Like many of the great saints who have come from India, great auspiciousness surrounded the birth of Swami Vivekananda. He was born on the day of the great Hindu festival, Makarasamkranti, when millions of Hindus offer prayers to the holy river Ganga. His mother, Bhuvaneshwari, who was a devotee of the Lord Siva, had had a dream that the Deity Himself had arose from his meditation and agreed to be born as her son. She named the son Vireswara in honour of this boon, but his family gave him the name of Narendranath Dutta (Naren), and as a child went by the affectionate nickname of Bile.
Naren’s father, Viswanath, was an attorney-at-law at the Calcutta High Court, and was well known for his generosity and his interest in the many cultures of the world. His rational outlook on life and disregard for social convention left its mark on the young Naren. The young child bore a striking resemblance to his grandfather Durgacharan, who had renounced the world to search for God after the birth of his first son, and many thought that the grandfather had reincarnated in him.
Naren was a very playful and often mischievous child who seemed to have an infinite store of energy. He was greatly fascinated by any passing monk that came by the house, so much so that he had to be kept locked in his room lest he give away all his possessions to them. From his mother he imbibed a love for the Hindu deities, setting their images up in his room and bedecking them with flowers. Around this time, he would experience a strange vision every night just before sleep. When his eyes were closed, he would see between his eyebrows a ball of light. The ball would change colours, expand and slowly burst, immersing his entire being in pure white radiance. Naren assumed this was a daily occurrence for everyone, and was very surprised when a friend denied seeing anything of the sort.
At school he displayed a precocious intelligence and exceptional memory; however the disciplines of school were not enough to contain his energy and he busied himself with pursuits like fencing, wrestling, rowing plus a host of games he invented himself. As he went further into adolescence these pursuits took on a more intellectual turn; he delved into history, literature and current affairs. He was encouraged by his father to meet and argue with the great scholars of the day, and he displayed great mental prowess when he did so.
In 1879 Narendranath entered college, eventually specializing in Western philosophy and European history. The principal of the college remarked ‘Narendra is a real genius. I have travelled far and wide, but have not yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities even among the philosophical students in the German universities. He is bound to make his mark in life.’ It was from this principal that Narendra first heard the name of Sri Ramakrishna.
Music was one of his favourite pastimes, and he studied both singing and instruments under expert teachers, including devotional sons in Urdu, Hindi and Farsi from a Moslem teacher.
At this time Narendranath became associated with the Brahmo Samaj, an important religious movement of the time. English education had shone a spotlight on many aspects of Indian culture that needed transforming, and the Brahmo Samaj was one such reform movement that captured the imagination of many Bengali youths. However, their mode of prayer left him feeling short of fulfilled; he began to look for someone who had actually seen God. Devendranath Tagore, father of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath, was head of the Brahmo Samaj at the time. One time Narendra asked him had he seen God. Devendranath admitted he had not, but said ‘My boy, you have the eyes of a yogi. You should practise meditation’.
Narendra, despite social and family pressure, resisted the urge to marry and lead a worldly life. A relative of his, Ramchandra Dutta, understood his spiritual yearnings and recommended he visit Sri Ramakrishna.