“The natural tendency of Vivekananda’s mind, like that of his Master, Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering in East and West alike.”
– Swami Nikhilananda
Swami Vivekananda (born Narendranath Dutt, on 12 January 1863 in Kolkata), is one of the foremost examples of spirituality expressed in action. One who is a sanyaasi i.e. has renounced material aims, is usually expected to be aloof from society. One who has realised the Highest is usually not expected to concern himself with worldly matters. But Swami Vivekananda flouted all preconceptions and showed how spiritual power could be used to uplift the masses both spiritually and materially.
Swami Vivekananda’s Mission & Vision
Swami Vivekananda was the disciple of the great saint Sri Ramakrishna who imparted spiritual power and knowledge to a young Vivekananda.
See: On Swami Vivekananda and his Search for God
However, instead of choosing to be a yogi who remains immersed in meditation, Swami Vivekananda was fired up with a mission to revive the spirit of India.
“When so many people are illiterate and hungry, where do I have the time to think of my own liberation?”Swamiji used to say.
Moved by the poverty and deprivation he saw on his travels in British India, Swami Vivekananda said, “How can you preach religion to the one suffering from the pangs of hunger?”. He realised that the Indian people first needed to be uplifted materially and only then could they be led spiritually.
Evaluating the state of the spirit of the nation, Swami Vivekananda stated:
“Currently what India needs is neither sattava nor tamas. What India currently needs is rajas. In India people may look sattvic externally but are tamasic within.”
Swamiji noted how Western countries showed an active rajasic spirit which led them to work hard for the material development of their nations while India seemed to be largely mired in tamas. He urged the Indian people to shake off their inertia, to be fearless and work hard, all the while remaining firm in the spirit of Vedanta. Swamiji’s clarion call to all Indians and humanity as a whole was to lose their petty, selfish aims in the service of their brethren.
“This world is not for cowards. Do not try to fly. Look not for success or failure. Join yourself to the perfectly unselfish will and work on. Know that the mind which is born to succeed joins itself to a determined will and perseveres. You have the right to work, but do not become so degenerate as to look for results. Work incessantly, but see something behind the work. Even good deeds can find a man in great bondage. Therefore be not bound by good deeds or by desire for name and fame. Those who know this secret pass beyond this round of birth and death and become immortal.”
Swami Vivekananda worked hard to wake up the spirit of nationhood and remind people of the glorious heritage of India, a land where man had explored the heights of human potential – both in the material and spiritual planes. His aim in reminding people of India’s ancient past was not to encourage blind pride but to energise and inspire their spirit to march forward to create an even brighter future. Swamiji’s reminders about this ancient land are well worth remembering today:
“This is the ancient land where wisdom made its home before it went into any other country, the same India whose influx of spirituality is represented, as it were, on the material plane, by rolling rivers like oceans, where the eternal Himalayas, rising tier above tier with their snowcaps, look as it were into the very mysteries of heaven. Here is the same India whose soil has been trodden by the feet of the greatest sages that ever lived. Here first sprang up inquiries into the nature of man and into the internal world. Here first arose the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, the existence of a supervising God, an immanent God in nature and in man, and here the highest ideals of religion and philosophy have attained their culminating points. This is the land from whence, like the tidal waves, spirituality and philosophy have again and again rushed out and deluged the world, and this is the land from whence once more such tides must proceed in order to bring life and vigour into the decaying races of mankind. It is the same India which has withstood the shocks of centuries, of hundreds of foreign invasions, of hundreds of upheavals of manners and customs. It is the same land which stands firmer than any rock in the world, with its undying vigour, indestructible life. Its life is of the same nature as the soul, without beginning and without end, immortal; and we are the children of such a country.” (Source)
Swami Vivekananda’s understanding of the Indian heart and mind was astonishingly profound. His insight is as valuable to us today as it was during his time, over a century ago. Swamiji famously said that if he could have just 100 energetic youth, he could transform India.
“I want young men. “It is the young, the strong, and healthy, of sharp intellect that will reach the Lord”, say the Vedas. This is the time to decide your future — while you possess the energy of youth, not when you are worn out and jaded, but in the freshness and vigour of youth. Work — this is the time; for the freshest, the untouched, and unsmelled flowers alone are to be laid at the feet of the Lord, and such He receives. Rouse yourselves, therefore, for life is short. There are greater works to be done than aspiring to become lawyers and picking quarrels and such things. A far greater work is this sacrifice of yourselves for the benefit of your race, for the welfare of humanity. What is in this life? You are Hindus, and there is the instinctive belief in you that life is eternal. Sometimes I have young men come and talk to me about atheism; I do not believe a Hindu can become an atheist. He may read European books, and persuade himself he is a materialist, but it is only for a time. It is not in your blood. You cannot believe what is not in your constitution; it would be a hopeless task for you. Do not attempt that sort of thing. I once attempted it when I was a boy, but it could not be. Life is short, but the soul is immortal and eternal, and one thing being certain, death, let us therefore take up a great ideal and give up our whole life to it. Let this be our determination, and may He, the Lord, who “comes again and again for the salvation of His own people”, to quote from our scriptures — may the great Krishna bless us and lead us all to the fulfilment of our aims!”
Swami Vivekananda was one of the first Indian yogis to carry India’s spiritual message to the West. His powerful speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 sent spiritual shockwaves across the world and gained him a following of admirers in the West. He established the Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 to promote the message of peace in the world and harmony among all religions.
Swami Vivekananda’s constant effort was to open people’s minds and hearts and engender a feeling of unity and brotherhood. He challenged the many misconceptions people held about God and religion, igniting a spiritual revolution that continues to burn in the hearts and minds of people today.
In his short lifespan of 39 years Swami Vivekananda left an indelible mark not only on India but on the whole world, inspiring not just a generation of people but many generations to come. That his message remains relevant today, over 100 years on, means that the work he set out for India still remains to be done. May his inspiration continue to guide us to turn his dreams for India into reality.
Further reading: The Future of India, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda.
Biography of Swami Vivekananda by Swami Nikhilananda
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