Born as Narendranath Dutta, (Naren) son of Biswanath Dutta, a well-known lawyer in Calcutta and Bhuvaneswari Devi, a very intelligent and pious lady, in the year 1863.
Narendranath was upright and fearless even as a child. He learnt the Epics and Puranas from his mother, who was a good story-teller. He also inherited her memory among other qualities. He was an accomplished musician, was good at wrestling and other sports, had a ready wit and a rational frame of mind and he loved to help people . He was a natural leader. He was much sought after by the people because of his various accomplishments.
Naren passed F.A. and B.A. Examinations from the General Assembly's Institution (now Scottish Church College). Hastie, Principal of the College, was highly impressed by Naren's brilliance and philosophical insight. It was from Hastie that he first heard of Sri Ramakrishna.
As a student of Philosophy, the question of God was very much on his mind. Is there a God ? If there is a God, what is He like ? What is man's relationship with Him ? Did He create this world which is so full of anomalies ? He discussed these questions with many, but no one could give him satisfactory answers. He looked to persons who could say they had seen God, but found none. Meanwhile, Keshab Sen had become the head of the Brahmo Movement. He was a great orator and many young people, attracted by his oratory, enrolled as members of the Brahmo Samaj. Naren also did the same, but soon he began to feel it did not quite touch the core of his search.
As the days passed, Naren began to grow restless about the various riddles that religion presented to him. He particularly wanted to meet a person who could talk about God with the authority of personal experience. Finally, he went to Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar one day and was charmed to see his renunciation and love for God. He started visiting him and then during one of these meetings asked him straightaway if he had seen God. He said he had, and if Naren so wished, he could even show God to him. Naren began to watch him very closely and after a long time he was left in no doubt that Ramakrishna was an extraordinary man. He was the only man he had so far met who had completely mastered himself. Then, he was also the best illustration of every religious truth he preached. Naren loved and admired Ramakrishna but never surrendered his independence of judgment. Interestingly, Ramakrishna himself did not demand it of him, or of any other of his disciples. Nevertheless, Naren gradually came to accept Ramakrishna as his master.
Ramakrishna suffered from cancer and passed away in 1886. During his illness, a group of select young men had gathered round him and began to nurse him while receiving spiritual guidance from him. Naren was the leader of this group. Ramakrishna had wanted that they take to the monastic life. They accordingly founded a monastery at Baranagar and began to live together, depending upon what they got by begging. They took the formal vows of a monastic life and took monastic names as per the tradition. Vivekananda became Naren's monastic name.
Vivekananda travelled extensively through India, often on foot. He was shocked to see the poor and degraded condition of the masses and the callousness of the so-called educated upper classes. Swami Vivekananda felt the need to mobilize the masses. A few educated men and women could not solve the problem of the country; the mass power had to be harnessed to the task. He wanted the masses educated.
Some princes, scholars and some of the young men of Madras dedicated themselves to the ideas Swamiji propounded. But most of the so-called leaders of the society ignored him. Who was he? A mere wandering monk. There were hundreds of such monks all over the country. Why should they pay any special attention to him ?
As Swamiji arrived in Madras, young people gathered round him drawn by his bright and inspiring talks. They begged him to go to the USA to attend the upcoming Parliament of Religions in Chicago to represent Hinduism. They even started raising funds for the purpose. Swamiji was at first reluctant but later felt some good might come of his visit to the West, for if he could make some impression there, his people back at home, who always judged a thing good or bad according as the Western critics thought of it, would then give him a respectful hearing. That is exactly what happened : Swamiji made a tremendous impression, first in the USA and then also in England. The press paid him the highest tributes as an exponent of India's age-old values; overnight he became a great national hero in India. Suddenly it was brought home to them that there must be something in Indian thought that the Western intelligentsia felt compelled to admire. This was the starting point of the Indian renaissance one hears about. Many national leaders of India during that time have drawn inspiration from Swami Vivekananda.
For the Western world, Vivekananda's message provided a new insight into the meaning of religion and culture. The way to a harmonious understanding of different faiths of the world became open for them. Also the West learnt through Vivekananda that science and religion, reason and faith, work and worship are complementary disciplines. His work in the West took concrete shape in the form of various Vedanta Societies/ Vedanta Centers established in the different Western countries wherefrom the divine fragrance of the Indian Spirituality is being steadily spread around.
Teachings of Swami Vivekananda:
Courtesy Vedanta Society of Providence, Rhode Island, USA