Narendranath started his education at home, later he joined the Metropolitan Institution of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in 1871 and in 1879 he passed the entrance examination for Presidency College, Calcutta, entering it for a brief period and subsequently shifting to General Assembly’s Institution. During the course, he studied western logic, western philosophy and history of European nations. In 1881 he passed the Fine Arts examination and in 1884 he passed the Bachelor of Arts.
Narendranath is said to have studied the writings 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 translated Spencer’s book on Education into Bengali for Gurudas Chattopadhyaya, his publisher. Narendra also had correspondence with Herbert Spencer for some time. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works. According to his professors, student Narendranath was a prodigy (An unusually gifted or intelligent young person). Dr. William Hastie, the principal of Scottish Church College, where he studied during 1881-84,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. After a discussion with Narendranath, Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar reportedly said, “I could never have thought that such a young boy had read so much!”
Narendranath became the member of the Freemason’s Lodge and a faction of Brahmo Samaj, formally known as the “Sadharan Brahma Samaj”. His initial beliefs were shaped by Brahmo Samaj, which believed in formless God, disapproved the worship of idols and devoted itself to socio-religious reforms. 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 internalized. Narendra went about asking prominent residents of contemporary Calcutta whether they had come “face to face with God”. He met the leaders of Brahmo Samaj – Devendranath Tagore and Keshub Chandra Sen, questioning them about the existence of God, but he could not get convincing answers.
His first introduction to Ramakrishna occurred in a literature class in General Assembly Institute, when he heard Principal Reverend W. Hastie lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion and the poet’s nature-mysticism. In the course of explaining the word trance in the poem, Hastie told his students that if they wanted to know the real meaning of it, they should go to Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar. This prompted some of his students, including Narendranath to visit Ramakrishna.