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Swami Vivekananda [1863-1902]

Swami Vivekananda The Swami Vivekananda [1863-1902] was a Bengali vedantist and an ardent, reform-minded nationalist. Vivekananda lectured for the first time from a public platform on September 19th 1893, and on July the 4th 1902, he passed away. No Hindu, for many years, had received such an ovation from his countrymen as Swami Vivekananda. The Vedic science movement began in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. In that famous address, he sought to present Hinduism not just as a fulfillment of all other religions, but also as a fulfillment of all science.

To Swami Vivekananda and his colleagues was due the revival of Vedantism in much its original form. Raja Rammohan Ray's Brahma Samaj was indeed a movement in the direction of a revived Vedantism, but under its subsequent leaders the movement soon became a thorough-going reform movement, leaving its old moorings and cutting off its connection with orthodoxy. Swami Vivekananda, though educated under the modern system, received his spiritual training under an orthodox Hindu devote, and was therefore imbued with a deep spirit of toleration and conservatism which all his foreign travels, education and experiences could not remove. The Swami was indeed, to some extent, a reformer. But his reform movement differed from the Brahma Samaj movement in retaining the monastic system for ministers of religion and a place for image-worship in popular devotions. It would not be too much to say that these conservative features of the movement contributed as much to its popularity as the ardour and ability of its leaders.

Before he became a monk, Swami Vivekananda's name was Narendranath Datta. He belongs to a respectable Kayastha family of Calcutta, and was born in 1863. He graduated in 1884 from the General Assembly's Institution. For a period he was connected with the Brahmo Samaj. He attended its services, and as he was gifted with a sweet voice, he sometimes joined the Samaj choir. Gradually he came under the influence of Paramhansa Ramkrishna of Dakshinesvar, a devotee who was held in universal esteem and whose influence over educated Bengalis was then on the ascendant. Narendra became the most favourite disciple of the Paramhansa and the latter built high hopes on his powers. Shortly after his master's death, Narendra became a monk and assumed the name by which he is known.

After some travel in the country, he was sent in 1893 by the Raja of Ramnad to the Chicago Parliament of Religions as a representative of Hinduism. He made a great impression by his utterances on the assembled representatives of various religions, and his popularity dates from this stage of his career. The World’s Parliament of Religions convened a gathering of resentatives of 10 different worldwide faith groups. The event, which ran for about two weeks, became a national sensation as a public course incomparative religions. At the Chicago Parliament of Religions in September 1893, the grandest arena in the world, the Swami declared that Christianity "with all its boasted civilization, is a collection of little bits from the Indian mind—the very patchy imitation."

Popular interest in yoga and Hindu philosophy in America grew after the extensive lecture tour by Swami Vivekananda starting in 1893, ending 1895. In 1896 he went to England and lectured there for some time on Vedantism. He returned to India next year and was received with great cordiality and enthusiasm by the citizens of Madras, Calcutta and other places. He then made a tour through the country and discoursed in several places on religious subjects. In 1899 he again visited England and the United States of America. At San Francisco he founded the Vedanta Society which his collegues has since kept up and which has done so much to spread Vedantism in America.

In 1900, Vivekananda said that "the conclusions of modern science are the very conclusions the Vedanta reached ages ago; only, in modern science they are written in the language of matter." In one lecture he claimed that: "Today we find wonderful discoveries of modern science coming upon us like bolts from the blue, opening our eyes to marvels we never dreamt of. But many of these are only re-discoveries of what had been found ages ago. It was only the other day that modern science discovered that what it calls heat, magnetism, electricity, and so forth, are all convertible into one unit force. But this has been done even in the Samhita."

Vivekananda’s deep knowledge of Hindu scriptures and of Western history and religions enabled him to see gaps in the Aryan edifice. In a lecture in USA, Vivekananda remarked scornfully: “And what your European Pandits say about the Aryans swooping down from some foreign land snatching away the land of aborigines and settling in India by exterminating them is all pure nonsense, foolish talk. Strange that our Indian scholars too say ‘Amen’ to them…. And all these monstrous lies are being taught to our boys.” (Vivekananda Complete Works, Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1963; Vol. V, p. 534-535).

A Hindu prophet is not always without honor in his own country. In 1900 Swami Vivekananda came back to India, has seen and conquered. Everywhere in southern India he has been received with more than royal acclaim. Triumphal arches have been erected; garlands innumerable have been hung upon his willing neck; his carriage has been unyoked from its horses and drawn by enthusiastic scholars and high dignitaries of the land, for is not he the great Brahman who has won the Western lands for Hinduism? Is not he the profound scholar, the eloquent orator, the astute diplomat, the master of assemblies, who, by waving his magic wand for a few months in Chicago, New York and London, has turned back the engulfing waters of Christianity, which threatened, only a few short years ago, to submerge the world— India included?

Vivekananda returned to India in 1900 with a broken health. He suffered from diabetes, which cut short the career of many a brilliant Bengali. It is also said that his yoga practices contributed not a little to undermining his health. He died in 1902 at his convent at Belur near Calcutta, mourned by the whole country and by hundreds of admirers in the West.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:14:01 ZULU