Article abstract: Teaching a nondualistic interpretation of Vedantic philosophy and emphasizing the universal reality underlying all religions, Vivekananda was the first Indian philosopher to gain a wide audience for Hinduism in the West.
Swami Vivekananda, whose birth name was Narendranath Datta, was raised in a liberal family atmosphere. His father, who was attorney-at-law in the high court of Calcutta, was a well-read man, with a deep appreciation of Islamic culture. It was through his father that Vivekananda developed his interest in other cultures. From his mother, who read to him from the Ramayana and Mahābhārata, he gained a feeling for Hindu culture.
According to his own account, Vivekananda showed an interest in meditation from the age of seven or eight. He also showed some aptitude for classical Indian music, later coauthoring a manuscript about the tabla, a percussion instrument.
Vivekananda’s disciples later claimed, with some encouragement from their master, that Vivekananda was considered a prodigy at high school and college, with a particular aptitude for philosophy. The truth appears to be more mundane. He was not an outstanding student and did not excel in examinations. Although he did study for a year at the Presidency College, the leading educational institution in India at the time, he had to transfer to the General Assembly’s Institution, from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1884.
Vivekananda first met the revered holy man Ramakrishna, who was to dramatically influence his life, in 1881. When Vivekananda faced a crisis in 1884, he renewed his contact with Ramakrishna at the saint’s ashram in Dakshineshwar. In that year, Vivekananda’s father died, leaving no provision for his family. Facing poverty, Vivekananda attempted to find employment, but other than a one-month spell as a high school teacher, he was unsuccessful. Ramakrishna seems to have stepped into the void, becoming a father figure to Vivekananda, whom he regarded as his favorite disciple. In 1885, when Ramakrishna was taken ill, Vivekananda realized that the seer’s mantle would pass to him, and it is from this date that his career as a monk began. Shortly before Ramakrishna died in 1886, the saint (according to the hagiographic accounts) passed all his spiritual powers to his disciple, who had supposedly earned them by his superhuman efforts and austerities.
Now the acknowledged inheritor of Ramakrishna’s legacy, Vivekananda moved the master’s devotees into a house in Baranagore, where they were to remain for six years. Embracing poverty, they survived by begging for a living, which was considered an acceptable practice for monks in India.
Vivekananda began to travel throughout India, a wandering monk observing everywhere he went the paradox of India’s poverty and its heritage of spiritual richness. He realized that India was in sore need of spiritual renewal. During these trips, Vivekananda studied a variety of subjects, including the Upanishads, Sanskrit, Jain and Muslim culture, and Christian theology. He also had mystical experiences. Reportedly, on a journey to Almora, he gained a vision of the oneness of the universe.
In January, 1891, Vivekananda traveled to Delhi and proceeded to Alwar, where he was recognized as a teacher and gave discourses on the Vedas and Upanishads and also the Bible. In south India, he visited Khetri in Rajasthan, where he met rulers and top officials. At Porbander, where he spent eleven months assisting a pandit in a translation of the Vedas, he first conceived the idea of traveling to the West. A year later, he completed his six years of pilgrimage, extending from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumair, the southernmost tip of India. It was at about this time that he assumed the name Vivekananda.
In 1893, his plan to visit the United States came to fruition. With his expenses paid by his followers, Vivekananda set off for the West, intending to convey Ramakrishna’s message of a universal religion, the idea that all religions point to the same truth. He was to do this by proclaiming Advaita Vedanta, based on the Vedas and the Upanishads, which he believed contained the essence of all religion. Advaita, or nondualism, refers to the belief that in spite of the appearance of multiplicity in the world, the ultimate reality is unity, not diversity. Vivekananda also wished to raise money on his trip to help alleviate poverty in India.
When Vivekananda attended the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in September, 1893, he proved to be a charismatic figure. With his handsome face, colorful attire—an orange robe and saffron turban—impressive bearing, and eloquent speech, he made a startling impression on everyone who met or heard him. His first words at the Parliament, “Sisters and Brothers of America,” were met with thunderous applause. He went on to say that he was proud to belong to a religion, Hinduism, that has “taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
Two days later, in his paper on Hinduism, Vivekananda explained the basic tenets of his religion, including the concepts of karma and reincarnation, the relationship between spirit and matter, and unity and diversity. He concluded by pointing to the common center of all religion, which he believed was that at the heart of all faiths, the same truth reigns. He looked forward to the emergence of a universal religion,
whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahmanistic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development.
(The entire section is 2377 words.)