Known also under his birth name of Narendranath Dutta, he came from a wealthy family. His father was a lawyer but also a philosopher. His mother introduced him to early sacred texts of India. He was a remarkable student. The question of God was his main concern. He adhered to the Society of God. Here intellectuals discussed the future of religions and the reform of Hinduism. At 17, he met his guru, Ramakrishna.
In 1886, Vivekananda became sannyasin in the Ramakrishna Ashram. Ramakrishna designated him as his successor sometime before his death. After the death of Ramakrishna, in August 1886, he became head of the ashram. On 25 December 1887, on the night of Christmas, he founded The Ramakrishna Order.
He then made several trips to India. His only possessions were a water pot and the Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ.
In 1893, he went to Chicago on the occasion of the World Parliament of Religions. He spoke on several occasions and its impact was considerable. After his introductory speech, 7,000 people gave a standing ovation of two minutes.
Thereafter, he held conferences and created many disciples the United States. He then traveled around the world to spread the teachings of Râmakrishna. His return to India was triumphant. He created the Râmakrishna Mission in various countries. He returned to the West in 1899.
In 1900, he experienced some health problems. He then worked for the most disadvantaged. He died at the age of 39 on 4 July 1902.
The impact of the Vedanta to the West by Vivekananda was considerable. Vivekananda's work was important because of the shortness of his life. He remained faithful to the teaching of Ramakrishna on religious and philosophical synthesis. He influenced many thinkers, including Mahatma Gandhi.
Some aspects of Vivekananda's thought were traditional, others were very modern. Vivekananda wanted to change the world. He was revolutionary and the direct precursor of Shri Aurobindo.
Vivekananda did not believe at all that the Vedanta contradicts the science of his time. For him, yoga was a mind of science that complements what the West brings in the physical sciences. This science of the mind does not aim at the flight of the world. It increased man's power over the universe.
It is a power, a force of transformation. So, there was no question of rejecting the karma yoga for the sole benefit of Jnana Yoga. Knowledge without action is sterile and action without knowledge is blind and crude. As for the bhakti yoga, he recognized that love was the highest form of knowledge.
His spiritual conception made him reject all superstitions and submissions to chimerical deities. He considered the caste system in India as a social custom opposed to the principles of Vedanta. He also protested against the bigotry and the fanaticism. According to him, the great religions are not destined to disappear. There would be several religions that correspond to each of these types. The more universal a religion, the more it is according to the needs of each person.
In 1970, a memorial gets built in his honor on a small rocky island opposite the town of Kanyakumari. Rabindranath Tagore said that if you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive.
Vivekananda was a seductive blend of tradition and modernity. He was also an explosive mixture of mysticism and science.