Childhood Name: Narendra Nath Datta
Date of Birth: 12 January 1863
Place of Birth: Kolkata
At the threshold of youth, Narendra had to pass through a period of spiritual crisis when doubts about
the existence of God assailed him. It was at that time he first heard about Sri Ramakrishna from one of
his English professors at college. One day in November 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who
was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He straightaway asked the Master a question which he
had put to several others but had received no satisfactory answer: “Sir, have you seen God?” Without a
moment’s hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna replied: “Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a
much intenser sense.”
Apart from removing doubts from the mind of Narendra, Sri Ramakrishna won him over through his pure,
unselfish love. Thus began a guru-disciple relationship which is unique in the history of spiritual
masters. Narendra now became a frequent visitor to Dakshineshwar and, under the guidance of the Master,
made rapid strides on the spiritual path. At Dakshineshwar, Narendra also met several young men who were
devoted to Sri Ramakrishna, and they all became close friends.
When Sri Ramakrishna was sixteen, his brother Ramkumar took him to Kolkata to assist him in his priestly
profession. In 1855 the Kali Temple at Dakshineswar built by Rani Rasmani was consecrated and Ramkumar
became the chief priest in that temple. When he died a few months later, Ramakrishna was appointed the
priest. Ramakrishna developed intense devotion to Mother Kali and spent hours in loving adoration of her
image, forgetting the rituals of priestly duties. His intense longing culminated in the vision of Mother
Kali as boundless effulgence engulfing everything around him.
After a few years two events took place which caused Narendra considerable distress. One was the sudden
death of his father in 1884. This left the family penniless, and Narendra had to bear the burden of
supporting his mother, brothers and sisters. The second event was the illness of Sri Ramakrishna which
was diagnosed to be cancer of the throat. In September 1885 Sri Ramakrishna was moved to a house at
Shyampukur, and a few months later to a rented villa at Cossipore. In these two places the young
disciples nursed the Master with devoted care. In spite of poverty at home and inability to find a job
for himself, Narendra joined the group as its leader.
Sri Ramakrishna instilled in these young men the spirit of renunciation and brotherly love for one
another. One day he distributed ochre robes among them and sent them out to beg for food. In this way,
he laid the foundation for a new monastic order. He gave specific instructions to Narendra about the
formation of the new monastic Order. In the small hours of 16 August 1886, Sri Ramakrishna gave up his
After the Master’s passing, fifteen of his young disciples (one more joined them later) began to live
together in a dilapidated building at Baranagar in North Kolkata. Under the leadership of Narendra, they
formed a new monastic brotherhood, and in 1887 they took the formal vows of sannyasa, thereby assuming
new names. Narendra now became Swami Vivekananda (although this name was assumed much later.)
After establishing the new monastic order, Vivekananda heard the inner call for a higher mission in his
life. While most of the followers of Sri Ramakrishna thought of him in relation to their own personal
lives, Vivekananda thought of the Master in relation to India and the rest of the world. As the prophet
of the present age, what was Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the modern world and India in particular? This
question and the awareness of his inherent powers urged Swamiji to go out alone into the wide world. So
in the middle of 1890, after receiving the blessings of Sri Sarada Devi, the divine consort of Sri
Ramakrishna, known to the world as Holy Mother, who was then staying in Kolkata, Swamiji left Baranagar
Math and embarked on a long journey of exploration and discovery of India.
During his travels all over India, Swami Vivekananda was deeply moved to see the appalling poverty and
backwardness of the masses. He was the first religious leader in India to understand and openly declare
that the real cause of India’s downfall was the neglect of the masses. The immediate need was to provide
food and other bare necessities of life to the hungry millions. For this they should be taught improved
methods of agriculture, village industries, etc. It was in this context that Vivekananda grasped the
crux of the problem of poverty in India (which had escaped the attention of social reformers of his
days): owing to centuries of oppression, the downtrodden masses had lost faith in their capacity to
improve their lot. It was first of all necessary to infuse into their minds faith in themselves. For
this they needed a life-giving, inspiring message. Swamiji found this message in the principle of the
Atman, the doctrine of the potential divinity of the soul, taught in Vedanta, the ancient system of
religious philosophy of India. He saw that, in spite of poverty, the masses clung to religion, but they
had never been taught the life-giving, ennobling principles of Vedanta and how to apply them in
Thus the masses needed two kinds of knowledge: secular knowledge to improve their
economic condition, and spiritual knowledge to infuse in them faith in themselves and strengthen their
moral sense. The next question was, how to spread these two kinds of knowledge among the masses? Through
education – this was the answer that Swamiji found.
One thing became clear to Swamiji: to carry out his plans for the spread of education and for the uplift
of the poor masses, and also of women, an efficient organization of dedicated people was needed. As he
said later on, he wanted “to set in motion a machinery which will bring noblest ideas to the doorstep of
even the poorest and the meanest.” It was to serve as this ‘machinery’ that Swamiji founded the
Ramakrishna Mission a few years later.
It was when these ideas were taking shape in his mind in the course of his wanderings that Swami
Vivekananda heard about the World’s Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893. His friends
and admirers in India wanted him to attend the Parliament. He too felt that the Parliament would provide
the right forum to present his Master’s message to the world, and so he decided to go to America.
Another reason which prompted Swamiji to go to America was to seek financial help for his project of
uplifting the masses.
Swamiji, however, wanted to have an inner certitude and divine call regarding
his mission. Both of these he got while he sat in deep meditation on the rock-island at Kanyakumari.
With the funds partly collected by his Chennai disciples and partly provided by the Raja of Khetri,
Swami Vivekananda left for America from Mumbai on 31 May 1893.
His speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions held in September 1893 made him famous as an ‘orator
by divine right’ and as a ‘Messenger of Indian wisdom to the Western world’. After the Parliament,
Swamiji spent nearly three and a half years spreading Vedanta as lived and taught by Sri Ramakrishna,
mostly in the eastern parts of USA and also in London.
He returned to India in January 1897. In response to the enthusiastic welcome that he received
everywhere, he delivered a series of lectures in different parts of India, which created a great stir
all over the country. Through these inspiring and profoundly significant lectures Swamiji attempted to
do the following:
1 > To rouse the religious consciousness of the people and create in them pride in their cultural
2 > To bring about unification of Hinduism by pointing out the common bases of its sects.
3 > To focus the attention of educated people on the plight of the downtrodden masses, and to expound
his plan for their uplift by the application of the principles of Practical Vedanta.
Soon after his return to Kolkata, Swami Vivekananda accomplished another important task of his mission
on earth. He founded on 1 May 1897 a unique type of organization known as Ramakrishna Mission, in which
monks and lay people would jointly undertake propagation of Practical Vedanta, and various forms of
social service, such as running hospitals, schools, colleges, hostels, rural development centres etc,
and conducting massive relief and rehabilitation work for victims of earthquakes, cyclones and other
calamities, in different parts of India and other countries.
In early 1898 Swami Vivekananda acquired a big plot of land on the western bank of the Ganga at a place
called Belur to have a permanent abode for the monastery and monastic Order originally started at
Baranagar, and got it registered as Ramakrishna Math after a couple of years. Here Swamiji established a
new, universal pattern of monastic life which adapts ancient monastic ideals to the conditions of modern
life, which gives equal importance to personal illumination and social service, and which is open to all
men without any distinction of religion, race or caste.
It may be mentioned here that in the West many people were influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s life and
message. Some of them became his disciples or devoted friends. Among them, the names of Margaret Noble
(later known as Sister Nivedita), Captain and Mrs. Sevier, Josephine McLeod and Sara Ole Bull, deserve
special mention. Nivedita dedicated her life to educating girls in Kolkata. Swamiji had many Indian
disciples also, some of whom joined Ramakrishna Math and became sannyasins.
In June 1899 he went to the West on a second visit. This time he spent most of his time in the West
coast of USA. After delivering many lectures there, he returned to Belur Math in December 1900. The rest
of his life was spent in India, inspiring and guiding people, both monastic and lay. Incessant work,
especially giving lectures and inspiring people, told upon Swamiji’s health. His health deteriorated and
the end came quietly on the night of 4 July 1902. Before his Mahasamadhi he had written to a Western
follower: “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body, to cast it off like a worn out
garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere until the whole world shall know
that it is one with God.”