From winning hearts with his phenomenal, “Sisters and brothers of America…”, an appeal which transcends all barriers of race, ethnicity, region and religion, to becoming a source of inspiration for people worldwide, Swami Vivekananda is inarguably one of the most iconic stalwarts of India’s cultural identity in the world.
Born in Calcutta in 1863, he was a mischievous child with a keen interest in spirituality. From an early age, he was intrigued by ascetics and their nomadic lifestyle and often practiced meditation himself.
As a student at the University of Calcutta, he went through a period of acute spiritual crisis. He found himself questioning and challenging prevailing convictions and realized that his quest for truth could not be assuaged by reason alone.
His meeting with Sri Ramakrishna was a turning point in his life. Initially skeptical of the sage’s teachings, he soon found himself drawn to him. He became a frequent visitor to Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar and eventually accepted him as his spiritual teacher.
He was a mere 21 years of age when his father’s demise left his family penniless and helplessly in debt. He tried to find a job in vain, and once again found himself miserable and questioning the existence of God. In these turbulent times, he found comfort in Sri Ramakrishna.
One day, he asked the guru to pray to goddess Kali for his family’s financial well-being. The guru, in turn, asked him to do so himself. In accordance with his master’s instructions, Vivekananda went thrice to pray to the goddess for his family’s financial welfare, but each time he found himself unable to pray for worldly things and instead prayed for divine knowledge and devotion.
In 1888, two years after Ramakrishna’s death, Swami Vivekananda set out to live as a wandering monk. This marked the beginning of his odyssey. He toured India extensively and delivered a speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He left a powerful impression on the minds and hearts of people- one that is rarely replicated.
Today, over a century after his time, Swami Vivekananda’s teachings continue to retain their relevance, especially so for the youth.
His famous quote “pay as much attention to the means of work as to its end” still resonates well with not only the youth but every common man. Every now and then, we forget that it is the cause that produces the effect, and focus our efforts on the reward, the outcome of the process rather than the process itself. If we are to succeed, then we must put our whole heart into the work; the effect will take care of itself.
At the same time, he emphasised the importance of working without attachment. We put our whole energy into something, and if it doesn’t work out, we’re unable to give it up to the point of misery. No matter how close something is to our hearts, we must reserve the power of detaching ourselves from it.
He urged young people to take control of their lives and realize their potential, “Stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny. All the strength and succor you want are within you.”
His regard for free-thought is enshrined in these words: “We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care of what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.”
He gave singular consideration to kindness, “Condemn none: if you can stretch out a helping hand, do so. If you cannot, fold your hands, bless your brothers, and let them go their own way.”
A fierce advocate for unity, he himself assimilated what was good in the West while staying close to his roots. Perhaps, the most pertinent virtue we can learn from him is that of acceptance:
“Our watchword, then, will be accepted, and not exclusion. Not only toleration, for so-called toleration, is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate it? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?“