Swami Vivekananda born Narendranath Dutta was the chief disciple of the 19th century mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the founder of Ramakrishna Mission. He is considered a key figure in the introduction of Hindu philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga in Europe and America and is also credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a world religion during the end of the 19th century.
Vivekananda is considered to be a major force in the revival of Hinduism in modern India. He is best known for his inspiring speech beginning with “sisters and brothers of America”, through which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions at Chicago in 1893. While searching for a man who could directly demonstrate the reality of God, he came to Ramakrishna and became his disciple. As a guru, Ramakrishna taught him Advaita Vedanta and that all religions are true, and service to man was the most effective worship of God.
An eloquent speaker, Vivekananda was invited to several forums in United States and spoke at universities and clubs. He conducted several public and private lectures, disseminating Vedanta and Yoga in America, England and a few other countries in Europe. He also established Vedanta societies in America and England. He later sailed back to India and in 1897 founded the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, a philanthropic and spiritual organization. His meeting with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in his life.
About this meeting, Narendranath said, “He [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 Though Narendra could not accept Ramakrishna and his visions, he could not neglect him either. It had always been in Narendra’s nature to test something thoroughly before he would accept it. He tested Ramakrishna, who never asked Narendra to abandon reason, and faced all of Narendra’s arguments and examinations with patience—”Try to see the truth from all angles” was his reply.
During the course of five years of his training under Ramakrishna, Narendra was transformed from a restless, puzzled, impatient youth to a mature man who was ready to renounce everything for the sake of God-realization. In time, Narendra accepted Ramakrishna as guru, and when he accepted, his acceptance was whole-hearted and with complete surrendering as disciple. After the death of their master, the monastic disciples led by Vivekananda formed a fellowship at a half-ruined house at Baranagar near the river Ganga, with the financial assistance of the householder disciples.
This became the first Matha or monastery of the disciples who constituted the first Ramakrishna Order. In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery as a Parivrajaka—the Hindu religious life of a wandering monk, “without fixed abode, without ties, independent and strangers wherever they go. ” His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff, and his two favorite books—Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ.
Narendranath travelled the length and breadth of India for five years, visiting important centers of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life. He developed a sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the masses and resolved to uplift the nation. Living mainly on Bhiksha or alms, Narendranath traveled mostly on foot and railway tickets bought by his admirers whom he met during the travels. During these travels he gained acquaintance and stayed with scholars, Dewans, Rajas and people from all walks of life—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pariahs (low caste workers), Government officials.
At Kanyakumari, the Swami reportedly meditated on the “last bit of Indian rock”, famously known later as the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, for three days. At Kanyakumari, Vivekananda had the “Vision of one India”, also commonly called “The Kanyakumari resolve of 1892”. He wrote, “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari’s temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock – I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics-it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva used to say, `An empty stomach is no good for religion? ‘ We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses. ”
His journey to America took him through China,Canada and he arrived at Chicago in July 1893. But to his disappointment he learnt that no one without credentials from a bona fideorganization would be accepted as a delegate. He came in contact with Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University.
After inviting him to speak at Harvard and on learning of him not having credential to speak at the Parliament, Wright is quoted as having said, “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens. Wright then addressed a letter to the Chairman in charge of delegates writing, “Here is a man who is more learned than all of our learned professors put together. ” On the Professor Vivekananda himself writes, “He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation. ” Parliament of World’s Religions The Parliament of Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago. On this day Vivekananda gave his first brief address.
He represented India and Hinduism. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the goddess of learning and began his speech with, “Sisters and brothers of America! “. To these words he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.
And he quoted two illustrative passages in this relation, from the Bhagavad Gita—”As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee! ” and “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me. ”
Despite being a short speech, it voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality. Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors. ” He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as the “Cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.
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. ” The American newspapers reported Swami Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”. He spoke several more times at the Parliament on topics related to Hinduism and Buddhism. The parliament ended on 27 September 1893. All his speeches at the Parliament had one common theme—Universality—and stressed religious tolerance.