Vivekananda (1863-1902) was an Indian reformer, missionary, and spiritual leader who promulgated Indian religious and philosophical values in Europe, England, and the United States, founding the Vedanta Society and the Ramakrishna mission.
Vivekananda was born in Calcutta of high-caste parents. His family name was Narendranath ("son of the lord of man") Datta. His father was a distinguished lawyer, and his mother a woman of deep religious piety. The influence of both parental figures clearly affected Vivekananda's early life and mature self-conception. He was a fun-loving boy who also showed great intellectual promise in the humanities, music, the sciences, and languages at high school and college. At the age of 15 he had an experience of spiritual ecstasy which served to reinforce his latent sense of religious calling—through he was openly skeptical of traditional religious practices. He joined the liberal Hindu reforming movement, the Brahmo Samaj (Association of God). But his deeper religious aspirations were still unsatisfied.
In 1881 Vivekananda met the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna, who recognized the young man's immense talents and finally persuaded him to join his community of disciples. After Ramakrishna's death in 1885, Vivekananda assumed leadership of the Ramakrishna order. He prepared the disciples for extensive missionary work, which he himself undertook throughout India—preaching both on the spiritual uniqueness of Indian civilization and on the need for massive reforms, especially the alleviation of the poverty of the Indian masses and the dissolution of caste discrimination. In 1893 his fame and brilliance gained him the nomination as Indian representative to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Vivekananda's successes there led to an extended lecture tour. He stressed the mutual relevance of Indian spirituality and Western material progress—both, in his view, were in need of each other. In Boston he found much in common with the philosophy of the transcendentalists— Emerson, Thoreau, and their followers. After touring England and Europe, Vivekananda returned to the United States, founding the Vedanta Society of New York in 1896. His lectures on the Vedanta philosophy and yoga systems deeply impressed William James, Josiah Royce, and other members of the Harvard faculty. Vivekananda then went back to India to promote the Ramakrishna mission and reforming activities.
Seemingly indefatigable, Vivekananda traveled once again to the United States, in 1898, where he established a monastic community, the Shanti Ashrama, on donated land near San Francisco. In 1900 he attended the Paris Congress of the History of Religions, speaking extensively on Indian religious and cultural history. He returned to India in December of that year, his health much undermined by his strenuous activities. His work is still maintained today internationally by the many organizations which he founded.
Further Reading on Vivekananda
Vivekananda's writings and speeches are collected in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (7 vols., Almora, Advaita Ashrama, 1918-1922). A useful study of Vivekananda is Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (1953). Other studies include Romain Rolland, Prophets of the New India (trans. 1930); Christopher Isherwood's biographical introduction to Vivekananda's What Religion Is in the Words of Swami Vivekananda edited by John Yale (1962); and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, ed., Swami Vivekananda Centenary Memorial Volume (Calcutta, 1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Burke, Marie Louise, Swami Vivekananda in the West: new discoveries, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, [1985 ]-1987.
Chetanananda, Swami, Vivekananda: East meets West: a pictorial biography, St. louis, MO: Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 1994.
The Life of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1979.