The Great German philosopher Kant said, “If you want to understand a man, then you must understand his environment.” We must accordingly take note of the social environment in which Narendranath Datta, later known as Swami Vivekananda, was born and grew up to manhood.
As said earlier, the Bengal bourgeoisie came into being under the aegis of the English East India Company. During the early days of the Company’s rule the Bengalee merchant classes amassed money through transactions with it. This is borne out by the popular reference to one ‘Gouri Sen’ whose fabulous riches are still talked of. These businessmen formed the monied class of Calcutta and Bengal . But the; Kayasthas flourished in another way. They, like their ancestors of yore, being the intelligentsia of the Hindu community, deemed it fit to serve under the East India Company. A few of them rose to eminence through the Company’s service or through ancillary institutions established by the same.
The distance of time between the Mogul conquest of India and English East India Company’s rule in our country is fairly great. The Kayasthas had fought along with the Pathans against the Mughals and on being defeated, had lost their former proud position as landlords of the country. The Mughals under Man Singh sought to bring about a rupture in the Hindu society and set up the Rahri-Brahmins against the Kayasthas. Thus a class struggle ensued in which the Kayasthas went down. The consequence was that no big Kayastha zamindar was any longer to be found in the whole of Bengal during the Mughal period1. Only the Dinajpur Raj Estate, included at that time in the kingdom of Cooch Behar , was saved. But with the establishment of the English rule, the Kayasthas of the surrounding areas of Bengal adjusted themselves to it. And those who built connections with the ruling English power prospered. Thus the Kayasthas in Calcutta who mostly belonged to the Dakshin-Rahri sect became increasingly important. Later on, with the spread of English education they took to English learning. They had learnt Persian in the past and now they became proficient in English in the new circumstances. As a result a liberal group arose in the midst of the Bengal bourgeoisie. This group became attracted to the religions and social reforms of the time initiated by Rammohun Roy and his followers. Rammohun had Kayastha associates from the very beginning. The Tattabodhini Sabha and the Brahmo Samaj had Kayasthas in leading positions. Indeed, the Kayasthas contributed largely under the influence of the strong propaganda launched by the Christian missionaries to the reform movements of the day. Their lot was social ostracism. Meanwhile, under the directive of Rev. Grant Duff2 an attempt was being made to create an ethnic change in them. It worked well for a long time. Many of the converts swelled the ranks of the Eurasians, now-a-days called ‘Anglo-Indians.’
Then as a dialectical contradiction there arose the Brahrno reform movement from within the Hindu society serving as a bulwark against the Christian onslaught. It may, however, be argued that the movement was mainly on the intellectual level. The late Dr. Sundarimohan Das, a leading light of this movement, once told the present writer that the early years of the Brahrno Samaj had been spent in. fighting Christian propaganda and hence it had hardly any time to go to the masses. The conservative Hindu society, however, looked askance at these religious reformers. The latter were not favored by the conservative section of the society. It was the liberal bourgeois young men who came forward to become religious reformers. But as soon as they attempted to put their reforming zeal into practice, persecution and ostracism became their lot. Under the circumstances they were forced to form a group of their own.
These reformers included scions of many a leading Kayastha family. For their pains they were rewarded with banishment from society. Many among them were thrown into the fold of the Brahrno Samaj of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Formerly the educated young men of the middle class were its ardent followers. But as the Brahrno Samaj was open to all, those who faced social ostracism on different pretexts now came in flocks to join it.
At this time Maharshi Debendranath started a Brahmo school for the young boys and girls at Simulia in order to” counteract the missionary influence. The school used to hold its classes in the capacious Puja dalan of the Datta family. Also a life-like oil-painting of the Maharshi used to adorn the school wall. But the young cousin of Kaliprasad, Gopal Chandra Datta, became temporarily insane and returned the picture back to the Tagores. The neighbors had threatened Kaliprasad with ostracism from society for harboring aPirali in his house. It is noteworthy that the threat was made not for harboring a Brahrno school, but for giving shelter to the school of a Pirali Brahmin. ThePiralis are ostracized Brahmins. Hence their contact in any form could not be tolerated. Later on, when the present writer met Maharshi Debendranath and was introduced to him by Pandit Priyanath Sastri, he exclaimed : “I know all members of your family. What relation do you bear to Gopal Chandra Datta and Taraknath Datta ? Gopal Chandra was a devoted Brahrno and Taraknath was the lawyer of our estate.” The writer was astonished that this old man of eighty still retained a sharp memory and remembered no less than three generations of the Datta family.
Then came the question of the journey of the Hindus across the Kakpani (black waters). Formerly, any Hindu who crossed the ocean used to be ostracized for having done what was prohibited in the Shastras(scriptures)^: But late Pandit Satyabrata Samasrami said that he could not find any word of interdiction regarding this in any authoritative book save the recent Saura Purana^. The fact is this : The Arab migration, being checked in the West, began to flow towards the East4. The Arabs began to plunder Indian ships manned by the Hindus. This probably led to the then interdiction against sea-voyage. As a result, the colonies of East Africa, Indonesia , Champa and Kambujia came to be lost to India . But the conservative society of the nineteenth century knew nothing of these historical developments. The strict rule it followed was that old time-honored customs must be preserved. But Rammohun Roy broke the ban and led the way ; others began to follow in his footsteps. But those who came back from their sojourn in foreign countries with strange habits used to be ostracized from the society. At last a religious sanction was procured to the effect that it was not a sin to go to a foreign country for education. Yet the stigma of being in a foreign land could not altogether be wiped out. Further, many of these young men came back with foreign wives. Their outlandish ways of life created consternation among conservative people who felt non-plussed and did not know what to do for the society’s preservation. The liberal section of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, maintained an attitude of defiance against obsolete world-views and outmoded ways of life. This was the situation when Narendranath was born in a liberal bourgeois family.
The society in which he was born had gone through the storm and stress of agitations right from the start of religious reform movements down to the revolutionary upsurge of later days. It is no wonder that this storm and stress were to be reflected in his own life. He was born when Hindu society was on the way to regain its dynamism. Winds’ of change were blowing furiously within his own community. Parents and sons’5, husbands and wives got estranged from one another because someone in the family had either changed his religion or had become a reformer or had gone to England for study. This kind of thing also happened within Narendranath’s immediate family circle. Kalinath Ghose was a man related to him from his maternal side. He became a Christian at the age of fourteen and since then was never heard of. The only child of Ramtanu Basu’s widowed third daughter, Tarini Kumar Mitra, was another relative converted to Christianity by Rev. K.M. Banerjea at the age of fourteen. And terrible became the condition of his mother who was thenceforth forced to lead a life full of sadness, loneliness and pathos. This Tarini Kumar Mitra and his son had to keep their distance from the Hindu society all along. An illustration of the gulf that was created by one’s change of religion is narrated below.
The late Gobindachandra Datta of the Rambagan Datta family got a highly remunerative post at Bombay . He had to join this post by making a sea-voyage round the Cape Comorin as there was no rail-road joining Calcutta and Bombay at that time. After his return he was socially ostracized for crossing the ‘black waters’! Instead of submitting to the dictates *of the society he adopted a defiant attitude and became a Christian. Gobindachandra Datta later on went to England with his family. There his eldest daughter, Srimati Taru Dutt, and the younger, Srimati Aru Dutt, became famous as poets in the English language and were commended by the celebrated Edmund Gosse.
Three years later Gobindachandra returned home. His wife, Srimati Kshetraniani Devi, was also related to us. Our sister, Swarnamayee, used to narrate how one of our aunts whose elder sister Kshetramani was once took her along with her own daughter to visit this lady. At the time of the said visit Kshetramani was taking her meal. She offered her cousins food from her plate which the children readily took. The aunt did not say a word at that time. But on returning home she beat the two girls who were only six years old for eating off the plate of a Christian convert. Swarnamayee used to tell us that before Kshetramani’s visit to England she had often shared her meal with her and did the same thing after her return. So she failed to understand where her fault lay. Our sister was too young to realize that by changing her religion Kshetramani had changed herself ethnically.” She no longer belonged to the Hindu society and race !
Kshetramani ultimately joined the order of ‘Plymouth Brethren’ and bequeathed all her property to the Church. But years later this Christian lady shunned by her relatives helped her sister’s two sons, Amritalal and Surendranath when, driven out of their family, they were in straitened circumstances. She maintained them all along throughout the rest of her life. On the eve of her death she requested Swami Vivekananda to visit her. Swamiji was by the side of her death-bed at her request. ..
It will be clear from all this that the community in which Narendranath was born was in a state of turmoil and change. Later on dialectical contradictions set in. People became increasingly defiant against conservative stranglehold on society. Young Bengal openly revolted as we have noticed earlier. Opposing trends in society were at work. Our gosthi-pati6 (head, of the society) was the multi-millionaire Ashutosh Deb (Chhatu Babu) and it is said that six hundred families acted in unison under him in social matters. By contrast, Ramdulal Sarkar, a scion of one of the old rich families of Calcutta , who had amassed millions through banianship, presents a picture of defiance against conservatism. Threatened with social ostracism, he proudly said, “What do you talk of caste ? It is under my lock and key.” This signifies that caste rigor and prohibitions were for the poor only.
Another young nobleman named Kaliprasanna Sinha devised a novel method of showing defiance against Brahminism. He engaged lots of Brahmin Pandits to translate the Mahabharata from Sanskrit into Bengali. As was usual with Brahmin scholars, these Pandits used to have Sikhas (tufts of hair) on their occiputs. Suddenly a Pandit would find that his Sikha, the badge of Brahminical piety, had been cut off by somebody without his being aware of it. Much annoyed, he would go to Kaliprasanna, his employer, seeking redress. The aggrieved Pandit would, however, be mollified by Kaliprasanna’s offer of cash in accordance with the size of the Sikha as compensation for his loss ! Afterwards these severed pig-tails used to be hung on the walls, each tagged with a label stating its price ! In this way Young Bengal began to laugh at and ridicule conservatism.
The mentality of the orthodox Hindus of the period is well reflected in Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s two dramas written in Bengali. The one called Buro Saliker Ghare Ron (Hair on the nape of an old salik bird) describes a landlord who is extremely orthodox in his utterances but happens to be a libertine with a conservative exterior. To gratify his lust he is secretly ready to forego his orthodoxy. The second one calledEkai Ki Baley Savyata (Is this civilization ?) describes the licentious and shamelessly irresponsible life of a Bengalee youth—a caricature of the Young Bengal Movement. Rajnarain Basu’s book in Bengali, Ekal O Sekal (This Age and the Previous One) provides another illustration of this. But later when young men belonging to many well-to-do families began to visit Europe for education, the conservatives restrained themselves a little. Dialectical contradictions forced the society to re-admit within its fold those who had previously been considered to have gone astray. Thus a young man of Kayastha origin who had a European wife and two children by her was re-admitted into society after he had divorced his wife,—a procedure which received the sanction of the late Pandit Jivananda Vidyasagar.
This was the social milieu in which Narendranath spent the early years of his life. He was born when his community had struggled hard to get out of the thralldom of priestcraft and ardent young men were bent on securing political rights which they considered to be their legitimate due.
Narendranath had the advantage of being born in a house which had been visited on some occasion or other by many notables of the time— Maharshi Debendranath being one of them. The great poet Iswar Chandra Gupta used to visit our house very often. Our grandfather’s cousin, Gopal Chandra, was a prominent member of the Bethune Society and a one-time disciple of Maharshi Debendranath. His uncle Taraknath was a member of the Brahmo Samaj and along, with Umanath Gupta became its joint secretary. But he staged a walk-out with Keshabchandra Sen and others in protest against Debendranath’s conservatism. He was also a member of Bamabodhini Sabha, a society for the advancement of women. Taraknath died in 1886. After this Kaliaschandra Basu, a rationalist who has been mentioned earlier, acted as the permanent secretary of Bethune Society till death. European missionary ladies used to come to the house of the Dattas to give instructions to its female inmates. It was this kind of liberal atmosphere in which Narendranath was reared.
As this book is not a full-length biography of Swamiji, only a few salient facts are being touched upon. In 1871 when he was no more than eight he was admitted to Pandit Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s Metropolitan Institution. Narendranath’s father used to travel to various places in India in connection with his professional work. In 1877 he went to Raipur in the Central Provinces . Knowing that he would have to stay there for quite a long time, he had his family brought there shortly afterwards. Narendranath had to leave his school at the age of fourteen and accompanied his father to Raipur . There he spent a year and a half with the family. He came back to Calcutta with the family in 1879 and re-entered his former school and passed his Entrance Examination in the First Division in 1879. Then he joined the Presidency College in 1880. As it was a Government College and the professors were all or mostly Europeans, it was incumbent on all the students to attend the college either in European “suit or in Indian chapkan and trousers with a pocket-watch. Narendranath used to attend college in alpaca chapkan and trousers. (The chapkan and the watch have been deposited with the Belur Math.) But as he contracted malarial fever in the second year, his percentage of class attendance fell short of the requisite number. In consequence he was not allowed to appear at the F.A. Examination of 1881. It was then that he decided to go to England to study for the Bar. But our father did not accede to the proposal at the time as he said he could not bear to be separated from Narendranath. However, the General Assembly’s Institution (now Scottish Church College ) admitted him and sent him up for the final examination. In 1881 he passed his First Examination in Arts and continued to study further at the same Institution. There Narendranath contracted friendship with Sri Brajendranath Seal who later became a savant of international reputation. Brajendranath was his senior. But they used to meet at a philosophical club and discuss philosophy7. In 1883 Narendranath passed his B.A. Examination. Then he took admission in the Law Department of the Metropolitan Institution (now Vidyasagar College ) in 1884 to prepare for the B.L. Examination. He completed his law studies in 1886 but did not appear at the final examination. The cause of this will be related later.
At the time of Narendranath’s college career Herbert Spencer’s ‘Evolution’ and ‘Unknown and Unknowable’ theories were the rage among students. Along with Spencer’s works, John Stuart Mill’s book On Libertywas a favorite with the literate Indian middle class which sought to follow its precepts and ideals in life. If the earlier generation was enamored of Priestley, Parker and the psychologist Hamilton, the present generation was reading with avid interest Spencer, Mill, “■Harrison,—the English protagonists of Positivism.
Narendranath became fascinated with Evolutionism of Herbert Spencer8 and thus moved far away from mid-Victorian ideologies. This made him part company with the social reformers of his country who attacked him in turn. We must say that instead of mud-throwing the reformers should have had the keenness of mind to realize that the mid-Victorian ideologies were evolved as a dialectical process when England was in full bloom of her colonial imperialistic expansion. But those ideologies could hardly claim to be the absolute truth for all ages. Dialectically, what evolves in one age in one country cannot hold good in another country and another age. The reformers were under mid-Victorian ideological influence that was no longer relevant to the requirements of the time. Hence their activities only retarded advanced political ideology and action. Even to the last days of the English colonial rule in India the reforming societies remained as the bulwark of political reaction.
In his youth Narendranath came in contact with Keshabchandra Sen and Pandit Shivnath Sastri and became a member of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. This was nothing unusual in those days among the youthful intelligentsia of the time. He used to sing in the choir of the Brahmo church. Pandit Shivnath Sastri once told the present writer : “Your brother took me to your house and introduced me to your father.” The late Haramohan Mitra used to say to the writer that Swamiji often said: “But for Ramakrishna I would have been a Brahmo missionary.” He was an enthusiastic Brahmo at that time. This trait never completely left him. But perhaps the mysticism of Keshabchandra seemed too irrational to appeal to him. In spite of Ramakrishna and medieval Vedanta he turned from being a social reformer to a social revolutionary. This the reformers failed to notice. *
During his college life at the General Assembly’s Institution he met Ramakrishna, Narendranath’s classmate Haramohan narrated the following incident to us : “One day our European professor was cross with the students. The students could not understand the state of trance referred to by Wordsworth. He banged the table, stamped the footstool with his boots and at last went out of the class-room in disgust. At this juncture I was going out of the class-room on some errand. But I saw Rev. Hastie, the Principal coming towards the class-room. So I returned to it and then heard Hastie’s lecture. He said, ‘Mr. so-and-so says that the boys are stupid and do not understand Wordsworth and his trance. Perhaps he himself does not understand the poet. While concentrating on the beauty of Nature Wordsworth had some experience of that ecstatic state.’ Then he concluded by saying that there was a man living in Dakshineswar who often experienced a state of bliss through the- kind of trance referred to by Wordsworth. ‘You go and see him’. That was the first time that the students of the class heard about Ramakrishna.”
During the time when Narendranath was visiting the Brahmo Samaj, Dr. Ramchandra Datta, his relative, once asked him why, although he used to go about here and there, he did not care to see Ramakrishna Paramhansa. Our mother said that it was Ramchandra who took Narendranath to meet Ramakrishna. Some biographers of the latter say that at the house of our neighbor Sureshchandra Mitra where Ramakrishna was expected, Sureshchandra invited Narendra tocome and sing a few bhajans. It is in this way that acquaintance between the two began.
Narendranath had great proficiency in classical music. He inherited this trait from his father who practiced it in his youth. Narendranath learnt music from an Ostad(teacher) named Beni . The writer has heard from his mother that Kasi Ghosal had also been one of hisostads. It is said that Kasi Ghosal used to playPakhwaj etc. at the Adi Brahmo Samaj. Perhaps Narendra learnt to play on the same instrument and along with it on Banya and Tabla from him. Narendranath wrote a book in Bengali on how to play on these instruments. It was published by Baishnavchandra Basak of Bartola. The writer has seen a copy of it in the Library of Belur Math.
It was the fashion in those days of political awakening to practice body-building exercises. Surendranath Banerjea and Anandamohan Basu were thundering from the platform of the Students’ Association founded by them that the young Bengalees must be physically strong and aggressive. Being inspired with an awakened zeal in this matter, Narendranath joined Ambu Guha’s Gymnasium (Akhara) to practice wrestling (Kusti). He was also proficient in the English system of physical exercises. Many young men of good families used to throng the gymnasium of Ambu Guha. The late Swami Brahmananda told the present writer that he also used to frequent that place and learnt there how to turn a man on his back. But he gave it up after meeting Ramakrishna.
Surendranath’s influence on the young men was then on the ascendant while that of Keshabchandra was waning9. It is also said that Narendranath used to frequent the Hindu Mahamela of Nabagopal Mitra. It was an organization to resurrect the Hindu life in orderto make the Hindus a nation. It was purely a national organization with national revival as its ideal. The ladies of our house used to send their handicrafts at the exhibition of the Mahamela. In this way, all the traits in Swami Vivekananda’s character and life had their origin in his family characteristics and the then social cross-currents.
To come back to Swamiji’s early life, we find that after graduation Narendranath was made by his father to enter the firm of Nemaichandra Basu, Attorney-at-Law, as an articled clerk to qualify himself for attorneyship. The latter was a friend of his father. At the same time he .studied law to prepare himself for the B.L. Examination. Here an /interesting fact is to be mentioned. We have already said that Narendra previously showed his desire to go to England to study law. On this issue, the writer’s elder brother, Mahendranath, says that Narendranath had the intention to complete his law studies in England and father concurred with this ambitious proposal. But the latter’s sudden demise upset the plan. Again, to give a further lift to Narendranath’s future career, his father made him enter Freemasonry as a member. On being asked by his uncle the~ reason for this step, Narendranath’s father answered that it would help him in his future life11. The writer has seen a piece of printed application form of Freemason’s Lodge amongst old household papers. (The paper has been sent to Belur Math.)
After the death of Narendranath’s father he had to give up the articled clerkship due to sudden economic stringency but continued to stud laiyJJ3ueto” Ramakrishna s illness, however7TTel5ften stayed at Cossipore and frequently absented himself from home: On account of this continued absence mother got upset and went to Cossipore to bring him back. She took the writer with her who was then only six years old. The mother and the boy were sent upstairs and ushered before the ailing Ramakrishna. In the midst of the large room he was sitting on his bed in a half-reclining position with his back resting on a big pillow. He looked at both of us and said to mother : “The doctor has advised me not to speak. But I must speak to you. It is good that you have come. Take Naren back with you. Girish and others donned him in! sannyasi’s clothes. But I exclaimed—How is that ? You have a widowed mother and an infant brother to look after. It is not for you to be a sannyasi!” Thereupon Narendranath accompanied mother and the writer on their way home. In the carriage mother related to him what Ramakrishna had told her. Narendranath answered : “He (Ramakrishna) tells the thief to steal but warns the householder at the same time.” (A ‘ Bengali phrase which means running with the hare and chasing with’, the hound.) On the way home Narendranath got down at Bagbazar on the pretext of some … piece of work.
Sometime later, one morning at-about 8 or 9 o’clock the writer heard the sound of Ramsinga (big Vaishnava bugle) from the Simla street. Suddenly mother said, “Hurry up, Ram12 has sent a carriage to take us to his Kankurgachi garden. Ramakrishna is dead, the Samadhi (interring) of his bones takes place today.” She did not get time enough to clothe the writer properly. With a shirt on his body he was taken to the garden. There after waiting for some time the writer heard the sound of a musical procession coming towards the garden. He hastened towards the gate and stood there watching the procession coming in. As he stood near the gate he saw some young men and others entering the garden, singing to the tune of stringed instruments. One of the young men was carrying a pitcher on his head. The striking thing is that the writer, then a boy of six years only, could recognize many of the faces as known to him and therefore must have seen them before. On seeing the writer, Narendranath asked whether mother had come. The writer answered in the affirmative. Still later, he saw a tall, athletic; fair-looking young man taking a dip in the pond of the garden, and after it plucking a jaba-flower and offering worship with it in front of the brick-built half-finished plinth. It struck him that he knew the young man’s name. It was Niranjan Ghosh (later Swami Niranjanananda). Then there was the feeding of the guests. After this was over, late in the day, the writer and a boy of the locality were given some Khicheri (a preparation of pulse and rice) to eat. Of course the quantity was not bellyful! The writer does not remember anything further on this occasion at Kankurgaci.
Getting back to Narendranath’s life. After the demise of Ramakrishna he came back home and gave mother his clothes to wash. Later, he asked mother whether she had preserved the bones tied in thechaddar (the covering sheet of the upper body). Mother answered that she had found some charcoals tied in a corner of the chaddar and that she had thrown them away. He said, “Alas ! Those were the bones of Ramakrishna”.
At the time (1886) the necessary fees for the B.L Examination were due to be paid very shortly. At first Narendra thought that the time-limit for this had been over but later on, counting the days, he exclaimed, “No, there is time yet.” But that was all; he did not care any further for the law examination. Here it must be said that the writer heard all this from his mother when he grew older.
Then came; the law-suit: After the law-suit was won, Narendranath made himself scarce in his mother’s house. Finally, he left for Upper India and thenceforward maintained no longer any connection with the
family. It is to be noted here that up to the time of his return from the West in 1896 he was never seen in saffron in his own house.