For some time Swami Vivekananda had been planning a visit to London. He wished to sow the seed of Vedanta in the capital of the mighty British Empire. Miss Henrietta Müller had extended to him a cordial invitation to come to London, and Mr. E.T. Sturdy had requested him to stay at his home there. Mr. Leggett, too, had invited the Swami to come to Paris as his guest.
Mr. Francis H. Leggett, whose hospitality the Swami had already enjoyed at Percy, was a wealthy business man of New York. He and two ladies of his acquaintance, Mrs. William Sturges and Miss Josephine MacLeod (who were sisters), had attended the Swami’s lectures in New York during the previous winter. They were all impressed by the Swami’s personality and his message, and Mr. Leggett remarked, one day, that the teacher was a man of ‘great common sense.’ An intimate relationship gradually developed between the Swami, the two sisters, and Mr. Leggett. Mrs. Sturges, who was a widow, and Mr. Leggett became engaged and announced their engagement at the summer camp at Percy. They decided to be married in Paris, and Mr. Leggett invited the Swami to be a witness at the ceremony.
This invitation, coming at the same time as Miss Müller’s and Mr. Sturdy’s seemed to the Swami, as he described it in a letter, a ‘divine call.’ The Swami’s New York friends thought that a sea voyage would be most beneficial for his weary body and mind. At this time the Swami began to feel a premonition of his approaching end. One day he even said, ‘My day is done.’ But the awareness of his unfulfilled mission made him forget his body.
The Swami and Mr. Leggett sailed from New York about the middle of August 1895, reaching Paris by the end of the month. The French metropolis with its museums, churches, cathedrals, palaces, and art galleries impressed him as the centre of European culture, and he was introduced to a number of enlightened French people.
When Swami Vivekananda arrived in London he was enthusiastically greeted by Miss Müller, who had already met him in America, and Mr. Sturdy, who had studied Sanskrit and had to a certain degree practised asceticism in the Himalayas. The Swami’s mind, one can imagine, was filled with tumultuous thoughts as he arrived in the great city. He was eager to test his ability as an interpreter of the spiritual culture of India in the very citadel of the English-speaking nations. He also knew that he belonged to a subject race, which had been under the imperialistic domination of England for almost one hundred and forty years. He attributed India’s suffering, at least in part, to this alien rule. He was not unaware of the arrogance of the British ruling class in India, to whom India was a benighted country steeped in superstition. Would the Britishers give a patient hearing to the religion and philosophy of his ancestors, of which he was so proud? Would they not rather think that nothing good could ever come ‘out of Nazareth’? He did not, as we learn from his own confession, set foot on English soil with the friendliest of feelings. But how he felt when he left England after his short visit will be presently described.
After a few days’ rest the Swami quietly began his work. Through friends he was gradually introduced to people who were likely to be interested in his thoughts; he also devoted part of his time to visiting places of historical interest. Within three weeks of his arrival he was already engaged in strenuous activity. A class was started and soon the hall was found inadequate to accommodate the students. Newspapers interviewed him and called him the ‘Hindu yogi.’ Lady Isabel Margesson and several other members of the nobility became attracted to the Swami’s teachings. His first public lecture was attended by many educated and thoughtful people; some of the leading newspapers were enthusiastic about it. The Standard compared his moral stature with that of Rammohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen. The London Daily Chronicle wrote that he reminded people of Buddha. Even the heads of churches showed their warm appreciation.
But the Swami’s greatest acquisition in London was Miss Margaret E. Noble, who later became his disciple, consecrating her life to women’s education in India. She also espoused the cause of India’s political freedom and inspired many of its leaders with her written and spoken words.
Miss Noble, the fourth child of Samuel Noble, was born in Northern Ireland in 1867. Both her grandfather and her father were Protestant ministers in the Wesleyan church and took active part in the political agitation for the freedom of Ireland. Her grandmother and her father gave her instruction in the Bible. Her father, who died at the age of thirty-four, had a premonition of his daughter’s future calling. One of the last things he whispered to his wife was about Margaret. ‘When God calls her,’ he said, ‘let her go. She will spread her wings. She will do great things.’
After finishing her college education, Margaret took the position of a teacher at Keswick, in the English Lake District, where contact with the High Church stirred her religious emotions. Next she taught in an orphanage in Rugby, where she shared the manual labour of the pupils. At twenty-one, Miss Noble was appointed as mistress at the secondary school in Wrexham, a large mining centre, and participated in the welfare activities of the town, visiting slum households and looking for waifs and strays. Next she went to Chester and taught a class of eighteen-year-old girls. Here she delved into the educational systems of Pestalozzi and Froebel. And finally she came to London, where, in the autumn of 1895, she opened her own school, the Ruskin School, in Wimbledon.
The metropolis of the British Empire offered Miss Noble unlimited opportunities for the realization of her many latent desires — political, literary, and educational. Here she joined the ‘Free Ireland’ group, working for Ireland’s home rule. She was also cordially received at Lady Ripon’s exclusive salon, where art and literature were regularly discussed. This salon later developed into the Sesame Club, with rooms in Dover Street, where Bernard Shaw, T.H. Huxley, and other men of literature and science discussed highly intellectual subjects. Margaret Noble became the secretary of the club, and lectured on ‘The Psychology of the Child’ and ‘The Rights of Women.’ Thus even before she met Swami Vivekananda she was unconsciously preparing the ground for her future activities in India.
At this time Margaret suffered a cruel blow. She was deeply in love with a man and had even set the wedding date. But another woman suddenly snatched him away. A few years before, another young man, to whom she was about to be engaged, had died of tuberculosis. These experiences shocked her profoundly, and she began to take a more serious interest in religion. She was very fond of a simple prayer by Thomas à Kempis: ‘Be what thou prayest to be made.’
One day her art teacher, Ebenezer Cook, said to Margaret: ‘Lady Isabel Margesson is inviting a few friends to her house to hear a Hindu Swami speak. Will you come?’ Swami Vivekananda had already been a topic of discussion among certain members of the Sesame Club. Mr. E.T. Sturdy and Miss Henrietta Müller had told of his extraordinary success in America as a preacher and orator.
Miss Noble first met Swami Vivekananda on a Sunday evening in the drawing-room of Lady Isabel Margesson, situated in the fashionable West End of London. He was to address a group of people on Hindu thought. Miss Noble was one of the last to arrive. Fifteen people sat in the room in absolute silence. She nervously felt as if all eyes were turned on her, and as she took the first vacant chair, she gathered her skirt to sit down without making any noise. The Swami sat facing her. A coal fire burnt on the hearth behind him. She noticed that he was tall and well built and possessed an air of deep serenity. The effect of his long practice of meditation was visible in the gentleness and loftiness of his look, which, as she was to write later, ‘Raphael has perhaps painted for us on the brow of the Sistine Child.’
The Swami looked at Lady Isabel with a sweet smile, as she said: ‘Swamiji, all our friends are here.’ He chanted some Sanskrit verses. Miss Noble was impressed by his melodious voice. She heard the Swami say, among other things: ‘All our struggle is for freedom. We seek neither misery nor happiness, but freedom, freedom alone.’
It was at first difficult for Miss Noble to accept Swami Vivekananda’s views. But before he left London she had begun to address him as ‘Master.’
Recalling those first meetings in London, and their decisive influence on her life, Nivedita wrote in 1904 to a friend: ‘Suppose he had not come to London that time! Life would have been like a headless dream, for I always knew that I was waiting for something. I always said that a call would come. And it did. But if I had known more of life, I doubt whether, when the time came, I should certainly have recognized it. Fortunately, I knew little and was spared that torture….Always I had this burning voice within, but nothing to utter. How often and often I sat down, pen in hand, to speak, and there was no speech! And now there is no end to it! As surely I am fitted to my world, so surely is my world in need of me, waiting — ready. The arrow has found its place in the bow. But if he had not come! If he had meditated, on the Himalayan peaks!…I, for one, had never been here.’
Swami Vivekananda and Mr. Sturdy soon began an English translation of the Bhakti aphorisms of Narada. At this time the idea came to the Swami’s mind that a religion could not have permanent hold upon people without organization and rituals. A mere loose system of philosophy, he realized, soon lost its appeal. He saw the need, therefore, of formulating rituals, on the basis of the Upanishadic truths, which would serve a person from birth to death — rituals that would prepare for the ultimate realization of the supramental Absolute.
His stay in England was very short, but his insight enabled him to appraise the English character with considerable accuracy. He wrote to a devotee on November 18, 1895: ‘In England my work is really splendid. I am astonished myself at it. The English do not talk much in the newspapers, but they work silently. I am sure of having done more work in England than in America.’ And in another letter, written on November 13, to a brother disciple in India: ‘Every enterprise in this country takes some time to get started. But once John Bull sets his hand to a thing, he will never let it go. The Americans are quick, but they are somewhat like straw on fire, ready to be extinguished.’
The Swami had been receiving letters from American devotees asking him to come back; a rich lady from Boston promised to support his work in New York throughout the winter. Before leaving England, however, he arranged that Mr. Sturdy should conduct the classes in London till the arrival of a new Swami from India, about the need of whom he was writing constantly to his brother disciples at the Baranagore monastery.
On December 6, 1895, Swami Vivekananda returned to New York, after his two months’ stay in England, in excellent health and spirits. During his absence abroad, regular classes had been carried on by his American disciples Kripananda, Abhayananda, and Miss Waldo, who taught raja-yoga in both its practical and its theoretical aspects.
Together with Kripananda he took up new quarters, consisting of two spacious rooms, which could accommodate one hundred and fifty persons. The Swami at once plunged into activity and gave a series of talks on work as a spiritual discipline. These talks were subsequently published as Karma-Yoga, which is considered one of his best books. In the meantime the devotees of the Swami had been feeling the need of a stenographer to take down his talks in the classes and on public platforms. Many of his precious speeches had already been lost because there had been no reporter to record them. Fortunately there appeared on the scene an Englishman, J.J. Goodwin, who was at first employed as a professional stenographer; in a few days, however, he was so impressed by the Swami’s life and message that he became his disciple and offered his services free, with the remark that if the teacher could give his whole life to help mankind, he, the disciple, could at least give his services as an offering of love. Goodwin followed the Swami like a shadow in America, Europe, and India; he recorded many of the public utterances of Vivekananda, now preserved in published books, and thereby earned the everlasting gratitude of countless men and women.
The Swami spent Christmas of 1895 with Mr. and Mrs. Leggett at their country home, Ridgely Manor, which he frequently visited in order to enjoy a respite from his hard work in New York. But even there he would give exalted spiritual discourses, as will be evident from the following excerpt from a letter written by Mr. Leggett on January 10, 1896, to Miss MacLeod:
One night at Ridgely we were all spellbound by his eloquence. Such thought I have never heard expressed by mortal man — such as he uttered for two and a half hours. We were all deeply affected. And I would give a hundred dollars for a typewritten verbatim report of it. Swami was inspired to a degree that I have never seen before or since. He leaves us soon and perhaps we shall never see him again, but he will leave an ineffaceable impress on our hearts that will comfort us to the end of our earthly careers.
After a short visit to Boston as the guest of Mrs. Ole Bull, the Swami commenced a series of public lectures in New York at Hardeman Hall, the People’s Church, and later at Madison Square Garden, which had a seating capacity of fifteen hundred people. In the last mentioned place he gave his famous lectures on love as a spiritual discipline, which were subsequently published as Bhakti-Yoga. Both the lectures of the Swami and his personality received favourable comment from the newspapers. He initiated into monastic life Dr. Street, who assumed the name of Yogananda.
Mrs. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, one of the founders of the New Thought movement in America, spoke highly of the Swami’s teachings. She and her husband first went to hear him out of curiosity, and what happened afterwards may be told in her own words:
Before we had been ten minutes in the audience, we felt ourselves lifted up into an atmosphere so rarefied, so vital, so wonderful, that we sat spellbound and almost breathless to the end of that lecture. When it was over we went out with new courage, new hope, new strength, new faith, to meet life’s daily vicissitudes…. It was that terrible winter of financial disasters, when banks failed and stocks went down like broken balloons, and business men walked through the dark valleys of despair, and the whole world seemed topsy-turvy. Sometimes after sleepless nights of worry and anxiety, my husband would go with me to hear the Swami lecture, and then he would come out into the winter gloom and walk down the street smiling and say: ‘It is all right. There is nothing to worry over.’ And I would go back to my own duties and pleasures with the same uplifted sense of soul and enlarged vision…. ‘I do not come to convert you to a new belief,’ he said. ‘I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist, the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian, the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.’ He gave the message that strengthened the man of business, that caused the frivolous society woman to pause and think; that gave the artist new aspirations; that imbued the wife and mother, the husband and father, with a larger and a holier comprehension of duty.
Having finished his work in New York, the Swami, accompanied by Goodwin, left for Detroit. The main theme of his lectures and class talks there was bhakti, or love of God. At that time he was all love. A kind of divine madness seemed to have taken possession of him, as if his heart would burst with longing for the beloved Mother. He gave his last public lecture at Temple Beth-El, of which Rabbi Louis Grossman, an ardent admirer of the Swami, was the leader. The Swami cast a spell, as it were, over the whole audience. ‘Never,’ wrote Mrs. Funke, ‘had I seen the Master look as he looked that night. There was something in his beauty not of earth. It was as if the spirit had almost burst the bonds of flesh, and it was then that I saw a foreshadowing of the end. He was much exhausted from the years of overwork, and it was even then to be seen that he was not long for this world. I tried to close my eyes to it, but in my heart I knew the truth. He had needed rest but felt that he must go on.’
The idea that his years were numbered came to Swami Vivekananda again and again. He would often say at this time, ‘Oh, the body is a terrible bondage!’ or ‘How I wish that I could hide myself for ever!’ The note-book that he had carried during his wanderings in India contained these significant words: ‘Now to seek a corner and lay myself down to die!’ In a letter to a friend, he quoted these words and said: ‘Yet all this karma remained. I hope I have now worked it out. It appears like a hallucination that I was in these childish dreams of doing this and doing that. I am getting out of them…. Perhaps these mad desires were necessary to bring me over to this country. And I thank the Lord for the experience.’
On March 25, 1896, he delivered his famous lecture on ‘The Philosophy of Vedanta’ before the graduate students of the philosophy department of Harvard University. It produced such an impression that he was offered the Chair of Eastern Philosophy in the university. Later a similar offer came from Columbia University. But he declined both on the ground that he was a sannyasin.
In 1894 Swami Vivekananda had established the Vedanta Society of New York as a non-sectarian organization with the aim of preaching the universal principles of Vedanta. It became better organized in 1896. Tolerance and religious universalism formed its motto, and its members generally came to be known as ‘Vedantins.’
In the meantime the Swami’s great works Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, and Karma-Yoga were receiving marked attention from many thoughtful people of the country. The Swami was serious about organizing Hinduism on a sound, universal, ethical, and rational basis so that it would appeal to earnest thinkers in all parts of the world. He wanted to reinterpret, in keeping with the methods of modern science, the Hindu view of the soul, the Godhead, the relationship between matter and energy, and cosmology. Further, he wanted to classify the apparently contradictory passages of the Upanishads bearing on the doctrines of dualism, qualified non-dualism, and absolute non-dualism, and show their ultimate reconciliation. In order to achieve this end, he asked his devotees in India to send him the Upanishads and the Vedanta Sutras with their commentaries by the leading acharyas, and also the Brahmana portions of the Vedas, and the Puranas. He himself wanted to write this Maximum Testamentum, this Universal Gospel, in order to translate Hindu thought into Western language. He expressed his objective in a letter written to one of his disciples on February 17, 1896:
To put the Hindu ideas into English and then make out of dry philosophy and intricate mythology and queer, startling psychology, a religion which shall be easy, simple, popular, and at the same time meet the requirements of the highest minds, is a task which only those can understand who have attempted it. The abstract Advaita must become living — poetic — in everyday life; and out of bewildering yogism must come the most scientific and practical psychology — and all this must be put into such a form that a child may grasp it. That is my life’s work. The Lord only knows how far I shall succeed. To work we have the right, not to the fruits thereof.
The Swami always wanted a healthy interchange of ideas between East and West; this was one of the aims of the Vedanta Society of New York. He felt the need of centres of vital and continual communication between the two worlds to make ‘open doors, as it were, through which the East and the West could pass freely back and forth, without a feeling of strangeness, as from one home to another.’ Already he had thought of bringing to America some of his brother disciples as preachers of Vedanta. He also wanted to send some of his American and English disciples to India to teach science, industry, technology, economics, applied sociology, and other practical things which the Indians needed in order to improve their social conditions and raise their standard of living. He often told his American disciples of his vision that the time would come when the lines of demarcation between East and West would be obliterated. From England he had already written to Swami Saradananda to prepare to come to the West.
In the spring of 1896 letters began to pour in from England beseeching Swami Vivekananda to return there and continue his activities. The Swami felt the need of concentrating on the work in both London and New York, the two great metropolises of the Western world. Therefore he made arrangements with Miss Waldo and other qualified disciples to continue his program in America during his absence. Mr. Francis Leggett was made the president of the Vedanta Society.
The Swami had also been receiving letters from his friends in India begging for his return. He said he would come as soon as possible, but he encouraged them to organize the work, warning them against the formation of any new cult around the person of Sri Ramakrishna, who, to the Swami, was the demonstration of the eternal principles of Hinduism. On April 14, 1896, he wrote to India:
‘That Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was God — and all that sort of thing — has no go in countries like this. M—_ has a tendency to put that stuff down everybody’s throat; but that will make our movement a little sect. You keep separate from such attempts; at the same time, if people worship him as God, no harm. Neither encourage nor discourage. The masses will always have the person; the higher ones, the principle. We want both. But principles are universal, not persons. Therefore stick to the principles he taught, and let people think whatever they like of his person.’
The Swami now made definite arrangements to leave for London on April 15, and, after carrying out his plans there, to sail for his motherland.
It should be apparent to readers of Swami Vivekananda’s life that he worked under great pressure, from a fraction of which a lesser person would have collapsed in no time. Naturally he spent his few spare moments in fun and joking. He would read a copy of Punch or some other comic paper, and laugh till tears rolled down his cheeks. He loved to tell the story of a Christian missionary who was sent to preach to the cannibals. The new arrival proceeded to the chief of the tribe and asked him, ‘Well, how did you like my predecessor?’ The cannibal replied, smacking his lips, ‘Simply de-li-cious!’
Another was the story of a ‘darky’ clergyman who, while explaining the creation, shouted to his congregation: ‘You see, God was a-makin’ Adam, and He was a-makin’ him out o’ mud. And when He got him made, He stuck him up agin a fence to dry. And den—’ ‘Hold on, dar, preacher!’ suddenly cried out a learned listener. ‘What’s dat about dis ‘ere fence? Who’s made dis fence?’ The preacher replied sharply: ‘Now you listen ‘ere, Sam Jones. Don’t you be askin’ sich questions. You’ll be a-smashin’ up all theology!’
By way of relaxation he would often cook an Indian meal at a friend’s house. On such occasions he brought out from his pockets tiny packets of finely ground spices. He would make hot dishes which his Western disciples could hardly eat without burning their tongues. They were, no doubt, soothing to his high-strung temperament.
But the Swami’s brain was seething with new ideas all the time. He very much wanted to build a ‘Temple Universal’ where people of all faiths would gather to worship the Godhead through the symbol Om, representing the undifferentiated Absolute. At another time, in the beginning of the year 1895, he wrote to Mrs. Bull about buying one hundred and eight acres of land in the Catskill Mountains where his students would build camps and practise meditation and other disciplines during the summer holidays.
A touching incident, which occurred in 1894, may be told here; it shows the high respect in which some of the ladies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, held the Swami and his mother. The Swami one day spoke to them about ‘the Ideals of Indian Women,’ particularly stressing the ideal of Indian motherhood. They were greatly moved. The following Christmas they sent the Swami’s mother in India a letter together with a beautiful picture of the Child Jesus on the lap of the Virgin Mary. They wrote in the letter: ‘At this Christmastide, when the gift of Mary’s son to the world is celebrated and rejoiced over with us, it would seem the time of remembrance. We, who have your son in our midst, send you greetings. His generous service to men, women, and children in our midst was laid at your feet by him, in an address he gave us the other day on the Ideals of Motherhood in India. The worship of his mother will be to all who heard him an inspiration and an uplift.’
The Swami often spoke to his disciples about his mother’s wonderful self-control, and how on one occasion she had gone without food for fourteen days. He acknowledged that her character was a constant inspiration to his life and work.
The love and adoration in which the Swami was held by his Western disciples can hardly be over-emphasized. Some described him as the ‘lordly monk,’ and some as a ‘grand seigneur.’ Mrs. Leggett said that in all her experience she had met only two celebrated personages who could make one feel perfectly at ease without for an instant losing their own dignity, and one of them was Swami Vivekananda. Sister Nivedita described him aptly as a Plato in thought and a modern Savonarola in his fearless outspokenness. William James of Harvard addressed him as ‘Master’ and referred to him in Varieties of Religious Experience as the ‘paragon of Vedantists.’
A pleasant surprise awaited Swami Vivekananda on his arrival in London. Swami Saradananda had already come and was staying as the guest of Mr. Sturdy. The two Swamis had not seen each other in a very long time. Swami Vivekananda was told all the news of his spiritual brothers at the Alambazar monastery and their activities in India. It was a most happy occasion.
Swami Vivekananda soon plunged into a whirlwind of activity. From the beginning of May he conducted five classes a week and a Friday session for open discussion. He gave a series of three Sunday lectures in one of the galleries of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water-Colours, in Piccadilly, and also lectured at Princes’ Hall and the Lodge of Annie Besant, in addition to speaking at many clubs, and in educational institutions and drawing-rooms. His audiences consisted mostly of intellectual and serious-minded people. His speeches on jnana-yoga, containing the essence of the Vedanta philosophy, were mostly given in England. Canon Wilberforce held a reception in the Swami’s honour, to which he invited many distinguished people.
At one of the meetings, at the close of his address, a white-haired and well-known philosopher said to the Swami: ‘You have spoken splendidly, sir, but you have told us nothing new.’ Quick came the Swami’s reply: ‘Sir, I have told you the Truth. That, the Truth is as old as the immemorial hills, as old as humanity, as old as creation, as old as the Great God. If I have told you in such words as will make you think, make you live up to your thinking, do I not do well in telling it?’ Loud applause greeted him at the end of these remarks.
The Swami was quick in repartee. During the question period a man who happened to be a native of Scotland, asked, ‘What is the difference between a baboo and a baboon?1 ‘Oh, not much,’ was the instantaneous reply of the Swami. ‘It is like the difference between a sot and a Scot — just the difference of a letter.’
In one of his public lectures in England he paid the most touching tribute to his master, Sri Ramakrishna. He said that he had not one little word of his own to utter, not one infinitesimal thought of his own to unfold; everything, every single thing, all that he was himself, all that he could be to others, all that he might do for the world, came from that single source, from that pure soul, from that illimitable inspiration, from him who, seated ‘there in my beloved India, had solved the tremendous secret, and bestowed the solution on all, ungrudgingly and with divine prodigality.’ The Swami’s own self was utterly forgotten, altogether ignored. ‘I am what I am, and what I am is always due to him; whatever in me or in my words is good and true and eternal came to me from his mouth, his heart, his soul. Sri Ramakrishna is the spring of this phase of the earth’s religious life, of its impulses and activities. If I can show the world one glimpse of my Master, I shall not have lived in vain.’
It was Ramakrishna who brought him in contact with Max Müller, the great German Sanskritist and Indologist, who had been impressed by the eloquence of Keshab Chandra Sen and his religious fervour, and had also come to know of the influence that Sri Ramakrishna had exerted in the development of Keshab’s life. From the information that he had been able to gather from India, Max Müller had already published an article on Ramakrishna in the Nineteenth Century, entitled ‘A Real Mahatman.’ Now he was eager to meet a direct disciple of the Master, and invited Swami Vivekananda to lunch with him in Oxford on May 28, 1896.
The Swami was delighted to meet the savant. When the name of Ramakrishna was mentioned, the Swami said, ‘He is worshipped by thousands today, Professor.’
‘To whom else shall worship be accorded, if not to such?’ was Max Müller’s reply.
Regarding Max Müller and his wife, the Swami later wrote:
The visit was really a revelation to me. That little white house, its setting in a beautiful garden, the silver-haired sage, with a face calm and benign, and forehead smooth as a child’s in spite of seventy winters, and every line in that face speaking of a deep-seated mine of spirituality somewhere behind; that noble wife, the helpmate of his life through his long and arduous task of exciting interest, overriding opposition and contempt, and at last creating a respect for the thoughts of the sages of ancient India — the trees, the flowers, the calmness, and the clear sky — all these sent me back in imagination to the glorious days of ancient India, the days of our brahmarshis2 and rajarshis,3 the days of the great vanaprasthas,4 the days of Arundhatis and Vasishthas.5 It was neither the philologist nor the scholar that I saw, but a soul that is every day realizing its oneness with the universe.
The Swami was deeply affected to see Max Müller’s love for India. ‘I wish,’ he wrote enthusiastically, ‘I had a hundredth part of that love for my motherland. Endowed with an extraordinary, and at the same time an intensely active mind, he has lived and moved in the world of Indian thought for fifty years or more, and watched the sharp interchange of light and shade in the interminable forest of Sanskrit literature with deep interest and heartfelt love, till they have sunk into his very soul and coloured his whole being.’
The Swami asked Max Müller: ‘When are you coming to India? All men there would welcome one who has done so much to place the thoughts of their ancestors in a true light.’
The face of the aged sage brightened up; there was almost a tear in his eye, a gentle nodding of the head, and slowly the words came out: ‘I would not return then; you would have to cremate me there.’
Further questions on the Swami’s part seemed an unwarranted intrusion into realms wherein were stored the holy secrets of a man’s heart.
Max Müller asked the Swami, ‘What are you doing to make Sri Ramakrishna known to the world?’ He himself was eager to write a fuller biography of the Master if he could only procure the necessary materials. At the Swami’s request, Swami Saradananda wrote down the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna and the facts of his life. Later Max Müller embodied these in his book The Life and Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna.
One day Saradananda asked the Swami why he himself had not written about the Master’s life for Max Müller. He answered: ‘I have such deep feeling for the Master that it is impossible for me to write about him for the public. If I had written the article Max Müller wanted, then I would have proved, quoting from philosophies, the scriptures and even the holy books of the Christians, that Ramakrishna was the greatest of all prophets born in this world. That would have been too much for the old man. You have not thought so deeply about the Master as I have; hence you could write in a way that would satisfy Max Müller. Therefore I asked you to write.’
Max Müller showed the Swami several colleges in Oxford and the Bodleian Library, and at last accompanied him to the railroad station. To the Swami’s protest that the professor should not take such trouble, the latter said, ‘It is not every day that one meets with a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.’
Besides doing intensive public work in England, the Swami made there some important personal contacts. The names of Goodwin, Henrietta Müller, Margaret Noble, and Sturdy have already been mentioned. These knew him intimately during his second visit and had become his disciples. Now came the turn of Captain and Mrs. Sevier. The captain was a retired officer of the English army, forty-nine years old, and had served for many years in India. Both were earnest students of religion and had sought the highest truth in various sects and creeds, but had not found it anywhere. When they heard Swami Vivekananda, they intuitively realized that his teachings were what they had so long sought. They were deeply impressed by the non-dualistic philosophy of India and the Swami’s personality.
Coming out of one of the Swami’s lectures, Captain Sevier asked Miss MacLeod, who had already known the Swami in America: ‘You know this young man? Is he what he seems?’
‘In that case one must follow him and with him find God.’
The Captain went to his wife and said, ‘Will you let me become the Swami’s disciple?’
‘Yes,’ she replied.
She asked him, ‘Will you let me become the Swami’s disciple?’
He replied with affectionate humour, ‘I am not so sure!’
The very first time the Swami met Mrs. Sevier in private he addressed her as ‘Mother’ and asked her if she would not like to come to India, adding, ‘I will give you my best realizations.’
A very affectionate relationship sprang up between the Swami and the Seviers, and the latter regarded him as their son. They became his intimate companions and offered him all their savings. But the Swami, anxious about their future worldly security, persuaded them to keep the greater portion of their fortune. Captain and Mrs. Sevier, together with Miss Noble and Goodwin, were the choicest among the followers that Swami Vivekananda gathered in England and all of them remained faithful to him and his work till the last days of their lives.
Through the generosity of the Seviers, the Swami, as will be seen, established the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati, an almost inaccessible place in the Himalayas, for the training of the disciples, both Eastern and Western, in the contemplation of the Impersonal Godhead. After Captain Sevier’s death at Mayavati Mrs. Sevier lived there for fifteen years busying herself with the education of the children of the neighbouring hills. Once Miss MacLeod asked her, ‘Do you not get bored?’ ‘I think of him,’ she replied, referring to Swami Vivekananda.
Though preoccupied with various activities in England, the Swami never for one moment forgot his work in India. After all, it was his intense desire to find means to ameliorate the condition of his countrymen that had brought him to the West. That hope he always cherished in a corner of his mind, both in Europe and in America. He had to train his brother disciples as future workers in India. And so he is seen writing to them in detail regarding the organization of the monastery at Alambazar, where they had been living for some time.
On April 27, 1896, he sent instructions about the daily life of the monks, their food and clothing, their intercourse with the public, and about the provision of a spacious library at the monastery, a smaller room for interviews, a big hall for religious discussions with the devotees, a small room for an office, another for smoking and so forth and so on. He advised them to furnish the rooms in the simplest manner and to keep an eye on the water for drinking and cooking. The monastery, he suggested, should be under the management of a President and a Secretary to be elected by turns by vote. Study, preaching, and religious practices should be important items among the duties of the inmates. He also desired to establish a math for women directly under the control of the Holy Mother. The monks were not to visit the women’s quarters. In conclusion, he recommended Swami Brahmananda as the first President of the math, and said: ‘He who is the servant of all is their true master. He never becomes a leader in whose love there is a consideration of high or low. He whose love knows no end and never stops to consider high or low has the whole world lying at his feet.’ For his workers the Swami wanted men with ‘muscles of iron and nerves of steel, inside which dwells a mind of the same material as that of which the thunderbolt is made.’
To quote the Swami’s words again: ‘I want strength, manhood, kshatravirya, or the virility of a warrior, and brahma-teja, or the radiance of a brahmin…. These men will stand aside from the world, give their lives, and be ready to fight the battle of Truth, marching on from country to country. One blow struck outside of India is equal to a hundred thousand struck within. Well, all will come if the Lord wills it.’
The Swami was exhausted by his strenuous work in England. Three of his intimate disciples, the Seviers and Henrietta Müller, proposed a holiday tour on the continent. He was ‘as delighted as a child’ at the prospect. ‘Oh! I long to see the snows and wander on the mountain paths,’ he said. He recalled his travels in the Himalayas. On July 31, 1896, the Swami, in the company of his friends, left for Switzerland. They visited Geneva, Mer-de-Glace, Montreux, Chillon, Chamounix, the St. Bernard, Lucerne, the Rigi, Zermatt, and Schaffhausen. The Swami felt exhilarated by his walks in the Alps. He wanted to climb Mont Blanc, but gave up the idea when told of the difficulty of the ascent. He found that Swiss peasant life and its manners and customs resembled those of the people who dwelt in the Himalayas.
In a little village at the foot of the Alps between Mont Blanc and the Little St. Bernard, he conceived the idea of founding a monastery in the Himalayas. He said to his companions: ‘Oh, I long for a monastery in the Himalayas, where I can retire from the labours of my life and spend the rest of my days in meditation. It will be a centre for work and meditation, where my Indian and Western disciples can live together, and I shall train them as workers. The former will go out as preachers of Vedanta to the West, and the latter will devote their lives to the good of India.’ Mr. Sevier speaking for himself and his wife, said: ‘How nice it would be, Swami, if this could be done. We must have such a monastery.’
The dream was fulfilled through the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati, which commands a magnificent view of the eternal snows of the Himalayas.
In the Alps the Swami enjoyed some of the most lucid and radiant moments of his spiritual life. Sometimes he would walk alone, absorbed in thought, the disciples keeping themselves at a discreet distance. One of the disciples said: ‘There seemed to be a great light about him, and a great stillness and peace. Never have I seen the Swami to such advantage. He seemed to communicate spirituality by a look or with a touch. One could almost read his thoughts which were of the highest, so transfigured had his personality become.’
While still wandering in the Alps, the Swami received a letter from the famous orientalist, Paul Deussen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kiel. The professor urgently invited the Swami to visit him. The Swami accepted the invitation and changed his itinerary. He arrived at Kiel after visiting Heidelberg, Coblenz, Cologne, and Berlin. He was impressed by the material power and the great culture of Germany.
Professor Deussen was well versed in Sanskrit, and was perhaps the only scholar in Europe who could speak that language fluently. A disciple of Schopenhauer and follower of Kant, Deussen could easily appreciate the high flights of Sankaracharya’s philosophy. He believed that the system of Vedanta, as founded on the Upanishads and the Vedanta Sutras, is one of the ‘most majestic structures and valuable products of the genius of man in his search for Truth, and that the highest and purest morality is the immediate consequence of Vedanta.’
The Swami and the Seviers were cordially received by the German scholar. In the course of the conversation Deussen said that a movement was being made back towards the fountainhead of spirituality, a movement that would in the future probably make India the spiritual leader of the nations, the highest and the greatest spiritual influence on earth. He also found in the Swami a vivid demonstration of concentration and control of the mind. On one occasion he saw his guest turning over the pages of a poetical work and did not receive any response to a query. Afterwards the Swami apologized, saying that he had been so absorbed in the book that he did not hear the professor. Then he repeated the verses from the book. The conversation soon turned to the power of concentration as developed in the Yoga philosophy. One of the purpose of Deussen’s meeting the Swami, it is said was his desire to learn from the latter the secrets of the Yoga powers.
Deussen showed the Swami the city of Kiel. Thereafter the Swami wished to leave immediately for England, though the professor insisted that he should stay at Kiel a few days more. As that was not possible, Deussen joined the party in Hamburg and they travelled together in Holland. After spending three days in Amsterdam all arrived in London, and for two weeks Deussen met with the Swami daily. The Swami also visited Max Müller again at Oxford.
Swami Vivekananda spent another two months in England, giving lectures and seeing important men of their day, such as Edward Carpenter, Frederick Myers, Canon Wilberforce, and Moncure D. Conway. The most notable lectures he gave at this time were those on maya, about which he spoke on three occasions, dealing with its various aspects. It is said that some members of the British royal family attended these lectures incognito. He created such an intense atmosphere during these talks that the whole audience was transported into a realm of ecstatic consciousness, and some burst into tears. The lectures were the most learned and eloquent among his speeches on non-dualistic Vedanta.
Swami Abhedananda arrived from India, and Vivekananda was immensely pleased to have his brother disciple assist him in his foreign work. The maiden speech of Abhedananda at a club in Bloomsbury Square on October 27, was highly appreciated by all, and the Swami said about his spiritual brother, ‘Even if I perish on this plane, my message will be sounded through these dear lips, and the world will hear it.’ The report of the continued popularity of Swami Saradananda, who had in the meantime gone to New York, likewise gratified him.
Despite the rush of his European work Swami Vivekananda maintained his contact with America. He took a personal interest in the spiritual development of his students. The affectionate relationship of the Swami with the Hale family of Chicago has been mentioned before, especially with the four unmarried girls. Hearing of the proposed marriage of Harriet, he wrote to her on September 17, 1896, ‘Marriage is the truest goal for ninety-nine per cent of the human race, and they will live the happiest life as soon as they have learnt and are ready to abide by the eternal lesson — that we are bound to bear and forbear and that to everyone life must be a compromise.’ He sent the young lady his blessings in these terms: ‘May you always enjoy the undivided love of your husband, helping him in attaining all that is desirable in this life, and when you have seen your children’s children, and the drama of life is nearing its end, may you help each other in reaching that infinite ocean of Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss, at the touch of whose waters all distinctions melt away and we all become One.’
But Mary Hale could not make a decision between marriage and lifelong celibacy. She was full of idealism and the spirit of independence; but she was warm in her affection. Swami Vivekananda was particularly fond of Mary. On the day he wrote to Harriet he also wrote to Mary, congratulating Harriet for her discrimination, and prophesying for her a life of joy and sweetness, since she was ‘not so imaginative and sentimental as to make a fool of herself and has enough of common sense and gentleness to soften the hard points of life which must come to everyone.’ But he wanted to tell Mary ‘the truth, and my language is plain.’ He wrote:
My dear Mary, I will tell you a great lesson I have learnt in this life. It is this: ‘The higher your ideal is, the more miserable you are,’ for such a thing as an ideal cannot be attained in the world — or in this life, even. He who wants perfection in the world is a madman — for it cannot be. How can you find the infinite in the finite?
You, Mary, are like a mettlesome Arab — grand, splendid. You would make a splendid queen — physically, mentally — you would shine alongside of a dashing, bold, adventurous, heroic husband. But, my dear sister, you will make one of the worst wives. You will take the life out of our easy-going, practical, plodding husbands of the everyday world. Mind, my sister, although it is true that there is much more romance in actual life than in any novel, yet it is few and far between. Therefore my advice to you is that until you bring down your ideals to a more practical level, you ought not to marry. If you do, the result will be misery for both of you. In a few months you will lose all regard for a commonplace, good, nice young man, and then life will become insipid….
There are two sorts of persons in the world — the one strong-nerved, quiet, yielding to nature, not given to much imagination, yet good, kind, sweet, etc. For such is this world — they alone are born to be happy. There are others, again, with high-strung nerves, tremendously imaginative, with intense feeling — always going high, and coming down the next moment. For them there is no happiness. The first class will have almost an even tenor of happiness. The second will have to run between ecstasy and misery. But of these alone what we call geniuses are made. There is some truth in a recent theory that genius is ‘a sort of madness.’
Now persons of this class, if they want to be great, must fight to be so — clear the deck for battle. No encumbrance — no marriage — no children, no undue attachment to anything except the one idea, and live and die for that. I am a person of this sort. I have taken up the one idea of ‘Vedanta,’ and I have ‘cleared the deck for action.’ You and Isabel are made of this metal — but let me tell you, though it is hard, you are spoiling your lives in vain. Either take up one idea, clear the deck, and to it dedicate the life, or be contented and practical, lower the ideal, marry, and have a happy life. Either ‘bhoga’ or ‘yoga’ — either enjoy this life or give up and be a yogi. None can have both in one. Now or never — select quick. ‘He who is very particular gets nothing,’ says the proverb. Now sincerely and really and for ever determine to ‘clear the deck for the fight,’ take up anything — philosophy or science or religion or literature — and let that be your God for the rest of your life. Achieve happiness or achieve greatness. I have no sympathy with you and Isabel — you are neither for this nor for that. I wish to see you happy, as Harriet is, or great. Eating, drinking, dressing, and society nonsense are not things to throw away a life upon — especially for you, Mary. You are rusting away a splendid brain and abilities for which there is not the least excuse. You must have ambition to be great. I know you will take these rather harsh remarks from me in the right spirit, knowing I like you really as much as or more than what I call you, my sister. I had long had a mind to tell you this and as experience is gathering I feel like telling you. The joyful news from Harriet urged me to tell you this. I will be overjoyed to hear that you are married also, and happy so far as happiness can be had here, or would like to hear of your doing great deeds.
Mary Hale later married a gentleman from Florence, and became known as Mme. Matteini.
For some time the Swami had been feeling an inner urge to return to India. From Switzerland he wrote to friends in India: ‘Do not be afraid. Great things are going to be done, my children. Take heart….In the winter I am going back to India and will try to set things on their feet there. Work on, brave hearts fail not — no saying nay; work on — the Lord is behind the work. Mahasakti, the Great Power, is with you.’
On November 29, 1896, he wrote to a disciple in India about his proposed Himalayan monastery. He further said that his present plan was to start two centres, one in Madras and the other in Calcutta, and later others in Bombay and Allahabad. He was pleased to see that the magazine Brahmavadin, published in English in Madras, was disseminating his ideas; he was planning to start similar magazines in the vernaculars also. He also intended to start a paper, under the management of writers from all nations, in order to spread his ideas to every corner of the globe. ‘You must not forget,’ he wrote, ‘that my interests are international and not Indian alone.’
Swami Vivekananda could no longer resist the voice of India calling him back. Sometime during the middle of November, after a class lecture, he called Mrs. Sevier aside and quietly asked her to purchase four tickets for India. He planned to take with him the Seviers and Mr. Goodwin. Reservations were accordingly made on the ‘Prinz Regent Luitpold,’ of the North German Llyod Steamship Line, sailing from Naples for Ceylon on December 16, 1896. The Seviers wanted to lead a retired life in India, practising spiritual disciplines and helping the Swami in carrying out the idea of building a monastery in the Himalayas. Faithful Goodwin, who had already taken the vows of a brahmacharin, would work as the Swami’s stenographer. It was also planned that Miss Müller and Miss Noble would follow the party some time after, the latter to devote her life to the cause of women’s education in India.
The Swami was given a magnificent farewell by his English friends, devotees, and admirers on December 13 at the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours, in Piccadilly. There were about five hundred people present. Many were silent, tongue-tied and sad at heart. Tears were very near in some eyes. But the Swami, after his farewell address, walked among the assembled friends and repeated over and over again, ‘Yes, yes we shall meet again, we shall.’ It was decided that Swami Abhedananda would continue the work after the Swami’s departure.
Of the impressions left by the Swami’s teachings in England, Margaret Noble writes:
To not a few of us the words of Swami Vivekananda came as living water to men perishing of thirst. Many of us have been conscious for years past of that growing uncertainty and despair, with regard to religion, which has beset the intellectual life of Europe for half a century. Belief in the dogmas of Christianity has become impossible for us, and we had no tool, such as now we hold, by which to cut away the doctrinal shell from the kernel of Reality, in our faith. To these, the Vedanta has given intellectual confirmation and philosophical expression of their own mistrusted intuitions. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’… It was the Swami’s I am God that came as something always known, only never said before…. Yet again, it was the Unity of Man that was the touch needed to rationalize all previous experiences and give logical sanction to the thirst for absolute service, never boldly avowed in the past. Some by one gate, and some by another, we have all entered into a great heritage, and we know it.
The practical Englishman saw in the Swami’s life the demonstration of fearlessness which was the necessary corollary of his teaching regarding the divinity of the soul. It was revealed in many incidents.
One in particular illustrates this. He was one day walking with Miss Müller and an English friend across some fields when a mad bull came tearing towards them. The Englishman frankly ran, and reached the other side of the hill in safety. Miss Müller ran as far as she could, and then sank to the ground, incapable of further effort. Seeing this and unable to aid her, the Swami — thinking, ‘So this is the end, after all’ — took up his stand in front of her, with folded arms.
He told afterwards how his mind was occupied with a mathematical calculation as to how far the bull would be able to throw him. But the animal suddenly stopped a few paces off, and then, raising its head, retreated sullenly. The Englishman felt ashamed of his cowardly retreat and of having left the Swami alone to face the bull. Miss Müller asked the Swami how he could muster courage in such a dangerous situation. He said that in the face of danger and death he felt — and he took two pebbles in his hands and struck the one against the other — as strong as flint, for ‘I have touched the feet of God.’ He had shown a like courage in his early boyhood, when he quickly stepped up to drag away a child who was about to be trampled under a horse’s feet in a street of Calcutta.
Regarding his experience and work in England, he told the Hale sisters, in a letter, that it was a roaring success. To another American friend he wrote that he believed in the power of the English to assimilate great ideas, and that though the process of assimilation might be slow, it would be all the more sure and abiding. He believed that the time would come when distinguished ecclesiastics of the Church of England, imbued with the idealism of Vedanta, would form a liberal community within the Anglican Church itself, supporting the universality of religion both in vision and in practice.
But what he admired most in England was the character of the English people — their steadiness, thoroughness, loyalty, devotion to the ideal, and perseverance to finish any work that they undertook. His preconceived idea about the English was thoroughly changed when he came to know them intimately. ‘No one,’ he said later, addressing the Hindus of Calcutta, ‘ever landed on English soil feeling more hatred in his heart for a race than I did for the English. [The iniquities of the colonial rule in India were deeply impressed in his mind.]…There is none among you who loves the English people more than I do.’
He wrote to the Hale sisters on November 28, 1896: ‘The English are not so bright as the Americans, but once you touch their heart it is yours for ever….I now understand why the Lord has blessed them above all other races — steady, sincere to the backbone, with great depths of feeling, only with a crust of stoicism on the surface. If that is broken you have your man.’ In another letter: ‘You know, of course, the steadiness of the English; they are, of all nations,least jealous of each other and that is why they dominate the world. They have solved the secret of obedience without slavish cringing — great freedom with law-abidingness.’ On still another occasion he called the English ‘a nation of heroes, the true kshatriyas….Their education is to hide their feelings and never to show them. If you know how to reach the English heart, he is your friend for ever. If he has once an idea put into his brain, it never comes out; and the immense practicality and energy of the race makes it sprout up and immediately bear fruit.’
The Swami felt that the finger of God had brought about the contact between India and England. The impact created by the aggressive British rule, on the one hand, awakened the Hindu race from its slumber of ages, and on the other hand, offered India opportunities to spread her spiritual message throughout the Western world.
He wrote to Mr. Leggett on July 6, 1896:
The British Empire with all its evils is the greatest machine that ever existed for the dissemination of ideas. I mean to put my ideas in the centre of this machine, and it will spread them all over the world. Of course, all great work is slow and the difficulties are too many, especially as we Hindus are a conquered race. Yet that is the very reason why it is bound to work, for spiritual ideals have always come from the downtrodden. The downtrodden Jews overwhelmed the Roman Empire with their spiritual ideals. You will be pleased to learn that I am also learning my lesson every day in patience and above all in sympathy. I think I am beginning to see the Divine even inside the bullying Anglo-Indians. I think I am slowly approaching to that state when I would be able to love the very ‘Devil’ himself, if there were any.
Though Swami Vivekananda himself spoke highly of the effect of his teachings in England, he did not start any organized work there as he did in the United States of America. From his letters and conversations one learns that he was growing weary of the world. Though he was at the peak of his success as far as public activity was concerned, he began to feel a longing for the peace that comes from total absorption in the Supreme Spirit. He sensed that his earthly mission was over. On August 23, 1896, he wrote to a friend, from Lucerne:
‘I have begun the work, let others work it out. So you see, to set the work going I had to defile myself by touching money and property for a time.6 Now I am sure my part of the work has been done, and I have no more interest in Vedanta or any philosophy in the world or in the work itself. I am getting ready to depart, to return no more to this hell, this world…. Even its religious utility is beginning to pall on me…. These works and doing good, and so forth, are just a little exercise to cleanse the mind. I have had enough of it.’7 He was losing interest even in the American programme, which he himself had organized.
In the letter quoted above, the Swami wrote: ‘If New York or Boston or any other place in the U.S. needs Vedanta teachers, they must receive them, keep them, and provide for them. As for me, I am as good as retired. I have played my part in the world.’ To Swami Abhedananda he confided one day, about this time, that he was going to live for five or six years at the most. The brother disciple said in protest that he was a young man and that he should not think of death. ‘But,’ Vivekananda said, ‘you are a fool; you do not understand. My soul is getting bigger and bigger every day; the body can hardly contain it. Any day it may burst this cage of flesh and bone!’
The world was leaving him. The string of the kite by which it was fastened to earth was breaking.
The reader may recall that Sri Ramakrishna spoke of Vivekananda as a free soul whom he had dragged down from the realm of the Absolute to help him in his mission on earth. A temporary veil, necessary for physical embodiment and work, was put on this soul so that it might dwell in the world to help men in their search for spiritual freedom. But now, as the veil was becoming thinner, the Swami began to get a glimpse of the real freedom. He realized that the world was the lila, the play, of the Divine Mother, and it would continue as long as She wanted it. On August 8, 1896, he wrote from Switzerland to Goodwin:
I am much refreshed now. I look out of the window and see the huge glaciers just before me — and feel that I am in the Himalayas. I am quite calm. My nerves have regained their accustomed strength, and little vexations like those you write of do not touch me at all. How shall I be disturbed by this child’s play? The whole world is mere child’s play — preaching, teaching, and all included. ‘Know him to be a sannyasin who neither hates nor desires.’ What is to be desired in this little mud-puddle of a world, with its ever recurring misery, disease, and death? ‘He who has given up all desires, he alone is happy.’ This rest — eternal, peaceful rest — I am catching a glimpse of it now in this beautiful spot. ‘If a man knows the Atman as “I am this,” then desiring what and for whose sake will he suffer in the wake of the body?’
I feel as if I have had my share of experience in what they call ‘work.’ I am finished. I am longing to get out now.
With this growing detachment from the world, the idea of good and evil, without the consciousness of which no work is possible, began to drop away. The Swami was realizing an intense love for God. In that mood a great exaltation would come over him, and the whole universe would seem to him an eternal garden where an Eternal Child plays an eternal game. In that mood of delirious joy he had written on July 6, 1896, to Francis Leggett, his friend and disciple:
At twenty I was a most unsympathetic, uncompromising fanatic. I would not walk on the footpath on the theatre side of the street in Calcutta. At thirty-three I can live in the same house with prostitutes and never would think of saying a word of reproach to them. Is it degeneration? Or is it that I am broadening out into that universal love which is the Lord Himself?…Some days I get into a sort of ecstasy. I feel that I must bless everyone, every being, love and embrace every being, and I literally see that evil is a delusion…. I bless the day I was born. I have had so much of kindness and love here, and that Love Infinite who brought me into being has guided every one of my actions, good or bad (don’t be frightened); for what am I, what was I ever, but a tool in His hands — for whose service I have given up everything — my Beloved, my Joy, my Life, my Soul? He is my playful darling. I am His playfellow. There is neither rhyme nor reason in the universe. What reason binds Him? He, the Playful One, is playing — these tears and laughter are all parts of the play. Great fun, great fun! as Joe8 says.
It is a funny world, and the funniest chap you ever saw is He, the Beloved. Infinite fun, is it not? Brotherhood or playmatehood? A shoal of romping children let out to play in this playground of the world, isn’t it? Whom to praise, whom to blame? It is all His play. They want an explanation, but how can you explain Him? He is brainless, nor has He any reason. He is fooling us with little brains and reasons, but this time He won’t find me napping — ‘you bet.’ I have learnt a thing or two. Beyond, beyond reason and learning and talking is the feeling, the ‘Love,’ the ‘Beloved.’ Ay, ‘Sake’ (Friend) fill the cup and we will be mad. — Yours ever in madness, Vivekananda.
In a philosophical mood he spoke about the illusion of progress. He did not believe in the possibility of transforming this earth into a heaven where misery would be totally eliminated and happiness alone would reign in its place. True freedom and bliss could be attained only by the individual and not by the masses as a whole. He wrote to Goodwin on August 8, 1896: ‘”A good world,” “a happy world,” “social progress” are equally intelligible as “hot ice,” “dark light,” etc. If it were good it would not be the world. The soul foolishly thinks of manifesting the Infinite in finite matter — the intelligence through gross particles — and at last finds out its error and tries to escape. This going back is the beginning of religion, and its method, destruction of self, that is, love. Not love for wife or child or anybody else, but love for everything else except this little self. Never be deluded by the tall talk, of which you will hear a lot in America, about “human progress” and such stuff. There is no progress without regression.’
On November 1, 1896, in the course of a letter to Mary Hale, Swami Vivekananda wrote from London:
‘An objective heaven or millennium therefore has existence only in the fancy, but a subjective one is already in existence. The musk-deer, after vain search for the cause of the scent of the musk, at last will have to find it in himself.’
But Swami Vivekananda’s mission to the world was not yet finished. An arduous task was awaiting him in his beloved motherland. The Indian work had to be organized before he could bid farewell to this earth. He left England on December 16, 1896, and travelled overland for the port of departure at Naples.
The party headed directly for Milan, passing through Dover, Calais, and Mont Cenis. The Swami enjoyed the railroad journey and entertained his companions, the Seviers, with his stimulating conversation. But a part of his mind was drawn to India. He said to the Seviers: ‘Now I have but one thought, and that is India. I am looking forward to India.’ On the eve of his departure from London, an English friend had asked him, ‘Swami, how will you like your motherland after three years’ experience in the luxurious and powerful West?’ His significant reply was: ‘India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now holy to me; it is the holy land, the place of pilgrimage.’ Often the Swami said that the West was the karma-bhumi, the land of action, where through selfless work a man purified his heart; and India was the punya-bhumi, the land of holiness, where the pure in heart communed with God.
In Milan the Swami was much impressed by the great cathedral and by Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’ Pisa, with the leaning tower, and Florence, with its magnificent achievements in art, immensely delighted him. But the peak of his happiness was reserved for Rome, where he spent Christmas week. Many things there reminded him of India: the tonsure of the priests, the incense, the music, the various ceremonies of the Catholic Church, and the Holy Sacrament — the last of these recalling to his mind the prasada of the Hindu temples, the food partaken of by devotees after it has been offered to God.
When asked by a lady companion about the church ritual, the Swami said, ‘If you love the Personal God, then give Him your best — incense, flowers, fruit, and silk.’ But he was a little bewildered by the imposing High Mass at St. Peter’s on Christmas Day, and whispered to the Seviers: ‘Why all this pageantry and ostentatious show? Can it be possible that the Church which loves such a display of pomp and ceremonies is the true follower of the humble Jesus, who had nowhere to lay his head?’ He could never forget that Christ was a sannyasin, a world-renouncing monk, and that the essence of his teachings was renunciation and detachment.
He enjoyed his visit to the catacombs, associated with the memories of early Christian martyrs and saints. The Christmas festival at Santa-Maria d’Ara Coeli, with the stalls where sweets, toys, and cheap pictures of the Bambino were sold, reminded him of similar religious fairs in India. Christmas in Rome filled his heart with a warm devotion for Jesus Christ, who was an Asiatic and whom Asia had offered to the West as a gift to awaken its spiritual consciousness.
The Swami spent a few days in Naples, visiting Vesuvius, Pompeii, and other places of interest. Then the ship at last arrived from Southampton with Mr. Goodwin as one of her passengers. The Swami and his friends sailed from Naples on December 30, 1896, expecting to arrive in Colombo on January 15, 1897.
On board the ship the Swami had a significant vision. One night, somewhere between Naples and Port Said, he saw in a vivid dream a venerable, bearded old man, like a rishi of India, who said: ‘Observe carefully this place. You are now in the Island of Crete. This is the land where Christianity began. I am one of the Therapeutae who used to live here.’ The apparition uttered another word, which the Swami could not remember. It might have been ‘Essene,’ a sect to which John the Baptist belonged.
Both the Therapeutae and the Essenes had practised renunciation and cherished a liberal religious outlook. According to some scholars, the word Therapeutae may be derived from the Buddhist word Sthaviraputtra or theraputta, meaning the sons or disciples of the Theras, or Elders, the superiors among the Buddhist monks. The word Essene may have some relation with Isiyana, meaning the Path of the Lord, a well-known sect of Buddhist monks. It is now admitted that the Buddhists at an early time had monasteries in Asia Minor, Egypt, and generally along the eastern part of the Mediterranean.
The old man in the dream concluded his statement by saying: ‘The truths and ideas preached by us were presented as the teachings of Jesus. But Jesus the person was never born. Various proofs attesting this fact will be brought to light when this place is dug up.’ At that moment — it was midnight — the Swami awoke and asked a sailor where the ship was; he was told that it was fifty miles off Crete.
The Swami was startled at this singular coincidence. The idea flashed in his mind that the Acts of the Apostles might have been an older record than the Gospels, and that Buddhist thought, coming through the Therapeutae and the Essenes, might have helped in the formulation of Christianity. The person of Christ might be a later addition. He knew that Alexandria had been a meeting-place of Indian and Egyptian thought. Later, when the old sites in Crete were excavated, evidence was found connecting early Christianity with foreign sources.
But Swami Vivekananda never refused to accept the historical Christ. Like Krishna, Christ, too, has been revealed in the spiritual experiences of many saints. That, for Vivekananda, conferred upon him a reality which was more real than historical realities. While travelling in Switzerland, the Swami one day plucked some wild flowers and asked Mrs. Sevier to offer them at the feet of the Virgin in a little chapel in the mountains, with the remark, ‘She too is the Mother.’ One of his disciples, another day, gave him a picture of the Sistine Madonna to bless. But he refused in all humility, and piously touching the feet of the child said, ‘I would have washed his feet, not with my tears, but with my heart’s blood.’ It may be remembered that the monastic Order of Ramakrishna was started on Christmas Eve.
During the two weeks’ voyage, Swami Vivekananda had ample time to reflect on the experiences of his three years in the Western world. His mind was filled with memories of sweet friendship, unflinching devotion, and warm appreciation from both sides of the Atlantic. Three years before, he had come to America, unknown and penniless, and was regarded somewhat as a curiosity from the glamorous and inscrutable East. Now he was returning to his native land, a hero and prophet worshipped by hundreds and admired by thousands. Guided by the finger of God he had gone to Chicago. In the New World he had seen life at its best and its worst. He found there a society based on the ideals of equality, justice, and freedom, where a man — in sad contrast with India — was given every opportunity to develop his potentialities. There the common people had reached a high standard of living and enjoyed their well-earned prosperity in a way unimaginable in any other part of the world. The American mind was alert, inquisitive, daring, receptive, and endowed with a rare ethical sensitivity. He saw in America, in her men and women of letters, wealth, and position, sparks of spirituality which kindled at the touch of his magic words. He was impressed to see the generous confidence and richness of heart manifested through the pure and candid souls who gave themselves to him once they had recognized him as a trustworthy spiritual guide. They became his noble friends and slaves of love, and did not shrink from the highest sacrifice to help in the fulfilment of his mission.
But withal, the Swami saw the vulgarity, garishness, greed, lust for power, and sensuality among this vast country’s heterogeneous elements. People had been swept off their feet by the newly acquired prosperity created with the aid of science, technology, and human ingenuity. They often appeared to him naive and noisy, and he may have wondered if this new nation, l’enfant terrible, the last hope of Western culture and also the source of potential fear for the rest of the world, would measure up to the expectations of its Founding Fathers and act as the big brother of the world, sharing with all the material amenities of life. America had given him the first recognition and he was aware of it. In America he had started the work of Vedanta in an organized form, and he hoped America would be the spiritual bridge between the East and the West. Though his scholarly and conservative mind often felt at home among the intellectuals of England and Germany, yet to America his heart was devoted. The monuments of Western culture no doubt fascinated him, but, as he wrote to Mary Hale from London, in May 1896: ‘I love the Yankee land — I like to see new things. I do not care a fig to loaf about old ruins and mope a life out about old histories and keep sighing about the ancients. I have too much vigour in my blood for that. In America is the place, the people, the opportunity for everything new. I have become horribly radical.’
In that same letter he wrote, too, that he wished he could infuse some of the American spirit into India, into ‘that awful mass of conservative jelly-fish, and then throw overboard all old associations and start a new thing, entirely new — simple, strong, new and fresh as the first-born baby — throw all of the past overboard and begin anew.’
Swami Vivekananda bestowed equally high praise upon the Englishman. He felt that in a sense his work in England was more satisfactory than his work in America. There he transformed the life of individuals. Goodwin and Margaret Noble embraced his cause as their own, and the Seviers accompanied him to India, deserting Europe and all their past to follow him.
But what of Swami Vivekananda’s early dream of gathering from America the material treasures to remedy the sufferings of the Indian masses and raise their standard of living? He had come to America to obtain, in exchange for India’s spiritual wealth, the needed monetary help and scientific and technological knowledge to rebuild the physical health of his own people. Though on his return he did not take with him American scientists and technologists, or carry in his pocket gold and silver from the New World, yet he had left behind a vast storehouse of goodwill and respect for India. He had been India’s first spiritual ambassador to America, India’s herald, who, remembering the dignity of the royal land whence he had come, had spoken in her name and delivered her message with appropriate dignity.
The full effect of this contact will be known only in years to come; but a beginning can be seen even now. Half a century after Swami Vivekananda’s visit to America, India gained her freedom from British rule. When she thus obtained facilities to arrange her national affairs in her own way, India sent thousands of students to the New World to acquire advanced knowledge in the physical sciences and technology. Further, American money is now being spent to improve the material condition of the Indian masses. Thus it appears that, after all, Swami Vivekananda was not a mere visionary, but had insight into the shape of things to come.
The immediate task before him, the Swami felt, was to work for India’s regeneration from within the country itself. India could be liberated by her own efforts alone. But he was carrying from the West a priceless asset to help him in his herculean task: The West had given him an authority which, it appears, he did not have before in the land of his birth. He had been successful in planting the seeds of India’s spiritual ideas in the very heart of the English-speaking world — in New York and London. Did he know then that within a half century these ideas would be broadcast over the Western world, and earn its respect for his motherland? Though he had come to America as a giver, he was now, in a sense, going back to India as a gift from the New World.