Vivekananda – Part 1

Welcome to the fantastical tale of Swami Vivekananda!

I don’t mean that as a joke or to sound flippant. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about Vivekananda, it’s that all of the biographies about him make him out to be akin to a God. Which isn’t an accident. It’s done very purposefully.

Before I go off on too much of a tangent, let’s talk about sources. Much of the information that is available on Vivekananda’s life comes from one official source: Swami Nikhilananda. Nikhilananda was a follower of the Ramakrishna Order. Many of the stories that Nikhilananda tells are repeated by later biographies written by other authors, without much evidence to support their being true.

We saw this happen with Mary Eddy too. The official church biography had a tendency to gloss over certain events in Mary’s life and ascribe divine connection whenever possible. In a similar way, Nikhilananda does the same for Vivekananda in his biographies.

The most unbiased primary source we have is one of Vivekananda’s brothers, as well as a fellow monk of the Ramakrishna Order. These accounts were collected more recently by a scholar named Rajagopal Chattopadhyaya. His work primarily relies on the two aforementioned sources, but he intersperses bits from other scholars and points out clear contradictions whenever possible. I’ve included his work as a a reality check to the fanaticism that is Nikhilananda’s biography.

Now, I know a lot of these names are likely confusing to you at the moment – and I’ll clarify that more in another section – but the important thing to note is this: the “primary” source is biased.

If you’re a part of the Western audience, you’ve likely never heard of Vivekananda before. It is, however, very likely that you’ve come across his teachings before. We will be discussing Vedanta and Raja Yoga at a later point, but these two ideas made their way to the West with him and have become a part of many neo-pagan and New Age practices.

In order to get there, though, I think we need to talk about the man behind the beliefs.

Early Life and Education

To begin with, I should mention that through this section I will be referring to Vivekananda by his pre-monastic name: Narendranath, or Narendra for short.

The Datta family was a fairly well-off family. Rammohan Datta – Narendra’s great-grandfather – had been a clerk for an English attorney and managed to put away a great deal of money. They owned quite a few properties in Calcutta and had a large ancestral estate.

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "Durgacharan [sic-Durgaprasad] was a gifted youth, well versed in Persian and Sanskrit, and so skilled in law that his father made him partner. But he had such a strong leaning towards monastic life that, after the birth of his son he renounced the world and became a monk at the age of twenty-five [sic] and was not heard of by any member of the family until twelve years of Sadhana prescribed by the monastic role had been accomplished."
A section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography which describes Narendra’s grandfather as having a strong leaning towards monasticism from a young age

Then Durgaprasad, Narendra’s grandfather, was born. He was set to inherit the estate and have a great life, but after the birth of Narendra’s father, Durgaprasad decided to become a monastic instead. Shortly after this, Rammohan passed away and the estate was put into the care of a son-in-law. This son-in-law would then spend most of the family fortune.

Which brings us to Viswanath Datta and Bhuvaneswari, Narendra’s parents.

Viswanath was a budding attorney in Calcutta. There were periods of Narendra’s life, before he went off to college, where Viswanath would need to travel for work. These periods were difficult for Narendra, who seemed to really want his father’s attention.

According to Nikhilananda, Viswanath spoke both English and Persian as second languages. He had studied both Christianity and Islam, though he was not a faithful follower of any religion. Evidence to back-up these claims is lacking, however.

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "Learning from his mother -- Bile learnt the Bengali alphabet from Bhuvaneswari and also his first English words. She had a prodigious memory and he learned many stories from the two great Hindu epics from her. Bhuvaneswari used to read for a few hours every afternoon and at night. Both Narendranath and Mahendranath learnt many poems from her. Bile wanted to avoid learning English in early childhood, saying it belong to the mlecchas. However, Bhuvaneswari acquired some basic English under the wife of a Padre, specifically, the 'first book.' She taught Bile English despite his resistance. Her reading habits continued till a few days before her death in July, 1911. Bile could also recite Ramayana in his sweet but nasal tone as taught by the tutors, to the delight of his mother."
A section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography — Bile is the nickname used for Narendra. Both he and his brother Mahendranath learned English from their mother. Narendra considered it the language of foreign barbarians or mleechas.

Both sources recollect that Viswanath was very generous with his money, to the point of taking on many debts that would later on come back to haunt the family. He would often throw elaborate parties for the community in an effort to make sure that those less well-off were able to eat. This was but one way he would help the community, we’ll get into another a little later on.

On the other hand, Bhuvaneswari was described as a very devout Hindu woman. She knew all the epics and could recite whole passages by heart. All sources also paint her as a woman who was very devoted to her family and just as kind to the poor as her husband was. She and Viswanath would, according to on source, sometimes fight over how his family treated property matters.

Narendra’s birth is considered a holy and miraculous birth. At least according to Nikhilananda.

The story goes that Bhuvaneswari was desperate to conceive a boy, given that she had already had two girls. Before Narendra’s birth, being the devout woman that she was, Bhuvaneswari prayed to Shiva for a healthy boy that would honor the family. Her prayers worked, according to Nikhilananda, and she was blessed with a dream that Lord Shiva willingly left his meditation and agreed to be born as her son.

Narendranath would then be born during the Makar Sankranti festival of 1823, or roughly January 12th. Makar Sankranti is a festival marking the movement of the sun from the sign of Sagittarius to Capricorn and, essentially, marks the beginning of the new year. In all, a very auspicious day to be born. As such, the family tended to treat him like a divine being at times, though his boyhood wasn’t completely free from consequence.

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "Religious tendencies in childhood -- There are many incidents in his childhood which have been published in the biographies of the Ramakrishna Order, not confirmed, verified or repeated by either of his two brother-authors, Mahendranath and Bhupendranath."
A section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography

Narendra is one of nine children from the Datta family. As far as I could tell, he was a middle child, with two older sisters before him and a few brothers born after him. While not much is really said about his siblings, the accounts of Narendra’s boyhood in the Corrective Biography come from the recollections of one of his brothers — Mahendranath.

Nikhilananda’s biography, I found, tends to gloss over the pranks that Narendra would get up to. Instead, Nikhilananda wants to focus on the spiritual qualities. He frequently mentions how he was a very devoted Hindu child, that he looked similar to his ascetic grandfather, and that he was entranced by the wandering monks. Even going so far as to claim that Narendra regularly saw nimitta in the form of a bright white light before he would fall asleep.

Nimitta is generally understood to be a sign that one is entering jhana – a higher state of consciousness. For many people who practice samadhi meditation, it takes years to achieve consistent nimitta, let alone entering jhana.

At 15 he had his first spiritual vision about a beehive in a the cleft of a cliff the family happened to be passing by. He laid down in the back of the cart they were traveling in, and became completely entranced with awe and reverence for the Divine. He also had a lot of deja-vu episodes, which Nikhilananda paints as having precognition or some sort of karmic recognition. There, unsurprisingly, aren’t a lot of records of this happening outside of Narendra and Nikhilananda.

Outside of being exceptionally spiritually gifted, Narendra was apparently also exceptionally gifted in both school and as a leader. According to Nikhilananda, Narendra was a voracious learner who could hold his own in complex discussions. It was said that he only ever read the first and last sentence of a paragraph, which would tell him all he needed to know about whatever idea the writer was trying to present. He also was quick to memorize things and could recite passages of major religious texts without hesitation.

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "History was Narendranath's favorite subject. As part of his college courses, he read Green's History of the English People, Alison's History of Europe, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Napoleon was the hero he adored. Wordsowrth's poems fascinated his mind. He used to take part in disputations and arguments with his friends. He believed in spending the least time possible for the assigned course materials and would want to spend much of his time with his friends in music, gossip or exercise."
A section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography

As a young leader, Narendra was that kid who always made himself monarch by dictating to the other kids what they should be doing. He apparently already had little care for caste and was friends with a variety of children in the community. Nikhilananda also describes him as a loveable rascal type; always getting himself into just the right kinds of boyish trouble, rarely facing real consequences for his actions.

We do love a lively rapscallion who turns into a spiritual world leader.

The problem is…this isn’t the whole truth. No doubt that Narendra was a rascal. His brother’s recall a bit more of an aggressive and temperamental Narendra, however.

Whenever he would get mad about something, Narendra would end up breaking something in the house. He was so wild that he had to have two nurse maids watch over him and keep him out of trouble. Not that it helped much, he apparently was always playing pranks. Additionally, according to his brother’s memoirs, he picked up chewing tobacco at a young age and used to spit everywhere; tobacco would continue to be his bad habit of choice until his death.

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "Mahendranath mentions a bad family habit that his elder brother inherited. Narendranath used to spit everywhere. He began to take snuff at age ten or eleven, pushing the powder up his nose using a wooden pencil. He would sneeze part of it out from his nose. He even used to spit on the inside of his own mosquito net."
A section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography

As for the educational claims of Nikhilananda, they seem – at least to me – to be exaggerated. One thing to keep in mind about schooling at this time, particularly in India, is that paper was a scarce resource. As was ink. Children had to supply their own ink and paper, which would then primarily be used to learn how to write or on maths. Everything else was taught through route memorization.

Even though Narendra came from a wealthy family, it’s still highly likely that he wound up memorizing most things he was taught. Which makes his ability to recall certain passages of things a bit less remarkable. It was quite literally how he was taught.

Speaking of how he was taught, remember how I mentioned Viswanath’s generous nature? Well, after Narendra had learned some naughty words from the public school, Viswanath decided to pull him out of school. He was then taught by a private tutor. This tutor would end up teaching 60 village children in the end, thanks to Viswanath’s generosity. Once Narendra finished primary school, however, that would be the end of the private tutor for everyone else.

While Narendra did go on to college, we’ll get to that in the next section.

The important thing I want to point out here is that, much like with Mary Eddy, we have very little first-hand information on what Narendra’s early life was like. What little we do have seems to somewhat contradict the narrative of what the followers believe. As always, I’d like to invite the idea that the truth likely lies somewhere in between these two versions and that we may never really know what he was like. We may just need to content ourselves with the ambiguity.

University, the Bhramo Samaj, and Ramakrishna

University would be a transformative time in Narendra’s life. This wouldn’t be the only time of transformation or questioning Narendra would face, but we’ll get into that here a little later.

There are a few contradictions here as well. Once again, those contradictions exist between Nikhilananda’s stories and Chattopadhyaya’s research. There is also some timeline confusion that begins to exert itself here, which is where Chattopadhyaya’s research becomes invaluable.

While Nikhilananda exerts himself as a source based on his affiliation to the Ramakrishna Order, Nikhilananda did not know Narendra during this time of his life. To be clear, Nikhilananda never directly knew Narendra/Vivekananda – Nikhilananda was only seven years old by the time Vivekananda passed. It would be Ramakrishna’s wife – Sri Sarada Devi – who would initiate Nikhilananda into the Ramakrishna Order. This, I think, is important to keep in mind because many of the biographies and stories of Vivekananda’s life come from Nikhilananda without question about their authenticity.

To be fair, there are other stories and exaggerated accounts of Narendra/Vivekananda that Nikhilananda would draw from. He certainly isn’t the only one spinning tales, but he is the most prominent one. I will, however, leave that discussion to the scholars. If you’re curious for more, I do recommend Chattopadhyaya’s work as he points where the stories likely came from.

Another thing that Chattopadhyaya does fantastically is construct a timeline of events. Again, the college days are the beginning of when we see timeline discrepancies, but those only get worse when we begin discussing Vivekananda’s movements through India in the years that follow. For this section, I will be breaking up Nikhilananda’s narrative with parts from Chattopadhyaya’s research to try and present as balanced a timeline as possible.

So, with that out of the way, what was Narendra questioning in his life?

From Swami Vivekananda in India: "Niranjan Dhar has cast doubts on Narendranath's depth of spiritual interests. He avers that on reading the agnostic Western philosophers, Naren became an agnostic himself; hence he could not have developed a liking for the Brahmo creed. This argument is somewhat fallacious, as reading Western philosophy is not the same as believing in it totally. Dhar further says that if Naren had joined the Brahmo Samaj due to religious interests, he should have joined the Samaj of Devendranath Tagore, as its religious life was 'more advanced' compared to those of Keshub's and Shivanath's branches."
Section from Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography

To begin to answer that, we need to know what he was studying. Narendra was attending the General Assembly’s Institution in Calcutta at the time. His primary focus was on Western history and philosophy, but he also spent equal amounts of time on music, socializing, and sports.

Nikhilananda states that Narendra was, essentially, a genius at the time. Narendra did translate Herbert Spencer’s Education into Bengali, which would be quite a feat, but many of the rest of his accounts of genius focus on the speed-reading technique we discussed earlier.

Chattopadhyaya presents this information for consideration:

Despite being a many-sided genius, why was Narendranath mediocre regarding his college examinations? Gambhirananda answers – because his personality was many sided, and examinations were not very important to him. He spent his entire time on exercise, games, fun, music, or chatting with his friends. The other factors that might have affected his examination results were the stay at Raipur, shifting to the rented home, and finally his spiritual involvement. Shailendra Nath Dhar gives the marks obtained by Naren at the various University examinations as follows. For the Entrance examination, English 47/100, Second language 76/100, History 45/100, Mathematics 38/100, Total 206 (first division). For the F.A. Examination his scores were: English 46/100, Second language 36/100, History 56/100, Mathematics 40/100, Logic 17/50 and Psychology 34/50, total 229 (second division). In the B.A. examination his scores were: English 56/100, Mathematics 61/100, Second language 43/100, History 56/100, Philosophy 45/100, Total 261 (second division). The mediocre nature of his college results is countered by an alleged observation of his principal, William Hastie, who reportedly said that Narendranath was a genius and he never saw such a one even among philosophy student in German universities!”
Swami Vivekananda in India: a corrective biography pg 30-31

Ghambhirananda would never have known Narendra/Vivekananda, as he joined the Ramakrishna Order under Swami Shivananda in 1928. Shivananda, however, would have been familiar with Narendra as the two of them ordained and began the Ramakrishna Math together, though I’m unclear how much they knew each other during this time of Narendra’s life. As for Shailendra Nath Dhar, I admit to having had some trouble in finding more information on him, but he is the author of a series of books detailing Narendra’s life. I can’t speak for the accuracy of his sources, but he was one of the first non-Ramakrishna Math affiliated authors to write about Narendra’s life.

I want to take a second and discuss why discussing who knew whom is important. There was a concerted effort, around the 50th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s death, to revitalize his image as a hero of India. At that time, a lot of people who would have only tangentially known Vivekananda began speaking with some level of authority as to what he had been like in life. This is when we see Nikhilananda begin publishing works and spinning stories as if he had been present in the Swami’s life for the entirety of it. First hand accounts do exist, Chattopadhyaya has confirmed that, but ever since then the Nikhilananda stories have been the most cited.

So, when we read these stories, it’s important to keep in mind WHO is speaking and what their connection to Vivekananda really was.

This isn’t to downplay the actual good the Ramakrishna Math was able to achieve. We’ll get into that in a later section. More that, just like with Mary Eddy, it’s important to keep the context that this good happened in.

Back to the topic at hand, however. Narendra was a fairly average student but he very clearly had a way with words. Even in Chattopadhyaya’s work we see Narendra frequently getting into debates with others. Given that he often out-witted his debate partners in these accounts, it’s no wonder that he was easily seen as a genius.

Still, as with all great intellects of their time, he was restless and wanted something more. Narendra in particular wanted to know God, at least according to Nikhilananda’s stories.

Chattopadhyaya’s work paints a somewhat different story in this regard. But before we get there, let’s talk about the two factions competing for Narendra’s attention during his college days.

Next time we’ll discuss the Brahmo Samaj, Ramakrishna, and work our way up to the time that Narendra became Swami Vivekananda. From there, we’ll need to discuss his travels before we finally get to his introduction into Western society via The World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This is going to be a longer series than the others, so please bear with me as research is still on-going.

Stay safe and sane out there! Hope to see you back for more!


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