Who Was Vivekananda?

By Sreejit Datta, Assistant Professor & Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies at Rashtram

Without acquiring the ability and refinement to fully appreciate the socio-cultural background of Swamiji, one cannot hope to appreciate his spiritual inclinations…which are deeply rooted in the soil and socio-cultural milieu of Bengal.

He who has been the Nara of Narayana and the Arjuna of Krishna had descended as Vivekananda of Ramakrishna to walk and talk amidst us. This is no sentimental hyperbole coming from the paeans of praises that come so naturally to the devout, but an āptavacana, a testimony of no less an authority than Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa himself (vide Svamī-Śiṣya Saṃvāda [original Bengali text], Svamī Bibekānonder Bāni O Racanā, Vol IX). Borrowing from the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi’s terminology, one could put it in the following way: while Ramakrishna embodies the self-consciousness (the “Brahma” principle) of the Indic civilisation, his disciple-in-chief Vivekananda embodies its self-confidence (the “Kshatra” principle), which is the dialectical counterpart of the former in a civilisation-building as well as civilisation-sustaining process. Any enquiry to truly understand who Vivekananda Swami was, just like any enquiry to fully realise who his Guru Ramakrishna was, is thus bound to be not only the object of an intellectual exercise but a sādhanā in itself that demands sublimation of the very consciousness of the enquirer. ‘Sublimation of consciousness’ can be a subject of mysticism, but it is hardly a cover for mystification; on the contrary, such sublimation is methodical. It follows the stages of a purification of the intellect – known as ‘buddhi śuddhi’ – and the consequent, gradual development of a strong spiritual intuition to grasp and interpret certain epistemic means that lie beyond both sense perception as well as mere mental concepts. One example of such dependable, authoritative means of acquiring knowledge of the suprasensuous and supra-intellectual matters is āptavacana – the verbal testimonies of the Siddha-puruṣa – which remains a much-maligned and grossly misunderstood epistemic mode in both popular as well as academic discourses. 

In the popular imagination, however, Vivekananda largely remains a revered figure, if only vaguely known and even less clearly understood by the masses in this country and abroad, due to a lack of serious engagement with his writings, letters, and discourses as recorded in the Complete Works published in multiple languages. It is for this reason that utterances that appear contradictory are often cited in popular and academic discourses to discredit and delegitimise his spiritual standing and his missionary work that resulted in a resurgence of Hinduism presented in a new light in the last one hundred and twenty years since his passing. There is reason to believe that even the reverence that he continues to receive from people in this day and age – a reverence which often projects him as a “Youth Icon” (possibly because he did not live to see himself in his forties and his professed faith on the young) – also limits our perception of his dynamic character in more ways than one. For example, the popular imagination hardly ever takes into account the dramatic reversal of fortune from opulence to penury that he as a young man had to undergo before turning even twenty-four (which had a tremendous impact on his worldview), while also missing out on the great exposure to philosophical, historical, and musical knowledge he enjoyed as well as his direct connection with the who’s who of nineteenth-century Bengal and India in general. Few people have delved deep into the extent of his proclivity for physical exercises and sports, which he would later come to greatly emphasise as the first step towards spirituality. Narendranath Dutta, as Vivekananda was known before he turned a sannyasi, literally embodied the best that Bengal and India had to offer in his times and from the ages that preceded him. Therefore, it can be argued that to know the real Swami Vivekananda, the man as well as the Rishi, one needs to dig deep into the historical era and the geographical-cultural locale of his growth, the Bengali language that he spoke (and often wrote in), the music he regularly performed and composed in various places and on different occasions, the company he kept and the intellectual movements of his times that he closely monitored, in order to acquire even a decent intellectual understanding of the historical, cultural, and intellectual phenomenon that he was – nay, still is. A more substantial understanding, founded upon strong spiritual intuition, can follow thereafter, if only one persists. Without acquiring the ability and refinement to fully appreciate the socio-cultural background of Swamiji, one cannot hope to appreciate his spiritual inclinations, let alone those of his illustrious Guru’s, which are deeply rooted in the soil and socio-cultural milieu of Bengal. And this project becomes all the more important because almost all the makers of Modern India, from Tagore to Aurobindo, from Gandhi to Netaji – of all hues of intellectual, cultural, religious, and political creeds, have confessed their indebtedness to this disciple-par-excellence, this commander-in-chief of Sri Ramakrishna. Perhaps the only rigorous attempt to carry out such a project was initiated by the researcher and author Shankari Prasad Basu, who authored the multi-volume work Bibekānondo O Śamokālīn Bharatbarṣo (“Vivekananda and the India of His Times”). It is time to re-initiate such a process, to multiply it manifold in its depth and range, to pull our past as well as our cutting-edge modern resources, and focus them all onto an effective execution – not only through our scholars and experts, our schools and universities, our journals and enlightened discussions, but also through our more intimate, closer-to-home engagements involving speech, minds, and hearts. That process, we should hope, will place us face to face with an icon of our hearts, who has been unwittingly made vague and distant by the framed images in our homes and the roadside statues of our towns. Let us take care not to miss the essence of the ‘Integral Vivekananda’ by paying lip service to his images and works alone. While we do so, let us shun all hypocrisy and cowardice, the two vices that Vivekananda abhorred the most, and make his words blood and flesh, once again.          

Apply Now