Vivekananda150th Birth Anniversary


Swami Vivekananda
On his 150th Birth Anniversary*

Gopinath Raina
His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel Choruses, I cannot touch his sayings without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero. –Romain Rolland

ith our heads down with shame following the recent gang-rape of a 23-year-old girl in a moving bus in Delhi, we need to introspect and ask ourselves if we are the children of the country whose soil has been trodden by the feet of the greatest sages, where first arose the doctrine of the immortality of soul and the existence of a supervising God, where gender equality and respect for women was the hallmark of the Vedic age and which Vivekananda not long ago described as "the sleeping giant"?

But alas! the same country, the same India, seems to have sunk to a new low, reaching the deepest trenches of moral depravity. What has happened on December 16 speaks volumes of a disturbing societal mindset. We have started moving on the wrong path.

Things are falling apart. We have become a soulless entity, lecherous and indulge in brutal crimes with impunity. Besides the rising tide of terrorism, subversion and corruption in public life, we have been witnessing as statistics reveal "one molestation every 15 minutes, one rape every 29 minutes, one dowry death every 77 minutes and one incident of sexual harassment every 53 minutes."

Need of Another Vivekananda

Perhaps, it is time when we urgently need another Vivekananda, if only to hold the errant "giant" by the scruff of her neck and put it back on the right course so as to rebuild India on the basis of morality and lofty spiritual traditions.

At a time when security and safety of women in India is engaging the attention of one and all, it is only appropriate that we turn to one of the greatest sons of India, Swami Vivekananda who, few of us really know, was perhaps the greatest votary of respect for women. "The soul has neither sex, nor caste nor imperfection and the best thermometer to the progress of a nation is the treatment of its women," he would say. "In India", he declared, "the mother is the center of the family and our highest ideal. She is to us the representative of God. It was a female sage Gargi who first found the unity of God, and laid down this doctrine in one of the first hymns of the Vedas."

Let us know more of Vivekananda who laid stress on the urgent need for integrating women in India with the mainstream by giving them education so that they could take their place in society with men. He proposed training of women in physical education and self defense as well.

His Early Life & Education

Swami Vivekananda or Narendranath Dutta or Naren as he was called in pre-monastic days was born to Vishwanath Dutta and Bhuvaneshwari Devi on January 12, 1863 in Calcutta on the holy day of Makara Sankranti.

As a child, he was boisterous and vivacious. His mother believed he had come in answer to her ardent prayers to Lord Shiva. When he was young, Narendranath’s leonine beauty was matched only by his courage. He had the build of an athlete, a resonant voice and a brilliant intellect. He distinguished himself in athletics, philosophy and music.

Fond of acquiring knowledge, he studied all the systems of western thought and was well acquainted with the contemporary philosophy of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. Wordsworth and Shelly were his favorite poets. Study of philosophy implanted a spirit of inquiry in his mind.

Rebellious Agnostic

His inborn tendency toward spirituality and his respect for ancient religious traditions and beliefs, on the one hand, and his argumentative nature, on the other, were now at war with each other. The question of God troubled him most. His intellect was too robust to take things on feeble faith and customary belief. He demanded verification and asked for proof before he believed.

And when he despaired of discovering the truth and almost concluded that God was a mad man’s idea, he heard of Sri Ramakrishna and that, too, from none other than Principal Hastie who while explaining to his class Wordsworth’s poem, "The Excursion", remarked that “a rare experience of ecstasy is the result of purity of mind and that he knew of only one person, Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar who had gone through that blessed state of mind.”

Meets his Master

The ever-inquisitive Naren took prompt note of the College Principal’s fateful remarks! He went and saw and was conquered. He asked the saint if he had seen God? And pat came the reply from the simple, child-like rustic temple priest with a smile on his glowing face, “yes, I have seen Him as I see you here, only more intensely.” At last, here was one who could assure Naren from his own experience that God did exist.

Imbibes Eternal Wisdom

During his 5-year stay with the Master, Naren imbibed all the wisdom of Paramahamsa and almost became his alter ego. Toward the end of his spiritual training, Narendra asked the Master to bless him with Nirvikalp Samadhi, regarded as the highest spiritual experience. Sri Ramakrishna admonished him saying “Shame on you! I thought you would grow like a huge banyan tree, sheltering thousands from the scorching misery of the world. Instead, you seek your own liberation.”

Finally, three or four days before his Mahasamadhi in August 1886, Sri Ramakrishna transmitted to Naren his own power and told him “by the grace of this power, great things will be done by you and only after that will you go to whence you came.” And it was thus that a new chapter in the history of Hinduism was opened.

Monk at 23

Naren renounced his home, became a monk at the young age of 23, assumed the name Vivekananda and established a monastry, where he and his co-disciples could carry on austerities. Addressed as just Swami (for he did not assume any name after becoming a monk), he wandered all over India, often on foot, from the Himalayas in the north to Cape Comorin in the south. Wherever he went, it was not the important places that impressed him most but the abject poverty and misery of the masses that caused his soul to burn in agony.

Sets Sail for America

He strongly felt that what was sorely missed in the ethos of the nation was the lofty teaching of the ancient but ever self-renewing Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Religion). Sitting at the last bit of rock (now the site of the famous Vivekananda Rock Memorial) in the Indian Ocean, he took the momentous decision to go to the West to spread India's spiritual message and to seek help for the poor millions of India.

Swamiji(left) is seen sitting on the back porch of Manor House

A great admirer of the Swami in the South, Maharaja of Khetri gave him a first class ticket on a ship going to Canada and many things he needed for the trip. The Maharaja also suggested that he assume the name “Vivekananda”, which the Swami accepted and for the rest of his life thereafter he was known as Swami Vivekananda.

Majestic in appearance and possessed of inexhaustible energy, Swami Vivekananda set sail for America on 31st of May 1893, reaching Chicago by the middle of July. To his disappointment, he learnt that no one could be a delegate to the forthcoming World Parliament of Religions without credentials. He, therefore, decided to go to Boston, which was less expensive than Chicago. In the train, he happened to get acquainted with one Miss Katherine Sanborn, through whom he came to know Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University.

As fate would have it, the said Professor gave him a letter of introduction to the Chairman of the Parliament of Religions, which stated, among other things, “Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”

At the Parliament of Religions

The Parliament of Religions opened on September 11, 1893. The spacious Hall of the Art Institute was packed with nearly 7,000 people and every organized religion from all corners of the world had its representatives seated on the platform. The few other prominent delegates from India, besides Vivekananda, included Mrs. Annie Besant (Theosophy), Majumdar and Agarkar (Brahmo Samaj) and Dharmapala (Buddhism).

And when his turn to address the august assembly came, Vivekananda rose like the morning sun and created almost a sensation when he addressed the audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America” and said “It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given me. I thank you in the name of the Mother of Religions and in the name of the millions and millions of Hindus of all classes and sects.”

Vivekananda continued: “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 that has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all 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 remnants of the grand Zoroastrian nation.”

From Left: Virchand Gandhi, H. Dharampala & Swami Vivekanand on Dias at First Religions Parliament, Chicago, 1893

He ended his very short address by saying, “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 civilizations, 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.”

Stirring Message

Believing strongly in the universality of all religions, Vivekananda envisioned them as different radii leading to the center of the circle. Each religion, he pleaded passionately, must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its own law of growth.

In his address at the final session of the Parliament on 27th September, Vivekananda rose above cramping creeds and dwarfing dogmas and spoke of harmony, understanding and universalism. He said, “If anything, the Parliament of Religions has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world…. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of 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: ‘Help and not fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension'.”

The Greatest Figure

His first speech lasting not more than 4 minutes was received with a full 2-minute long thunderous applause from the vast audience. All those present rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what. The appeal of his simple words of burning sincerity, his great charismatic personality, his bright countenance and his orange robe was so great that next day the newspapers, particularly the New York Herald described him as “the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions, after hearing whom one felt how foolish it is to send missionaries to the learned nation from where he came.”

Dr. Annie Besant later wrote: “A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movements swift and abrupt—such was my first impression of Swami Vivekananda as I met him in one of the rooms set apart for the use of the delegates to the Parliament of Religions. …….India was not to be shamed before the hurrying, arrogant west by this her envoy and son. He brought her message, he spoke in her name and the herald remembered the dignity of the royal land whence he came. Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own.”

Vedanta Society of New York

After his Chicago triumph, Vivekananda stayed in America for about 3 years and worked himself almost to death by his incessant tours, talks, lectures, addresses and regular classes. In February 1896, he organized Vedanta Society of New York, a non-sectarian body with the sole aim of preaching and teaching Vedanta and applying its principles to all religions.

Ridgely Manor, circa 1900

He held the view that the ideal society was the one that combined the spiritual culture of India with the secular culture of America and Europe. He tried to build a bridge between the orient and the occident. The east and the west, he said, should complement each other to develop a new world culture on the basis of the principle of unity in diversity, freedom for all humanity and respect for pluralism.

Essence of Hinduism

Vivekananda delineated his ideas about re-interpreting Hinduism in a letter he wrote to a brother-monk in India on February 7, 1896. He said, “The abstract Vedanta must become living, poetic in everyday life; out of the hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogism must come the most scientific and practical psychology—and all this must be put in a form so that even a child may grasp it.

Like a true Hindu, Vivekananda envisioned religions as different radii leading to the center of the circle. Each religion, he pleaded passionately, must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve its individuality and grow according to its own law of growth. He would often recall few lines of a Vedic hymn that in nutshell provided the essence of lofty Hindu thought. The hymn declared: ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’

He did not limit his concept of God to any one religion or faith but defined it as the worship of the Virat Purusha, the cosmic form of God, the Transcendental Reality that embraced the whole of humanity. This principle of the Universal Oneness of the Self formed the basis of his inherent belief in the equality of all people, irrespective of the considerations of three Cs-caste, creed or color. "Each soul”, he said, “is potentially divine, and the purpose of life is to realize that potential and manifest its essential nature of divinity."

Each nation, like each individual, has one theme in life”, he would say, and if any nation throws off its national vitality, it dies. He knew that India could teach the world, as the great American historian, Will Durant, believed, “tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the calm of the understanding spirit, the quite content of the un-acquisitive soul, and a unifying, pacifying love for all living things.”

About idolatry in India, he said, “it did not mean anything horrible. It is the attempt of undeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. The Hindus have their faults, they sometimes have their exceptions; but mark this: they are always for punishing themselves rather than cutting the throats of their neighbors. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition. And even this cannot be laid at the door of his religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.”

Concern for the Lowly and the Lost

As a man of religious experience, Vivekananda had few parallels. Instead of seeking personal salvation by means of contemplation, he turned all his energy to the amelioration of the suffering humanity. “I do not care for liberation”, said he once, “I would rather go to hundred thousand hells doing good to others. This is my religion.”

For Vivekanda, Nirvana, final liberation from the woes of birth and death, lay in a collective effort to address the basic needs of the disadvantaged and the less privileged. His heart ached at the plight of the poor and the downtrodden. He was upset at the fact that his people lacked physical vigor and mental energy and were weighed down by barren customs, sterile traditions, priest-craft and caste-ism.

Speaking on several other occasions in the Parliament and elsewhere, Vivekananda said that the crying evil in the East was not want of religion but want of bread. “It is an insult to a starving people to offer them religion, it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics.”

The philosophy of service advocated by this giant among men emanated from his chore belief that "Jiva is Shiva”. The worship of Narayana has to be through service to Daridra-Narayana, the poor, the needy and the homeless, he said.

Clarion Call

On his return from western tour, he tried to instill in his people the needed confidence and faith in their potential so that they could stand on their feet. Vivekananda felt that without the strength of body and enthusiasm of heart, his people could not achieve much. Little wonder, he said on one occasion, “It is better to play football rather than study Gita, for it is physical strength that is required to be developed at present.”

He wanted the people of India to be conscious of their spiritual legacy and apply it to practical life and courageously do away with all the excrescences that disfigured their society. He did succeed to a large extent in infusing into the people a new urge and a fresh momentum.

He gave the people the clarion call to “Arise, Awake and Stop not Till the Goal is Reached.” The call woke up the people of India from their slumber and inertia of petty mindedness and superstitions and broke their hypnotic spell of diffidence caused by thousands of years of subjection. The call inspired the seekers, the thinkers and the lay people alike and made them fearlessness and strong.

Watered Parched Soil of India

As one of the principal actors in fostering a new cultural stream that watered the parched soil of India, Vivekananda reminded us that we were the blessed children of a country whose soil had been trodden by the feet of the greatest sages and where first arose the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Vivekananda felt in his heart of hearts that India would rise up again only through a renewal of that highest spiritual consciousness, which had made her the cradle of religions and cultures. He struck an optimistic chord and a positive approach when he told his compatriots to “look as far back into your past as you can to derive inspiration and then move forward to build up a far brighter future.”

Visit to Kashmir

During his visit to Srinagar, Kashmir, in 1898, Swami Vivekananda met Shaivacharya Swami Ram, nine years older to him. When he reached the Ashram, Swami Ram was in deep meditation. Finding solace and spiritual bliss in Swami Ram’s presence, Vivekananda acknowledged it with the remark “there is still spiritual light present in Kashmir”.

Swami Vivekananda on a houseboat in Kashmir, 1898

The two great souls talked about spiritual rejuvenation of the world, especially in reference to Swami Vivekananda’s mission. Swami Ram advised his holy guest to visit Mata Ragnya’s shrine in Tullamulla, where, he said, all his problems would find an answer. The visiting Swami did go to Kshirbhavani where he had the memorable experience of envisioning goddess Ragnya.

It is also said that Swami Vivekananda, in his sonorous voice, sang a soul-full hymn to Shiva in Swami Ram’s presence. While singing Vivekananda went into ecstasy before completing the hymn. Swami Ram immediately took up the recitation of the said hymn where Vivekananda had left it. Such was the divine mystical meeting of the two spiritual giants.

Blesses Baby ‘Bhagwaan Gopinath’

On July 3, 1898, Swamiji visited Bana Mohalla in the interior of Srinagar city to get an American flag stitched by one tailor, Tara Chand by name for he wanted to hoist the flag on the deck of the Houseboat he was staying in to mark the American Independence Day on July 4.

The tailor’s shop was just below the house of Pandit Narain Joo Bhan, the father of Bhagwaan Gopinathji. As destiny would have it, some members of Pandit Bhan’s family happened to be in the shop when Swami Vivekananda was explaining the tailor the design of the flag.

Sitting on chairs, left to right: Swamis Sadananda, Vivekananda, Niranjanananda, and Dhirananda.[Kashmir, 1897]

True to traditional Kashmiri Pandit hospitality, Bhan family members invited the ochre-robed Swami for tea, as they had been blessed with a baby boy the same day (July 3, 1898). Once he was in their house, the newborn baby boy was brought before Vivekananda who showered his blessings on him. The blessed child later grew to be none other than the great spiritual master, Bhagwaan Gopinathji.

Mystical Experiences at Kshirbhavani & Amarnath

Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Kshirbhavani temple and the holy cave of Amarnath marked two of the turning points in his spiritual life. One day at Kshir Bhavani he had been pondering over the ruination and desecration of the temple by the Muslim invaders. Distressed at heart, he thought "how could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance! If I had been here then, I would never have allowed such a thing. I would have laid down my life to protect the Mother." Thereupon he heard the voice of the Goddess saying: "What if unbelievers should enter My temple and defile My image? What is that to you? Do you protect Me or do I protect you?"

While his feelings after witnessing the dilapidated condition of the shrine at Kshirbhavani resulted in his having direct vision of the Mother Goddess, he was overtaken by a great mystical experience as soon as he entered the shrine of Shiva, nude except for a loin cloth after bathing in the ice-cold stream beside the holy cave of Amarnath. the shock of this experience, that took place on Purnima, in the lunar month of Shravan, August 2, 1898, resulted in permanent dilation of his heart and for days together, Vivekananda could speak of nothing but Shiva. Sometime later, he revealed to a disciple: “Ever since I went to Amarnath, Shiva Himself has entered into my brain. He will not go.”

Death at Thirty-nine

During a discourse in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda was once asked as to what has to be always borne in mind throughout life?” He had answered, “Death.” Startled, the questioner had responded, “Whether you remember death or not, it will happen. So why should you remember it?”

Vivekananda had pointed out, “When you remember death constantly, you will develop detachment. You will not be tempted to be bad or sinful. You will never be arrogant or egoistic. You will never be selfish, because the constant thought of mortality all the time will keep you vigilant and careful. Therefore it is the most auspicious thing to remember.”

For Vivekananda, what he had described as the “most auspicious thing” happened a few minutes before 9 O’clock on July 4, 1902 when he finally entered Mahasamadhi at an early age of 39 but not before he had raised India’s stature in the eyes of the world, enthused a new spirit in the hearts of his countrymen and given Hinduism a new turn.

As early as August 11, 1897, after return from his visit to America and Europe, he had told Swami Achyutananda at Bareilly that he would live for only five to six years more-a prophetic utterance indeed!

Two years before his death, during his second visit to America (June 1899-August 1900), he had told his co-disciple, Swami Abhedananda, who was at that time in charge of the Vedanta Society in New York, that “this cage of flesh and blood cannot hold me for many days more.”

However, Vivekananda’s age is not to be calculated in solar years, for in just one decade of public service from 1893 to 1902, he implanted into human consciousness ideas which may need one thousand and five hundred years to get worked out in full.

*Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary falls on Saturday, Jan 12, 2013. On this day the Vedanta Society of Greater Houston has planned an all-day event to highlight facets of Vivekananda's life and teachings. And the Ramakrishna Mission is celebrating the occasion in a manner appropriate to his universally respected stature as a world teacher, thinker, pathfinder and benefactor of humanity. Various projects are planned, particularly for integrated child development and for empowerment of women.
*A journalist by profession, a scholar by temperament and a writer by choice, Gopinath Raina was inclined to the study of religion from his very young age. It was Swami Vivekananda’s dynamic exposition of Hindu thought that fired his imagination while he was still at school, and by the time he entered college, he had been drawn to the writings of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Narayana Guru, Radhakrishnan and Bertrand Russel.

After retiring from Indian Information Service (I.I.S.) in 1983 where he distinguished himself as an editor, correspondent, commentator and administrator in All India Radio, he edited, AICC Journal, Varnika, (Jan.'84-Dec.'90), Koshur Samachar (March'91-Oct'95, Sanatana Sandesh,(1997-2005) and KASHEER (2003-2004),

He has been writing profusely on various aspects of Hindu thought. He enjoys writing, particularly on saints and sages, not only of Kashmir, but of the other parts of India as well. Presently he lives in Miami, and spends his time writing personal memoirs.

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