Please visit my earlier blog "Swami Vivekananda's Speech - The World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893" for more information on Swami Vivekananda. Here is the link to the website containing various works of Swami Vivekananda:
He had varied interests and a wide range of scholarship in philosophy, history, the social sciences, arts, literature, and other subjects. He evinced much interest in scriptural texts, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He was also well versed in classical music, both vocal and instrumental. Since his childhood, he took an active interest in physical exercise, sports, and other organizational activities. Even when he was young, he questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discrimination based on caste, creed and religion. Narendranath's mother played a very important role in his spiritual development. One of the sayings of his mother that Narendranath (later Swami Vivekananda) quoted often in his later years was, "Remain pure all your life; guard your own honor and never transgress the honor of others. Be very tranquil, but when necessary, harden your heart." He reportedly was adept in meditation and (reportedly) would see a light while falling asleep. He is believed to have had a vision of Lord Buddha during his meditation.
Narendranath started his education at home, later he was admitted to Metropolitan Institution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in 1871 and in 1879 he passed the Entrance Examination. He entered the first year Arts class of Presidency College, Calcutta in January 1880 and the next year he shifted to Scottish Church College, Calcutta. During the course, he studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations. In 1881, he passed the Fine Arts examination and in 1884, he passed the Bachelor of Arts. According to his professors, student Narendranath was a prodigy - Dr. William Hastie, the principal of Scottish Church College, where he studied during 1881-84, 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." He was regarded as a 'srutidhara' - a man with prodigious memory. From his childhood, he showed inclination towards spirituality, an understanding/realisation of God and realizing the highest spiritual truths. He studied different religious and philosophical systems of the East and the West; he met different religious leaders. He came under the influence of the 'Brahmo Samaj,' an important socio-religious organization of that time. His initial beliefs were shaped by the Brahmo Samaj, which believed in the concept that God is without form, deprecated the worship of idols and devoted itself to socio-religious reforms. He met the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj - 'Maharshi' Devendranath Tagore, Keshub Chandra Sen, among others, questioning them about the existence of God, but he could not get convincing answers. Narendranath is said to have studied the writings of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Baruch Spinoza, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. He became fascinated with the Evolutionism of Herbert Spencer, and translated Spencer’s book on Education into Bengali for Gurudas Chattopadhyaya, his publisher. Narendra also had an exchange of correspondence with Herbert Spencer for some time. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works. His first introduction to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa occurred during a literature class, where he heard Mr. Hastie - the Principal of Scottish Church College lecturing on William Wordsworth's poem "The Excursion" and the poet's nature - 'mysticism.' In the course of explaining the word 'trance' in the poem, Mr. Hastie told his students that if they wanted to know the real meaning of it, they should go to Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar. This prompted some of his students, including Narendranath to visit Sri Ramakrishna.
With Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: His meeting with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in his life. About this meeting, Narendranath said, "He (Sri Ramakrishna) looked just like an ordinary man, with nothing remarkable about him. He used the most simple language and I thought 'Can this man be a great teacher?' - I crept near to him and asked him the question which I had been asking others all my life: "Do you believe in God, Sir?" "Yes," he replied. "Can you prove it, Sir?" "Yes." "How?" "Because I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much intense sense." That impressed me at once. I began to go to this man, day after day, and I actually saw that religion could be given. One touch, one glance, can change a whole life." Though Narendranath could not accept Sri Ramakrishna and his visions, he could not neglect him either. It had always been in Narendra's nature to test everything thoroughly before he would accept it. He tested Sri Ramakrishna, who never asked Narendranath to abandon reason, and faced all of Narendra's arguments and examinations with patience - "Try to see the truth from all angles" was his reply. During the course of five years of his training under Sri Ramakrishna, Narendra was transformed from a restless, puzzled, impatient youth to a mature man who was ready to renounce everything for the sake of spiritualism and the realization of God. In time, Narendranath accepted Sri Ramakrishna, and when he accepted, his acceptance was whole-hearted.
In 1885, Sri Ramakrishna suffered from throat cancer and was shifted to Calcutta (now Kolkata) and later to Cossipore. Vivekananda and his brother (fellow) disciples took care of Sri Ramakrishna during his final days. His spiritual education under Sri Ramakrishna continued here. At Cossipore, Vivekananda reportedly experienced 'Nirvikalpa Samadhi.' During the last days of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and some of the other disciples received the ochre monastic robes from Sri Ramakrishna, which formed the first monastic order of Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda was taught that service to mankind was the most effective worship of God. It is reported that when Vivekananda, doubted Sri Ramakrishna's claim of 'avatara,' Ramakrishna reportedly said, "He who was Rama, He who was Krishna, He himself is now Ramakrishna in this body." During his final days, Sri Ramakrishna asked Vivekananda to take care of other monastic disciples and in turn asked them to look upon Vivekananda as their leader. Sri Ramakrishna's condition gradually worsened and he expired in the early morning hours of August 16, 1886 at the Cossipore garden house. According to his disciples, this was 'Mahasamadhi.' After their 'Guru' passed away, the monastic disciples led by Vivekananda formed a fellowship at a semi-ruined house at Baranagar near the holy river Ganga, with the financial assistance of a few other disciples. This became the first 'Math' or 'monastery' of the disciples who constituted the first 'Ramakrishna Order.'
Parivrâjaka - Wandering monk: In 1888, Vivekananda 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." His sole possessions were a 'kamandalu' (an oblong water pot usually with a handle and sometimes with a spout - often used for storing drinking water by ascetics or yogis), a staff (a large, thick stick used to help with walking) and his two favorite books - the 'Bhagavad Gita' and 'The Imitation of Christ.' Narendranath travelled the length and breadth of India for five years, visiting important centers of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life. He developed a sympathy for the suffering and poverty of the masses and resolved to uplift the nation. Living mainly on 'Bhiksha' or 'alms,' Narendranath traveled mostly on foot and railway tickets bought by his admirers whom he met during his travels. During these travels, he gained acquaintance and stayed with scholars, Dewans, Rajas and people from all walks of life. At Varanasi, he met pandit and Bengali writer, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay and Trailanga Swami, a famous saint who lived in a Shiva temple while at Ahmedabad he completed his studies of Mohammedan and Jain culture.
At Delhi, after visiting historical places he journeyed towards Alwar, in the historic land of Rajputana. Later he journeyed to Jaipur, where he studied Panini's 'Ashtadhyayi' from a Sanskrit scholar. He next travelled to Ajmer, where he visited the palace of Akbar and the famous Dargah and left for Mount Abu. He later visited Junagadh, Girnar, Kutch, Porbander, Dwaraka, Palitana, Baroda. At Porbander he stayed for three quarters of a year, in spite of his vow as a wandering monk, to perfect his philosophical and Sanskrit studies with learned pandits; he worked with a court pandit who translated the 'Vedas.' At Kathiawar he heard of the 'Parliament of the World's Religions' and was urged by his followers there to attend it. In a Poona bound train he met Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He spent three days in the 'Rachol Seminary' - the oldest convent-college of theology of Goa where rare religious literature in manuscripts and printed works in Latin are preserved. He reportedly studied important Christian theological works here.
At Bangalore, the Swami became acquainted with Sir K. Seshadri Iyer, the Dewan of the Mysore state, and later he stayed at the palace as guest of the Maharaja of Mysore, Shri Chamarajendra Wadiyar. Regarding the Swamiji's knowledge, Sir Seshadri reportedly remarked, "a magnetic personality and a divine force which were destined to leave their mark on the history of his country." The Maharaja provided the Swami with a letter of introduction to the Dewan of Cochin and got him a railway ticket. From Bangalore, he visited Trichur, Kodungalloor and Ernakulam. At Ernakulam, he met Chattambi Swami, the 'Guru' of Narayana Guru in early December 1892. From Ernakulam, he travelled to Trivandrum, Nagercoil and reached Kanyakumari on foot during the Christmas Eve of 1892. At Kanyakumari, the Swami reportedly meditated on the "last bit of Indian rock," now known famously as the 'Vivekananda Rock Memorial' for three days. At Kanyakumari, Vivekananda reportedly had the "Vision of one India". 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 used 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."
From Kanyakumari he visited Madurai, where he met the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Setupati, for whom he had a letter of introduction. The Raja became the Swami's disciple and urged him to go to the 'Parliament of Religions' at Chicago. From Madurai, he visited Rameshwaram, Pondicherry and then travelled to Madras (now Chennai). Here, he met some his most devoted disciples, like Alasinga Perumal and G.G. Narasimhachari, among others who played important roles in collecting funds for his voyage to America and later in establishing the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras (now Chennai). From Madras (Chennai) he travelled to Hyderabad. With the aid of the funds collected by his Madras (Chennai) disciples and the Rajas (rulers) of Mysore, Ramnad, Khetri; Dewans, and other followers the Swamiji left for Chicago on 31 May, 1893 from Bombay (now Mumbai) assuming the name Vivekananda - the name suggested by the Maharaja of Khetri.
The World's Parliament of Religions: Vivekananda traveled to America to speak at a conference in Chicago that he had heard about called 'The World's Parliament of Religions.' His journey to America took him through China, Japan, Canada and he arrived at Chicago in July 1893. When he arrived, he discovered that not only had he come too early, but that he lacked proper papers to be a delegate. The authorities wouldn't recognize him. But Providence has its ways. He came in contact with Professor John Henry Wright, of the Greek Department at Harvard University and they spoke for hours. The Professor was so impressed that he insisted that his new friend should be the representative of 'Hinduism' at the 'World's Parliament of Religions.' On hearing that the Swami lacked proper credentials, he replied, "To ask you, Swami, for your credentials, is like asking the Sun to state its right to shine in the heavens." The Professor wrote a letter to a friend in charge of selecting the delegates saying, "Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned Professors put together." On the Professor, Vivekananda himself wrote, "He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation."
The Parliament of Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago. On this day Vivekananda gave his first brief address. He represented India and Hinduism. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and began his speech with the following words, "Sisters and brothers of America!" For these words he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name 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." And he quoted two illustrative passages in this relation, from the Bhagavad Gita - "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." Despite being a short speech, it voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality. Dr. Barrows, the President of the Parliament said, "India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors." He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as 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 wrote, "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." Swami Vivekananda was regarded as, "undoubtedly the greatest figure in the parliament of religions", "beyond question, the most popular and influential man in the parliament." He spoke several more times at the Parliament on topics related to Hinduism and Buddhism. The parliament ended on 27 September, 1893. All his speeches at the Parliament had one common theme - Universality and stressed upon religious tolerance.
His travels in America: In December, Vivekananda journeyed to Los Angeles, California where he continued speaking, often to large audiences. The Swami, as always, gave his message straight and without compromise. In a lecture called "Hints on Practical Spirituality," he said, "We should look upon each other in the most charitable light. It is not so easy to be good. You are good because you cannot help it. Another is bad because he cannot help it. If you were in his position, who knows what you would have been? The woman in the street or the thief in the jail is the Christ that is being sacrificed that you may be a good person. Such is the law of balance. All the thieves and the murderers, all the unjust, the weakest, the wickedest, the devils, they are all my Christ. That is my doctrine. I cannot help it. My salutation goes to the feet of the good , the saintly, and to the feet of the wicked and the devilish. They are all my teachers . As I see more of the world, see more of men and women, this conviction grows stronger. Whom shall I blame? Whom shall I praise? Both sides of the shield must be seen."
On Christmas day, the Swami lectured on "Christ's Message to the World." As Josephine MacLeod would later recount, "Perhaps the most outstanding lecture I heard was his talk on 'Jesus of Nazareth,' when he seemed to radiate a white light from head to foot, so lost was he in the wonder and power of Christ. I was so impressed with his obvious halo that I did not speak to him on the way back for fear of interrupting, as I thought, the great thoughts that were still in his mind. Suddenly he said to me, "I know how it is done." I said, "How what is done?" "How they make Mulligatawny soup! They put a bay leaf in it." In San Francisco, Swami Vivekananda was again busy as a public speaker, again speaking to large crowds while holding smaller classes for the more interested. It was a whirlwind schedule that tired him greatly but helped establish a solid foundation for the 'Vedanta' in America. Some of the lectures survive to this day - in printed form. A couple of his famous talks include, 'Christ the Messenger,' and 'Is Vedanta the Future Religion?' (a talk on the future of Vedanta Philosophy in America).
Of special importance to the West was his stress on what we call self-esteem. It is an important need in our daily lives, and in spiritual life. He said in his lecture 'Practical Vedanta' - "The ideal of faith in ourselves is of the greatest help to us. If faith in ourselves had been more extensively taught and practiced, I am sure a very large portion of the evils and miseries that we have would have vanished. Throughout the history of mankind, if any motive power has been more potent than another in the lives of all great men and women, it is that of faith in themselves. Born with the consciousness that they were to be great, they became great. Let a man go down as low as possible; there must come a time when out of sheer desperation he will take an upward curve and will learn to have faith in himself. But it is better for us that we should know it from the very first. Why should we have all these bitter experiences in order to gain faith in ourselves? We can see that all the difference between man and man is owing to the existence of non-existence of faith in himself. Faith in ourselves will do everything. I have experienced it in my own life, and am still doing so; and as I grow older that faith is becoming stronger and stronger. He is an atheist who does not believe in himself. The old religion said that he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself. But it is not selfish faith, because the 'Vedanta,' again, is the doctrine of oneness. It means faith in all, because you are all. Love for yourselves means love for all, love for animals, love for everything, for you are all one. It is the great faith which will make the world better."
Later in 1899, the Swami returned to America. Although his body was weak from so much lecturing and traveling, he continued to talk and give classes. In one instance, as described by a student, An old church lady asked him why he never spoke of sin. There came a look of surprise on the Swami's face. "But Madam," he said, "blessed are my sins. Through sin I have learned virtue. It is my sins as much as my virtues , that have made me what I am today. And now I am the preacher of virtue. Why do you dwell on the weak side of man's nature? Don't you know that the greatest blackguard often has some virtue that is wanting in the saint? There is only one power, and that power manifests itself both as good and as evil. God and the devil are the same river with the water flowing in opposite directions." The lady was horrified, but others understood. And then the Swami began to speak of the divinity that resides in everyone; how the soul is perfect, eternal, and immortal; the 'Atman' - the indwelling God, resides in every being.
Lecturing tours in America, England: During his first visit to America, he traveled to England twice - in 1895 and 1896. His lectures were successful there. Here, he met Miss Margaret Noble an Irish lady, who later became his disciple and took on the name Sister Nivedita (Nivedita meaning 'as one dedicated to God). During his second visit in May 1896, the Swami met Max Müller a renowned Indologist at Oxford University who was also the author of Sri Ramakrishna's first biography in the West. From England, he also visited other European countries. In Germany he met Paul Deussen, another famous Indologist. He also received two academic offers, the chair of Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University and a similar position at Columbia University. He declined both, saying that, as a wandering monk, he could not settle down to work of this kind.
From the West, he also set his Indian work in motion. Vivekananda wrote a stream of letters to India, giving advice and sending money to his followers and brother monks. His letters from the West laid down the motive of his campaign for social service. He constantly tried to inspire his close disciples in India to do something memorable. His letters to them contained some of his strongest words. Eventually in 1895, the periodical called 'Brahmavadin' was started in Madras (now Chennai), with the money sent by Vivekananda, for the purpose of teaching the Vedanta. Subsequenly, Vivekananda's translation of the first six chapters of "The Imitation of Christ" was published in Brahmavadin in 1889. Vivekananda left for India on 16 December, 1896 from England with his disciples, Capitan, Mrs. Sevier and J.J. Goodwin. On the way they visited France and Italy, having a look at Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," and set sail for India from the Port of Naples on December 30, 1896. Later, he was followed to India by Miss Muller and Sister Nivedita. Sister Nivedita devoted the rest of her life to the education of Indian women and the cause of India's independence.
Founding of Ramakrishna Math and Mission: On 1 May 1897, Vivekananda founded the "Ramakrishna Math" at Calcutta (now Kolkata) - the organ for propagating religion and "Ramakrishna Mission" - the organ for social service. This was the beginning of an organized socio-religious movement to help the masses through educational, cultural, medical and relief work. The ideals of the Ramakrishna Mission are based on Karma Yoga. Two monasteries were founded by him, one at Belur, near Kolkata, which became the Headquarters of Ramakrishna Math and Mission and the other at Mayavati on the Himalayas, near Almora called the Advaita Ashrama and later on a third monastery was established at Madras (now Chennai). Two journals were published, 'Prabuddha Bharata' in English and 'Udbhodan' in Bengali. The same year, the famine relief work was taken up by Swami Akhandananda at Murshidabad district.
A major day came in 1899 when the permanent headquarters of his brother monks, called the 'Ramakrishna Order of India,' was consecrated. He said to his disciples, "The history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within. You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently to manifest infinite power. As soon as a man loses faith in himself, death comes. Believe first in yourselves, and then in God. A handful of strong men will move the world. It is the salvation of others that you must seek; and even if you have to go to hell in working for others, that is worth more than to gain heaven by seeking your own salvation."
Vivekananda had inspired Sir Jamshetji Tata to set up a research and educational institution when they had travelled together from Yokohama to Chicago on the Swami’s first visit to the West in 1893. Around this time the Swami received a letter from Tata, requesting him to head the Research Institute of Science that Tata had set up. But Vivekananda declined the offer saying that it conflicted with his spiritual interests. He later visited Punjab, in Pakistan with the mission of establishing harmony between the 'Arya Samaj' which stood for reinterpreted Hinduism and the Sanatanaists who stood for orthodox Hinduism. At Rawalpindi, he suggested methods for rooting out antagonism between the Arya Samajists and the Muslims. His visit to Lahore is memorable for his famous speeches and his inspiring association with Tirtha Ram Goswami, then a brilliant Professor of Mathematics, who later embraced monasticism as Swami Rama Tirtha and preached Vedanta in India and America.
His last years: Vivekananda spent few of his days at Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati and later at the Belur Math. Henceforth, till the end he stayed at Belur Math, guiding the work of Ramakrishna Mission and Math and the work in England and America. Thousands of visitors came to him during these years including the Maharaja of Gwalior and in December 1901, the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress including Lokamanya Tilak. In December 1901, he was invited to Japan - to participate in the 'Congress of Religions,' however his failing health made it impossible. He undertook pilgrimages to Bodhgaya and Varanasi towards the last days of his life. His tours, hectic lecturing engagements, private discussions and correspondence took their toll on his health. He was suffering from Asthma, diabetes and other physical ailments. A few days prior to his demise, he was said to be studying the almanac quite intently. Three days before his demise he pointed out the spot for his cremation - the one at which a temple in his memory stands today. He had remarked to several persons that he would not live to be forty. In the morning - on the day of his death, he taught 'Shukla-Yajur-Veda' to some of his disciples at Belur Math. He had a walk with Swami Premananda, a brother-disciple, and gave him instructions concerning the future of the Ramakrishna Math. Vivekananda expired at ten minutes past nine on July 4, 1902 while meditating - at the age of 39. According to his disciples, this was 'Mahasamadhi.' His disciples are on record for having said that they had noticed "a little blood" in the Swami's nostrils, about his mouth and in his eyes. The doctors remarked that it probably was due to the rupture of a blood-vessel in the brain, but they could not find the real cause of the death. According to his disciples, Brahmarandhra - the aperture in the crown of the head must have been pierced when he attained Mahasamadhi. Vivekananda had fulfilled his own prophecy of not living to be forty-years old. Words that he uttered at another time come to mind to explain his death at such an early age, "It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body - to cast it off like a well-worn garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall come to know that it is one with God."
Swamiji was truely a spiritual genius of commanding intellect and power. He was a towering spiritual personality who awakened the slumbering Indian consciousness with his soul stirring vision of a dynamic spirituality. He is often viewed as the patron saint of modern India and many great figures acknowledge their debt to the life and works of Swami Vivekananda.
Note: "A Short Life of Swami Vivekananda," by Swami Tejasananda, "The Life of Swami Vivekananda" by his Eastern and Western Disciples and Wikipedia are the sources of information for this blog.