Vivekananda: A Biography cover, portrait photo of Swami Vivekananda

Vivekananda: A Biography

Swami Vivekananda "Describes the way to reach perfection through the performance of daily work in a non-attached spirit and by sublimating human affection into divine love."

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Swami Vivekananda's inspiring personality was well known both in India and in America during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented Hinduism. His vast knowledge of Eastern and Western culture as well as his deep spiritual insight, fervid eloquence, brilliant conversation, broad human sympathy, colourful personality, and handsome figure made an irresistible appeal to the many types of Americans who came in contact with him. People who saw or heard Vivekananda even once still cherish his memory after a lapse of more than half a century.

In America Vivekananda's mission was the interpretation of India's spiritual culture, especially in its Vedantic setting. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of the Americans through the rational and humanistic teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. In America he became India's spiritual ambassador and pleaded eloquently for better understanding between India and the New World in order to create a healthy synthesis of East and West, of religion and science.

In his own motherland Vivekananda is regarded as the patriot saint of modern India and an inspirer of her dormant national consciousness, To the Hindus he preached the ideal of a strength-giving and man-making religion. Service to man as the visible manifestation of the Godhead was the special form of worship he advocated for the Indians, devoted as they were to the rituals and myths of their ancient faith. Many political leaders of India have publicly acknowledged their indebtedness to Swami Vivekananda.

The Swami's mission was both national and international. A lover of mankind, be strove to promote peace and human brotherhood on the spiritual foundation of the Vedantic Oneness of existence. A mystic of the highest order, Vivekananda had a direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that unfailing source of wisdom and often presented them in the soulstirring language of poetry.

The natural tendency of Vivekananda's mind, like that of his Master, Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering in East and West alike. It might appear that his mind seldom found a point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man. Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his mission on earth; and this choice has endeared him to people in the West, Americans in particular.

In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years (1863-1902), of which only ten were devoted to public activities-and those, too, in the midst of acute physical suffering-he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises on Hindu philosophy. In addition, he delivered innumerable lectures, wrote inspired letters in his own hand to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous poems, and acted as spiritual guide to the many seekers, who came to him for instruction. He also organized the Ramakrishna Order of monks, which is the most outstanding religious organization of modern India. It is devoted to the propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in the Swami's native land, but also in America and in other parts of the world.

Swami Vivekananda once spoke of himself as a "condensed India." His life and teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called the Swami the "paragon of Vedantists." Max Muller and Paul Deussen, the famous Orientalists of the nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection. "His words," writes Romain Rolland, "are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years' distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!''


Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center

New York

January 5, 1953

Appendix (Partial)

This appendix contains a number of Swami Vivekananda's important statements on religion and philosophy.


Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy-by one, or more, or all of these-and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.

True religion is entirely transcendental. Every being that is in the universe has the potentiality of transcending the senses; even the little worm will one day transcend the senses and reach God. No life will be a failure; there is no such thing as failure in the universe.

Man must realize God, feel God, see God, talk to God. That is religion. All the ancient books and scriptures are the writings of persons who came into direct contact with spiritual facts. They say that there is such a thing as realization even in this life, and that it is open to everyone; and religion begins with the opening of this faculty, if I may call it so.

No man is born into any religion; he has religion in his own soul.Now, in my little experience I have collected this knowledge: In spite of all the devilry that religion is blamed with, religion is not at all at fault; no religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burnt witches, no religion ever did any of these things. What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion. And if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is it?

Religious quarrels are always over the husks. When purity, when spirituality, goes, leaving the soul dry, then quarrels begin, and not before.

Man has an idea that there can be only one religion, that there can be only one Prophet, that there can be only one Incarnation; but that idea is not true. By studying the lives of all these great Messengers, we find that each was destined to play a part, as it were, and a part only; that the harmony consists in the sum total, and not in one note.

There never was my religion or yours, my national religion or your national religion. There never existed many religions; there is only one Religion. One infinite Religion has existed all through eternity and will ever exist, and this Religion is expressing itself in various countries in different ways.

I accept all the religions that were in the past, and worship them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedan; I shall enter the Christian church and kneel before the Crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhist temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the hearts of everyone. Not only shall I do these things, but I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future.


The sum total of this whole universe is God Himself. Is God then matter? No, certainly not; for matter is God perceived by the five senses. God perceived through the inner organ is mind; and seen through the Spirit, He is Spirit. He is not matter, but whatever is real in matter is He.

The Universal Intelligence is what we call God. Call It by any other name, it is absolutely certain that in the beginning there was that infinite Cosmic Intelligence.

The religions of the unthinking masses all over the world teach, and have always taught, of a God who is outside the universe, who lives in heaven, who governs from that place, who is the punisher of the bad and the rewarder of the good, and so on. As man advances spiritually, he begins to feel that that God is omnipresent, that He is not a distant God, but clearly the Soul of all souls. And a few individuals, who have developed enough and are pure enough, go still farther and find at last that they and the Father are one.

No man can really see God except through human manifestations. Whenever we try to think of God as He is, in His absolute perfection, we invariably meet with the most miserable failure, because as long as we are men, we cannot conceive Him as anything higher than man, The time will come when we shall transcend our human nature and know Him as He is.

Be strong and stand up and seek the God of Love. This is the highest strength. What power is higher than the power of purity? Love and purity govern the world. This love of God cannot be reached by the weak; therefore be not weak, either physically, mentally, morally, or spiritually.

The Lord alone is real; everything else is unreal. Everything else should be rejected for the sake of the Lord. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity Serve the Lord and Him alone.

God is the inexplicable, inexpressible essence of love-to be known, but never defined.

Divine Incarnation

"Whenever extraordinary spiritual power is manifested by man, know that I am there; it is from Me that the manifestation comes." That leaves the door open for the Hindu to worship the Incarnations of all the religions in the world. The Hindu can worship any sage and any saint from any country whatsoever.

The Absolute cannot be worshipped; so we must worship a manifestation, such a one as has our nature. Jesus had our nature; he became the Christ. So can we and so must we. Christ and Buddha are the names of a state to be attained; Jesus and Gautama were the persons to attain it.

Our salutations go to all the past Prophets, whose teachings and lives we have inherited, whatever may have been their race, clime, or creed. Our salutations go to all those God-like men and women who are working at present to help humanity, whatever be their birth, colour, or race. Our salutations go to those who are coming in the future-living Gods-to work unselfishly for our descendants!

The Atman, or Soul

What is it that gives unity to the changing elements of our being? What is it that keeps up the identity of the thing called individuality, moving from moment to moment? What is it by which all our different impressions are pieced together, upon which the perceptions come together, as it were, reside, and form a united whole? This something upon which the mind is painting all these pictures, this something upon which our sensations, carried by the mind, are placed and grouped and formed into a unity, is what is called the Soul of man.

The Hindu believes that man is Spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce, Him fire cannot burn, Him water cannot melt, Him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose centre is located in the body, and that death means the change of this centre from body to body. The soul is not bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence it is free, unlimited, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself tied down to matter and thinks of itself as matter.

In every man and in every animal, however weak or wicked, great or small, resides the same omnipresent, omniscient Soul. The difference is not in the Soul, but in the degree of manifestation.

Everything in time, space, and causation is bound. The Soul is beyond all time, all space, all causation. That which is bound is nature, not the Soul. Therefore proclaim your freedom and be what you are-ever free, ever blessed.

You are free, free, free! "Oh, blessed am I! Free am I! I am infinite! In my soul I can find no beginning and no end. All is my Self." Say this unceasingly.

The Guru

He is the guru "who has himself crossed the terrible ocean of life, and without any thought of gain to himself helps others also to cross the ocean." This is the guru, and mark that none else can be a guru.

It is a mysterious law of nature that as soon as the field is ready, the seed must come; as soon as the soul wants religion, the transmitter of religious force must come. "The seeking sinner meeteth the seeking Saviour."

There are great dangers in regard to the transmitter, the guru. There are many who, though immersed in ignorance, yet, in the pride of their hearts, fancy they know everything, and not only do not stop there, but offer to take others on their shoulders; and thus, the blind leading the blind, both fall into the ditch. The world is full of these. Everyone wants to be a teacher, every beggar wants to make a gift of a million dollars! Just as these beggars are ridiculous, so are these teachers.

Get the mercy of God and of His greatest children. These are the two chief ways to God. The company of these children of light is very hard to get; five minutes in their company will change a whole life, and if you really want it enough, one will come to you. The presence of those who love God makes a place holy, such is the glory of the children of the Lord. They are He; and when they speak, their words are scriptures. The places where they live are filled with their vibrations, and those going there feel them and tend to become holy also.

Faith in Oneself

It is generally said that he is an atheist who does not believe in God. Vedanta says that he is an atheist who does not believe in himself. But this is not selfish faith, because Vedanta, again, is the doctrine of Oneness. It means faith in all because you are all.

Be not afraid of anything. You will do marvelous work. The moment you fear, you are nobody. It is fear that is the great cause of misery in the world. It is fear that is the greatest of superstitions. It is fear that is the cause of our woes. And it is fearlessness that brings heaven in a moment.

Men are taught from childhood that they are weak and that they are sinners. Teach them that they are all glorious children of immortality, even those who are the weakest in manifestation. Let positive, strong, helpful thoughts enter into their brains from their very childhood. Lay yourself open to these thoughts, and not to weakening and paralyzing ones. Say to your own minds, "I am He, I am He." Let it ring day and night in your minds like a song, and at the point of death declare, "I am He." That is the truth. The infinite strength of the world is yours.


What is karma-yoga? It is the knowledge of the secret of work. Instead of being knocked about in this universe and after long delay and thrashing getting to know things as they are, we learn from karma-yoga the secret of work, the method of work, the organizing power of work. A vast mass of energy may be spent in vain if we do not know how to utilize it. Karma-yoga makes a science of work; you learn by it how best to utilize all the activities of this world. Work is inevitable; it must be so. But we should work to the highest purpose.

Each wave in the mind that says "I" and "mine" immediately puts a chain round us and makes us slaves; and the more we say "I" and "mine," the more our slavery grows, the more our misery increases. Therefore karma-yoga tells us to enjoy the beauty of all things in the world, but not to identify ourselves with any one of them.

Karma-yoga teaches us how to work for work's sake, unattached, without caring who is helped, and it also teaches us why we should work. The karmayogi works because it is his nature, because be feels it is good for him to do so, and he has no object beyond that. His position in the world is that of a giver, and he never cares to receive anything. He knows that he is giving, and does not ask for anything in return, and therefore he eludes the grasp of misery.

Bhakti, or Love of God

Bhakti-yoga is a real, genuine search after the Lord, a search beginning, continuing, and ending in love. One single moment of the madness of extreme love of God brings us eternal freedom.

"Bhakti is intense love of God." "When a man gets it he loves all, hates none; he becomes satisfied for ever." This love cannot be reduced to any earthly benefit, because so long as worldly desires last, this kind of love does not come.

Bhakti-yoga does not say, "Give up"; it only says, "Love; love the Highest." And everything low naturally falls away from him the object of whose love is the Highest.

The perfected bhakta no more goes to see God in temples and churches; be knows no place where he will not find Him. He finds Him outside the temple as well as in the temple; he finds Him in the wicked man's wickedness as well as in the saint's saintliness, because he has Him already seated in glory in his own heart as the one almighty, inextinguishable Light of Love, which is ever shining and eternally present.

I know one whom the world used to call mad, and this was his answer: "My friends, the whole world is a lunatic asylum: some are mad after worldly love, some after name, some after fame, some after money, some after salvation and going to heaven. In this big lunatic asylum I too am mad; I am mad after God. You are mad; so am I. I think my madness is after all the best."


Think always that you are the omnipresent Atman. "I am neither the body nor the mind nor the buddhi (the determinative faculty), neither the gross nor the subtle body"-by this process of elimination immerse your mind in the transcendental Knowledge which is your real nature. Kill the mind by thus plunging it repeatedly in this Knowledge. Then only will you realize the Essence of Intelligence and be established in your real nature. Knower and known, meditator and object meditated upon, will then become one, and the cessation of all phenomenal superimpositions will follow.... There is no relative or conditional knowledge in this state. When the Atman is the only knower, by what means can you possibly know it? The Atman is knowledge, the Atman is intelligence, the Atman is Satchidananda.

How has all the knowledge in the world been gained but by the concentration of the powers of the mind? The world is ready to give up its secrets if we only know how to knock, how to give it the necessary blow. The strength and force of the blow come through concentration. There is no limit to the power of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on one point; that is the secret.

Concentration is the essence of all knowledge; nothing can be done without it. Ninety per cent of his thought-force is wasted by the ordinary human being, and therefore he is constantly committing blunders; the trained man or mind never makes a mistake.


He indeed is a Yogi who sees himself in the whole universe and the whole universe in himself.

Not one atom in the universe can move without dragging the whole world along with it. There cannot be any progress without the whole world's following in its wake; and it is becoming clearer every day that the solution of any problem can never be attained on racial or national or any narrow grounds.

I am thoroughly convinced that no individual or nation can live by holding itself apart from the community of others; whenever such an attempt has been made, under the false notion of greatness, policy, or holiness, the result has always been disastrous to the one who thus secluded himself

All that unites with the universal is virtue. All that separates is sin.

When you hurt anyone you hurt yourself, for you and your brother are one.


Selfishness is the chief sin: thinking of ourselves first. He who thinks, "I will eat first, I will have more money than others, and I will possess everything"; he who thinks, "I will go to heaven before others, I will get mukti before others," is the selfish man. The unselfish man says, "I will be last; I do not care to go to heaven; I will go to hell if by doing so I can help my brothers." This unselfishness is the test of religion.

It is our privilege to be allowed to be charitable, for only so can we grow. The poor man suffers that we may be helped. Let the giver kneel down and give thanks; let the receiver stand up and permit. See the Lord back of every being and give to Him.

Are you unselfish? That is the question. If you are, you will be perfect without reading a single religious book, without going into a single church or temple.


Never producing pain by thought, word, or deed, in any living being, is what is called ahimsa non-injury. There is no virtue higher than non-injury. There is no happiness higher than that which a man obtains by this attitude of non-offensiveness to all creation.

Non-injury has to be attained by him who would be free. No one is more powerful than he who has attained perfect non-injury. No one could fight, no one could quarrel, in his presence. Yes, his very presence means peace, means love, wherever he may be. Nobody could be angry or fight in his presence. Even animals, ferocious animals, would be peaceful before him.

Karma and Rebirth

ANY WORD, any action, any thought that produces an effect is called karma. Thus the law of karma means the law of causation, of inevitable cause and effect. Whatever we see or feel or do, whatever action there is anywhere in the universe, while being the effect of past work on the one hand, becomes, on the other a cause in its turn and produces its own effect. Each one of us is the effect of an infinite past. The child is ushered into the world not as something flashing from the hands of nature, as poets delight so much to depict, but he has the burden of an infinite past; for good or evil he comes to work out his own past deeds. This makes the differentiation. This is the law of karma. Each one of us is the maker of his own fate.


Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.

Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-forming assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than a man who has got by heart a whole library.

All the knowledge that the world has ever received comes from the mind; the infinite library of the universe is in your own mind. The external world is simply the suggestion, the occasion, which sets you to studying your own mind; but the object of your study is always your own mind. The falling of an apple gave the suggestion to Newton, and he studied his own mind; he rearranged all the previous links of thought in his mind and discovered a new link among them, which we call gravitation. It was not in the apple or in anything in the centre of the earth.


The debt which the world owes to India is immense. There is not one race on this earth to which the world owes so much as it owes to the patient Hindu, the mild Hindu.

Gifts of political knowledge can be made with the blast of trumpets and the march of cohorts. Gifts of secular knowledge and social knowledge can be made with fire and sword. But spiritual knowledge can only be given in silence, like the dew, which falls unseen and unheard, and yet brings into bloom masses of roses. This has been the gift of India to the world again and again.

The one characteristic of Indian thought is its silence, its calmness. The tremendous power that is behind it is never expressed by violence.


Remember the words of Christ: "Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you." These words are literally true, not figures or fiction. They were the outflow of the heart's blood of one of the greatest sons of God who ever came to this world of ours-words which came as the fruit of realization from a man who had felt and seen God, who had spoken with God a hundred times more intensely than you or I see this building.

He who comes with a pure heart and a reverent attitude will have his heart opened; the doors will open for him and he will see the Truth.

Vedanta says that you are pure and perfect, and that there is a state beyond good and evil, and that that is your own nature. It is higher than good. Good is only a lesser differentiation than evil. We have no theory of evil. We call it ignorance.

One characteristic idea of Vedanta is that we must allow infinite variation in religious thought, and not try to bring everybody to the same opinion, because the goal is the same. The Vedantist says in his poetical language: "As so many rivers, having their source in different mountains, roll down, crooked or straight, and at last come into the ocean, so, 0 Lord, all these various creeds and religions, taking their start from different standpoints and running through courses crooked or straight, at last come unto Thee."

Ye are the children of God, the sharers of Immortal Bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth-sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature.

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