College and Brahmo Samaj
In 1879 after his family moved back to Calcutta, Narendra passed the entrance examination from the Presidency College, Calcutta. He subsequently studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations in the General Assembly’s Institution (now known as the Scottish Church College). In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination and in 1884 he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Narendra studied the works of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Baruch Spinoza, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. Narendra became fascinated with the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and had correspondence with him; he translated Spencer’s book Education (1861) into Bengali. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works. According to his professors, Narendra was a student prodigy. Dr. William Hastie, principal of General Assembly’s Institution, wrote, “Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.” He was regarded as a srutidhara—a man with prodigious memory.
Narendra became the member of a Freemason’s lodge and of a breakaway faction of the Brahmo Samaj led by Keshub Chandra Sen. His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo concepts, which included belief in a formless God and deprecation of the worship of idols. Not satisfied with his knowledge of philosophy, he wondered if God and religion could be made a part of one’s growing experiences and deeply internalised. Narendra went about asking prominent residents of contemporary Calcutta whether they had come “face to face with God” but could not get answers which satisfied him. His first introduction to the saint Ramakrishna occurred in a literature class in General Assembly’s Institution, when he heard Hastie lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. While explaining the word “trance” in the poem, Hastie suggested his students to visit Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar to know the real meaning of trance. This prompted some of his students, including Narendra, to visit Ramakrishna.