Swami Vivekananda disembarked in Bombay and immediately entrained for Calcutta, arriving at the Belur Math late in the evening of December 9, 1900. The Swami had not informed anybody of his return. The gate of the monastery was locked for the night. He heard the dinner bell, and in his eagerness to join the monks at their meal, scaled the gate. There was great rejoicing over his homecoming.
At the Math Swami Vivekananda was told about the passing away of his beloved disciple Mr. Sevier at Mayavati in the Himalayas. This was the sad news of which he had had a presentiment in Egypt. He was greatly distressed, and on December 11 wrote to Miss MacLeod: ‘Thus two great Englishmen (The other was Mr. Goodwin.) gave up their lives for us — us, the Hindus. This is martyrdom, if anything is.’ Again he wrote to her on December 26: ‘He was cremated on the bank of the river that flows by his ashrama, a la Hindu, covered with garlands, the brahmins carrying the body and the boys chanting the Vedas. The cause has already two martyrs. It makes me love dear England and its heroic breed. The Mother is watering the plant of future India with the best blood of England. Glory unto Her!’
The Swami stayed at the Math for eighteen days and left for Mayavati to see Mrs. Sevier. The distance from the railroad station to the monastery at Mayavati was sixty-five miles. The Swami did not give the inmates sufficient time to arrange for his comfortable transportation.
He left the railroad station in a hurry in the company of Shivananda and Sadananda. The winter of that year was particularly severe in the Himalayas; there was a heavy snowfall on the way, and in his present state of health he could hardly walk. He reached the monastery, however, on January 3, 1901.
The meeting with Mrs. Sevier stirred his emotions. He was delighted, however, to see the magnificent view of the eternal snow and also the progress of the work. Because of the heavy winter, he was forced to stay indoors most of the time. It was a glorious occasion for the members of the ashrama. The Swami’s conversation was inspiring. He spoke of the devotion of his Western disciples to his cause, and in this connexion particularly mentioned the name of Mr. Sevier. He also emphasized the necessity of loyalty to the work undertaken, loyalty to the leader, and loyalty to the organization. But the leader, the Swami said, must command respect and obedience by his character. While at Mayavati, in spite of a suffocating attack of asthma, he was busy with his huge correspondence and wrote three articles for the magazine Prabuddha Bharata. The least physical effort exhausted him. One day he exclaimed, ‘My body is done for!’
The Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati had been founded, as may be remembered, with a view to enabling its members to develop their spiritual life through the practice of the non-dualistic discipline. All forms of ritual and worship were strictly excluded. But some of the members, accustomed to rituals, had set apart a room as the shrine, where a picture of Sri Ramakrishna was installed and worshipped daily. One morning the Swami chanced to enter this room while the worship was going on. He said nothing at that time, but in the evening severely reprimanded the inmates for violating the rules of the monastery. As he did not want to hurt their feelings too much, he did not ask them to discontinue the worship, but it was stopped by the members themselves.
One of them, however, whose heart was set on dualistic worship, asked the advice of the Holy Mother. She wrote: ‘Sri Ramakrishna was all Advaita and preached Advaita. Why should you not follow Advaita? All his disciples are Advaitins.’
After his return to the Belur Math, the Swami said in the course of a conversation: ‘I thought of having one centre at least from which the external worship of Sri Ramakrishna would be excluded. But I found that the Old Man had already established himself even there. Well! Well!’
The above incident should not indicate any lack of respect in Swami Vivekananda for Sri Ramakrishna or dualistic worship. During the last few years of his life he showed a passionate love for the Master. Following his return to the Belur Math he arranged, as will be seen presently, the birthday festival of Sri Ramakrishna and the worship of the Divine Mother, according to traditional rituals.
The Swami’s real nature was that of a lover of God, though he appeared outwardly as a philosopher. But in all his teachings, both in India and abroad, he had emphasized the non-dualistic philosophy. For Ultimate Reality, in the Hindu spiritual tradition, is non-dual. Dualism is a stage on the way to non-dualism. Through non-dualism alone, in the opinion of the Swami, can the different dualistic concepts of the Personal God be harmonized. Without the foundation of the non-dualistic Absolute, dualism breeds fanaticism, exclusiveness, and dangerous emotionalism. He saw both in India and abroad a caricature of dualism in the worship conducted in the temples, churches, and other places of worship.
In India the Swami found that non-dualism had degenerated into mere dry intellectual speculation. And so he wanted to restore non-dualism to its pristine purity. With that end in view he had established the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati, overlooking the gorgeous eternal snow of the Himalayas, where the mind naturally soars to the contemplation of the Infinite, and there he had banned all vestiges of dualistic worship. In the future, the Swami believed, all religions would receive a new orientation from the non-dualistic doctrine and spread goodwill among men.
On his way to Mayavati Swami Vivekananda had heard the melancholy news of the passing away of the Raja of Khetri, his faithful disciple, who had borne the financial burden of his first trip to America. The Raja had undertaken the repairing of a high tower of the Emperor Akbar’s tomb near Agra, and one day, while inspecting the work, had missed his footing, fallen several feet, and died. ‘Thus’, wrote the Swami to Mary Hale, ‘we sometimes come to grief on account of our zeal for antiquity. Take care, Mary, don’t be too zealous about your piece of Indian antiquity.’ (Referring to himself.) ‘So you see’, the Swami wrote to Mary again, ‘things are gloomy with me just now and my own health is wretched. Yet I am sure to bob up soon and am waiting for the next turn.’
The Swami left Mayavati on January 18, and travelled four days on slippery slopes, partly through snow, before reaching the railroad station. He arrived at the Belur Math on January 24.
Swami Vivekananda had been in his monastery for seven weeks when pressing invitations for a lecture trip began to pour in from East Bengal. His mother, furthermore, had expressed an earnest desire to visit the holy places situated in that part of India. On January 26 he wrote to Mrs. Ole Bull: ‘I am going to take my mother on pilgrimage….This is the one great wish of a Hindu widow. I have brought only misery to my people all my life. I am trying to fulfil this one wish of hers.’
On March 18, in the company of a large party of his sannyasin disciples, the Swami left for Dacca, the chief city of East Bengal, and arrived the next day. He was in poor health, suffering from both asthma and diabetes. During an asthmatic attack, when the pain was acute, he said half dreamily: ‘What does it matter! I have given them enough for fifteen hundred years.’ But he had hardly any rest. People besieged him day and night for instruction. In Dacca he delivered two public lectures and also visited the house of Nag Mahashay, where he was entertained by the saint’s wife.
Next he proceeded to Chandranath, a holy place near Chittagong, and to sacred Kamakhya in Assam. While in Assam he spent several days at Shillong in order to recover his health, and there met Sir Henry Cotton, the chief Government official and a friend of the Indians in their national aspiration. The two exchanged many ideas, and at Sir Henry’s request the Government physician looked after the Swami’s health.
Vivekananda returned to the Belur Monastery in the second week of May. Concerning the impressions of his trip, he said that a certain part of Assam was endowed with incomparable natural beauty. The people of East Bengal were more sturdy, active, and resolute than those of West Bengal. But in religious views they were rather conservative and even fanatical. He had found that some of the gullible people believed in pseudo-Incarnations, several of whom were living at that time in Dacca itself. The Swami had exhorted the people to cultivate manliness and the faculty of reasoning. To a sentimental young man of Dacca he had said: ‘My boy, take my advice; develop your muscles and brain by eating good food and by healthy exercise, and then you will be able to think for yourself. Without nourishing food your brain seems to have weakened a little.’ On another occasion, in a public meeting, he had declared, referring to youth who had very little physical stamina, ‘You will be nearer to Heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.’
The brother disciples and his own disciples were much concerned about the Swami’s health, which was going from bad to worse. The damp climate of Bengal did not suit him at all; it aggravated his asthma, and further, he was very, very tired. He was earnestly requested to lead a quiet life, and to satisfy his friends the Swami lived in the monastery for about seven months in comparative retirement. They tried to entertain him with light talk. But he could not be dissuaded from giving instruction to his disciples whenever the occasion arose.
He loved his room on the second storey, in the southeast corner of the monastery building, to which he joyfully returned from his trips to the West or other parts of India. This large room with four windows and three doors served as both study and bedroom. In the corner to the right of the entrance door stood a mirror about five feet high, and near this, a rack with his ochre clothes. In the middle of the room was an iron bedstead with a spring mattress, which had been given to him by one of his Western disciples. But he seldom used it; for he preferred to sleep on a small couch placed by its side. A writing-table with letters, manuscripts, pen, ink, paper, and blotting-pad, a call-bell, some flowers in a metal vase, a photograph of the Master, a deer-skin which he used at the time of meditation, and a small table with a tea-set completed the furnishings.
Here he wrote, gave instruction to his disciples and brother monks, received friends, communed with God in meditation, and sometimes ate his meals. And it was in this room that he ultimately entered into the final ecstasy from which he never returned to ordinary consciousness. The room has been preserved as it was while the Swami was in his physical body, everything in it being kept as on the last day of his life, the calendar on the wall reading July 4, 1902.
On December 19, 1900, he wrote to an American disciple: ‘Verily I am a bird of passage. Gay and busy Paris, grim old Constantinople, sparkling little Athens, and pyramidal Cairo are left behind, and here I am writing in my room on the Ganga, in the Math. It is so quiet and still! The broad river is dancing in the bright sunshine, only now and then an occasional cargo boat breaking the silence with the splashing of the waves. It is the cold season here, but the middle of the day is warm and bright every day. It is like the winter of southern California. Everything is green and gold, and the grass is like velvet, yet the air is cold and crisp and delightful.’
After the Swami’s return from East Bengal he lived a relaxed life in the monastery, surrounded by his pet animals: the dog Bagha, the she-goat Hansi, an antelope, a stork, several cows and sheep and ducks and geese, and a kid called Matru who was adorned with a collar of little bells, and with whom the Swami ran and played like a child. The animals adored him, Matru, the little kid, who had been — so he pretended — a relation of his in a previous existence, slept in his room. When it died he grieved like a child and said to a disciple: ‘How strange! Whomsoever I love dies early.’ Before milking Hansi for his tea, he always asked her permission. Bagha who took part in the Hindu ceremonies, went to bathe in the Ganga with the devotees on sacred occasions, as for instance when the gongs and conchs announced the end of an eclipse. He was, in a sense, the leader of the group of animals at the Math. After his death he was given a burial in the grounds of the monastery.
Referring to his pet animals he wrote to an American disciple on September 7, 1901: ‘The rains have come down in right earnest, and it is a deluge — pouring, pouring, pouring, night and day. The river is rising, flooding the banks; the ponds and tanks have overflowed. I have just now returned from lending a hand in cutting a deep drain to take off the water from the Math grounds. The rainwater stands at places some feet deep. My huge stork is full of glee and so are the ducks and geese. My tame antelope fled from the Math and gave us some days of anxiety in finding him out. One of my ducks unfortunately died yesterday. She had been gasping for breath more than a week. One of my waggish old monks says, “Sir, it is no use living in the Kaliyuga, when ducks catch cold from damp and rain, and frogs sneeze!” One of the geese had her plumes falling off. Knowing no other method of treatment, I left her some minutes in a tub of water mixed with mild carbolic, so that it might either kill or heal — and she is all right now.’
Thus Swami Vivekananda tried to lead a carefree life at the monastery, sometimes going about the grounds clad in his loin-cloth, sometimes supervising the cooking arrangements and himself preparing some delicacies for the inmates, and sometimes joining his disciples and brother monks in the singing of devotional music. At other times he imparted spiritual instruction to the visitors, or engaged in deep thought whenever his inner spirit was stirred up, occupied himself with serious study in his room, or explained to the members of the Math the intricate passages of the scriptures and unfolded to them his scheme of future work.
Though his body was wearing away day by day, his mind was luminous. At times his eyes assumed a far-away look, showing how tired he was of the world. One day he said, ‘For one thing we may be grateful: this life is not eternal.’
The illness did not show any sign of abatement, but that did not dampen his spirit to work. When urged to rest, he said to a disciple: ‘My son, there is no rest for me. That which Sri Ramakrishna called “Kali” took possession of my body and soul three or four days before his passing away. That makes me work and work and never lets me keep still or look to my personal comfort.’ Then he told the disciple how the Master, before his passing away, had transmitted his spiritual power to him.
During the later part of 1901 the Swami observed all the religious festivals at the Math. The Divine Mother was worshipped in strict orthodox fashion during the Durga-puja, Lakshmi-puja and Kali-puja. On the occasion of the Durga-puja the poor were given a sumptuous feast. Thus the Swami demonstrated the efficacy of religious rituals in the development of the spiritual life. In February 1902 the birth anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna was celebrated at the Belur Math, and over thirty thousand devotees gathered for the occasion. But the Swami was feverish. He was confined to his room by the swelling of his legs. From the windows he watched the dancing and the music of the devotees.
To the disciple who was attending him the Swami said: ‘He who has realized the Atman becomes a storehouse of great power. From him as the centre a spiritual force emanates, working within a certain radius; people who come within this circle become inspired with his ideas and are overwhelmed by them. Thus without much religious striving they derive benefit from the spiritual experience of an illumined person. This is called grace.’ ‘Blessed are those,’ the Swami continued, ‘who have seen Sri Ramakrishna. All of you, too, will get his vision. When you have come here, you are very near to him. Nobody has been able to understand him who came on earth as Sri Ramakrishna. Even his own nearest devotees have no real clue to it. Only some have a little inkling of it. All will understand in time.’
It is said that the spot immediately beneath a lamp is dark. And so it was that the orthodox people of the neighbouring villages hardly understood the ideas and ideals of the Belur Math. The monks there did not in all respects lead the life of orthodox sannyasins. Devotees from abroad frequented the monastery. In matters of food and dress the inmates were liberal. Thus they became the butt of criticism. The villagers invented scandals about them and the passengers on the boats passing along the Ganga would point out the monastery with an accusing finger.
When the Swami heard all this he said: ‘That is good. It is a law of nature. That is the way with all founders of religion. Without persecution superior ideas cannot penetrate into the heart of society.’
But the criticism of the neighbours in time gave place to pride in having in their midst so many saintly souls.
Many distinguished Indians used to visit the Swami at this time. With some of them he discussed the idea of founding a Vedic Institution for the promotion of the ancient Aryan culture and the knowledge of Sanskrit. This was one of the Swami’s favourite thoughts, on which he dwelt even on the last day of his life on earth.
Towards the end of 1901 two learned Buddhists from Japan came to the Belur Math to induce the Swami to attend a Congress of Religions that was being contemplated in Japan at that time. One of them was the famous artist and art critic Okakura, and the other Oda, the head priest of a Buddhist temple. The Swami became particularly fond of Okakura and said, ‘We are two brothers who meet again, having come from the ends of the earth.’ Though pressed by the visitors, he could not accept the invitation to go to Japan, partly because of his failing health and partly because he was sceptical that the Japanese would appreciate the monastic ideal of the Non-dualistic Vedanta. In a letter to a Western lady written in June 1902, the Swami made the following interesting observation about the connexion between the monastic ideal and fidelity in married life:
In my opinion, a race must first cultivate a great respect for motherhood, through the sanctification and inviolability of marriage, before it can attain to the ideal of perfect chastity. The Roman Catholics and the Hindus, holding marriage sacred and inviolate, have produced great chaste men and women of immense power. To the Arab, marriage is a contract or a forceful possession, to be dissolved at will, and we do not find there the development of the idea of the virgin of the brahmacharin. Modern Buddhism — having fallen among races who had not yet come up to the evolution of marriage — has made a travesty of monasticism. So until there is developed in Japan a great and sacred ideal about marriage (apart from mutual attraction and love), I do not see how there can be great monks and nuns. As you have come to see that the glory of life is chastity, so my eyes also have been opened to the necessity of this great sanctification for the vast majority, in order that a few lifelong chaste powers may be produced.
The Swami used to say that absolute loyalty and devotion between husbands and wives for three successive generations find their expression in the birth of an ideal monk.
Okakura earnestly requested the Swami to accompany him on a visit to Bodh-Gaya, where Buddha had attained illumination. Taking advantage of several weeks’ respite from his ailment, the Swami accepted the invitation. He also desired to see Varanasi. The trip lasted through January and February 1902, and was a fitting end to all his wanderings. He arrived at Bodh-Gaya on the morning of his last birthday and was received with genuine courtesy and hospitality by the orthodox Hindu monk in charge of the temple. This and the similar respect and affection shown by the priests in Varanasi proved the extent of his influence over men’s hearts. It may be remembered that Bodh-Gaya had been the first of the holy places he had visited during Sri Ramakrishna’s lifetime. And some years later, when he was still an unknown monk, he had said farewell to Varanasi with the words: ‘Till that day when I fall on society like a thunderbolt I shall visit this place no more.’
In Varanasi the Swami was offered a sum of money by a Maharaja to establish a monastery there. He accepted the offer and, on his return to Calcutta, sent Swami Shivananda to organize the work. Even before Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Varanasi, several young men, under the Swami’s inspiration, had started a small organization for the purpose of providing destitute pilgrims with food, shelter, and medical aid. Delighted with their unselfish spirit, the Swami said to them: ‘You have the true spirit, my boys, and you will always have my love and blessings! Go on bravely; never mind your poverty. Money will come. A great thing will grow out of it, surpassing your fondest hopes.’ The Swami wrote the appeal which was published with the first report of the ‘Ramakrishna Home of Service,’ as the institution came to be called. In later years it became the premier institution of its kind started by the Ramakrishna Mission.
The Swami returned from Varanasi. But hardly had he arrived at Belur when his illness showed signs of aggravation in the damp air of Bengal. During the last year and a half of his life he was, off and on, under the strict supervision of his physicians. Diabetes took the form of dropsy. His feet swelled and certain parts of his body became hypersensitive. He could hardly close his eyes in sleep. A native physician made him follow a very strict regime: he had to avoid water and salt. For twenty-one days he did not allow a drop of water to pass through his throat. To a disciple he said: ‘The body is only a tool of the mind. What the mind dictates the body will have to obey. Now I do not even think of water. I do not miss it at all…. I see I can do anything.’
Though his body was subjected to a devitalizing illness, his mind retained its usual vigour. During this period he was seen reading the newly published Encyclopaedia Britannica. One of his householder disciples remarked that it was difficult to master these twenty-five volumes in one life. But the Swami had already finished ten volumes and was busy reading the eleventh. He told the disciple to ask him any question from the ten volumes he had read, and to the latter’s utter amazement the Swami not only displayed his knowledge of many technical subjects but even quoted the language of the book here and there. He explained to the disciple that there was nothing miraculous about it. A man who observed strict chastity in thought and action, he declared, could develop the retentive power of the mind and reproduce exactly what he had heard or read but once, even years before.
The regeneration of India was the ever recurring theme of the Swami’s thought. Two of the projects dear to his heart were the establishment of a Vedic College and a convent for women. The latter was to be started on the bank of the Ganga under the direction of the Holy Mother and was to be completely separated from the Belur Monastery. The teachers trained in the convent were to take charge of the education of Indian women along national lines.
But the Swami’s heart always went out in sympathy for the poor and neglected masses. During the later part of 1901 a number of Santhal labourers were engaged in levelling the grounds about the monastery. They were poor and outside the pale of society. The Swami felt an especial joy in talking to them, and listened to the accounts of their misery with great compassion. One day he arranged a feast for them and served them with delicacies that they had never before tasted. Then, when the meal was finished, the Swami said to them: ‘You are Narayanas. Today I have entertained the Lord Himself by feeding you.’
He said to a disciple: ‘I actually saw God in them. How guileless they are!’ Afterwards he said, addressing the inmates of the Belur Math:
‘See how simple-hearted these poor, illiterate people are! Will you be able to relieve their miseries to some extent at least? Otherwise of what use is our wearing the ochre robe of the sannyasin? To be able to sacrifice everything for the good of others is real monasticism. Sometimes I think within myself: “What is the good of building monasteries and so forth? Why not sell them and distribute the money among the poor, indigent Narayanas? What homes should we care for, we who have made the tree our shelter? Alas! How can we have the heart to put a morsel into our mouths, when our countrymen have not enough wherewith to feed or clothe themselves?…Mother, shall there be no redress for them?” One of the purposes of my going out to preach religion to the West, as you know, was to see if I could find any means of providing for the people of my country. Seeing their poverty and distress, I think sometimes: “Let us throw away all the paraphernalia of worship — blowing the conch and ringing the bell and waving the lights before the image….Let us throw away all pride of learning and study of the scriptures and all spiritual disciplines for the attainment of personal liberation. Let us go from village to village, devoting ourselves to the service of the poor. Let us, through the force of our character and spirituality and our austere living, convince the rich about their duties to the masses, and get money and the means wherewith to serve the poor and the distressed….Alas! Nobody in our country thinks for the low, the poor, the miserable! Those who are the backbone of the nation, whose labour produces food, those whose one day’s absence from work raises a cry of general distress in the city — where is the man in our country who sympathizes with them, who shares in their joys and sorrows? Look how, for want of sympathy on the part of the Hindus, thousands of pariahs are becoming Christians in the Madras Presidency! Don’t think that it is merely the pinch of hunger that drives them to embrace Christianity. It is simply because they do not get your sympathy. You are continually telling them: “Don’t touch me.” “Don’t touch this or that!” Is here any fellow-feeling or sense of dharma left in the country? There is only “Don’t-touchism” now! Kick out all such degrading usages! How I wish to abolish the barriers of “Don’t-touchism” and go out and bring together one and all, crying: “Come, all ye that are poor and destitute, fallen and downtrodden! We are one in the name of Ramakrishna!” Unless they are elevated, the Great Mother India will never awake! What are we good for if we cannot provide facilities for their food and clothing? Alas, they are ignorant of the ways of the world and hence fail to eke out a living though labouring hard day and night for it. Gather all your forces together to remove the veil from their eyes. What I see clear as daylight is that the same Brahman, the same Sakti, is in them as in me! Only there is a difference in the degree of manifestation — that is all. Have you ever seen a country in the whole history of the world rise unless there was a uniform circulation of the national blood all over the body? Know for certain that not much can be done with that body one limb of which is paralysed, even though the other limbs are healthy.’
One of the lay disciples pointed out the difficulty of establishing unity and harmony among the diverse sects in India. Vivekananda replied with irritation:
‘Don’t come here any more if you think any task too difficult. Through the grace of the Lord, everything becomes easy of achievement. Your duty is to serve the poor and the distressed without distinction of caste and creed. What business have you to consider the fruits of your action? Your duty is to go on working, and everything will set itself right in time, and work by itself. My method of work is to construct, and not to destroy that which is already existing….You are all intelligent boys and profess to be my disciples — tell me what you have done. Couldn’t you give away one life for the sake of others? Let the reading of Vedanta and the practice of meditation and the like be left for the next life! Let this body go in the service of others — and then I shall know you have not come to me in vain!’
A little later he said:
‘After so much tapasya, austerity, I have known that the highest truth is this: “He is present in all beings. These are all the manifested forms of Him. There is no other God to seek for! He alone is worshipping God, who serves all beings.”‘
In this exhortation is found Vivekananda’s message in all its vividness. These words are addressed to India and the Western world alike. The west, too, has its pariahs. He who exploits another man, near or distant, offends God and will pay for it sooner or later. All men are sons of the same God, all bear within them the same God. He who wishes to serve must serve man — and in the first instance, man in the humblest, poorest, most degraded form. Only by breaking down the barriers between man and man can one usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth.
There were moments when Vivekananda felt gloomy. His body was wasting away, and only a few young men came forward to help him in his work. He wanted more of them who, fired with indomitable faith in God and in themselves, would renounce everything for the welfare of others. He used to say that with a dozen such people he could divert into a new channel the whole thought-current of the country. Disregarding his physical suffering, he constantly inspired his disciples to cultivate this new faith.
Thus we see him, one day, seated on a canvas cot under the mango tree in the courtyard of the monastery. Sannyasins and brahmacharins about him were busy doing their daily duties. One was sweeping the courtyard with a big broom. Swami Premananda, after his bath, was climbing the steps to the shrine. Suddenly Swami Vivekananda’s eyes became radiant. Shaking with emotion, he said to a disciple:
‘Where will you go to seek Brahman? He is immanent in all beings. Here, here is the visible Brahman! Shame on those who, neglecting the visible Brahman, set their minds on other things! Here is the visible Brahman before you as tangible as a fruit in one’s hand! Can’t you see? Here — here — is Brahman!’
These words struck those around him with a kind of electric shock. For a quarter of an hour they remained glued to the spot, as if petrified. The broom in the hand of the sweeper stopped. Premananda fell into a trance. Everyone experienced an indescribable peace. At last the Swami said to Premananda, ‘Now go to worship.’
The brother disciples tried to restrain the Swami’s activities, especially instruction to visitors and seekers. But he was unyielding. ‘Look here!’ he said to them one day. ‘What good is this body? Let it go in helping others. Did not the Master preach until the very end? And shall I not do the same? I do not care a straw if the body goes. You cannot imagine how happy I am when I find earnest seekers after truth to talk to. In the work of waking up Atman in my fellow men I shall gladly die again and again!’
Till the very end the Swami remained the great leader of the monastery, guiding with a firm hand the details of its daily life, in spite of his own suffering. He insisted upon thorough cleanliness and examined the beds to see that they were aired and properly taken care of. He drew up a weekly time-table and saw that it was scrupulously observed. The classes on the Vedas and the Puranas were held daily, he himself conducting them when his health permitted. He discouraged too much ritualism in the chapel. He warned the monks against exaggerated sentimentalism and narrow sectarianism.
But the leader kept a stern watch on the practice of daily meditation on the part of the inmates of the monastery. The bell sounded at fixed hours for meals, study, discussion, and meditation. About three months before his death he made it a rule that at four o’clock in the morning a hand-bell should be rung from room to room to awaken the monks. Within half an hour all should be gathered in the chapel to meditate. But he was always before them. He got up at three and went to the chapel, where he sat facing the north, meditating motionless for more than two hours. No one was allowed to leave his seat before the Swami set the example. As he got up, he chanted softly, ‘Siva! Siva!’ Bowing to the image of Sri Ramakrishna, he would go downstairs and pace the courtyard, singing a song about the Divine Mother or Siva. Naturally his presence in the chapel created an intense spiritual atmosphere. Swami Brahmananda said: ‘Ah! One at once becomes absorbed if one sits for meditation in company with Naren! I do not feel this when I sit alone.’
Once, after an absence of several days on account of illness, he entered the chapel and found only two monks there. He became annoyed; in order to discipline the absentees he forbade them to eat their meals at the monastery. They had to go out and beg their food. He did not spare anyone, even a beloved brother disciple for whom he cherished the highest respect and who happened to be absent from the chapel that morning.
Another day, he found a brother disciple, Swami Shivananda, in bed at the hour of meditation. He said to the latter ‘Brother! I know you do not need meditation. You have already realized the highest goal through the grace of Sri Ramakrishna. But you should daily meditate with the youngsters in order to set an example to them.’
From that day on, Shivananda, whether ill or well, always communed with God during the early hours of the morning. In his old age, when it became physically impossible for him to go to the chapel, he used to sit on his bed for meditation.
But the Swami, preoccupied as he was with the training of his Indian disciples, never forgot his Western ones. Their welfare, too, was always in his thought and prayer.
To Miss MacLeod he wrote on June 14, 1901:
Well, Joe, keep health and spirits up….Gloire et honneur await you — and mukti. The natural ambition of woman is, through marriage, to climb up leaning upon a man; but those days are gone. You shall be great without the help of any man, just as you are, plain, dear Joe — our Joe, everlasting Joe….
We have seen enough of this life not to care for any of its bubbles, have we not, Joe? For months I have been practising to drive away all sentiments; therefore I stop here, and good-bye just now. It was ordained by Mother that we should work together; it has been already for the good of many; it shall be for the good of many more. So let it be. It is useless planning useless high flights; Mother will find her own way…rest assured.
To Mary Hale, on August 27, 1901 he wrote with his usual wit:
I would that my health were what you expected — at least to be able to write you a long letter. It is getting worse, in fact, every day — and so many complications and botherations without that, I have ceased to notice it at all.
I wish you all joy in your lovely Suisse chalet — splendid health, good appetite, and a light study of Swiss or other antiquities just to liven things up a bit. I am so glad that you are breathing the free air of the mountains, but sorry that Sam is not in the best of health. Well, there is no anxiety about it; he has naturally such a fine physique.
‘Woman’s moods and man’s luck — the gods themselves do not know, not to speak of men.’ My instincts may be very feminine — but what I am exercised with just this moment is that you get a little bit of manliness about you. Oh! Mary, your brain, health, beauty, everything, is going to waste just for the lack of that one essential — assertion of individuality. Your haughtiness, spirit, etc. are all nonsense — only mockery. You are at best a boarding-school girl — no backbone! no backbone!
Alas! this lifelong leading-string business ! This is very harsh, very brutal — but I can’t help it. I love you, Mary — sincerely, genuinely. I can’t cheat you with namby-pamby sugar candies. Nor do they ever come to me.
Then again, I am a dying man; I have no time to fool in. Wake up, girl! I expect now from you letters of the right slashing order. Give it right straight — I need a good deal of rousing….
I am in a sense a retired man. I don’t keep much note of what is going on about the Movement. Then the Movement is getting bigger and it is impossible for one man to know all about it minutely. I now do nothing except try to eat and sleep and nurse my body the rest of the time.
Good-bye, dear Mary. Hope we shall meet again somewhere in this life — but meeting or no meeting, I remain ever your loving brother, Vivekananda.
To his beloved disciple Nivedita he wrote on February 12, 1902: ‘May all powers come unto you! May Mother Herself be your hands and mind! It is immense power — irresistible — that I pray for you, and, if possible, along with it infinite peace…. ‘If there was any truth in Sri Ramakrishna, may He take you into His leading, even as He did me, nay, a thousand times more!’
And again, to Miss MacLeod: ‘I can’t, even in imagination, pay the immense debt of gratitude I owe you. Wherever you are you never forget my welfare; and there, you are the only one that bears all my burdens, all my brutal outbursts….’ The sun, enveloped in a golden radiance, was fast descending to the horizon. The last two months of the Swami’s life on earth had been full of events foreshadowing the approaching end. Yet few had thought the end so near.
Soon after his return from Varanasi the Swami greatly desired to see his sannyasin disciples and he wrote to them to come to the Belur Math, even if only for a short time. ‘Many of his disciples from distant parts of the world,’ writes Sister Nivedita, ‘gathered round the Swami. Ill as he looked, there was none probably who suspected how near the end had come. Yet visits were paid and farewells exchanged that it had needed voyages half round the world to make.’
More and more the Swami was seen to free himself from all responsibilities, leaving the work to other hands. ‘How often,’ he said, ‘does a man ruin his disciples by remaining always with them ! When men are once trained, it is essential that their leader leave them, for without his absence they cannot develop themselves.’ ‘Plants,’ he had said some time before, ‘always remain small under a big tree.’ Yet the near and dear ones thought that he would certainly live three or four years more.
He refused to express any opinion on the question of the day. ‘I can no more enter into outside affairs,’ he said; ‘I am already on the way.’ On another occasion he said: ‘You may be right; but I cannot enter any more into these matters. I am going down into death.’ News of the world met with but a far-away rejoinder from him.
On May 15, 1902, he wrote to Miss MacLeod, perhaps for the last time: ‘I am somewhat better, but of course far from what I expected. A great idea of quiet has come upon me. I am going to retire for good — no more work for me. If possible, I will revert to my old days of begging. All blessings attend you, Joe; you have been a good angel to me.’
But it was difficult for him to give up what had been dearer to him than his life: the work. On the last Sunday before the end he said to one of his disciples: ‘You know the work is always my weak point. When I think that might come to an end, I am all undone.’ He could easily withdraw from weakness and attachment, but the work still retained its power to move him.
Sri Ramakrishna and the Divine Mother preoccupied his mind. He acted as if he were the child of the Mother or the boy playing at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. He said, ‘A great tapasya and meditation has come upon me, and I am making ready for death.’
His disciples and spiritual brothers were worried to see his contemplative mood. They remembered the words of Sri Ramakrishna that Naren, after his mission was completed, would merge for ever into samadhi, and that he would refuse to live in his physical body if he realized who he was. A brother monk asked him one day, quite casually, ‘Do you know yet who you are?’ The unexpected reply, ‘Yes, I now know!’ awed into silence everyone present. No further question was asked. All remembered the story of the great nirvikalpa samadhi of Naren’s youth, and how, when it was over, Sri Ramakrishna had said: ‘Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this realization, like the jewel locked in a box, will be hidden away from you and kept in my custody. I will keep the key with me. Only after you have fulfilled your mission on this earth will the box be unlocked, and you will know everything as you have known now.’
They also remembered that in the cave of Amarnath, in the summer of 1898, he had received the grace of Siva — not to die till he himself should will to do so. He was looking death in the face unafraid as it drew near.
Everything about the Swami in these days was deliberate and significant, yet none could apprehend its true import. People were deceived by his outer cheerfulness. From the beginning of June he appeared to be regaining his health.
One day, about a week before the end, he bade a disciple bring him the Bengali almanac. He was seen several times on subsequent days studying the book intently, as if he was undecided about something he wanted to know. After the passing away, the brother monks and disciples realized that he had been debating about the day when he should throw away the mortal body. Ramakrishna, too, had consulted the almanac before his death.
Three days before the mahasamadhi, Vivekananda pointed out to Swami Premananda a particular spot on the monastery grounds where he wished his body to be cremated.
On Wednesday the Swami fasted, following the orthodox rule: it was the eleventh day of the moon. Sister Nivedita came to the monastery to ask him some questions about her school; but he was not interested and referred her to some other Swamis. He insisted, however, on serving Nivedita the morning meal. To quote the Sister’s words:
Each dish, as it was offered — boiled seeds of the jack-fruit, boiled potatoes, plain rice, and ice-cold milk — formed the subject of playful chat; and finally, to end the meal, he himself poured the water over her hands, and dried them with a towel.
‘It is I who should do these things for you, Swamiji! Not you for me!’ was the protest naturally offered. But his answer was startling in its solemnity — ‘Jesus washed the feet of his disciples!’
Something checked the answer, ‘But that was the last time!’ as it rose to the lips, and the words remained unuttered. This was well. For here also, the time had come.
There was nothing sad or grave about the Swami during these days. Efforts were made not to tire him. Conversations were kept as light as possible, touching only upon the pet animals that surrounded him, his garden experiments, books, and absent friends. But all the while one was conscious of a luminous presence of which the Swami’s bodily form seemed only a shadow or symbol. The members of the monastery had never felt so strongly as now, before him, that they stood in the presence of an infinite light; yet none was prepared to see the end so soon, least of all on that Friday, July the Fourth, on which he appeared so much stronger and healthier than he had been for years.
On the supreme day, Friday, he rose very early. Going to the chapel, alone, he shut the windows and bolted the doors, contrary to his habit, and meditated for three hours. Descending the stairs of the shrine, he sang a beautiful song about Kali:
Is Kali, my Mother, really black?
The Naked One, though black She seems,
Lights the Lotus of the heart.
Men call Her black, but yet my mind
Will not believe that She is so:
Now She is white, now red, now blue;
Now She appears as yellow, too.
I hardly know who Mother is,
Though I have pondered all my life:
Now Purusha, now Prakriti,
And now the Void, She seems to be.
To meditate on all these things
Confounds poor Kamalakanta’s wits.
Then he said, almost in a whisper: ‘If there were another Vivekananda, then he would have understood what this Vivekananda has done! And yet — how many Vivekanandas shall be born in time!’
He expressed the desire to worship Mother Kali at the Math the following day, and asked two of his disciples to procure all the necessary articles for the ceremony. Next he asked the disciple Suddhananda to read a passage from the Yajurveda with the commentary of a well-known expositor. The Swami said that he did not agree with the commentator and exhorted the disciple to give a new interpretation of the Vedic texts.
He partook of the noon meal with great relish, in company with the members of the Math, though usually, at that time, he ate alone in his room because of his illness. Immediately afterwards, full of life and humour, he gave lessons to the brahmacharins for three hours on Sanskrit grammar. In the afternoon he took a walk for about two miles with Swami Premananda and discussed his plan to start a Vedic College in the monastery.
‘What will be the good of studying the Vedas?’ Premananda asked.
‘It will kill superstition,’ Swami Vivekananda said.
On his return the Swami inquired very tenderly concerning every member of the monastery. Then he conversed for a long time with his companions on the rise and fall of nations. ‘India is immortal,’ he said, ‘if she persists in her search for God. But if she goes in for politics and social conflict, she will die.’
At seven o’clock in the evening the bell rang for worship in the chapel. The Swami went to his room and told the disciple who attended him that none was to come to him until called for. He spent an hour in meditation and telling his beads, then called the disciple and asked him to open all the windows and fan his head. He lay down quietly on his bed and the attendant thought that he was either sleeping or meditating.
At the end of an hour his hands trembled a little and he breathed once very deeply. There was a silence for a minute or two, and again he breathed in the same manner. His eyes became fixed in the centre of his eyebrows, his face assumed a divine expression, and eternal silence fell.
‘There was,’ said a brother disciple of the Swami, ‘a little blood in his nostrils, about his mouth, and in his eyes.’ According to the Yoga scriptures, the life-breath of an illumined yogi passes out through the opening on the top of the head, causing the blood to flow in the nostrils and the mouth.
The great ecstasy took place at ten minutes past nine. Swami Vivekananda passed away at the age of thirty-nine years, five months, and twenty-four days, thus fulfilling his own prophecy: ‘I shall not live to be forty years old.’
The brother disciples thought that he might have fallen into samadhi, and chanted the Master’s name to bring back his consciousness. But he remained on his back motionless.
Physicians were sent for and the body was thoroughly examined. In the doctor’s opinion life was only suspended; artificial respiration was tried. At midnight, however, Swami Vivekananda was pronounced dead, the cause, according to medical science, having been apoplexy or sudden failure of the heart. But the monks were convinced that their leader had voluntarily cast off his body in samadhi, as predicted by Sri Ramakrishna.
In the morning people poured in from all quarters. Nivedita sat by the body and fanned it till it was brought down at 2 p.m. to the porch leading to the courtyard. It was covered with ochre robes and decorated with flowers. Incense was burnt and a religious service was performed with lights, conch-shells, and bells. The brother monks and disciples took their final leave and the procession started, moving slowly through the courtyard and across the lawn, till it reached the vilva tree near the spot where the Swami himself had desired his body to be cremated.
The funeral pyre was built and the body was consigned to the flames kindled with sandalwood. Across the Ganga, on the other bank, Ramakrishna had been cremated sixteen years before.
Nivedita began to weep like a child, rolling on the ground. Suddenly the wind blew into her lap a piece of the ochre robe from the pyre, and she received it as a blessing. It was dusk when the flames subsided. The sacred relics were gathered and the pyre was washed with the water of the Ganga. The place is now marked by a temple, the table of the altar standing on the very spot where the Swami’s body rested in the flames.
Gloom and desolation fell upon the monastery. The monks prayed in the depths of their hearts: ‘O Lord! Thy will be done!’ But deep beneath their grief all felt that this was not the end. The words of the leader, uttered long before his death, rang in their ears:
‘It may be that I shall find it good to get outside my body — to cast it off like a worn-out garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.’
And: ‘May I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries, so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls.’
For centuries to come people everywhere will be inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s message: O man! first realize that you are one with Brahman — aham Brahmasmi — and then realize that the whole universe is verily the same Brahman — sarvam khalvidam Brahma.