Vivekananda, Swami

Vivekananda, Swami
   founder of Vedanta Society and Ramakrishna Math and Mission
   Swami Vivekananda was a great teacher of Hin-duism for the modern world. His missionary work played a major role in the consolidation of ADVAITA VEDANTA in India and its spread to the West. He founded the VEDANTA SOCIETY in the United States and the RAMAKRISHNA MAT H AND MISSION in India.
   Narendranath Datta was born on January 12, 1863, in Calcutta (Kolkata), West Bengal, to aristocratic Bengali parents: Viswanath Dutta and Bhuvaneswari Devi. He meditated from a very early age and entertained spiritual ques-tions from childhood. His inquiries about God Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), founder of the Vedanta Society in the United States and the Rama-krishna Math and Mission in India led him as a youth to the BRAHMO SAMAJ, a reform movement founded by Rammohun ROY, but he was not satisfied with the spirituality of the movement.
   In November 1881, while studying at Cal-cutta University, he visited Sri RAMAKRISHNA, the famous mystic and priest at the KALI temple of Dakshineswar near Calcutta. Narendra was fas-cinated by Ramakrisha’s claim that he saw God clearly, and he wanted to know more. Although responsible for the care of his poverty-stricken family upon the death of his father, Narendra continued his work at the university and his study with Ramakrishna. He spent five years in training with Ramakrishna, during which he became committed to renouncing all of life in quest of God-realization. Ramakrishna died of throat cancer in August 1886. Then Narendra and a small group of Ramakrishna’s disciples took vows to become monks and renounce the world. In 1887 he took the vow of SANNYAS and became Swami Vivekananda (bliss of discernment).
   With some other young monks, Vivekananda wandered all over the subcontinent, begging for food and lodging. In his travels he learned first-hand of the imbalances in Indian society and the inhumanity of the CASTE system. He began to see the need for social service for millions of poor Indians, not traditionally an interest of spiritual seekers in India.
   In 1893 Vivekananda attended the WORLD PARLIAMENT OF RELIGIONS in Chicago, with the intent of representing the message of Hinduism to the West. He was the most popular speaker at the parliament, giving classical, erudite dis-positions on the nature and value of Hinduism, which excited many. From this success he began a tour of the United States, lecturing in the Midwest and New York City, where in 1895 he founded the Vedanta Society of New York, the first Hindu organization founded in the United States.
   Upon his return to India in 1897, he found that his success in the West had increased his renown. He gathered his brother monks and founded the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, whose very name emphasized Ramakrishna’s uni-fication of the monastic life with social service. He found a site for the monastery at Belur and began relief work in nearby Calcutta. He worked with SARADA DEVI, Sri Ramakrishna’s widow, to serve the poor. The Ramakrishna Math and Mis-sion is today one of the largest monastic orders in Hinduism.
   His teaching centered around advaita Vedanta and he constantly pointed to the identity of each person with the highest BRAHMAN. He believed that no one could be free until all are free. Even the desire for personal salvation should be relin-quished in favor of tireless work for the salvation of others.
   Vivekananda wanted to raise the inferior sta-tus of women in Hinduism by including them in spiritual life. He worked with many women in India, including Sarada Devi and Sister NIVEDITA, and with many Western disciples in promot-ing the education of and service to women. He insisted that the women of India must be able to meet the modern age with adequate education; it was the topic of one of his many books.
   Vivekananda made a second visit to the West in 1899–1900, during which he founded other Vedanta Centers.
   He was only 39 when he died on July 4, 1902, at Belur Math near Calcutta.
   Further reading: Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vive-kananda in America: New Discoveries (Calcutta: advaita Ashrama, 1958); Sailendra Nath Dhar, A Comprehen-sive Biography of Swami Vivekananda, 2 vols. (Madras: Vivekananda Prakashan Kendra, 1975); Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Admirers (Calcutta: advaita Ashrama, 1961); Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel (Mayavati, Almora: advaita Ashrama, 1944); Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 12 vols. (Calcutta: advaita Ashrama, 1965).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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