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Swami Vivekananda

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Title: Swami Vivekananda  
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Swami Vivekananda

Vivekananda in Chicago, September 1893. On the left, Vivekananda wrote: "one infinite pure and holy – beyond thought beyond qualities I bow down to thee".[1]
Born Narendranath Vishwanath Datta
(1863-01-12)12 January 1863
Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India
(now Kolkata, West Bengal, India)
Died 4 July 1902(1902-07-04) (aged 39)
Belur Math, Bengal Presidency, British India
(now in West Bengal, India)
Nationality Indian
Founder of Belur Math, Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission
Guru Ramakrishna
Philosophy Vedanta
Literary works Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga
Prominent Disciple(s) Ashokananda, Virajananda, Paramananda, Alasinga Perumal, Abhayananda, Sister Nivedita, Sadananda
Quotation "Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached"
(See more quotations in Wikiquote)

Swami Vivekananda (Bengali:  ( ), Shāmi Bibekānondo; 12 January 1863 – 4 July 1902), born Narendra Nath Datta (Bengali: ), was an [2] He is perhaps best known for his inspiring speech which began, "Sisters and brothers of America ...,"[5] in which he introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Born into an aristocratic Bengali family of Calcutta, Vivekananda was inclined towards spirituality. He was influenced by his guru, Ramakrishna, from whom he learnt that all living beings were an embodiment of the divine self; therefore, service to God could be rendered by service to mankind. After Ramakrishna's death, Vivekananda toured the Indian subcontinent extensively and acquired first-hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing in British India. He later travelled to the United States, representing India at the 1893 Parliament of the World Religions. Vivekananda conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating tenets of Hindu philosophy in the United States, England and Europe. In India, Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint and his birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day in India.

Early life (1863–1888)

Birth and childhood

A Bengali woman , sitting
Vivekananda as a wandering monk
(left) Bhuvaneswari Devi (1841–1911); "I am indebted to my mother for the efflorescence of my knowledge."[6] – Vivekananda
(right) 3, Gourmohan Mukherjee Street, birthplace of Vivekananda, now converted into a museum and cultural centre

Vivekananda was born Narendranath Datta (shortened to Narendra or Naren)[7] at his ancestral home at 3 Gourmohan Mukherjee Street in Calcutta, the capital of British India, on 12 January 1863 during the Makar Sankranti festival.[8] He belonged to a traditional Bengali Kayastha family and was one of nine siblings.[9] His father, Vishwanath Datta, was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court.[10][11] Durgacharan Datta, Narendra's grandfather, was a Sanskrit and Persian scholar[12] who left his family and became a monk at age twenty-five.[13] Bhuvaneswari Devi, was a devout housewife.[12] The progressive, rational attitude of Narendra's father and the religious temperament of his mother helped shape his thinking and personality.[14][15]

Narendra was interested spiritually from a young age, and used to meditate before the images of deities such as Shiva, Rama, and Sita.[16] He was fascinated by wandering ascetics and monks.[15] Narendra was naughty and restless as a child, and his parents often had difficulty controlling him. His mother said, "I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons".[13]


In 1871 Narendra enrolled at [19]

Narendra studied Western logic, Western philosophy and European history at the Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin.[24][25] He became fascinated with the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and corresponded with him,[26][27] translating Spencer's book Education (1861) into Bengali.[28] While studying Western philosophers, he also learned Sanskrit scriptures and Bengali literature.[25] William Hastie (principal of General Assembly's Institution) wrote, "Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students".[24] Some accounts have called Narendra a shrutidhara (a person with a prodigious memory).[29][30][31]

Spiritual apprenticeship

Narendra became a member of a Freemasonry lodge and a breakaway faction of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen and Debendranath Tagore.[21][32][33] His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo concepts, which included belief in a formless God and the deprecation of idolatry.[16][34]

At this time, Narendra met Debendranath Tagore (the leader of Brahmo Samaj) and asked if he had seen God. Instead of answering his question, Tagore said "My boy, you have the Yogi '​s eyes."[32][28] Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, Narendra wondered if God and religion could be made a part of one's growing experiences and deeply internalised. He asked several prominent Calcutta residents if they had come "face to face with God", but none of their answers satisfied him.[35][23]

With Ramakrishna

Narendra's first introduction to Ramakrishna occurred in a literature class at General Assembly's Institution when he heard Professor William Hastie lecturing on William Wordsworth's poem, The Excursion.[34] While explaining the word "trance" in the poem, Hastie suggested that his students visit Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar to understand the true meaning of trance. This prompted some of his students (including Narendra) to visit Ramakrishna.[36][37][38]

Image of Ramakrishna, sitting.
Image of Vivekananda, sitting in meditative posture, eyes opened
(left) Ramakrishna, guru of Vivekananda (right) Vivekananda in Cossipore 1886

In November 1881,.[1] when Narendra was preparing for his upcoming F. A. examination, Ram Chandra Datta accompanied him to Surendra Nath Mitra's, house where Ramakrishna was invited to deliver a lecture.[40] At this meeting, Ramakrishna asked young Narendra to sing. Impressed by his singing talent, he asked Narendra to come to Dakshineshwar.[41] Narendra did not consider this their first meeting, and neither man mentioned this meeting later.[36]

In late 1881 or early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineswar with two friends and met Ramakrishna.[36] This meeting proved to be a turning point in his life.[42] Although he did not initially accept Ramakrishna as his teacher and rebelled against his ideas, he was attracted by his personality and began to frequently visit him at Dakshineswar.[43] He initially saw Ramakrishna's ecstasies and visions as "mere figments of imagination"[14] and "hallucinations".[44] As a member of Brahmo Samaj, he opposed idol worship, polytheism and Ramakrishna's worship of Kali.[45] He even rejected the Advaita Vedanta of "identity with the absolute" as blasphemy and madness, and often ridiculed the idea.[44] Narendra tested Ramakrishna, who faced his arguments patiently: "Try to see the truth from all angles", he replied.[43]

Narendra's father's sudden death in 1884 left the family bankrupt; creditors began demanding the repayment of loans, and relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Narendra, once a son of a well-to-do family, became one of the poorest students in his college.[46] He unsuccessfully tried to find work and questioned God's existence,[47] but found solace in Ramakrishna and his visits to Dakshineswar increased.[48]

One day Narendra requested Ramakrishna to pray to goddess Kali for their family's financial welfare. Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple himself and pray. Following Ramakrishna's suggestion, he went to the temple thrice, but failed to pray for any kind of worldly necessities and ultimately prayed for true knowledge and devotion from the goddess.[49][50][51] Narendra gradually grew ready to renounce everything for the sake of realising God, and accepted Ramakrishna as his Guru.[43]

In 1885, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer, and was transferred to Calcutta and (later) to a garden house in Cossipore. Narendra and Ramakrishna's other disciples took care of him during his last days, and Narendra's spiritual education continued. At Cossipore, he experienced Nirvikalpa samadhi.[52] Narendra and several other disciples received ochre robes from Ramakrishna, forming his first monastic order.[53] He was taught that service to men was the most effective worship of God.[14][52] Ramakrishna asked him to care for the other monastic disciples, and in turn asked them to see Narendra as their leader.[54] Ramakrishna died in the early-morning hours of 16 August 1886 in Cossipore.[54][55]

Founding of first Ramakrishna Math at Baranagar

After Ramakrishna's death, his devotees and admirers stopped supporting his disciples. Unpaid rent accumulated, and Narendra and the other disciples had to find a new place to live.[56] Many returned home, adopting a Grihastha (family-oriented) way of life.[57] Narendra decided to convert a dilapidated house at Baranagar into a new math (monastery) for the remaining disciples. Rent for the Baranagar Math was low, raised by "holy begging" (mādhukarī). The math became the first building of the Ramakrishna Math: the monastery of the monastic order of Ramakrishna.[42] Narendra and other disciples used to spend many hours in practising meditation and religious austerities every day.[58] Narendra later reminisced about the early days of the monastery:[59]

We underwent a lot of religious practice at the Baranagar Math. We used to get up at 3:00 am and become absorbed in japa and meditation. What a strong spirit of detachment we had in those days! We had no thought even as to whether the world existed or not.

In 1887, Narendra compiled a Bengali song anthology named Sangeet Kalpataru with Vaishnav Charan Basak. Narendra collected and arranged most of the songs of this compilation, but could not finish the work of the book for unfavourable circumstances.[60]

Monastic vows

In December 1886, the mother of Baburam[2] invited Narendra and his other brother monks to Antpur village. Narendra and the other aspiring monks accepted the invitation and went to Antpur to spend few days. In Antpur, in the Christmas Eve of 1886, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows.[58] They decided to live their lives as Jesus Christ lived.[58] Narendranath took the name "Swami Vivekananda".[61]

Travels in India (1888–1893)

In 1888, Narendra left the monastery as a Parivrâjaka— the Hindu religious life of a wandering monk, "without fixed abode, without ties, independent and strangers wherever they go".[62] His sole possessions were a kamandalu (water pot), staff and his two favourite books: the Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ.[63] Narendra travelled extensively in India for five years, visiting centres of learning and acquainting himself with diverse religious traditions and social patterns.[64][65] He developed sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the people, and resolved to uplift the nation.[64][66] Living primarily on bhiksha (alms), Narendra travelled on foot and by railway (with tickets bought by admirers). During his travels he met, and stayed with Indians from all religions and walks of life: scholars, dewans, rajas, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, paraiyars (low-caste workers) and government officials.[66]


In 1888 Narendra's first destination was Varanasi, where he visited the places where Gautama Buddha and Adi Shankara preached[67][68] and met Bengali writer Bhudev Mukhopadhyay and Hindu saint Trailanga Swami.[69] After meeting Vivekananda, Mukhopadhyay said "Such vast experience and insight at such an early age! I am sure he will be a great man".[67] Narendra also met Sanskrit and Vedic scholar Babu Pramadadas Mitra,[70] with whom he corresponded on the interpretation of Hindu scriptures.[70][69] After leaving Varanasi, he visited Ayodhya, Lucknow, Agra, Vrindavan, Hathras and Rishikesh.[68] When he was staying in Vrindavan, one day, he saw a man smoking a hookah. He asked to the man to give him a tobacco bowl, but the man refused to do so explaining he was a man of lower caste. Narendra initially accepted his point and started walking, but within few minutes, he started feeling ashamed, as he had been practising "non-duality of soul" for a long time. He returned to the man, once again requested him to give him tobacco boil and despite the man's reluctance, he took the hookah from him and started smoking.[71]

Vivekananda sitting, black and white image
Vivekananda as a wandering monk
After Ramakrishna's death, in January 1887 Vivekananda (then Narendranath Datta) and eight other disciples of Ramakrishna took formal monastic vows in Baranagar Math. In 1888, Narendra left the math and began life as a wandering monk. Both photos were taken at this time.[72]

While on the way to Haridwar, in September 1888,[73] Narendra stayed at Hathras. There in the railway waiting room Narendra met Sharat Chandra Gupta, a railway station master.[74] Gupta went to Narendra and asked if he was hungry, to which he got a reply in positive. He took Narendra to his home. When Narendra asked him what food he was going to offer, Gupta quoted a Persian poem in reply: "Oh beloved, I shall prepare the most delicious dish with the flesh of my heart".[75] Narendra told Gupta that he had a great mission in life — he wanted to serve his motherland where starvation and poverty stalk millions of people. He narrated his dream of seeing India regaining her old glory. During the conversations Gupta asked Narendra if he could help him anyhow. Narendra immediately replied— "Yes, take up the kamandalu and go begging". Gupta understood that he was being asked to renounce his personal interest for the welfare of many. He decided to renounce the world and became a disciple of Narendranath.[76] Narendra and Gupta left Hathras together.[76]

After leaving Hathras Narendra and Gupta first went to Haridwar, and from there travelled to Rishikesh, on foot. Here Narendra initiated Gupta into Sannyasa and was named Swami Sadananda.[77][78] Gupta was the directly initiated monastic disciple of Vivekananda.[77] Vivekananda called him "the child of my spirit".[79]

Meeting with Pavhari Baba

Between 1888 and 1890, Narendra visited Vaidyanath and Allahabad. In January 1890 he went from Allahabad to Ghazipur and met Pavhari Baba,[65][80] an Advaita Vedanta ascetic who spent much of his time in meditation.[81] At the time he suffered from lumbago,[80] and it was becoming impossible for him to move or sit in meditation.[82] After meeting Baba, Narendra wanted to become his disciple and Baba asked him to stay a few more days at Ghazipur. However, the night before his initiation Narendra had a dream in which Ramakrishna looked at him with a melancholy face. This dream convinced Narendra that no one other than Ramakrishna could be his teacher, and he abandoned the idea of becoming Baba's disciple.[83]

Return to Baranagar Math and Himalayan journey (1890–91)

During the first half of 1890, after the deaths of fellow Ramakrishna disciples Balaram Bose and Suresh Chandra Mitra, Narendra returned to Baranagar Math because of ill health and to arrange for the math's financial support.[84] After finishing his work in July, he left the math[74] (accompanied by fellow monk Swami Akhandananda) for the Himalayas.

This constituted the first phase of a journey which would bring Narendra to the West.[74][85] He visited the sacred sites of Nainital, Almora, Srinagar, Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar. During these travels, he met Swami Brahmananda, Saradananda, Turiyananda and Advaitananda. They stayed at Meerut for several days engaged in meditation, prayer and study of the scriptures. At the end of January 1891, Narendra left his fellows and travelled to Delhi.[85][86]

Rajputana (1891)

After visiting historical sites at Delhi, Narendra started his travel towards Rajputana. In these days, he drew inspiration from the words of the Gautama Buddha— [87][88][89]

Go forward without a path,
Fearing nothing, caring for nothing!
Wandering alone, like the rhinoceros!
Even as a lion, not trembling at noises,
Even as the wind, not caught in the net,
Even as the lotus leaf, untainted by water,
Do thou wander alone, like the rhinoceros!

In February 1891, he first went to Alwar, where he was warmly welcomed by the Hindus and the Muslims.[89] There he told a Muslim religion scholar that one significant feature of the Quran is, though it was written a thousand years ago, the book was free from "interpolation" and retained its original purity.[90] When Narendra met the Mangal Singh, the king of Alwar, who was Westernised in his outlooks. Singh asked Narendra questions and ridiculed Hindu idol worship. Narendra attempted to explain to him that that worship of the Hindus are symbolic worship, but failed to make the king understand. Then Narendra saw a painting hanging on the wall, it was the a painting of the Singh's deceased father and asked him to spit on it. Singh became angry and retorted how he could spit on his father. Narendra explained, though it was just a painting, not the king himself, it reminds everybody about the king, similarly an idol worshipped by a Hindu is actually a symbolic worship of the Supreme.[91][90]

From Alwar, Narendra went to Jaipur, where he studied Panini's Ashtadhyayi with a Sanskrit scholar. Narendra then went to Ajmer, where he visited the palace of Akbar and the Dargah Sharif. At Mount Abu he met Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri, who became an ardent devotee and supporter.[92] Swami Tathagatananda, a senior monk in the Ramakrishna Order, wrote of their relationship:

... Vivekananda's friendship with Maharaja Ajit Singh of Khetri was enacted against the backdrop of Khetri, a sanctified town in Northern Rajasthan, characterized by its long heroic history and independent spirit. Destiny brought Swamiji and Ajit Singh together on 4 June 1891 at Mount Abu, where their friendship gradually developed through their mutual interest in significant spiritual and secular topics. The friendship intensified when they travelled to Khetri and it became clear that theirs was the most sacred friendship, that of a Guru and his disciple.[93]

At Khetri Narendra delivered discourses to the Raja, became acquainted with pandit Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasu and studied the Mahābhāṣya on the sutras of Panini. After two-and-a-half months there, in October 1891 he left for Maharastra.[66][94]

West (1891–1892)

Narendra visited Ahmedabad, Wadhwan and Limbdi; at the former, he completed his studies of Islamic and Jain cultures.[66] At Limbdi he met Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh, who had been to England and America. From him, Narendra first got the idea of going to the West to preach Vedanta. He visited Junagadh and was the guest of Haridas Viharidas Desai, diwan of the state, who was so charmed by his company that every evening he and all the state officials conversed with Narendra until late at night. Narendra also visited Girnar, Kutch, Porbander, Dwaraka, Palitana, Nadiad, Nadiad ni haveli and Baroda. He remained for nine months at Porbander, furthering his philosophical and Sanskrit studies with learned pandits.[66]

Narendra's next destinations included Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Khandwa and Indore. At Kathiawar he heard of the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions, and was urged by his followers to attend it. After a brief stay in Bombay in July 1892, he met Bal Gangadhar Tilak during a train journey.[95] After staying with Tilak for a few days in Pune,[96] Narendra travelled to Belgaum in October 1892 and to Panaji and Margao in Goa, spending three days at Rachol Seminary (the oldest convent in Goa, with rare religious manuscripts and printed works in Latin) studying Christian theological works.[97]

South (1892–1893)

Narendra later travelled to Bangalore, where he became acquainted with K. Seshadri Iyer (diwan of the Mysore state). Iyer described Narendra as "a magnetic personality and a divine force which were destined to leave their mark on the history of his country". Iyer introduced him to the Maharaja (king) of Mysore Chamaraja Wodeyar. Wodeyar invited Narendra to stay in his palace as a guest.[98][99] The maharaja gave Narendra a letter of introduction to the diwan of Cochin and a railway ticket.[100]

From Bangalore, Narendra visited Trissur, Kodungalloor and Ernakulam. At Ernakulam he met Chattampi Swamikal, a contemporary of Narayana Guru, in early December 1892.[101] From Ernakulam, Narendra travelled to Trivandrum, Nagercoil and reached Kanyakumari on foot on Christmas Eve 1892.[102] At Kanyakumari, Narendra meditated on the "last bit of Indian rock" (later known as the Narendra Rock Memorial). At Kanyakumari, Narendra had a "vision of one India" (the "Kanyakumari resolve of 1892").[103] He wrote:
"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 use to 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."[103][104]

From Kanyakumari, Narendra visited Madurai and had meetings with the Raja of Ramnad Bhaskara Sethupathi (to whom he had a letter of introduction). During his meetings, he had extensive discussions on Hindu philosophy with eminent scholars like Mahavidwan R. Raghava Iyengar. The raja became his disciple, urging him to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. From Madurai, Narendra visited Rameswaram, Pondicherry and Madras; there, he met some of his disciples, specially Alasinga Perumal (who played important roles in collecting funds for his voyage to America and later establishing the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras).[105] Perumal went door to door in hopes of getting money for Narendra's travel.[106] With funds collected by his Madras disciples, the kings of Mysore, Ramnad, Khetri, diwans and other followers, Narendra left Bombay for Chicago on 31 May 1893 with the name "Vivekananda" which was suggested by Ajit Singh of Khetri.[104] The name "Vivekananda" meant "the bliss of discerning wisdom".[107]

First visit to the West (1893–1897)

Vivekananda started his journey to the West on 31 May 1893[108] and visited several cities in Japan (including John Henry Wright of Harvard University, who invited him to speak at Harvard.[111] On learning that Vivekananda lacked credentials to speak at the Chicago Parliament, Wright said "To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens".[112] Vivekananda wrote of the professor, "He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation".[112]

Parliament of the World's Religions

A group of men are sitting and looking forward
Five men are standing
(left) Vivekananda on the platform at the Parliament of Religions, September 1893; left to right: Virchand Gandhi, Dharmapala, Vivekananda
(right) Swami Vivekananda with the East Indian group, in the photo: (from left to right) Narasimha Chaira, Lakeshnie Narain, Vivekananda, H. Dharmapala, and Virchand Gandhi

The Parliament of the World's Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World's Columbian Exposition.[113][114][115] On this day, Vivekananda gave a brief speech representing India and Hinduism.[116] He was initially nervous, bowed to Saraswati (the Hindu goddess of learning) and began his speech with "Sisters and brothers of America!".[117][115] At these words, Vivekananda received a two-minute standing ovation from the crowd of seven thousand.[118] When silence was restored he began his address, greeting the youngest of the nations on behalf of "the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance".[119] Vivekananda quoted two illustrative passages from the "Shiva mahimna stotram": "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!" and "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me."[119] Despite the brevity of his speech, it voiced the spirit and sense of universality of the parliament.[119][120]

Parliament President John Henry Barrows said, "India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors".[117] Vivekananda attracted widespread attention in the press, which called him the "cyclonic monk from India". The New York Critique wrote, "He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them". The New York Herald noted, "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation".[121] American newspapers reported Vivekananda as "the greatest figure in the parliament of religions" and "the most popular and influential man in the parliament".[122] The Boston Evening Transcript reported that Vivekananda was "a great favourite at the parliament... if he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded".[123] He spoke several more times at the Parliament on topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and harmony among religions until the parliament ended on 27 September 1893. Vivekananda's speeches at the Parliament had the common theme of universality, emphasising religious tolerance.[124] He soon became known as a "handsome oriental" and made a huge impression as an orator.[125]

Lecture tours in the U.S. and England

"I do not come", said Swamiji on one occasion in America, "to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul."[126]

After the Parliament of Religions, he toured many parts of the US as a guest. His popularity opened up new views for expanding on "life and religion to thousands".[125] During a question-answer session at Brooklyn Ethical Society, he remarked, "I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East."

Vivekananda spent nearly two years lecturing in the eastern and central United States, primarily in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York. He founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894.[127] By spring 1895 his busy, tiring schedule had affected his health.[128] He ended his lecture tours and began giving free, private classes in Vedanta and yoga. Beginning in June 1895, Vivekananda gave private lectures to a dozen of his disciples at Thousand Island Park in New York for two months.[128]

During his first visit to the West he travelled to England twice, in 1895 and 1896, lecturing successfully there.[129] In November 1895 he met Margaret Elizabeth Noble an Irish woman who would become Sister Nivedita.[128] During his second visit to England in May 1896 Vivekananda met Max Müller, a noted Indologist from Oxford University who wrote Ramakrishna's first biography in the West.[120] From England, Vivekananda visited other European countries. In Germany he met Paul Deussen, another Indologist.[130] Vivekananda was offered academic positions in two American universities (one the chair in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University and a similar position at Columbia University); he declined both, since his duties would conflict with his commitment as a monk.[128]

Left: Vivekananda in Greenacre, Maine (August 1894).[131] Right: Vivekananda at Mead sisters house, South Pasadena in 1900.
Vivekananda attracted followers and admirers in the U.S. and Europe, including Josephine MacLeod, William James, Josiah Royce, Robert G. Ingersoll, Nikola Tesla, Lord Kelvin, Harriet Monroe, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Calvé and Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz.[14][128][130][132] He initiated several followers : Marie Louise (a French woman) became Swami Abhayananda, and Leon Landsberg became Swami Kripananda,[133] so that they could continue the work of the mission of the Vedanta Society. This society even to this day is filled with foreign nationals and is also located in Los Angeles.[134] During his stay in Los Angeles, Vivekananda built a retreat to house Vedanta students. He called it Peace retreat or Santi Asrama.[135] The American headquarters of the Vedanta Society (one of the twelve) in USA is located in Los Angeles. There is also a Vedantha Press in Hollywood which publishes Hindu scriptures and texts in English. [136] Christina Greenstidel of Detroit was also initiated by Vivekananda with a mantra and she became Sister Christine,[137] and they established a close father–daughter relationship.[138]

From the West, Vivekananda revived his work in India. He regularly corresponded with his followers and brother monks,[3] offering advice and financial support. His letters from this period reflect his campaign of social service,[139] and were strongly worded.[140] He wrote to Swami Akhandananda, "Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying "Ramakrishna, O Lord!"—unless you can do some good to the poor".[141][142] In 1895, Vivekananda founded the periodical Brahmavadin to teach the Vedanta.[143] Later, Vivekananda's translation of the first six chapters of The Imitation of Christ was published in Brahmavadin in 1889.[144] Vivekananda left for India on 16 December 1896 from England with his disciples, Captain and Mrs. Sevier and J.J. Goodwin. On the way they visited France and Italy, and set sail for India from Naples on 30 December 1896.[145] He was later followed to India by Sister Nivedita, who devoted the rest of her life to the education of Indian women and India's independence.[128][146]

Back in India (1897–1899)

The ship from Europe arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 15 January 1897,[145] and Vivekananda received a warm welcome. In Colombo he gave his first public speech in the East, India, the Holy Land. From there on, his journey to Calcutta was triumphant. Vivekananda travelled from Colombo to Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Madurai, Kumbakonam and Madras, delivering lectures. Common people and rajas gave him an enthusiastic reception. During his train travels, people often sat on the rails to force the train to stop so they could hear him.[145] From Madras, he continued his journey to Calcutta and Almora. While in the West, Vivekananda spoke about India's great spiritual heritage; in India, he repeatedly addressed social issues: uplifting the people, eliminating the caste system, promoting science and industrialisation, addressing widespread poverty and ending colonial rule. These lectures, published as Lectures from Colombo to Almora, demonstrate his nationalistic fervour and spiritual ideology.[147]

A group photo of Vivekananda and his disciples.
Image of Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, a branch of the Ramakrishna Math
(left) Vivekananda at Chennai 1897 (right) Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati (a branch of the Ramakrishna Math founded on 19 March 1899) later published many of Vivekananda's work and now publishes Prabuddha Bharata.

On 1 May 1897 in Calcutta, Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Mission for social service. Its ideals are based on Karma Yoga,[148][149] and its governing body consists of the trustees of the Ramakrishna Math (which conducts religious work).[150] Both Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission have their headquarters at Belur Math.[120][151] Vivekananda founded two other monasteries: one in Mayavati in the Himalayas (near Almora), the Advaita Ashrama and another in Madras. Two journals were founded: Prabuddha Bharata in English and Udbhodan in Bengali.[152] That year, famine-relief work was begun by Swami Akhandananda in the Murshidabad district.[120][150]

Vivekananda earlier inspired Jamsetji Tata to set up a research and educational institution when they travelled together from Yokohama to Chicago on Vivekananda's first visit to the West in 1893. Tata now asked him to head his Research Institute of Science; Vivekananda declined the offer, citing a conflict with his "spiritual interests".[153][154][155] He visited the Punjab, attempting to mediate an ideological conflict between Arya Samaj (a reformist Hindu movement) and sanatan (orthodox Hindus).[156] After brief visits to Lahore,[150] Delhi and Khetri, Vivekananda returned to Calcutta in January 1898. He consolidated the work of the math and trained disciples for several months. Vivekananda composed "Khandana Bhava–Bandhana", a prayer song dedicated to Ramakrishna, in 1898.[157]

Second visit to the West and final years (1899–1902)

Vivekananda sitting, wearing white shawl
Image of Vivekananda relaxing in a chair.
(left) Vivekananda at Belur Math on 19 June 1899
(right) Vivekananda (photo taken in Bushnell Studio, San Francisco, 1900)

Despite declining health, Vivekananda left for the West for a second time in June 1899[158] accompanied by Sister Nivedita and Swami Turiyananda. Following a brief stay in England, he went to the United States. During this visit, Vivekananda established Vedanta Societies in San Francisco and New York and founded a shanti ashrama (peace retreat) in California.[159] He then went to Paris for the Congress of Religions in 1900.[160] His lectures in Paris concerned the worship of the lingam and the authenticity of the Bhagavad Gita.[159] Vivekananda then visited Brittany, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens and Egypt. The French philosopher Jules Bois was his host for most of this period, until he returned to Calcutta on 9 December 1900.[159]

After a brief visit to the Advaita Ashrama in Mayavati Vivekananda settled at Belur Math, where he continued co-ordinating the works of Ramakrishna Mission, the math and the work in England and the U.S. He had many visitors, including royalty and politicians. Although Vivekananda was unable to attend the Congress of Religions in 1901 in Japan due to deteriorating health, he made pilgrimages to Bodhgaya and Varanasi.[161] Declining health (including asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia) restricted his activity.[162]


On 4 July 1902 (the day of his death)[163] Vivekananda awoke early, went to the chapel at Belur Math and meditated for three hours. He taught Shukla-Yajur-Veda, Sanskrit grammar and the philosophy of yoga to pupils,[164][165] later discussing with colleagues a planned Vedic college in the Ramakrishna Math. At seven p.m. Vivekananda went to his room, asking not to be disturbed;[164] he died at 9:10 p.m. while meditating.[166] According to his disciples, Vivekananda attained mahasamādhi;[167] the rupture of a blood vessel in his brain was reported as a possible cause of death.[168] His disciples believed that the rupture was due to his brahmarandhra (an opening in the crown of his head) being pierced when he attained mahasamādhi. Vivekananda fulfilled his prophecy that he would not live forty years. [169] He was cremated on a sandalwood funeral pyre on the bank of the Ganges in Belur, opposite where Ramakrishna was cremated sixteen years earlier.[170]

Teachings and philosophy

Vivekananda believed that a country's future depends on its people, and his teachings focused on human development.[171] He wanted "to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest".[172] Vivekananda believed that the essence of Hinduism was best expressed in the Vedanta philosophy, based on Adi Shankara's interpretation. He summarised the Vedanta as follows:[173]

Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.

Vivekananda linked morality with control of the mind, seeing truth, purity and unselfishness as traits which strengthened it.[174] He advised his followers to be holy, unselfish and to have śraddhā (faith). Vivekananda supported brahmacharya (celibacy),[175] believing it the source of his physical and mental stamina and eloquence.[176] He emphasised that success was an outcome of focused thought and action; in his lectures on Raja Yoga he said, "Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced".[177]

Influence and legacy

Vivekananda revitalised Hinduism within and outside India, and was the principal reason for the enthusiastic reception of yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of Indian spiritual self-improvement in the West.[178] Agehananda Bharati explained, "...modern Hindus derive their knowledge of Hinduism from Vivekananda, directly or indirectly".[179] Vivekananda espoused the idea that all sects within Hinduism (and all religions) are different paths to the same goal.[180] However, this view has been criticised as an oversimplification of Hinduism.[180]

Statue in a garden
at Shri Ramakrishna Vidyashala, Mysore, India
(left) Vivekananda statue near the Gateway of India, Mumbai
(right) at Shri Ramakrishna Vidyashala, Mysore, India

In the background of emerging nationalism in British-ruled India, Vivekananda crystallised the nationalistic ideal. In the words of social reformer Charles Freer Andrews, "The Swami's intrepid patriotism gave a new colour to the national movement throughout India. More than any other single individual of that period Vivekananda had made his contribution to the new awakening of India".[181] Vivekananda drew attention to the extent of poverty in the country, and maintained that addressing such poverty was a prerequisite for national awakening.[182] His nationalistic ideas influenced many Indian thinkers and leaders. Sri Aurobindo regarded Vivekananda as the one who awakened India spiritually.[183] Mahatma Gandhi counted him among the few Hindu reformers "who have maintained this Hindu religion in a state of splendor by cutting down the dead wood of tradition".[184]

The first governor-general of independent India, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, said "Vivekananda saved Hinduism, saved India".[185] According to Subhas Chandra Bose, a proponent of armed struggle for Indian independence, Vivekananda was "the maker of modern India";[186] for Gandhi, Vivekananda's influence increased Gandhi's "love for his country a thousandfold". Vivekananda influenced India's independence movement;[187] his writings inspired freedom fighters such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghose, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bagha Jatin and intellectuals such as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Romain Rolland.[188] Many years after Vivekananda's death Rabindranath Tagore told French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland,[189] "If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative". Rolland wrote, "His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Händel 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!"[190]

Jamsetji Tata was inspired by Vivekananda to establish the Indian Institute of Science, one of India's best-known research universities.[155] Abroad, Vivekananda communicated with orientalist Max Müller, and scientist Nikola Tesla was one of those influenced by his Vedic teachings. While National Youth Day in India is observed on his birthday, 12 January, the day he delivered his masterful speech at the Parliament of Religions, 11 September 1893 is “World Brotherhood Day”.[191][192] In September 2010, India's Finance Ministry highlighted the relevance of Vivekananda's teachings and values to the modern economic environment. The Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee approved in principle the Swami Vivekananda Values Education Project at a cost of 1 billion (US$16 million), with objectives including involving youth with competitions, essays, discussions and study circles and publishing Vivekananda's works in a number of languages.[193] In 2011, the West Bengal Police Training College was renamed the Swami Vivekananda State Police Academy, West Bengal.[194] The state technical university in Chhattisgarh has been named the Chhattisgarh Swami Vivekananda Technical University.[195] In 2012, the Raipur airport was renamed Swami Vivekananda Airport.[196]

The Ramakrishna Math, the Ramakrishna Mission, the central and state governments in India, educational institutions and youth groups. Bengali film director Tutu (Utpal) Sinha made a film, The Light: Swami Vivekananda as a tribute for his 150th birth anniversary.[198]

Literary works

Lectures from Colombo to Almora front cover 1897 edition
Vedanta Philosophy An address before the Graduate Philosophical Society 1901 cover page
(left) Lectures from Colombo to Almora front cover 1897 edition
(right) Vedanta Philosophy An address before the Graduate Philosophical Society 1901 cover page

Vivekananda was a powerful orator and writer in English and Bengali;[199] most of his published works were compiled from lectures given around the world. He was a singer and a poet,[200] "A singer, a painter, a wonderful master of language and a poet, Vivekananda was a complete artist." composing many songs and poems (including his favourite, "Kali the Mother"). Vivekananda blended humour with his teachings, and his language was lucid. His Bengali writings testify to his belief that words (spoken or written) should clarify ideas, rather than demonstrating the speaker (or writer's) knowledge.

Bartaman Bharat meaning "Present Day India" [201] is an erudite Bengali language essay written by him, which was first published in the March 1899 issue of Udbodhan, the only Bengali language magazine of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. The essay was reprinted as a book in 1905 and later compiled into the fourth volume of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.[202] In this essay his refrain to the readers was to honour and treat every Indian as a brother irrespective of whether he was born poor or in lower caste.[203]

Published in his lifetime[204]
Published posthumously

Here a list of selected books of Vivekananda published after his death (1902)[204]

  • Addresses on Bhakti Yoga
  • Bhakti Yoga
  • The East and the West (1909)[208]
  • Inspired Talks (1909)
  • Narada Bhakti Sutras – translation
  • Para Bhakti or Supreme Devotion
  • Practical Vedanta
  • Jnana Yoga
  • Raja Yoga (1920)
  • Speeches and writings of Swami Vivekananda; a comprehensive collection
  • Complete Works: a collection of his writings, lectures and discourses in a set of nine volumes



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  2. ^ A brother monk of Narendranath
  3. ^ Brother monks or brother disciples means other disciples of Ramakrishna who lived monastic lives.


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Further reading

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