Swami Vivekananda’s inspiring influence on many who fought for India’s freedom is now well-known. Whether it was Subhas Chandra Bose or Rajagopalachari or Mahatma Gandhi, Swamiji and his works had left an indelible impression on them. Swamiji’s meeting with Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak is another memorable event in the lives of both these great men. Tilak was one of India’s leading freedom fighters and patriots and was a towering leader from Maharashtra. Vivekananda was traveling around India and had reached Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1892 and after a stay of two months there, wanted to visit Poona. At the railway station, when Swamiji was leaving Mumbai, he was introduced to Tilak who happened to be his fellow passenger. Reminiscing about this event, Tilak later wrote, “About the year 1892, before the famous Parliament of Religions in Chicago, I was once returning from Bombay to Poona. At the Victoria Terminus a sannyasin entered the carriage I was in. A few Gujarati gentlemen were there to see him off. They made the formal introduction and asked the sannyasin to reside at my house during his stay in Poona. We reached Poona, and the sannyasin remained with me for eight to ten days. When asked about his name he only said that he was a sannyasin. He made no public speeches here. At home he would often talk about advaita philosophy and vedanta. The Swami avoided mixing with society. There was absolutely no money with him. A deerskin, one or two cloths, and a Kamandalu were his only possessions. In his travels someone would provide a railway ticket for the desired station. I was at the time a member of the Deccan Club that used to hold weekly meetings. At one of these meetings the Swami accompanied me. That evening the late Kashinath Govind Nath made a fine speech on a philosophical subject. No one had to say anything. But the Swami rose and spoke in fluent English presenting the other aspect of the subject very lucidly. Everyone there was thus convinced of his high abilities. The Swami left Poona soon after this.”
After this incident at the Deccan Club, the Swami became much sought after and people flocked to him. He used to talk to them on the Gita and the Upanishads, but he never told them his name. When the number of people visiting him increased, Swami told Tilak that he would leave the next day. The next morning before anyone in the house had woken up, the Swami was gone. During this phase of his life, Swami Vivekananda saw himself as a parivrajaka and was seeking the solace and comfort of delving into his own self rather than constantly interacting with the world outside. He was also using the name Sacchidananda around this time.
Tilak is reported to have met Swami Vivekananda again, and this time Swamiji was well-known and had established the Ramakrishna Order. He met Vivekananda at the Belur Math, when he went to Calcutta to attend a session of the Indian National Congress in December 1901. There is very little documentation on what might have transpired when these two great people met and interacted, but one can be sure that their intellectual exchanges would have enriched and influenced each others thinking and action. One common theme that one can see in both their works is the concept of ‘Practical Vedanta’. The difference in their thinking especially when it came to the concept of the ‘Indian Nation’ is also obvious. Vivekananda nurtured an inclusive notion of the Indian nation whereas Tilak, it is generally believed, gave centrality to a ‘Hindu Nation’ that did not include other religious communities.