the midst of acute physical suffering - he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises on Hindu philosophy. In addition, he delivered innumerable lectures, wrote inspired letters in his own hand to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous poems, and acted as spiritual guide to the many seekers who came to him for instruction. He also organized the Ramakrishna Order of monks, which is the most outstanding religious organization of modern India. It is devoted to the propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in the Swami’s native land, but also in America and in other parts of the world.
Swami Vivekananda once spoke of himself as a ‘condensed India.’ His life and teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called the Swami the ‘paragon of Vedantists.’ Max Muller and Paul Deussen, the famous Orientalists of the nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection.
Swami Vivekananda was thoroughly convinced by his intimate knowledge of the Indian people that the life-current of the nation, far from being extinct, was only submerged under the dead weight of ignorance and poverty. India still produced great saints whose message of the Spirit was sorely needed by the Western world. But the precious jewels of spirituality discovered by them were hidden, in the absence of a jewel-box, in a heap of filth. The West had created the jewel-box, in the form of a healthy society, but it did not have the jewels. Further, it took him no long time to understand that a materialistic culture contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Again and again he warned the West of its impending danger. The bright glow on the Western horizon might not be the harbinger of a new dawn; it might very well be the red flames of a huge funeral pyre. The Western world was caught in the maze of its incessant activity - interminable movement without any goal. The hankering for material comforts, without a higher spiritual goal and a feeling of universal sympathy, might flare up among the nations of the West into jealousy and hatred, which in the end would bring about their own destruction.
Swami Vivekananda was a lover of humanity. Man is the highest manifestation of God, and this God was being crucified in different ways in the East and the West. Thus he had a double mission to perform in America. He wanted to obtain from the Americans money, scientific knowledge, and technical help for the regeneration of the Indian masses, and, in turn, to give to the Americans the knowledge of the Eternal Spirit to endow their material progress with meaning. No false pride could prevent him from learning from America the many features of her social superiority; he also exhorted the Americans not to allow racial arrogance to prevent them from accepting the gift of spirituality from India. Through this policy of acceptance and mutual respect he dreamt of creating a healthy human society for the ultimate welfare of man’s body and soul.
From the time I decided to write a book on Vivekananda I have come to see it as a personal tribute to an outstanding fellow Indian, whose vivacity and compassion have impacted my life. Insight, not objectivity, is the key to the understanding of a life as multi-layered as that of Vivekananda and in the course of writing this book, I have often felt intimidated by the realization that a political theorist may not always be a good biographer. I have also been perplexed by the several inconsistencies and paradoxes of his life, and only by bringing these out more sharply, I felt, one could consciously depart from the hagiography that permeates biographical work on him. It is impossible to reach an understanding of a personality as complex as Vivekananda’s without studying his ambiguities and shifting positions on various issues. In trying to integrate these in a holistic manner. I have largely followed his advice -judge a man ultimately by his strengths, not his weaknesses. Nothing could convey better Vivekananda’s thoughts and personality than his own powerful language which I have liberally borrowed.
Swami Vivekananda remains the most influential figure in modern Hinduism. He revitalised the religion within and outside India. He was the principal reason behind the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West. It is true that ... modern Hindus derive their knowledge of Hinduism from Vivekananda, directly or indirectly. He espoused the idea that all sects within Hinduism and, indeed, all religions, are different paths to the same goal.
In the background of germinating nationalism in the British- ruled India, Vivekananda crystallised the nationalistic ideal. In the words of the social reformer Charles Freer Andrews, “The Swami’s intrepid patriotism gave a new colour to the national movement throughout India. More than any other single individual of that period Vivekananda had made his contribution to the new awakening of India,” Vivekananda drew the attention towards the prevalence of poverty in the country, and maintained that addressing such poverty was prerequisite for the national awakening. His nationalistic thoughts influenced scores of Indian thinkers and leaders and a whole generation of freedom fighters such as Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bagha Jatin.
Subhas Chandra Bose paying tribute to Vivekananda said “His personality was rich, profound and complex ... Reckless in his sacrifice, unceasing in his activity, boundless in his love, profound and versatile in his wisdom, exuberant in his emotions, merciless in his attacks but yet simple as a child, he was a rare personality in this world of ours.” Aurobindo Chose considered Vivekananda as his spiritual mentor, saying “Vivekananda was a soul of puissance if ever there was one, a very lion among men ... “ At the Belur Math, Mahatma Gandhi was heard to say that his whole life was an effort to bring into action the ideas of Vivekananda. Many years after Vivekananda’s death, Rabindranath Tagore told French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland, “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative.” Rolland himself wrote that “His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!”
Though belonging to an ancient order of monks, Vivekananda was no ordinary sanyasi. Even as a world-renouncer, he embraced the world with all its beauty and ugliness and retained a deep interest in pressing everyday social problems. Second, Vivekananda’s life and work appear to coincide with modern India rediscovering itself. His enduring message to his countrymen, and more generally to all oppressed people in the world, was to recover the innate potentialities and self-belief in man that had been eroded by certain historical reasons and circumstances. In this sense, Vivekananda seems to have employed cultural hermeneutics and innovative philosophical thinking to overturn history. For him, Vedanta was not simply a closed system of philosophical belief but a world view that could be transformed into active social and political praxis. No Vedantin declared ‘man-making’ to be his primary goal in life as did Vivekananda.
Vivekananda anticipated Gandhi in preferring to closely identify with the everyday life of the people and taking stock of their pressing problems before eking to any ambitious reformist agenda. His aim was to arrive at ‘root and branch’ reform, not attempts at cosmetically changing appearances. He understood self-awakening in man to be not simply the furtherance of our material lives but also spiritualizing the material. Our everyday lives, Vivekananda claimed, turned meaningful only when we realized the unity of all life and its foundations in the Spirit. Though a Vedantin, he never overemphasized the traditional Hindu quest for personal salvation. Rather, the collective, in his view, had to realize itself in the individual and the individual in the collective. It was thus, he believed, that a nation is truly born.
Looking back at his life and work, it appears as though Vivekananda’s overarching mission in life was to restore to man his lost dignity and selfhood. In doing this he often over-reached himself, only so that his countrymen and humanity at large could find greater bliss and self-realization. Vivekananda passed away when barely forty but his legacy lives on and surfaces every time we look beyond ourselves to problems persistently confronting humanity.
Jamsetji Tata was influenced by Vivekananda to establish the Indian Institute of Science-one of India’s best known research universities. Abroad, Vivekananda had interactions with Max Muller. Scientist Nikola Tesla was one of those influenced by the Vedic philosophy teachings of Vivekananda. On 11 November 1995, a section of Michigan A venue, one of the most prominent streets in downtown Chicago, was formally renamed “Swami Vivekananda Way”. National Youth Day in India is observed on his birthday, 12 January. He is projected as a role model for youth by the Indian government as well as non-government organisations. In September 2010, India’s Finance Ministry highlighted the relevance of teachings and values of Swami Vivekananda in the modern competitive environment. The former Union Finance Minister, and presently President of India Shri Pranab Mukherjee, approved in principle the “Swami Vivekananda Values Education Project” at the cost of 100 crore with the objectives such as involving the youth through competitions, essays, discussions and study circles and publishing Swami Vivekananda’s complete work in different languages.
For centuries to come people everywhere will be inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s message: 0 man! first realize that you are one with Brahman - aham Brahmasmi - and then realize that the whole universe is verily the same Brahman - sarvam khalvidam Brahma.
This nation is currently celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Vivekananda and the Government of India has decided to join in the celebrations by organizing seminars, opening chairs in his same and declaring his birthday as National Youth Day. There is an added cause for happiness. In recent times, academic and quasi-academic writing, especially on spiritual figures in India, has been the subject of fierce and protracted controversy. In his lifetime and thereafter, the life and work of Vivekananda himself has often been superficially understood and ideologically appropriated. Thus, one has heard of the Left interpreting sanyas as parasitic and the Right quite indefensibly treating some of ideas as the building blocks for Hindutva. The new danger that now seems to have arisen is from the institution that has hitherto closely and ably guarded his legacy: the Ramakrishna Mission itself, which, is getting increasingly selective about which aspects of his life and work to project and in what manner.
This biography was written with a non-specialist reader in mind and any comparison with works of scholarship would be quite unwarranted. Over the years, I have come to realize that readers prefer handling short critical works to those that appear somewhat intimidating on account of their lengths, citations, quotations or rigorous academic. This would explain the decision of generally keep out detailed notes and citations as a part of this text. For the benefit of the reader who seeks to go beyond this book, I have given a list though, again, this is by no means exhaustive.
I claim here no great originality in writing this book. Instead, I have digested the existing literature on the subject and written the book with my own focus on Vivekananda as an icon of mass churning and upsurge in the society, to make Indians rise above their petty local, linguistic and caste loyalities and to commit ourselves into a vedantic society.
Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) is a figure of great importance in the development of a modern Hindu self-understanding and in formulating the West’s view of Hinduism. He was a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world, and was credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion in the late 19th century. He was a major force in the revival of Hinduism in India, and contributed to the notion of nationalism in colonial India. He was the chief disciple of the 19th century saint Ramakrishna and the founder of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission. He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech beginning with “Sisters and Brothers of America,” through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the Religions in Chicago in 1893.
Swami Vivekananda whose pre-monkhood name was Narendra Nath Datta or Naren for short, belonged to an aristocratic section of the Kshatriya caste of Bengal. The Dattas displayed several of the traditional characteristics of the Kshatriyas, including a faith in leading an ostentatious life, but also producing an occasional “Sannyasin”, Naren’s father Visvanath Datta, a solicitor in the Calcutta High Court, was known for his varied interests and activities, and being conscious of his own superior position in the society, he exhibited a broad outlook on social and cultural matters, including a feeling of indifference to caste. Naren’s mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, was a highly educated woman of regal majesty, whose heroic spirit had been nurtured on the great Hindu epics. During private conversation with his disciples in America, Vivekananda later acknowledged the deep influence of his mother and said, “It is my mother who has been the constant inspiration of my life and work.”
Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendranath Dutta in Calcutta, the capital of British India, on Monday 12 January 1863 during the Makar Sankranti festival. He belonged to a traditional Bengali Kayastha family. There was precedence of ascetics in his family-Narendra’s grandfather Durga Charan Datta renounced the world and became a monk at the age of twenty five. Narendra’s father Vishwanath Datta was an attorney of Calcutta High Court. Vishwanath Datta had a liberal, progressive outlook on social and religious matters. Narendra’s mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, was a pious woman. Before the birth of Narendra, she prayed for a son and asked a relative at Varanasi to make religious offerings to the god Shiva. According to traditional accounts, Bhuvaneswari Devi had a dream in which Shiva said that he would be born as her son. Bhuvaneswari Devi accepted the child as a boon from Shiva and named him Vireswara, meaning “powerful god” in Bengali. The rational approach of his father and the religious tempera men t of his mother helped shape young Narendra’s thinking and personality. He learnt the power of self-control from his mother. In later life, Narendra often quoted a saying of his mother, “Remain pure all your life; guard your own honour and never transgress the honour of others. Be very tranquil, but when necessary, harden your heart.” He was adept in meditation and could enter the state of samadhi (a higher level of concentrated meditation). He would often visualise a light while falling asleep and had a vision of Gautama Buddha during his meditation. During his childhood, he was fascinated by the wandering ascetics and monks.
Narendra had a wide range of scholarship in philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, arts, literature, and other subjects. He evinced interest in the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He was trained in Indian classical music under two Ustads (maestro), Beni Gupta and Ahamad Khan. He regularly participated in physical exercise, sports, and organisational activities. Even when he was young, he questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discrimination based on caste and refused to accept anything without rational proof and pragmatic test. Narendra joined the Metropolitan Institution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in 1871 and studied there till 1877 when his family moved to Raipur. His family returned to Calcutta two years later.
In 1879 after his family moved back to Calcutta, Narendra passed the entrance examination from the Presidency College, Calcutta. He subsequently studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations in the General Assembly’s Institution (now known as the Scottish Church College). In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination and in 1884 he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Narendra studied the works of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Spinoza, Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. Narendra became fascinated with the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and had correspondence with him; he translated Spencer’s book Education (1861) into Bengali. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works. According to his professors, Narendra was a student prodigy. Dr. William Hastie, principal of General Assembly’s Institution, wrote, “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.” He was regarded as a srutidhara-a man with prodigious memory.
Narendra became the member of a Freemason’s lodge and of a breakaway faction of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen. His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo concepts, which included belief in a formless God and deprecation of the worship of idols. Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, he wondered if God and religion could be made a part of one’s growing experiences and deeply internalised. Narendra went about asking prominent residents of contemporary Calcutta whether they had come “face to face with God” but could not get answers which satisfied him. His first introduction to the saint Ramakrishna occurred in a literature class in General Assembly’s Institution, when he heard Hastie lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. While explaining the word “trance” in the poem, Hastie suggested his students to visit Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar to know the real meaning of trance. This prompted some of his students, including Narendra, to visit Ramakrishna. Narendra’s meeting with Ramakrishna in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in his life. Narendra said about this first meeting:
“Ramakrishna looked just like an ordinary man, with nothing remarkable about him. He used the most simple language and I thought ‘Can this man be a great teacher?’. I crept near to him and asked him the question which I had been asking others all my life. ‘Do you believe in God, Sir?’ ‘Yes’, he replied. ‘Can you prove it, Sir?’ ‘Yes’. ‘How?’ ‘Because I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense.’ That impressed me at once. I began to go to that man, day after day, and I actually saw that religion could be given. One touch, one glance, can change a whole life.”
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