REGARDED as one of the original preachers of Vedanta and Yoga, Vivekananda showed an inclination towards God from his childhood. He was born on January 12, 1863, in Shimla Pally, in north Calcutta, to the Datta family. His mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi, who was extremely pious, gave him the name of Vireshwar. She had two daughters and she used to long for a son. To have the boon of a son, she worshipped Lord Vireswara every Monday, which is popularly believed to be an auspicious day for the devotees of Lord Shiva.
When Vivekananda was born to her, she saw him as a boon from Lord Shiva. So she decided to name the boy Vireshwar, who is an incarnation of Lord Shiva. Six months after the birth, the annaprasana ceremony was held and the boy was given the name of Narendranath. Vivekananda grew up into a sweet, sunny-tempered boy. The family kept a large retinue of pets. There was a cow, a monkey, a goat, a peacock, and several pigeons and guinea pigs. Interactions with all these creatures filled Vivekananda with a sense of respect for all forms of life.
There was a school in the village, but Vishwanath Dutta was worried that at this school his son might fall into bad company, so he hired a private tutor and started a new school in his own house. Soon other small boys of the family and from other families in the neighbourhood joined, thus giving the private school strength of more than sixty students. Even though Vivekananda was the youngest student, he picked up reading and writing skills very fast, and was amongst the best performers.
While recounting his childhood, Vivekananda has claimed that he began meditating when he was only seven years old; by the time he was eight he had experienced samadhi. At times, his meditation as a child would become so intense that he would remain calm even when he was in close proximity of a cobra.
When he was eight years old, he joined the Metropolitan Institution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Here he endeared himself to the teachers and students due to his gregarious nature. He was good not only in studies, but also in all kinds of games. In 1879, he passed the entrance examination for Presidency College, Calcutta, with first division. He studied literature, rhetoric, as well some logic and philosophy.
Vivekananda’s was first introduced to Ramakrishna during the college’s literature class, when Principal Reverend W. Hastie, was lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem. While trying to explain the Wordsworth’s usage of the word trance, the Principal said that if his students wanted to understand the real meaning, then they should go to Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar. This prompted many students, including Vivekananda, to visit Ramakrishna.
For Vivekananda, the meeting with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in November 1881 was a major turning point. But he was attracted by Ramakrishna’s personality and he started visiting the ashram frequently. After each meeting the young boy’s faith in God became stronger. Some biographers have given details of how Ramakrishna made it possible for Vivekananda to have divine visions. For almost a period of five years Vivekananda remained in regular contact with Ramakrishna.
When Ramakrishna passed away, many of his disciples, under the leadership of Vivekananda, formed a fellowship at a half-ruined house at Baranagar, close to Ganga River. In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery to lead the life of a wandering monk, whose life is free from material encumbrances like relationships or even a permanent abode. The sole possessions that he took with him were a kamandalu (water pot), staff, and his favourite book – Bhagavad Gita. For five years, he travelled through the length and breadth of India.
Vivekananda departed for Chicago on May 31, 1893 from Bombay with the aid of funds collected by his disciples. A contact in USA suggested that he should go directly to the Parliament of Religions, which would give him an introduction. That is how Vivekananda came to represent India and Hinduism. The Parliament of Religions opened on September 11, 1893 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and on the same day Vivekananda gave his first brief address. The words that he spoke elicited standing ovation from a crowd of almost seven thousand.
He left for India on December 16, 1896 and founded the Ramakrishna Math on 1 May 1897 at Calcutta. This organisation soon gained a reputation for spiritual activity as well as for social service. Six years later in 1902, he attained maha-samadhi. Till this day, Vivekananda commands reverence from pupils, pundits and politicians; his portrait, of a handsome and gorgeously attired upright monk, adorns the walls of homes and is looked upon as a symbol of the revival of Hinduism in modern era.