This June, the OUP Philosophy team honors Swami Vivekānanda (born Narendranath Datta, 1863–1902) as their Philosopher of the Month. Born in Calcutta under colonial rule, Vivekānanda became a Hindu religious leader, and one of the most prominent disciples of guru and mystic Śri Rāmakṛṣṇa. After delivering a highly regarded speech as the Hindu delegate to the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893, Vivekānanda gained worldwide recognition. His ideas were so well received that in 1895 he established the Vedānta Society in New York, before returning to India to found the Ramakrishna Mission. Vivekānanda inspired a newfound pride in the hearts of Hindus as his non-dualistic, Advaita Vedānta philosophy helped spread the spiritual traditions of India to the Christian West.
Narendranath Datta was born to Kayastha family, members of a scribe caste customarily employed in government service. Educated to become a lawyer, he completed law school at the Metropolitan Institution in 1886. Narendranath met Rāmakṛṣṇa after joining the Brahmo Samaj Hindu reform movement, and after eventually undergoing a powerful religious experience, became an ascetic disciple. When Rāmakṛṣṇa died in 1886, Narendranath traveled across India on foot, spreading his interpretation of Rāmakṛṣṇa’s teachings.
Vivekānanda’s philosophical and spiritual teachings upheld a type of Advaita Vedānta (later termed Neo-Vedānta) which he portrayed as the essence both of Hinduism and every other religion. Vivekānanda said, quoting a Hindu hymn, at his 1893 speech to the Chicago World Parliament of Religions, “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.” Vivekānanda encouraged this form of Hinduism as a significant world religion, based on what he saw as universally valid and applicable ethical principles. Advaita Vedānta tradition proposes that the nature of reality is non-dualistic. The world of seeming multiplicity and flux is ultimately illusion, and Advaita Vedānta teaches that nothing has ever truly come into being. This idea is termed adhyāsa (superimposition), or the misguided belief that objects have certain attributes which, in reality, they do not. Knowledge of this surface reality is distinguished from absolute knowledge, paramārtha, which is knowledge or realization of the ultimate, non-dualistic reality.
Vivekānanda demonstrated to the world Hinduism’s venerated, ancient religious traditions. In India he was a driving force behind Hindu reform movements, and founded the Rāmakṛṣṇa Mission, a charitable organization which remaines active throughout the world. He helped shape the prevalent Western view of Hinduism as synonymous with Advaita Vedānta, and is considered to have paved the way for the Indian Independence movements of the early 20th century.
For more on Vivekānanda’s life and work, browse our interactive timeline below.
Featured image: Swami Vivekananda Statue in Vivekananda House, Chennai. Photo by Balamurugan Srinivasan. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.