Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902)

Posted November 23, 2012 by admin in Historical Figures

Swami Vivekananda is one of the most famous Hindu saints of the modern age. He is considered by many as a heralder of a new era for Hinduism, being the first person in the modern age to travel to the West and give the message of Vedanta to an international audience. Yoga practitioners in the west recently celebrated the centenary of his first journey to the west as the birth of the international practice of yoga.

Early Life

Vivekananda was born in Calcutta, named Narendra. He was imbued with virtues at a young age, and was a melodious singer, alert student and powerful athlete. His spiritual longing led him to search far and wide for ideas about God, from all religions and teachers. But his scientific nature would not let him believe. Doubts flooded his mind. Yet these doubts far from being a bad thing, actually propelled him on his journey. On the advice of his schoolteacher, Narendra visited Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Narendra was taken aback by the reply he got to his questions about God: “not only have I seen God, but I can show you God if you like.” Narendra was uncertain, but Ramakrishna knew he would be back. “My son I’ve waited my whole life for you,” Ramakrishna cried with emotion. Narendra subsequently made Ramakrishna his Guru, and he both studied the masses of ancient Hindu knowledge both from a scholarly and experiential perspective. Later he attained the name of Swami Vivekananda.

Social Revolutionary

Swamiji traveled extensively around India and was shocked by what he saw. He saw the beauty of the ancient spirituality of the land still intact, but unimaginable poverty, poor health, social ills that rent his heart. He tried to mobilise the affluent classes to come to the aid of their fellow countrymen. He was shocked observing the massive and ruthless conversion campaigns of the Christian missionaries who were flooding India with government support. He warned that India may become a land with barely a memory of its past and true culture, much like Africa of today (which is today dominated by Christianity and Islam, and forgetful and ignorant about any insights and achievements of their ancestors). Many people were impressed with Swami Vivekananda and slowly his following grew. He also set up the Ramakrishna Vedantic Mission.

Travels to the West

Swami Vivekananda journeyed to the West, speaking at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He was allocated only 5 minutes, but held the audience in rapture for much longer, drawing large applause. He travelled to many places. For the first time, people realised that there is something unique and different about the culture and religion of the sub-continent of India, that provided a spirituality beyond the cold confines of organised and authoritarian creeds that they were accustomed to. He developed a following, some of whom would provide a mighty service to India’s upliftment, including Margaret Nobles, who later became Sister Nivedita. Swami Vivekananda was also met with bitter hostility and resistance at the hands of some. Stories of slander and scandals would appear in newspapers regularly, to try and stunt his influence. Swamiji later narrated that the more resistance he encountered, the more determined he became.

Restoring India’s Battered Confidence

Understandably, due to being in the midst of the second great colonialisation many thinkers and activists in India had lost faith in their heritage and were on the way to have their minds and hearts totally yearning after an imitation of England and Europe. Swamiji’s life had a deep impact on the Indian elite. A later Prime Minister of India later declared “We were at that time depressed at the state of our country, but Swami Vivekananda returned to us a lost dignity. We realised that while at present we do not have the wealth or power of Britain, we still had the real article, something that they did not have.”

His vision

It was Swamiji’s hope that India would create a new social order and a new civilisation by combining her best spiritual traditions with the latest advancements in science and technology. She would be rich both materially and spiritually. He knew affluence was not enough to make humanity satisfied, and that it was humanity’s place to manifest the will and light of the divine in the world. He wanted India to set an example in this, and be a harbinger in a new age, where the world would be both materially and technologically healthy, but spiritually and culturally advanced also.


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