Vivekanand is among the foremost makers of modern India. He revived Vedanta as the core of Indian philosophy, aroused unalloyed nationalism, and gave a clarion call to rescue millions of India from abject poverty by transforming social service into a spiritual sadhana.
He was born 12 January 1863, into a traditional Bengali family and named Narendra. He inherited Hindu samskaras and a passion for divine search from his mother and the memory of his grandfather who had taken sannyasa. From his father, a judge, he absorbed European values. He went to Presidency College, where he became a formidable scholar in philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, arts, and literature. At home he learnt classical Indian music, completing both traditional and modern education. In 1884 got his BA.
To begin with the impact of Europeanism was strong on him making him a Freemason and associate of Brahmo Samaj to the point of agnosticism and critic of temples but his curiosity about samadhi led him to Ramakrishna. After initial skepticism and a contact of five years he professed ardent discipleship and reportedly an experience of nirvikalpa samadhi.
Ramakrishna passed away in the early morning hours of 16 August 1886. Narendra Dutt along with some other student of Ramakrishna made a community at Baranagar at Ganges and by 1887 took the ascetic vows. A year later, as prescribed in the shastras, he set out to roam all over India as a parivrajaka.
His five years of travelling in India meeting Rajas and Deewans, famous scholars and artists and seeing great centers of learning, diverse religious traditions enlarged his parochial vision into a national one. He toured the whole of North India, from Bihar to Punjab and then the South up to Kanyakumari temple where the abject suffering of Indian people under British rule and the poverty of the masses united his desire for personal salvation with the deep ideal of social service as the philosophy of karma yoga.
While he was making disciples during all his travels, the Rajas of the South financed his journey to Chicago for which he left India on 31 May 1893 from Bombay assuming the name Vivekananda—the name suggested by the Maharaja of Khetri, Ajit Singh. On the way he saw Nagasaki and was deeply influenced by Japanese technological and cultural revival. Via Canada he came to Chicago in July 1893.
In September the Parliament of World’s Religions began at the Art Institute of Chicago where Vivekananda gave his first brief address beginning with the historic words, “Sisters and brothers of America” for which the audience gave him a two minute standing ovation. His message was that worship through any form and any way goes to one and the same Supreme Being, for which he quoted the Bhagavad Gita.
Voicing the universal admiration for Vivekananda as the leading figure at the Parliament, the New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” Vivekananda stayed nearly two whole years lecturing in various parts of eastern and central US and because of exertion and failing he took the ship to Sri Lanka in on 15th January, 1897. It was triumphal journey from Pamban to Kolkata via Madras and several other cities with people often squatting before the train to hear a short speech.
Whereas in the America, Vivekananda emphasized the spiritual message of India, his speeches in India focused on the uplift of Indian masses, eradication caste conflicts, need for industrialization, and inculcation of democracy. From Kolkata he went to Almora where he stayed and spoke for some time. Vivekananda’s speeches in India inspired all the future great leaders of social cultural and political life like Tilak, Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal, Gandhi, Bose and Tagore have generously acknowledged his debt.
On 1 May 1897 at Calcutta, Vivekananda founded the now famous Ramakrishna Mission for social service, the Advaita Ashram near Almora and a mission in Chennai. Two journals called Prabuddha Bharata and Udbodhan were started by him.
The second visit of Vivekananda to the West began in June 1899, with England on way to New York and San Francisco where he founded the Vedanta Societies and a Shanti Ashram in California. In 1900 he spoke at the Congress of Religions, and returned to Belur but visiting Vienna, Athens, Istanbul and Egypt on the way. A visit to Bodhgaya and Varanasi ended his travels as he was too weak now. Tirelessly working till his last breadth he passed in mediation on July 4th, 1902. He was given the last rites at the same bank of Ganges as was his guru 16 years earlier.
Like that of so many immortal saints, poets and intellectuals, the teachings of Vivekanand are above the issues of his time which may have emphasized more, giving a perennial message of spiritual nationalism and commitment to the people of India from the richest to the poorest.
ADDRESSES AT THE PARLIAMENT OF RELIGIONS
11th September, 1893
Sisters and Brothers of America:
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, sources in different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.
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