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Vivekananda, Swami


Vivekananda, Swami (1863-1902) Swami Vivekananda, alias Narendranath Datta, is acknowledged to be one of the small number of charismatic personalities who helped shape the religio-cultural and, indirectly, the nationalist self-awareness of Indians in the modern era. Living, acting and preaching within the received traditions of Hinduism, he was a ruthless critic of its many aberrations. He also propagated an ideology and laid down a programme of action which was totally innovative. It is arguable that there have been serious misunderstandings concerning the ways and means towards national regeneration preached by Vivekananda because he was in many ways far ahead of his time.

Swami Vivekananda

Narendranath Datta was born in the famous Datta family of Simla or Simulia in North Calcutta. His father Biswanath Datta was a wealthy and successful attorney. The family had inherited the socio-cultural traditions of the Indo-Mughal era which partly explains Vivekananda’s liberal outlook in all areas of life. Good living, especially a civilised pleasure in food, was a serious concern in the Datta family and even as an ascetic Vivekananada did not give up his love of the good life. “Dukh chatami’’ or rejoicing in low life, was to him always an object of contempt. He himself was an excellent cook in the Mughal tradition. There was an extant belief in his family that he was a gift of Siva to whom his mother had prayed for a son. When he showed signs of otherworldly devotion from early childhood, his mother believed that Siva himself had incarnated as her son. He used to pray before his favourite deities in the form of small clay images and would at times get into a trans-like state. He was named Bireswar, alias Bile, but it was later changed to Narendra.

He was educated at home, first by his mother and later by a private tutor. His school education was at the Metropolitan institution, Calcutta. He had his college education at Presidency College and then at the General Assemblies Institution (later Scottish Church College) from where he graduated in 1883. While at college, he developed an almost insatiable appetite for knowledge, both this worldly and spiritual. He studied widely and deeply and his intellectual/academic interests included philosophy, history, literature, science etc. But as a young enquirer for truth, he also developed an intense desire for a knowledge of God. He read Raja Rammohan Roy's publications on Vedanta and was thereby attracted to Brahma Samaj. When keshabchandra sen emerged as a dynamic leader of the movement, Naren would attend his lectures and sing devotional songs at the meetings he organised. He would visit persons renowned for their spirituality in Bengali society and ask them if they had seen God. devendranath tagore, a famous mystic, is alleged to have replied that he had not, but believed that Narendra would succeed in his quest. Reverend Hastie, Principal, General Assemblies Institution, told Narendra about Ramakrishna Paramahansa and described him as a person who had trances induced by his spiritual quest. When Narendra put his usual question to the mystic, he replied, 'Yes, I have seen [Him/Her] and can show you as well. Wthin a short time, but not without his usual pragmatic tests, Narendra became a devotee of Sri Ramkrishna and soon thereafter, his disciple.

There was a period in his life when Naren vacillated between worldly life and that of a sannyasi. He was studying to be a lawyer, but had to give up his studies owing to his father's death: he had to take responsibility for maintaining the family and became a teacher at the Metropolitan Institution.

His father had planned a career for him. He was to go to England and return to practice as a barrister. But the attraction of spiritual life proved to be too strong and he left home to become an 'ordained' disciple of Sri Ramkrishna. There are several biographies of Vivekananda and memoirs written by his fellow disciples. But on the question of what they learnt from their guru they are all silent. Later when Vivekananda undertook his complex programmes for service to mankind and propagation, especially in the west, of the teachings of Vedanta and Yoga, he stated that all that he was doing was at the behest of his guru, but the precise connection between his programmes and his guru's teachings are not obvious. The guru spent much of his time in contemplation of the Deity whom he 'saw as the Mother Goddess Kali. He also claimed to have realised God through mystic regimes of all the major faiths, including Islam and Christianity. Vivekananda did discourse on his guru's life and teachings, but never tried to preach his ideas. Nor do we find in Ramakrishna's recorded sayings any reference to service to mankind, especially the underprivileged masses which was at the heart of Vivekananda's agenda.

On Ramakrishna's death (16 August, 1886), Narendra and twelve of his fellow disciples set up a 'monastery' in Barahanagar on the outskirts of Calcutta. There they practiced the spiritual disciplines they had learned from their guru. They also went through a rigorous intellectual discipline studying books borrowed from the Asiatic Society's library. One curious mantra they chanted, 'Vive la republique', indicates their worldly political ideals. Under Vivekananda's leadership here was a spiritual regime with some very unusual features. It was during his days at the Barahanagar monastery that Narendra adopted his name as a sannyasi, Vivekananda. At some point in time he also adopted another name, Vividishananda.

After a period of 'sadhana', ie, spiritual discipline at the monastery, the disciples decided to undertake another duty incumbent on sannyasis. They all went forth as parivrajakas, penniless travellers in quest of spiritual enlightenment. Vivekananda travelled over many parts of India for some four years in this new role. During this period he studied Panini's grammar with the court pundits of Jaipur, Patanjali's Mahabhashya with Narayan Das, the court scholar of the Maharaja of Kshetri, and Vedanta with Pandurang of Porbandar. At the end of his travels, a fellow-disciple, Turiyananda asked him whether he had realised God. He answered in the negative, adding that he had learnt one thing ' to love human beings. He had learnt another lesson ' that of hunger. In his inimitable style Vivekananda asserted that this world belonged legitimately to the toilers in the field and in the factories. It was the duty of the more privileged educated classes to make the underprivileged masses aware of their power through education and the services essential for keeping them well fed and in reasonable health. For the rest, they would look after themselves and claim their inheritance in due course. This statement sums up the central purpose of his mission. He thought of USA as the land of all possibilities where one could raise the necessary resources for setting up a mission geared to the purposes stated above and also get the technical knowledge required for the industrialisation of India.

In 1893, a conference of all religions was organised in Chicago. He was helped by the Maharaja of Kshetri to go and participate in the conference. His speech there made a tremendous impression. He spoke of the Indian spiritual tradition, but did not try to propagate any particular faith making it very clear that he was opposed to the idea of converting people away from their received faith. Early in his American mission he was drawn into the task of expounding Indian spirituality. It was a moment in time when many people, intellectuals and laymen, had become dissatisfied with institutionalised Christianity and were looking for some message or spiritual experience which would satisfy their needs. Vivekananda's message and his personality struck a chord in their hearts and the preacher felt constrained to stay on in the USA and expound the teachings of the Indian spiritual tradition, especially Vedanta and Yoga. There is no doubt that he made a great impression on the educated public in the USA. Though he himself recognised that there was an element of superficial excitement, the flip side of American enthusiasm, in the rapturous reception accorded to him, the extent of serious interest should not be underestimated. The New York Herald described him as the greatest personality emerging from the Conference on religions. He received invitations to lecture from many cities- Boston, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn etc. Many American men and women became his disciples some of whom came over to India with him. From USA he went to England where too sections of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy were attracted by his discourses. Vivekananda remarked that though his reception in UK had nothing hysterical about it, the seriousness inherent in the English character would ensure that his influence there would be more enduring because there was greater depth to the English response to his message.

Vivekananda had gone to the USA with practical ends in mind, ends which would be of material benefit to his country, especially its poor. The western experience led him into new directions, a vision of man's future involving co-operation and basic cultural exchanges between the East and the West. He too, like many of his contemporaries in all parts of the world, believed in this somewhat simplistic dichotomy in human civilisation. But his understanding of the western character, full of manly qualities orientated to man's worldly goals or rajas according to the classification familiar to Indian philosophy, encouraged him to believe that it contained great possibilities for a new world order deeply informed with spirituality. He believed that one had to develop the quality of rajas in order to reach that of satva, spirituality the highest stage in human development. The western man was ready for this transition, not India sunk in tamas, or bestial qualities. The ideal world of the future would be based on a fair exchange of cultural resources. India would receive from the west the benefits of their knowledge of the external world and their technology to transform the country's material life. The great spiritual heritage of India would be offered in exchange to the vigorous westerner thus transforming the face of humanity through a wonderful fusion. After a spell in India where he received a hero's reception he went back to the USA in 1899 to establish Vedanta Societies and branches of the Ramakrishna Mission he had established in India. From USA he went to Europe and participated in the conference on religions in Paris which happened to be the site of a great exhibition. Vivekananda was profoundly impressed by France as he was by the ancient civilisation of Greece. He admired deeply the high aesthetic qualities of the French culture, especially the element of grace even in their vices. This openness of mind shows the highly sensitive element in his cultural outlook, his essential freedom from all narrowness. From Britain came his most devoted western disciple, Miss Margaret Noble, known by her acquired Indian name, Bhagini i.e., Sister Nivedita (the dedicated one). She became involved in the Indian Nationalist movement and spent the rest of her life in India.

Vivekananda was received in India with ecstatic enthusiasm. Both in Madras and Calcutta, students replaced the horses from his horse-drawn carriages with their own bodies and dragged his carriage all over the city. Perhaps one has to recognise that there was an element of colonial mentality in this excessive response to the success of a fellow countryman in the west. But it did provide an entry point for his genuine influence on young minds.

He now concentrated on building up cadres of dedicated youth, both men and women, to serve the country, or to be more precise, the downtrodden masses. They were to live as celebrate monks and nuns, because the Swami felt that family life was inconsistent with total dedication of self to the service of the nation. He set up the ramkrishna mission, modelled on Catholic missions in 1897. The Belur Math on the outskirts of Calcutta was established two years later as the physical hub of the organisation. He established two journals, Udbodhan in Bengali and Prabuddha Bharat in English to propagate knowledge of India's spiritual inheritance, especially Vedanta and the teachings of Sri Ramkrishna. There were a number of institutions, subsidiary to Ramkrishna Mission set up by Swamiji in the brief years he survived on his return from his second visit to USA and Europe. Among these were Ramkrishna Sevasram, Ramkrishna Home, Ramkrishna Pathshala etc. And during these years he poured forth his impassioned ideas on a wide range of themes on the problems of India and the duties of India's youth. These speeches and writings have been brought together and published by the Ramkrishna Mission in eight volumes in Bengali and eight in English. His Bengali writings are the first examples of fine and vigorous colloquial prose in the language. rabindranath tagore once commented that this was the language which Bengalis would adopt for their prose in the future. Among his works some are still widely read: Parivrajak, Bhabvar katha, Bartaman Bharat, Prachya o Pashchatya, Karmayoga, Jvanaayoga, Rajyoga etc.

The universal admiration for Swami Vivekananada in later times was not something the great man enjoyed in his life time. His very outspoken criticism of whatever he considered harmful for the nation's future provoked a great deal of opposition. He criticised the missionaries because to him, a believer in the truth underlying all faiths, conversion and proselytising was anathema. Christian missionaries in India hit back very hard indeed. In his time the Theosophical movement was a sacred cow to most educated Indians, because their leaders, Madame Blavatsky, Col. Olcott, Mrs Annie Besant were vocal admirers of Hindu spirituality. The shrunken ego of Indians as a subject people, constantly criticised by missionaries and the Anglo-Indian press, was greatly boosted by this praise from eminent white persons. But Vivekananda spoke out both against their absurd 'spiritual' claims, the belief in Mahatmas resident in Tibet and visible occasionally only to the leaders of the Theosophical Society as also their misdeeds against the Swami's mission in the West. He refused to remain silent on these matters, and thus created a large body of very vocal enemies. He was also seriously opposed to religious or cultural movements which, in his eyes, had elements of effeminacy in them. He was thus very critical of the neo-Vaishnava movement in Bengal led by shishir kumar ghosh and his family, the patriotic founders of the Amritabazar Patrika. When Vivekananda died, Amritabazar published a brief note saying that Naren Datta, known to some people as Vivekananda, had passed away.

As noted above, Vivekananda called upon India's youth to devote their lives to the service of the motherland. His central focus was on service to the dispossessed, the legitimate inheritor of this earth because they were the true creators of human civilisation. He called on his fellow disciples of Sri Ramkrishna to go to the masses with a few atlases, globes' and magic lanterns to teach them about the world and their place in it. Once aware of their power, they would chalk out their programme themselves. The call for services to the poor was certainly answered, for the mission was never short of volunteers.

And Vivekananda's call to the nation's youth had another consequence, not explicitly intended in his statements. His call for service to the nation was interpreted by a large section of idealistic youth as an appeal for sacrifice in the cause of freedom. This understanding of Vivekananda's message fed into the new revolutionary zeal, especially after the partition of Bengal in 1905. It has been claimed that Vivekananda directly encouraged revolutionary activity, but the truth of this claim is not beyond doubt. It is true he had a profound hatred of British rule in India and is reported to have told Bal Gangadhar Tilak that statues of gold should be erected in honour of the Chapekar brothers, the first Indian revolutionaries to be hanged for assassinating a British official. On the other hand he is on record denying all connection with politics. What, however, is beyond doubt is that the revolutionary youth of Bengal went to the gallows with his works in their hand and indirectly at his instance, interpreted the Gita as a call to self-sacrifice for the freedom of the motherland.

Later generation s of historians and a section of Hindu extremists in politics have ascribed to him a leading role in the late nineteenth century Hindu revival. Some have argued that the reform movements of the earlier decades were stemmed through the influence of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. There are many reasons for questioning this judgement. First, he made fun of the Hindu claims to prior knowledge of all western scientific discoveries, a central tenet of Hindu revivalism, as absurd. Secondly, while he was suspicious of the middle class reform movements as he had limited faith in the sincerity of his own class in these matters and disliked the criticism of Indian traditions by Indians themselves, he himself was severely critical of Hindu practices like child marriage and deeply disapproved of huge expenditure on rituals at the great centres of pilgrimage. His advice was that the temples and all the impediments of worship should be thrown into the Ganges and all energy he devoted to the service of the dispossessed who in fact were the Deity incarnate. If he refused to speak ill of Hindu practices when abroad, it was because he did not wish to wash his society's dirty linen in public. But at home he was highly critical of the inane Hindu obsession with ritual purity on insignificant matters.

His attitude to Islam is another point on which he differs from the protagonists of Hindu revival. Modern Indian nationalism was informed by a misreading of mediaeval Indian history as interpreted by the British historians: it was seen by many as a period of Muslim tyranny. One single statement has been traced to Vivekananda which echoes this misperception. As against that, he had repeatedly expressed his great admiration of Islam as the one religion which has no need of intermediaries between God and man nor of music, pictures and other paraphernalia of devotionalism. He hoped that future Indians would have Muslim bodies and Vedantic souls and considered the fact that some Mughal emperors had Hindu mothers a tribute to the genius of Indian culture. Nivedita records his immense pride in the glories of Mughal architecture. We do not have in him any precursor of Hindu fanaticism of recent times.

Vivekanada's central message was service geared to the purpose of regeneration of the masses and the construction of a vigorous nationhood free from the accretion of superstitious and often inhuman practices. His patriotic appeals inspired India's idealistic youth even to court death for the achievement of freedom. But his message for the regeneration of the masses fell on infertile soil. The time was not ripe for it yet. [Tapan Raychowdhury]