Swami Vivekananda: When East Met West

January 12 was the 151st anniversary of Swami Vivekananda's birthday. Celebrated as a youth icon and role model in India, he is known for introducing Indian spirituality to the West. "India is at the head of all nations", said Swami Vivekananda, "because it is the only country that can spread its culture to the entire world, without conflicting with already established religions." He worked throughout his life to let the world know about this fundamental characteristic of his motherland and strived to let the world benefit from this.

Born on the 12th of January 1863 as Narendra Nath Datta, Vivekananda's "missionary zeal" was seen early in life in the form of a passion for spirituality and involvement with the oppressed. As a student of English Philosophy at university, he explained to his friends how the contemporary proposition of evolution was foreseen by Sage Kapila, or how the idea of the orthodox Christians about a random soul being created on a spurt and eventually being damned or redeemed was insensible.

Vivekananda meets Ramakrishna
In November 1881, while preparing to become a lawyer after obtaining a BA degree in Fine Arts, his life took an entirely different turn when he met Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who would later become his Guru, and the source of his inspiration.

Vivekananda, still known as Narendra Nath, was initially quite at odds with the concept of a Guru or God. But in 1884, his father suddenly died and the family found itself in a critical financial crisis, which contributed to his increasingly frequent visits to Dakshineshwar, the location of Ramakrishna's ashram in Kolkata, for solace.

There is a famous episode when Swami Vivekananda requested Ramakrishna to pray to Goddess Kali for the recovery of his mother's health. The Guru suggested that he offer a prayer himself. Narendra eventually went in and out of the temple thrice without asking for what he had intended to, and finally realized he no longer had any need to ask. Such experiences gradually intensified his longing for spiritual experiences and brought him to accept Ramakrishna as his guide and Guru.

Vivekananda the missionary
Swami Vivekananda was known for his spell-binding talks, and as an orator, was consciously spontaneous and spoke with an eloquence that added luster to his teachings about the restoration of India as a spiritual leader.

He worked at making Hinduism a dynamic religion and strived to bring back some of the ideals of Sanatana Dharma. During one of his speeches, Swami Vivekananda said, "Our method is very easily described. It simply consists in reasserting the national life. Buddha preached renunciation. India heard, and in six centuries she reached her greatest height. The secret is there. The national ideals of India are renunciation and service." He was certain that if the people of India worked towards those two ideals alone, the goal will happen as a natural process without the need to wave the spiritual flag too vigorously. At the same time, or rather consequentially, the country would silently establish itself where it should in the world. With this in mind, he sailed West.

His most famous speech was at the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago in 1893. Vivekananda did not want the West to accommodate Eastern philosophy or culture, he wanted the West to understand Eastern views so that, as a consequence, they would be able to understand the harmony between all religions. He stressed the possibility of the evolution of human consciousness from the gross to the subtle. His talks had a great impact, and many gathered around him, seeing him as their guiding light in their spiritual quest.

Unfortunately though, for a man of his capability, Vivekananda had too short a life. On the 4th of July 1902, at 9.10 pm, Swami Vivekananda, aged 39, attained Mahasamadhi during meditation. But his work and vision live on through the Ramakrishna Mission, and the many maths or ashrams he established.