“It’s bad for a preacher to be young, don’t you think so? I do, as I did all my life. People have more confidence in an old man, and it looks more venerable.”Swami Vivekananda wrote that in one of his letters, towards the closing years of his brief life. Earlier, in 1897, when he was all of 34, he wrote: “I feel my task is done – at most three or four years of life are left”. He died five years later, in 1902, aged 39.
Today is the 150th birth anniversary of the monk. Why are we still talking about him? Have we seen anyone since him who could have the impact he had at his age? I often hear him being described as a youth icon, for a variety of reasons. For me, though, Vivekananda’s message to youth was not in what he said, but in how he lived, and the age at which he lived it.
The easy familiarity of the ‘four stages’ of life model in Indian tradition makes many of us assume that understanding issues relevant to life and death is something left for the post-retirement stage. Vivekananda knew better. Though he taught a lot through what he said and wrote, what he taught by how he lived was that where life, death and faith are concerned, it’s never too early to learn, to master, and to have enough to give back.
We respect the young billionaires of Silicon Valley who complete the cycle of starting early, making it big, and then giving it back to the world, and look to emulate them. But billionaires are made and unmade with every Forbes list. They will have their mansions and their helicopters but not too many would recall them a century after they’re no more. The blazing fervour of a Vivekananda – a spiritual billionaire – comes but once in a lifetime.
It’s sometimes asked, is it relevant to understand and embrace profound questions as young as he did? I have a perspective on this: A young traveller will spend a fair amount of time reading up on the weather, customs and currency of a new country he’s travelling to, and think it to be a matter of common sense. But ask him to read up on anything relating to where he’s finally going to travel to – and he may often say, I’ll come to all that later. It’s almost like beginning to read about your destination only after you’re in the airport lounge. In this case, however, you have no clue when the flight will take off!
You may have mastered philosophy, you may have mastered literature, or any subject of your choice, but until you’ve mastered life and death, you’ve not really mastered anything. Vivekananda – a man with the courage to say, “Death I have conquered long ago when I gave up life. My only anxiety is the work” – wasn’t a Master of Science or Engineering or Arts; but he was a Master of Life. He lived the fact that it’s never too early to begin to understand and comprehend the spirit. He reminded us that wisdom is not necessarily the preserve of ripe old age. Vivekananda used his youth, the only time he had in life, to study and master life and death – which is why, to me, he remains the definitive youth icon, one who practiced his philosophy in his youth, not just preached to the youth.
Yes, it’s good to have fun, but, as the Master wrote to a young friend, “Eating, drinking, dressing, and society nonsense are not things to throw a life upon.” There’s more.