January 12 marks the 158th birthday of Swami Vivekananda, who was an Indian monk, renowned philosopher, poet, social reformer and spiritual leader. He was the main force behind the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world.
The Government of India declared his birthday in the year 1984 as the National Youth Day to inspire the Indian youth with his philosophy and ideals for which he lived and worked. He saw hope for the future in every youth and believed that they could bring about social change with sheer determination.
Swami Vivekananda was born in 1863. His name was Narendranath Datta (or Naren, for short). His father, Vishwanath Datta was an attorney at the Calcutta High Court, while his mother, Bhuvaneshwari Devi was a devout housewife. He was a naughty child and his mother used to say, “I prayed for a son to Lord Shiva and He sent me one of His demons.”
His grandfather, Durgacharan Datta was a scholar and became a monk at an early age of 25. Naren got fascinated by wandering ascetics and monks and got inclined towards spirituality and meditation. He was known for his prodigious memory (a shrutidhara) and speed reading.
In 1884, after his father’s demise, he became a disciple of the mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who taught him that all living beings are an embodiment of the divine self, and therefore we can serve God by serving the humankind.
From 1888, he started wandering in India like a monk without a fixed abode with sole possessions of a Kamandalu (water pot) and two books, the Bhagwad Gita and the Imitation of Christ.
During the next five years, he addressed social issues ranging from elimination of caste system, promotion of science, poverty alleviation to the country’s freedom. He also founded Ramakrishna Mission for social service. He also authored many books like Sangeet Kalpataru, Vedanta philosophy, Bartaman Bharat, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga etc.
He left for Chicago with a new name of “Vivekananda”, as suggested by Maharaja Ajit Singh Bahadur of Khetri, who had become his friend and disciple during his visit to Mount Abu. Vivekananda means “the bliss of discerning wisdom”.
Though he delivered hundreds of lectures, his speech delivered on 11th September 1893 at the Parliament of the World’s Religion at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition is cherished even today.
In this speech, he introduced Hinduism to America and called for religious tolerance, interfaith awareness and end to fanaticism. He proudly announced that he belonged to a nation which had sheltered the persecuted and refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.
He spent nearly two years lecturing in America, and thereafter in Britain too. He met Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish woman in England, who became Sister Nivedita and his disciple, and came to India to devote the rest of her life for women education and India’s Independence.
Swami again extensively visited UK, Paris, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens and Egypt for various lectures and related activities in 1899 and 1900. But his health started deteriorating due to asthama, diabetes and chronic insomnia.
He used to sleep for hardly two hours a day taking a nap of 15 minutes after every four hours. Finally on 4th July 1902, he left for his heavenly abode while meditating at the young age of 39. It is said that even God needs good people early.