His message can serve as a guiding light and ‘Magna Carta’ for all irrespective of social and religious barriers
The impact of British rule, religious and social ills, the caste system, the depressing position of women, reluctance to Western culture, etc. persuaded Indian intelligentsia to pull out all stops to bring much-needed reforms. At the beginning of the 19th century, many great minds strove to awaken the masses, revolutionize their minds and struggled to root out various ills plaguing Indian society. They came up with a new vision that was to shape the future of India. Among those, Swami Vivekananda emerged as a thinker, leader, and great reformer, honorably known as the prophet of modern India.
Swami Vivekananda or Narendranath Dutta was born in Kolkata on Monday, 12 January 1863. His father, Vishwanath Dutta was an attorney-at-law in Kolkata High Court and was proficient in English and Persian. He had a great liking for the study of the Bible and Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit. Vivekananda’s mother Bhuvaneshwari Dutta was an accomplished lady. Regal in appearance and gracious in conduct, she was deeply religious. It is said that before the birth of Vivekananda, she yearned for a son and made religious offerings to Viresvara Siva. After that, one night she dreamt that Siva promised to be born as her son. Vivekananda was born sometime afterward.
At the age of six, Vivekananda was sent to a primary school but only for a short duration. His father noticed that Vivekananda has learned some bad habits there from his classmates. Therefore, a private tutor was appointed to teach him at the home. Parental care of pious parents guarded him against every kind of immorality and developed in him an interest in religious and spiritual matters. Under the auspices of her mother, he memorized long passages from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. At the age of eight in 1871, he entered high school. After securing good ranks in the following classes, he joined the Presidency College of Kolkata and then the Scottish Church College for higher studies. William Hastie, a professor at the college, was the first to familiarize Vivekananda with Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, who later became his spiritual mentor. Vivekananda’s inborn inclination towards spirituality made him restless and he tried to find comfort. Initially, he associated himself with Brahmo Samaj, but curiosity remained unsatisfied. As luck would have it, he remembered the words of his professor about god-man Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. His cousin Ramachandra Dutta also coaxed him to visit the saint. Paramahamsa had attained the highest spiritual experience available to Hindus. Paramahamsa believed that traditional ways of renunciation, meditation, and bhakti are effective in achieving salvation. Also, he recognized the fundamental oneness of all religions and emphasized that Hari, Krishna, Ram, Christ, and Allah are different names of the same God. In his opinion, there are many ways to God and salvation; ‘As many faiths, so many paths’. He concluded that all religions; Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam in particular were the ways to the realization of God-consciousness and carry the same message. In 1881, the historic meeting between the two great souls took place and at the feet of Paramahamsa, Vivekananda found the solace and answer to his questions. Vivekananda asked Sir have you seen God? Paramahamsa responded, ‘Yes, I have seen Him just as I see you here, only more intensely’. Paramahamsa was the one who had an answer to this query. Vivekananda’s doubt was dispelled and his training began. Gradually, Vivekananda yielded himself to his mentor. And Paramahamsa guided him in a way that the rebellious spirit of Vivekananda was calmed, his doubts were replaced by certainty, and his anguish by spiritual bliss. After testing the disciple in so many ways, the mentor eventually decided to transmit his power to him. A few days before death, Paramahamsa told Vivekananda, “By the force of the power transmitted by me, great things would be done by you; only after that will you go to whence you came.” In this way, Vivekananda became the successor of his master to carry his mission forward.
Vivekananda subscribed to the Vedanta, which according to him is a fully rational system with a superior approach. His New-Vendanta philosophy aims at encouraging the individual to work selflessly. It tries to promote social equitability. Even at an early age, he was concerned about equality. He would question why one human being should be considered superior to another. In his father’s office, separate tobacco pipes would be provided to clients belonging to different castes and religions. Muslims would not use the pipe marked for the Hindus and vice-versa. Vivekananda once smoked tobacco from all pipes including one marked for Muslims. And when reprimanded he remarked, “I cannot see what difference it makes”. His egalitarian approach only strengthened under the tutelage of Paramahamsa, who believed in Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava (all religions lead to the same goal). He said that the masses need two kinds of knowledge – 1) Secular knowledge about how to work for their economic upliftment and 2) Spiritual knowledge to have faith in themselves and strengthen their moral sense. He strived to promote equity, unity, tolerance, and universal fraternity. In 1893, he represented India on the world stage – Parliament of Religions held in Chicago where he made remarkable impressions on the audience through his learned interpretations. In that much-celebrated speech, Vivekananda stressed three important and novel facets of Hindu life. First, he said that Indian tradition believed ‘not only in toleration’ but in acceptance of ‘all religions as true’. Second, he opined that Hinduism was incomplete without Buddhism and vice versa. Lastly, at the last session, he stated: “If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction’, ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’.
He not only shaped India’s secularism but also addressed youth and students to motivate them to realize their dreams. He fostered new enthusiasm for progress among them. He popularized the slogan ‘Arise! Awake! And stop not till the goal is reached ‘that continues inspiring youngsters, especially students. He truly deserves the title of ‘youth leader’ that is why his birthday – 12 January is celebrated as National Youth Day.
In 1897, he founded Ramakrishna Mission. Being a great humanist, he used the Ramakrishna mission for social work and humanitarian relief. Vivekananda advocated for the doctrine of services i.e. the service of all beings that makes the cardinal objective of the Mission. Due to its spiritual, social, educational, and philanthropic contribution, the Mission attracted people globally and grew into a global organization. The Mission continues to stand for religious and social reformation and operates worldwide. Although it is a deeply religious body, it has abstained from proselytizing. The mission is strictly adhering to the teachings of its founder – Vivekananda, who in a Chicago speech said, “If anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, Brother, yours is an impossible hope.” And this is one of the strong reasons for the success of the Mission.
Swami Vivekananda’s message can serve as a guiding light and ‘Magna Carta’ (the great charter) for all irrespective of social and religious barriers and the imbibition of his message is a compelling need in current times.
Swami Vivekananda died on 4 July 1902. He was cremated on the bank of Ganga in Belur, opposite where Paramahamsa was cremated sixteen years earlier.
Zeeshan Rasool Khan is a co-author of the book ’55-Stories’ and writes on diverse issues. Feedback at [email protected]