Swami Vivekananda, considered to be a major force in the revival of Hinduism in modern India, was the chief disciple of the 19th century saint Ramakrishna Paramahansa and the founder of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission. Swamiji is considered a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western World, primarily to America and Europe. He is also credited with propagating inter faith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the end of the 19th century. Swami Vivekananda is best known for his inspiring speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 where he started with “Sisters and Brothers of America”. He used this forum to introduce Hinduism to the west.
Early Life of Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda was born to Shri Vishwanath Dutta and Smt Bhuvaneshwari Devi in Calcutta on Monday, 12 January 1863. His original name was Narendra Dutta. The Dutta family was rich, respectable and renowned for charity, learning and a strong spirit of independence.
As a child Narendra was very lively and naughty. He was good in studies as well as in games. He had varied interest and a wide range of scholarship in philosophy, religion, history, social sciences, arts & Literature. Apart from his studies, he also took interest in Hindu scriptures like the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He was well versed in classical music, both vocal and instrumental. Since boyhood, he took an active interest in physical exercise (yoga), sports and other organizational activities. During his childhood, he had a great fascination for wandering ascetics and monks. He used to offer them all that he had with him, whenever he came across such people. He had the spirit of sacrifice and renunciation since his early days. He questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discrimination based on caste and refused to accept anything without any logical proof since his childhood days. By the time he graduated from Calcutta University, he had acquired a vast knowledge of different subjects, especially Western philosophy and history.
Meeting with Ramakrishna – turning point in Swami Vivekananda’s life
Narendranath’s meeting with Ramakrishna in November 1881 proved to be a turning point in his life. The spiritual influence of Sri Ramakrishna changed him completely and later he became one of his chief disciples.
Swami Vivekananda played a major role in spiritual enlightenment of Indian masses; Spread Vedanta philosophy in the West; established Ramakrishna Mission and Ramakrishna Matha for the service of the poor.
Vivekananda was the first known Hindu Swami to visit the West, where he introduced the Eastern thought at the World’s Parliament of Religions, in connection with the World’s Fair in Chicago, in 1893. He rose into fame when he delivered a speech which put India at the world stage, and he was well taken and appreciated not just in Chicago, but elsewhere in America as well. His short speech voiced the spirit of the Parliament and its sense of universality. Unstoppable thereafter, he spiritually conquered the colonial conquerors of India. Swamiji won the heart of millions of world audiences with his matchless intellect and oratory.
Swamiji’s Contributions to India
From time immemorial, India had a strong sense of cultural unity in spite of her numerous languages, race, cultures, traditions, historical and regional diversities. It was, however, Swami Vivekananda who revealed the true foundations of this culture and thus clearly defined and strengthened the sense of unity as a nation.
Swami Vivekananda showed light of hope to a nation that had lost faith in its ability under hundreds of years of Mugal rule and the British rule. He inspired self-confidence among Indians and his words and masterful oratory inspired the wake up of the slumbering nation’s nationalism and spirituality. He instilled the sense of pride and nationalism among the Indians. Furthermore, he pointed out to Indians the drawbacks of Western culture and the need for India’s contribution to overcome these drawbacks. In this way Swamiji made India a nation with a global mission.
Swamiji’s Contributions to Hinduism
Swami Vivekanand gave a clear identity and a distinct profile to Hinduism or the Sanatan Dharma. Before Swamiji’s period, Hinduism was a loose confederation of many different sects and sections. Swamiji was the first religious leader to speak about the common bases of Hinduism and the common ground of all sects.
He raised his voice in defence of Hinduism. In fact, this was one of the main types of work he did in the West. Christian missionary propaganda had given a wrong understanding of Hinduism and India in Western minds. Swamiji had to face a lot of opposition in his attempts to defend Hinduism.
At the end of the 19th century, India in general, and Hinduism in particular, faced grave challenges from Western materialistic life, the ideas of Western free society, and the proselytizing activities of Christians. Vivekananda met these challenges by integrating the best elements of Western culture in Hindu culture.
A major contribution of Vivekananda to Hinduism is the rejuvenation and modernization of monasticism. In this new monastic ideal, Vivekananda elevated social service to the status of divine service. Vivekananda did not only interpret ancient Hindu scriptures and philosophical ideas in terms of modern thought. He also added several illuminating original concepts based on his own transcendental experiences and vision of the future.
Vivekananda’s contributions to World Culture
One of the most significant contributions of Swami Vivekananda to the modern world is his analysis of religion as a universal experience of supreme reality, common to all humanity. Swamiji met the challenge of modern science by showing that religion is as scientific as science itself; religion is the ‘science of consciousness’. As such, religion and science are not contradictory to each other but are complementary. This universal conception frees religion from the hold of superstitions, dogmatism, priest craft and intolerance, and makes religion the highest and noblest pursuit – the pursuit of supreme Freedom, supreme Knowledge, supreme Happiness.
Another great contribution of Swami Vivekananda was to build a bridge between Indian culture and Western culture. He did it by interpreting Hindu scriptures and Vedanta philosophy to the Western people in an idiom which they could understand. He made the Western people realize that they had to learn much from Indian spirituality for their own well-being. He showed that, in spite of her poverty and backwardness, India had a great contribution to make to world culture. In this way he was instrumental in ending India’s cultural isolation from the rest of the world. He was India’s first great cultural ambassador to the West. He was thus a living embodiment of sacrifice and dedicated his whole life to the country and yearned for the progress for the poor, the helpless and the downtrodden. His life and message has touched and transformed the lives of millions of people across the world. His greatness will be remembered forever.