Swami Vivekananda – The Monk as Man

Swami Vivekananda – The Monk as Man

January 12, 2014

There is the familiar Swami Vivekananda, and there is the unfamiliar Swami Vivekananda. The former many of us know as one of India's greatest spiritual ambassadors to the West. Sankar's book, aptly called The Monk as Man, deals with his more intimate side.

His early life

As Narendranath, he is one of 10 children, born into a wealthy Bengali family. He scores low in his BA exams, is so attached to his mother that in America he was to say, "Our mothers are great! ....to bring me into the world, she underwent great penance.

Swami Vivekananda with monks

For years before my birth, she kept her body, mind, food, clothes, and senses pure... so she deserves to be worshipped." He makes trips and pilgrimages around India and the world: to America, Dhaka, Kamakhya, Shillong and the Belur Math; and finally leaves his body in July 1902, fighting financial hurdles almost to the day of his death. All of these details are presented by Sankar in the first chapter called 'A Monk and his Mother' but in a cluttered and incohesive manner.

The unfamiliar Naren

In the second chapter 'Emperor, Monk and Cook', the author overwhelms the reader with facts on Vivekananda's culinary tastes. Swami loves jighebagas, a sweetmeat and kachuris; he is enamoured by French cuisine. He's as good a cook as he's a connoisseur of good food. As a youngster he sets up a cookery club called 'The Greedy Club', and, says Sankar, "He was the only Indian who had the courage and the foresight to simultaneously promote Vedanta and Biryani in the West." A whole chapter is devoted to Vivekananda's love of tea and another, on his health.

Swami Vivekananda with Ramkrishna Mission monks

Vivekananda suffered from 31 ailments

Shankar describes Swami Vivekananda's health problems using a Sanskrit quote 'shariram byadhimandiram' --- the body is the temple of diseases. Ironically, Vivekananda used to emphasise greatly on physical strength and is known for the shocking statement 'Better to play football than read the Gita'.

One of the perennial problems that Vivekananda lived with was chronic insomnia and in a letter to Shashi Bhushan Ghosh dated May 29, 1897, he confided "I never in my life could sleep as soon as I got into bed."

The previous year, Vivekananda seemed to have written to his 'dhira mata' (Sara Bull) from New York complaining about his lack of sleep. "My health has nearly broken down. I have not slept even one night soundly in New York since I came ... I wish I could go to the bottom of the sea and have a good, long sleep."

It is also known that Vivekananda used to suffer from diabetes like his father and at that time suitable drugs were unavailable. Shankar writes that Vivekananda had tried different modes of treatment ranging from allopathic, homoeopathic to ayurvedic and had also taken advice from all kinds of quasi-medical experts from various countries.

He narrates that in the summer of 1887, Vivekananda (whose real name was Narendranath Dutta) had fallen very ill due to over-strain and lack of food. During this period, he also suffered from gallstones, and acute diarrhoea. Later, during the same summer, he came down with typhoid and problems in the urinary tract.

"Narendranath's abdominal pains were a source of great anxiety," Shankar says.

Shankar wonderfully chronicles the various medical problems Swami Vivekananda faced during his stint as a wandering monk in the country and across the world, and why he cut short his journey in Cairo, Egypt, to return to India.

Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions

It was to French operatic soprano Rosa Emma Calvet that Vivekandanda had declared in Egypt that he would die on July 4.

"Swami Vivekananda's eyes filled with tears. He said he wanted to return to his country to die, to be with his gurubhais," Shankar wrote.

The fateful evening of July 4, 1902, Vivekananda passed away following a third heart attack, completing 39 years, five months and 24 days.

Parting thought

The feeling as you put down the book is that content as interesting as this (who wouldn't like to know the human side of a monk?) could have been made more readable had it been presented more imaginatively.

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Comments (4)
smitha Reply
March 20, 2014
The meaning of "Better to play football than to read the Gita" means Swami emphasised also on maintaining physical health. Shankar has written the book as he liked which is deplorable. Monks are human, but one must not write a book based on hearsay. Swami Vivekananda precisely predicted when he would die & even made arrangements for that. He continues to inspire an entire generation of people with his messages, speeches & acts.
Abhijit Roy Reply
January 15, 2014
The difficulties he overcame to do what he did are impossible even to imagine by most.
Agnibina Reply
January 15, 2014
Vivekananda's life and teachings are immortal.
Mainak Reply
January 12, 2014
He always loved food.. I had read that smwhere... A great person like him left the world so early ...
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