THE 12th of January is celebrated as “National Youth day” (Yuva Diwas) in India, to commemorate the birth, the contribution and to pay obeisance to the universality of Swami Vivekananda, a world-renowned outstanding Indian Hindu monk, a bridge between the East-West gap in religion, a modern-day teacher and a practical social reformer, having been born on 12th January, 1863, in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. The name Swami Vivekananda (the bliss of discerning wisdom), is a household name in India, any Hindu home throughout the world and in the home of any student, devotee or lover of Hinduism. The name is again synonymous with the Vedanta philosophy. The four famous signature words, “Sisters and brothers of America,” is his hallmark and, Swami Vivekananda was given a standing two-minute ovation accompanied by thunderous applause from the crowd of 7.000 participants, as he addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago on 11th September, 1893. With those opening words as the Hindu representative from India, he introduced Hinduism and Yoga to the West and immediately became famous and popular.
This opportunity was made possible through his introduction letter by Professor John Henry Wright from Harvard University, having arrived from India without any credentials from a bona fide organisation, a prerequisite for any delegate. That opened the door for him and he was immediately accepted to speak as a guest at universities, colleges and other simple gatherings in churches and homes. Swamiji’s 473-word speech blew everyone’s mind. He spoke about the basic yet important things one should follow in life: being patriotic; loving all religions; analyzing religion; being acquainted with science; knowing the importance and necessity of rituals; being aware of the roots of Hinduism; being aware of the goal of science; being aware of the cause of the downfall of India and being against religious conversions. After listening to him, Harvard psychology professor William James said, “That man is simply a wonder for oratorical power. He is an honour to humanity.” When in doubt, despair or delusional, Guyanese youths of all ethnicities should embrace his advice, “Anything that makes you weak – physically, intellectually and spiritually — reject it as poison.” Considered as one of the greatest 19th century spiritual leaders of India, he was a “great Indian youth icon.” Swamiji laid a lot of emphasis on youth power towards nation-building and universal brotherhood. According to The University Grants Commission (UGC), “Swamiji considered education to be a continuous process in which all aspects of life, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual, should be imbibed. His contribution to the creation of a new, modern India is incredible.”
Born as Narendranath Datta at three, Gourmohan Mukherjee Street in British Calcutta, Swamiji was the sixth child of nine siblings (a sister died) to his father Vishwanath, an attorney, and his mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi. She was the bedrock of the home, a pillar of foundation, a house wife and self-taught English scholar, who counselled her children to always be truthful, chaste, dignified and humane, imprinting the eternal values of healthy living, education, morality and religion. She instilled and emphasised the same interests for both sons and daughters. The progressive, rational attitude of his father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape his thinking and personality. Of her molding, Narendra paid tribute, exclaiming, “I am indebted to my mother for the efflorescence of my knowledge.” Perhaps, fathers and mothers especially in Guyana, may take a page from his story and the crime rate may not be so high. At age eight, Narendranath enrolled at Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution and was the only student to receive first-division marks in the Presidency College entrance examination in 1879. He was an avid reader in a wide range of subjects including Indian and Western philosophy, religion, European and Indian history, social science, art and literature. His alma mater was the University of Calcutta (BA -1884). He was also known for his prodigious memory (shrutidhara), the ability at speed-reading and was fluent in English, Hindi and Bengali. From a young age he used to meditate before the images of deities such as Shiva, Rama, Sita and Hanuman. Growing up, his interest increased in Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. Regularly, he would participate in physical exercises and sports. Swami Vivekananda pointed out that, “The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.”
As this youthful lad (naujawan), he circumambulated as a roving seeker, he dabbled as a member of a “Freemasonry lodge,” followed “Sadharan Brahmo Samaj,” active in “Band of Hope,” joined “Nava Vidhan” and finally settled with Ramakrishna after reconverting from “Christianity.” During this tenure as an adventure in his exposure to life and reality, he became acquainted with Western esotericism and his burning question to all whom he met remained unanswered if not dissatisfied, have they seen and come “face to face with God?” The young man in his 20s found solace in the comfort of Ramakrishna and his wife’s company and conversation and resonated in the answers and explanations to his burning queries and questions. He accepted Ramakrishna as his Guru, becoming his chief disciple and when Ramakrishna died in 1886, Narendra and eight other disciples took the monastic vows, formed the Ramakrishna Math in Baranagar Math, Kolkata, and he took up the mantle for the Ramakrishna Mission. They adopted the monastic lifestyle and Narendra became Swami Vivekananda. From 1888 to 1893, Swamiji became a wondering monk living on alms and travelling the length and breadth of India; experiencing the fruits of diversified culture, people and system; exposure to concepts and principles of different philosophies; observing and absorbing the political and economic stagnation of India under harsh British domination; and the poverty, suffering and limitation of prejudice, victimisation and discrimination pervading as social injustices. As he made all these pilgrimages while visiting historical sites and holy shrines, staying with leaders of Hindu, Muslim and Christian religions and meeting and greeting with Indians of all walks of life, including the high society, politicians, teachers, social workers, farmers and “low-caste workers,” he advocated the awareness of freedom from this strangulation of tyranny, inequality and high level of illiteracy and inculcated a beginning process for India to gain independence from England.
His work bore fruit, nationally and was also internationally recognised, acknowledged and awarded. During his first visit to the West from 1893 to 1897, he toured many states in the USA, including Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York while establishing the Vedanta Society, lecturing, giving classes in yoga and making important and influential friends and acquaintances with politicians, professors, teachers, businessmen, religious leaders and ordinary people from all walks of life. He visited Europe twice in 1895 and 1896, meeting Max Muller in the UK, Paul Deussen in Germany, Romain Rolland in France and a of host of other personalities. Swamiji was offered lecturing positions at Harvard and Columbia Universities, but declined. He also met Margaret Noble, an Irish woman, writer and social worker, who later became Sister Nivedita and accompanied him back to India in 1897, remaining there to work with Indian women, immersed herself in activities pursuing the interest of the Swadeshi movement. Back in India, he went on to establish various monasteries throughout the country, paying special attention to the propagation of education, promoting science and industrialisation, addressing widespread poverty and suffering and ending colonial rule. He returned to the West from 1899 to 1892 to complete his overseas commitments, specifically raised interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status as a major world religion during the 19th century. Sailing back to India, he aroused a new awakening in India and her people. Many international figures have paid tribute to his legacy and were easily influenced by his work, including Mahatma Gandhi, Subash C. Bose, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobondo, among many more.
His works, writings, lectures and speeches have been preserved in volumes of books authored by a number of writers. Many sites and institutions are named after him. Last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Swamiji’s original first name), unveiled a statue of Swami Vivekananda on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Vice Chancellor M Jagadesh Kumar said, “Swami Vivekananda is one of the most beloved intellectuals and spiritual leaders India has been fortunate to produce. He enthused the youth with his message of freedom, development, harmony and peace in India. He inspired citizens to take pride in Indian civilisation, culture and its industrious spirit.” On July 4th, 1902, Swami Vivekananda went to his room to meditate at 7PM and asked not to be disturbed after a hectic day of teaching, yoga, discussion and planning. He died at 9:20PM from the rupture of a blood vessel in the brain, the rupture due to his brahmarandhra (an opening in the crown of his head), being pierced when he attained mahasamadhi (the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body at the time of death). He gave of himself for 39 years, five months and 22 days to the world, thereby fulfilling his prophecy that he will not live 40 years. Swami Vivekananda was cremated on the bank of the Ganga in Belur, opposite where his guru, Ramakrishna, was cremated 16 years earlier. His inspiring, motivating, captivating and famous perpetual quotation remains yet to be exhausted and replaced: “Arise, awake, stop not until the goal is reached.”