The day 12 January 1863 saw the birth of one of the most remarkable Indian figures of recent centuries, Swami Vivekananda. So powerful is the legacy of religion, spirituality, and nationalism he has left behind that his birth anniversary has been celebrated as the National Youth Day since 1985.
Born Narendra Nath Datta into an affluent family in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he would soon embark on an eventful journey which would see his name etched in history books across the world.
Named Swami Vivekananda after he became a monk, he is credited with the revival of Hinduism and letting the world know why it was a major world religion. He was also instrumental in introducing Indian philosophies to the western world.
As India celebrates National Youth Day, here’s a look at his early years, events that shaped his beliefs and ideals, and the legacy that he has left behind.
The Formative Years
Narendra Nath’s father, Vishwanath Datta, was a successful attorney who was described as progressive and rational. His mother Bhuvaneshvari Devi is said to have had a deeply religious temperament. He thus grew up with an interest in spirituality, religion, Hindu scriptures like the Vedas, philosophy, and history.
He began his education at Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution. He went on to study at Presidency College and moved to the General Assembly Institution before obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Arts in 1884.
It was in college that he heard about Sri Ramakrishna. In 1881, he met Sri Ramakrisha who was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar and asked him if he had seen God. The reply was to play a decisive role in what Swami Vivekananda would do for the rest of his life.
Yes, he had seen God, as clearly as had Vivekananda, but only in a more intense sense, went the reply. Thus began a unique guru-shishya (disciple) relationship. His visits to Dakshineshwar continued as he went further ahead in his journey on the spiritual path.
Discovery Of India
Sri Ramakrishna became his spiritual focus after his own father died in 1884. The next year, his guru became ill, prompting the disciple to look after him with some other followers.
Sri Ramakrishna passed away in August 1886, and early next year, Vivekananda took formal vows of sanyasa (renunciation).
In 1890, he began extensive tours of the sub-continent to understand the conditions prevailing in then colonial India. Seeing the poverty and backwardness of the masses, he realised that they had to re-learn ways in which their lives could become better.
This could happen only if they began having faith in themselves – and they needed to be given inspiring messages, including those that dealt with spirituality, to make this possible.
The Famous Chicago Address
He began addressing groups of people across India. It was during his travels that he heard about the World’s Parliament of Religions which was to be held in Chicago, USA, in 1893. He was convinced that this was a good forum to spread India’s message to the world.
He visited Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, and spent time meditating on a tiny island, more like a big rock, meditating and thinking about how to go about this mission. (This rock was turned into a memorial in his honour in 1970.)
His address at Chicago, which is inevitably talked about the during the National Youth Day celebrations, reverberated throughout the world as he spoke about the most ancient order of monks in the world, the mother of religions, and the millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
His opening remarks, “Sisters and Brothers of America….,” received a standing ovation.
Legacy And Demise
He spent the next few years spreading Vedanta in the United States, and also in London, United Kingdom. He returned to India, and delivered speeches across the country before establishing the Ramakrishna Mission in 1887.
He continued with his lectures, even travelling to the United States again, and gathered many more followers before he became ill.
He passed away on 4 July 1902, after he went to his room, asking not to be disturbed. Some accounts suggest that he died while meditating and fulfilled his prophecy that he would not live 40 years.
Sri Aurobindo regarded Vivekananda as the one who awakened India spiritually and Mahatma Gandhi counted him as one of the leading Hindu reformers.
Given what he achieved during his lifetime, the National Youth Day is a befitting reminder of what faith, spirituality and dedication can achieve.