In 1893, when Swami Vivekananda went to Chicago to represent India at the World’s Parliament of Religions, no one could have imagined the impact his groundbreaking speech would have on people. His radical thoughts about non-dualism and of Hinduism as a tolerant and inclusive religion are relevant to this day.
Born to a rich barrister Kayastha family and lovingly called Naren (short for Narendanath Datta, the name given to him at birth), Vivekananda was one of nine siblings and he spent his childhood acing everything that he was a part of. He had a photographic memory, was super mischievous and cheerful, and was his teachers’ favourite. Even at a young age, it was difficult to beat him at logic. He was naughty and restless as a child, and his parents often had difficulty controlling him. His mother used to say, “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons”.
He was interested in spirituality from a young age and used to meditate before the images of deities such as Shiva, Rama, Sita, and Hanuman. He was fascinated by wandering ascetics and monks. His hunger for reading was no news to his peers and teachers. Vivekananda studied several religious texts and was also interested in Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. This research and constant hunger to learn led him to question the existence of God.
William Hastie (principal of Christian College, Calcutta, from where Vivekananda graduated) wrote, “Narendra is really a genius. I have traveled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students. He is bound to make his mark in life”.
He was first introduced to Ramakrishna when he was studying William Wordsworth’s poetry in college. His professor, Hastie, said that to understand the true meaning of trance, one must visit Ramakrishna and urged Viveknanada to do so. In late 1881 or early 1882, Vivekananda went to Dakshineswar and met Ramakrishna. This meeting proved to be a turning point in his life. At first he saw Ramakrishna’s ecstasies and visions as “mere figments of imagination” and “hallucinations”. And although he questioned many of his ideas, he was attracted by his personality and began to frequently visit him at Dakshineswar.
After the tragedy of his father’s death hit him in 1884, his family faced a severe financial crisis. Vivekananda went from being the son of a well-to-do family, to one of the poorest students in his college . He was disillusioned with life and questioned the existence of God. Ramakrishna helped him deal with his loss of his father and Vivekananda then embraced him as his teacher.
Known as ‘[T]he pied piper of the global yoga movement’, Vivekananda conducted hundreds of public and private lectures and classes, disseminating tenets of Hindu philosophy in the United States, England and Europe. In India, Vivekananda is regarded as a patriotic saint, and his birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day (12th January). Pathways to Joy: The Master Vivekananda on the Four Yoga Paths to God is one of his most widely read books.
Following are the 5 key takeaways from his masterpiece –
- The Vedanta Philosophy is a valuable contribution to philosophical and religious thought systems of the world because it believes in the unity of all existence and the connectedness of all that exists to one Cosmic Existence or Truth.
- Divinity is already within us rather than being outside of us. All we have to do for our salvation is to find a path most suited to realizing this Highest Spirit or Truth within us.
- Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga are pathways that help us connect to the God within through selfless duty, love, control of the mind, and seeking knowledge.
- The individual who seeks to live life through these principles is active agent of his/her own salvation, rather than a prisoner of dogma, doctrines, or rituals.
- The practice of Hinduism based on these principles will ensure that there is no conflict or hatred in the world. Swami Vivekananda calls for an all-inclusive religion that respects all doctrines and belief-systems, does not seek to impose homogeneity of belief, and can become a living, inspiring way of life.