[Vivekananda] is seen not just as a patriot-prophet of resurgent India but much morean incarnation of Shiva, Buddha and Jesus (Sil, 1997).
Perfect from his birth, [Vivekananda] did not need spiritual disciplines for his own liberation. Whatever disciplines he practiced were for the purpose of removing the veil that concealed, for the time being, his true divine nature and mission in the world. Even before his birth, the Lord had chosen him as His instrument to help Him in the spiritual redemption of humanity (Nikhilananda, 1996).
BORN IN 1863 IN CALCUTTA, Vivekananda began meditating at age seven, and claimed to have first experienced samadhi when eight years old.
He regarded himself as a brahmachari, a celibate student of the Hindu tradition, who worked hard, prized ascetic disciplines, held holy things in reverence, and enjoyed clean words, thoughts, and acts (Nikhilananda, 1996).
A handsome and muscular, albeit somewhat stout and bulldog-jawed youth, he first met his guru, Ramakrishna, in 1881 at age eighteen. As the favorite and foremost disciple of that “Supreme Swan,” the young “Duckling,” Vivekananda,
was constantly flattered and petted by his frankly enchanted homoerotic mentor [i.e., Ramakrishna], fed adoringly by him, made to sing songs on a fairly regular basis for the Master’s mystical merriment, and told by the older man that he was a ... realized individual through his meditations ... [an] eternally realized person ... free from the lure of ... woman and wealth (Sil, 1997).
Vivekanandaji took his monastic vows in 1886, shortly before his guru’s death, thereby becoming a swami. (The suffix “ji” is added to East Indian names and titles to show respect.) “Swami” itselfmeaning “to be master of one’s self”is simply the name of the monastic order established by Shankara in the thirteenth century. The adoption of that honorific entails taking formal vows of celibacy and poverty.
Interestingly, in later years, Vivekananda actually claimed to be the reincarnation of Shankara (Sil, 1997).
In any case, following a dozen years of increasing devotion to his dearly departed guru, Vivekananda came to America at age thirty. There, he represented Hinduism to American men and women at the 1893 Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago.
A total stranger to the world of extroverted, educated, and affluent women, he was charmed by their generosity, kindness, and frankly unqualified admiration for and obsession with a handsome, young, witty, and somewhat enchantingly naïve virgin male from a distant land (Sil, 1997).
The earlier-celebrated purity and enjoyment of “clean acts,” and “freedom from the lure of women” guaranteed to Vivekananda by Ramakrishna, would nevertheless at first glance appear to have been somewhat incomplete. For, the former once admitted that, following the death of his father in 1884,
he visited brothels and consumed alcoholic beverages in the company of his friends (Sil, 1997).
Thankfully for his legacy, though, Vivekananda was not actually partaking of the various ladies’ delights in those houses. Rather, by his own testimony, he was simply dragged there once by his friends, who hoped to cheer him up after his father’s death. He, however, after a few drinks, began lecturing to them about what might become of them in their afterlives for such debauchery. He was subsequently kicked out by his friends for being that “wet blanket,” and stumbled home alone, thoroughly drunk (Sil, 2004).
So it was just a few drinks too many. In a whorehouse. Nothing unexpected from a savior “chosen by God as His instrument to help Him” in the salvation of humanity.
Either way, though, “if you keep on playing with fire” you’re going to get burned, as Vivekananda himself observed:
Once in me rose the feeling of lust. I got so disgusted with myself that I sat on a pot of burning tinders, and it took a long time for the wound to heal (in Sil, 1997).
* * *
[I]t is my ambition to conquer the world by Hindu thoughtto see Hindus from the North Pole to the South Pole (Vivekananda, in [Sil, 1997]).
It was not long after that announcement that Vivekananda was proudly claiming to have “helped on the tide of Vedanta which is flooding the world.” He was likewise soon predicting that “before ten years elapse a vast majority of the English people will be Vedantic” (in Sil, 1997).
The enthusiastic young monk’s hopes of effecting global change, further, were not limited to a spiritual revolution, of “Hindus ‘round the world.” Rather, among his other vast dreams were those of a socially progressive, economically sovereign and politically stable India (Sil, 1997).
The realization of those goals, however, was to come up against certain concrete realities not anticipated by the swami, including the need to think ahead in manifesting one’s ideas. Indeed, Vivekananda was, it seems, explicitly opposed to such an approach:
Plans! Plans! That is why you Western people can never create a religion! If any of you ever did, it was only a few Catholic saints who had no plans. Religion was never, never preached by planners! (in Nikhilananda, 1996).
Not surprisingly, then, given this antipathy, before the end of 1897 Vivekananda was already down-sizing his goals:
I have roused a good many of our people, and that was all I wanted (in Nikhilananda, 1996).
Further, as Chelishev (1987) observed with regard to the social improvements advocated by the naïve monk:
Vivekananda approached the solution of the problem of social inequality from the position of Utopian Socialism, placing hopes on the good will and magnanimity of the propertied classes.
Understandably, within a year the swami had realized the futility of that approach:
I have given up at present my plan for the education of the masses (in Sil, 1997).
It will come by degrees. What I now want is a band of fiery missionaries. We must have a College in Madras to teach comparative religions ... we must have a press, and papers printed in English and in the vernaculars (Vivekananda, 1947).
As one frustrated devotee finally put it:
Swami had good ideasplentybut he carried nothing out .... He only talked (in Sil, 1997).
* * *
Vivekananda claimed to have experienced, in 1898, a vision of Shiva Himself. In that ecstasy, he “had been granted the grace of Amarnath, the Lord of Immortality, not to die until he himself willed it” (Nikhilananda, 1996).
The chain-smoking, diabetic sage, apparently “going gentle into that dark night,” nevertheless passed away only a few years later, in 1902, after years of declining health. Reaching only an unripe age of thirty-nine, he “thus fulfill[ed] his own prophecy: ‘I shall not live to be forty years old’” (Nikhilananda, 1996).
Of course, there are prophecies, and then there are earlier prophecies:
Vivekananda declared solemnly: “This time I will give hundred years to my body.... This time I have to perform many difficult tasks.... In this life I shall demonstrate my powers much more than I did in my past life” (Sil, 1997).
* * *
In spite of those many reversals, Vivekananda foresaw great and lasting effects on the world for his teachings:
The spiritual ideals emanating from the Belur Math [one of Vivekananda’s monasteries/universities], he once said to Miss MacLeod, would influence the thought-currents of the world for 1100 years....
“All these visions are rising before me”these were his very words (Nikhilananda, 1996).
The Vedanta Society which preserves Vivekananda’s brand of Hinduism has a current membership of only around 22,000 individuals, and a dozen centers worldwide. It would thus not likely qualify as any large part of the “global spiritual renaissance” grandly and grandiosely envisioned by the swami. The better part of Vivekananda’s actual legacy, then, beyond mere organizational PR, may consist simply in his having paved the way for the other Eastern teachers who followed him into America in the succeeding century.