Rudyard Kipling famously predicted, “East is East and West is West, And never the twain shall meet.” In the late 1800’s a couple of extraordinary people set out to prove this prediction wrong. We covered the story of Sri Ramakrishna earlier. Now we take up the story of his foremost disciple Swami Vivekananda. In 1893 Swami Vivekananda visited the US. This was a momentous though unlikely journey. It was for the first time in modern history that a self realized master of the caliber of Swami Vivekananda was visiting the west.
But who was Swami Vivekananda and how did he come to be enlightened? The story of his spiritual quest and enlightenment was anything but straightforward and makes for fascinating reading. His story begins in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta with his birth on January 12 1863. The name his parents gave him was Narendranath but he was known as Naren. His father was a wealthy lawyer well versed in English and Persian. His grandfather gave up worldly life at a young age and became a monk. It was later said that Naren was in the mould of his grandfather.
Naren was a brilliant but restless child. He had the intellect of a genius and a photographic memory. All he had to do was glance at a page and he could grasp the key points that the author was trying to make. Enlightenment comes to people of all types from dullards to those with normal intellect. However it is indeed rare that somebody with the intellect as sharp as Naren’s achieves enlightenment. This was indeed fortunate as Naren was able to study all the major religious texts and philosophies of both the East and the West and provide a unifying framework that is unparalleled. This easily makes him the Einstein of the spiritual world.
Growing up Naren was so restless and mischievous that his mom one day remarked, “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he sent me one of his demons!” Naren was always up to some mischief in the classroom yet he was always able to follow along the class. Though he was mischievous, Naren had a strong spiritual bent and his pranks were always harmless with no evil intent. One day he began play-acting that he was a monk and sat in mock meditation. Somehow this put him in such a deep spiritual state that his relatives had to force open the door and shake him to bring him back to normal consciousness.
In 1877 when Naren was in 8th grade his father moved to Raipur in central India and took Naren with him. As there were no good schools in Raipur his father home schooled him. His father was well educated and had liberal views being a lover of both Islam and Christianity. Father and son would have long discussions on various topics and he was given free intellectual rein to explore thoughts from all angles. Many noted scholars visited his father’s house and Naren would listen to these discussions and occasionally was allowed to join in them too. After 3 years his father moved back to Calcutta and Naren was allowed to join back his old school. It is a testament to the faith his teachers had in his intellect that he was allowed to join the 11th grade even though he had missed 3 years of regular schooling. Naren caught up with the class in no time and passed the college entrance exams creditably. Later he would say that the 3 years in Raipur were the defining moments in his education. This taught him to explore thoughts and ideas independently and on his own.
In college Naren’s intellect and academic excellence attracted the attention of his professors. The principal of the college W. W. Hastie remarked, “I have traveled far and wide, but I have never yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities. He is bound to make his mark in life.” Naren found the curriculum too narrow and would often study topics that took his fancy on his own. Consequently he studied Western logic and philosophy in great depth and also studied ancient and modern history of western nations.
Though Naren partied with his friends and was often the life of the party he somehow found this deeply unsatisfying. His restlessness found him exploring subjects outside his curriculum and also exploring ideas outside his religion. Soon he was attracted to a religion called “Brahmo Samaj”. This religion advocated the idea of a formless God, gender equality, and did not believe in the Indian caste system. After a few years with Brahmo Samaj he once again grew restless realizing that he was no closer to achieving God realization than before.
One day in a class on Wordsworth, conducted by Principal Hastie, the discussion turned to the topic of ecstasy. Hastie found it difficult to explain the ecstasy of a poet. He then remarked that to best understand this, students should see the spiritual ecstasy of Sri Ramakrishna, the priest of a temple in Dakshineswar. Naren was in such a restless state that he took upon himself to do just that. He collected a few friends and together they visited Dakshineswar and met Sri Ramakrishna.
When they met, Sri Ramakrishna asked Naren to sing a few songs. On hearing Naren sing Sri Ramakrishna went into Samadhi and he immediately realized the spiritual potential of this lad. He then took him aside and began shedding tears of joy. Amidst sobs and with great tenderness Sri Ramakrishna began telling Naren how he was waiting for him for a long time and that he had a great spiritual mission to fulfill.
Naren was bewildered to hear this and felt that Sri Ramakrishna was a madman. Naren and Sri Ramakrishna were polar opposites and Naren found it hard to grasp the full importance of what he was hearing. Naren was educated while Sri Ramakrishna illiterate. Naren came from a wealthy family while Sri Ramakrishna was a destitute. Naren believed in the intellect and rationality while Sri Ramakrishna was a God intoxicated mystic who spoke from his heart rather than intellect. Anybody who would have looked at the pair would have found it hard to predict that these two would have a guru-disciple relationship one day.
On his second visit to Dakshineswar Sri Ramakrishna went into his usual trances. During this he happened to touch Naren and accidentally sent him into a trance of his own. Naren described the incident afterwards, “The touch at once gave rise to a unique experience within me. With my eyes open I saw the walls and everything in the room whirl rapidly and vanish into naught, and the whole universe together with my individuality was about to merge in an all-encompassing void! I was terribly frightened and thought I was facing death! Unable to control myself I cried out for help and Sri Ramakrishna laughed and touched me again and restored me back to my senses.” This incident wounded Naren’s pride and marked a turning point. At this point he was not sure if the experience was a result as some sort of mesmerism or hypnotism and not sure if he could trust his own experience as something authentic. But the seed was sown. Naren had tasted briefly a new level of conscious experience for the first time.
In spite of their differences Naren felt a pull towards Sri Ramakrishna and he kept coming back. He was not yet willing to give up logic and reasoning and he did not give any credence to this talk of his future greatness. Once he told Sri Ramakrishna, “Since you love me and wish to see me great, these fancies naturally come to your mind.”
Nevertheless Naren slowly began to realize that Sri Ramakrishna was indeed experiencing something extraordinary and authentic. What had initially appeared to him as eccentric behavior now seemed as a child-like behavior of a God-intoxicated man. But Naren was yet in no mood to accept Sri Ramakrishna as his guru or accept his teachings. One day he told Sri Ramakrishna, “Even though I love you it does not mean that I shall accept your words without exercising my critical judgment.” Sri Ramakrishna rejoiced at the intellectual sincerity of Naren. Of all his disciples Naren was the only one who dared challenge him.
For the next 3 years Naren continued to question Sri Ramakrishna and his beliefs. Just as he we becoming convinced on the truth of Sri Ramakrishna’s message something happened that threw everything off kilter. The story continues here.
Related post: “The Life Of Sri Ramakrishna: God Realization”
Next: Mission Impossible