One of the most celebrated Hindu gurus of all times, Swami Vivekananda took the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga beyond its shores and into the West.
Even though the boy was born into an aristocratic Bengali family of Calcutta with the name Narendranath Datta, Vivekananda was drawn to spirituality. He was deeply influenced by his guru, Ramakrishna and his philosophy that ‘all living beings were an embodiment of the divine self; and therefore, service to God could be rendered by service to mankind.’
And so when his guru passed away, the monk travelled across the Indian subcontinent and to the United States, England and Europe, conducting hundreds of public and private lectures and classes spreading the knowledge of Hindu philosophy.
While the world may be aware of the multi-faceted personality the exceptional orator, sanyasi and disciple of Ramakrishna was, not many know about the private life he led or the instances that transformed him and the people he interacted with in turn.
Sankar’s book ‘The Monk as Man: The Unknown Life of Swami Vivekananda’ (Penguin) narrates eight such lesser-known snippets from the life of the Indian monk, that will inspire you:
Did you know Swami Vivekananda scored only a 47% at the university entrance level examination, a 46% in the FA (later this exam became Intermediate Arts or IA), and a 56% in his BA exam?
And yet, he was one of the most eloquent speakers who could captivate his audiences. So, the next time bad grades bog you down, remember, even a great personality who toured continents did not let academic pressures define his goals in life.
Despite a BA degree, he would go from door to door in search of jobs. He would yell, “I am unemployed” to people who asked him. It was also one of the most terrible phases of his life where he almost lost his faith and would often tell people that God did not exist.
Sankar narrates an incident where Vivekananda’s (then Narendranath’s) neighbour complained, “There is a young fellow living in that house. I have never seen such a conceited fellow! He is too big for his boots–and all because he has a BA degree! When he sings, he even strikes the table arrogantly and struts around smoking a cheroot before all the elders,”
His father’s death took a huge financial toll on his family. So much so, that on several mornings, Vivekananda lied to his mother about having lunch invitations and leaving home hungry, so other members of his family could have a larger share.
“On such days, I had very little to eat, sometimes nothing at all. I was too proud to tell anyone,” he wrote.
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The year was 1888. When Swami Vivekananda was walking between Agra and Vrindavan, he spotted a man sitting by the road smoking chillum (meaning ganja/cannabis). It wasn’t long until Vivekananda asked the man for a smoke as well.
The man was astonished at the Swami’s request and shied away saying “Maharaj, you are a sadhu (monk), and I am a bhangi (low caste)” It was at the time Vivekananda almost stood up to leave, but pondered, “I am a sannyasin, I have left all castes and family ties aside. Why shouldn’t I smoke a bhangi’s chillum?”
And he began to smoke chillum with the man. Reminiscing the incident, the Swami said, “Never hate your fellow beings. All of them are children of God.”
In 1890, when Vivekananda heard the news of Swami Abhedananda’s illness, he rushed from Ghazipur to Varanasi to stay by his side. While he was on his way to meet the other sanyasi, he was told of Sri Ramakrishna’s loyal servant Balaram Basu’s death.
Tears welled in Vivekananda’s eyes. When Pramadadas Mitra, an orthodox Hindu and well wisher of Vivekananda told him, “expressing grief does not behove a sannyasin,” the Swami, angered by the statement, said, “What do you say? Should I cast off my heart just because I am a sannyasin? I don’t accept the sanyas that asks one to make one stone-hearted.”
Swami Vivekananda loved tea dearly. Back in the day when most Hindu pandits were against drinking tea, he introduced tea into his monastery. The Bally municipality even hiked taxes on Belur math, his headquarters/monastery, claiming it was a ‘private garden house’ where tea was served.
The Swami dragged the municipality to Chinsurah Zilla District Court, where a British magistrate investigated the case just to dismiss it.
He once also asked freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, to make tea at Belur Math. Keeping Vivekananda’s words, Lokmanya Tilak diligently carried nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cloves, and saffron with him and prepared the famous Mughlai tea for all.
Two years before his death, Vivekananda was in Belur math to spend time with his disciples. When the dinner gong resounded through the monastery, he hurried to eat dinner but found the gate was locked. The aroma of his favourite dish khichuri made him climb over the gate and run to the dining area just to eat it!
Not many knew, his heath had already started deteriorating at the time.
The years of service had taken a heavy toll on his health. For over 39 years, he suffered a barrage of ailments-
like migraines, tonsillitis, diphtheria, asthma, typhoid, malaria, persistent fevers, liver problems, gastroenteritis, dysentery, diarrhea, dyspepsia and abdominal pain, gallstone, lumbago, neck pain, Bright’s disease (acute nephritis), kidney problems, albuminuria, bloodshot eyes, loss of vision in his right eye, chronic insomnia, neurasthenia, excessive fatigue, sea-sickness, sunstroke, diabetes and heart problems.
But he always said, “One has to die. . . it is better to wear out than to rust out.”