This is a short, critical biography of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), fiery nationalist, social reformer, institution-builder and student of philosophy. Vivekananda's life and his ideas manifested ambiguities and shifting priorities that this volume explores and attempts to juxtapose meaningfully.
Vivekananda's religious philosophy of Vedanta is discussed in detail, with an analysis of the influence on him of the Bengali mystic Sri Ramakrishna, as also his often controversial leadership of the Ramakrishna Mission. For a speculative monk he had a very active public life: he lectured in America and Europe, his striking good looks and dynamic personality being as much a draw for western audiences as his ideas. Vivekananda's position as a social activist and nationalist is similarly complex: social reforms as widow remarriage - and denied any connection with politics. Symptomatic of the paradoxes and apparent inconsistencies of his life and ideas are the two strongest facets of his personality: a deep commitment to the world and its concerns, and what seems to be its very opposite, a strong penchant for renunciation.
The short biography, one in a series, explores the thought, ideas and work of Vivekananda, analyzing why he remains relevant today with a large following in India and abroad.
Amiya P. Sen teaches History at Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi. He has been Visiting Fellow to St. Anthony's College, Oxford, and Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla. He is the author of Hindu Revivalism in Bengal c. 1872 - 1905: Some Essays in Interpretation (OUP, 1993).
From the time I started writing this book I have come to see it as a personal tribute to an outstanding fellow Indian, whose vivacity and compassion have often moved me. Insight, not objectivity, is the key to the understanding of a life as multi-layered as that of Swami Vivekananda and in the course of writing this book, I have often felt burdened by the realization that a historian may not always be a good biographer. I have also been perplexed by the several inconsistencies and paradoxes of Vivkananda's life, and only by bringing these out more sharply, I felt, could one consciously depart from the hagiography that permeates biographical work on him. It is impossible to reach an understanding of a personality as complex as vivekananda's without studding his ambiguities and shifting positions on various issues. In trying to integrate these in a holistic assessment of Vivekananda, I have largely gone by what the Swami himself suggested -judge a man ultimately by his strengths, not his weakness.
Nothing could convey better Swami Vivekananda's thoughts and personality than his own inimitable language, on which I have relied heavily. In the case of his Bengali writings, I have occasionally had to use my own translations in place of the 'official' ones as the latter did not appear to do justice to nuances of meaning in the original.
Some friends and colleagues were kind enough to help me with constructive criticism when writing this biography. I would like to thank in particular, Sherina Joshi and Sujata Nag who have very painstakingly gone through the typescript and offered valuable suggestions related to content or narrative style. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Narayani Gupta and Oxford University Press, Delhi, for their faith in me as an author. The responsibility for errors of fact or argument is of course entirely mine.
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