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Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda was the first indian teacher, that introduced the philosophy of hinduism to a wide audience in the west. He was the main disciple of Ramakrishna, that made him internationally famous already after his death. He was one of the key figures of indian cultural renaissance and the indepencence movement of the 19th century. Till now his ideas have a great influence on the religious and social life of India.
Swami Vivekananda was born in a rich high-caste family. As a child he was naughty, restless and often uncontrollable. From a young age he had a wide range of interests from spirituality to history, social science, literature, art and sports. He also studied indian classical music. After finishing prestigeous private school, he entered the Presidency College, showing the best marks on the entrance exams. He studied western logic, philosophy and history, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 21. While studying western philosophers, he also read sanskrit scriptures and bengali literature. His college principal described him as the most talented student he had ever seen. At his college years Vivekananda became a member of a Freemasonry lodge, a hindu reformist society and a christian charity. In this period he was influenced by different religious ideas and figures and became well-acquainted with the western esotericism. Eventually he got unsatisfied with his academical knowledge, and started searching for a more direct experience of the divine. He first met his future master Ramakrishna at the age of 19, though initially he didn’t accept him and his teachings. But he felt attracted by Ramakrishna’s personality, and continued visiting him in his temple; he often argued with Ramakrishna and tested him in different ways. During┬áhis last year of college Vivekananda’s father suddenly died, and the whole family went bankrupt. One day Ramakrishna suggested him to go to the temple and pray for welfare. Vivekananda tried to pray 3 times, but each time he could not ask ask for mundane things and only asked for divine knowledge and devotion. After that experience he finally accepted Ramakrishna as his guru. Before his death two years later Ramakrishna named Vivekananda his chief disciple and asked him to take care of his other close disciples.
After Ramakrishna’s demise Vivekananda with a few other close disciples of Ramakrishna settled in a dilapitated house, turning it into a small monastery. They begged for food and spent most of the day in meditation. At that time he took formal monastic wows. Two years later Vivekananda left the monastery and went to travel all over India as a wandering monk with no possesions. In five years of travels he visited numerous pilgrimage places and ashrams and met people of all religions and castes. In 1893 Vivekanada’s followers raised funds for his travel to the west, and he went to the US. He took part in the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an interreligious conference, where he introduced the main ideas of hinduism. His brilliant oratory skills and sharp intellect immediately captured the audience, and he became the most prominent speaker of the conference. Vivekananda spent about two years giving lectures in different cities of the US. Busy schedule weakened his health, and instead of public lectures he started giving private classes of yoga and Vedanta. Vivekananda’s work was well-covered by the press and eagerly accepted by the audience; he was offered positions in three universities. He met numerous celebrities and attracted many followers, some of them became initiated disciples. The success of his work allowed him to establish a few Vedanta centers. When in 1897 Vivekananda returned to India, he was already a famous teacher. He continued speaking, mainly addressing social issues. He founded Ramakrishna Mission for social service. Two years later, despite declining health, Vivekananda travelled to the west again, visiting the US, France, Turkey and Egypt. Upon returning to India he stayed in Ramakrishna’s monastery, but his activity was restricted by poor health. He died during meditation at the age of 39.
Most of the teachings of Vivekananda were delivered in the form of lectures, which were held spontaneously and were not prepared in advance. Hence his teachings lack systematic approach and are sometimes contradictory. Intellectually he was prone to Advaita Vedanta, which he called the essence of hinduism. At the same time, following his master Ramakrishna, he also accepted the paths of worship and devotion, and tried to unite the two contradictory approaches. He taught that each soul is essentially divine, and the goal of human life is to manifest this divinity through any spiritual path. At the same time he supported the caste system of India, stating that social division is necessary and that the lower castes can uplift themselves by following the example of brahmins. He tried to prove that hinduism is the highest religion and the source of all religions, at the same time preaching religious unity and a need for universal religion. He encouraged social service, stating that serving people is the best way of worshipping god. He also encouraged economical, social and educational development of India, and influenced a number of social activists; at the same time he discouraged an opened struggle for independence and spoke in favour of the British rule. For his age Vivekananda was quite progressive and modernist; he spoke against orthodoxy and social prejudices, at the same time praising brahmins and brahminhood.
Today Vivekananda is considered to be one of the creators of indian nation, especially in terms of spirituality. His ideas deeply influenced and shaped contemporary hinduism and indian thought in general. Numerous prominent indians like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore were inspired by him. Lately he has become almost an iconis figure in India, being portrayed as an ideal and examplary human being. But despite his undoubtedly outstanding qualities, his image and ideas seem to be overappreciated. His talks are mostly very general, and he avoids expressing a clear opinion on the hot social issues; the obvious contradictions in his ideas seem to show double standarts. His fame was not due to the depth and originality of his ideas, but rather due to the beautiful and passionate way they were expressed. It also seems that he just happened to be in a right place in the right time. But every nation needs to create its heroes, whether they deserve it or not.

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