Whosoever knows the longing of a mother that a son shall be born to her, enters into the world where lived Bhuvaneshwari Datta, the wife of Vishwanath Datta. In common with mothers the world over she longed for a son to carry on the family tradition, to be the link, forged out of the materials of love and suffering, between the future and the past. As she went about her daily tasks she prayed silently that her desire might be fulfilled. Now, it was customary in those days — and still is — for one living a long distance from Varanasi who was in dire need, or desirous that some special event should come to pass, to make offerings and sacrifices to Shiva through any relatives and friends who might be residents of Varanasi. So Bhuvaneshwari Devi wrote to an old aunt of the Datta family in Varanasi to ask her to make the necessary offerings and prayers to Vireshwar Shiva that a son might be born to her. When word came that this was being done she was content to wait in perfect assurance that the prayers would be answered. She spent her days in fasting and meditations, her whole soul given over to constant recollectedness, her entire heart fixed in love on the Lord Shiva. Often did her mind go to Varanasi, uniting in thought with the venerable aunt as she poured the sacred water of the Ganga on the symbol of the Most High or as she worshipped Him with flowers and Mantras. One night she had a vivid dream. She had spent the day in the shrine, and as evening deepened into night she fell asleep. Hushed in silence was the household, hushed in silence and rest. Then in the highest heavens the hour struck — the time was come for the saintly woman to touch the feet of the Lord. And in her dream she saw the Lord Shiva arouse Himself out of His transcendent meditation and take the form of a male child who was to be her own son. She awoke. Could this ocean of light in which she found herself bathed be but a dream? Shiva! Shiva! Thou fulfillest in various ways the prayers of thy devotees! From the inmost soul of Bhuvaneshwari Devi a joyous prayer welled up, for she was confident that her long months of expectancy were over and that the vision was but an announcement that her prayers were to be answered. Her faith was justified. And in due time her son was born.
The light of the world dawned for the first time upon the future Swami Vivekananda on Monday, January 12, 1863. It was the holy hour of dawn just six minutes before the sunrise. At the time of his birth the constellation Sagittarius was rising in the east, the moon was in the constellation Virgo, the planet Jupiter was in the eleventh house, and Saturn was in the tenth from that of his birth. It was the seventh day of the new moon in the month of Poush which is the ninth month of the Bengali year and as chance would have it. It was the day of Makara Sankranti, a great Hindu festival. The millions of men and women who were observing the festival unconsciously greeted the new-born babe with prayers and worship, little thinking that he who was to usher in a new age of glory and splendour for his country, who was to reorganise the spiritual and national consciousness of Hindusthan and become a great Apostle — another St. Paul — preaching unto the world the Gospel of another redemption — the message of Vedanta — had, on that day, first seen the light! And only a few miles north of Calcutta in the Garden of Dakshineswar there waited One for the coming of this babe who was to grow up and carry on his great work! Of which more later.
The infant grew and the time came when he had to be named. Some suggested that it should be Durga Das after the grandfather who had renounced the world. But the mother said, “Let it be Vireshwar”, after the aspect of Shiva which she worshipped before the child's birth and Vireshwar it was. They called him Bileh for short. Later, Vireshwar became Narendra Nath.
Narendra Nath was a naughty child, subject to fits of restlessness during which he was beyond control. At such time he would wear the family out. Bribes, threats — nothing was of any avail. Everything was tried, but in vain. Finally, Bhuvaneshwari found that if she poured cold water on the head of the screaming child, at the same time chanting the name of Shiva in his ear, or threatened him with “Shiva will not let you come to Kailasa if you do not behave”, he would quiet down and become his eager, joyous self again. It was after such scenes that the mother used to say, “I prayed to Shiva for a son and He has sent me one of His demons”. Aside from these outbursts he was a sunny-tempered, sweet, loving child, but of such an extraordinary restlessness that it took two nurses to take care of him.
The boy had a great fancy for wandering monks. Whenever a Sadhu came to the door, Naren was delighted. One day a monk came and asked for alms. All that the boy had was a piece of new cloth wrapped round his waist. Straightway he gave it to the Sadhu who placed it on his head and went away. When asked what had become of the cloth, the boy replied, “The monk begged me for alms and I gave it to him.” Thereafter whenever a monk appeared the boy was locked up. But that did not disconcert him; he would throw out of the window to the monk anything the room contained as an offering, and then enjoy the excitement. What a tease he was! He would annoy his sisters and when chased would take refuge in the open drain, grinning and making faces at them in safety, for they would not follow him there. The family cow was one of his playmates and he had a number of pet animals and birds among which were a monkey, a goat, a peacock, pigeons and two or three guinea pigs. Of the servants the coachman was his special friend and one of the ambitions of his childhood was to become a syce or groom. To him the syce with his turban and his whip which he flourished as the carriage rolled on was a magnificent person. The family tells how he would go to anyone who would take him on his lap, for he had implicit faith in all.
The first education is always at the knee of the mother. Naren used to tell later how his mother had taught him his first English words and he mastered the Bengali alphabet under her tutorship. It was at her knee that he first heard the tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and it was no doubt that he thus caught some of the dramatic fire and force that he exhibited later.
The first seed of spiritual life was sown at this period. His boyish imagination was captivated by the life of Rama, and he purchased a clay image of Sita-Rama and worshipped it with flowers. One day, when no one was about, he and a little Brahmin boy climbed the stairs that led to a room on the roof above the women's quarters. They installed the image, closed and locked the door and sat down to meditate. After some time Naren was missed and an anxious search for him was begun. The hunt led at last to the little locked room on the roof. The searchers knocked and shouted, but there was no response. In great fright, fearing that something had happened to Naren they forced the door and found the two boys seated in deep meditation before the flower-decked image. One day Naren heard someone vehemently denouncing marriage. The difficulties and absurdities of married life were painted in such dark colours, that he was terror-stricken and he thought of his little image of Sita-Rama which he had been worshipping. ‘‘If marriage is so bad what has a God to do with it?" said the surprised boy to himself.
So he threw away his cherished image of Sita-Rama and bought one of Shiva instead on which to lavish his devotion. But what suffering this entailed! For poorer than the man despoiled of his wealth through no fault of his own is the mind of the child which has been bereft of its illusion. And yet this incident shows not only the fearlessness and sincerity of the boy who gave up his ideal, no matter how great the wrench, when he found that it did not match up with his conception of the Truth, but it also made evident the deep desire of Naren’s soul for freedom from the bondage of the senses which was expressed later in those ringing words: “Ever shall the soul be free! We must have freedom from bondage however sweet."
Nevertheless the Ramayana had still a great fascination for him and whenever it was to be read in the neighbourhood he was sure to be there. Sometimes he was so rapt in the thrilling episodes of Rama's life that he forgot all about home. Once when the reading told of how Hanuman (the monkey-chief devoted to Rama) lived in banana groves, he was so deeply impressed that afterwards, instead of returning home, he went to a banana grove and spent some hours of the night there for a glimpse of him.
Every night brought some strange vision to Naren. Singular was the manner in which he was ushered into sleep. As soon as he closed his eyes, there appeared between his eyebrows a wonderful spot of light of changing hues, which would expand and burst and bathe his whole body with a flood of white radiance. As the mind became preoccupied with this phenomenon, the body would fall asleep. It was a daily occurrence which he would court by lying down on his chest; as soon as drowsiness overtook him, the light appeared. Thinking it to be a perfectly natural thing which happened to everybody he never mentioned it, until long after when he asked a school-mate, “Do you see a light between your eyebrows at night when you go to sleep?” The friend answered in the negative. “I do,” said Naren. “Try to remember. Do not fall into sleep as soon as you go to bed. Be on the alert for a while and you will see it.” There was some one else, however, who put this question to Naren in later years, “Naren, my boy, do you see a light when you go to sleep?” The questioner was his spiritual teacher. But of this later on. This phenomenon remained with him until the end, although in the latter part of his life it was not so frequent or so intense* and bespoke a host of things. It told, assuredly, of a great spiritual past in which the soul had already learned so to steep itself deep in the waters of meditation that it had become instinctive with him.
Young Naren played at meditation in those days. Though it was play, it awakened in him deep spiritual emotions. The boys of the neighbourhood sometimes joined him in this pastime. Once as he was meditating with his playmates, a cobra appeared. The boys were frightened and shouting a warning to Naren ran away. But he did not hear them and remained where he was. The snake stayed about for a while and then glided away. Later in response to his parents' inquiries as to why he did not run, Naren said, “I knew nothing of the snake or anything else, I was feeling inexpressible bliss."
Five or six years seem as five or six days in the counting up of life. At the age of six Naren went to the Pathashala, the school where the boys are initiated into the three R’s. But schools are strange places where one is apt to meet with strange comrades, and after a few days he had acquired a vocabulary which quite upset the family’s sense of propriety. Never again, determined all the household, should he go to school. Instead, a private tutor was engaged, who conducted classes in the ancient worship-hall for Naren and some of the other boys of the neighbourhood. Soon Naren was remarked for his exceptional intelligence. He learned to read and write while the other boys were wrestling with the alphabet. Naren’s memory was prodigious. He had only to listen to the tutor’s reading to get the lessons. At the age of seven he knew by heart almost the whole of Mugdhabodha, a Sanskrit grammar, as well as passages of great length from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. On a certain occasion, a party of wandering minstrels who earned their livelihood by chanting the Ramayana, came to Naren’s house. They made a number of mistakes in the text, whereupon Naren stopped them and pointed out their errors, greatly surprising and pleasing them.
There is a lasting quality in the friendships formed in childhood which makes them endure through later years, sometimes even to death. The boys whom we see playing with Naren will be recognised later on as the friends of his manhood, over whom he still maintained the leadership acquired as a boy when none could approach him without first acknowledging his supremacy. His favourite game was “King and the Court". The throne was the highest step of the stairs leading from the courtyard to the Puja-hall. There he would install himself. No one was allowed to sit on the same level. From there he created his Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief, Tributary Princes and other state officials and seated them on the steps according to their rank. He enacted a Durbar and administered justice with royal dignity. The slightest insubordination was put down by a disapproving glare.
Many of Naren’s father’s clients of different castes used to come to the house. Every caste was provided with its own tobacco pipe — provision was made for even the Mohammedans. Now caste was a great mystery to the boy. Why could not a member of one caste eat with a member of another, or smoke his pipe? What would happen if he did? Would the roof fall in on him? He decided to see for himself. Accordingly, he made the circuit of the pipes, taking a whiff from everyone — including the Mohammedan’s. And nothing happened! When reprimanded for his action he said, “I cannot see what difference it makes!”
His boyish exuberance expressed itself in all sorts of ways, naughty and otherwise. One day while fighting with his playfellows he fell from the verandah of the worship-hall and struck his head against a stone. To his death he carried the scar of this on his forehead just above the right eye.
The Sage who was his teacher in later life said of this: “Had Naren’s powers not been checked by this accident, he would have shattered the world! ” As it was, he raised the world!
Those who are to change the thought of the world as did Plato and Aristotle, to alter its destinies as did Alexander and Caesar — are from their childhood conscious of their power — they are instinctively aware of the greatness which is to come. Narendra Nath, too, felt the spirit of greatness within him; he saw things to which others of his age were blind, and he felt already, in the feeble and yet certain way of a child, the struggle which was to be his for expression.