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Swami Vivekananda before He Came to USA in 1893
A Retrospect and Foundations of Ramakrishna Movement

By Sunita Singh Sengupta, Ph.D. (India)



Swami Vivekananda before He Came to USA in 1893
A Retrospect and Foundations of Ramakrishna Movement

by Sunita Singh Sengupta
Ph.D., Founder & Honorary Convener
Integrating Spirituality and Organizational Leadership Foundation, Delhi, India &
Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Faculty of Management Studies, University of Delhi, India E-mail:


“…I want no name – I want to be a voice without a form. Through the Lord’s will, the desire for name and fame has not crept into my heart, and I dare say never will. I am an instrument, and He is the operator. Through this instrument He is rousing the religious instincts in thousands of hearts in this far off country (USA). Thousands of men and women here love and revere me. “He makes the dumb eloquent and makes the lame cross mountains.” I am amazed at His grace. Whichever town I visit, it is uproar. They have named me “the cyclonic Hindu”. Remember, it is His will – I am a voice without a form – Swami Vivekananda.

Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886) after practicing Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam boldly declared - – “Joto Mot Toto Poth” (As Many Views so Many Paths) and talked about a “Universal Religion” based on the synthesis of sectarian beliefs with spirituality at its core. Harmony of religions is not uniformity; it is unity in diversity. It is not a fusion of religions, but a fellowship of religions based on their common goal.

Sri Ramakrishna – the spiritual master of Swami Vivekananda said:

The time will come when he will shake the world to its foundations through the strength of his intellectual and spiritual powers – Sri Ramakrishna.

Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) becomes the living embodiment of Sri Ramakrishna's vision. In 1893, he travelled to America and the historic lecture of Swami Vivekananda in the World Parliament of Religions at The Art Institute, Chicago on September 11, 1893 created a new awakening and understanding on spiritual monism, tolerance and brotherhood.

I am a voice without a form. Let us ponder for a while:

  • What was this voice: The Voice was of “Unity in Diversity”.
  • What was the message of this voice: The message was clear.
  • Redefining the role of religion for the upliftment of masses.


In the nineteenth century, India started writing the first pages of what we may call her modern history. This was made possible by her contact with the west through the UnitedKingdom. At the beginning of this contract India experienced a period of bewilderment and confusion. But as years passed, the western leaven began to enter into the body and soul of India, stirring it to its depths. It created a ferment which soon issued forth as a national renaissance, gentle and halting in the beginning, but, gathering momentum and force as the century rolled on, becoming a mighty flood in the last decade of the century. This modern renaissance is infusing a new youthful vigour into the body and soul of India and achieving two national purposes: Firstly the assimilation of the dynamic culture of the modern West, the reassessment of her own ancient heritage in the light of the total human legacy; the synthesis of the and the modern in the world’s heritage, and the modern in the world’s heritage, and the ensuring, thus of a dynamic national life and the thread of historic national continuity. Secondly, she is also re-entering, after a few centuries of immobilization, the mainstream of international life and thought and pouring out her quota of light and wisdom in the service of the rest of the world. It was these two purposes that she achieved through Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.

Sri Ramakrishna: The Architect of a New Society

Sri Ramakrishna through his life lived the values of all the religion and showed a new way of life to create a new society which aimed at spiritual fulfillment and followed the principles of equality, harmony of religions, service as worship and renunciation of lust and lucre. The teaching for which Sri Ramakrishna is most well known is the doctrine of the harmony of religions. He emphasized on the principles of harmony which would unite people instead of dividing them and make religion a constructive force in the advancement of human culture. He talked about harmony in various spheres, i.e., knowledge and devotion; the harmony of ancient spiritual ideals and modern ways of life etc. (Swami Bhuteshananda, 2006, p. 35). The main theme of his conversations was man growing spiritually through the manifestation of the Divine within.

The Role of Sri Ramakrishna in the genesis of the organizational shape of the RamakrishnaMath and Ramakrishna Mission – his divine revelation – bringing together and training his select disciples.

Sri Ramakrishna played the most active role in bringing into existence and giving organizational shape to the Ramakrishna Order. Sri Ramakrishna never considered  himself to be the doer or agent of any action, big or small. He perceived clearly that God, whom he used to call his Divine Mother, was the real doer or agent of all actions. He, and for that matter, all other persons or beings, were mere instruments in Her hand. In fact, when one studies the origin and the growth of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, one is constrained to believe that it is a case of divine origin in which Sri Ramakrishna played the most crucial and important part, but Holy Mother, Swami Vivekananda, and his brother disciples, both lay and monastic, also played their respective parts. The arduous spiritual practices of Sri Ramakrishna for twelve years that culminated in 1872 led to the creation of a new community especially fitted for the liberal faith revealed in his own life.

Sri Ramakrishna started his work in two distinct ways:

  • He began his spiritual ministration to the householder devotees, teaching them how to lead God – centered lives living with their families. And
  • Simultaneously started to train a small group of young men, mostly in their teens, in order that they might first inherit the immense spiritual power the Divine Mother had placed in him and then use it for Mother’s work, for the good of the many. He knew that these young boys – ultimately to become a group of sixteen – were to be his successors and the Mother’s workers. While the devotees in general usually visited him on holidays, he would meet these boys – the ‘unpecked fruits’ for offering to the Lord – on other days of the week, when he could pay special personal attention to them undisturbed. Whenever possible he would also have them live with him for two or three days continuously to intensify their training. With the motherly heart of a guru, he devoted himself to their service. He would take meticulous care of all aspects of their life, teaching them to be ever vigilant and careful in respect of lust and lucre – the most deadly enemies of spiritual life. ‘You boys’, he said, ‘are the chosen people of the Divine Mother. She will get many things done through you. So I say unto you, be very very careful.’ (Swami Gambhirananda, 1989, p. 385). Thus, a sort of informal, and mainly non – residential, training centre for this young group (and sometimes for one or two householders like ‘M’) started functioning under the Master’s care at Dakshineswar. Meanwhile, seeing people’s misery through his own eyes as well as through several spiritual visions, Sri Ramakrishna’s longing to serve humanity to alleviate their suffering caused by spiritual ignorance, grew more intense day by day.

Continuous overwork soon affected the health of Sri Ramakrishna and he fell ill with cancer. In December 1885 he was moved to Cossipore Garden House (a suburb of Calcutta) which literally became the Spiritual Training Institute for the coming builders of the Order. Simultaneously a bond of deep love and brotherhood grew up without any body’s conscious effort among the devotees in general and among these young boy devotees in particular. This development took place in such a manner that the devotees themselves wondered at it. Sri Ramakrishna actually seemed to be consciously arranging everything, smoothly and methodically, for the genesis as well as the subsequent growth of the Order that was to fulfill his mission on earth – the mission of alleviating human misery through the re-establishment of true religion in human hearts.

Sri Ramakrishna had been doing everything that was necessary for laying a secure foundation for the coming Order. He was ensuring, as it were, that no loophole, no lacuna, was left anywhere in the process. He seemed to be perfectly aware of the essentials of an organization, and a religious organization at that. First of all he was making sure that hearts and aspirations of all the members of the Order were turned to the highest spiritual ideal. Secondly, he was seeing to it that the members – being of one heart, one thought, one resolve, and one goal – were binding themselves together indissolubly by a cord of love and service to one another. This view is corroborated by the Holy Mother, who in later years said:

“…The Master had the power to die at will. He could have easily given up the body in Samadhi. But he would say, ‘It will be nice if I unite all these youngsters together in a close bond of love…That is why Master did not give up the body early, inspite of so much suffering (The Gospel of Holy Mother, 1986, p. 104).

These cardinal principles of Sri Ramakrishna, i.e., love for the highest spiritual goal and brotherly love among the members, are even now given topmost priority over everything else, and certainly over formal adherence to rules in the twin organizations – the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission.

The selection of a leader and his special training are of great importance in the case of any new organization. This question did not escape Sri Ramakrishna’s attention either. By his words and other indications he made it plain that he had chosen Narendra to be the leader of the group. He was training this extraordinary spiritual genius not only in matters of his spiritual development, but in respect of something else, namely, how to prevent these would- be-monks, the select boy devotees, from returning to worldly life, and how to guide them and hold them together. ‘…Every evening after dusk he would ask all others to move away, call the Swami (then Narendra) to him, and teach him all these (things) for two to three hours continuously, sometimes drawing him into a discussion’ (Sri Ramakrishna, The Great Master, 1983, pp. 90–91).

Two days before his passing away the Master said to him:

See, Naren, I leave all these boys to your care because you are the wisest and ablest of them all. Take care of them with great love, see that they do not return home but continue spiritual practices living together in one place (Swami Gambhirananda, 1991, Vol. 1, p. 164).

This is a clear indication of how Sri Ramakrishna was preparing Narendra to be the leader and caretaker of a monastic group. Sri Ramakrishna’s words to the effect that his young disciples were to continue their spiritual practices living together in one place are significant. They imply that he did not want them to become like wandering Hindu Monks of the traditional, but to live together in one place, obviously in a monastery and therefore, in an Order. This idea is confirmed further by a letter of Swami Vivekananda written on 26th May 1890 to Mr. Pramadadas Mitra. He wrote: ‘Now his (Sri Ramakrishna’s) behest to me was that I should devote myself to the service of the Order of all-renouncing devotees founded by him…His command was that his all renouncing devotees should group themselves together…and I am entrusted with seeing to this.’ (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume VI, p. 239). Referring to the importance of Cossipore in the history of the Order, Swami Vivekananda remarked in a letter dated 13 July 1897, addressed to Swami Brahmananda, ‘All our associations centre round that garden of Cossipore. In reality that is our first Math. (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume VI, p. 239). About Sri Ramakrishna’s role in the origination of the Order, Swami Shivananda in later years said: ‘We did not form this Sangha (Order). During the period of his illness (at Cossipore) the Master himself formed it.’ (Sri Ramakrishna Bhaktamalika, p. 282).

At Cossipore Sri Ramakrishna not only prepared the minds of the young disciples for the future work of the Divine Mother – the work of the would be Ramakrishna Order – he  alsoprepared simultaneously the mind of Sri Sarada Devi, his immaculate wife, for this great task. As a wife and also as the Master’s first disciple, she had her training under him right from her girlhood and was worshipped by him as the Mother of the Universe. Sri Ramakrishna was well aware of her spiritual greatness. Sri Ramakrishna was well aware of her spiritual greatness. At Cossipore Sri Ramakrishna now endearingly entreated her to live in this world after his passing and to alleviate people’s suffering. As he was rapidly sinking, one day he said to her in an aggrieved tone, ‘Well, my dear, won’t you do something? Must this (pointing to his body) do everything single – handedly?’ ‘I am a woman,’ said the Mother. ‘What can I do?’ ‘No, no,’ said the Master, ‘You will have to do a lot.’ Another day he implored her: People of Calcutta (i.e., the common people of the world) appear to be crawling about like worms in the dark. Do look after them (Swami Gambhirananda,  1969, p. 120).

Ma Sarada (The Holy Mother) – The Mother of Ramakrishna Movement and Order

The Holy Mother is the Mother of the entire Ramakrishna Order. She began playing this role even during her Dakshineswar days. Sri Ramakrishna himself established her in all – embracing, all-forgiving universal motherhood and was the first to recognize the Holy Mother as the Sangha Janani – Mother of the Order. However, it was Swami Vivekananda who actually coined the term – Sangha Janani and gave currency to it. He said, “…This Order of ours – she (the Holy Mother) is its Guardian, Protectress, she indeed is the Mother of Our Order.” Swami Vivekananda understood the universal significance of Holy Mother’s life and recognized her central role in the regeneration of Indian culture.

The establishment of the Ramakrishna Order came in response to her earnest prayer. It is her boundless love that is circulating in the Order as the stream of love holding together all its members. Right from the very inception of the order the Holy Mother had firm faith in its greatness and future possibilities. Any utterance of hers was regarded as a command by the founding fathers of the Order. Holy Mother took a lively interest in the day-to-day activities of the various centres of the Ramakrishna Order. She reproached the Head of the Koalpara Ashrama for being too authoritarian and calculating in his dealings with the inmates and advised him to be loving to all. She stressed the importance of love as the binding force in the monastic community. When three of her disciples received sannyasa ordination from her, she prayed to Sri Ramakrishna, ‘Master, protect their (vow of) sannyasa. Wherever they may be – on the hill, on the mountain, in the forest, or in the wilderness – provide them food’ (Swami Atmasthananda, 2006, p. 49).

Holy Mother fully approved of Swami Vivekananda’s introduction of work and social service as an essential part of monastic life. When a monk once told her about the view of some people that it was against the ideal of sannyasa to run hospitals, keep accounts etc., Holy Mother said in clear terms, if you don’t work, with what will you occupy yourselves day and night? Is it possible to meditate all the twenty four hours? Everything shall go on as the Master ordains. When the head of one ashrama complained to her that even well-to-dopeople came to their charitable dispensary, the Holy Mother advised him to keep the door of the dispensary open to all without any distinction. The unique combination of mother and nun in Holy Mother’s life enabled her to play a vital part in the growth of the Ramakrishna Order.

Holy Mother’s all embracing love was not restricted to the people of India alone. Her great Mother – heart knew no geographical barriers and embraced in its universal sweep people of all nations, races and cultures. During India’s freedom struggle when anti – British feelings ran high, Holy Mother said with spontaneous, unassuming breadth of vision. ‘They (the British people) also are my children’. And this remark she made in spite of the fact that quite a number of her disciples were engaged in anti-government and even revolutionary activities. In her were combined the equ ality of vision of a spiritually illumined soul and the equality of love of a mother. (Swami Atmasthananda, 2006, p. 53).


Sri Ramakrishna represented the eternal soul of India, calm and majestic, ‘with a unifying, pacifying love for all living things’ – in the words of Will Durant. In his foreword to the Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Mahatma Gandhi writes:

The story of Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s life is a story of religion in practice. His life enables us to see God face to face. No one can read the story of his life without being convinced that God alone is real and that all else is an illusion. Ramakrishna was a living embodiment of godliness…His love knew no limits, geographical or otherwise. May his divine love be an inspiration to all who read the following pages (1948, p. vii).

Vivekananda on the other hand, represented the modern spirit of freedom and equality, manliness and energy in action.

The meeting of these two souls witnessed the emergence of a glorious vision of truth, of a more perfect excellence of character than achieved hitherto in East or West, and the striving for universal human happiness and welfare. The education of Vivekananda in Universal vision and sympathy at the hands of his great master is phenomenal.

The philosophic and spiritual vision which Ramakrishna imparted to Vivekananda had a profound impact on the subsequent career of the latter and the history of modern India. Sri Ramakrishna called his comprehensive philosophies and spiritual vision – vijnana. The fruit of this vijnana in a character signifies the rare synthesis of the virtues and grace of the cultures of the East and the West. This was the extraordinary achievement in the character and personality of Swami Vivekananda. This explains the unprecedented sweep and range of his energy resources. This alone explains his tremendous intensity and the explosive impact of his brief ten year ministry. Vivekananda was the supreme example of what Herbert Spencer characterized as uniting philanthropic energy with philosophic calm, which, in Vedantic terminilogy, means the union of Shakti and Shiva, or Kali and Brahman.

Sri Ramakrishna during his life time only felt the need for an organization which would be an effective channel for the flow of his unifying vision to fertilize human life everywhere and he set up such an organization, a sangha, with Vivekananda at its head. His deep concern to see that the organization remained intact is evident in his exhortation, a few days before his passing away, to Vivekananda to see that his young disciples were held together in a common dedication to the vision that he had imparted to them. To quote the biography of Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western disciples:

It so happened that Naren had been called to the side of the master some days earlier, when he was suffering intensely and could scarcely speak. The Master wrote on a piece of paper: ’Narendra will teach others.’ Naren hesitated and said: ‘I won’t do that’. But the Master replied, ‘Your very bones will do it’…

Now that the last days were approaching, the Master set himself with greater energy than ever to mould, in a calm and silent way, the spiritual way, the spiritual life of these boys, particularly that of Naren. Every evening he would call Naren to his room and, for two to three hours at a time, would impart final instructions to him on various spiritual subjects and advise him to keep his brother disciples together, how to guide and train them so that they would be able to live the life of renunciation (The Life of Swami Vivekananda, 1949, p. 147).


After Sri Ramakrishna’s passing away, in obedience to his ardent wish, fifteen of his young disciples (one more joined them some years later) under the leadership of Vivekanada formed a new type of monastic brotherhood which was unique in many respects. At first, with the meager financial support of one or two householder devotees, they lived in a dilapidated house in a place called Baranagore. They did not have enough food or clothes and they slept on straw mats spread on the floor. Most of their time was spent in meditation and studies.

It was this austere, contemplative form of monastic life that Swami Vivekananda was to transform later on into one of the noblest, most progressive and dynamic monastic orders in the world, with the motto.’For one’s own liberation and for the welfare of the world (atmano moksartham jagat hitaya ca).

After being at Baranagore monastery for three years, Vivekananda spent another three years travelling all over India as a mendicant monk. He walked hundreds of miles. It was during these travels that Swamiji saw the real India – utter poverty, ignorance, and backwardness everywhere, but in the midst of all that, there still remained undying the flame of spirituality. Vivekananda clearly understood that it was not the ancient religion of the land that was the cause of India’s backwardness. On the contrary, religion formed the backbone of Indian culture, and so the only way to rejuvenate India was to awaken the minds of the poor and the oppressed to the enlightening, life – giving principles of the eternal religion.

Swami Vivekananda’s perception of Sri Ramakrishna was unique. He once said, “Sri Ramakrishna is a force…he is a power, living even now in his disciples and working in the world. I saw him growing in his ideas. He is still growing (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume V, p. 269). 


Nourished by the four basic concepts:

  • Man’s real nature is divine
  • The aim of human life is to realize this divine nature
  • All historical religions are essentially in agreement
  • Unity of mankind and peace can be achieved through the spiritual regeneration of man.

Swami Vivekananda while emphasizing the ethos of movement wrote to one of his brother disciples,

“Above all ‘obedience’ and ‘espirit de corps’. The work cannot succeed unless there is perfect obedience to the authority of the Order and sacrifice of individual views for the sake of the Order” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume IX, p. 99).

In his letter to Mary Hale in September 1899 Swami Vivekananda wrote,

“I have now got a monastery on the Ganga for the teaching of philosophy and comparative religion and a centre of work (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume VIII, p. 473).

Vivekananda is the first monk and outstanding spiritual teacher in history to  uphold, without any reservation, the cause of women and the common people, ‘In India there are two evils,’ he said, ‘trampling on the women and grinding the poor through caste restrictions.’ Revealing his resolve to undo this injustice, Sister Nivedita writes:

Our Master, at any rate, regarded the Order to which he belonged as one whose lot was cast for all time with the cause of Women and the People…It was the one thought, too, with which he would turn to the disciple at his side, whenever he felt himself nearer than usual to death, in a foreign country, alone, ‘Never forget! He would then say, ‘the word is “Woman and the people!” (Sister Nivedita, 1948, pp. 287–288).

Crarl T. Jackson, in his book “Vedanta for the West”, observed, ‘As a pioneer in paving the way for introduction of Asian religious conceptions in the West, the Ramakrishna Movement may be said to stand on the edge of one of the ‘megatrends’ of modern world history (1994, p. 145).

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan – the second President of India in his introduction to the first volume of The Cultural Heritage of India wrote,

“…under the inspiration of this great teacher there has been a powerful revival of social compassion…

Of Swami Vivekananda Dr. Radhakrishnan noted:

“…If there is any call which Vivekananda made to us, it is to rely on our own spiritual resources…”

Swami Vivekananda’s approach may be said to be the ‘conscientization’ of the weaker sections through the spread of education and spiritual culture, the perennial spring of their vitality. His Master Sri Ramakrishna emphasized on becoming true human being – ‘’manhush’.His dictum says, “Let us put ideas into their heads, and they will do the rest.” To keep the neglected masses and women out of the clutches of vested interests, Swamiji very much wanted them to come up and decide their own future.


The paper is based on various resources published by Advaita Ashrama. The major reference is “The Story of Ramakrishna Mission: Swami Viivekananda’s Vision and Fulfillment” published by Swami Bodhisarananda, President, Advaita Ashrama in 2006.


Presented September 10, 2015, ISOL Conference, Art Institute of Chicago.


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