Swami Vivekananda was born in Calcutta on January 12th 1863 as Narendranath Dutta. Tempestuous though he was, from early childhood he had a predilection for meditation. He would play at it, sitting in yoga posture, and often play-acting would pass into deep self-forgetfulness. He had also an innate fondness for the wandering monks who came to the house for alms. He entered the Presidency College and later the Scottish Church College. Never content with the offered curriculum, he read independently an untold number of books. His powers of reading and of retention were little short of miraculous and acquired during his college life a thorough knowledge of Western philosophy, art, literature, and more than a general knowledge of science and medicine.
Naren's concern, however, was not with accumulating a fund of knowledge, but, rather, with discovering ultimate truth. His thirst for a direct knowledge of reality was deep-seated was not to be put off by the well-acknowledged fact that it could not be acquired through the intellect or the senses. On the one hand, his spirit rebelled against the degrading philosophy of ‘I can't know’ and on the other hand, it was impossible for him to accept on mere faith a doctrine that logic or his own experience could not verify.
It was during this period of restless search for God that Naren, in November of 1881, first met his Master, Sri Ramakrishna. It was a momentous meeting. Naren asked his usual question: “Sir, have you seen God?” Sri Ramakrishna at once answered: “Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intenser sense. God can be realized; one can see and talk to Him as I am doing with you.” Naren, deeply impressed, felt that these extraordinary words came from the depths of an inner experience. Engaging in arduous spiritual practices under the careful eye of his guru he proved by his own experience the truth of many of Sri Ramakrishna's claims. In the last few days of Sri Ramakrishna's life he entrusted the care and training of his other monastic disciples to Naren's hands and imparted to him his final instructions.
The Wandering Monk
Two years later, in 1888, Naren set out as a wandering monk over the length and breadth of India, sometimes living in complete isolation and want, sometimes sharing the meals of humble villagers, sometimes being entertained by kings. It was during this time that he heard about the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Upon his triumphant return to a hero's welcome in India, he established the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, a monastic order whose motto is "For one's own liberation; and for the welfare of the world." Swami Vivekananda returned to the West once more in 1899 and established Vedanta Societies in New York and San Francisco. Two years after returning to India, he "..spat out this body" on July 4th 1902.
The Swami's mission was both national and international. A lover of mankind, he strove to promote peace and human brotherhood on the spiritual foundation of the Vedantic Oneness of existence. A mystic of the highest order, Vivekananda had a direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that unfailing source of wisdom and often presented them in the soul-stirring language of poetry. The natural tendency of Vivekananda's mind, like that of his Master, Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering in East and West alike. It might appear that his mind seldom found a point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man. Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his mission on earth; and this choice has endeared him to people in the West, Americans in particular.
In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years (1863-1902), of which only ten were devoted to public activities - and those, too, in the midst of acute physical suffering - he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises on Hindu philosophy. In addition, he delivered innumerable lectures, wrote inspired letters in his own hand to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous poems, and acted as spiritual guide to the many seekers who came to him for instruction. He also organized the Ramakrishna Order of monks, which is the most outstanding religious organization of modern India. It is devoted to the propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in the Swami's native land, but also in America and in other parts of the world. Swami Vivekananda once spoke of himself as a 'condensed India.' His life and teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called the Swami the “paragon of Vedantists.” Max Müller and Paul Deussen, the famous Orientalists of the nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection. “His words,” writes Romain Rolland, “are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years' distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!”