The future Swami Vivekananda was born in the famous Datta family of Simla, in Calcutta. His family name was Narendra Nath Datta. His grandfather, Durga Charan Datta, was a gifted man, well versed in Persian and Sanskrit and had a great aptitude for law. But at the age of twenty-five, after the birth of his son, Vishwanath, he renounced worldly life and became a monk. Vishwanath Datta, father of Swami Vivekananda, was also endowed with many qualities of head and heart, for which he commanded great respect from one and all. He was proficient in English and Persian, and took delight in the study of the Bible and the poems of the Persian poet Hafiz. He took to law as a profession and became a successful attorney-at-law in the High Court of Calcutta. He was a man of deep compassion and great sympathy, and his charity very often knew no discrimination. Vishwanath was a great lover of music and had a very good voice. He it was who insisted that his son Narendra Nath should study music, for he looked upon it as the source of much pleasure.
Vishwanath was blessed with a wife who was his peer in all respects. She was exceptionally intelligent and possessed royal dignity and fire of one born, as it were, to regal estate. She won the respect and veneration of all who came in contact with her, and her judgement was followed in the conduct of all affairs that mattered. Calm resignation to the will of God in all circumstances, strength, and reserve characterized this Hindu woman. The poor and the helpless were the special objects of her solicitude. She was noted for her unusual memory and knew by heart long passages from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which she read daily.
Of such parents was born, on Monday the 12th January 1863, Narendra Nath, who afterwards as Swami Vivekananda shook the world, and ushered in a new age of glory and splendour for India.
The influence of the mother in the formation of the character and the development of the mind of a child is always very great. Narendra Nath used to tell later how his mother had taught him his first English words; and he mastered the Bengali alphabet under her tutorship. It was at her knee that he first heard the tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. His boyish imagination was captivated by the life of Sri Rama, an incarnation of God, and he purchased a clay image of Sita-Rama and worshipped it with flowers. Sometimes Shiva took the place of Rama as the object of worship by Narendra Nath. But nevertheless the Ramayana had the greatest fascination for him; and whenever the Ramayana was to be read in the neighbourhood, he was sure to be there. Sometimes he was so enraptured by the thrilling episodes of Rama's life that he forgot all about home. Naren—as he was now called—liked to play at meditation. Though it was play, sometimes it awakened in him deep spiritual emotions which made him unconscious of the outer world. One day he lost himself so much in this mimic meditation in a secluded corner of the house that his relatives had to force open the door and shake him to bring him back to normal consciousness.
Naren had a fascination for wandering monks. Whenever a sadhu came to the door, Naren would be delighted and give him anything from the house as an offering. Naren would also have a peculiar experience when he would try to go to sleep. As soon as he closed his eyes there appeared between his eyebrows a wonderful spot of light of changing colours, which would expand and burst and bathe his whole body with a flood of white radiance. As the mind became preoccupied with this phenomenon, the body would fall asleep. It was a regular occurrence with him, and Narendra Nath thought this phenomenon was natural with everybody. But it indicated his great spiritual potentiality.
There was, however, another side of his character. As a child Narendra Nath was very naughty, and hard to manage. It needed two nurses to take care of him. He was of extraordinary restlessness and at times beyond control. Referring to this, his mother used to say, 'I prayed to Shiva for a son and He has sent me one of His demons.'
He was also a great tease. He would annoy his sisters and when chased would take refuge in the open drain, grinning and making faces at them in safety, for they would not follow him there. The family cow was one of his playmates, and he had a number of pet animals and birds, among which were a monkey, a goat, a peacock, pigeons, and two or three guinea-pigs. Of the servants the coachman was his special friend, and one of the ambitions of his childhood was to become a syce or groom. To him the syce with his turban and his whip, which he flourished as the carriage rolled on, was a magnificent person!
At the age of six Naren was sent to a primary school. At schools one is apt to meet with strange comrades, and after a few days he had acquired a vocabulary which quite upset the family's sense of propriety. So he was removed from the school, and a private tutor was engaged for him. Soon Naren showed remarkable intelligence in his studies. He learned to read and write while other boys were wrestling with the alphabet. His memory was prodigious. He had only to listen to the tutor's reading to learn the lessons. At the age of seven he knew by memory almost the whole of Mugdhabodha, a Sanskrit grammar, as well as passages of great length from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
When seven years old, Narendra joined the Metropolitan Institution founded by Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. His exceptional intelligence was at once recognized by teachers and class-mates. But he was so restless that, they say of him, he never really sat down at his desk at all.
Narendra was a favourite of his companions. He was always the leader among his friends. His favourite game was 'King and the Court'. The throne was the highest step of the stairs in a room. There he would install himself. No one was allowed to sit on the same level. From there he created his Prime Minister, Commander-in-Chief, Tributary Princes, and other state officials and seated them on steps according to their rank. He enacted a Durbar and administrated justice with royal dignity. The slightest insubordination was put down by a disapproving glare.
When he played, his play was lively. At the school, when the class was dispersed for lunch, 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. Disputes often arose among the boys, and it was to Naren that the disputants came as to a court of arbitration. Often he 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, 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. Teachers would often find it difficult to tackle such a student.
A Story is told of him showing how dauntless in spirit and impatient of superstition he was: Narendra Nath 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, and he thought to stop them by telling Naren that the tree was haunted by an evil spirit 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 was true!'
Naren was the beloved of all. With every family in the locality, of high or low caste, rich or poor, he established some sort of relationship. If any of the boys whom he knew suffered 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 out into peals of laughter. He never suffered from shyness and he made himself at home everywhere.
Naren disliked monotony. He organized an amateur theatrical company and presented plays in the worship-hall of his home. Then he started a gymnasium in the courtyard of the house, where his friends used to take regular physical exercises. It went on for some time till one of his cousins broke his arm. Then it was stopped. Thereupon Naren joined the gymnasium of a neighbour with his friends and began to take lessons in fencing, lathiplay, wrestling, rowing, and other sports. Once he carried off the first prize in general athletic competition. When tired of these, he showed magic lantern pictures in his home.
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 expenses. He was the chief cook, and the others were his assistants.
Though the boy was full of wild pranks, he had no evil associate. His instinct kept him away from the dubious ways of the world. Truthfulness was the backbone of his life. Occupied during the day in games and various amusements, he was beginning to mediate during the night and soon was blessed with some wonderful vision. As Naren grew older, a definite change in his temperament was noticeable. He had a preference for intellectual pursuits, and he began to read books and newspapers, and to attend public lectures regularly. He was able to repeat the substance of these to his friends with such original criticism that they were astonished, and he developed an argumentative power which none could compete.
In the year 1877, while Naren was a student of the eighth class, his father went to Raipur in Madhya Pradesh. Naren also was taken there. There was no school 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 and cultured mind. Vishwanath Datta attracted the intellect of his son. He would hold long conversations with him on 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. Many noted scholars visited Vishwanath. Naren would listen to their discussions, and he occasionally joined in them. In these days he demanded intellectual recognition from everyone. So ambitious was he in this respect that if his mental powers were not given recognition, he would feel indignant and made no secret about it. His 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 selfrespect of his son.
Vishwanath Datta returned to Calcutta with his family in 1879. There was some difficulty about getting Naren to 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 college Entrance Examination creditably.
At this time Naren made great progress in acquiring knowledge. Even while in the Entrance class he had mastered a great many standard works of English and Bengali literature and had read many books of history. He keenly studied standard works on Indian history. At this time he acquired a power of reading which he described as flowers: '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 on a page. Further, where the author introduced discussion 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 argument by only reading the first few lines.'
After passing the Entrance Examination, Narendra Nath entered college. He first studied at the Presidency College, Calcutta, and then joined the General Assembly's Institution founded by the Scottish General Missionary Board. In college, he attracted the attention of both Indian and British professors, who were astounded by his brilliant intellect. Principal W.W. Hastie once said, 'I have travelled far and wide, but I have never yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities. He is bound to make his mark in life.' Naren did not limit his studies to the curriculum. During the first two years of his college life he acquired a thorough grasp of all the masterpieces of Western logic, and in his third and fourth year classes he set himself to mastering Western philosophy as well as ancient and modern history of the different nations of Europe.
With all his seriousness there was another side to Naren. He had a great love for pleasure and gave himself up to it whole-heartedly. He was the soul of social circles, a brilliant conversationalist, a sweet singer, and the leader in all innocent fun. No party was complete without him. He was unconventional in manners and with flashes of keen wit would often expose all shows and mummeries of the world almost to the point of cynicism. He was as keen for adventure as ever and detested any sort of weakness. By far the most important trait in his character was purity. The opportunities for questionable adventures were many; but the influence of his mother made itself felt here, for she had made purity a criterion of loyalty to herself and family. Then, too, 'something7 always held him back, as he himself said later on. He had a monastic instinct underneath the surface of the frivolous life he seemed to live. When his father began to urge him to marry, with the tempting prospect of opportunities for a good career, Naren rebelled. And strange to say, every time the subject of marriage came up, some unforeseen difficulty would arise, and the matter would be abandoned.