Social philosophy of Swami Vivekananda

by Baruah Debajit | 2017 | 87,227 words

This study deals with Swami Vivekananda’s social philosophy and his concept of religion. He was the disciple of the 19th-century Indian mystic Ramakrishna. Important subjects are discussed viz., nature of religion, reason and religion, goal of religion, religious experience, ways to God, etc. All in the context of Vivekananda....

Chapter 1.0 - Introduction (Swami Vivekananda’s life and history)

In contemporary Indian philosophy Swami Vivekananda was one of the famous figures. His philosophy embodied the most essential features of ideology of the late 19th and 20th centuries. It exerts unfathomable effect on its further development. Vivekananda began his philosophical activities in the 1880s. It was a time of growing friction between the Indian people and British colonialist. He had no clear vision of the nature and motive forces of the growing national liberation movement. But he himself prepared to take an active part in it. Vivekananda intimately followed the development of social affairs in Europe. He was personally acquainted with some revolutionaries and studied their works. His world views reflected the complexity and contradictoriness, strength and weakness of Indian bourgeois ideology of the times. Vivekananda was a lover of mankind. He left nothing out of ken of his observation. He rejected nothing but accepted everything, embracing even the lowly and the base, which stood for growth, expansion, progress and all-round perfection-physical, mental and above all spiritual. Vivekananda is the symbol of revolt against all injustice and privilege.

In India there is an unbroken line of spiritual teachers from the Vedic period to the modern age and Swami Vivekananda is also one in that line. These spiritual teachers imparted the energy and direction to Indian culture-its deep spirituality. It is because they came age after age that India is still alive, in spite of invasions, subjections, humiliations by many foreign nations. India still exists, not only exists, but is strong and vital. Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda brought youthfulness to the age-old Indian culture. The Indian nation becomes youthful through the touch of Swami Vivekananda. And according to Indian philosophy, he who imparts youthfulness, vitality and clarity of vision to a man or a nation is the guru of that man or that nation. In this sense, Vivekananda can rightly called the Rashtra-guru of India. But Vivekananda did not limit his service in India alone; he did the same service to the west also. Through the thread of divinity within man he tried to unite the whole human race. And he achieved to a great extent in this gigantic task within a short period of ten years in his brief thirty-nine years. He became a bridge between the East and the West, the old and the new. Thus we can say his mission was not only national, it was international too.

He was world spiritual teacher. All his works were to summon men and women to their spiritual heritage. Like the other great sages of India, Vivekananda taught man to realize the Divinity that is inherent in man. All his activities in India and abroad have this one single objective. Whether he spoke of Indian’s backwardness, poverty, untouchability, and the reasons for her industrial development or whether he spoke in the West above the need to practice toleration in matters of religion, his chief object was to give to man atmajnana, self-knowledge. In every field he tried to make man realize the Atman, the Divine that is within.

Swami Vivekananda was born on January 12, 1863 in Kolkata, which was previously known as Calcutta. He was born in an orthodox Hindu family. Vishwanath Dutta was his father and Bhuvaneswari Devi was his mother. His original name was Narendranath Dutta. In his latter life Narendranath became a monk and acquired the name of Swami Vivekananda.

Narendra was a very lively child. He was good in studies as well as in games.

Instrumental and vocal music were also learnt by him. He also practiced meditation from a very early age. From his childhood he did not like the superstitious customs which were running in the name of religion. He was a firm hater of the discriminating systems among peoples based on caste and religion. When he was Young, he questioned the validity of superstitious customs and discriminations based on caste and religion. As a child, Narendra had great respect for the ascetics. Whenever a beggar asked for alms he would give him everything he had. Thus Narendra had the spirit of sacrifice and renunciation from childhood. From an early age, he displayed signs of great compassion and also the qualities of a natural leader.

His father Vishwanath Dutta was a well-known lawyer of Calcutta. Again his mother was also a very intelligent and pious lady. His father, Vishwanath often had scholarly discussion with his clients and friends on politics, religion, society etc. He would invite Narendra to join in those discussions. Narendra not in the least embarrassed would say whatever he thought was right. His thoughts were not baseless arguments in support of his stand. That was why some of his father’s friends resented his presence among them, more so because he had the audacity to talk about matters concerning adults. But his father never discouraged him.

Narendra did Matriculation in 1879 and entered in Presidency College of Kolkata. This Presidency College of Kolkata was a reputed college of India at that time and still it has maintained its glory in terms of giving quality education. In 1880, he joined the General Assembly’s Institution (now Scottish Church College), where form he took his B.A. degree. Philosophy was the first priority with him. Hastie, the principal of the college, was highly impressed by Naren’s philosophical insight. It was from Hastie that he first heard of Sri Ramakrishna. In Scottish church college, Narendra studied western philosophy, western logic and history of European nations. As he advanced in his studies, his thinking faculty developed. Doubts regarding existence of God started to rise in his mind. As a student of philosophy, the question s regarding the existence of God, nature of God, relation between God and man, whether the world which is full of anomalies is created by God etc. very much haunted his mind.He discussed these questions with many. But no one could give him satisfactory answer. This made him associate with The Brahmo Samaj. Brahmo Samaj was an important religious movement of the time led by Keshab Chandra. However, the rationality of the Brahmo Samaj’s could not satisfy the spiritual hunger of Vivekananda. The Samaj congregational prayers and devotional songs could not satisfy Narendra’s zeal to realize God. From an early age, he began to have spiritual experiences and at the age of 18 felt an overwhelming desire to ‘See God’. Vivekananda asked peoples around whether they had seen God, but all affirmed in negative. A relation of Narendra used to advise him to visit Rama Krishna of Dakshineswar, who, he said, would be able to give the answers of the questions of God and religion. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa was a priest in the temple of Goddess Kali in Dakshineswar. Though he was not a scholar, he was a great devotee. He was just a simple illiterate villager. However, his simple exterior concealed a personality of extraordinary spirituality. For many years Ramakrishna had pursued the most intense spiritual practices burning with a desire for realization of Goddess Kali. But after realizing Goddess Kali, Ramkrishna not only practiced Hindu rituals but also pursued the spiritual paths of all religions. Sri Rama Krishna came to the conclusion that all religions are only different ways of arriving at the same goal of union with the Infinite.

In 1881, Narendra met Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and that proved to be a turning point of his life. Narendra asked, Ramakrishna, whether he had seen God. The instantaneous answer from Ramakrishna was, ‘Yes, I have seen God, just as I see you here, only in a more clear sense.’ Then Narendra was astounded and puzzled. He could feel that the man’s words were honest and these words were uttered from depths of experience.

Though Narendra started visiting Ramakrishna frequently, it was against his nature to accept anything without testing it. From his childhood he never accepted anything superstitiously. So, he was not willing to accept Ramakrishna as his guru without a test. Ramakrishna used to say that in order to realize God one should give up the longing for money and women. One day Narendra hid a one rupee coin under Ramakrishna’s pillow. Sri Ramakrishna, who had gone out, came into the room and stretched himself on the cot. At once he jumped up as if bitten by a poisonous insect. He then shook the mattress and the one rupee coin fell down. Later he came to know that it was the doing of Narendra.

The spiritual potentiality of Narendra was well recognized by Sri Ramakrishna and he paid attention on him. In the beginning, the reasoning mind of Narendra was doubtful of this God intoxicated saint. He would frequently question and debate his teachings. However, ultimately the spiritual magnetism of Paramhamsa melted Narendra’s heart and he began to experience the real spirituality that Ramakrishna exuded. Thus, Narendra’s mental contradictions faded away to be replaced by an intense surrender to the Divine mother and burning longing for realization.

Narendra thus, accepted Sri Rama Krishna as his guru. He took intense training under him for five years in the Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy of non-dualism. Sri Ramakrishna was able to awaken the latent spiritual consciousness in his disciple and Narendra began to experience profound states of consciousness and Samadhi.

Ramakrishna was suffering from cancer and passed away in 1886. During his illness, a group of young man of which Narendra was the leader, had gathered round him and began to nurse him while receiving spiritual guidance from him. Ramakrishna had wanted that they take to monastic life and had symbolically given them ‘gerua’ cloth. Accordingly, they founded a monastery at Barnagar. There they began to live together, depending upon what they got by begging. Sometimes they would also wander about like other monks. Narendra also would sometimes go travelling. It was while he was thus travelling that he assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda travelled extensively through India. While he was travelling through India he was shocked to see the conditions of rural India-people ignorant, superstitious, poor, and victims of caste-tyranny. Though he became a monk his heart ached for the downtrodden masses of India who suffered poverty and many hardships. He was shocked to see two conditions of rural India–people ignorant, superstitious, half-starved and victims of caste tyranny. But, the callousness of the so-called educated upper classes shocked him still more. In the course of his travels he met many princes who invited him to stay with them as their guest. He again met city based members of the intelligentsia, lawyers, journalists and government officials and he appealed to all to do something for the downtrodden masses. But except the Maharaja of Mysore, the Maharaja of Khetri and a few young men of madras no one seemed to pay any heed to him. Vivekananda impressed on them the need to mobilize the masses.

After travelling through India and coming into close contact with many influential persons, it was suggested that Vivekananda would be an ideal candidate to represent Hinduism at the world parliament of Religions which was to be held in 1893 in Chicago. Before leaving to America, Vivekananda had gone to Sarada Devi, the wife of Sri Ramakrishna to receive her blessings. After receiving her blessings and encouragement he made the momentous journey to America.

When Swami Vivekananda arrived in the United States he was an obscure person. He was an obscure person even in his own country. Vivekananda had even difficulty in getting admissions into the parliament as a delegate for lack of credentials. The credentials were provided by prof, J.H. Wright of Harvard University. He met Vivekananda at a private dinner and was so impressed by his scholarship that he wrote to a number of important people connected with the parliament of Religion. In introducing Vivekananda, he wrote “Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.”[1]

It will be a mistake to think that he was given only ‘bouquets’, he received also many ‘brickbats’. The Christian missionaries took alarm at his popularity. They used to raise funds by preaching that India was a land of heathens waiting to be saved by Christianity. On the other hand the American press began to say that it was a shame that anybody should try to teach India religion; rather the world should be at her feet to learn it. Vivekananda also said that India did not need religion, but material support. The missionaries found that the subscriptions they had so long been receiving from the people were steadily declining. They blamed it on Vivekananda. They now started scandalizing him in all manner of ways. They even began to spread scandals against his personal character. Strangely enough some of his own countrymen joined them in this for reasons of their own. But ‘Truth alone prevails’, as Vivekananda always preached. He did not try to defend himself, but others stood up for him and vehemently protested. Finally, all such mean attempts failed and his reputation only rose higher and higher.

Though Swami Vivekananda went to America as a representative of Hinduism and the ancient Indian tradition of Vedanta, yet he was not bound by any formalities of religion. He did not try to prove the superiority of his own religion. He spoke there with great sincerity about the harmony of the world religions and common spirituality of humanity. This universal message and his dynamic spiritual personality won the hearts of many peoples. Vivekananda appealed to the whole audience with his vision of oneness and equality before God. He said “As different streams having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea, so o Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”[2]

Such a message proved Vivekananda to be an eloquent exponent of the ideals of all the religions of the world. People felt in him a calm detachment, luminous personality and radiant spirituality. Vivekananda proved to be the star of the World Parliament of Religions. The New York Herald said of Vivekananda “He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the parliament of religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to fair learned nation.”[3] The Boston evening post said, “If he (Vivekananda) merely crosses the platform he is applauded; and this fair marked approval of thousands he accepts in a childlike spirit of gratification without trace of conceit…”[4]

Vivekananda not only spoke about religions, he spoke with spontaneous ease on every topic be it History, Sociology, Philosophy or Literature. He deplored the malicious propaganda that had been unleashed in India by the Christian missionaries. In America, Vivekananda trained some close students so that they could propagate the teachings of Vedanta. He also went to England. Many people became his disciples. Most famous among them was Margaret Nobel later named Nivedita who was originally from Ireland. She came to India and settled here. She is popularly known as Sister Nivedita.

As a lover of mankind, he tried hard to promote peace and brotherhood on the spiritual foundation of the Vedantic oneness. As he was a mystic of the highest order, hence he had direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that unfailing source of wisdom and preached them in soul-stirring language. The natural tendency of Vivekananda’s mind like that of Ramakrishna was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering. It might appear that his mind seldom found a point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man. Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his mission on earth. This choice has endeared him to people in the West, Americans in particular.

After four years of touring in the West, Swami Vivekananda returned to India in 1897. He started disseminating the message of spiritual development among peoples of India. He realized that social service was possible only through the united efforts on an organized manner. Therefore he started Sri Ramakrishna Mission in 1897 to achieve this objective and formulated its ideology. In Ramakrishna Mission both monks and lay people would jointly undertake propagation of practical Vedanta and various forms of social work, such as running hospitals, schools, colleges, rural development centers etc. Not only these, it also aimed at conducting massive relief and rehabilitation work of victims of earthquakes, cyclones and other calamities in India and other countries. In early 1898 Swami Vivekananda acquired a plot of land on the western bank of the Ganga river at a place called Belur in order to have a permanent abode for the monastery and monastic order and got it registered as Ramakrishna Math after some years. Here he established a new, universal pattern of monastic life which adapts ancient monastic ideals to the conditions of modern life, which gives equal importance to personal illumination and social service. But the most important characteristics of this pattern are that it is open to all men without any distinction of religion, race or caste. In case of social service also it did not make any discrimination of religion and caste. When plague broke out in Calcutta in May 1898, Vivekananda organized relief work with the help of other members of the monastery and lay-disciples.

He once again toured the West from 1899 to December 1900, taking with him Swami Turiyananda and Sister Nivedita. The journey with Vivekananda was a great lesson to both of them. Sister Nivedita wrote, “From the beginning to the end a vivid flow of stories went on. One never knew what moment would bring the flash of intuition and the ringing utterances of some fresh truth.”[5] After passing Madras, Colombo, Aden and Marseilles en route, on 31 July the ship arrived at London. Staying two weeks in London, he sailed for New York. Arriving there, he went with Mr. and Mrs. Leggett to their beautiful home called Ridgley Manor which was on the River Hudson. Vivekananda stayed there till 5 November and then went to the west coast. He visited Loss Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago and Detroit. At this time the conviction that the East and the West ought to be mutually helpful and must co-operate with each other grew stronger upon him. The mere material brilliance of the West could not dazzle him, nor could the over importance on spirituality in India conceal her social and economic drawbacks. The East had tried to conquer internal nature; on the other hand the West had tried to conquer external nature. Now, according to Vivekananda East and West must work together for the good of each other, without destroying the special characteristics of each. The West has much to learn from the East, and the East has much to learn from the West. It is his conviction that the future has to be shaped by a proper fusion of the ideals of both East and the West. Then there will be neither East nor West, but one humanity. The important event of this period was the foundation of the Shanti Asrahama in Northern California of the USA. This Asrahama was placed under the charge of Swami Turiyananda. Besides this, a Vedanta centre at San Francisco was also inaugurated. He also delivered a number of lectures in the western cities.

On 1 August 1900 Vivekananda arrived in Paris to participate in the congress of the History of Religions, which was going to be held there on occasion of the universal exposition. He with some of his friends left Paris in October and visited Hungary, Rumania, Serbia and Constantinople. After visiting these places they proceeded to Athens and Cairo. But in Cairo, Vivekananda suddenly became restless to come back to India. He took the first available boat and hurried back to India and arrived at the Belur Math on 9 December 1900, without any previous information. It was a great surprise to his brother monks and disciples, who greatly rejoiced of this return. He stayed there for one and half month and then left for East Bengal and Assam. His mother who had expressed an earnest desire to visit the holy places of East Bengal and Assam went with him. He returned to the Math in the second week of May 1901.He visited Nangalbandh, Kamakhya, and Shillong during the tour, and delivered few lectures in Dacca and Shillong.

Now Vivekananda tried to lead a carefree life at the monastery. He would roam about the Math grounds, sometimes clad only in his loin-cloth. Sometimes he would supervise cooking; or sit with the monks singing devotional songs. Sometimes, he would be seen imparting spiritual knowledge to the visitors, at other times engaged in serious study in his room or explaining to the members of the Math the perplexed passages of the scriptures and unfolding to them his schemes for future work. He made himself entirely free from all formal duties by executing a Deed of Trust in favour of his brother monks, transferring to them all the properties, including the Belur Math, so far held his name.

Towards the end of 1901, two Buddhists scholars came from Japan to invite him to attend the forthcoming congress of Religions which was going to be held in Japan. Vivekananda however could not accept their invitation, but he went with them to Bodh Gaya and from there to Varanasi. At Varanasi he was delighted to see some young men who, under the inspiration of his message, had started nursing the poor peoples. Their work formed the Nucleus of the future Ramakrishna Mission Home of service.

Because of his extensive visit to many countries frequently he fell ill. His health was falling. And subsequently he passed away at the young age of 39 on July 4, 1902 at Belur Math near Calcutta. But he achieved a remarkable amount in this short period on earth. He had renounced his mortal body, but his words uttered to Mr. Eric Hammond in 1896, remained to reassure every one of his immortality: “It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body-to cast it off like a worn out garment. But I shall not cease to work! I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.”[6]

Swami Vivekananda tried to combine the ancient spiritual traditions of India with the dynamism of the West. Many great Indian personalities would latter offer their gratitude to the impact and ideals of Vivekananda. In fact, Vivekananda is regarded as the patron saint of modern India. A remarkable contribution of Swami Vivekananda was to build a bridge between Indian and Western culture. He did it by interpreting Hindu scriptures and philosophy and the Hindu way of life to the western people in a way which they could understand easily. He made the western people realise that they had to learn much from Indian spirituality for their further progress. He showed that, India had a great contribution for world culture in spite of her poverty, and it is her spirituality. In this way, Vivekananda was instrumental in ending Indian cultural isolation from the rest of the world. That is why he can be rightly called the first great Indian cultural ambassador to the West. On the other hand his interpretation of ancient Hindu scriptures, philosophy, institutions etc. prepared the mind of Indians to accept and apply the ideals of them in practical life. Vivekananda was sorry to see the material poverty and backwardness of India. And he was greatly impressed by the development of the western countries because of the development of science and technology. So he taught Indians how to master western science and technology and at the same time develop spirituality. He also taught Indians how to adapt western humanism (specially the ideas of undivided freedom, social equality and justice and respect for women) to Indian ethos.

In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years, of which only ten years were devoted to public activities he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-yoga, Bhaktiyoga, Karma-yoga and Raja-yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises of Hindu philosophy. Besides these, he delivered many lectures, wrote inspiring letters to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous poems and acted as spiritual guide to many seekers, who came to him for instruction. He also organised the Ramakrishna order of monks, which is the most outstanding socio-religious organisation of India. It is devoted to the propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in India, but in other parts of the world. This Ramakrishna mission is still contributing to society and working in different parts of the world.

Vivekananda’s life and teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called Vivekananda the ‘Paragon of Vedantists’. Nineteenth century orientalists Max Muller and Paul Deussen held him in genuine respect and affection. Romain Rolland writes, “His words are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years’ distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!”[7] Leo Tolstoy, the great novelist wrote, “In Vivekananda’s passionate tirades directed against the contemporary bourgeois civilization, in his affirmations of the priority of the spiritual essence of man over his material cover. The reading of his books is more than a pleasure, it is a broadening of the soul.”[8]

One of the famous leaders of the Indian national movement Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose said “I cannot write about Vivekananda without going into raptures. Reckless in his sacrifice, unceasing in his activity, boundless in his love, profound and versatile in his wisdom, exuberant in his emotions’….. I can go on for hours and yet fail to do the slightest justice to that great man. He was so great, so profound, and so complex.”[9]

Footnotes and references:


Ashrama, Advaita, Vivekananda–His call to nation, p-21.


Ashrama, Advaita, Selections From The Complete Works Of Swami Vivekananda, p-1.


Sekhar, Himanshu, India of Swami Vivekananda’s dream, p-16.




Ashrama, Advaita, Vivekananda-His call to the Nation, p-29.


Ibid, p.34.


Sekhar, Himanshu, India of Swami Vivekananda’s dream, p-19.


Ibid, p-19-20.


Ibid, p-20-21.

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