By stretching the imagination one could still picture the peaceful Ayodhya of a hundred years ago. Perhaps it was there, meditating on the banks of the river Sarayu, that Swami Vivekananda was inspired to see Sita as the ideal of India. For, he said, “Sita knows no bitterness…she never returned injury.”

In reality, however, the itinerant sannyasi found that India often did not live up to this ideal. But meandering across the country, puzzling over its history, he realised that India’s life as a civilisation depended on her people – on their striving to truly be Sita’s children. And he insisted that every Indian has it in them to try

This confidence was wrought in the course of a legendary journey across time and space. Its guides were eternal ideals like Sita and human embodiments like Buddha and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The path was illuminated by the Buddha’s conviction that “when a man hurts you, you turn back to hurt him, that would not cure the first injury: it would only create in the world more wickedness.”

Why in this land of high spiritual achievements, is there so much injustice, indignity and poverty? This question haunted Naren long before he embarked on the Indian odyssey and emerged from it to become famous as Swami Vivekananda. The answers came to him gradually from a close study of the homeland and self-awareness of his own responses.

Once, weary after a long trek, Naren was cheered to see a man by the roadside contentedly smoking a pipe. With all the ease and camaraderie of a fellow smoker, he went up to the stranger and asked for a puff from the chillum. The villager looked up at the imposing figure in ochre clothes and shrank back shaking his head. “It would defile you, sir,” he said, “I am a bhangi (sweeper).”

Naren too instinctively pulled back. Continuing down the road he felt uneasy and disturbed. As a sannyasi he aspired to be above notions of caste and prestige. “Yet I fell back into caste ideas when the man told me that he was a sweeper… That was due to ages of habit.”

Suddenly, he turned around, went back to the villager and said “Brother do light me a chillum.” The mystified man agreed to share his chillum only after much persuasion. Centuries of conditioning had convinced him that he was an “outcaste”, duty-bound to protect the ‘purity’ of the upper castes by staying out of their way

On hearing about this incident, the sannyasi’s friends teased him saying that it only showed his addiction to smoking. The young aspirant to renunciation probably laughed along. But he knew it wasn’t that simple. People like that wayside stranger made Naren feel, within himself, the tenacious grip of old social customs that divide people. His diligent struggle for “sameness of vision” could not be just a quest for spiritual ecstasy. It was also a tussle to liberate himself from false duality in practical life. This effort, in which he did not always succeed, went on till the end of his 39 years. As he once wrote to a friend: “If ever I get true renunciation, I shall let you know.”

But all of his life was not a sombre struggle. From Calcutta to Porbundar and Almora to Kanyakumari, the learning was accompanied by a sheer enjoyment of adventure and affection for strangers who became friends.

Naren reached Agra in the monsoon of 1888 and was enthralled and overpowered by the Taj Mahal. For days, he just stared at it from every possible angle because “every square inch of this wondrous edifice is worth a whole day’s patient observation and it requires at least six months to make a real study of it.”

In Lucknow, he was “lost in admiration of the splendours bequeathed by the Nawabs of Oudh, and of the city’s gardens and mosques.” The imperial grandeur of Delhi left him physically and spiritually elated. According to his disciple biographers, the Swami “found in Delhi the symbol of the immortal glory of the Indian people, with its grand, composite culture.”

But the collective memory of the same people was also filled with the pain inflicted by rulers, who lived on the blood of their subjects. Swami Vivekananda sensed this and was preoccupied with problems which persisted “even if the kings be of as god-like a nature as that of Yudhishtra, Ramachandra, Dharmashoka or Akbar, under whose benign rule the people enjoyed safety and prosperity.” For such paternal care provided “no occasion for understanding the principles of self-government.” This perpetual dependency on kings for everything gradually drained people of their inherent energy and strength.

Excerpted with permission from Vivekananda and Our Times: The Journey from Fear to Love, Rajni Bakshi, Speaking Tiger Books.