I see a statue of Vivekananda everywhere. Below my room at the Ramakrishna Institute of Culture’s International Scholars House, I see a tall, proud Vivekananda with arms folded. Outside the Institute of Culture, another statue shows him gazing west toward downtown Kolkata, toward modern India. Who is Vivekananda?
Born in 1863 to a wealthy Kolkata family, Narendranath Datta, the future swami named Vivekananda, had a father who was an attorney at Kolkata’s High Court and a devout Hindu mother. His social position enabled him to attend college where he could have entered the law profession or business profession without too much difficulty.
His college experience challenged him by expanding his world. He joined “Free Thinking” organizations like the Brahmo Samaj. He began to find a life perspective shaped by reason and not simply tradition invigorating. He even read Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer. The results were predictable. He questioned Hinduism. He rejected its polytheism and its emphasis upon unquestioning obedience to caste rules. With these changes, he could very easy become the early Bengali “Anglophile” or Adopted Son of the West.” Yet, his life became even more complex.
While reading an assignment on Wordsworth “The Excursion,” his professor remarked that if anybody is puzzled by the word “trance” then he should visit Sri Ramakrishna in Dakshinineswar, about six miles north of Kolkata. Accepting his professor’s suggestion, Vivekananda visited Ramakrishna. While sparks probably flew at first, Vivekananda modified his perspective. While remaining deeply committed to a thoughtful examination of life, he accepted the intuitive insights derived from Ramakrishna’s mystic life. Different from Vivekananda’s own family tradition, Ramakrishna enabled Vivekananda to reclaim selected aspects of India’s Hinduisms.
Eventually, Vivekananda accepted Ramakrishna as his guru. During Ramakrishna’s last few years, Vivekananda and about a dozen other young men listened to and were instructed by Ramakrishna. Prior to his death, Ramakrishna gave Vivekananda an ochre robe symbolizing sacrifice and renunciation. He asked the others to follow Vivekananda as their new leader. Shortly after Ramakrishna’s death, Vivekananda and this handful of young men established a monastic order.
At this point, a crisis occurred. The previous financial supporters of Ramakrishna decided to no longer support his young devotees. In addition, Vivekananda’s own family experienced their own financial crisis, depriving Vivekananda of any outside help. The followers survive in the traditional monastic manner. They take to the streets begging for food and money and somehow survive.
During this period, Vivekananda adopted another traditional monastic practice. He went on pilgrimage. He took his own “road trip” of India to connect with India, its lands, its people. Leaving Kolkata, but not the monastic order he has established, he basically traveled throughout India from 1888-1893. As a mendicant monk carrying his bowl and two books, the Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ, he stayed not only in ashrams and caves, but also with numerous individuals in their homes.
He became acquainted with the depth of India’s poverty and the extensive lack of basic education and healthcare.
His journey took him west into the great North Ganga plains. He stayed in Varanasi, in Delhi, and Hardwar. A letter records one conversation with a S. Gupta, a local Bengali Brahmin who housed him in Hardwar. One day, Gupta asked him “Swami, why do you look so sad?” Vivekananda responded, “I have a great mission to fulfill and I am in despair at the smallness of my capacity. I have a great injunction from my Guru to carry out a mission. This is nothing less than the regeneration of my motherland.” (Swami Vivekananda: A Corrective Biography, 83) He sensed what he needed to do, but he was aware of his inadequacy to complete that task.
He slowly traveled west and south of Delhi to the hill fortresses of Rajasthan and Gujarat. While traveling by train to Mumbai, Vivekananda met another individual destined to influence India’s history, Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Representative of the many threads that agitated for independence from England, Tilak was a die-hard nationalist in India’s freedom movement. Later some called him “The Father of Indian Unrest.” (“Swami Vivekananda: The Greatest Indian Traveler on a Mission”)
From Mumbai, Vivekananda turned south visiting Mysore and eventually Kanyakumari. It may have been at this southern tip of India that Vivekananda clarified his own nationalist feelings. He later wrote in his Vision of One India,
“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 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.”
Vivekananda’s love for India stemmed from India’s religious heritage. This religious heritage can be reshaped in positive ways to improve the life of the Indian people. His religious nationalism had two interesting characteristics. On the one hand, he was not preoccupied with persistently and vindictively attacking British imperialism. He was aware of imperialism but not obsessed by it. On the other hand, he desired his fellow Indians, as far as I can tell, to regain a respect and love for their own traditions does not mean that he wanted to be a threat to the Muslims, the Jains, or the Christians.
Vivekananda consistently developed his commitment to India and its people. Other later quotes confirmed this life-long purpose:
“I am an Indian and every Indian is my brother.” “The ignorant Indian, the poor and destitute Indian, the Brahmin Indian, the pariah Indian is my brother.” “The Indian is my brother, the Indian is my life, India’s gods and goddesses are my God, India’s society is the cradle of my infancy, the pleasure garden of my youth, the sacred heaven, the Varanasi of my old age.” “The soil of India is my highest heaven; the good of India is my good.”
Reminiscent of Americans’ view of “manifest destiny,” Vivekananda wrote the following: “Each nation has a destiny to fulfill, each nation has a message to deliver, each nation has a mission to accomplish. Therefore, we must have to understand the mission of our own race, the destiny it has to fulfill, the place it has to occupy in the march of nations, the role which it has to contribute to the harmony of races.”
Vivekananda’s words inspired numerous Indians. “Let a new India arise out of the peasant’s cottage grasping the plough; out of the hearts of the fisherman, the cobbler and the sweeper. Let her spring from the grocer’s shop, from beside the oven of the fritter-seller. Let her emanate from the factory, from the marts and from the markets. Let her emerge from the groves and forests, from the hills and mountains.” In the upsurge of religious nationalism, Vivekananda’s words may be a useful reminder of a nationalism not viciously sectarian, but a nationalism, a love of roots, that seeks to bring out the best in a people.
While in southern India, he traveled to Madurai, where he meets Ramnad Bhaskara Sethupathi, the then King of Madurai. Because of Vivekananda’s views and his broad appeal, the King approached Vivekananda with a request that Vivekananda should participate in the upcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Various individuals collected funds for Vivekananda’s voyage to Chicago which he undertook on May 31, 1893.
In 1893, he became one of the handful of Indians who addressed Chicago’s World Parliament of Religions. Although the conference was organized and attended primarily by liberal Protestants, Swami Vivekananda and several other attendees represented the “Asian religions.” He gave several brief speeches. Although there is no actual record that he began his initial speech with the words “Sisters and Brothers of America….”, Vivekananda certainly conveyed his sense of Hinduism and made an impression upon those attending.
Shortly after the Parliament ended, Jenkin Lloyd Jones recorded the various speakers’ remarks in his The Chorus of Voices. Vivekananda was the 20th speaker during the first session:
“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; and I thank you in the name of the millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects”.
In his second speech, he retold the ancient frog parable to convey the partiality of our views of the world and the deeper unity we share.
“I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours, and hope that, in the future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose.”
In his final remarks, Vivekananda reminded his hearers of the oneness of all religions.
“If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will hold no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach; whose sun shines upon the followers of Krishna, or Christ, saints or sinners, alike; which will not be the Brahmin or Buddhist, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for every human being, from the lowest grovelling man, from the brute to the highest mind, towering almost above humanity, and making society stand in awe and doubt his human nature.”
Vivekananda returned to Kolkata inspired and dedicated to taking a new practical step forward. Vivekananda realized that he needed to have not just a monastic order but also a more permanent service organization to make a lasting difference. Thus, he established the Ramakrishna Mission Association in 1897. With a motto “Serve the jiva (living beings) as Shiva (God Himself),” Vivekananda created the nucleus of a difference-making institution. The following expression also captures the Mission’s purpose: “For one’s own liberation, and for the welfare of the world.” Unlike some who view all Hinduism as completely other-worldly and escapist, Vivekananda insists upon the practical side of Vedanta Hinduism. “That society is the greatest, where the highest truths become practical.” Never at an apparent loss for concise phrases, he later writes “Renunciation and service are the twin ideals of India. Intensify here in these channels and the rest will take care of itself.”
In many ways, Vivekananda is like a Martin Luther, a John Calvin, a John Knox, or a John Wesley in not only imagining a different form of religiosity, in not only inspiring a small group of followers to adopt that new form of life, but also in institutionalizing its purpose and work in a specific organization.
Vivekananda died in 1902 at the young age of 39. His life has had numerous effects. Gandhi admired him as an Indian who raised the spirit of India by showing pride in its own past. Others certainly admire not just his spirit but his practical purpose to help improve many Indian’s quality of life.
I am staying at the Ramakrishna’s Institute of Culture where a plaque on the Heritage Building reflects the broad admiration for Vivekananda and his work. The plaque reads as follows:
Ramakrishna mission Institute of Culture Gol Park
“This internationally known organization was founded in 1938 as an important Centre for the propagation of the ideology of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. This was also a major association for dissemination of Indian as well as world culture. This Institute has been enriched by the presence of the great personalities of India as well as other countries of the world. This splendid mansion was inaugurated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Honourable Prime Minister of India on November the first, 1961.”
When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru participates in the 1961 building dedication, then the message is clear. The Ramakrishna Order is a well-established and very respected part of modern India.