Swami Vivekananda was born in Calcutta on January 12, 1863. His family, the Dattas of the Kayastha (Kshatriya) caste, was a wealthy and aristocratic one, long known for its charity, learning and spirit of independence. ‘The Swami’s father, Vishwanath Daita, was an attorney in the High Court of Calcutta, a position which, together with his inherited fortune, made it possible for his family to live in luxury. Out of his ample means Vishwanath gave to all who asked, supporting many of his relatives—worthy and unworthy alike. The Swami’s mother, Bhuvaneshwari Datta, was of an equally generous nature. She cheerfully managed the large household, composed not only of her five children but of her husband’s relatives, and somehow in the midst of her duties found time for the study of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, from both of which she could recite long passages and both of which she taught to her children. Thus Narendra Nath Datta, as Swami Vivekananda was known in his youth, was blessed with noble parents, even as they were blessed with a son whose influence was to usher in a new age.
Narendra as a child was, to say the least, difficult to manage. Impelled by a brilliant and energetic mind, he had a capacity of action and mischief that knew no limit. At times he would become uncontrollably restless, as though Lord Shiva, the Great God, the Absolute, to whom confinement was an outrage, dwelt in his small body. It is said thaL his mother’s only remedy for his turbulent outbursts was to pour a pitcher of cold water over the child’s dark head, repeating loudly the while the name of Shiva. At once Naren would grow calm and thoughtful, the clouds would disperse and soon his ordinarily joyful disposition would come to the fore. After such emergencies, Bhuvaneshwari Datta would sigh: “I prayed to Shiva for a son, and He has sent inc one of His demons! ”
But tempestuous as he was, Naren from early childhood had a predilection for meditation. He would play at it, sitting in yoga posture, and often play-acting would pass into deep self-forgetfulness. The boy also had an innate fondness for wandering monks who would come to the house for alms, and to the despair of his parents he would regularly give them everything he could lay his hands on—bauble or heirloom. The device of locking Naren in his room whenever monks approached was of small avail, for from his window objects of all sorts would come showering down to the feet of the sadhus.
As a boy Narendra was the favorite of old and young alike and a leader among his contemporaries, who willingly deferred to his greater imagination and courage in the invention and execution of elaborate games and pranks. But as Naren grew older his unlimited energy began to turn more and more from wild and furious playing to the pursuit by day of intellectual activity and b) night of serious meditation, which came to him naturally and which brought spiritual visions to him, even in his early youth.
In 1877, when Naren was fourteen, his father found it necessary to move the family for a period of two years to Raipur in the Madhya Pradesh. In Raipur, where there was no school, Naren had time to spend long hours with his father, whose scholarship and openmindedness had led him, along with other Hindus, into a suspicion of his own cultural heritage and had bred within him an agnosticism typical of the age. Vishwanath gave careful attention to his son, naming his keen intellect and directing his attention to the study of WesLern culture and knowledge, which in that day was considered to be the very acme of learning.
When Narendra’s family returned to Calcutta in 1879, lie entered the Presidency College and, later, the General Assembly’s Institution, founded by the Scottish General Missionary Board. Never content with the offered curriculum, he read independently an untold number of books. IIis powers of reading and of retention were little short of miraculous. Al)lc to consume and digest a weighty tome in a short time, he never again forgot a detail of it, and as a result there were many branches of Western learning, as well as of Eastern, in which he became well versed. Indeed, he acquired during his college life a thorough knowledge of Western philosophy, history, art, literature, and a more than general knowledge of science and medicine.
But Naren’s concern was not with accumulating a fund of knowledge, but rather with discovering ultimate truth. A more shallow mind would have remained content with, or been frustrated by, the agnosticism to which Western philosophy and science pointed. Ilis thirst for a direct knowledge of reality, however, was profound and not to be put off by the well-acknowledged fact that it could not be acquired through the intellect or the senses. On the one hand, his spirit rebelled against the degrading philosophy of “I can’t know.” and on the other hand, it was impossible for him to accept on mere faith a doctrine that logic or his own experience could not verify. The icsult was mental torment and continual search.
During this period Narendra became a member of the Brahmo Samaj, a society which was at the time the spearhead of a reform movement among the Hindus. Its position was both modern and orthodox. While it advocated many social reforms and protested the old tenets of orihodox Hinduism, such as polytheism, image woiship- the doctrine of Divine Incarnations and the need of a guiu or spiritual teacher, it decried at the same time modern atheism and taught a belief in and worship of a monotheistic God, a formless God with attributes. In the doctrines of the Brahmo Samaj and also in one of its leaders, Kcshab Chandra Sen, young Bengal saw hope for a modernized Hinduism. With characteristic energy and enthusiasm, Naren identified himself with a branch of the Samaj led by Siva Nath Sastri and Vijay Krishna Goswami and heartily concurred in its attempts to sweep away the incrustations of the ages. He accepted the doctrine of a formless God with attributes, but unlike other Samajists. desired to see Him, as it were, face to face, for to him religion was of as little use as was intellectual learning if it did not bring him into direct contact with the very heart of reality.
Naren was now eighteen, well built, of startling attractiveness, strong and independent intellect and sparkling wit. He was an accomplished singer and a fascinating conversationalist whose moods could vary from the profound to the playful. Always.guided by a highly developed moral sense, he observed the inmost purity in his life—an effortless, innate purity which was never dampening. Indeed, wherever *Naren went he was the center of interest and gaiety and was loved and respected by all. It would have been a simple matter for him to reach the heights of worldly power and fame. Yet so restless was his spirit for an intimate knowledge of God that had he thought it necessary to renounce the world to attain it, he would gladly have done so. But how to know God? Was it possible to know Him? “Sir,” he asked Devendra Nath Tagore, who was looked upon as one of the best spiritual teachers of the time, “have you seen God?” Instead of answering, Devcndra Nath blessed him and said: “My boy, you have the yogi’s eyes.” Again and again Naren asked the question, putting it to the leaders of various religious sects in Calcutta, to pundits, to preachers who spoke of God, of salvation, of holiness. The answer, given truthfully, for the young questioner was so sincere, was always, in effect, “No.”
It was during this period of restless search for God that Naren, in November of 1881, first met Sri Ramakrishna in a house of one of the latter’s devotees, Surendra Nath Mitra. The Master, at once attracted to the young man, whose eyes seemed not on this world, and deeply moved by his singing, invited him to visit Dakshineswar.
The story of Swami Vivekananda’s life cannot be complete without the story of the life of Sri Ramakrishna, for the two lives formed, as it were, one whole. Yet, in this short account, only a little can be told about him. Sri Ramakrishna, born in 1836, is today held by thousands or more accurately, millions to have been an Incarnation of God who harmonized within himself all the spiritual thought and experience of the world’s past. Living quietly on the bank of the Ganga at the Dakshineswar temple, Sri Ramakrishna remained in an almost continuous state of God-consciousness, sometimes losing himself utterly in the Absolute Brahman, sometimes, in a slightly lower state, communing with the Personal God in one or another of His, or Her, infinite forms, sometimes, again, perceiving this world of multiplicity shot through and through with the unifying subbstance of Divinity. His power was that which only the Incarnations of God possess—the power of bestowing, by a touch or a glance, the vision of God and of removing by a wish the accumulated burden of karma from the souls of those who approach them. This power of forgiveness and of granting salvation, to speak in Christian terms, was part and parcel of Sri Ramakrishna’s nature. Childlike in the utter purity of his heart, he eagerly gave God-vision to pundit and illiterate peasant alike, granting his tremendous and liberating grace to all who came to him and were ready to receive it. To those who were not ready—for the sudden inflowing of God’s grace can shatter a small or flawed vessel—he gave the power of self-preparation and the assurance that it would in short time lead to spiritual fruition. The teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, who combined in himself a vast intellect and an unbounded compassion, who was, in fact, cosmic in mind and heart, were unique both in their all-inclusiveness and in their insistence upon the ability of man to know God directly and in this life.
The first part of Sri Ramakrishna’s life was spent in undergoing extreme austerities and engaging in a multiplicity of spiritual practices. There was no religious path which he did not quickly follow to its promised destination and none which he found invalid. Thus he became a living verification of the fact—new to the world—that all religions, if practiced earnestly, lead to the Godhead. He became also an unerring guide, for he was intimately acquainted with the landmarks and pitfalls of each spiritual road, and knowing at a glance the heart and mind of everyone who came to him, he was able to mold and quicken llie life of each along the line best suited to his nature.
The hist years of Sri Ramakrishna’s life, from the latter part of 1870 to August of 188fi, were spent in giving intensive training to a group of close disciples, who were later to become men of extraordinary spirituality and purity, apostles fit to transmit the teachings and power of their Master to the world.
It was around the end of 1881 that Narendra, in company with friends, first visited Dakshineswar and again met the Master. It was a momentous meeting and one that dumbfounded the young seeker of truth, for Sri Ramakrishna. instantly recognizing Naren’s inherent spiritual greatness, spoke to him in ecstatic, reverential terms, as though greeting a beloved, long absent god. Taking him aside, he poured forth his welcome: “Ah! you have come so late! How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long! My cars are almost seared listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh, how I have been yearning to unburden tm mind to one who would understand my inmost feelings!” Telling of the incident at a later time, Naren said: “And so he went on raving and weeping. The next moment lie stood before me with folded palms and showing me the regard due to a god. said, ‘I know, Lord, you are that ancient Rishi Narayana in the form of Nara [Man] ; you have again incarnated yourself in order to remove the distress of mankind/ ”
Speechless, Naren regarded Sri Ramakrishna as stark mad. Vet after the Master had extorted from him a promise to return in a few days and had led him back to the group of devotees, there remained no trace of madness in his behavior. He spoke and acted normally: indeed, he radiated a sense of profound peace and spiritual joy. It was then that Naren asked his usual question: “Sir, have You seen God?” The answer was given at once: “Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense. God can be realized : one can see and talk to Him as I am doing with you.” Naren, deeply impressed, felt that these extraordinary words came from the depths of an inner experience. They were not the words of a madman, nor were they the words of a mere preacher ; they were words that rang true and could not be doubted. He saw, moreover, that (he holy man’s life of utter renunciation was in perfect consonance with his teachings, that he was truly a great saint to be revered. Yet bow to reconcile this with the strange and extravagant greeting he had received? In a state of bafflement and confusion, Naren returned to Calcutta.
He could not erase from his mind, however, the feeling of blessedness that had come over him as lie had sat near the Master. Yet, busy with one thing and another, he did not return to Dakshineswar for nearly a month. During his second visit lie had an even stranger experience. After greeting him in his room and bidding him sit beside him, Sri Ramakrishna drew near him in an ecstatic mood and placed his right foot on his body. At this touch Naren saw, with eyes open, the walls, the robin, the temple garden, the whole world and even himself disappearing into a void. He felt that he was facing death and cried in consternation, “What are you doing to me? I have my parents! ”
The Master laughed and touched Naren’s chest, restoring him to his normal mood. “All right, let it rest now,” he said. “Everything will come in time.”
Versed in Western learning and by nature averse to the mysterious, Naren was convinced that Sri Ramakrishna had exerted a hypnotic influence over him. Yet the question remained how a madman could hypnotize so strong a mind as was his. Deeply perplexed, yet deeply attracted, he soon returned lor a third visit, determined to hold his own. but this time he fared no better. By a mere touch the Master again caused him to lose all outward consciousness. Referring to this incident, Sri Ramakrishna later said:
“ I put several questions to him while he was in that state. I asked him about his antecedents and where he lived, his mission in this world and the duration of his mortal life. He dived deep into himself and gave fitting answers to my questions. They only confirmed what I had scon and inferred about him. Those things shall be a secret, but I came to know that he was a sage who had attained perfection, a past master in meditation, and that the day he knew who he really was. lie would give up the body, by an act of will, through yoga.”
From first to last, Sri Ramakrishna could not praise Naren highly enough. He had not been speaking rhetorically when he had called him “Loid—the incarnation of Narayana.” His feeling for his young disciple bordered on reverence, so deeply aware was lit* of Naren’s godlike nature. Again and again lie spoke of him in ecstatic terms: “Behold! Here is Naren. See! See!
Oh, what power of insight he has! It is like the shoreless sea of radiance! T he Mother, Maliamaya, Herself, cannot approach within ten feet of him! ” At another time he said: “He has eighteen extraordinary powers, one or two of which are sufficient to make a man famous in the world.” Again. “He is a blazing, roaring fire consuming all impurities to ashes.”
Through all this, Naren remained dubious, thinking the Master to be blinded by tlic intensity of his love. His intellect, moreover, and the religious training he had received in the Brahmo Samaj forbade him to accept Sri Ramakrishna’s doctrines —the doctrine, for instance, of monism, which claimed that all was really Brahman, or God. From the point of view of the Brahmo Samaj this was blasphemy. Sri Ramakrishna’s belief in the living existence of innumerable forms of God and in their manifestation in images was equally blasphemous, if not downright superstitious. Even the Master’s visions and superconscious experiences were looked upon by Naren with the eye of the skeptic—not the shallow skeptic who disbelieves merely because he does not understand, but one who insists that truth be known with his whole being before he will accept it as valid. Naren could never abrogate his reason for the sake of finding comfort in an easy faith. Thus for more than four years he fought his Master, tom between the obvious genuineness of Sri Ramakrishna’s sainthood and his own refusal to accept as true anything that his experience did not verify.
Throughout those years Naren visited Dakshineswar often, drawn by his love for his guru. Those days spent at the feet of the Master in company with other disciples were golden ones. Sri Ramakrishna trained his boys with a light though unerringly sure touch. In times of laughter and play, in serious discussion, in moods of spiritual ecstasy, even in the everyday routine of eating and sleeping, he transformed life into a festival. The commonplace became extraordinary, and the slightest happening, a spiritual lesson. In so brief a sketch as this, little justice can be done to Narendra’s disciplesliip at Dakshineswar, and to the reader who is unfamiliar with the story one can only recommend that he turn to the biographies of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, particularly to Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master by Swami Saradananda and the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna by M, for in those books he”will find a new and luminous dimension to this world—indeed he will find a new world altogether.
Gradually Narendra’s doubts disappeared. Engaging in arduous spiritual exercises under the careful eye of his guru, he proved by his own experience the truth of many of Sri Ramakrishna’s claims. At the same time his intellect expanded into what might be called, for lack of a better word, “super-intellect,” in the light of which many contradictions that had plagued him were resolved and many apparent fallacies were seen as higher truths.
But before Narendra surrendered completely to Sri Rama-krishna he was to undergo a bitter experience. In the early part of 1884 he passed his Bachelor of Arts examinations. Shortly thereafter, while he was spending the evening at the home of a friend, news came of the sudden death of his father from a heart attack. The shock was a severe one, for Naren had been deeply devoted to his father. But the full extent of the loss did not become apparent until several days later, when it was discovered that Vishwanath Datta, who all his life had freely given of his wealth to all who asked, had. left his family not only penniless but burdened with debt.
The following months were a nightmare. Naren, whose life had always been one of physical comfort, now found himself without funds and the sole support of his mother, two elder sisters, two younger brothers and sundry relatives. Creditors knocked at the door ; there was seldom enough to cat; clothes became threadbare, and, on top of all, a branch of the Datta family claimed part of the old mansion—the best part—as rightfully theirs. The claim was unfounded, but the case was brought to the law courts, where it dragged on and on. Although it was finally decided in favor of Naren’s family, it created in its course much unpleasantness, publicity and suspense.
In the meantime Naren sought everywhere for work. “Even before the period of mourning was over,’* he later told, “I had to knock about in search of a job. Starving and barefooted, I wandered from office to office under the scorching noonday sun with an application in hand, . . . everywhere the door was slammed in my face.” Those who had previously toadied to members of the Datta family now scorned them. As for Narendra’s true friends, few knew the state to which he had been reduced, for out of self-respect he said nothing. At first his faith in God’s mercy remained firm, but soon in the face of the misery of his own family, which made vivid to him the sufferings of helpless millions of his countrymen, his faith turned to doubt.
One evening toward the end of the summer, after the rains had begun, Naren was returning home from a day of fruitless job-hunting. Weak with hunger and unable to take a step farther, he sank down by the roadside. Perhaps he slept for a time; perhaps he only lapsed into a semiconscious state, but suddenly a change began to take place within him. Deep below the surface of his mind he felt that the veils of uncertainty and confusion were being removed one after the o:her. Theological problems, which were always more to him than mere intellectual puzzles, became automatically solved, and the meaning of the ways of God with man was clearly revealed. He knew also, with a sure knowledge that sprang from the depths of his being, that he must renounce the world.
Sri Ramakrishna, however, aware of all that had taken place within his disciple, asked him not to take up the life of a wandering monk for as long as he himself might live. It was not to be long. But during the year that remained of the life of the Master, Naren, after having provided for his family with the help of a fellow disciple, underwent innumerable spiritual practices. He quickly attained height after height of spiritual experience and reached at last the final goal of all spiritual endeavor: the complete identification of the individual soul
with the Absolute Brahman. But he was not destined to remain immersed in that state.
“Now then,” the Master said to him after his attainment of monistic experience, “the Mother has shown you everything. Just as a treasure is locked up in a box, so will this realization you have just had be locked up, and the key shall remain with me. You have work to do. When you will have finished my work, the treasure-box will be unlocked agaim”
In the last few days of Sri Ramakrishna’s life he entrusted the care and training of his other disciples—themselves all hoys of profound spirituality—to Nsiren’s hands and imparted to him his final instructions. Then, aware that lie was to enter into Mahasamadhi—the last merging into the Absolute from which there is no return to the physical body—and that his days of teaching were over, he transmitted to this greatest of his apostles all the spiritual powers that he had acquired through years of austerity and experience. On August 16, 1886, Sri Ramakrishna passed away.
The grief of the young disciples, together with the pressure their families exerted upon them to return to their homes and live a “normal” life, might have disbanded them, had it not been for Narcmlra’s burning enthusiasm and determination to hold them together. Before long, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s householder devotees arranged to support the boys in a place of their own choosing. They chose a dilapidated and reputedly haunted two-story house in Baranagore, midway between Calcutta and Dakshineswar. The young apostles, informally initiated by Sri Ramakrishna into sannyasa, now took formal vows in the presence of one another, and the Sri Ramakrishna Order came into being. The story of Baranagore is the story of fifteen or so young men of total renunciation caught up in a fervor of spiritual longing. In dire poverty but eating nothing for sleep, food or proper clothing, the boys, led by Naren, spent hour upon hour in meditation, worship, study and devotional singing. The spirit of Sri Ramakrishna flowed through them as a constant and sustaining power, and through Naren they seemed again to hear his words and receive his guidance and inspiration.
The traditional ideal of monasticism in India is that the wandering monk who lives homeless and in complete reliance upon God. The monks of the Baranagore Math were torn between a desire for this life of utter freedom and a desire to hold together as the sons of Sri Ramakrishna. Now and then, one or another would leave the monastery for a month or two. Even Naren, restless for complete independence, made several solitary pilgrimages, only to return, drawn hack by his sense of responsibility to his brothers. But in 1888 he decided to break away lrom Baranagore, not only that his own strength and fearlessness might grow but that his brothers might also learn to stand alone.
The story of the next four years is that of Naren’s solitary wanderings throughout India. Several chapters of the Life of Swami Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western Disciples are devoted to his experiences during that time ; but even so, the story is somewhat disconnected and incomplete, for the Swami rarely spoke in any detail either of his inward spiritual experiences or of his outjvard trials and triumphs. Suffice it to say that, sometimes living in complete isolation and want, sometimes sharing the meals of humble villagers, sometimes being entertained by rajas and pundits, he strode over the length and breadth of his country, plumbing the life of the people to its depths. At the end of four years lie was able to say to his brother monk, Swami Turiyananda, whom he met at Mount Abu, “I don’t know what I have attained spiritually, nor do I care. I know only that my heart has expanded greatly, and I feel that if I could relieve the suffering of one soul by going to hell a hundred times, I would do it.”
At the southernmost tip of India, Cape Comorin, the Swami’s pilgrimage throughout his motherland culminated in a long and deep meditation, during the course of which, according to one of his brother monks to whom he confided the story, he had a profound and revealing spiritual experience. The actual content of this experience we do not know, but the Swami himself has told of his thoughts as he sat on a rock that jutted out into the ocean. He saw, as it were, the whole of India—her past, present and future, her centuries of greatness and also her centuries of degradation. He saw that it was not religion that was the cause of India’s downfall but, on the contrary, the fact that her true religion, the very life and breath of her individuality, was scarcely to be found, and he knew that her only hope was a restatement of the lost spiritual culture of the ancient rishis. His mind encompassing both the roots and the ramifications of India’s problem, and his heart suffering for his country’s downtrodden, poverty-stricken masses, he “hit,” as he later wrote, “upon a plan.”
“We are so many sannyasins wandering about and teaching the people metaphysics—it is afrmadness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, ‘An empty stomach is no good for religion*? That those poor people are leading the life of brutes is simply due to ignorance. We have for all ages been sucking their blood and trampling them under foot.
“… Suppose some disinterested sannyasins, bent on doing good to others, go from village to village, disseminating education, and seeking in various ways to better the condition of all down to the Chandala, through oral teaching, and by means of maps, cameras, globes and such other accessories—can’t that bring forth good in time? All these plans I cannot write out in this short letter. The long and short of it is—if the mountain does not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain. The poor are too poor to come to schools, . . . and they will gain nothing by reading poetry and all that sort of thing. We as a nation have lost our individuality, and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to give back to the nation its lost individuality and raise the masses. The Hindu, the Mohammedan, the Christian, all have trampled them under foot. Again the force to raise them must come from inside, that is, from the orthodox Hindus. In every country the evils exist not with, but against religion. Religion therefore is not to blame, but men.
“To effect this, the first tiling we need is men, and the next is funds . . . . ”
This was, of course, a revolutionary idea of the function of a sannyasin in India and was to bring about the new type of monasticism that has since been established by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.
As far as is known, it was in the early part of 1892 that the Svvami first heard of the Parliament of Religions, which was to be held in Chicago the following year. His friends and followers urged him to attend it and to represent Hinduism, offering to raise money for his fare and expenses. The Swami himself felt a deep urge to go to America, not so much to represent Hinduism as to obtain financial help and thus put his plan into operation. His final decision to undertake the trip, however, was not made until April of 1893 when, having prayed for guidance, he received, as he later told, “a Divine Command.’* Thus assured that the proposed journey was sanctioned by God, Swami Vivekananda. of whom Sri Ramakrishna had once said: “The time will come when he will shake the world to its foundations through the strength of his intellectual and spiritual powers,” left behind all that was dear and familiar to him and, on May 31, 1893, set sail from Bombay for America. After stopping in China and Japan, he re-embarked at Yokohama. As far as can be learned, he crossed the Pacific on the SS. Empress of India, a 6.000-toii ship of the Canadian Pacific Line, which left Yokohama on July 14 and landed in Vancouver on the evening of Tuesday, July 25. From Vancouver he went by train to Winnipeg, Canada —the customary route in those days—and from there to Chicago, where, if he made no stopovers on the way, he very likely arrived on the evening of July 30.