In 1871, when Naren was eight years old he entered the ninth class of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution. His exceptional intelligence was at once recognised by teachers and classmates. But he was so restless that they say of him that he never really sat down at his desk at all.
When he played, he played furiously. The games were marbles, jumping, running and boxing. When the class was dispersed for tiffin, he would be the first to finish and run back to the playground. New games always fascinated him and he invented many to amuse himself and his friends. He made toy gas works and aerated waters, which were then newly introduced in Calcutta, and interested himself in toy railways and all sorts of machinery. Disputes often arose among boys, and it was to Naren that the disputants came as to a court of arbitration. Sometimes to amuse himself he would set one party against the other. If this led to blows, he would rush in between the contending parties, sometimes at great risk of being injured, but his knowledge of boxing helped him to protect himself. Often the boy would turn the classroom into his playground. Even during the lessons, he would entertain his friends with stories of the wild pranks he had played at home or with tales from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
Once, during a lesson the teacher suddenly asked Naren and his friends who were talking amongst themselves to repeat what he had been saying. All were silent; but Naren, having the power to double his mind was able to listen to the lesson, the while he amused the boys. He answered correctly all the questions put to him. The teacher then asked who had been talking during the lesson, and would not believe the boys when they pointed to Naren. So he made them stand up as punishment. Naren stood up, too. “You do not have to stand,” said the teacher. The boy replied, “But I must, for it was I who was doing the talking”, and remained standing.
Soon after he was told that he would have to study English. He was not willing to do so. It was a foreign language, he said, so why should he learn it? The teachers persisted and the boy went home crying to his parents, who agreed with the teachers. When he did commence to study English several months later, everyone was astonished at his enthusiasm and the ease with which he acquired it.
Naren retained his admiration for the wandering monk. ”I must become a Sannyasin,” he would tell his friends, “a palmist predicted it,” and he would show a certain straight line on the palm of his hand which indicated the tendency to the monastic life.
An incident occurred at this time which serves to show the boy’s innate fortitude and the difficulty of intimidating him. One of the teachers of the Institute was a man of very ugly temper, given to corporal punishment of the boys when he thought discipline was needed. One day, as he was severely castigating a delinquent, Naren began to laugh from sheer nervousness, so much revolted was he by the exhibition of brutality. The teacher turned his wrath on Naren, raining blows on him, and demanded that he should promise never to laugh at him again. When Naren refused, the teacher not only resumed the beating, but pulled him by the ears as well even going to the length of lifting the boy by them up on a bench, tearing one of the ears so that it bled profusely. And still Naren refused to promise, and bursting into tears of rage said, “Do not pull my ears! Who are you to beat me? Take care not to touch me again.” Luckily, at this moment, Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar came in. Naren, weeping bitterly, told him what had happened, and, taking his books, declared that he was going to leave the school for ever. Vidyasagar took him to his office and consoled him. Later, an investigation was made of the disciplinary measures obtaining in the school and steps were taken to prevent any repetition of the regrettable incident. When Bhuvaneshwari Devi heard of the matter she was very much incensed and begged the boy not to return to the school, but he went the following day as though nothing had happened. The ear did not heal for a long time.
Even at this early age he evinced an impatience with superstition and fear, no matter how hallowed by tradition. The following incident is illustrative of this quality. He was in the habit of climbing a tree in the compound of one of his friends, not only to gather flowers, but to get rid of his superfluous energy by swinging to and, fro, head downward, and then somersaulting to the ground. These antics annoyed the old, half-blind grandfather of the house,1 and he thought to stop them by telling Naren that the tree was haunted by a Brahma-daitya — the ghost of an uninitiated Brahmin — dressed in white, that broke the necks of those who climbed the tree. Naren listened politely; but when the old man was out of sight, he again began to climb the tree. His friend who had taken the words of the old man seriously remonstrated. But Naren laughed at his seriousness and said, “What an ass you are! Why, my neck would have been off long before this if the old grandfather’s ghost story were true!”
Only a boyish prank it is, true, but significant when viewed in the light of later developments — in some sense a forecast of the insight and utterance of the time when Swami Vivekananda was to say to large audiences, “Do not believe a thing because you read it in a book! Do not believe a thing because another has said it is so! Find out the truth for yourself! That is realisation!”
Naren hated monotony. He organised an amateur theatrical company and presented plays in the worship-hall of his home. After a few performances, his uncle became annoyed and destroyed the stage. Then he started a gymnasium in the courtyard of the house where his friends used to take their regular physical exercises. It went on for some time till one of his cousins broke his arm. Again the uncle showed his lack of sympathy, this time by destroying the accessories of the gymnasium. Thereupon Naren joined the gymnasium of a neighbour, Navagopal Mitra, with his friends and began to take lessons in fencing, lathi-play, wrestling, rowing and other sports. Once he carried the first prize in a general athletic competition. When tired of these, he showed magic lantern pictures in his home.
He was the favourite of all. With every family in the locality, of high or low caste, rich or poor, he established some sort of relationship. Did any of the boys whom he knew suffer any bereavement he was the first to offer consolation. His ready wit and pranks kept everybody amused, sometimes, indeed, making even the grave-minded elders burst into roars of laughter. He was a favourite with the ladies of the zenana whom he addressed as “auntie", “sister", etc., according to their age. He never suffered from shyness, and made himself at home everywhere.
At this time he conceived the idea of learning to cook, and he induced his playmates to subscribe according to their means, towards the project, he himself, however, bearing the greater part of the expense. He was the chief cook and the others were his assistants. His cooking was excellent, although he was inclined to use too much cayenne pepper.
When he could snatch time from his studies, he would take his friends to various interesting places in Calcutta. Sometimes it was a garden, another time the Ochterlony Monument or again the Museum. One day, he set out, with a party, by way of the Ganga for the Nawab’s Zoological gardens at Metiabruz, a suburb of Calcutta. When they were returning, one of the boys became desperately sick. The boatmen were annoyed and insisted that the lads should immediately clean up the boat. They refused to do so, offering instead to pay double. The offer was refused. On reaching the ghat the men would not allow the boys to land and threatened them. While the boatmen were abusing the boys, Naren jumped ashore, and asked two British soldiers walking nearby for help in rescuing his friends. In broken English he told his tale of woe, as he slipped his small hands into theirs and guided them towards the scene of the trouble. The soldiers listened with quiet affection; and when they understood the situation, in a threatening voice they commanded the boatmen to release the boys. The boatmen were terrified at the sight of the soldiers and set the boys free without another word and disappeared. The soldiers were fascinated with Naren and invited him to go with them to the theatre. But he declined and took his leave after thanking them for their kindness.
Another delightful story is told of him when he was about eleven years old. A British man-of-war, the Syrapis, visited the Port of Calcutta when the late Emperor Edward VII came to India as the Prince of Wales. Naren’s friends urged him to try and secure a pass for them all to see the ship. For this it was necessary to see an important English official. When Naren made his appearance with application in hand, the attendant at the door thinking him too young refused to allow him to enter. As Naren stood aside wondering what to do, he noticed that applicants who passed the porter went to a room on the first floor. Realising that that must be the room into which he must penetrate if he were to get his permit, he set about to find another entrance. In the rear was a staircase. Stealthily he made his way up to the top, pushed aside a curtain and found himself in the room. He took his place in line, and when his turn came, the application was signed without question. As he passed the door-keeper on his way out, the latter said in amazement, “How did you get in?” “Oh, I am a magician," Naren answered.
As we have seen before, Naren was a regular attendant of the neighbouring gymnasium of Navagopal Mitra, who practically left its management in Naren and his friends' hands. One day they were trying to set up a very heavy trapeze. A crowd, amongst which was an English sailor, gathered to watch. Naren asked the sailor to help. As the trapeze was being lifted it fell and knocked the sailor unconscious. Nearly everyone but Naren and one or two of his friends, disappeared from the scene, as they thought the sailor had been killed. With great presence of mind Naren tore his own cloth, bandaged the wound, sprinkled the sailor’s face with water and fanned him gently.
When the sailor recovered consciousness, Naren lifted him up and removed him to a neighbouring schoolhouse. A doctor was sent for. After a week’s nursing the sailor recovered and Naren presented him with a little purse which he had collected from his friends.
Though the boy was full of wild pranks, he had no evil associates. His instinct kept him away from the dubious ways of the world. Truthfulness was the very backbone of his life. Occupied during the day in devising new games, he was beginning to meditate during the night and soon was blessed with some wonderful visions.
As Naren grew older a definite change in his temperament was noticeable. He began to show a preference for intellectual pursuits, to study books and newspapers, and to attend public lectures regularly. He was able to repeat the substance of those to his friends with such original criticism that they were astonished, and developed an argumentative power which none could withstand.
One day he heard a friend singing like a professional and said, “Mere tune and time-keeping are not all of music. It must express an idea. Can any one appreciate a song sung in a drawling manner? The idea underlying the song must arouse the feeling of the singer, the words should be articulated distinctly and proper attention be given to tune and timing. The song that does not awaken a corresponding idea in the mind of the singer is not music at all.”
In the year 1877, while Naren was a student of the third class, his father went to Raipur in the Central Provinces. He arranged that his family should follow him later on under the charge of Naren. It was a long journey partly by bullock-cart via Allahabad and Jubbulpore through dense forests and over unfrequented roads, for the railways were in those days constructed only up to Nagpur. An incident happened on the way which shows that his spiritual insight was deepening. He had had visions and many moods of spiritual consciousness; this experience was induced by contemplating the beauties of nature.
The party had been journeying in bullock-carts for several days. The weather was perfect and Naren was feeling the joyous freedom of life in the open. The natural beauty on the way mitigated the fatigue of the journey. Naren was charmed with the exquisite grace and beauty with which the Almighty Creator had adorned the rugged bosom of the earth. On that particular day the party was passing over the Vindhya range where the lofty hills on either side of the road almost met. The verdant trees and creepers laden with flowers and joyous with the warbling of birds of variegated colours filled Naren’s heart with ineffable bliss. Suddenly his eyes alighted on a very large hive in a cleft in one of the hills. It must have been there a very long time. His mind in thinking of that colony of bees was soon lost in wonder at the majesty and power of the Divine Providence. Lost to all outward consciousness he lay in the bullock-cart — how long he could not remember; and when he returned — blessed, as it were, and blissful — to the normal state of things, he found that, in the meantime, considerable distance had been traversed. Perhaps this was the first time that his powerful imagination helped him to ascend into the realm of the Unknown and oblivion of the outer world.
Another interesting fact of his mind may be described here in his own words: “From my very boyhood,” Swami Vivekananda said later on, “Whenever I came in contact with a particular object, man or place, it would sometimes appear to me as if I had been acquainted with it beforehand. But all my efforts to recollect were unsuccessful, and yet the impression persisted. I will give you an instance. One day I was discussing various topics with my friends at a particular place. Suddenly something was said, which at once reminded me that in some time past in this very house I had talked with these friends on that very subject and that the discussion had even taken the same turn. Later on I thought that it might be due to the law of transmigration. But soon I decided that such definite conclusions on the subject were not reasonable. Now I believe that before I was born I must have had visions somehow, of those subjects and people with whom I would have to come in contact in my present birth. That memory comes, every now and then, before me throughout my whole life.'’
There was no school then in Raipur. This gave Naren the time and opportunity to become very intimate with his father — a great privilege, for his father had a noble mind. Vishwanath Datta attracted the intellect of his son. He would hold long conversations with him upon topics that demanded depth, precision and soundness of thought. He gave the boy free intellectual rein, believing that education is a stimulus to thought and not a superimposition of ideas. To his father Naren owed his capacity of grasping the essentials of things, of seeing truth from the widest and the most synthetic standpoint, and of discovering and holding to the real issue under discussion.
Naren was physically perfect and had, to some extent, already acquired that regal bearing which made him, in after years, a notable figure wherever he went. He was beginning to discriminate in the choice of his friends, not accepting any who was not his intellectual peer.
Many noted scholars visited his father. Naren would listen to their discussions, and occasionally joined in them. In those days he sought, nay demanded, intellectual recognition from everyone. So ambitious was he in this respect that if his mental powers were not given recognition, he would fly into a rage, not sparing even his father’s friends and nothing short of an apology would quiet him. Of course, the father could not sanction such outbursts and reprimanded the boy, but, at the same time, in his heart he was proud of the intellectual acumen and keen sense of self-respect of his son.
Vishwanath Datta returned to Calcutta with his family in 1879. There was some difficulty about getting Naren into school, for he had been absent for two years, but his teachers loved him and remembering his ability made an exception in his case. Then he gave himself up to study, mastering three years’ lessons in one, and passed the Entrance Examination in the first division. He was the only student in the school to attain that distinction. His father gave him a watch as a reward.
When he had passed the Entrance Examination, Naren had made much advance in knowledge. While he was in the Entrance class he had mastered a great many standard works of the English and the Bengali literature and had read many books of history. He had specially studied standard works on Indian history by such authors as Marshman and Elphinstone. As he paid little attention to the text books, sometimes he used to work hard just on the eve of the examinations. Once he said, “Just two or three days before the Entrance Examination I found lhat I hardly knew anything of Geometry. Then I began to study the subject keeping awake for the whole night and in course of twenty-four hours I mastered the four books of Geometry.”
At this time he acquired the power of reading which he described as follows: “It so happened that I could understand an author without reading his book line by line. I could get the meaning by just reading the first and the last line of a paragraph. As this power developed I found it unnecessary to read even the paragraphs. I could follow by reading only the first and last lines of a page. Further, where the author introduced discussions to explain a matter and it took him four or five or even more pages to clear the subject, I could grasp the whole trend of his arguments by only reading the first few lines.”