A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Coming from afar are the Voices of the Silence. Rarely are they heard, save by the mystics and the sages. And when one of these Voices becomes embodied as sound audible to mortal hearing — blessed is the time and blessed are those who hear. Formless is the Spirit and subjective is the vision thereof; dense is the illusion that hangs as the cosmic veil before Reality! How divine, therefore, must be the personality which makes objective the vision of the Spirit! How priceless the history of one who has lifted even a fringe of the veil! The illusion becomes transparent through the effulgence of such a spiritual personality. Verily, the Spirit Itself becomes revealed; and those who sec are brought face to face with Reality!

To introduce the life of Swami Vivekananda is to introduce the subject of the spiritual life itself. All of the intellectual struggle, all of the doubts, all of the burning faith, all of the unfolding process of the spiritual illumination were revealed in him. As a man and as a Vedantist he manifested the manliness which was sanctity, and the sanctity which was manliness; he manifested the patriotism which came from the vision of the Dharma; and he manifested the life of intense activity as well as of Supreme Realisation, as the fruit of the true Insight of Divine Wisdom. His life revealed throughout the glory of the Suprasensuous Life.

To the task of writing his life one sets oneself fervently, conscious of unworthiness, for who can know the inner self of even the least of men, much less the soul of a Vivekananda! And who can sound the depths of his personal realisation! The task is almost beyond thinking — and yet must the world know the greatness of that life which has thrilled it through its Eastern heart and Western mind.

The Datta family of Simla, a northern district of Calcutta, was rich and powerful, renowned for many generations for charily, learning and strong independent spirit. Ram Mohan Datta, the great-grandfather of the Subject of this chronicle, Narendra Nath, was the managing clerk and associate of an English solicitor. He amassed a great fortune in the exercise of his profession, and lived happily, surrounded by a numerous family in a large mansion in Gour Mohan Mukherjee Lane. The house is still standing, but because of the subsequent straitened circumstances of the family that part of it which had been once used as a temple has passed into the hands of strangers. The doorway that fronts upon the street is massive. The covered hall with a room on one side and seating space on the other gives on a second doorway, beyond which is the courtyard with the living quarters. To the right are the rooms for the male members of the family. Across the courtyard and facing the doorway rises the zenana, two storeys in height, the lower floor containing the kitchens, the upper the living apartments. From the latticed enclosure the Purdah ladies in the olden days could look into the courtyard when the great religious ceremonies were being performed to the beating of drums and the blowing of conch-shells.

Ram Mohan Datta left two sons, Durga Charan Datta and Kali Prasad Datta. Durga Charan was a gifted youth, well versed in Persian and Sanskrit, and so skilled in law that his father made him partner. But he had such a strong leaning towards the monastic life that, after the birth of his son he renounced the world and became a monk at the age of twenty-five and was riot heard of by any member of the family until the twelve years of Sadhana (spiritual effort) prescribed bv the monastic rule had been accomplished.

In the meantime, his son, Vishwanath, who had been left as an infant with his mother, was growing up. The mother was fearless, devout and worthy in every way of accepting the great responsibility that Fate had thrust upon her. When Vishwanath was three years old he was taken by her on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi. As the railroad was unknown in those days the entire party set out by boat on the five hundred mile trip. What a thrilling adventure that excursion was — a combination of hardships and romance! New cities, new scenes, new customs, new peoples — even new languages were encountered as the boat, with its precious height glided on. One morning, as Vishwanath was playing about on the deck he slipped and fell into the Ganga. Without a second's hesitation, the mother, though she could not swim, jumped overboard, fully clothed as she was, to save him. Fortunately, she was in time and held her tiny son up by the hand until help came and they were both hauled aboard. So tight was her grip on him that he bore the marks of it for many years.

At last Varanasi was reached. Delighted with the holy atmosphere of the place she visited all the temples, including that of Vireshwar Shiva. One day after she had bathed and was on her way to the temple of Vishwanath she slipped and fell with enough force to make her lose consciousness. A passing monk went to her assistance, picked her up and laid her on the temple steps. When she opened her eyes, what was her amazement to hnd that the monk who was bending over her was her husband! Instantly, both were overwhelmed with a tremendous emotion. But worldly attachments were not for them. She as well as he had renounced. In a moment he disappeared, murmuring, “Oh, Maya, Maya!” And she continued on her pious round. These two incidents are cited to show how well lilted she was to be the wife of Durga Charan!

An interesting story is told of Durga Gharan’s return to his birthplace, one that reveals the essential strength and quality of the man. Quite unostentatiously he slipped into Calcutta and, instead of going to his former home, put up at the house of an old friend, after begging him not to let any one know of his return. But the friend was unable to contain the joyous news and informed Durga Charau’s relatives, who at once came and forcibly took him away with them. The monk, without a word, seated himself in a corner of the room provided for him, the door of which had been locked so that he might not escape. For three days he stayed there without giving any sign or tasting a bite of food. The relatives, fearing that he might die on their hands finally opened the door. Later, the monk disappeared and was never heard of again. In striving to account for the peculiar genius of Swami Vivekananda one must not lose sight of the impressive figure of his grandfather, the man who deemed the world well lost in his search for God. Vivekananda’s pronounced tendency towards the monastic, life was “in the blood" as we say to explain those inexplicable outcroppings of family traits and tendencies that are so remarkable at times that in order to satisfy ourselves we must accept either the theory of reincarnation or that of heredity.

As Vishwanath grew to manhood he became the pride of the Dattas. The hearts of his people were set on him in high hopes and expectations, for they looked to him to carry on the Datta tradition of learning. Nor were they disappointed. The boy was proficient in his studies, which included English and Persian, and finally adopted law as a profession and was enrolled as an Attorney-at-Law in the High Court of Calcutta. His career was a notable one, for aside from his intellectual attainments he was endowed with many qualities of character which made him respected and endeared him to all. His keen understanding of his fellowmen was the origin of his deep compassion for the afflicted and wide charity and sympathy. His ample means he spent without thought of the morrow, giving to all who asked. Here it was that he showed a lack of discrimination, for he maintained some of his relatives in idleness — and even drunkenness. Criticised at one time by his eldest son Naren for bestowing charity upon such worthless persons, Vishwanath replied in his easy-going way, “How can you understand the great misery of human life? When you realise it, you will sympathise with the poor creatures who try to forget their sorrows in the momentary oblivion obtained through intoxicants!”

Vishwanath was a great lover of music and had a very good voice. He it was who insisted that Naren should study music, for he looked upon it as the source of much innocent pleasure. He took great delight in the study of the Bible, and in reciting the poems of the Persian poet, Hafiz, to his family.

In his attitude towards his children he showed considerable wisdom. If any of them misbehaved he did not reprimand him, but rather, in order to produce the required reform, exposed him to the ridicule of his friends. To cite an instance; One day Naren behaved very rudely to his mother. The father, instead of scolding the boy, wrote on the door of the room where Naren received his friends; Naren Babu said these words today to his mother — followed by the words actually said. Every time Naren or any of his friends entered that room they were confronted with this statement. It was not long before Naren showed signs of repentance.

Vishwanath was blessed with a wife, his peer in every respect. Graceful and devoted, expert in the management of household all airs, Bhuvaneshwari Devi cheerfully shouldered the responsibility of her husband's large family. She was exceptionally intelligent and found time, even in the midst of her tremendous activities, for sewing, music and the study of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Full of the lire of one born, as it were, to regal estate, Bhuvaneshwari Devi commanded the respect and veneration of all who came in contact with her and her judgment was followed in the conduct of all affairs that mattered. Calm resignation to the will of God in all circumstances, power and reserve characterised this Hindu woman. The poor and the helpless were the special objects of her solicitude. She was noted for her unusual memory and knew by heart long passages from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which she read daily and it was the essence of these readings, and the culture as well to which they are the key, that she passed on to her children as their greatest inheritance. It was this bequest that appeared later in her son, Swami Vivekananda, transmuted into a tremendous love for humanity, above all limitations of race, creed, caste, colour or sex.

It was to these two, Vishwanath and Bhuvaneshwari Devi, that the boy who was to become the greatest man of his age, whose influence was to shake the world and who was to lay the foundation of a new order of things, was born.