Among the Master’s disciples, Tarak, Latu, and the elder Gopal had already cut off their relationship with their families. The young disciples whom Sri Ramakrishna had destined for the monastic life were in need of a shelter. The Master had asked Naren to see to it that they should not become householders. Naren vividly remembered the Master’s dying words: ‘Naren, take care of the boys.’ The householder devotees, moreover, wanted to meet, from time to time, at a place where they could talk about the Master. They longed for the company of the young disciples who had totally dedicated their lives to the realization of God. But who would bear the expenses of a house where the young disciples could live? How would they be provided with food and the basic necessaries of life?
All these problems were solved by the generosity of Surendranath Mitra, the beloved householder disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He came forward to pay the expenses of new quarters for the Master’s homeless disciples. A house was rented at Baranagore, midway between Calcutta and Dakshineswar. Dreary and dilapidated, it was a building that had the reputation of being haunted by evil spirits. The young disciples were happy to take refuge in it from the turmoil of Calcutta. This Baranagore Math, as the new monastery was called, became the first headquarters of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order.1 Its centre was the shrine room, where the copper vessel containing the sacred ashes of the Master was daily worshipped as his visible presence.2
Narendranath devoted himself heart and soul to the training of the young brother disciples. He spent the day-time at home, supervising a lawsuit that was pending in the court and looking after certain other family affairs; but during the evenings and nights he was always with his brothers at the monastery, exhorting them to practise spiritual disciplines. His presence was a source of unfailing delight and inspiration to all.
The future career of the youths began to take shape during these early days at Baranagore. The following incident hastened the process. At the invitation of the mother of Baburam, one of the disciples, they all went to the village of Antpur to spend a few days away from the austerities of Baranagore. Here they realized, more intensely than ever before, a common goal of life, a sense of brotherhood and unity integrating their minds and hearts. Their consecrated souls were like pearls in a necklace held together by the thread of Ramakrishna’s teachings. They saw in one another a reservoir of spiritual power, and the vision intensified their mutual love and respect. Narendra, describing to them the glories of the monastic life, asked them to give up the glamour of academic studies and the physical world, and all felt in their hearts the ground swell of the spirit of renunciation. This reached its height one night when they were sitting for meditation around a fire, in the fashion of Hindu monks. The stars sparkled overhead and the stillness was unbroken except for the crackling of the firewood. Suddenly Naren opened his eyes and began, with an apostolic fervour, to narrate to the brother disciples the life of Christ. He exhorted them to live like Christ, who had had no place ‘to lay his head.’ Inflamed by a new passion, the youths, making God and the sacred fire their witness, vowed to become monks.3
When they had returned to their rooms in a happy mood, someone found out that it was Christmas Eve, and all felt doubly blest. It is no wonder that the monks of the Ramakrishna Order have always cherished a high veneration for Jesus of Nazareth. The young disciples, after their return to Baranagore, finally renounced home and became permanent inmates of the monastery. And what a life of austerity they lived there! They forgot their food when absorbed in meditation, worship, study, or devotional music. At such times Sashi, who had constituted himself their caretaker, literally dragged them to the dining-room. The privations they suffered during this period form a wonderful saga of spiritual discipline. Often there would be no food at all, and on such occasions they spent day and night in prayer and meditation. Sometimes there would be only rice, with no salt for flavouring; but nobody cared. They lived for months on boiled rice, salt, and bitter herbs. Not even demons could have stood such hardship. Each had two pieces of loin-cloth, and there were some regular clothes that were worn, by turns, when anyone had to go out. They slept on straw mats spread on the hard floor. A few pictures of saints, gods, and goddesses hung on the walls, and some musical instruments lay here and there. The library contained about a hundred books.
But Narendra did not want the brother disciples to be pain-hugging, cross-grained ascetics. They should broaden their outlook by assimilating the thought-currents of the world. He examined with them the histories of different countries and various philosophical systems. Aristotle and Plato, Kant and Hegel, together with Sankaracharya and Buddha, Ramanuja and Madhva, Chaitanya and Nimbarka, were thoroughly discussed. The Hindu philosophical systems of Jnana, Bhakti, Yoga, and Karma, each received a due share of attention, and their apparent contradictions were reconciled in the light of Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings and experiences. The dryness of discussion was relieved by devotional music. There were many moments, too, when the inmates indulged in light-hearted and witty talk, and Narendra’s bons mots on such occasions always convulsed them with laughter. But he would never let them forget the goal of the monastic life: the complete control of the lower nature, and the realization of God.
‘During those days,’ one of the inmates of the monastery said, ‘he worked like a madman. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, he would rise from bed and wake up the others, singing, “Awake, arise, all who would drink of the Divine Nectar!” And long after midnight he and his brother disciples would still be sitting on the roof of the monastery building, absorbed in religious songs. The neighbours protested, but to no avail. Pandits came and argued. He was never for one moment idle, never dull.’ Yet the brother complained that they could not realize even a fraction of what Ramakrishna had taught.
Some of the householder devotees of the Master, however, did not approve of the austerities of the young men, and one of them teasingly inquired if they had realized God by giving up the world. ‘What do you mean?’ Narendra said furiously. ‘Suppose we have not realized God; must we then return to the life of the senses and deprave our higher nature?’
Soon the youth of the Baranagore monastery became restless for the life of the wandering monk with no other possessions except staff and begging-bowl. Thus they would learn self-surrender to God, detachment, and inner serenity. They remembered the Hindu proverb that the monk who constantly moves on, remains pure, like water that flows. They wanted to visit the holy places and thus give an impetus to their spiritual life.
Narendra, too, wished to enjoy the peace of solitude. He wanted to test his own inner strength as well as teach others not to depend upon him always. Some of the brother disciples had already gone away from the monastery when he began his wanderings. The first were in the nature of temporary excursions; he had to return to Baranagore in response to the appeal of the inmates of the monastery. But finally in 1890, when he struck out again — without a name and with only a staff and begging-bowl — he was swallowed in the immensity of India and the dust of the vast subcontinent completely engulfed him. When rediscovered by his brother monks he was no longer the unknown Naren, but the Swami Vivekananda who had made history in Chicago in 1893.
In order to satisfy his wanderlust, Narendra went to Varanasi, considered the holiest place in India — a city sanctified from time out of mind by the association of monks and devotees. Here have come prophets like Buddha, Sankaracharya, and Chaitanya, to receive, as it were, the commandment of God to preach their messages. The Ganga charges the atmosphere with a rare holiness. Narendra felt uplifted by the spirit of renunciation and devotion that pervades this sacred place. He visited the temples and paid his respects to such holy men as Trailanga Swami, who lived on the bank of the Ganga constantly absorbed in meditation, and Swami Bhaskarananda, who annoyed Naren by expressing doubt as to the possibility of a man’s total conquest of the temptation of ‘woman’ and ‘gold.’4 With his own eyes Naren had seen the life of Sri Ramakrishna, who had completely subdued his lower nature.
In Varanasi, one day, hotly pursued by a troop of monkeys, he was running away when a monk called to him: ‘Face the brutes.’ He stopped and looked defiantly at the ugly beasts. They quickly disappeared. Later, as a preacher, he sometimes used this experience to exhort people to face the dangers and vicissitudes of life and not run away from them.
After a few days Naren returned to Baranagore and plunged into meditation, study, and religious discourses. From this time he began to feel a vague premonition of his future mission. He often asked himself if such truths of the Vedanta philosophy as the divinity of the soul and the unity of existence should remain imprisoned in the worm-eaten pages of the scriptures to furnish a pastime for erudite scholars or to be enjoyed only by solitary monks in caves and the depths of the wilderness; did they not have any significance for the average man struggling with life’s problems? Must the common man, because of his ignorance of the scriptures, be shut out from the light of Vedanta?
Narendra spoke to his brother disciples about the necessity of preaching the strength-giving message of the Vedanta philosophy to one and all, and especially to the downtrodden masses. But these monks were eager for their own salvation, and protested. Naren said to them angrily: ‘All are preaching. What they do unconsciously, I will do consciously. Ay, even if you, my brother monks, stand in my way, I will go to the pariahs and preach in the lowest slums.’
After remaining at Baranagore a short while, Naren set out again for Varanasi, where he met the Sanskrit scholar Pramadadas Mitra. These two felt for each other a mutual respect and affection, and they discussed, both orally and through letters, the social customs of the Hindus and abstruse passages of the scriptures. Next he visited Ayodhya, the ancient capital of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. Lucknow, a city of gardens and palaces created by the Moslem Nawabs, filled his mind with the glorious memories of Islamic rule, and the sight of the Taj Mahal in Agra brought tears to his eyes. In Vrindavan he recalled the many incidents of Krishna’s life and was deeply moved.
While on his way to Vrindavan, trudging barefoot and penniless, Naren saw a man seated by the roadside enjoying a smoke. He asked the stranger to give him a puff from his tobacco bowl, but the man was an untouchable and shrank from such an act; for it was considered sacrilegious by Hindu society. Naren continued on his way, but said to himself suddenly: ‘What a shame! The whole of my life I have contemplated the non-duality of the soul, and now I am thrown into the whirlpool of the caste-system. How difficult it is to get over innate tendencies!’ He returned to the untouchable, begged him to lend him his smoking-pipe, and in spite of the remonstrances of the low-caste man, enjoyed a hearty smoke and went on to Vrindavan.
Next we find Naren at the railroad station of Hathras, on his way to the sacred pilgrimage centre of Hardwar in the foothills of the Himalayas. The station-master, Sarat Chandra Gupta, was fascinated at the very first sight of him. ‘I followed the two diabolical eyes,’ he said later. Narendra accepted Sarat as a disciple and called him ‘the child of my spirit’, At Hathras he discussed with visitors the doctrines of Hinduism and entertained them with music, and then one day confided to Sarat that he must move on. ‘My son,’ he said, ‘I have a great mission to fulfil and I am in despair at the smallness of my power. My guru asked me to dedicate my life to the regeneration of my motherland. Spirituality has fallen to a low ebb and starvation stalks the land. India must become dynamic again and earn the respect of the world through her spiritual power.’
Sarat immediately renounced the world and accompanied Narendra from Hathras to Hardwar. The two then went on to Hrishikesh, on the bank of the Ganga several miles north of Hardwar, where they found themselves among monks of various sects, who were practising meditation and austerities. Presently Sarat fell ill and his companion took him back to Hathras for treatment. But Naren, too, had been attacked with malaria fever at Hrishikesh. He now made his way to the Baranagore monastery.
Naren had now seen northern India, the Aryavarta, the sacred land of the Aryans, where the spiritual culture of India had originated and developed. The main stream of this ancient Indian culture, issuing from the Vedas and the Upanishads and branching off into the Puranas and the Tantras, was subsequently enriched by contributions from such foreign peoples as the Saks, the Huns, the Greeks, the Pathans, and the Moguls. Thus India developed a unique civilization based upon the ideal of unity in diversity. Some of the foreign elements were entirely absorbed into the traditional Hindu consciousness; others, though flavoured by the ancient thought of the land, retained their individuality. Realizing the spiritual unity of India and Asia, Narendra discovered the distinctive characteristics of Oriental civilization: renunciation of the finite and communion with the Infinite.
But the stagnant life of the Indian masses, for which he chiefly blamed the priests and the landlords, saddened his heart. Naren found that his country’s downfall had not been caused by religion. On the contrary, as long as India had clung to her religious ideals, the country had over flowed with material prosperity. But the enjoyment of power for a long time had corrupted the priests. The people at large were debarred from true knowledge of religion, and the Vedas, the source of the Hindu culture, were completely forgotten, especially in Bengal. Moreover, the caste-system, which had originally been devised to emphasize the organic unity of Hindu society, was now petrified. Its real purpose had been to protect the weak from the ruthless competition of the strong and to vindicate the supremacy of spiritual knowledge over the power of military weapons, wealth, and organized labour; but now it was sapping the vitality of the masses. Narendra wanted to throw open the man-making wisdom of the Vedas to all, and thus bring about the regeneration of his motherland. He therefore encouraged his brothers at the Barangaore monastery to study the grammar of Panini, without which one could not acquire first-hand knowledge of the Vedas.
The spirit of democracy and equality in Islam appealed to Naren’s mind and he wanted to create a new India with Vedantic brain and Moslem body. Further, the idea began to dawn in his mind that the material conditions of the masses could not be improved without the knowledge of science and technology as developed in the West. He was already dreaming of building a bridge to join the East and the West. But the true leadership of India would have to spring from the soil of the country. Again and again he recalled that Sri Ramakrishna had been a genuine product of the Indian soil, and he realized that India would regain her unity and solidarity through the understanding of the Master’s spiritual experiences.
Naren again became restless to ‘do something’, but what, he did not know. He wanted to run away from his relatives since he could not bear the sight of their poverty. He was eager to forget the world through meditation. During the last part of December 1889, therefore, he again struck out from the Baranagore monastery and turned his face towards Varanasi. ‘My idea,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘is to live in Varanasi for some time and to watch how Viswanath and Annapurna deal out my lot. I have resolved either to realize my ideal or to lay down my life in the effort — so help me Lord of Varanasi!’
On his way to Varanasi he heard that Swami Yogananda, one of his brother disciples, was lying ill in Allahabad and decided to proceed there immediately. In Allahabad he met a Moslem saint, ‘every line and curve of whose face showed that he was a paramahamsa.’ Next he went to Ghazipur and there he came to know the saint Pavhari Baba, the ‘air-eating holy man.’
Pavhari Baba was born near Varanasi of brahmin parents. In his youth he had mastered many branches of Hindu philosophy. Later he renounced the world, led an austere life, practised the disciplines of Yoga and Vedanta, and travelled over the whole of India. At last he settled in Ghazipur, where he built an underground hermitage on the bank of the Ganga and spent most of his time in meditation. He lived on practically nothing and so was given by the people the sobriquet of the ‘air-eating holy man’; all were impressed by his humility and spirit of service. Once he was bitten by a cobra and said while suffering terrible pain, ‘Oh, he was a messenger from my Beloved!’ Another day, a dog ran off with his bread and he followed, praying humbly, ‘Please wait, my Lord; let me butter the bread for you.’ Often he would give away his meagre food to beggars or wandering monks, and starve. Pavhari Baba had heard of Sri Ramakrishna, held him in high respect as a Divine Incarnation, and kept in his room a photograph of the Master. People from far and near visited the Baba, and when not engaged in meditation he would talk to them from behind a wall. For several days before his death he remained indoors. Then, one day, people noticed smoke issuing from his underground cell with the smell of burning flesh. It was discovered that the saint, having come to realize the approaching end of his earthly life, had offered his body as the last oblation to the Lord, in an act of supreme sacrifice.
Narendra, at the time of his meeting Pavhari Baba, was suffering from the sever pain of lumbago, and this had made it almost impossible for him either to move about or to sit in meditation. Further, he was mentally distressed, for he had heard of the illness of Abhedananda, another of his brother disciples, who was living at Hrishikesh. ‘You know not, sir,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘that I am a very soft-natured man in spite of the stern Vedantic views I hold. And this proves to be my undoing. For however I may try to think only of my own good, I begin, in spite of myself, to think of other people’s interests.’ Narendra wished to forget the world and his own body through the practice of Yoga, and went for instruction to Pavhari Baba, intending to make the saint his guru. But the Baba, with characteristic humility, put him off from day to day.
One night when Naren was lying in bed thinking of Pavhari Baba, Sri Ramakrishna appeared to him and stood silently near the door, looking intently into his eyes. The vision was repeated for twenty-one days. Narendra understood. He reproached himself bitterly for his lack of complete faith in Sri Ramakrishna. Now, at last, he was convinced, he wrote to a friend: ‘Ramakrishna has no peer. Nowhere else in the world exists such unprecedented perfection, such wonderful kindness to all, such intense sympathy for men in bondage.’ Tearfully he recalled how Sri Ramakrishna had never left unfulfilled a single prayer of his, how he had forgiven his offences by the million and removed his afflictions.
But as long as Naren lived he cherished sincere affection and reverence for Pavhari Baba, and he remembered particularly two of his instructions. One of these was: ‘Live in the house of your teacher like a cow,’ which emphasizes the spirit of service and humility in the relationship between the teacher and the disciple. The second instruction of the Baba was: ‘Regard spiritual discipline in the same way as you regard the goal,’which means that an aspirant should not differentiate between cause and effect.
Narendranath again breathed peace and plunged into meditation. After a few days he went to Varanasi, where he learnt of the serious illness of Balaram Bose, one of the foremost lay disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. At Ghazipur he had heard that Surendranath Mitra, another lay disciple of the Master, was dying. He was overwhelmed with grief, and to Pramadadas, who expressed his surprise at the sight of a sannyasin indulging in a human emotion, he said: ‘Please do not talk that way. We are not dry monks. Do you think that because a man has renounced the world he is devoid of all feeling?’
He came to Calcutta to be at the bedside of Balaram, who passed away on May 13. Surendra Mitra died on May 25. But Naren steadied his nerves, and in addition to the practice of his own prayer and meditation, devoted himself again to the guidance of his brother disciples. Some time during this period he conceived the idea of building a permanent temple to preserve the relics of Sri Ramakrishna.
From his letters and conversations one can gain some idea of the great storm that was raging in Naren’s soul during this period. He clearly saw to what an extent the educated Hindus had come under the spell of the materialistic ideas of the West. He despised sterile imitation. But he was also aware of the great ideas that formed the basis of European civilization. He told his friends that in India the salvation of the individual was the accepted goal, whereas in the West it was the uplift of the people, without distinction of caste or creed. Whatever was achieved there was shared by the common man; freedom of spirit manifested itself in the common good and in the advancement of all men by the united efforts of all. He wanted to introduce this healthy factor into the Indian consciousness.
Yet he was consumed by his own soul’s hunger to remain absorbed in samadhi. He felt at this time a spiritual unrest like that which he had experienced at the Cossipore garden house during the last days of Sri Ramakrishna’s earthly existence. The outside world had no attraction for him. But another factor, perhaps unknown to him, was working within him. Perfect from his birth, he did not need spiritual disciplines for his own liberation. Whatever disciplines he practised were for the purpose of removing the veil that concealed, for the time being, his true divine nature and mission in the world. Even before his birth, the Lord had chosen him as His instrument to help Him in the spiritual redemption of humanity.
Now Naren began to be aware that his life was to be quite different from that of a religious recluse: he was to work for the good of the people. Every time he wanted to taste for himself the bliss of samadhi, he would hear the piteous moans of the teeming millions of India, victims of poverty and ignorance. Must they, Naren asked himself, for ever grovel in the dust and live like brutes? Who would be their saviour?
He began, also, to feel the inner agony of the outwardly happy people of the West, whose spiritual vitality was being undermined by the mechanistic and materialistic conception of life encouraged by the sudden development of the physical sciences. Europe, he saw, was sitting on the crater of a smouldering volcano, and any moment Western culture might be shattered by its fiery eruption. The suffering of man, whether in the East or in the West, hurt his tender soul. The message of Vedanta, which proclaimed the divinity of the soul and the oneness of existence, he began to realize, could alone bind up and heal the wounds of India and the world. But what could he, a lad of twenty-five, do? The task was gigantic. He talked about it with his brother disciples, but received scant encouragement. He was determined to work alone if no other help was forthcoming.
Narendra felt cramped in the monastery at Baranagore and lost interest in its petty responsibilities. The whole world now beckoned him to work. Hence, one day in 1890, he left the monastery again with the same old determination never to return. He would go to the Himalayas and bury himself in the depths of his own thought. To a brother disciple he declared, ‘I shall not return until I gain such realization that my very touch will transform a man.’ He prayed to the Holy Mother that he might not return before attaining the highest Knowledge, and she blessed him in the name of Sri Ramakrishna. Then she asked whether he would not like to take leave of his earthly mother. ‘Mother,’ Naren replied, ‘you are my only mother.’
Accompanied by Swami Akhandananda, Naren left Calcutta and set out for Northern India. The two followed the course of the Ganga, their first halting-place being Bhagalpur. To one of the people who came to visit him there Naren said that whatever of the ancient Aryan knowledge, intellect, and genius remained, could be found mostly in those parts of the country that lay near the banks of the Ganga. The farther one departed from the river, the less one saw of that culture. This fact, he believed, explained the greatness of the Ganga as sung in the Hindu scriptures. He further observed: ‘The epithet “mild Hindu” instead of being a word of reproach, ought really to point to our glory, as expressing greatness of character. For see how much moral and spiritual advancement and how much development of the qualities of love and compassion have to be acquired before one can get rid of the brutish force of one’s nature, which impels a man to slaughter his brother men for self-aggrandizement!’
He spent a few days in Varanasi and left the city with the prophetic words: ‘When I return here the next time, I shall burst upon society like a bomb-shell, and it will follow me like a dog.’
After visiting one or two places, Naren and Akhandananda arrived at Nainital, their destination being the sacred Badrikashrama, in the heart of the Himalayas. They decided to travel the whole way on foot, and also not to touch money. Near Almora under an old peepul tree by the side of a stream, they spent many hours in meditation. Naren had a deep spiritual experience, which he thus jotted down in his note-book:
In the beginning was the Word, etc.
The microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan. Just as the individual soul is encased in a living body, so is the Universal Soul, in the living prakriti (nature), the objective universe. Kali is embracing Siva. This is not a fancy. This covering of the one (Soul) by the other (nature) is analogous to the relation between an idea and the word expressing it. They are one and the same, and it is only by a mental abstraction that one can distinguish them. Thought is impossible without words. Therefore in the beginning was the Word, etc.
This dual aspect of the Universal Soul is eternal. So what we perceive or feel is the combination of the Eternally Formed and the Eternally Formless.
Thus Naren realized, in the depths of meditation, the oneness of the universe and man, who is a universe in miniature. He realized that, all that exists in the universe also exists in the body, and further, that the whole universe exists in the atom.
Several other brother disciples joined Naren. But they could not go to Badrikashrama since the road was closed by Government order on account of famine. They visited different holy places, lived on alms, studied the scriptures, and meditated. At this time, the sad news arrived of the suicide of one of Naren’s sisters under tragic conditions, and reflecting on the plight of Hindu women in the cruel present-day society, he thought that he would be a criminal if he remained an indifferent spectator of such social injustice.
Naren proceeded to Hrishikesh, a beautiful valley at the foot of the Himalayas, which is surrounded by hills and almost encircled by the Ganga. From an immemorial past this sacred spot has been frequented by monks and ascetics. After a few days, however, Naren fell seriously ill and his friends despaired of his life. When he was convalescent he was removed to Meerut. There he met a number of his brother disciples and together they pursued the study of the scriptures, practised prayer and meditation, and sang devotional songs, creating in Meerut a miniature Baranagore monastery.
After a stay of five months Naren became restless, hankering again for his wandering life; but he desired to be alone this time and break the chain of attachment to his brother disciples. He wanted to reflect deeply about his future course of action, of which now and then he was getting glimpses. From his wanderings in the Himalayas he had become convinced that the Divine Spirit would not allow him to seal himself within the four walls of a cave. Every time he had thought to do so, he had been thrown out, as it were, by a powerful force. The degradation of the Indian masses and the spiritual sickness of people everywhere were summoning him to a new line of action, whose outer shape was not yet quite clear to him.
In the later part of January 1891, Naren bade farewell to his brother disciples and set out for Delhi, assuming the name of Swami Vividishananda. He wished to travel without being recognized. He wanted the dust of India to cover up his footprints. It was his desire to remain an unknown sannyasin, among the thousands of others seen in the country’s thoroughfares, market-places, deserts, forests, and caves. But the fires of the Spirit that burnt in his eyes, and his aristocratic bearing, marked him as a prince among men despite all his disguises.
In Delhi, Naren visited the palaces, mosques, and tombs. All around the modern city he saw a vast ruin of extinct empires dating from the prehistoric days of the Mahabharata, revealing the transitoriness of material achievements. But gay and lively Delhi also revealed to him the deathless nature of the Hindu spirit.
Some of his brother disciples from Meerut came to the city and accidentally discovered their beloved leader. Naren was angry. He said to them: ‘Brethren I told you that I desired to be left alone. I asked you not to follow me. This I repeat once more. I must not be followed. I shall presently leave Delhi. No one must try to know my whereabouts. I shall sever all old associations. Wherever the Spirit leads, there I shall wander. It matters not whether I wander about in a forest or in a desert, on a lonely mountain or in a populous city. I am off. Let everyone strive to realize his goal according to his lights.’
Narendra proceeded towards historic Rajputana, repeating the words of the Sutta-nipata:
Go forward without a path,
Fearing nothing, caring for nothing,
Wandering alone, like the rhinoceros!
Even as a lion, not trembling at noises,
Even as the wind, not caught in a net,
Even as the lotus leaf, untainted by water,
Do thou wander alone, like the rhinoceros!
Several factors have been pointed out as influencing Naren’s life and giving shape to his future message: the holy association of Sri Ramakrishna, his own knowledge of Eastern and Western cultures, and his spiritual experiences. To these another must be added: the understanding of India gained through his wanderings. This new understanding constituted a unique education for Naren. Here, the great book of life taught him more than the printed words of the libraries.
He mixed with all — today sleeping with pariahs in their huts and tomorrow conversing on equal terms with Maharajas, Prime Ministers, orthodox pandits, and liberal college professors. Thus he was brought into contact with their joys and sorrows, hopes and frustrations. He witnessed the tragedy of present-day India and also reflected on its remedy. The cry of the people of India, the God struggling in humanity, and the anxiety of men everywhere to grasp a hand for aid, moved him deeply. In the course of his travels Naren came to know how he could make himself a channel of the Divine Spirit in the service of mankind.
During these wandering days he both learnt and taught. The Hindus he asked to go back to the eternal truths of their religion, hearken to the message of the Upanishads, respect temples and religious symbols, and take pride in their birth in the holy land of India. He wanted them to avoid both the outmoded orthodoxy still advocated by fanatical leaders, and the misguided rationalism of the Westernized reformers. He was struck by the essential cultural unity of India in spite of the endless diversity of form. And the people who came to know him saw in him the conscience of India, her unity, and her destiny.
As already noted, Narendranath while travelling in India often changed his name to avoid recognition. It will not be improper to call him, from this point of his life, by the monastic title of ‘Swami,’ or the more affectionate and respectful appellation of ‘Swamiji.’
In Alwar, where Swamiji arrived one morning in the beginning of February 1891, he was cordially received by Hindus and Moslems alike. To a Moslem scholar he said: ‘There is one thing very remarkable about the Koran. Even to this day it exists as it was recorded eleven hundred years ago. The book has retained its original purity and is free from interpolation.’
He had a sharp exchange of words with the Maharaja, who was Westernized in his outlook. To the latter’s question as to why the Swami, an able-bodied young man and evidently a scholar, was leading a vagabond’s life, the Swami retorted, ‘Tell me why you constantly spend your time in the company of Westerners and go out on shooting excursions, neglecting your royal duties.’ The Maharaja said, ‘I cannot say why, but, no doubt, because I like to.’ ‘Well,’ the Swami exclaimed, ‘for that very reason I wander about as a monk.’
Next, the Maharaja ridiculed the worship of images, which to him were nothing but figures of stone, clay, or metal. The Swami tried in vain to explain to him that Hindus worshipped God alone, using the images as symbols. The Prince was not convinced. Thereupon the Swami asked the Prime Minister to take down a picture of the Maharaja, hanging on the wall, and spit on it. Everyone present was horror-struck at this effrontery. The Swami turned to the Prince and said that though the picture was not the Maharaja himself, in flesh and blood, yet it reminded everyone of his person and thus was held in high respect; likewise the image brought to the devotee’s mind the presence of the Deity and was therefore helpful for concentration, especially at the beginning of his spiritual life. The Maharaja apologized to Swamiji for his rudeness.
The Swami exhorted the people of Alwar to study the eternal truths of Hinduism, especially to cultivate the knowledge of Sanskrit, side by side with Western science. He also encouraged them to read Indian history, which he remarked should be written by Indians following the scientific method of the West. European historians dwelt mainly on the decadent period of Indian culture.
In Jaipur the Swami devoted himself to the study of Sanskrit grammar, and in Ajmer he recalled the magnificence of the Hindu and Moslem rules. At Mount Abu he gazed in wonder at the Jain temple of Dilwara, which it has been said, was begun by titans and finished by jewellers. There he accepted the hospitality of a Moslem official. To his scandalized Hindu friends the Swami said that he was, as a sannyasin belonging to the highest order of paramahamsas, above all rules of caste. His conduct in dining with Moslems, he further said, was not in conflict with the teachings of the scriptures, though it might be frowned upon by the narrow-minded leaders of Hindu society.
At Mount Abu the Swami met the Maharaja of Khetri, who later became one of his devoted disciples. The latter asked the Swami for the boon of a male heir and obtained his blessing.
Next we see the Swami travelling in Gujarat and Kathiawar in Western India. In Ahmedabad he refreshed his knowledge of Jainism. Kathiawar, containing a large number of places sacred both to the Hindus and the to Jains, was mostly ruled by Hindu Maharaja, who received the Swami with respect. To Babu Haridas Viharidas, the Prime Minister of the Moslem state of Junagad, he emphasized the need of preaching the message of Hinduism throughout the world. He spent eleven months in Porbandar and especially enjoyed the company of the Prime Minister, Pandit Sankar Pandurang, a great Sanskrit scholar who was engaged in the translation of the Vedas. Impressed by the Swami’s intellectuality and originality, the pandit said: ‘Swamiji, I am afraid you cannot do much in this country. Few will appreciate you here. You ought to go to the West, where people will understand you and your work. Surely you can give to the Western people your enlightening interpretation of Hinduism.’
The Swami was pleased to hear these words, which coincided with something he had been feeling within. The Prime Minister encouraged the Swami to continue his study of the French language since it might be useful to him in his future work.
During this period the Swami was extremely restless. He felt within him a boundless energy seeking channels for expression. The regeneration of India was uppermost in his mind. A reawakened India could, in her turn, help the world at large. The sight of the pettiness, jealousy, disunion, ignorance, and poverty among the Hindus filled his mind with great anguish. But he had no patience with the Westernized reformers, who had lost their contact with the soul of the country. He thoroughly disapproved of their method of social, religious, and political reform through imitation of the West. He wanted the Hindus to cultivate self-confidence. Appreciation of India’s spiritual culture by the prosperous and powerful West, he thought, might give the Hindus confidence in their own heritage. He prayed to the Lord for guidance. He became friendly with the Hindu Maharajas who ruled over one-fifth of the country and whose influence was great over millions of people. Through them he wanted to introduce social reforms, improved methods of education, and other measures for the physical and cultural benefit of the people. The Swami felt that in this way his dream of India’s regeneration would be realized with comparative ease.
After spending a few days in Baroda, the Swami came to Khandwa in Central India. Here he dropped the first hint of his willingness to participate in the Parliament of Religions to be held shortly in Chicago. He had heard of this Parliament either in Junagad or Porbandar.
After visiting Bombay, Poona, and Kolhapur, the Swami arrived at Belgaum. In Bombay he had accidentally met Swami Abhedananda and in the course of a talk had said to him, ‘Brother, such a great power has grown within me that sometimes I feel that my whole body will burst.’
All through this wandering life he exchanged ideas with people in all stations and stages of life and impressed everyone with his earnestness, eloquence, gentleness, and vast knowledge of India and Western culture. Many of the ideas he expressed at this time were later repeated in his public lectures in America and India. But the thought nearest to his heart concerned the poor and ignorant villagers, victims of social injustice: how to improve the sanitary condition of the villages, introduce scientific methods of agriculture, and procure pure water for daily drinking; how to free the peasants from their illiteracy and ignorance, how to give back to them their lost confidence. Problems like these tormented him day and night. He remembered vividly the words of Sri Ramakrishna that religion was not meant for ’empty stomachs.’
To his hypochondriac disciple Haripada he gave the following sound advice: ‘What is the use of thinking always of disease? Keep cheerful, lead a religious life, cherish elevating thoughts, be merry, but never indulge in pleasures which tax the body or for which you will feel remorse afterwards; then all will be well. And as regards death, what does it matter if people like you and me die? That will not make the earth deviate from its axis! We should not consider ourselves so important as to think that the world cannot move on without us.’
When he mentioned to Haripada his desire to proceed to America, the disciple was delighted and wanted to raise money for the purpose, but the Swami said to him that he would not think about it until after making his pilgrimage to Rameswaram and worshipping the Deity there.
From Belgaum the Swami went to Bangalore in the State of Mysore, which was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja. The Maharaja’s Prime Minister described the young monk as ‘a majestic personality and a divine force destined to leave his mark on the history of his country.’ The Maharaja, too, was impressed by his ‘brilliance of thought, charm of character, wide learning, and penetrating religious insight.’ He kept the Swami as his guest in the palace.
One day, in front of his high officials, the Maharaja asked the Swami, ‘Swamiji, what do you think of my courtiers?’
‘Well,’ came the bold reply, ‘I think Your Highness has a very good heart, but you are unfortunately surrounded by courtiers who are generally flatterers. Courtiers are the same everywhere.’
‘But,’ the Maharaja protested, ‘my Prime Minster is not such. He is intelligent and trustworthy.’
‘But, Your Highness, Prime Minister is “one who robs the Maharaja and pays the Political Agent.”‘
The Prince changed the subject and afterwards warned the Swami to be more discreet in expressing his opinion of the officials in a Native State; otherwise those unscrupulous people might even poison him. But the Swami burst out: ‘What! Do you think an honest sannyasin is afraid of speaking the truth, even though it may cost him his very life? Suppose your own son asks me about my opinion of yourself; do you think I shall attribute to you all sorts of virtues which I am quite sure you do not possess? I can never tell a lie.’
The Swami addressed a meeting of Sanskrit scholars and gained their applause for his knowledge of Vedanta. He surprised an Austrian musician at the Prince’s court with his knowledge of Western music. He discussed with the Maharaja his plan of going to America, but when the latter came forward with an offer to pay his expenses for the trip, he declined to make a final decision before visiting Rameswaram. Perhaps he was not yet quite sure of God’s will in the matter. When pressed by the Maharaja and the Prime Minister to accept some gifts, the costlier the better, the Swami took a tobacco pipe from the one and a cigar from the other.
Now the Swami turned his steps towards picturesque Malabar. At Trivandrum, the capital of Travancore, he moved in the company of college professors, state officials, and in general among the educated people of the city. They found him equally at ease whether discussing Spencer or Sankaracharya, Shakespeare or Kalidasa, Darwin or Patanjali, Jewish history or Aryan civilization. He pointed out to them the limitations of the physical sciences and the failure of Western psychology to understand the superconscious aspect of human nature.
Orthodox brahmins regarded with abhorrence the habit of eating animal food. The Swami courageously told them about the eating of beef by the brahmins in Vedic times. One day, asked about what he considered the most glorious period of Indian history, the Swami mentioned the Vedic period, when ‘five brahmins used to polish off one cow.’ He advocated animal food for the Hindus if they were to cope at all with the rest of the world in the present reign of power and find a place among the other great nations, whether within or outside the British Empire.
An educated person of Travancore said about him: ‘Sublimity and simplicity were written boldly on his features. A clean heart, a pure and austere life, an open mind, a liberal spirit, wide outlook, and broad sympathy were the outstanding characteristics of the Swami.’
From Trivandrum the Swami went to Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), which is the southernmost tip of India and from there he moved up to Rameswaram. At Rameswaram the Swami met Bhaskara Setupati, the Raja of Ramnad, who later became one of his ardent disciples. He discussed with the Prince many of his ideas regarding the education of the Indian masses and the improvement of their agricultural conditions. The Raja urged the Swami to represent India at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and promised to help him in his venture.
- ^The monastery remained at Baranagore from 1886 to 1892; then it was shifted to Alambazar, in the neighbourhood of Dakshineswar, where it functioned till 1897. Next it was removed to the garden house of Nilambar Mukherjee, on the bank of the Ganga across from Baranagore. Finally, the permanent monastery was dedicated in 1898 at the Belur Math, adjacent to Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden house.
- ^Some of the ashes were buried a few days later at Kankurgachhi, a suburb of Calcutta, where a temple was built by the master’s disciple Ramchandra Datta. The place had been hallowed by Sri Ramakrishna’s visit during his lifetime. But most of the ashes are now preserved in the shrine at the Belur Math.
- ^Some time after, these chosen disciples of the Master performed the formal sacrifice called viraja and took the monastic vows of celibacy and poverty. Further, they dedicated their lives to the realization of God and the service of men. They assumed new names to signify their utter severance from the world. Narendra, who later became world-famous as Swami Vivekananda, did not take that name till his departure for America in 1893. Prior to that he assumed the names of Vividishananda and Satchidananda in order to conceal his identity from the public. The monastic names of the Master’s disciples who renounced the world soon after his death were as follows:
Narendra — Swami Vivekananda
Rakhal — Swami Brahmananda
Jogin — Swami Yogananda
Niranjan — Swami Niranjanananda
Latu — Swami Adbhutananda
Baburam — Swami Premananda
Tarak — Swami Shivananda
Hari — Swami Turiyananda
Sarat — Swami Saradananda
Sashi — Swami Ramakrishnananda
Kali — Swami Abhedananda
Gangadhar — Swami Akhandananda
Gopal (elder) — Swami Advaitananda
Sarada Prasanna — Swami Trigunatitananda
Subodh — Swami Subodhananda
Hari Prasanna — Swami Vijnanananda
- ^The words woman and gold occur again and again in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna to designate the two chief impediments to spiritual progress. By these words he really meant lust and greed, the baneful influence of which retards the aspirant’s spiritual growth. He used the word woman as a concrete term for the sex instinct when addressing his men devotees; while speaking to women, however, he warned them against man. The word gold symbolizes greed, which is the other obstacle. Sri Ramakrishna never taught his disciples to hate any woman, or womankind in general. He regarded women as so many images of the Divine Mother of the universe.