Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest saints in India’s recent history, was born Narendranath Dutt, on 12 January 1863 in Kolkata (Calcutta), to an aristocratic family.
As a young boy, Vivekananda was very logical, intense and intellectual. He was of an extremely skeptical disposition, with a mind full of questions. The story of his meeting Sri Ramakrishna Parmahansa the mystic saint who would become his guru, is well known.
When Vivekananda Met Ramakrishna
As a young man, Narendra was overcome with a longing to find God. He wandered around Calcutta asking several religious people if they had come “face to face with God”, but none of their answers satisfied him. One of the people he met, Debendranath Tagore (the leader of Brahmo Samaj) remarked when he saw him “My boy, you have the yogi‘s eyes”. But Tagore was also unable to answer the boy’s question.
Narendra’s early spiritual life was influenced by the ideals of the Brahmo Samaj. He opposed idol worship, polytheism and even rejected Advaita Vedanta. However, his curiosity about what God is and whether He exists was not satiated with the philosophies of the Brahmo Samaj and he kept searching for someone whose answers would truly satisfy him.
Once in an English class, Narendra’s professor was reading a poem of William Wordsworth in which the poet described a trance-like state. The professor explained that this was a state of samadhi attained by sages. He further explained to a very curious Narendra that such a state is not merely a myth of ancient times but has been attained even by present-day holy men like Sri Ramakrishna of Dakshineshwar (close to Kolkata). Narendra was very intrigued to hear this but did not immediately make his way to see Ramamkrishna.
His first meeting with the saint was at the age of 19. On encountering Ramakrishna, Vivekananda’s skeptical mind could not understand Ramakrishna’s ecstatic devotion to goddess Kali. He viewed Ramakrishna’s ecstasies and visions as mere imagination and hallucinations. He placed many questions and arguments before Ramakrishna, who patiently prodded him to: “try to see the truth from all angles”.
An exasperated Vivekananda asked Ramakrishna,
“You are talking God, God all the time. Where is the proof? Show me the proof!”
Ramakrishna was a simple uneducated man. He was a mystic, not a scholar. He simply said,
“I am the proof. I am the proof that God exists.”
Vivekananda was taken aback. He was expecting some great intellectual explanations. But Ramakrishna simply said, “I am the proof God exists.” What he meant was “The way I am is the proof”.
Vivekananda did not know what to say. Ramakrishna then placed his foot on Vivekananda’s chest and Vivekananda went into a certain period of samadhi. He suddenly lost all his logic and found tears flowing down his face. He was never the same again.
The relationship between Ramakrishna and Vivekananda may seem an unlikely one on the surface because of Ramakrishna’s devotional temperament of high bhakti as against Vivekananda’s piercing intellect of a jnani. But as it is said, bhakti and jnana are two wings of one bird and the highest jnani is a bhakta and vice-versa.
From his guru Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda learnt that all living beings were an embodiment of the Divine; therefore, service to God could be rendered by serving mankind. After Ramakrishna’s death, Vivekananda toured the Indian subcontinent extensively and acquired first-hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing in British India. Moved by the deprivation of the people, he worked tirelessly for the rest of his short life to uplift the masses spiritually, economically and culturally.