Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendranath in a well-to-do family on 12th January, 1863. Right from his childhood, Swami Vivekananda was a born leader and commanded respect from his peers. Swami Vivekananda excelled in music, gymnastics and in studies. By the time he graduated from Calcutta university, he had acquired vast knowledge of different subjects. He used to practice meditation from his childhood and was well versed especially in Western Philosophy and History.
Young Narendranath was passing through spiritual crisis when he was assailed by doubts about the existence of God. It was at that time that he first heard about Sri Ramakrishna from one of his professors. One day in November 1881 Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna at the Kali temple in Dakshineswar and asked the Master if he had seen God. Apart from removing doubts from his mind, Sri Ramakrishna won over Narendra through his pure, unselfish love. A deep bond of love was established between the Guru and his disciple.Under the loving care and guidance of his Master, Narendra experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi.
Narendra and his brother-disciples received ochre robes from Sri Ramakrishna thus forming his first monastic order. Narendra was taught by Sri Ramakrishna that service to people was the most effective worship of God. Sri Ramakrishna asked his direct disciples to see Narendra as their leader and asked Narendra to take care of them.
After the passing of Sri Ramakrishna, his small group of direct disciples had no place to go to. Under the leadership of Narendra and the loving guidance of Sri Sarada Devi, the group formed a new monastic brotherhood and in 1887, they took the formal vows of sanyasa, thereby assuming new names. Narendra became Swami Vivekananda (even though this name was taken much later).
Swami Vivekananda wandered across India, from the Himalayas to Rajputana, Gujarat and then to the South. He had visited the households of poverty stricken as well as the royalty of kings. His heart ached for the betterment of the poor. On Christmas Eve, 1892 he sat on a rock at Kanyakumari in South India, meditating for three days. That moment he arrived at answers to his questions. Swamiji felt that it was necessary to infuse faith in the minds of the poor themselves. The poor needed two kinds of knowledge: secular knowledge to improve their economic condition, and spiritual knowledge to infuse in them faith in themselves and strengthen their moral senses. Swamiji felt that education is the best way to spread this knowledge.
During that time, Swami Vivekananda heard about a great session of World Religious leaders participating in the “World Parliament of Religions”, to be held in Chicago, USA. Many of Swamiji’s well-wishers urged him to participate in the same and the Holy Mother also agreed with them. Swamiji felt that the session in Chicago would provide the right forum to present his Master’s message to the world, and also he could seek financial help for his project of uplifting the poor in India.
The Parliament of World’s Religions opened on 11th September 1893 and Swami Vivekananda gave a brief speech representing India and Hinduism. Addressing the audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America” he received a standing ovation for two minutes from the crowd of seven thousand people. Swamiji spent nearly three and a half years spreading Vedanta as taught by Sri Ramakrishna, both in the USA and in Europe. From the West, Swami Vivekananda guided and advised his brother monks and extended financial support in running the campaign of social service.
On his return to India in 1897, Swami Vivekananda delivered a series of lectures across India pouring out his ideas on character building and social service to enthusiastic crowds. He repeatedly addressed social issues like uplifting the poor, eliminating the caste system, promoting science and industrialization and alleviating poverty.
On 1st May 1897, Swami Vivekananda founded Ramakrishna Mission in which monks and ordinary people would jointly undertake propagation of practical Vedanta and various forms of social service like running hospitals, schools, colleges, rural development centres, conducting relief and rehabilitation work for victims of natural calamities in different parts of India and other countries. Swamiji visited the West again in June 1899 delivering many lectures and returned to India in December 1900.
Swamiji spent his last days of life in Belur itself, teaching and guiding the inmates of the Math. His health deteriorated due to the restless work and giving lectures and motivating people. The end came quietly on the night of 4th July 1902.