He came to be known as Swami Vivekananda only when he became a sannyasi or monk. His parents called him Narendra. His father was Vishwanatha Datta and his mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi. Narendra was born on 12th January 1863 in Calcutta. As a child he was very lively and naughty. When Narendra stepped into boyhood, his naughtiness grew. He was a natural leader of the children in the neighbourhood. His companions bowed to his decision always.
Once a landlord threatened the children saying, “There is a demon in the tree and he swallows children.” Narendra was not impressed by this threat. He settled down on a branch. The other boys took to their heels. Narendra waited for several hours, but the demon did not appear. So, he declared that the landlord’s story was a spoof. Narendra loved to tease his sisters. Meditation, too, was a sport to him. But as he meditated he became oblivious of the whole world. Not even a lizard or a snake moving near him could disturb his concentration.
Narendra’s father was a lawyer. So every day his house used to be crowded with his clients belonging to different castes. The house was like an inn; the clients had breakfast and lunch there. It was the custom to provide the guests with hukkas (long pipes) to smoke after food. There was a different pipe for clients of each caste. Narendra wondered what would happen if he smoked the pipe meant for people of a different caste. Finally he experimented. Nothing untoward happened. He concluded that caste had no meaning.
By 1880, Narendra passed his Matriculation and Entrance Examination. He joined a college. Day by day, his thirst for knowledge increased.. He was particularly fascinated by the secrets of God’s. creation.
Sri Ramakrishna was a priest in the temple of Goddess Kali. He was not a scholar. But he was a great devotee. It was being said of him that he had realized God. Scholars who went to him became his disciples. Once, Narendra went with his friends to Dakshineswar to see him. Sri Ramakrishna sat surrounded by his disciples; he was immersed in discussions about God. Narendra sat in a corner with his friends. All at once Sri Ramakrishna’s eyes turned to him. Sri Ramakrishna’s mind was in a turmoil. He was thrilled.
Memories of an earlier meeting seemed to stir in him. For some time he sat still as if in a trance. Narendra’s attractive figure and shining eyes filled him with wonder. “Can you sing?” he asked Narendra. Narendra sang a couple of Bangali songs in a melodious voice. As he listened to the music, the Bhagavan went into a trance. After some time he took Narendra into a room. He patted Narendra on the back and said, “MY child, why are you so late? I have grown weary, waiting for you all these days. I wanted to share my experiences with the right person. You are not an ordinary man. You are Lord Vishnu in human form. Do you know how much I have been craving for you?” And he broke down.
Sri Ramakrishna’s behaviour puzzled Narendra. He thought the elderly man was mad. “Will you come again? Promise me you will”, pleaded Ramakrishna. Eager to escape from him, Narendra said, “Yes.” After the Bhagavan finished his discourse Narendra asked him, “Have you seen God ?” “Of course I have. I have seen him just as I’ m looking at you. I have even talked to him. I can show him to you. But who is yearning to see God?” replied Ramakrishna. Narendra said to himself, “Till today no one had told me he had seen God. This man looks mentally deranged; possibly he is even mad. However, it is not proper to judge without investigating.”.
A month passed. Narendra went alone to Dakshineswar. Ramakrishna was resting on a cot in his room. He was pleased to see Narendra; he made him sit on his cot. He went into a trance and put his leg on Narendra’s lap. Narendra forgot the outer world. He felt that he was dissolving. He shouted, ‘What’s this you are doing to me? My parents are still alive. I should go back to them.” Smilingly Sri Ramakrishna said, “Enough for today,’ and drew back his lap. Narendra became normal once again.
Gradually Narendra turned towards renunciation, giving up all worldly desires. The parents came to know of this. He was then studying for his B. A. degree examination. They planned to bring him back to worldly life through marriage. Sri Ramakrishna became unhappy on hearing this. He advised Narendra that if bound by family ties, he would not be able to serve mankind. At times, Narendra would lose faith in Ramakrishna’s teaching; at such times Ramakrishna would first touch him with his hands. Then Narendra would lose contact with the world around. When he regained consciousness he would surrender to his Guru’s teaching. Thus the Guru gradually gifted all his powers to the disciple.
In 1884, Narendra passed the B. A. degree examination. A friend of his hosted a party. As Narendra was singing at the party, the news of his father’s death came like a bolt from the blue.
Poverty hit the family immediately after the father’s death. The money-lenders began to harass the family. Some of them even went to a court of law. Narendra wandered far and wide looking for a job. His clothes were tattered and torn; and it was difficult even to get one meal a day. Many a day he fasted so that -his mother and his brothers and sisters might have something to eat. He would tell them that he had eaten with a friend. Sometimes he would faint with hunger and fall down in the street. But in spite of such overwhelming misfortune he never lost faith in God. Sri Ramakrishna would console him saying “You are here to serve mankind and do mother Kali’s work. You should be brave.”
As a sannyasi, one cannot be tied to a particular place. Even the Mutt is a kind of a prison. Attachment to a particular place is also wrong. It was the great good fortune of India that Narendra took to sannyasa and became ‘Vivekananda’. Bharat became his home and its inhabitants his brothers.
Swami ji next visited Ramanad. Bhaskara Setupati was the ruler of Ramanad at that time. He discussed with Swamiji the problems that the country was facing. The prince treated him with great respect. “You should attend the Conference of World Religions in America. I shall bear all your travel expenses,” said the ruler. Assuring the prince that he would give serious thought to his suggestion, Swamiji went to Rameshwaram and from there he finally reached Kanyakumari. He swam to a rock and sat on it. Surrounded there by the sea, he reflected on the state of affairs in India. The thought of the poverty of the masses in this country made him miserable. He decided that unless casteism was rooted out, there could be no salvation for his countrymen. He concluded that his first task was to go to Western countries and expose the spiritual values of India. He would then return to awaken his own slumbering land.
It was in Madras that the little lamp that appeared in Bengal’s Narendra became the blazing light of all India as Vivekananda. It was there that pressure mounted on him to go to America. The fame he won in Madras travelled to Hyderabad. Thousands gathered at the meeting addressed by him there. it was the first ever public meeting addressed by Swamiji. After he returned to Madras from Hyderabad, he started making preparations for his tour abroad. Contributions towards his travel expenses poured in from all parts of the country. But he kept with him only as much money as he needed for the journey. He returned the rest of the money to the donors. The ship set sail from the Bombay harbour on 31st May, 1893.
Swamiji reached the city of Chicago in the middle of July. On his way he touched at the ports of Colombo, Singapore, Hongkong and Tokyo. Since Chicago was a big city and very expensive, Swamiji moved to the nearby city of Boston. On the way he met a lady. She was from Boston. She was amazed at Swamiji’s strange attire, his magnificent physique, and his bright eyes. She decided that he was no ordinary man. She begged Swamiji to be her guest. He agreed. Occasionally he addressed meetings at small clubs. The subject of his talk was Indian Culture and the Hindu Dharma. Gradually many scholars became his friends. One of them was John Henry Wright. He was professor of Greek at Harvard University. He was greatly impressed by Swamiji’s scholarship.
The delegates to the Conference of World Religions had to submit their letters of introduction to the organisers. But Swamiji had lost his letter of introduction. Wright himself wrote the letter of introduction, in which he called Swamiji “A scholar who surpasses all of us professors.” .
Swamiji went back to Chicago. When he reached the city he found that he had lost the addresses of some people. The people of the city were mostly Germans and could not understand English. As a consequence, Swamiji could not stir out. Finding no way out, Swamiji curled himself in an empty box which was lying in the railway station. The next morning he wandered about in the streets.
Unable to bear his hunger, he begged for aims at some houses. He could not get anything. On the contrary he was insulted and humiliated. He was sitting on the footsteps of a playground. A lady came out of a house facing the playground and asked him, “Are you a delegate to the conference of World Religions?” The Swamiji replied, ‘Yes’. The lady said, “Please come to my house. You can bathe and have food. Then I shall take you to the Conference.” Her name was Mrs. George Hails.
The conference started on 11th September, 1893. Thousands of delegates belonging to different countries of the world had gathered at the conference. Vivekananda was the youngest of them all. When it was his turn to speak, his heart was pounding. His throat went dry. Besides, he did not have, like the other delegates, a prepared speech. He requested the President to let him be the last speaker, His turn did come as the last speaker, He prayed fervently to Sri Ramakrishna and Mother Sharadadevi, and stood up to speak. When he began his address in his pleasing voice with the words “Brothers and Sisters of America,” there was a thunderous applause; it lasted for a full three minutes. When it subsided at last he continued his short speech. He said that people born in different religions finally reach the same God, as rivers born in different places finally reach the sea. He emphatically declared that no religion is superior and none is inferior. The delegates, every one of them, praised his speech.
“He speaks without a scrap of paper in his hand. We see in him some of the qualities of Jesus himself. A strange attire, a radiant personality, a rare elegance, the skill to epitomize Hinduism superbly – with these gifts he has won the hearts of our people. He is mesmeric. He is unsurpassed in conversation. His mastery of English is exceptional. A man like him appears only once in an age. We are fortunate that we can see him and hear him,” – thus the newspapers went into raptures.
Although Swamiji is no longer with us, his words live. His message has continued to inspire millions of his countrymen.