As Narendra Nath Datta, Swami Vivekananda was the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. It was Swami Vivekananda who was to carry Ramakrishna’s teachings to the West, and who established the Ramakrishna Order, which today extends over all of India, rendering invaluable service through its numerous charitable and cultural institutions. Narendra, or Naren as he was known, was born on 12 January 1863 in Calcutta into a Kshatriya family. Like many other members of the modernizing Bengali middle-class, he was an easy convert to the then dominant philosophies of utilitarianism and social evolutionism associated with John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, respectively, and was, in the fashion of the day, a keen agnostic. Likewise, he subscribed to the reformist ideals of the Brahmo Samaj. He was a student at the University of Calcutta and 18 years old when he met Ramakrishna for the first time in 1881. He visited Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar a few weeks later, and Ramakrishna is reported to have said, “How is it possible that such a great spiritual aspirant can live in Calcutta, the home of the worldly- minded?” Naren says that Ramakrishna took him aside: his eyes were streaming with tears of joy, and with great affection he spoke to Naren as though they had always known each other, “You’ve come so late! Was that right? Couldn’t you have guessed how I’ve been waiting for you? My eyes are nearly burned off, listening to the talk of these worldly people.”
Naren’s doubt about Ramakrishna would not disappear, and perhaps he feared that he would be drawn into the orbit of his lofty spiritual presence. Not until a month had elapsed did he return to Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna was in a “strange mood”, Naren was to relate, and he was apprehensive that Ramakrishna would once again enact something crazy. Indeed, no sooner had that thought passed through his mind than Ramakrishna placed his foot on Naren’s body, and Naren at once had a “wonderful experience.” Naren was to add:
My eyes were wide open, and I saw that everything in the room, including the walls themselves, was whirling rapidly around and receding, and at the same time, it seemed to me that my consciousness of self, together with the entire universe, was about to vanish into a vast, all-devouring void. This destruction of my consciousness of self seemed to me to be the same thing as death. I felt that death was right before me, very close. Unable to control myself, I cried out loudly, ‘Ah, what are you doing to me? Don’t you know I have my parents at home?’ When the Master heard this, he gave a loud laugh. Then, touching my chest with his hand, he said, ‘All right — let it stop now. It needn’t be done all at once. It will happen in its own good time.’ To my amaze- ment, this extraordinary vision of mine vanished as suddenly as it had come. I returned to my normal state and saw things inside and outside the room standing stationary, as before.
Narendra (now Vivekananda) emerged as Ramakrishna’s favorite disciple, the chosen one, and at the master’s death he was to lead the Order. He established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1892 to propagate the master’s teachings, and a year later he decided to take these teachings to the West. Vivekananda appeared in Chicago as the sole representative of Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. The handsome “turbaned monk from India” immediately attracted attention, and he gained a distinguished following during his stay. While turning down an offer from Harvard to teach Indian religions and philosophy, Vivekananda lectured widely on the east coast and in the mid- West, and also took trips to England and France. He had a triumphal return to Calcutta in 1897, and he was to supervise the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission. He presided over the construction of the Mission’s new headquarters at Belur Math. Vivekananda died on 4 July 1902.
Vivekananda is these days routinely described as a ‘hero of modern India’. He is reported to have said, in response to a query about why India was under colonial rule, that India needed to pay more attention to the three B’s: beef, biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita. Though Ramakrishna was undoubtedly a bhakta or devotee, Vivekananda himself appears more as a karma yogi, and he was inclined to interpret Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna as call for Indians to renew their masculinity and act with energy. In the nineteenth century, ‘physical culture’ acquired a new-found prominence in Bengal, and there was a widespread belief that vigorous exercise, as much as the eating of meat, would provide a fresh burst of life to what Macaulay had described as the ‘feeble constitution’ of the Bengali. It is certainly arguable that Vivekananda ascribed to the colonial representation of the Bengali/India as a man given to effeminacy and without the ‘manly’ characteristics so highly esteemed in Victorian England, just as he perceived that Indian spirituality had been reduced to devotionalism. On the other hand, the dichotomy of Western materialism and Eastern spirituality appears often in his voluminous writings, and it informed the lectures with which he regaled his audiences in the West. It is no accident that he is now trumpeted as a figure consonant with India’s aspirations to be a strong nation-state, and that his devotion to the motherland is summoned as a model to India’s youth. Vivekananda may not have been without a vision of India’s spiritual conquest of the world, and it is perhaps as a testament to that highly problematic vision, which would embrace the idea of a ‘Greater India’, that India recently built the Vivekananda Rock Memorial just south of Kanyakumari, India’s southern most tip. Among diasporic Hindus, likewise, Vivekananda — far more so than his master, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa — remains a favorite figure, and his pictures and statues adorn Hindu homes and cultural centers in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Trinidad, Fiji, and elsewhere.
Christopher Isherwood. Ramakrishna and His Disciples (1950; reprint ed., New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone Books, 1965).
Swami Vivekananda. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram), 8 vols.