Swami Vivekananda was an Indian Hindu monk, recognized globally for reviving Hinduism in the modern era.
His name translated from Sanskrit means “the bliss of discerning wisdom”.
Beyond his contributions to the modern prominence of his religion, he was also well regarded for his social activism, such as the provision of social service in India through the Ramakrishna Mission.
His teachings were primarily based on Vedantic texts and the yogic path.
Much like Sri Yukteswar and Yogananda, Swami Vivekananda was a proponent of interfaith understanding, in which there is a conception of a similar core spiritual teaching.
A vital player in introducing Vedantic philosophy and Yoga to the world, Swami Vivekananda is revered for his wisdom, insight and strict adherence to the purity of yogic lifestyle.
In this article we’ll take a look at:
- His Life
- His Spiritual Philosophy
- His Teachings
- His Impact
His Life And Background
Swami Vivekananda was born Narendra Nath Datta into a rich family in Kolkata, India in 1863. Vivekananda was an exceptionally bright child and showed an aptitude for music, sports, and academic study.
Aside from academic prowess, Vivekananda was spiritually inclined and practiced meditation from a young age.
During his time in university in Kolkata, he showed an interest in Western philosophy and history.
Like many sages, Vivekanda underwent a spiritual experience that led him onto a divine path.
Despite growing up in a religious household, he went into a spiritual crisis in his youth, questioning the existence of God and exploring the theories of Agnosticism.
This caused within Vivekananda relentless enquiry and a search for answers. He first became involved with the Brahmo Movement, which was a monotheistic reformist movement in India.
However, Vivekananda still had questions regarding the divine. He would visit prominent spiritual leaders from all walks of life asking them the question “have you seen God?”.
He found no satisfactory answer.
His Guru, Ramakrishna
During this term of his life, Vivekananda heard of a man called Sri Ramakrishna, and in 1881 visited him in the Dakshinewar Kali Temple grounds.
Putting his question to Ramakrishna, he replied:
“Yes, I have. I see God as clearly as I see you, only in a much deeper sense”.
Vivekananda found profundity in the simplicity and faith Ramakrishna exhibited, and would continue to visit the temple grounds to meet with Ramakrishna.
In contrast to his Brahmo-influenced position on spirituality, he slowly began to accept the Vedantic roots of Ramakrishna’s philosophy and worship of Kali (a Hindu goddess). Ultimately, he became a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
His Spiritual Awakening
In 1884, Vivekananda’s father died, leaving him and his family in debt and bankruptcy.
He asked Ramakrishna to pray on his behalf to the goddess Kali for the economic security of his family, however Ramakrishna responded by suggesting Vivekananda goes to pray himself.
Face to face with this deity in prayer, Vivekananda found no virtue or solution in praying for worldly wealth, and so instead asked for true consciousness.
This humbling experience of prayer marked the beginning of a path of renunciation and God-realization.
Gradually, Vivekananda accepted Ramakrishna as his guru.
Foundation of Ramakrishna Math
In 1886, Ramakrishna passed away after a year of battling throat cancer. During this time, Vivekananda experienced nirvikalpa samadhi.
This is the second stage of samadhi, which is a state of complete absorption wherein the ego dissolves and there is a one-pointed focus of mental and physical activity.
This state is not just dropped into, but can be long-lasting and exist for hours or days at a time.
After Ramakrishna died, unpaid rent on the temple space meant that the disciples including Vivekananda momentarily disbanded.
Following this, Vivekananda rounded up the remaining devotees of Ramakrishna and converted a building in Baranagar, which was to be the first math or monastery of the monastic order of Ramakrishna.
Here Vivekananda and the other disciples would engage in deep meditation and spiritual austerities.
Life As A Sannyasin
Driven by an intense spiritual yearning for God-realization, he embarked on a journey as a sannyasin in 1890. Over the next two years, he traveled extensively throughout India, visiting places in present-day Delhi, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Hyderabad.
It was during this period that he was bestowed with the monastic name ‘Vivekananda’.
During his two year journey, he met people of all backgrounds and accepted hospitality from people from all faiths.
He recognized the pressing issues of poverty in India and the importance of religion for Indian civilization.
While meditating in 1892, he received a spiritual vision that inspired his ideal of renunciation and service integral for the future of India, which led him to become a social activist domestically and internationally.
Launching into activism in India, Vivekananda embarked on a quest to eradicate the caste system, promote science, address poverty, and end British rule.
Furthermore, he visited the West as a spokesperson for India, illuminating India’s incredible spiritual past and present-day identity.
Parliament Of The World’s Religions
As a part of his world touring, Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament Of The World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. Starting his lectures with “Sisters and brothers of America”, Vivekananda went on to deliver a series of speeches that earned him international acclaim.
He described accounts of spiritual realization, celebrated interfaith collaboration, and called for aid for India.
Following his ground-breaking lectures at the Parliament, he spent 3 years giving public and private lectures in America and Europe
Reception in India
Swami Vivekananda returned from his tour via Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he gave even more lectures expounding his teachings.
Arriving back in his homeland, Swami Vivekananda received a passionate reception, now famous nationwide for his representation of India to the world.
From the outskirts of Calcutta, Swami Vivekananda established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897.
The purpose of this mission was to spread the ancient Vedantic teachings of the Upanishads, as well as enacting karma yoga in the form of serving the poor.
This mission was the embodiment of Swami Vivekananda’s core philosophy:
Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity…Swami Vivekananda.
Manifestation of divinity in Vivekananda’s monastic ethos was to be attained through serving God in man.
In 1902 Vivekananda awoke early, and spent the day teaching and meditating.
By the evening, according to his devotees, Swami Vivekananda attained mahasamadhi – a state of deep absorption in which the practitioner chooses to leave his or her mortal body.
Mahasamadhi is a fascinating phenomenon that many gurus have conducted, such as Sri Yukteswar, Sadhguru’s wife, Yogananda, and Sivananda.
Teachings And Impact
Vivekananda ultimately expounded Vedantic text as his teaching: that there is only one eternal reality which we incorrectly perceive as fragmented through time, space, and causation.
He further believed that God-realization is the end of the road of all religious doctrine.
Vivekananda was also celebrated for his synthesis of the four yogic paths as routes for spiritual ascension: jnana, bhakti, raja, and karma yoga.
His Teaching Philosophies
The spiritual and philosophical context of his teachings reside in the below sources:
#1: Advaita Vedanta
A proponent of Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, which outlines the core Hindu teaching that there is in fact no soul, but a temporary projection (Atman) of the non-dual state of universal consciousness (Brahman). The “silver in the pearl” as Maharshi states.
#2: Brahmo Influence
His faith was tailored by a belief in a formless absolute God-essence, and rejection of idolatry and ritual.
In addition to the Vedantic basis of his teachings, Vivekananda’s philosophy was further shaped by his guru, Ramakrishna.
Ramakrishna taught that the divine essence was everywhere and in every human being. He emphasized that the best way to honor this divinity was through service with love and to promote social harmony.
British historian A. L. Basham states that Swami Vivekananda will be “in centuries to come, remembered as one of the main leaders of the modern world…”.
Here are some of the ways that Swami Vivekanda made a global impact in his lifetime:
#1: New Understanding of Religion
Swami Vivekananda interpreted religion as a template for a spiritual reality, shared by all humanity.
He reconciled religion and science by presenting religion as a scientific study of consciousness, complementary to science itself.
#2: New View of Man
Although we are now entering the age of data and artificial intelligence, the modern world has been dominated by humanism since the Industrial Revolution: a school of thought that regards humans as the subjects of their own thinking.
From a political and economic lens, humanism is manifest in structures like communism and capitalism.
From a spiritual perspective, humanism over the last two centuries has led us to become on one hand more ego-centric, and on the other hand more thoughtfully introspective.
Swami Vivekananda’s impact on this era has been the foundation of “spiritual humanism,” where his explanation of the divine nature of humans has contributed to the modern interest in spiritual practices like mindfulness, yoga, and self-exploration.
#3: Bridge between the East and the West
Swami Vivekananda brought together Eastern and Western culture in his diplomatic fusion of Hindu scripture and Western philosophy.
His main point was that Indian spirituality could benefit the West, and contribute as a main cultural player on the world stage. These sentiments were shared worldwide in the collective psyche of humankind in the 20th century because of Vivekananda.
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