Rarely does humanity witness a combination of a great Guru (Spiritual Teacher) and equally capable Shishya (spiritual aspirant) as Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Upanishads and the Gita do mention of such noble pairs, when the fully primed aspirant seeking higher knowledge humbly bows down to the Teacher, and says, "O sir, please tell me 'what is that by knowing which nothing else remains to be known'. Give me that, acquiring which all desires nullify. O gracious one, I surrender at your feet; please tell me what is right for me." And the compassionate Teacher describes the nature of Atman and Brahman, starting as external reality to begin with, but culminating into true knowledge of our inner soul as Brahman. As Guru spoke, so did the aspirant (Sadhaka) experience the Truth contained in those words. It was as if a film on Brahman was being run in front of the yearning aspirant.
One such pair flourished in the last two decades of nineteenth century, when Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa sculpted the most wonderful masterpiece in the form of Swami Vivekananda out of raw skeptical, rational but fearless and dynamic Narendranath. Their association has unleashed such a tremendous spiritual force that it has already started destroying the dross and dreary ignorance covering the minds and hearts of mankind all over the globe.
To arrest the sectarian influence of onward march of scientific reason, to fight the onslaught of external technological progress, which claimed material prosperity as the only goal for humanity, one required answers in the scientific language alone. Language of devotion and faith was brushed aside as weakness and defeat. Religion was on defensive in the face of clattering advances of science. To combat this destructive march of quasi-purposive science, Swami Vivekananda entered the world arena as a great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.
Swami Vivekananda was born in an educated and well-to-do family in Calcutta, on 12th January 1863. His father was a famous lawyer, educated and well versed in modern liberal thought and scientific outlook. He was well traveled and knew many languages including Persian and English.
Swami Vivekananda’s mother, Bhuvaneshawaridevi, was a pious and wise lady devoted to God. She inspired the latent virtues of fearlessness, honesty, justice, and devotion in her son, Narendra, as Swami Vivekananda was called in his childhood. She told Narendra the stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two greatest Indian Epics, which influenced later life of Swami Vivekananda.
From his early childhood, Narendra was naughty, brave, and fearless. He also did not approve of injustice or sycophancy. But his peculiar tendencies in the childhood were –
The ease with which he used to go into intense meditation and
Unusual capacity of intense mental concentration, which made him learn and remember essential subject matter in the books in very short period of time, and that too by just reading once!
As an example, let me cite the following example (example is from his later life):
Once Swami Vivekananda was reading the volumes of 'Encyclopedia Britannica'. His disciple associate (Sharatchandra Chakravarti), seeing those twenty-four volumes, remarked, "It is difficult to master the contents of so many volumes in one life." He did not know at the time that the Swami had already finished ten volumes and was reading the eleventh. "What do you mean?" said Swamiji. "Ask me whatever you like from those ten volumes and I can tell you all about it." The disciple, out of curiosity, brought down the books and asked Swamiji many questions on difficult and varied topics/subjects, selecting one or two from different volumes. Swami Vivekananda not only replied each correctly, but in many instances he quoted the very language of the books!
At other time, Swami Vivekananda happened to turn the pages of a book in quick succession just by looking at them once. The disciple asked as to what Swamiji was doing. Swami Vivekananda replied, "Why, I am reading the book." The fellow was utterly surprised to see such an odd method of reading the book! Then Swami Vivekananda explained: Just as a child reads every letter of a word, most of adults read a cluster of words or a full sentence, similarly ‘I can read paragraph to paragraph’. Thus, three glances and the whole page used to be read! Later he greatly emphasized to cultivate power of mind in the form of purity and concentration for spiritual gains, so also perfection in many arts and studies in science and other branches of education.
The versatile and young Narendra was well versed with both Indian and western philosophical thought, including the Vedanta of Upanishads and newer trends in the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Kant, and Hegel in European culture. He once said, "Kant's great achievement was the discovery that 'time, space, and causation are modes of thought,' but Vedanta taught of this ages ago and called it 'Maya'. Schopenhauer stands on reason only and rationalizes the Vedas… Shankara maintained the orthodoxy of Vedas."
It was a rare combination of science and literature that flourished in the mind of this young man, hungry for knowledge in all the fields. He even went to Calcutta medical school to see for himself the arrangement of brain, spinal cord, and the nerves in the dead bodies in the anatomical museum. He wanted to understand the flow of current etc. that would make him understand various Kundalini Chakrasetc.
Equally adept he was in the art of music and singing. His voice was clear, pure, and full with emotion that was sure to bring tears to the eyes of the listeners. Even Sri Ramakrishna used to say, 'no one sings more touchingly than Naren'. He was expert in playing percussion instruments like Tabla, Mrudungam, and especiallyPakhavaz.
Thus equipped with the knowledge of English and Bengali (he also knew some Hindi), art and literature, music and singing (he also had comments about painting!), philosophy and science, Swami Vivekananda presented himself at the holy feet of Sri Ramakrishna in the year 1881, at the tender age of eighteen.
Narendra Meets the Master
In the year 1881 Narendra met Sri Ramakrishna for the first time. As it happened, Sri Ramakrishna had gone to Calcutta to one of his devotee's house. It was near Narendra's. There devotional songs were to be sung; but singer didn't turn up for the program. Surendra and Ram, householder devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, and friends of Swami Vivekananda, thought of inviting Narendra to fill up the gap, for they knew the high capabilities of Narendra in singing and playing the musical instruments.
Thus came our hero to the house of the devotee and sang one of the most touching songs, in Bengali. The first lines went like this: 'O mind, why do you loiter in this foreign land wearing foreigner's dress and clothes? Let us go home, to our own land, where we truly belong!' Sri Ramakrishna was visibly moved by the sincerity and quality of Narendra's singing. Tears welled up in the eyes of Sri Ramakrishna, and he lovingly got acquainted with Narendra. He invited Naren to visit Dakshineswar at his earliest convenience.
Moreover, once Narendra's English college teacher in his lecture had told the class to visit Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa at Dakshineswar to know the exact meaning of the word 'trance', for Sri Ramakrishna often went into that state of super conscious Samadhi. Accordingly, in the November of 1881 Narendra went to Dakshineswar with his friends.
Sri Ramakrishna treated him with utmost love and familiarity, as if they knew each other intimately and were meeting not as strangers but as close old friends. [Sri Ramakrishna in his vision knew Narendra to be a sage who has accompanied him (Sri Ramakrishna) on the earth to help him in his mission. Sri Ramakrishna had very vividly described the vision to his devotees.]
Narendra knew nothing about this. He was totally stranger to Kali Temple, Dakshineswar and Sri Ramakrishna. On seeing Narendra Sri Ramakrishna got up and said, "O Narayana, why did you take such long to come here? I have been restlessly waiting for you since long." Thus saying, he escorted Narendranath to inner room and fed him with his own hands with sweets and other eatables. Naturally Swami Vivekananda was puzzled to receive this kind of treatment; this was not natural reaction between two strangers!
Commenting about his first visit later Narendra said, "It was most unusual kind of meeting. I could not understand the peculiar behavior of that 'mad, monomaniac Brahmin'. I was reluctant to visit him again, but his pure love, simplicity, genuine renunciation and love for God pulled me again and again to him, despite protests of logic and reason."
The Teacher and the Disciple
The great soul in Narendranath readily recognized the extraordinary greatness in Sri Ramakrishna in the form of true love for God and great renunciation. However, his skepticism and logical mind was not ready to accept the 'powers' manifested in Sri Ramakrishna. He thought that this 'simple insane' Brahmin might be playing tricks with others in the form of hypnotism or mesmerism. His trance and Samadhi were thought to be the whims and play of mind/psyche rather than divine super-conscious states. In fact Swami Vivekananda postponed his visit to Dakshineswar for about six months, although he had promised Sri Ramakrishna to visit him soon.
But at last the call of Divine was far too powerful for Narendra to resist anymore. And one afternoon, alone on foot, he started for the second meeting with his mentor, and would be Guru, Sri Ramakrishna. And what did he say? He asked, "Sir, have you seen God?" Calmly Sri Ramakrishna replied, "Yes, I see Him as clearly as one sees an apple over the palm, nay, even more intently! And not only this, you can also see Him." This unusual and most confident answer turned Narendra to more perplexity and surprise. He had been asking the same question 'Sir, have you seen God' to many a great religious and noble persons, but he never got such clear cut answer from any of them. Many religious Pundits, Devendranath Tagore and many scholars of Brahmo Movement were reluctant to answer his question with any authority or resoluteness. But today he got the most emphatic answer in positive.
Sri Ramakrishna was sitting all alone. He was very pleased to receive Narendranath and called him near his tiny bedstead. Sri Ramakrishna went into a divine mood and slowly approaching Narendra in a peculiar way touched his right foot to Narendra's body. Immediately Narendra had a wonderful experience, which is given in his own words,
"I saw with my eyes open that all the things of the room together with the walls were rapidly whirling and receding into an unknown region, and my I-ness together with the whole universe was, as it were, going to vanish in an all devouring great void. I was then overwhelmed with terrible fear. I knew that the destruction of I-ness was death, so I thought that death was before me, very near at hand. Unable to control myself, I cried out loudly, saying, 'Ah! What is it you have done to me? I have my parents, you know.'"
Laughing loudly at his words, Sri Ramakrishna touched Narendra's chest with his hand and said, "Let it then cease now. It need not be done all at once. It will come to pass in course of time." Swami Vivekananda was amazed to notice how that extraordinary experience vanished as quickly as it had come! He came to normal state and saw things inside and outside the room standing still as before.
Learning at the Holy Feet of Thakur
Narendra was sure that this was no hypnotism, for he thought himself endowed with solid will power and self-confidence, and that his mind could not be affected by anyone. But equally true was the fact, he realized, 'how could I consider this person (Sri Ramakrishna) mad, when he could shatter to pieces the structure of a mind like mine, possessing a strong and powerful will and firm convictions! As if he could refashion my mind like a ball of soft clay into any pattern as it pleased him!' Still Narendra decided to remain on guard, and to further explore the reality about the Master. He kept the final judgment about this 'wonderful madman' pending for the future.
The third visit followed much earlier than the second one. This time Sri Ramakrishna asked Narendra to accompany him to the nearby garden of Jadu Mallick. Thakur had full permission to enter the garden anytime he wished. Thus, here these two persons, the Master and his would be disciple, were left all alone. Sri Ramakrishna went into ecstatic mood and elevated Narendra to such a state of consciousness where although Narendra forgot himself bodily, he could answer the questions put by Sri Ramakrishna. Narendra did not remember anything about this episode, but Thakur later told his devotees that on that day he put many intimate questions to Narendra and got answers to them all. He asked Narendra about the purpose of his descent on the earth, the nature of his work in the future, his plans and mission in life and so on. On the basis of these questions the Master came to know that Narendra would lead life of a monk and would leave his body when he comes to know his true nature. Sri Ramakrishna knew that Swami Vivekananda was ever-perfected soul – Nitya Siddha – in meditation.
Change of Views
After this meeting Narendra was forced to change many of his preconceived notions about God, divinity, and perfected souls. He had formerly great objection, as most of us have, to accept another man as Guru or spiritual guide. This is because we think that the person whom we accept as Guru might turn out to be an ordinary man full of inherent weakness of lust and gold. But on coming in the company of Sri Ramakrishna, Narendra understood that such great souls with complete renunciation, selflessness, and compassion, though rare, actually are born in the world – souls with extraordinary purity, love, and penance - that shake the limited conception about God and God-Man existing in the little mind and intellect of we ordinary people.
Therefore, if they are accepted as Gurus, ordinary men will be benefited, and not harmed. Consequently Narendra was ready to accept the Master as his Guru, but still he could not go so far as to accept indiscriminately whatever Sri Ramakrishna said! As Swami Saradananda writes,
"A powerful mind feels strong resistance from within when, at the time of accepting new truth, it has to change its former convictions. Narendranath was in that predicament. Though acquainted with the Master's wonderful powers, he could not completely accept him, and though feeling attracted, he tried to stand aloof from him."
Naren started visiting the Master more frequently. Soon he got acquainted with a few more sincere disciples who had already decided to dedicate their lives at the Holy feet of Sri Ramakrishna. These meetings with the Master were full of fun and joy, pleasure and gaiety, and there was never even the shadow of gloom, dejection, despair, or worry. It was always 'Ananda Mela' (mart of pleasure) at Dakshineswar. Sri Ramakrishna used to 'teach' in simple language through parables and stories. There was never a feeling that the Master was the Guru, but mostly all looked upon him as their wise friend with huge spiritual knowledge borne out of innumerable direct personal experiences.
A few of the disciples visited Sri Ramakrishna daily, others at varying interval per week. There was no restriction or compulsion on any one, but Thakur used to emphasis the importance of love for God, austerities, sadhana, renunciation, continence, and purity to get spiritual insights.
Besides these sincere 'monk like' disciples belonging to 'inner circle', many householder devotees, sadhus, fakirs, and lay people used to visit Kali Temple daily, and also met Sri Ramakrishna who used to live in one of the rooms nearby. (It is worth visiting the Kali Temple and Dakshineswar once in lifetime where as recently as 115 years back the great child of the Mother realized Her Living presence in that 'stone idol'!)
The Teachings of Vedanta
Through the talks and stories, parables and devotional music and singing (bhajana and kirtana) concerning Sri Krishna, Radha, Gopis of Vrindavan, and Mother Kali and Chaitannya, Narendra came to know the essence of religion as 'Realization of Highest Truth' in our lives. As he was opposed and reluctant to accept idol or image worship, and believed in non-dual form of God, Thakur explained him the subtle points about Brahma, Atman, and Unified Consciousness – the one without the second. Thus, the Master persuaded Narendra to read to him Ashtavakra Gita and similar texts on Advaita Vedanta, explaining finer points, which were difficult to comprehend. Sri Ramakrishna preferred to tell these nuances in total privacy, when no one else would be present in the room. It was all Jnana and Yoga to begin with. Later Bhakti and Karma Yoga were added, so to so, which we shall subsequently touch upon. The Master also instructed his disciples about the importance, ways, methods, and means about mediation and spiritual disciplines.
Thus, between 1881 and 1886, for five years, Narendra was groomed to become a great yogi with unparalleled sharpness of intellect, reason, and logic. No one could stand his incisive power of critical analysis based on scientific reason and rationality in the matters of Vedanta. Added to this was the gracious gift of the Master to his beloved Naren, the gift of Nirvikalpa Samadhi – highest non-dual consciousness – through which Swami Vivekananda realized the Truths of super-conscious states. He was face to face with Atman, the God of the Master. Therefore, as is said, 'nothing else remained for Swami Vivekananda to be realized now'. He had realized the highest Truth.
But was that the case, indeed!
No! For, he still had to realize the truth of Mother; to realize that impersonal and personal aspects of God are one and the same thing as Shiva and Shakti, the two sides of the same coin. God with attributes and form and God without attributes and form had relationship like that of fire and its power to burn, sun and its rays, milk and its whiteness, or diamond and its luster. One cannot be separated from the other. This unity in duality (which likewise can be extended to unity in universal diversity) is in fact the successive stages in realization of the ultimate Truth, which Swami Vivekananda later elaborated in one of lectures in the USA as,
"It is like taking photographs of the sun from different locations and stations in orbit; all the photographs would appear different, but the essence would be the one, Sun!"
Learning through Hardships
Death of Narendra's father and his subsequent prayer to Ma Kali
No one knows the ways of divine play! Inscrutable are the ways of the Lord that only a few can understand; others call it fate. Such a life shattering event occurred in the life of Swami Vivekananda when he had passed his degree course in the college, and when was about 21 years of age. Everything was going on smoothly for him at home and at Dakshineswar, when his father suddenly died due to massive heart attack. The liberal attorney, Vishwanath Dutta, although outwardly appeared well off, in fact was in severe debt. His unusual generosity and carelessness in handling money-matters had put him in a situation where nothing was left as savings. The debtors took away their share leaving the bereaved family in utter poverty and want. Narendra's uncles also shied away in this hour of crisis, and instead of helping him they took away their share and kept aloof. It was difficult for Narendra to make two ends meet.
To add to the difficulty, Narendra could not get a job even after trying hard. In this situation of utter emergency and despair, Swami Vivekananda took the decision to leave the home and walk out in the unknown world as a Sannyasin. Here at Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna in his spiritual mood came to know about the secret resolve of his beloved disciple to leave the world, which caused much anguish and concern in his heart. In such a situation the Master met Narendra at one of the devotee's house. In his deep emotional voice, the Master sang a song, which ran like this –
"I am afraid to speak, and equally afraid not to speak,
The doubt rises in my mind,
Lest I should lose you, ah my Rai,
Lest I should lose you"
Immediately the meaning was clear to Narendra; he knew that Sri Ramakrishna had come to know his secret resolve to become Sannyasin, and that the song was meant for him to reconsider his decision. Tears flowed down the cheeks of both the Guru and the disciple wetting their chests as well. All other devotees present there were surprised to see such an unusual behavior of the Master and Narendranath; no one knowing the real cause behind this emotional outburst.
After some time the emotions calmed down and Sri Ramakrishna forced Swami Vivekananda to accompany him to Dakshineswar. There Sri Ramakrishna inquired about the problem and requested Naren not to desert him till his death. Narendra had to promise, for he could not disobey the sincerity in Master's appeal.
Then Swami Vivekananda said to Sri Ramakrishna, "O Sir, please pray to the Mother so that my family is supplied with coarse grain and clothes. I know the Mother listens to you and definitely grants your prayers."
But the Master had different plans, if we can say so.
Sri Ramakrishna said, "Look my boy, I have given everything to the Mother; how can I ask back anything from her now? But one thing I can tell you, why don't you go and pray to the Mother to fulfill your wish? My Mother is very kind and gracious, and I am sure she will not disappoint you."
Thus, Swami Vivekananda was forced to pray to the Mother to fulfill his wants. That night Narendra and the Master were alone in the Kali Temple, when Swami Vivekananda went to the Mother's shrine to pray and ask for material things of urgent necessity. However, as he entered the shrine all that he could say was, "O Mother, please give me Jnana and Bhakti."
Thus praying, Narendra returned back to where Sri Ramakrishna was waiting for him. The Master inquired, "Naren, have you asked for food and money required for your family?" Swami Vivekananda, surprised as he was as well, replied, "Why, no sir! I asked for Jnana and Bhakti."
"You fool," said the Master, "Go and ask for wealth and the things you actually need now." Thrice Swami Vivekananda went to Ma Kali, but could not utter a word about money, clothes, food, and grains, but instead all the three times he prayed to the Mother for Jnana and Bhakti!
As soon as Swami Vivekananda used to enter the temple, he was elevated to such a wonderful state of mind and consciousness that the whole world including money, material comfort, and food lost their value, and in its place there shone forth the face of divine and blissful Mother, gracious enough to grant highest Jnanaand Bhakti. Who fool would ask for transient and useless things when in fact Mother was granting Jnana! Who would ask for pebbles when someone was distributing the gems! Who would ask for vegetables to the king, when he was willing to grant his whole kingdom!
Now Swami Vivekananda understood the deep meaning and significance of his Master's word that formless god and God with form as the Mother were but one. Swami Vivekananda accepted Mother on that day as the highest embodiment of spiritual virtues, power, and knowledge. Exhausted, but satiated with inner knowledge of divinity in all its aspects, he bowed down at the holy feet of the Master and prayed, "O Lord, today I came to know who you are. You are all, everything in this universe. I do not want anything anymore from the Mother. It is all your wish."
Embracing his disciple, the master assured, "Go my son, be at peace. From today onwards you and your family would ever be provided with simple clothes and food, and shelter. This much I guarantee for you and your family."
The Teachings of Vendanta
Narendra had developed peculiar sharpness of perception and assimilation that empowered him with unusual power to pick up 'the gems' from the talks of his Master. He could, as compared to others, easily 'see' the deep meaning in the words of Sri Ramakrishna, even though the Master told them in simple language, and never as preaching. Thus, gradually Swami Vivekananda started assimilating tips and hints on practical Vedanta that could benefit individual and collective life in the society.
Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva
The invaluable mantra "Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva" (serving every being as the full manifestation of God) that Narendranath received from his Master.
For instance, sometime in 1884, once the Master was sitting in the room surrounded by his devotees including Narendranath. In the course of conversation arose the topic of Vaishnava religion, and explaining the essence of that doctrine the Master said, "That doctrine teaches that one should always be careful to observe three things, namely, a taste for God's name, kindness to all beings, and the service of co-devotees. …One should have the conviction in one's heart that the whole universe belongs to Krishna, and therefore, one should have compassion for all beings." No sooner had Sri Ramakrishna uttered the words ‘compassion for all beings’ than he suddenly went into ecstasy. Regaining partial normal consciousness, he continued, "Talk of compassion for beings! Insignificant creature that you are, how can you show compassion for all beings? Who are you to show compassion? You wretch, who are you to bestow it! No, no; it is not compassion to jives, but service to them as Shiva."
All went on listening to those words of the Master spoken in that ecstatic mood, but none could detect and understand their hidden import at that time. It was Narendranath alone who, coming out of the room at the end of Master's ecstasy, said, "Ah, what a wonderful light have I got today from the Master's words! What a new and attractive Gospel have we received today through those words of his, wherein a synthesis has been effected of sweet devotion to the Lord with Vedantic knowledge, which is generally regarded as dry austere and lacking in sympathy with the suffering of others. Whenever shall I get the opportunity I will preach this wonderful doctrine of 'Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva', serving God in each living being!”
To give an example how in later life Swami Vivekananda actually put this mantra in practice, the following incidence is worth mentioning:
After his return from USA around 1898, Swami Vivekananda had acquired land at Belur for construction of the Temple of Sri Ramakrishna and the Math forSannyasins. He was not keeping well and had gone to Darjeeling hill station for rest. Meanwhile an epidemic of plague broke out in Calcutta; the panic set in all over. People were running in fear, leaving Calcutta. Many died and there was no one to take care of the sick or dispose of the dead bodies. The news reached the broad-hearted Swami who immediately returned to Calcutta and ordered all the inmates of Belur Math to get busy in the service and care of the affected. Many aSannyasin protested, 'this is not our work; Sri Ramakrishna had never told us social service. Our main aim is to seek the God and do sadhana.' This was the argument put forward by some of the Sannyasins. Swami Vivekananda thundered at them saying, "O my brothers, have you forgotten the mantra of our Master! 'Shiva Jnane Jiva Seva'! By serving human beings we are serving the highest expression of the God on this earth. Love the Lord in these suffering patients. I appeal to you to come forward in this calamity and serve the living God.
All the monks were stunned to listen to these powerful words of their leader and many of them saw the truth therein. But someone still protested, "O swami, from where the money would come?" To this the Swami retaliated, "If need be, sell off the Belur Math! The money thus gathered would be put to the service of these men. I care not for home or shelter for ourselves; we are Sannyasins, and we have taken the vow of poverty. Tree shade would be our roof and a loin cloth would be enough for us to cover our bodies."
Thus were engaged all the monks, householder devotees of Thakur, and inmates of Belur Math in the service of the afflicted. The British authorities in their report on the epidemic had recorded that due to this timely help from the Math mortality was less and moreover, the epidemic was brought under control much quicker.
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