Swami Vivekananda’s Youthful and Ever Contemporary Life
In 1984, the Government of India decided to observe the birthday of Swami Vivekananda (January 12, on the English calendar) as the ‘National Youth Day’. The day ever since, has been thus celebrated with many children and youth centric events in schools and colleges across India with youth conventions, seminars, nation building conventions, debates, music and poetry recitations, meditation and reflection sessions, essay and sports competitions, and the like – events of energy, ideation and imagination – on the birthday of one of India’s best known and ‘coolest’ (as the current Gen. Next would call its icons) saints and spiritual leaders. According to the Government of India communication on the commemoration – ‘It was felt that the philosophy of Swami Vivekananda and the ideals for which he lived and worked could be a great source of inspiration for the Indian youth.’
Today, the youth in India, and the world at large, finds itself at a confusing crossroad of contradictory choices between – faith and reason, religion and spirituality, truth and gospel – when it wants to seriously engage with elements of devotion or diligently enquire about God! In an age of infinite opportunities and immense possibilities that often tend to skew thought perceptions on ‘success’ towards the individual over the social, debates between the material and the spiritual are being renewed again.
But then is it really a present day dilemma? Have these debates not churned young minds before as well like at the commencement of the ‘modern era’ of the human civilisation after the industrial revolution of the 18th century? India’s date with ‘Western’ attributes of modernity began with the coming of the British and other European invader-rulers. The consolidation of the British Raj (post the ‘mutiny of 1857’) got more British ‘intellectual’ rulers of the mind vis-à-vis the then functional but temporarily influential administrators and soldiers to get more intimately involved and engaged with all aspects of the Indian socio-cultural life beyond the political and the financial. The creation of an ‘English’ speaking select class of new Indian elites with a western disposition and mind set was perhaps one of its most far reaching consequences.
Narendra Nath Datta, the restless young lad from Calcutta, long before he became the famed global monk, Swami Vivekananda, too was a product of that culture that prioritised logic, reason and a scientific temper in its dealing with every past association that was accepted as habit, tradition or identity. The doubts and the debates with which he approached the issues around the nature and practice of the prevalent religions of his time weren’t any different from the way most youngsters relate to religion today – as more of a cultural and emotional differential than any intellectual or inspirational connect.
Meanwhile, the diverse pool of religions available then, continue their eternal journey through our age as well.
So what is the most fundamental or obvious lesson from the nature of Vivekananda’s enquires for battling similar dilemmas today? It is the development of an attitude of active engagement and debate with faith. ‘Ask’ and get answered – anything that’s taken for granted or as a given out of ‘fear or habit’ – can never really become one’s own. Unless the mind accepts unconditionally the trust in a faith, individuals are bound to make errors and seek compromises in their interactions with faith.
They would be too entwined in the lilas (the cares and distractions) of the world to let the soul get on with its real quest and purpose of life. But the sooner one embarks on that journey, the quicker is the deliverance. For Vivekananda, the purpose of his life was over even before his entering the fourth decade of his living. Youthful was his quest, and forever young remains his earthly image.
But what was firing that youthful zeal in the ever inquisitive young Narendranath? If age is a state of mind, then one gets old only when he/she decides to rest their mind from all activity, permanently. Quest was the other signature attribute of Vivekananda’s journey, a ‘seeker’ he forever was – be it as a doubting disciple in the ashram of his guru Ramakrishna Paramhansa, or the wandering monk exploring the length and breadth of the meanings in his mystic motherland, or the mature sage with an aptitude to seek beyond the limits of his faith to the possibilities of unity amongst all religions that made him the most influential and a truly global speaker at the world’s first Parliament of Religions conference in Chicago in 1893.
Seek, because their never is an expiry to the learnings of life and the meanings of the universe. The ultimate search of course is the seeking of God – the very purpose of the eternal quest that defines the being of every soul, its many lives notwithstanding!
Why does one undertake a search or seek something? On the most basic level, it keeps us alive, and makes our lives worth living. It is the energy that fuels the spirit of life. But it is the experience that elevates life to a platform from where one goes beyond the limiting prides of the ego to doing something for the others, selflessly. We all have our individual life journeys, our circles of small and big searches, we find something, we abandon some quests, and at times we move on to bigger, greater goals.
But once we attain a goal, then what next? A lot of course depends on the nature and purpose of the quest undertaken. The life of noble souls is a test reference for ideal goals. But once that’s attained, be it the life of Swami Vivekananda or any noble soul anywhere in the world – they have all offered a unanimous prescription – Share!
Material acquisitions give limited individual pleasures, the sharing of material wealth elevates some sufferers and their sufferings temporarily; knowledge acquisitions when shared generate a much larger social good, but divine wisdom like those of enlightened souls like Swami Vivekananda when shared impact masses of people, and change lives forever, and hence those understandings need to endure like Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna order of maths and missions that are nurturing the spiritual health of members and followers across the globe.
These are some of the fundamental and universally relevant lessons from a life lived not too long ago, and still impacting. We all charter our life journeys as per our abilities – but even if one keeps the saffron monk’s faith quest aside, the life of Swami Vivekananda, when read just as that of an inspiring man of his times, still shares valuable guidance templates for the youth of today in both its nature and choices taken, on how to embark on a successful and fulfilling life that can be meaningful and inspirational too.
National award winning film critic, writer and academic currently pursuing a doctoral research project on the ‘aesthetics of Indian cinema’ at the University of Edinburgh, UK.