By Shivi Verma June 2013 On the 150th anniversary of one of India’s greatest sons, Swami Vivekananda, Shivi Verma assesses his deathless legacy and traces his influence among today’s generation Vivekananda. Hardly has there been an idealistic person who has not been inspired by the aching youthfulness and revolutionary zeal of this iconic figure. His flaming patriotism, conviction in universal brotherhood, worship of God in the weak and downtrodden, and dynamic, forward marching spirituality have made him one of the most towering icons of modern times. Best remembered for his Chicago speech that started with ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, and which roused a standing ovation unprecedented in history, he still remains one of the most popular role models of our times. How many have dreamed of modelling themselves around this enigmatic personality! Today, 150 years since his birth, he stays as irresistibly attractive to young men and women , as he had been to the youth of the world in his time. I became aware of this legend at the age of eight, when I casually bought an old, thin, worn-out, paperback edition of his life history from a nondescript shop near a temple. He became a habit. Almost every night before going to bed, I would read an excerpt and imagine myself as the child Vivekananda. I would close my eyes and pretend to see the same colorful concentric circles forming in the center of my forehead as they had formed on Narendra’s. I would romanticize about becoming a gre at leader whose trail would be followed by thousands and who would re-establish the rule of truth and dharma in this world. He fired in me an ardor no matinee idol could kindle. Perhaps this was the aim and purpose of Vivekananda’s advent: To leave such a deep impact on society that his vision will continue to affect generations. Two principles solidly became the foundation of my conduct, and they were honesty and idealism. I strongly felt that unless youth was spent in the service of humanity, it was a wasted youth. Life and times Though his life story is so popular that it does not merit repetition, it is only befitting to recap the milestones of his inspiring life. Known in his pre-monastic life as Narendra Nath Datta, he was born in an affluent family in Kolkata on January 12, 1863. His father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney with interests in a wide range of subjects, and his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, was endowed with deep devotion, strong character and other qualities. A precocious boy, Narendra excelled in music, gymnastics and studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history. Born with a yogic temperament, he used topracticemeditation from boyhood, and was associated with the Brahmo Movement. At the threshold of youth, Narendra passed through a spiritual crisis when he was assailed by doubts about the existence of God. It was at that time that he first heard about Sri Ramakrishna from one of his English professors at college. One day in November 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who stayed at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He straightaway asked the master, “Have you seen God?” Sri Ramakrishna replied: “Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only with more intensity.” Apart from removing doubts from the mind of Narendra, Sri Ramakrishna won him over through his pure, unselfish love. Thus began a guru-disciple relationship quite unique in the history of spirituality. At Dakshineshwar, Narendra also met several young men who were devoted to Sri Ramakrishna, and they all became close friends. After a few years his father died suddenly in 1884. This left the family penniless, and the responsibility of supporting his mother, brothers and sisters fell upon him. Soon after that, Sri Ramakrishna was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. The young disciples nursed the master with devoted care. In spite of poverty and inability to find a job, Narendra joined the group as its leader. One day, Sri Ramakrishna distributed ochre robes among them and sent them out to beg for food. In this way he laid the foundation of a new monastic order. In the small hours of August 16, 1886, Sri Ramakrishna gave up his mortal body. After the master’s passing, 16 of his young disciples formed a new monastic brotherhood, and in 1887 they took the formal vows of sanyasa, thereby assuming new names. Narendra now became Swami Vivekananda. Discovery of India In the middle of 1890, he left Baranagar Math and embarked on a long journey of exploration and discovery of India. During his travels, Swami Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the appalling poverty and backwardness of the masses. Vivekananda concluded that owing to centuries of oppression, the masses had lost faith in their capacity to improve their lot. It was necessary to imbue into their minds faith in themselves through life-giving, inspiring messages. He found this message in the doctrine of the potential divinity of the soul, taught in Vedanta, the ancient system of religious philosophy of India. He saw that the masses clung to religion, but had never been taught the life-giving principles of Vedanta and how to apply them in practical life. The Belur Math: Standing testimony to LVivekananda’s commitment to human upliftment One thing became clear to Vivekananda; in order to uplift the poor masses and women through education, an efficient organisation of dedicated people was needed. He wanted to set in motion, machinery which will bring the noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest. While these ideas were taking shape in his mind in the course of his wanderings, Vivekananda heard about the World Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893. His friends and admirers in India urged him to attend it. He too felt that the Parliament would provide the right forum to present Ramakrishna’s message to the world. Vivekananda, however, wanted an inner certitude and an assurance that his mission was nothing less than a divine call. Both of these he got while he sat in deep meditation on the rock island at Kanyakumari. He set sail for America from Mumbai on May 31, 1893. His speech at the World Parliament of Religions held in September 1893 made him famous as an ‘orator by divine right’ and as the ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world.’ After the Parliament, Vivekananda spent nearly three-and-a-half years spreading Vedanta as lived and taught by Sri Ramakrishna, mostly in the Eastern parts of USA and also in London. He returned to India in January 1897. In response to the enthusiastic welcome that he received everywhere, he delivered a series of lectures in different parts of India, which created a great stir all over the country. Through these inspiring and profoundly significant lectures, Vivekananda roused the consciousness of the people and created in them, pride in their cultural heritage. He brought about unification of Hinduism by pointing out the common basis of its sects and focused the attention of educated people on the plight of the downtrodden masses. He expounded his plan for their upliftment by the application of the principles of practical Vedanta. Soon after his return to Kolkata, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission on May 1, 1897. The various missions soon became an avenue through which monks and lay people would jointly undertake propagation of practical Vedanta, and various forms of social service, such as running hospitals, schools, colleges, hostels, and rural development centers. In addition, they conducted massive relief and rehabilitation work for victims of earthquakes, cyclones and other calamities, in different parts of India and other countries. In early 1898, Swami Vivekananda acquired a big plot of land on the Western bank of the Ganga in Belur, and got it registered as the Ramakrishna Math. Here he established a new, universal pattern of monastic life which adapted ancient monastic ideals to the conditions of modern life. It gives equal importance to personal illumination and social service, and is open to all men without any distinction of religion, race or caste. “So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them,” he said. Last Days In June 1899, he went to the West on a second visit. There he spent most of his time in the West coast of USA. After delivering many lectures there, he returned to Belur Math in December 1900. The rest of his life was spent in inspiring and guiding people. Incessant, untiring work of relentless guiding, speaking, motivating people took a toll on Swamiji’s health and he passed away on July 4, 1902. Before his Mahasamadhi, he had written to a Western follower: “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere until the whole world shall know that it is one with God.” Quite true. Young Vivekananda sowed the seeds of India’s liberation through the high values birthed from her own soil and awakened the Western world to the immense spiritual knowledge of the East. The coming leaders built the edifice of India, on the foundation of spiritual and ethical values propounded by Vivekananda as her fundamental make-up. His focus on the scientific study of religion created a bridge between the East and the West, which were poles apart on these matters. While it compelled the Western man to consider the human possibility of attaining godhood, it unshackled the Eastern man from enslavement to rituals, dogmas, and stratified thinking. The Hindu soul, long suppressed into self-deprecation
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