Swami Vivekananda

A Short Biography

     Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and a world spokesperson for Vedanta. His lectures, letters and poems are published as The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji, as Vivekananda is affectionately known, believed it was best to teach universal principles rather than personalities. Therefore, his teaching and writing focus on Vedanta philosophy and not Sri Ramakrishna.

     Vivekananda represented Hinduism at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions convened during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. With his opening words, “Sisters and brothers of America”, Swamiji brought the crowd to its feet. Subsequently he was invited to speak all over America and Europe. In fact, most Vedanta Societies which were founded in America and Europe up through the 1930s can trace their origins directly to Vivekananda or the people who heard him speak from 1893 through 1900.

     After his first visit to the West, Swami Vivekananda went back to India and founded the Ramakrishna Order at Belur outside of Kolkata in 1898. When he returned to the United States a few years later, he was accompanied by his brother monk Swami Turiyananda. Other brother disciples of Sri Ramrakrishna, Swamis Saradananda and Abhedananda,  followed Swamiji and taught widely.

    Vivekananda was a man with a great spiritual presence and tremendous intellect who was a tireless teacher and writer. He wrote poems and hymns in Bengali, English and Sanskrit, some of which are sung daily in Vedanta centers worldwide. He was ahead of his time in encouraging women and Westerners to not only practice Vedanta, but to be leaders. Two examples are Sara Ellen Waldo who recorded and collected Swamiji’s talks at Thousand Island Park and Margaret Noble, later known as Sister Nivedita, who devoted her life not only to Vedanta but also to the education of Indian girls. The Master as I Saw Him is her account of the years she knew Swamiji.  Vivekananda initiated both women as a sannyasini and brahmacharini respectively, a radical act for the time.

     Vivekananda’s main teaching in the West, and in India for that matter, is Practical Vedanta. By this the Swami stressed that religion needs to be intensely practical and carried into all areas of our lives. The primary message of Vedanta is one of oneness and that our human purpose is to realize our divine nature. Through his teachings on the four yogas, the harmony of religions, divinity of the soul, and serving humanity as God, Vivekananda gave spiritual aspirants paths to that realization. The Swami also made major contributions to both world culture and Indian culture.

Quotes from Swami Vivekananda

     “Religion is not in books, nor in theories, nor in dogmas, nor in talking, not even in reasoning. It is being and becoming.”

     “Infinite power and existence and blessedness are ours, and we have not to acquire them; they are our own, and we have only to manifest them.”

     “Be an atheist if you want, but do not believe in anything unquestioningly.”

     “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.”

     “I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth.”

     “This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.”

     “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.”

     “In judging others we always judge them by our own ideals. That is not as it should be. Everyone must be judged according to his own ideal, and not by that of anyone else.”

     “He who has no faith in himself can never have faith in God.”

     “The first sign that you are becoming religious is that you are becoming cheerful. When a man is gloomy, that may be dyspepsia, but it is not religion.”

     “The living God is within you.”

     “Manifest the divinity within you and everything will be harmoniously arranged around it.”

     “After so much austerity I have known that the highest truth is this: He is present in every being! These are all in manifold forms of him. There is no other God to seek for! He alone is worshipping God, who serves all beings!”

What Others Said About Him

     “I have gone through Swami Vivekananda’s works very thoroughly, and after having gone through them, the love that I had for my country became a thousand-fold. …His writings need no introduction from anybody. They make their own irresistible appeal.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

     “Where can you find a man like him? Study what he wrote, and learn from his teachings, for if you do, you will gain immense strength. Take advantage of the fountain of wisdom, of Spirit, and of fire that flowed through Vivekananda.”
—Jawaharlal Nehru

     “I had the special privilege of being introduced to the writings, sayings, and life of Swami Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission. That was when I was very small. In fact both my parents and specially my mother had very close connections with the Mission. And I can truly say that the words of Swami Vivekananda inspired the whole of my family, in our political work as well as in our daily lives.”
—Indira Gandhi

     “The book by Vivekananda is more than a pleasure, it is a broadening of the soul.”
—Leo Tolstoy

     “The paragon of all Unity systems is the Vedanta philosophy of India, and the paragon of Vedanta missionaries was the late Swami Vivekananda. The man is simply a wonder for oratorical power. …The swami is an honor to humanity.”
—William James

     “The qualities I most admire in Vivekananda are his activity, manliness and courage. …He spoke up and acted. For this, all must honor him, who, whatever be their won religious beliefs, value sincerity, truth and courage, which are the badges of every noble character.”
—Sir John Woodroffe

     “It is very difficult to evaluated his [Swami Vivekananda’s] importance in the scale of world history. It is certainly far greater than any Western historian or most Indian historians would have suggested at the time of his death. The passing of the years and the many stupendous and unexpected events which have occurred since then suggest that in centuries toi come he will be remembered as one of the main molders of the modern world, especially as far as Asia is concerned, and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion.”
—A.L. Basham

     “One of the very greatest historical figures that India has ever produced.”
—Christopher Isherwood

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