REMINISCENCES OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
SWAMI VIVEKANANDA AS I SAW HIM
Now and then, at long intervals of time, a being finds his way to this planet who is unquestionably a wanderer from another sphere; who brings with him to this sorrowful world some of the glory, the power, the radiance of the far distant region from which he came. He walks among men, but he is not at home here. He is a pilgrim, a stranger, he tarries but a night.
He shares the life of those about him, enters into their joys and sorrows, rejoices with them, mourns with them, but through it all, he never forgets who he is, whence he came, or what the purpose of his coming. He never forgets his divinity. He remembers that he is the great, the glorious, the majestic Self. He knows that he came from that ineffable, supernal region which has no need of the sun or moon, for it is illumined by the Light of lights. He knows that he was, long before the time when “all the sons of God sang together for joy”.
Such a one, I have seen, I have heard, I have revered. At his feet I have laid my soul’s devotion.
Such a being is beyond all comparison, for he transcends all ordinary standards and ideals. Others may be brilliant, his mind is luminous, for he had the power to put himself into immediate contact with the source of all knowledge. He is no longer limited to the slow processes to which ordinary human beings are confined. Others may be great, they are great only as compared with those in their own class. Others may be good, powerful, gifted, having more of goodness, more of power, more of genius than their fellowmen. It is only a matter of comparison. A saint is more holy, more pure, more single-minded than ordinary men. But with Swami Vivekananda, there could be no comparison. He was in a class by himself. He belonged to another order. He was not of this world. He was a radiant being who had descended from another, a higher sphere for a definite purpose. One might have known that he would not stay long.
Is it to be wondered at that nature itself rejoices in such a birth, that the heavens open and angels sing paeans of praise?
Blessed is the country in which he was born, blessed are they who lived on this earth at the same time, and blessed, thrice blessed are the few who sat his feet.
THE MASTER AND THE MESSAGE
There are times when life flows on in a steady deadly stream of monotony. Eating, sleeping, talking — the same weary round. Commonplace thoughts, stereotyped ideas, the eternal tread-mill. Tragedy comes. For a moment it shocks us into stillness. But we cannot keep still. The merry-go-round stops neither for our sorrow nor our happiness. Surely this is not all there is to life. This is not what we are here for. Restlessness comes. What are we waiting for? Then one day it happens, the stupendous things for which we have been waiting — that which dispels the deadly monotony, which turns the whole of life into a new channel, which eventually takes one to a far away country and sets one among strange people with different customs and a different outlook upon life, to a people with whom from the very first we feel a strange kinship, a wonderful people who know what they are waiting for, who recognize the purpose of life. Our restlessness is stilled for ever.
After many incarnations, after untold suffering, struggle, and conquest, comes fruition. But this one does not know until long, long after. A tiny seed grows into the mighty banyan. A few feet of elevation on a fairly level plain, determine whether a river shall flow north and eventually reach the icy Arctic Ocean or south, until it finds itself in the warm waters of the Black or Caspian Sea. Little did I think when I reluctantly set out one cold February night in 1894 to attend a lecture at the Unitarian Church in Detroit that I was doing something which would change the whole course of my life and be of such stupendous import that it could not be measured by previous standards I had known. Attending lectures had been part of the deadly monotony. How seldom did one hear anything new or uplifting! The lecturers who had come to Detroit that winter had been unusually dull. So unvarying had been the disillusion, that one had given up hope and with it the desire to hear more. So that I went very unwillingly to this particular lecture to hear one “Vive Kananda, a monk from India”, and only in response to the pleading of my friend Mrs. Mary C. Funke. With her beautifully optimistic nature, she had kept her illusions and still believed that some day she would find “That Something”. We went to hear this “Man from India”. Surely never in our countless incarnations had we taken a step so momentous! For before we had listened five minutes, we knew that we had found the touchstone for which we had searched so long. In one breath, we exclaimed — “If we had missed this… !”
To those who have heard much of the personal appearance of the Swami Vivekananda, it may seem strange that it was not this which made the first outstanding impression. The forceful virile figure which stepped upon the platform was unlike the emaciated, ascetic type which is generally associated with spirituality in the West. A sickly saint everyone understands, but who ever heard of a powerful saint? The power that emanated from this mysterious being was so great that one all but shrank from it. It was overwhelming. It threatened to sweep everything before it. This one sensed even in those first unforgettable moments. Later we were to see this power at work. It was the mind that made the first great appeal, that amazing mind! What can one say that will give even a faint idea of its majesty, its glory, its splendour? It was a mind so far transcending other minds, even of those who rank as geniuses, that it seemed different in its very nature. Its ideas were so clear, so powerful, so transcendental that it seemed incredible that they could have emanated from the intellect of a limited human being. Yet marvellous as the ideas were and wonderful as was that intangible something that flowed out from the. mind, it was all strangely familiar. I found myself saying, “I have known that mind before“. He burst upon us in a blaze of reddish gold, which seemed to have caught and concentrated the sun’s rays. He was barely thirty, this preacher from far away India. Young with an ageless youth and yet withal old with the wisdom of ancient times. For the first time we heard the age-old message of India, teaching of the atman, the true Self.
The audience listened spellbound while he wove the fabric as glowing and full of colour as a beautiful Kashmir shawl. Now a thread of humour, now one of tragedy, many of serious thought, many of aspiration, of lofty idealism, of wisdom. Through it all ran the woof of India’s most sacred teaching: the divinity of man, his innate and eternal perfection; that this perfection is not a growth, nor a gradual attainment, but a present reality. “That thou art.” You are that now. There is nothing to do but to realize it. The realization may come now in the twinkling of an eye, or in a million years, but “All will reach the sunlit heights.” This message has well been called. “The wondrous Evangel of the Self”. We are not the helpless limited beings which we think ourselves to be, but birthless, deathless, glorious children of immortal bliss. Like the teachers of old he, too, spoke in parables. The theme was always the same — man’s real nature. Not what we seem to be, but what we are. We are like men walking over a gold mine thinking we are poor. We are like the lion who was born in a sheepfold and thought he was a sheep. When the wolf came he bleated with fear quite unaware of his nature. Then one day a lion came, and seeing him bleating among the sheep called out to him, “You are not a sheep. You are a lion. You have no fear.” The lion at once became conscious of his nature and let out a mighty roar. He stood on the platform of the Unitarian Church pouring forth glorious truths in a voice unlike any voice one had ever heard before, a voice full of cadences, expressing every emotion, now with a pathos that stirred hitherto unknown deeps of tragedy, and then just as the pain was becoming unbearable, that same voice would move one to mirth only to check it in a midcourse with the thunder of an earnestness so intense that it left one awed, a trumpet call to awake. One felt that one never knew what music was until one heard that marvellous voice.
Which of us who heard him then can ever forget what soul memories were stirred within us when we heard the ancient message of India. — “Hear ye, Children of Immortal Bliss, even ye who dwell in higher spheres. I have found the Ancient One, knowing whom alone ye shall he saved from death over again.” Or the story of the lion and the sheep. Blessed Truth! In spite of your bleating, your timidity, your fear, you are not the sheep, you are and always have been the lion, powerful, fearless, the king of beasts. It is only an illusion that is to be overcome. You are THAT now. With these words came a subtle force or influence that lifted one into a purer and rarer atmosphere. Was it possible to hear and feel this and ever be the same again? All one’s values were changed. The seed of spirituality was planted to grow and grow throughout the years until it inevitably reached fruition. True, this sublime teaching is hoary with age. It may even be true that every Hindu man and woman knows it, many may be able to formulate it clearly, but Vivekananda spoke with authority. To him, it was not a speculative philosophy but the living Truth. All else might be false, this alone was true. He realized it. After his own great realization, life held but one purpose — to give the message with which he was entrusted, to point out the path and to help others on the road to the same supreme goal. “Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.”
All of this one sensed more or less dimly in that first unforgettable hour while our minds were lifted into his own radiant atmosphere. Later, slowly and sometimes painfully, after much effort and devotion, some of us found that our very minds were transformed. Great is the guru!
Those who came to the first lecture at the Unitarian Church came to the second and to the third, bringing others with them. “Come,” they said, “hear this wonderful man. He is like no one we have ever heard”, and they came until there was no place to hold them. They filled the room, stood in the aisles, peered in at the windows. Again and again he gave his message, now in this form, now in that, now illustrated with stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, now from the puranas and folklore. From the Upanishads he quoted constantly, first chanting in the original Sanskrit, then giving a free poetic translation. Great as was the impression which his spoken words made, the chanting produced an even greater effect. Unplumbed deeps were stirred; and as the rhythm fell upon the ear, the audience sat rapt and breathless. Our love for India came to birth. I think, when we first heard him say the word, “India”, in that marvellous voice of his. It seems incredible that so much could have been put into one small word of five letters. There was love, passion, pride, longing, adoration, tragedy, chivalry, heimweh, and again love. Whole volumes could not have produced such a feeling in others. It had the magic power of creating love in those who heard it. Ever after, India became the land of heart’s desire. Everything concerning her became of interest — became living — her people, her history, architecture, her manners and customs, her rivers, mountains, plains, her culture, her great spiritual concepts, her scriptures. And so began a new life, a life of study, of meditation. The centre of interest was shifted.
After the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda was induced to place himself under the direction of Pond’s Lecture Bureau1 and make a lecture tour of the United States. As is the custom, the committee at each new place was offered the choice of several lectures — “The Divinity of Man”, “Manners and Customs of India”, “The Women of India”, “Our Heritage” … .Invariably, when the place was a mining town, with no intellectual life whatever, the most abstruse subjects were selected. He told us the difficulty of speaking to an audience when he could see no ray of intelligence in response. After some weeks of this, lecturing every evening and travelling all night, the bondage became too irksome to bear any longer. In Detroit he had friends who had known him in Chicago and who loved and admired him. To them he went, and begged, “Make me free! Make me free!” Being influential they were able to get him released from his contract, though at a financial loss which seemed unfair. He had hoped to begin his work in India with the money earned in this way, but this was not the only reason for engaging in this public work. The impulse which was urging him on and which was never entirely absent from his mind was the mission with which his Master had entrusted him. He had a work to do, a message to give. It was a sacred message. How was he to give it? By the time he reached Detroit, he knew that a lecture tour was not the way, and not an hour longer would he waste his time on what did not lead towards his object. For six weeks he remained in Detroit, his mind intent upon his purpose, and he would give an occasional lecture. We missed no opportunity of hearing him. Again and again we hard the “wondrous Evangel of the Self”. Again and again we heard the story of India, now from this angle, now from that. We knew we had found our Teacher. The word guru we did not know then. Nor did we meet him personally. but what matter? It would take years to assimilate what we had already learnt. And then the Master would somehow, somewhere, teach us again!
THE DISCIPLES AT THOUSAND ISLAND PARK
It happened sooner than we expected, for in a little more than a year, we found ourselves in Thousand Island Park in the very house with him. It must have been the 6th of July 1895, that we had the temerity to seek him out. We heard he was living with a group of students. The word “disciple” is not used very freely in these days. It implies more than the average person is willing to give. We thought there would be some public leaching which we might attend. We dared not hope for more. Mrs. Funke has told of our quest in her preface to the Inspired Talks of Swami Vivekananda.
Of the wonderful weeks that followed, it is difficult to write. Only if one’s mind were lifted to that high state of consciousness in which we lived for the time could one hope to recapture the experience. We were filled with joy. We did not know at that time that we were living in his radiance. On the wings of inspiration, he carried us to the height which was his natural abode. He himself, speaking of it later, said that he was at his best in Thousand Islands. Then he felt that he had found the channel through which his message might be spread, the way to fulfil his mission, for the guru had found his own disciples. His first overwhelming desire was to show us the path to mukti (freedom), to set us free. “Ah,” he said with touching pathos, “if I could only set you free with a touch!” His second object, not so apparent perhaps, but always in the under-current, was to train this group to carry on the work in America. “This message must be preached by Indians in India, and by Americans in America”, he said. On his own little veranda, overlooking the tree tops and the beautiful St, Lawrence, he often called upon us to make speeches. His object was, as he said, to teach us to think upon our feet. Did he know that if we could conquer our self-consciousness in his presence, could speak before him who was considered one of the great orators of the world, no audience anywhere would dismay us? It was a trying ordeal. Each in turn was called upon to make an attempt. There was no escape. Perhaps that was why certain of our group failed to make an appearance at these intimate evening gatherings, although they knew that often he soared to the greatest heights as the night advanced. What if it was two o’clock in the morning? What if we had watched the moon rise and set? Time and space had vanished for us.
There was nothing set or formed about these nights on the upper veranda. He sat in his large chair at the end, near his door. Sometimes he went into a deep meditation. At such times we too meditated or sat in profound silence. Often it lasted for hours and one after the other slipped away. For we knew that after this he would not feel inclined to speak. Or again the meditation would be short, and he would encourage us to ask questions afterwards, often calling on one of us to answer. No matter how far wrong these answers were, he let us flounder about until we were near the truth, and then in a few words, he would clear up the difficulty. This was his invariable method in teaching. He knew how to stimulate the mind of the learner and make it do its own thinking. Did we go to him for confirmation of a new idea or point of view and begin, “I see it is thus and so”, his “Yes?” with an upper inflection always sent us back for further thought. Again we would come with a more clarified understanding, and again the “Yes?” stimulated us to further thought. Perhaps after the third time, when the capacity for further thought along that particular line was reached, he would point out the error — an error usually due to something in our Western mode of thought.
And so he trained us with such patience, such benignity. It was like a benediction. Later, after his return to India, he hoped to have a place in the Himalayas for further training of Eastern and Western disciples together.
It was a strange group — these people whom he had gathered around him that summer at Thousand Islands. No wonder the shopkeeper, to whom we went for direction upon our arrival, said, “Yes, there are some queer people living up on the hill, among whom is a foreign-looking gentleman.” There were three friends who had come to the Swami’s New York classes together — Miss S.E. Waldo. Miss Ruth Ellis, and Doctor Wight. For thirty years, they had attended every lecture on philosophy that they had heard of, but had never found anything that even remotely approached this. So Doctor Wight gravely assured us, the new-comers. Miss Waldo had during these long years of attendance at lectures acquired the gift of summarizing a whole lecture in a few words. It is to her that we owe Inspired Talks. When Swami Vivekananda went to England that same year, he gave her charge of some of the classes, and on his return she made herself invaluable. It was to her that he dictated his commentary on the Patanjali’s Aphorisms. She assisted too in bringing out the different books Karma-Yoga, Raja-Yoga, Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga. Her logical, trained mind and her complete devotion made her an ideal assistant. Ruth Ellis was on the staff of one of the New York newspapers. She was gentle and retiring and seldom spoke, yet one knew that her love and devotion were unbounded. She was like a daughter to “little old Docky Wight”, as we all called him. He was well over seventy but as enthusiastic and full of interest as a boy. At the end of each class there was usually a pause, and the little old “Docky” would sloop down and rub his bald head and say, with the most pronounced nasal twang, “Well, Swami, then it all amounts to this, ‘I am the Absolute!’ “We always waited for that, and Swamiji would smile his most fatherly smile and agree. At times like this. the Swami’s thirty years in the presence of seventy seemed older by countless years — ancient but not aged, rather ageless and wise with the wisdom of all times. Sometimes be said, “I feel three hundred years old.” This, with a sigh.
In a room below lived Stella. It was several days before we saw her, for she seldom came up to the classes, being, as we were given to understand, too deeply engrossed in ascetic practices to break in upon them. Naturally our curiosity was excited. Later we came to understand much. She had been an actress. Past samskaras are not so easily wiped out. Was this only another play which would restore her fast fading beauty and bring back her lost youth? For strange as it may seem, the demonstration of youth, beauty, health, prosperity is considered the test of spirituality in America in these benighted days. How could Swami Vivekananda understand that anyone could put such an interpretation upon his lofty teaching? How much did he understand, we wondered. And then one day he said, “I like that Baby. She is so artless.” This met with a dead silence. Instantly his whole manner changed, and he said very gravely, “I call her Baby hoping that it will make her childlike, free from art and guile.” Perhaps for the same reason, for her ishta (chosen ideal), he gave her Gopala, the Baby Krishna. When we separated for the summer, she went to live on a small island in Orchard Lake. There she built a tiny one-roomed house and lived alone. Strange stories began to be circulated about her. She wore a turban; she practised uncanny rites, called yoga. No one knew the meaning of yoga. It was a strange foreign word that had to do with India — the mysterious, and with occultism. Newspaper men came to interview her. One well-known writer tells the story of his first success. He was a lad engaged in running an elevator (lift) for his living. He wrote the story of this young woman practising yoga on an island not far away. He sent it to the Detroit Free Press and to his astonishment it was accepted. Long afterwards when his position was assured, he said. “After that I expected that everything I wrote would be accepted at once.” Alas, the road to fame is not so easy. It was a long up-hill struggle. It was years before his name became so well-known and his manuscripts received respectful attention. Since then he had learnt the true meaning of yoga, and India has become for him the “Holy Land” to which one goes, not as a tourist but as a pilgrim. The scene of his first novel was laid largely in India. With what feeling and what rare insight he depicted the Indian village to which his hero comes at dusk! The homesick wanderer who reads the book lives in India again for a few hours. Who shall say that this career was not inspired in part at least by Swami Vivekananda, especially since the writer came to know him personally? It was he who said, “There is a glow about everyone who was in any way associated with Vivekananda. “Stella went back to live the ordinary human life, and none of us knew anything of her afterwards until news came of her death a few months ago. What life had held for her during those thirty years in which she voluntarily cut herself off from all connection with us, even from him who had planted and watered the seed, who can say? One can only believe that the seed so planted bore fruit worthy of the planting.
Of Mrs. Funke Swamiji said, “She gives me freedom.” He was seldom more spontaneous than in her presence. “She is naive,” he said on another occasion. This amused her, for she did not spare herself in her efforts to meet his moods. Perhaps more than any of us she realized how much he needed rest and relaxation. The body and mind should not be kept at so great a tension all the time. While others were afraid of losing even a word, she thought how she could amuse him. She would tell funny stories, often at her own expense, and talk lightly and entertainingly. “She rests me,” he said to one. To the same one, she said, “I know he thinks I am a fool, but I don’t care as long as it amuses him.” Is it because of her attitude of not wanting to gather anything from one who had so much to give, that she most of all retains the impress of his personality undistorted? Her sunny disposition, her optimism, her enthusiasm, were refreshing. Nor was she less attractive in other ways, possessing beauty, grace, and charm to an unusual degree. Even today, in spite of her physical disability, the old charm is there. Nothing rekindles the flame and brings the fire of enthusiasm to such a glow as conversation about the Swami, He lives. One actually feels his presence. It is a blessed experience. Who can doubt that when the time comes for her to drop the body which has now become such a burden, she will find the darkness illumined and in that luminous atmosphere a radiant presence who will give her that great gift — Freedom.
The Swami’s choice of two others grew out of the theory which he then held that fanaticism is power gone astray. If this force can be transmuted and turned into a higher channel, it becomes a great power for good. There must be power. That is essential. In Marie Louise and Leon Landsberg, he saw that there was fanaticism to a marked degree, and he believed that here was material which would be invaluable. Marie Louise was, in some respects, the outstanding personality in this small community. A tall, angular woman, about fifty years of age, so masculine in appearance that one looked twice before one could tell whether she was a man or a woman. The short, wiry hair, in the days before bobbed hair was in vogue, the masculine features, the large bones, the heavy voice and the robe, not unlike that worn by men in India, made one doubtful. Her path was the highest, she announced, that of philosophy — jnana. She had been the spokesman for ultra-radical groups and had learning and some degree of eloquence, “I have magnetism of the platform,” she used to say. Her vanity and personal ambition made her unfit for discipleship, and useless as a worker in Swami Vivekananda’s movement. She left Thousand Islands before any of us, and soon after organized an independent centre of Vedanta in California, and later, one in Washington.
One of the most interesting, as well as the most learned of the group was Leon Landsberg, an American by citizenship and a Russian Jew by birth. He had all the great qualities of his race — emotion, imagination, a passion for learning, and a worship of genius. For three years, he was Swami Vivekananda’s inseparable companion, friend, secretary, attendant. His intimate knowledge of Europe, its philosophies, its languages, its culture, gave him a profundity and depth of mind which are rare. He was fiery and picturesque. His indifference to his personal appearance, his fanaticism, his pity for the poor, which amounted to a passion, drew Swamiji to him. He often gave his last penny to a beggar, and always he gave not out of his abundance, but out of a poverty almost as great as the recipient’s. He had as well a position on a New York paper which required but little of his time and gave him a small income. While he and Swamiji lived together in 33rd Street in New York, they shared what they had. Sometimes there was sufficient for both and sometimes there was nothing. After the classes were over at night, they would go out for a walk, ending with a light meal which was inexpensive, as the common purse was often empty. This did not trouble either of them. They knew that when it was needed, money would find its way into the purse again.
Landsberg was an epitome of Europe, its philosophies, its literature, its art. Swamiji found greater delight in reading a man, than a book. Then, too, he was a revelation of the Jewish race — its glory, its tragedy. In this companionship, two ancient races met and found a common basis.
Landsberg was one of the first to come to Thousand Islands and to be initiated. He was given a new name as was customary at that time. Because of his great compassion, he was named Kripananda. His path was Bhakti, worship, devotion. In this his fiery emotional nature could most easily find its true expression. He was the first to be sent out to teach.
After leaving Detroit, Swamiji had gone to New York hoping that there, in the cultural metropolis of America, he might find an opening to begin the work he felt destined to do. He was soon taken up by a group of wealthy friends who loved and admired him and were attracted by his personality, but cared nothing for his message. He found himself in danger of becoming a social lion. He was fed, clothed, and housed in luxury. Again there came the cry for freedom: “Not this! Not this! I can never do my work under these conditions.”
Then he thought the way might be found by living alone and teaching in classes, open to all. He asked Landsberg to find inexpensive rooms for both of them. The place which was found (64 West 33rd Street) was in a most undesirable locality, and it was hinted that the right sort of people, especially ladies, would not come to such a place; but they came — all sorts and conditions of men and women — to these squalid rooms. They sat on chairs, and when chairs were filled, anywhere — on tables, on washstands, on the stairs. Millionaires were glad to sit on the floor, literally at his feet. No charge was made for the teaching and often there was no money to pay the rent. Then Swamiji would give a secular lecture for which he felt he could accept a fee. All that winter, he worked as he could. Often the last penny was spent. It was a precarious way of carrying on the work and sometimes it seemed as if it would come to an end.
It was at this time that some of those with means offered to finance the undertaking. But they made conditions. The “right place” must be selected and the “right people” must be attracted. This was intolerable to his free sannyasin-spirit. Was it for this that he had renounced the world? Was it for this that he had cast aside name and fame? A little financial security was a small thing to give up. He would depend upon no human help. If the work was for him to do, ways and means would come. He refused to make a compromise with the conventional outlook and worldly methods. A letter written at this time is revealing:
” . .wants me to be introduced to the ‘right sort of people’. The only ‘right sort of people’ are those whom the Lord sends — that is what I understand in my life’s experience. They alone can and will help me. As For the rest, Lord bless them in a mass and save me from them….. Lord, how hard it is for man to believe in Thy mercies!!! ‘Shiva! Shiva! Where is the right kind? And where is the bad? It is all He!! In the tiger and in the lamb, in the saint and in the sinner, all He!! In Him I have taken my refuge, body. soul, and atman, will He leave me now after carrying me in His arms all my life? Not a drop will be in the ocean, not a twig in the deepest forest, not a crumb in the house of the God of wealth, if the Lord is not merciful. Streams will be in the desert and the beggar will have plenty if He wills it. He seeth the sparrow’s fall — are these but words, or literal, actual life?
“Truce to this ‘right sort of presentation’. Thou art my right, Thou my wrong, my Shiva. Lord, since a child, I have taken refuge in Thee. Thou wilt be with me in the tropics or at the poles, on the tops of mountains or in the depths of oceans. My stay — my guide in life — my refuge — my friend — my teacher — and my God — my real self — Thou wilt never leave me, never…. My God, save Thou me for ever from these weaknesses, and may I never, never seek for help from any being but Thee. If a man puts his trust in another good man, he is never betrayed. Wilt Thou forsake me. Father of all good — Thou who knowest that all my life. I am Thy servant, and Thine alone? Wilt Thou give me over to be played upon by others or dragged down by evil? He will never leave me, I am sure.”
After this, a few earnest students took the financial responsibility for the work. and there was no further difficulty. Again he wrote: “Was it ever in the history of the world that any great work was done by the rich? It is the heart and brains that do it, ever and ever, and not the purse.”
All that winter the work went on and when the season came to an end, early in the summer, this devoted group was not willing to have the teaching discontinued. One of them owned a house In Thousand Island Park on the St. Lawrence River, and a proposal was made to the teacher that they all spend the summer there. He consented, much touched by their earnestness. He wrote to one of his friends that he wanted to manufacture a few “yogis” out of the materials of the classes. He felt that his work was now really started and that those who joined him at Thousand Islands were really disciples.
In May 1895, he writes to Mrs. Ole Bull:
“This week will be the last of my classes. I am going next Saturday with Mr. Leggett to Maine. He has a fine lake and a forest there. I shall be two or three weeks there. From thence, I go to Thousand Islands. Also I have an invitation to speak at a Parliament of Religions at Toronto, Canada, on July 18th. I shall go there from Thousand Islands and return back.”
And on the 7th of June:
“I am here at last with Mr. Leggett. This is one of the most beautiful spots I ever saw. Imagine a lake surrounded with hills and covered with a huge forest, with nobody but ourselves. So lovely, so quiet, so restful. You may imagine how glad I am after the bustle of cities. It gives me a new lease of life to be here. I go into the forest alone and read my Gita and am quite happy. I shall leave this place in about ten days or so, and go to Thousand Islands. I shall meditate by the hour and day here and be all alone by myself. The very idea is ennobling.”
Early in June three or four were gathered at Thousand Island Park with him and the teaching began without delay. He came on Saturday, July 6, 1895. Swami Vivekananda had planned to initiate several of those already there on Monday. “I don’t know you well enough yet to feel sure that you are ready for initiation,” he said on Sunday afternoon. Then he added rather shyly, “I have a power which I seldom use — the power of reading the mind. If you will permit me, I should like to read your mind, as I wish to initiate you with the others tomorrow.” We assented joyfully. Evidently he was satisfied with the result of the reading, for the next day, together with several others, he gave us a mantra and made us his disciples. Afterwards, questioned as to what he saw while he was reading our minds he told us a little. He saw that we should be faithful and that we should make progress in our spiritual life. He described something of what he saw, without giving the interpretation of every picture. In one case, scene after scene passed before his mental vision which meant that there would be extensive travel apparently in Oriental countries. He described the very houses in which we should live, the people who should surround us, the influences that would affect our lives. We questioned him about this. He told us it could be acquired by anyone. The method was simple at least in the telling. First, think of space — vast, blue, extending everywhere. In time, as one meditates upon this space intently, pictures appear. These pictures must be interpreted. Sometimes one sees the pictures but does not know the interpretation. He saw that one of us would be indissolubly connected with India. Important as well as minor events were foretold for us nearly all of which have come to pass. In this reading the quality of the personality was revealed — the mettle, the capacity, the character. Having passed this test, there can be no self-depreciation, no lack of faith in one’s self. Every momentary doubt is replaced by a serene assurance. Has the personality not received the stamp of approval from the one being in the world…?
Thousand Island Park, nine miles long and a mile or two in width, is the largest of the Thousand Islands. The steamers land at the village on the river. At that time the remainder of the island was practically a solitude. The house to which we were directed was a mile above the village. It was built upon a rock. Was that symbolic? It was two storeys high in the front and three behind. A dense forest surrounded it. Here we were secluded and yet within the reach of supplies. We could walk in all directions and meet no one. Sometimes Swamiji went out only with Landsberg. Sometimes he asked one or two of us to accompany him. Occasionally the whole party went out together. As we walked, he talked, seldom of controversial subjects. The solitude, the woods seemed to recall past experiences in Indian forests, and he told us of the inner experiences during the time he wandered there
We in our retirement seldom saw anyone except now and then someone who came for the view. The conditions were ideal for our purpose. One could not have believed that such a spot could be found in America. What great ideas were voiced there! What an atmosphere was created, what power was generated! There the Teacher reached some of his loftiest flights, there he showed us his heart and mind. We saw ideas unfold and flower. We saw the evolution of plans which grew into institutions in the years that followed. It was a blessed experience — an experience which made Miss Waldo exclaim. “What have we ever done to deserve this?” And so we all felt.
The original plan was that they should live as a community, without servants, each doing a share of the work. Nearly all of them were unaccustomed to housework and found it uncongenial. The result was amusing; as time went on it threatened to become disastrous. Some of us who had just been reading the story of Brook Farm felt that we saw it re-enacted before our eyes. No wonder Emerson refused to join that community of transcendentalists. His serenity was evidently bought at a price. Some could only wash dishes. One whose work was to cut the bread, groaned and all but wept whenever she attempted the task. It is curious how character is tested in these little things. Weaknesses which might have been hidden for a lifetime in ordinary intercourse were exposed in a day of this community life. It was interesting. With Swamiji the effect was quite different. Although only one among them all was younger than himself, he seemed like a father or rather like a mother in patience and gentleness. When the tension became too great, he would say with the utmost sweetness. “Today, I shall cook for you.” To this Landsberg would ejaculate in an aside, “Heaven save us!” By way of explanation he said that in New York when Swamiji cooked he, Landsberg, would tear his hair. because it meant that afterwards every dish in the house required washing. After several unhappy experiences in the community housekeeping, an outsider was engaged for help, and one or two of the more capable ones undertook certain responsibilities, and we had peace.
But once the necessary work was over and we had gathered in the class room, the atmosphere was changed. There never was a disturbing element within those walls. It seemed as if we had left the body and the bodily consciousness outside. We sat in a semicircle and waited. Which gate to the Eternal would be opened for us today? What heavenly vision should meet our eyes? There was always the thrill of adventure. The Undiscovered Country, the Sorrowless Land opened up new vistas of hope and beauty. Even so, our expectations were always exceeded. Vivekananda’s flights carried us with him to supernal heights. Whatever degree of realization may or may not have come to us since, one thing we can never forget: We saw the Promised Land. We, too, were taken to the top of Pisgah and the sorrow and trials of this world have never been quite real since.
He told us the story of the beautiful garden and of one who went to look over the wall and found it so alluring that he jumped over and never returned. And after him another and another. But we had the unique fortune of having for a Teacher one who had looked over and found it no less entrancing; but out of his great compassion he returned to tell the story to those left behind and to help them over the wall. So it went on from morning until midnight. When he saw how deep the impression was which he had made, he would say with a smile. “The cobra has bitten you. You cannot escape.” Or sometimes, “I have caught you in my net. You can never get out.”
Miss Dutcher, our hostess, was a conscientious little woman, a devout Methodist. How she ever came to be associated with such a group as gathered in her house that summer would have been a mystery to anyone who did not know the power of Swami Vivekananda to attract and hold sincere souls. But having once seen and heard him, what could one do but follow? Was he not the incarnation of the Divine, the Divine which lures man on until he finds himself again in his lost kingdom? But the road was hard and often terrifying to one still bound by conventions and orthodoxy in religion. All her ideals, her values of life, her concepts of religion were, it seemed to her, destroyed. In reality, they were only modified. Sometimes she did not appear for two or three days. “Don’t you see” , Swami said, “this is not an ordinary illness? It is the reaction of the body against the chaos that is going on in her mind. She cannot bear it.” The most violent attack came one day after a timid protest on her part against something he had said in the class. “The idea of duty is the midday sun of misery scorching the very soul, “he had said. “Is it not our duty?” she began, but got no farther. For once that great free soul broke all bounds in his rebellion against the idea that anyone should dare bind with fetters the soul of man. Miss Dutcher was not seen for some days. And so the process of education went on. It was not difficult if one’s devotion to the guru was great enough, for then, like the snake, one dropped the old and put on the new. But where the old prejudices and conventions were stronger than one’s faith, it was a terrifying, almost a devastating, process.
TEACHING AT THOUSAND ISLAND PARK
We all attended our class lectures. To a Hindu the teaching itself might have been familiar, but it was given with a fire, an authority, a realization which made it sound like something entirely new. He too “spake like one having authority”. To us of the West to whom it was all new it was as if a being from some radiant sphere had come down with a gospel of hope, of joy, of life. Religion is not a matter of belief but of experience. One may read about a country, but until one has seen it, there can be no true idea. All is within. The divinity which we are seeking in heaven, in teachers, in temples is within us. If we see it outside, it is because we have it within. What is the means by which we come to realize this, by which we see God? Concentration is the lamp which lights the darkness.
There are different methods for different states of evolution. All paths lead to God. The guru will put you on the path best suited to your development. With what sense of release did we hear that we not only may, but must follow reason. Before that it had seemed that reason and intuition are generally opposed to each other. Now we are told that we must hold to reason until we reach something higher — and this something higher must never contradict reason.
The first morning we learnt that there is a state of consciousness higher than the surface consciousness — which is called samadhi. Instead of the two divisions we are accustomed to, the conscious and the unconscious — it would be more accurate to make the classification, the subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. This is where confusion arises in the Western way of thinking, which divides consciousness into the subconscious or unconscious and the conscious. They cognize only the normal state of mind, forgetting that there is a state beyond consciousness — a superconscious state, inspiration. How can we know that this is a higher state? To quote Swami literally, “In one case a man goes in and comes out as a fool. In the other case he goes in a man and comes out a God.” And he always said, “Remember the superconscious never contradicts reason. It transcends it, but contradicts it never. Faith is not belief, it is the grasp on the Ultimate, an illumination.”
Truth is for all, for the good of all. Not secret but sacred. The steps are: hear, then reason about it, “let the flood of reason flow over it, then meditate upon it, concentrate your mind upon it, make yourself one with it.” Accumulate power in silence and become a dynamo of spirituality. What can a beggar give? Only a king can give, and he only when he wants nothing himself.
“Hold your money merely as custodian for what is God’s. Have no attachment for it. Let name and fame and money go; they are a terrible bondage. Feel the wonderful atmosphere of freedom. You are free, free, tree! Oh blessed am I! Freedom am I! I am the Infinite! In my soul I can find no beginning and no end. All is my Self. Say this unceasingly.”
He told us that God was real, a reality which could be experienced just as tangibly as any other reality; that there were methods by which these experiences could be made which were as exact as laboratory methods of experiment. The mind is the instrument. Sages, yogis, and saints from prehistoric times made discoveries in this science of the Self. They have left their knowledge as a precious legacy not only to their immediate disciples but to seekers of Truth in future times. This knowledge is in the first instance passed on from Master to disciple, but in a way very different from the method used by an ordinary teacher. The method of religious teaching to which we of the West have become accustomed is that we are told the results of the experiments, much as if a child were given a problem in arithmetic and were told its answer but given no instruction as how the result was reached. We have been told the results reached by the greatest spiritual geniuses known to humanity, the Buddha, the Christ, Zoroaster, Laotze, and we have been told to accept and believe the result of their great experiments, If we are sufficiently reverent and devotional, and if we have reached that stage of evolution where we know that there must be some Reality transcending reason, we may be able to accept and believe blindly, but even then it has but little power to change us. It does not make a god of man. Now we were told that there is a method by which the result may be obtained, a method never lost in India, passed on from guru to disciple.
For the first time we understood why all religions begin with ethics. For without truth, non-injury, continence, non-stealing, cleanliness, austerity, there can be no spirituality. For many of us in the West ethics and religion are almost synonymous. It is the one concrete thing we are taught to practise and there it generally ends. We were like the young man who went to Jesus and asked. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Thou hast read the prophets. Do not kill. Do not steal, do not commit adultery.” The young man said. “Lord, all these have I kept from my youth up.” Now we wanted to hear about yoga, samadhi, and other mysteries. This emphasis upon things which were by no means new to us was something of a surprise. But soon we found it was not quite the same, for it was carried to an unthought-of length. The ideal must be truth in thought, word, and deed. If this can be practised for twelve years, then every word that is said becomes true. If one perfect in this way says. “Be thou healed”, healing comes instantaneously. Be blessed, he is blessed. Be freed, he is released. Stories were told of those who had this power, and who could not recall the word once spoken. To the father of Shri Ramakrishna this power had come. Would that explain why such a son was born to him? Then there was the life of Shri Ramakrishna himself. “Come again Monday,” he said to a young man. “I cannot come on Monday. I have some work to do; may I come Tuesday?” “No,” answered the Master, “these lips have said ‘Monday’; they cannot say anything else now.” “How can truth come unless the mind is perfected by the practice of truth? Truth comes to the true. Truth attracts truth. Every word, thought, and deed rebounds. Truth cannot come through untruth.” In our time we have an instance in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, regarded by some as the greatest man in the world, of how far the practice of truth and non-injury will take a man. If he is not the greatest man in the world today, he is certainly one of the greatest characters.
Non-injury in word, thought and deed. There are sects in India which apply this mainly to the taking of life, Not only are they vegetarians, but they try not to injure still lower forms of life. They put a cloth over their mouth to keep out microscopic creatures and sweep the path before them so as not to injure whatever life may be underfoot. But that does not go far, even so there remain infinitesimal forms of life which it is impossible to avoid injuring. Nor does it go far enough. Before one has attained perfection in non-injury he has lost the power to injure. “From me no danger be to aught that lives” becomes true for him, a living truth, reality. Before such a one the lion and the lamb lie down together. Pity and compassion have fulfilled the law and transcended it.
Continence — Chastity: This subject always stirred him deeply. Walking up and down the room, getting more and more excited, he would stop before some one, as if there were no one else in the room, “Don’t you see,” he would say eagerly, “there is a reason why chastity is insisted on in all monastic orders? Spiritual giants are produced only where the vow of chastity is observed. Don’t you see there must be a reason? The Roman Catholic Church has produced great saints, St. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, St. Teresa, the two Catherines, and many others. The Protestant Church has produced no one of spiritual rank equal to them. There is a connection between great spirituality and chastity. The explanation is that these men and women have through prayer and meditation transmuted the most powerful force in the body into spiritual energy. In India this is well understood and yogis do it consciously. The force so transmuted is called ojas and is stored up in the brain. It has been lifted from the lowest centre of the kundalini — the muladhara to the highest. “To us who listened the words came to our remembrance: “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.”
In the same eager way he went on to explain that whenever there was any manifestation of power or genius, it was because a little of this power had escaped up the sushumna. And did he say it? Or did we come to see for ourselves the reason why the avataras and even lesser ones could inspire a love so great that it made the fishermen of Galilee leave their nets and follow the young Carpenter, made the princes of the clan of Shakya give up their robes, their jewels, their princely estates? It was the divine drawing. It was the lure of divinity.
How touchingly earnest Swami Vivekananda was as he proposed this subject! He seemed to plead with us as if to beg us to act upon this teaching as something most precious. More, we could not be the disciples he required if we were not established in this. He demanded a conscious transmutation. “The man who had no temper has nothing to control,” he said. “I want a few, five or six who are in the flower of their youth.”
Austerity! Why have the saints in all religions been given to fasting and self-denial, to mortification of the body? True, there have been those who foolishly regarded the body as an enemy which must be conquered and have used these methods to accomplish their end. The real purpose however is disciplining the will. No ordinary will-power will carry us through the great work before us. We must have nerves of steel and a will of iron, a will which is consciously disciplined and trained. Each act of restraint helps to strengthen the will. It is called tapas in India and means literally, to heat the inner or the higher nature gets heated. How is it done? There are various practices of a voluntary nature, e.g. a vow of silence is kept for months, fasting for a fixed number of days, or eating only once a day. With children it is often the denial of some favourite article of food. The conditions seem to be that the vow must be taken voluntarily for a specific time. If the vow is not kept, it does more harm than good. If it is kept, it becomes a great factor in building up the character so necessary for the higher practices.
Beyond a few directions in meditation there was very little set instruction, yet in course of these few days our ideas were revolutionized, our outlook enormously enlarged, our values changed. It was a re-education. We learnt to think clearly and fearlessly. Our conception of spirituality was not only clarified but transcended. Spirituality brings life, power, joy, fire, glow, enthusiasm — all the beautiful and positive things, never inertia, dullness, weakness. Then why should one have been so surprised to find a man of God with a power in an unusual degree? Why have we in the West always associated emaciation and anaemic weakness with spirituality? Looking back upon it now one wonders how one could ever have been so illogical. Spirit is life, shakti, the divine energy.
It is needless to repeat the formal teaching, the great central idea. These one can read for himself. But there was something else, an influence, an atmosphere charged with the desire to escape from bondage — call it what you will — that can never be put into words, and yet was more powerful than any words. It was this which made us realize that we were blessed beyond words. To hear him say, “This indecent clinging to life,” drew aside the curtain for us into the region beyond life and death. and planted in our hearts the desire for that glorious freedom. We saw a soul struggling to escape the meshes of maya, one to whom the body was an intolerable bondage, not only a limitation, but a degrading humiliation. “Azad, Azad, the Free,” he cried, pacing up and down like a caged lion. Yes, like the lion in the cage who found the bars not of iron but of bamboo. “Let us not be caught this time” would be his refrain another day. “So many times maya has caught us, so many times have we exchanged our freedom for sugar dolls which melted when the water touched them. Let us not be caught this time.” So in us was planted the great desire for freedom. Two of the three requisites we already had — a human body and a guru, and now he was giving us the third, the desire to be free.
“Don’t be deceived. Maya is a great cheat. Gel out. Do not let her catch you this time,” and so on and so on. “Do not sell your priceless heritage for such delusions. Arise, awake, stop not till the goal is reached.” Then he would rush up to one of us with blazing eyes and fingers pointing and would exclaim, “Remember. God is the only Reality.” Like a madman, but he was mad for God. For it was at this time that he wrote The Song of the Sannyasin. We have not only lost our divinity, we have forgotten that we ever had it. “Arise, awake. Ye Children of Immortal Bliss.” Up and down, over and over again. “Don’t let yourself be tempted by dolls. They are dolls of sugar, or dolls of salt, and they will melt and become nothing. Be a king and know you own the world. This never comes until you give it up and it ceases to bind. Give up. give up.”
The struggle for existence, or the effort to acquire wealth and power, or the pursuit of pleasure, takes up the thought, energy, and time of human beings. We seemed to be in a different world. The end to be attained was Freedom — freedom from bondage in which maya has caught us, in which maya has enmeshed all mankind. Sooner or later the opportunity to escape will come to all. Ours had come. For these days every aspiration, every desire, every struggle was directed towards this one purpose — consciously by our Teacher, blindly, unconsciously by us, following the influence he created.
With him it was a passion. Freedom not for himself alone, but for all — though he could help only those in whom he could light the fire to help them out of maya’s chains:
“Strike off thy fetters! Bonds that bind thee down.
Of shining gold, or darker, baser ore;…
….Say — ‘Om Tat Sat. Om‘.” (The Song of the Sannyasin)
IN LIGHTER VEIN
But it was not all Vedanta, and deep serious thought. Sometimes after the classes were over, it was pure fun, such gaiety as we had never seen elsewhere. We had thought of religious men as grave all the time, but gradually we came to see that the power to throw off the burden of the world at will and live for a time in a state of childlike joy is a certain sign of detachment and comes only to those who have seen the Great Reality. For the time being, we were all light-hearted together.
Swamiji had a stock of funny stories, some of which he told again and again. One was about a missionary to the cannibal islands who, upon his arrival, asked the people there how they liked his predecessor and received the reply, “He was delicious!” Another was about the Negro preacher, who in telling the story of the creation of Adam. said, “God made Adam and put him up against de fence to dry”, when he was interrupted by a voice from the congregation. “Hold on dere, brudder. Who made dat fence?” At this, the Negro preacher leaned over the pulpit and said solemnly, “One more question like dat, and you smashes all teology!” Then Swamiji would tell about the woman who asked, “Swami, are you a Buddhist?” (pronounced like bud), and he would say wickedly but with a grave face. “No, Madam, I am a florist.”
Again, he would tell of the young woman, cooking in the common kitchen of the lodging house in which he lived with Landsberg. She had frequent disputes with her husband, who was a spiritualistic medium, and gave public seances. Often she would turn to Swamiji for sympathy after one of these differences. “Is it fair for him to treat me like this,” she would say, “when I make all the ghosts?”
He would tell about his first meeting with Landsberg. It was at a Theosophical meeting where Landsberg was giving a lecture on “The Devil”. Just in front of him sat a woman who was wearing a scarlet blouse. Every now and then, Landsberg said the word “devil” with great emphasis, and when he did, he invariably pointed a finger at the woman with the scarlet blouse.
But soon we found ourselves in an entirely different mood for he was telling the story of Shakuntala. With what poetic imagination! Did we think we knew something of romance before? It was but a pale, anaemic thing — a mere shadow of real romance. Nature became a living thing when the trees, flowers, birds, deer, all things lamented, “Shakuntala has departed!” “Shakuntala has departed!” We too were bereft. Then followed the story of Savitri, the wife whose faithfulness conquered even the dread Lord of Death, Not “faithful unto death”, but with a love so great that even death retreated before it. Then Sati, the wife, who fell dead when she inadvertently heard someone speak against her husband. Uma, who remembered even in another body. Of Sita, he never spoke at length at any one time. It seemed to touch him as not even the story of Savitri did. It was too deep and precious for expression, Only now and then, a phrase, or sentence, at most a paragraph. “Sita, the pure, the chaste.” “Sita, the perfect wife. That character was depicted once for all time.” “The future of the Indian woman must be built upon the ideal of Sita.” And then he usually ended with “We are all the children of Sita”, this with a melting pathos. And so was built up in our minds the ideal of Indian womanhood.
Sometimes he would tell us of his life in India — how even when he was a little child the gerua cloth exercised upon him such a spell that he would give away everything he could lay hands on when a holy man came into the courtyard. His family would lock him up when one of these men appeared. Then he would throw things out of the window. There were times when he would sit in meditation until he was lost to all outer consciousness. But the other side was there too — when he was so naughty that his mother would hold him under the tap, saying, “I asked Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons!” The power which was to shake India could not be so easily harnessed! When a tutor came and poured out his knowledge, he sat like an image with his eyes closed. The enraged teacher shouted. “How dare you go to sleep when I am instructing you?” at which he opened his eyes and, to the amazement of the man, recited everything that had been said. It was not difficult to believe this story, for his memory was phenomenal. Once when someone commented on it, he said, “Yes, and my mother has the same kind of memory. After she hears the Ramayana read, she can recite what she has heard.” One day, he was speaking on some point of Swedish history when a Swede, who was present, corrected him. Swamiji did not defend his position, so sure was he of the facts that he made no comment. The next day the Swede came looking rather shamefaced and said, “I looked up the matter and I find you are right, Swami.” Time after time came such confirmation. He considered a good memory one of the signs of spirituality.
Many were the stories he told of his mother — the proud. little woman who tried so hard to hide her emotions and her pride in him. How she was torn between disapproval of the life he had chosen and her pride in the name he had made for himself. In the beginning she would have chosen a conventional life for him, perhaps marriage and worldly success, but she lived to see the beggar exalted and princes bowing before him. But in the meantime, hers was not an easy task. Asked, many years later, what kind of a child he was, she burst out with, “I had to have two nurses for him!”
Those of us who were privileged to see his mother, know that from her he inherited his regal bearing. This tiny woman carried herself like a queen. Many times did the American newspapers in later years refer to her son as “that lordly monk, Vivekananda”. There was a virginal purity about her which it seems she was able to pass on, and which was perhaps her greatest gift. But could a soul so great find a perfect habitation? India and such parents gave him one that was a fairly satisfactory vehicle. How he loved his mother! Sometimes when he was in other parts of India the fear would come that something had happened to her, and he would send to inquire. Or perhaps he was in the monastery in Belur, in which case he would send a messenger post-haste. To the very end her comfort and her care was one of his chief considerations.
And so perhaps for days we re-lived his childhood in his father’s house in the Simla quarter of Calcutta. His sisters for whom he had a special love and his father for whom he had a son’s devotion, flitted across the picture. “To my father.” he said, “I owe my intellect and my compassion.” He would tell how his father would give money to a drunkard, knowing for what purpose it would be used. “This world is so terrible, let him forget it for a few minutes, if he can,” the father would say, in self-defence. His father was lavish in his gifts. One day when he was more recklessly extravagant than usual, his youthful son said, “Father what are you going to leave me?” “Go, stand before your mirror,” was the father’s reply, “and you will see what I leave you.”
As he grew to boyhood, his energy was turned into other directions. There came a time when he would gather his companions together and hold religious services in which preaching played an important part. “Coming events cast their shadows before.” Years afterwards, Shri Ramakrishna said, that if he had not interfered. Naren would have become one of the great preachers of the world and the head of a sect of his own.
EARLY ADVENTURES OF THE SPIRIT
As he grew towards young manhood, he became an ag- ….. whom he also carried on some correspondence. But agnostic or devotee, the search for God was always uppermost in his mind. It was touching to hear him tell how he went from one religious teacher to another, asking, “Sire, have you seen God?” and not receiving the answer he hoped for, until he found Shri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. With that began a new chapter in his life, but that is a long story, often told.
He spoke of his struggles to accept this priest of Kali who worshipped the Terrible One. He, the unorthodox agnostic, product of Western education, to sit at the feel of a superstitious worshipper of idols! It was unthinkable! And yet, in this simple man and in him alone, he found what he had been seeking — living spirituality. If the worship of Kali could produce such purity, such troth, such flaming spirituality, one could only stand before it in reverence. One was compelled to reverse all one’s former opinions. The intellect surrendered, but the instincts did not submit so easily. There was a long struggle and many arguments with Shri Ramakrishna after he had accepted him as his guru. At last, he was conquered by an experience of which he never spoke. It was too sacred!
His devotion to his Master was unique. Such words as love and loyalty acquired a new meaning. In him he saw the living embodiment of Divinity, whose very body changed with the realization of his ideas. Although he was illiterate, Vivekananda said of him, “He had the greatest intellect of anyone I ever met.” This from one whose scintillating intellect amazed men of outstanding intellectual achievements.
The process of re-education into Hinduism began. He was among those who had stormed against idol worship, but in this priest of Kali, who worshipped the image of Dakshineswar as his Mother, he found a character greater than any he had met before — a being of shining radiance, the very embodiment of love, of Divinity, “If idol worship can produce such a character,” he thought, “I bow down before it.” He saw one who practised each religion in turn and found that all led to the goal. He learnt the truth of the Sanskrit verse, “Many rivers flowing in various directions, all lead to the one ocean,” or “Whether we call it water, aqua, pani, jal, it is all one water.” Best of all, he learnt that religion may be experienced, not merely believed, and that there are methods which give this experience; that man may here and in this body become divine-transmuted, from the human into the superhuman. In Shri Ramakrishna, he saw one who lived “God is the only Reality”.
The time with the Master was drawing to an end. All too soon, this God-intoxicated one left a little band of disconsolate disciples who at first felt like sheep without a shepherd. After a time, this feeling of helplessness and desolation gradually gave way to the knowledge which amounted to a certainty of the presence of the Master. From that time on, there was always a centre, however humble, where the Master was worshipped. However far many of them might wander, one was there to keep the altar-fire burning.
SWAMI VIVEKANANDA’S WANDER-YEARS
And now began years of wandering for them. From Dakshineswar to the Himalayas, from the Himalayas to Rameswaram, they travelled: by foot, by bullock cart, by camel, by elephant, by train, these children of Shri Ramakrishna would wander. Some went into Tibet, some lived in caves in the Himalayas. The palaces of Rajas knew them as well as the huts of peasants. It was not until many years had passed that they were all gathered together again, in the monastery on the other side of the Ganga from Dakshineswar. Vivekananda too became a wanderer, driven by an overwhelming desire to find some means of help for his country. It was not strange that he went first to Bodh Gaya to worship under the Bodhi-tree where 2500 years ago the “Enlightened One” in this jungle of the world had found the way out.
What Buddha meant to Swamiji, it would not be easy to say. The very name stirred profound depths. For days together this would be his theme. With his dramatic genius, he was able to bring before us the story with such intimacy that we not only saw it, but re-lived it as scene after scene was depicted. It seemed as if it had happened to us — and that only yesterday. We saw the young prince, his palaces, his pleasure gardens, the beautiful Yashodhara with her wistful intuition — “Coming events cast their shadows before!” Then the birth of the child, and with it the hope that was born in her heart. Surely this son would hold him to the world and to her! But when Siddhartha named him Rahula, the fetter, what a sinking of the heart there must have been! Even this could not hold him, and the old fear came over her again. The shadow of the fear came over us too. We suffered as she suffered. Not until long afterwards did we remember that in the telling of this story never once did Swamiji suggest a struggle in Siddhartha’s mind between his duty to father, kingdom, wife, and child and the ideal that was calling him. Never did he say to himself, “I am my father’s only son. Who will succeed when he lays down the body?” Never once did such a thought seem to enter his mind. Did he not know that he was heir to a greater kingdom? Did he not know that he belonged to a race infinitely greater than the Shakyas? He knew — but they did not, and he had great compassion. In listening, one felt the pain of that compassion and through it all the unwavering resolution. And so he went forth, and Yashodhara, left behind, followed as she could. She too slept on the ground, wore the coarsest cloth, and ate only once a day. Siddhartha knew how great she was. Was she not the wife of the future Buddha? Was it not she who had walked the long, long road with him?
Then came the story of the years of heart-breaking struggle that followed. One teacher after the other Gautama followed, one method after the other he tried. He practised the greatest asceticism, spent long days in fasting and torturing the body to the point of death — only to find that this was not the way. At last rejecting all these methods he came to the pipal tree at Bodh Gaya and called to all the worlds: “In this seat let the body dry up — the skin, the bone, the flesh go in final dissolution. I move not until I get the knowledge which is rare, even in many rebirths.”
He found it there. And again, he lifted up his voice, this time in a shout of triumph:
“Many a house of life hath held me,
Ever seeking him who wrought this
prison of the senses
Sorrow-fraught, sore was my strife.
But now thou builder of this tabernacle— thou,
I know thee. Never shalt thou build again
these walls of pain.
Nor raise the ridge-pole of deceit,
Nor lay fresh rafters on the beams.
Delusion fashioned thee.
Safe pass I thence, deliverance to obtain.”
Then the return to his father’s kingdom; the excitement of the old king: the orders for the decorations to welcome the wanderer; the capital in gala attire. All is expectancy — the prince is coming! But it was a beggar who came, not a prince. Yet such a beggar! At the head of the monks he came. Watching from her terrace Yashodhara saw him. “Go, ask your father for your inheritance,” she said to little Rahula at her side. “Who is my father?” asked the child. “See you not the lion coming along the road?” she announced in quick impatience. Then we see the child running towards that majestic figure and receiving his inheritance — the yellow cloth. Later, we see the same Rahula walking behind his father and saying to himself, “He is handsome, and I look like him. He is majestic and Hook like him.” and so on until the Blessed One, having read his thought, turns and rebukes him; and Rahula, as a penance, does not go out to beg his food that day, but sits under a tree and meditates upon the instructions he has received. But that first day the king and the nobles of the Shakyas listened to the teaching of the Buddha and one by one entered the path. Yashodhara, too, found peace and blessedness. Scene after scene, day after day it went on. We re-lived the life of the Buddha from before his birth until the last hour at Kusinagara, when like the Mallas, we, too, wept — “The Blessed One”.
Swamiji spent long months in Varanasi in the company of holy men and Pandits, questioning, studying, learning. Here one day, one of the best known and oldest of the sadhus, enraged at what he thought the presumption of a mere lad, all but cursed him, only to be met with the response, “I shall not return to Varanasi until I have shaken India with the thunder of my voice.” And Varanasi knew him no more until 1902 when he had long made good his assertion.
He always thought of himself as a child of India, a descendant of the rishis. While he was a modern of the moderns, few Hindus have been able to bring back the Vedic days and the life of the sages in the forests of ancient India as he did. Indeed, sometimes he seemed to be one of the rishis of that far-off time come to life again, so living was his teaching of the ancient wisdom. Asked where he had learnt to chant with that marvellous intonation which never failed to thrill the listener, he shyly told of a dream or vision in which he saw himself in the forests of ancient India hearing a voice — his voice — chanting the sacred Sanskrit verses. Again, another dream or vision, of this same time in which he saw the sages gathered in the holy grove asking questions concerning the ultimate reality. A youth among them answered in a clarion voice, “Hear, ye children of immortal bliss, even ye who dwell in higher spheres. I have found the Ancient One, knowing whom alone ye shall be saved from death over again!”
He told of his struggle against caste prejudices in the early years of his wandering life. One day just after he had been thinking that he would like to smoke he passed a group of mehtars who were smoking. Instinctively, he passed on. Then, as he remembered that he and the lowest chandala were one Self, he turned back and took the hookah from the hands of the untouchable. But he was no condemner of caste. He saw the part it had played in the evolution of the nation, the purpose it had served in its day. But when it hardens the heart of the observer towards his fellowman, when it makes him forget that the chandala as well as he is the one Self, it is time to break it — but never as a matter of mere indulgence. It was during these wanderings that Vivekananda made his first disciple. On the train that came to Hathras one day, the young station-master of that place saw among the third class passengers, a sadhu of his own age with a marvellous pair of eyes. Only a few nights before, he had dreamt of these very eyes. They had haunted him ever since. He was startled and thrilled. Going up to the young Sannyasin, he begged him to leave the train and go with him to his quarters. This the wanderer did.
Later, when the station-master’s duties were finished, and he was free to sit at the feet of the stranger in devotion, he found him singing a Bengali song to the refrain of: “My beloved must come to me with ashes on his moon face.” The young devotee disappeared — to return divested of his official clothes and with ashes on his face. The train which took the Swami Vivekananda from Hathras, carried with it the ex-station-master, who later became the Swami Sadananda. In after years he often said that he did not follow Swami Vivekananda for religion, but followed “a devilish pair of eyes”.
And now began for Sadananda the life of the wanderer. The hardships of the road might have made him miss the ease of his former life, but his travelling companion exercised such a spell that he forgot the body. The tender care of the guru made him forget how footsore he was. To the last day of his life, Sadananda could not speak of this time without emotion. “He carried my shoes on his head!” he cried.
They were blessed, never-to-be-forgotten days. Both were artistic, both were poets by nature, both were attractive in appearance. Artists raved about them.
Then he told of his life alone in the caves of the Himalayas trying to find the solution within. But he was not left in peace and undisturbed for long. The vicissitudes of life drove him forth once more to the deserts of Rajputana and the cities of Western India. During this time he had deliberately cut himself off from his brother-disciples, for he felt a great need to be alone. Once after long search, one of them saw him driving in a carriage somewhere in the Bombay Presidency. “His face shone,” he reported, “like the face of a god. It was the face of a knower of Brahman.” This witness describes how he came before his adored brother-disciple, but, although kindly received, was sent away again at once.
Vivekananda stopped for some time in Khetri, at the court of the Maharaja who became his disciple. One day while he was sitting in Durbar, a nautch-girl made her appearance and was about to sing. He rose to leave the assembly. “Wait Swamiji.” the Maharaja said. “you will find nothing to offend you in the singing of this girl. On the contrary you will be pleased.” The Swami sat 2 down and the nautch-girl sang:
O Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy name, O Lord, is Same-sightedness,
Make of us both the same Brahman!
One piece of iron is in the Image in the Temple,
And another the knife in the hand of the butcher,
But when they touch the philosophers’ stone Both alike turn to gold!
So Lord, look not upon my evil qualities!
Thy name, O Lord, is Same-sightedness,
Make of us both the same Brahman!
One drop of water is in the sacred Jamuna,
And another is foul in the ditch by the roadside,
But when they fall into the Ganga,
Both alike become holy. (So, Lord etc.)
The young Sannyasin was inexpressibly touched. He blessed the singer who from that day gave up her profession and entered the path leading to perfection.
During these years when Vivekananda travelled from one end of India to the other as a mendicant monk, his constant thought was how to solve the problems of India. Problem after problem presented itself — the poverty, the condition of the masses and the depressed classes; the duties of the privileged classes towards them; malaria, plague, cholera, and other diseases; early marriages, the condition of women, of widows, illiteracy, diet, caste, sanitation, the whole dark brood.
The value of pilgrimage grew upon him, “To help India, one must love her; to love her, one must know her.” To this day groups of ardent young students, following in his footsteps, make pilgrimages all over India, often travelling hundreds of miles on foot. Not only did it foster spirituality, it made for the unity of India. Pilgrims came to know and love their Motherland. They came with one faith, one hope, one purpose. This vast country has one sacred language, from which all the northern languages are derived; one mythology, one set of religious ideas, one supreme goal. What the Holy Sepulchre was to the crusaders, what Rome is to the Catholic, what Mecca is to the Moslem, this and more is the pilgrimage to the Hindu. If one could draw a map showing the pilgrim routes, it would be seen that they cover the face of India, from the Himalayas to Rameswaram, from Puri to Dwarka. What is it that these pilgrims seek? “Whither winds the bitter road?” Their faces are set to the eternal goal of humanity; they seek something we have lost, they go in quest of the Holy Grail.
Is it a wonder that men like these love India, understand her problems and needs, as no other can, and devote their lives to her service? These are men who do not make the mistakes of mere reformers. For the work that they do is born of reverence for all that has gone before, together with an understanding for the present need, and great faith and love. They realize that all growth is organic. They do not destroy; their work is constructive.
Swamiji himself was not a reformer. He believed in growth, not destruction. He studied the history of Indian institutions and found that in the beginning they invariably fulfilled a need. As time went on, the need passed away, the institutions remained, while evil after evil had been added to them. He saw poverty wide-spread and dire. He saw famine and pestilence. The ancient glories of India were only a memory. The race with its great heritage appeared to be passing. Out of the emotions stirred by these sights there grew up later a form of service which still persists. When there is an epidemic of cholera or any other disease, where plague decimates the population, there, serving the suffering, regardless of their own health or life, you will surely find the spiritual descendants of Vivekananda. In times of famine they are there to distribute food to the starving, clothing to the naked, In times of flood, they are there to administer relief. For these purposes money comes in from all pans of the country, for it is now well known that every pice will be accounted for, and that the money will be spent to the best possible advantage.
It was while he was in the Bombay Presidency that the Swami perfected his knowledge of Sanskrit, paying particular attention to pronunciation. He considered the accent of the Deccan particularly good. From there he wandered on from place to place, staying a night here, a few weeks there, until he finally reached Madras, where he met the band of devoted young men who hailed him as a true mahatma. These orthodox Brahmins accepted him as their guru, feeling that he was one with authority from on high, which placed him beyond the limitations of caste or any human restrictions. Poor as they were, they raised a sum of money which was to help towards his passage to America.
Filled with the message that he had to give and the work he had set himself, his mind had turned to America. There he hoped to find the solution. There, in the richest country in the world, he hoped to find help for his needy people. “You cannot expect people to be spiritual.” he said, “when they are hungry.” Although he went with the purpose of asking help, yet when he found himself there, this royal soul could only give. What did he give? A mendicant — what had he to give? He gave regally the most precious thing he possessed, the one priceless gift which India still has to offer the world — the teaching of the atman.
Alone, unheralded, he went to that distant continent. In telling of his experience at the Parliament of Religions, he said, “I had never given a lecture before. True, I had spoken to small groups of people sitting around me, but in an informal way, usually only answering questions. Moreover I had not written out my speech as the others had done. I called upon my Master, and upon Saraswati, giver of vak, and stood upon my feet. I began:’Sisters and Brothers of America’ — but I got no further. I was stopped by thunders of applause.” It seems the audience broke all bounds. He described the emotions which this amazing reception stirred in him — the thrill amounting to awe. He felt as never before the power behind him. From that time not a shadow of doubt assailed his mind as to his commission from on high. He was the pioneer, the first preacher of Vedanta. His spirituality caused astonishment. People began to ask, “Why send missionaries to a country which produces men like this?”
SOME IPSE DIXITS
Some great ideas stand out, not because they are the most important, but rather because they are new and startling. As when Swamiji told the story of Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi and ended with: “Verily it is not the husband who is loved, but the Self who is loved in the husband.”
Love. It was a new idea that all love is one; that we love child, father, mother, husband, wife, friend, because in them we see the Self. It is the bliss shining through. The mother feels the divinity in her child, the wife sees it in the husband, and so in all other relations. We have put it into compartments and called it: mother’s love’, child’s love, friend’s love, lover’s love, as if they were different kinds of love instead of one love manifesting in various forms.
Bliss — Joy. “In Joy were we born, in joy do we live, and unto joy do we return.” Not born and conceived in sin. but in joy. Joy is our nature, not something to be attained or acquired. “Thou art That.” In the midst of sorrow, of tragedy, still it is true: still I must say: “I am the Blissful One. I am the Radiant One. It depends upon nothing. Nothing depends on It.” It is at once a terrible and a beautiful Truth.
Growth. Hitherto we had believed that final emancipation and enlightenment were a matter of growth, a gradual advance towards something higher and better, until at last the goal was reached. But from this great Master of the Ancient Wisdom we learnt that the process is not one of growth but of uncovering, of realization. The real nature of man is perfection, divinity, now. Nothing to be attained. The Truth is only to be realized. It is a hallucination to think that we are imperfect. limited, helpless. We are perfect, omnipotent, divine, We are that now. Realize it and you are free at once.
Incarnations. He believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, a divine incarnation. He worshipped and adored him, but not as the only incarnation. In other ages and in other climes God had vouchsafed this mercy to others also.
The Parsees. He told the story of the Parsees, a remnant of the followers of Zoroaster, who were saved by flight to India when Mohammedan hordes overwhelmed Persia a thousand years ago. These children of fire are still faithful to their ancient rites, which they have practised in undisturbed freedom in the land of their adoption. Although a comparatively small community, they have made an honoured place for themselves and have produced great men. If there be anything to criticize in them, it is perhaps that they have kept themselves too aloof, for even after living in this country for a thousand years, they do not identify themselves with India, do not look upon themselves as Indians.3
Christianity. Christianity, he told us. was first introduced into India by the Apostle Thomas, about twenty-five years after the Crucifixion. There has never been any religious persecution in India, and there are even to this day descendants of the first converts to Christianity living in Southern India. Christianity in its purest form was practised in India at a time when Europe was in a state of savagery. They now number scarcely one million though at one time there were almost three times as many.
Sameness. At one time Swamiji’s effort was to attain sameness, he told us, and often quoted: “He who sees the Supreme Lord dwelling alike in all beings, the Imperishable in things that perish, sees indeed. For, seeing the Lord as the same, everywhere present, he destroys not the Self by the Self. He then goes to the highest goal.” One was reminded of the lines he had lately written:
“Love, hate — good, bad — and all the dual throng.”
. . . “No praise or blame can be
Where praiser praised, and blamer blamed, are one.”
It was given to us to see how he practised this in the little details of life. Not until long long afterwards did we understand how great was the sensitiveness and pride which made this practice for him particularly difficult. When asked why he did not defend himself against the machinations of a family of missionaries long connected with Calcutta, who threatened to “hound him out of Detroit”, he said. “The dog barks at the elephant, is the elephant affected? What does the elephant care?” The one with whom he lived had a violent temper. “Why do you live with him?” some one asked, “Ah,” he replied, “I bless him. He gives me the opportunity to practise self-control.” What a revelation to us with the Western outlook demanding comfort at any cost! Thus daily, hourly, we saw the great ideals of the Gita put into practice in the actual experience of daily life. To see the Self in a foe as well as in a friend, in the one who blames as well as in the one who praises, to be unmoved by honour or dishonour, this was his constant sadhana.
Seldom has it fallen to the lot of one at his age, to achieve fame overnight, or rather in a few minutes, but this is what occurred to Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions. It was not merely fame, but the enthusiasm he inspired rose at times to frantic adulation. In the midst of the wildest popular emotion, he remained as calm as it he were alone in a cave of the Himalayas. This, for which other men pay by a lifetime of struggle, he put aside and referred to as the “filthy rags of name and fame”.
Sometimes he was in a prophetic mood. as on the day when he startled us by saying, “The next great upheaval which is to bring about a new epoch will come from Russia or China. I can’t quite see which, but it will be either Russia or China,” This he said thirty-two years ago, when China was still under the autocratic rule of the Manchu Emperors, from which there was no prospect of release for centuries to come, and when Czarist Russia was sending the noblest of her people to the Siberian mines. To the ordinary thinker those two countries seemed the most unlikely nations in the world to usher in a new era.
In answer to our questions, he explained that in the beginning society was a theocracy under the rule of the Brahmin, or priestly caste. This was followed by the military caste, the Kshatriya. Now we were under the sway of the Vaishya, and commercial interest ruled the world. Economic considerations are all important. This phase is nearing its end, and would be followed by the ascendancy of the Shudra, the labourer.
Still the question arose: how did he know that the commercial era was nearing its end? and, a still greater mystery, how could he foresee that Russia or China would be the countries that would bring it about? With him it was never an expression of opinion, begging with, “I think, “but an authoritative statement about something he knew with certainty.
A little later he said, “Europe is on the edge of a volcano. Unless the fires are extinguished by a flood of spirituality, it will blow up. “This of Europe in 1895, when it was prosperous and at peace. Twenty years later came the explosion!
The Moguls seemed to have cast a spell over Swami Vivekananda. He depicted this period of Indian history with such dramatic intensity, that the idea often came to us that he was perhaps telling the story of his own past. We often wondered whether we saw before us the re-incarnation of the mighty Akbar. How else could he have known the thoughts, the hopes, the purposes of the greatest of the Moguls?
One of his beliefs was that, before one reached the life in which the enlightenment was to be achieved, one must have run the whole gamut of experiences — suffered every tragedy and the direst poverty, and enjoyed to the utmost all that the world has to offer — wealth, adulation, fame, power, ecstatic happiness, dominion. “Millions of times have I been emperor.” he would say in his exuberant fashion. Another idea was that, after lives of effort in which complete success had not been reached, there came a final life of worldly attainment, in which the aspirant became a great emperor or empress. This precedes the last life in which the goal is reached. Akbar, it is believed in India, was a religious aspirant in the incarnation before he became emperor. He just failed to reach the highest and had to come back for one more life in which to fulfil his desires. There was only one more re-incarnation for him.
So vividly did Swami depict these historic figures for us — rulers, queens, prime ministers, generals — that they seemed to become for us real men and women whom we had known. We saw Babar, the twelve-year old King of Ferghana (Central Asia), influenced by his Mongol grandmother, and living a hard rough life with his mother. We watched him later as King of Samarqand for one hundred days, still a boy and delighted with his new possession as though it were some super-toy; his chagrin and dismay when he lost the city of his dreams; his struggles, defeats, and conquests. The time came when we saw him and his men booted and spurred, crossing the great mountain passes and descending on to the plains of India. Although an alien and an invader, as Emperor of India, he identified himself with the country, and began at once to make roads, plant trees, dig wells, build cities. But his heart was always amongst the highlands of the land from which he came and where he was buried. He was a lovable, romantic figure, founder of one of the greatest dynasties within the history of man.
After his death the kingdom fell into other hands and Babar’s heir, Humayun, became a fugitive. In the deserts of Sind, with only a handful of followers, he fled from place to place, in danger of his life. Here he met the exquisite young Mohammedan girl Hamida, married her, and shared with her his most unhappy fate. We saw him giving up his own horse to her while he walked at her side. And in the deserts of Sind was born her only son, later to become the Emperor Akbar. So reduced in circumstances was Humayun at that time, that he had no gifts for his followers with which to celebrate the event, except a ped of musk. This he divided among them with the prayer: “May my son’s glory spread to all parts of the earth. even as the odour of this musk goes forth!”
Humayun regained the empire, but he was not to enjoy it long; for in the forty-eighth year of his age he met with a fatal accident in his palace at Delhi and died, leaving his throne to his only son, Akbar, then little more than thirteen years old. From that time until his death at the age of sixty-three Akbar was the undisputed master of India. There have been few figures in history with such a combination of qualities. His nobility and magnanimity put even his great general, Bairam, to shame. While still a boy, when his enemy was brought before them, and Bairam, putting a sword into his hand, told the young King to kill him, he said. “I do not kill a fallen foe.” His courage was unquestioned and won the admiration of all. Few excelled him in sports: no one was a better shot, a better polo player, or a better rider. But with it all, he was severely ascetic in his habits. He did not take meat, saying “Why should I make a graveyard of my stomach?” He slept only a few hours every night, spending much time in philosophic and religious discussions. Mohammedan though he was, he listened to teachers of all religions — listened and questioned. Whole nights he spent in learning the secrets of Hindu yoga from the Brahmin who was pulled up to his Kawa Khana (buzh).
In later years he conceived the idea of establishing a new religion of which he was to be the head — the Divine Religion, to include Hindus, Christians, and Parsees as well as Mohammedans.
King of kings though he was, he had the faculty of making real friends. There were three who were worthy to be the friends of this Shadow of God: Abul Fazl, his Prime Minster; Faizi the poet laureate; Birbal the Brahmin minstrel; and his brother-in-law and Commander-in-chief, Man Singh. Two Hindus and two Mohammedans, for there were two brothers Fazl. His friends shared not only his lighter moments but stood by his side in the Hall of Audience and followed him into battle. We see them making a line of swords for him when his life is in danger in a battle with the Rajputs. They, Mohammedan and Hindu alike, become adherents of the new religion and support him loyally in all his undertakings. Never was a man blessed with truer friends. This is rare enough in ordinary life, but almost unheard of regarding one in so exalted a position. His empire extended from Kabul to the extreme parts of Southern India. His genius as an administrator enabled him to pass on a united empire to his son Salim, later known as the Emperor Jehangir. Under this “Magnificent son of Akbar” the Mogul court reached a splendour before which all previous ideas of luxury paled.
Now appears the fascinating figure of Nur Jehan, the Light of the World. Empress of Jehangir and, for twenty years, the virtual ruler of India. The influence of this remarkable woman was unbounded. To her great gifts of wisdom and tact were due the stability, prosperity and power of the empire, in no small degree. Her husband had coins struck in her name bearing the inscription: “Gold has assumed a new value since it bore the image of Nur Jehan.” The Great Mogul’s trust and faith in her were unbounded. To the protest of his relatives that he had delegated his power to her, he replied, “Why not, since she uses it to much better advantage than I could?” When he was ill, he preferred her treatment to that of all his physicians. She was the only one who had power to check his habits, limiting him to three cups of wine a day.
It was during the supremacy of Nur Jehan that the new style of architecture was introduced, a feminine type of architecture in which the virile red sand-stone of Akbar’s buildings was supplanted by white marble inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. Jewelled walls instead of rough stone ones. The delicacy and effeminacy of Persia replaced the vigour and strength of the Central Asian Highlands. Its gift to posterity was the Taj Mahal and the marble palaces of Agra, Delhi, and Lahore. The exquisite building known as the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah on the other side of the Jamuna, was built by Nur Jehan in memory of her father, the Lord High Treasurer, and later Prime Minister to Jehangir. It was one of the first buildings in the new style of architecture. It is believed that the stones were inlaid by the slaves of Nur Jehan. It is interesting to compare this first imperfect attempt with the perfection attained in the Taj Mahal where 44 stones of different shades of red are used to reproduce the delicate shades of one rose petal. The progress in efficiency is striking.
Nur Jehan’s own apartments in the Agra Palace, the Saman Burg, were also decorated under her personal supervision. She was truly a great patroness of the arts, and her charity was boundless.
In a man like Vivekananda, with a genius for seeing only what was great in an individual or a race, such understanding of the Mussulman was nothing strange. To him India was not the land of the Hindu only, it included all. “My brother the Mohammedan” was a phrase he often used. For the culture, religious devotion, and virility of these Mohammedan brothers, he had an understanding, an admiration, a feeling of oneness which few Moslems could excel. One who accompanied him on one of his voyages tells how passionately thrilled Vivekananda was, when their ship touched at Gibraltar, and the Mohammedan lascars threw themselves on the ground, crying: “The Din, the Din!”
For hours at a time his talk would be of the young camel driver of Arabia, who, in the sixth century after Christ attempted to raise his country from the degradation into which it had fallen. He told of the nights spent in prayer, and of the vision that came to him after one of his long fasts in the mountains of the desert. By his passion for God, and the revelation granted to him, he became one of the Illumined Ones, destined to rank for all time with the very elect of God. There have been few of these Great Ones; of each, one may say with truth, “Of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
We realize that, whether in Arabia, in Palestine, or in India, the children of God speak one language when they are born into the new life. He felt the loneliness of the Prophet who, to the average person, seemed a madman. For years, a mere handful believed in him and his message. Little by little we understood the patience, the compassion, the burden of the mission laid upon this Prophet of Arabia.
“But he advocated polygamy!” protested one with a Puritanical turn of mind. Vivekananda explained that what Mohammed did was to limit a man to four wives: polygamy in a far worse form was already practised in Arabia.
“He taught that women have no souls.” said another with an edge to her voice. This called forth an explanation regarding the place of woman in Muhammedanism. The Americans who listened were somewhat chagrined to find that the Moslem woman had certain rights not enjoyed by the so-called free American woman.
From this trivial questioning we were again lifted into an atmosphere of wider sweep and more distant horizons. However limited and ignorant his outlook may seem, it cannot be denied that Mohammed was a world figure, and that the force which he set free has shaken this world and has not yet expended itself.
Did he deliberately found a new religion? It is easier to believe that the movement evolved without conscious thought on his part; that in the beginning he was absorbed in his great experience and burning with the desire to share this precious attainment with others. Was the form which it took during his lifetime in accordance with his wishes? It is certain that the conflicts which soon ensued were no part of his plan. When a great force is let loose, no man can harness it. The Moslem hordes swept over Asia and threatened to overrun Europe. After conquering Spain, they established there great universities which attracted scholars from all parts of the then known world. Here was taught the wisdom of India and the lore of the East. They brought refinement, courtliness, and beauty into the everyday life. They left behind them Saracenic buildings — structures of surpassing beauty — a tradition of learning, and no small part of the culture and wisdom of the East.
TRAINING A DISCIPLE
The training Swamiji gave was individualistic and unique. Unless the desire for discipleship was definitely expressed, and unless he was convinced that the aspirant was ready for the step, he left the personal life of those around him untouched. To some he gave absolute freedom and in that freedom they were caught. When speaking of some of those whom we did not know, he was careful to explain,”He is not a disciple; he is a friend.” It was an altogether different relation. Friends might have obvious faults and prejudices. Friends might have a narrow outlook, might be quite conventional, but it was not for him to interfere. It seemed as if even an opinion, where it touched the lives of others, was an unpardonable intrusion upon their privacy. But once having accepted him as their guru, all that was changed. He felt responsible. He deliberately attacked foibles, prejudices, valuations — in fact everything that went to make up the personal self. Did you, in your immature enthusiasm, see the world as beautiful, and believe in the reality of good and the unreality of evil? He was not long in destroying all your fine illusions. If good is real, so is evil. Both are different aspects of the same thing. Both good and evil are in maya. Do not hide your head in the sand and say. “All is good, there is no evil.” Worship the terrible even as now you worship the good. Then get beyond both. Say, “God is the only Reality,” Shall we have the courage to say that the world is beautiful when disaster comes upon us? Are not others the prey of disaster now? Is not the world full of sorrow? Are not thousands of lives overshadowed by tragedy? Are not disease, old age, and death rampant upon the earth? In the face of all this anyone who lightly says. “The world is beautiful”, is either ignorant or indifferent to the sorrows of others — self-centred.
Terrible in its sternness was this teaching. But soon there came glimpses of something beyond, an unchanging Reality. Beyond birth and death is immortality; beyond pleasure and pain is that ananda which is man’s true nature; beyond the vicissitudes of life is the changeless. The Self of man remains serene in its own glory. As these great ideas became part of our consciousness, we “saw a new heaven and a new earth”. “For him, to whom the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what pain, can there be, once he has beheld that Unity?” Without once saying. “Be sincere, be true, be singleminded”, he created in us the most intense desire to attain these qualities. How did he do it? Was it his own sincerity, his own truth, his own straightness which one sensed?
“This world is a mud puddle,” was received with shocked protest, doubt, and a tinge of resentment. Years after, driving along the Dum Dum Road in the suburb of Calcutta one glorious Sunday morning, I saw some buffaloes wallowing in a pool of mire. The first reaction was a feeling of disgust. It seemed that even buffaloes should find delight in something more beautiful than mire. But now they felt physical pleasure in it. Then suddenly came a memory, “This world is a mud puddle.” We are no better than these buffaloes. We wallow in the mire of this mud puddle of a world and we too find pleasure in it. We, who are meant for something better, the heirs of immortal glory.
He refused to solve our problem for us. Principles he laid down, but we ourselves must find the application. He encouraged no spineless dependence upon him in any form, no bid for sympathy. “Stand upon your own feet. You have the power within you!” he thundered. His whole purpose was — not to make things easy for us, but to reach us how to develop our innate strength. “Strength! Strength!” he cried, “I preach nothing but strength. That is why I preach the Upanishads.” From men he demanded manliness and from women the corresponding quality for which there is no word. Whatever it is, it is the opposite of self-pity, the enemy of weakness and indulgence. This attitude had the effect of a tonic. Something long dormant was aroused and with it came strength and freedom.
His method was different with each disciple. With some, it was an incessant hammering. The severest asceticism was imposed with regard to diet, habits, even clothing and conversation. With others his method was not so easy to understand, for the habit of asceticism was not encouraged. Was it because in this case there was spiritual vanity to be overcome and because good had become a bondage? With one the method was ridicule — loving ridicule — with another it was sternness. We watched the transformation of those who put themselves into line with it. Nor were we ourselves spared. Our pet foibles were gently smiled out of existence. Our conventional ideas underwent a process of education. We were taught to think things through, to reject the false and hold to the true fearlessly, no matter what the cost. In this process much that had seemed worth while and of value was cast aside. Perhaps our purposes and aims had been small and scattered. In time we learnt to lift them into a higher, purer region, and to unite all little aims into the one great aim, the goal which is the real purpose of life, for which we come to this earth again and again. We learnt not to search for it in deserts, nor yet on mountain tops, but in our own hearts. By all these means the process of evolution was accelerated, and the whole nature was transmuted.
So is it any wonder that we shrank from the first impact of so unusual a power? Nor were we alone in this. Some time afterwards a brilliant American woman, in speaking of the different Swamis who had come to the United Stales, said. “I like Swami… better than Swami Vivekananda.”To the look of surprise which met this statement she answered. “Yes, I know Swami Vivekananda is infinitely greater, but he is so powerful he overwhelms me.” Later almost the same words came from the lips of a well-known teacher of one of the new cults whose message was so obviously influenced by Vedanta that I asked him whether he had ever come under the influence of Swami Vivekananda. “Yes, I knew him and heard him,” he said. “but his power overwhelmed me. I was much more attracted to Swami…,” mentioning a preacher of Vedanta from Northern India who had spent some time in the United States. What is the explanation? Is it that we are temperamentally attracted by certain qualities and personalities and repelled by others? Even for that there must be an explanation. Is it the fear that the little personal self will be overwhelmed and nothing will be left? “Verily, he that loseth his life shall find it.” Still those who feared to be caught in the current of this great power were but few; the others by thousands were drawn with the irresistible force, even as iron filings to a magnet. He had a power of attraction so great that those who came near him, men and women alike, even children, fell under the magic spell he cast.
Far from trying to win us by expediency and by fitting into our conceptions of what the attitude of a religious teacher towards his disciples should be, he seemed bent upon offending our sensibilities and even shocking us. Others may try to hide their faults, may eat meat and smoke in secret, reasoning with themselves that there is nothing essentially wrong in doing these things, but that one must not offend a weaker brother and should hide these things for expediency’s sake. He on the contrary said. “If I do a wrong, I shall not hide it but shout it from the house-tops.”
It is true that we were conventional and proper to the point of prudishness. Still even one more Bohemian might have been disconcerted. He, in the days when men did not smoke before ladies, would approach, and blow the cigarette smoke deliberately into one’s face. Had it been anyone else, I should have turned my back and not spoken to him again. Even so for a moment I recoiled. I caught myself and remembered the reason for coming. I had come to one in whom I had seen such spirituality as I had never even dreamed of. From his lips I had heard truths unthought of before. He knew the way to attainment. He would show me the way. Did I intend to let a little whiff of smoke turn me back? It was all over in less time than it takes to tell it. I knew it was over in another sense as well. But more of that later.
Then we found that this man whom we had set up in our minds as an exalted being did not observe the conventions of our code. All fine men reverence womanhood; the higher the type, the greater the reverence. But here was one who gave no heed to the little attentions which ordinary men paid us. We were allowed to climb up and slide down the rocks without an extended arm to help us. When he sensed our feeling, he answered, as he so often did, our unspoken thought. “If you were old or weak or helpless, I should help you. But you are quite able to jump across this brook or climb this path without help. You are as able as I am. Why should I help you? Because you are a woman? That is chivalry, and don’t you see that chivalry is only sex? Don’t you see what is behind all these attentions from men to women?” Strange as it may seem, with these words came a new idea of what true reverence for womanhood means. And yet, he it was, who wishing to get the blessing of the one who is called the Holy Mother, the wife and disciple of Shri Ramakrishna, sprinkled Ganga water all the way so that he might be purified when he appeared in her presence. She was the only one to whom he revealed his intention. Without her blessing, he did not wish to go to the West. Never did he approach her without falling prostrate at her feet. Did he not worship God as Mother? Was not every woman to him a manifestation in one form or other of the Divine Mother? Yes, even those who had bartered their divinity for gold!…. Did he not see this divinity in the nautch-girl of Khetri, whereupon she, sensing his realization of her true nature, gave up her profession, lived a life of holiness, and herself came into the Great Realization? Knowing the criticism that awaited him in India, he still dared in America to initiate into sannyasa a woman, for he saw in her only the sexless Self.
Sannyasin and beggar though he was. never did he forget to be regal. He was generous to a fault, but never uncontrolled in his generosity. Needless to say, there was never a trace of display in any act which he did. If he was with those who had abundance of this world’s goods, he accepted what was offered gladly and without protest, even with an alacrity which at times approached glee. But from those who had little, he would accept nothing. He was no longer the mendicant monk, but something so different that one asked, “Has he at one time been one of the Great Moguls?” Foolish thought! Was he not greater than the greatest of the Moguls, than all the Moguls combined? Was he not more than regal? Was he not majestic?
His compassion for the poor and downtrodden, the defeated, was a passion. One did not need be told, but seeing him one knew that he would willingly have offered his flesh for food and his blood for drink to the hungry. To this day his birthday is celebrated by feeding the poor. The downtrodden and the outcasts are on this day served by Brahmins and Kayasthas, young men of the highest castes. To those in the West it is impossible to convey the significance of such service. Caste and outcaste! Who but a Vivekananda could bring about this relationship so unobtrusively? No arguments regarding caste and the depressed classes. Nothing but heart and devotion. So even in small things while he was still in America. Thus, when asked why he was taking French lessons, he said in confusion, “This is the only way M.L. can keep from starving.” Thrusting a ten dollar bill into the hand of another he said. “Give this to S…, do not say it is from me.” When one of the group, a weak brother, was accused of juggling with the Vedanta Society’s money, he said. “I will make good any deficiency.” Then the matter was dropped and he said to one of the others. “I do not know where I could have found the money to make up the loss, but I could not let the poor suffer.”
Even after he left America, he still had great concern for those he left behind, who found life a great struggle. Especially did he feel for “women with men’s responsibilities”. Asked whether he endorsed a certain woman who was going about the country as a religious teacher and using his name and reputation to get a following, he said: “Poor thing! She has a husband to support, and she must get a certain amount every month.” “But Swami, someone said, “she claims to be authorised by you to prepare students for your teaching. She says, if we go through her two preliminary classes, then we will be ready to be taught by you. It is so absurd and unscrupulous. To the first class she gives a few gymnastic exercises, and to the second she dictates some quotations or gems which she has gathered from various books on occultism. Should she be allowed to mislead people, take their money, and use your name?” All that he said was. “Poor thing! Poor thing! Shiva! Shiva!” With this “Shiva! Shiva!” he put the matter out of his mind. Someone asked him once what he meant when he said “Shiva! Shiva!” and he answered with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes “Shiver my timbers. Ho. ho, ho. and a bottle of rum.” This was not flippancy. How could he answer a casual question otherwise? We had noticed that when something disturbed him, after allowing himself to be troubled by it for a few minutes, his “Shiva! Shiva!” seemed to end it. We knew that he had reminded himself of his true nature, in which everything of a disquieting nature was dissolved.
In New York once there was pitiful little group that clung to him with pathetic tenacity. In the course of a walk he had gathered up first one and then another. This ragged retinue returned with him to the house of 58th Street which was the home of the Vedanta Society. Walking up the flight of steps leading to the front door the one beside him thought. “Why does he attract such queer abnormal people?” Quick as a flash he turned and answered the unspoken thought. “You see. they are Shiva’s demons.”
Walking along Fifth Avenue one day, with two elderly forlorn devoted creatures walking in front, he said. “Don’t you see, life has conquered them!” The pity. the compassion for the defeated in his tone! Yes, and something else — for then and there, the one who heard, prayed and vowed that never should life conquer her, not even when age, illness, and poverty should come. And so it has been. His silent blessing was fraught with power.
PLANNING THE WORK
In those early days we did not know the thoughts that were seething in Swamiji’s mind, day and night. “The work! the work!” he cried. “How to begin the work in India! The way, the means!” The form it would take was evolved gradually. Certainly before he left America, the way, the means, and the method were clear in every detail. He knew then that the remedy was not money, not even education in the ordinary sense, but another kind of education. Let man remember his true nature, divinity. Let this become a living realization, and everything else will follow — power, strength, manhood. He will again become MAN. And this he proclaimed from Colombo to Almora.
First a large plot of land on the Ganga was to be acquired. On this was to be built a shrine for worship, and a monastery to give shelter to the gurubhais (brother-disciples) and as a centre for the training of younger men. They were to be taught meditation and all subjects relating to the religious life, including the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Sanskrit, and science. After some years of training, whenever the head of the monastery considered them sufficiently prepared, they were to go out, to form new centres, to preach the message, to nurse the sick, to succour the needy, to work in times of famine and flood, to give relief in any form that was needed. How much of what he thought out at this time has been carried out! To this India can bear testimony.
It seemed almost madness for a mendicant monk to plan such an extensive work. In later years we were to see it carried out in every detail.
The summer before he had been at Greenacre, a place on the coast of Maine, where seekers of Truth gathered year after year to hear teachers of all religions and cults. There, under a tree which to this day is called “The Swami’s Pine”, he expounded the message of the East. Here he came in contact with a new phase of American life. These splendid young people, free and daring, not bound by foolish conventions, yet self-controlled, excited his imagination. He was much struck by the freedom in the relations between the sexes, a freedom with no taint of impurity. “I like their bonne camaraderie,” he said. For days at a time his mind would be concerned with this problem. Pacing up and down. every now and then a few words would fall from his lips. He was not addressing anyone but thinking aloud. His soliloquy would take some such form: “Which is better, the social freedom of America, or the social system of India with an its restrictions? The American method is individualistic. It gives an opportunity to the lowest. There can be no growth except in freedom, but it also has obvious dangers. Still, the individual gets experience even through mistakes. Our Indian system is based entirely upon the good of the samaj (society). The individual must fit into the system at any cost. There is no freedom for the individual unless he renounces society and becomes a sannyasin. This system has produced towering individuals, spiritual giants. Has it been at the expense of those less spiritual than themselves? Which is better for the race? Which? The freedom of America gives opportunities to masses of people. It makes for breadth, whilst the intensity of India means depth. How to keep both, that is the problem. How to keep the Indian depth and at the same time add breadth?”
It goes without saying that this was not merely a speculative problem, mental gymnastics. It was a question vital to the welfare of India. In America he saw the value and effect of social freedom, yet no one was more fully alive than he to the inestimable good produced by the system of India — a form of society which has kept the country alive thoughout many ages which have witnessed the rise and fall of other countries equally great. His problem was to find out whether there was a way of adding to this structure the best of other countries, without endangering the structure itself.
For days he would speak out of the depths of his meditation on this part of the work. In this case, location, buildings, ways and means were all subordinate to the ideal. He was trying to see the woman of the future, the ideal for India. It was not a light task for even his luminous mind, which wrought it slowly, detail by detail. Like a great sculptor standing before a mass of splendid material, he was lost in the effort to bring to life an image, such as no artist had ever conceived before: an image which was to be an expression of the Divine Mother, through which the Light of spirituality shines. We watched fascinated as this perfection slowly took shape. So might some favoured one have watched. Michael Angelo at work with chisel and hammer, bringing into term the concept of power, strength. and majesty, which was to grow into his “Moses!”
What was the work for women which he had in mind? Certainly not merely a school for children. There were already thousands of these. One more or less would make no appreciable difference. Neither was it to be a boarding school, even if it supplied a need by providing a refuge for girls whose parents were unable to marry them off. Nor a widow’s home, though that too would fill a useful purpose. It was not to be a duplication of any of the forms of work which had so far been attempted. Then what? To answer that question it is only necessary to ask: What is the significance of Shri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda to the world, and more especially to India at this time? The new power, the new life that came with this influx of spirituality was not meant for men alone, but how could it be brought to the women of India? How could they be set on fire and become torches from which millions of others might catch the flame? This was one of his greatest concerns. “For this work a woman is needed,” he cried. “No man can do it. But where is the woman?”
As far back as his wander-years, he consciously searched for the woman who should be able to meet his need. One after another was put to the test and failed. Of one in whom he had had great hopes he said, in answer to the question: why not she? — “You see she intends to do her own work.” There was no criticism in this, only a statement of fact. Again and again it happened that those in whom he had attempted to rouse the latent power within, mistook the power emanating from him for their own, and felt that under the same circumstances they too could manifest greatness. They wanted to do not his work but their own! It was not easy to find someone who had the necessary qualifications, spiritual and intellectual, who had the devotion of the disciple, who was selfless, and who could pass on the living fire. Having found such a one, and trained her, she in turn would have to train others, from amongst whom five or six would be capable of continuing and extending the work. These five or six would have to be women of towering spirituality, women of outstanding intellectual attainments, combining the finest and noblest of the old and the new. This was the goal. How was it to be accomplished? What kind of education would produce them?
Purity, Discipleship, and Devotion were to him essential for the one who was to do his work. “I love purity.” he often said. always with a touching pathos. “All attempts must be based upon the ideal of Sita.” he said. “Sita, purer than purity, chaster than chastity, all patience, all suffering, the ideal of Indian womanhood. She is the very type of the Indian woman as she should be, for all the Indian ideals of a perfected woman have centred around that one life of Sita, and here she stands, these thousands of years, commanding the worship of every man, woman and child throughout the length and breadth of Aryavarta.”
Of purity he spoke constantly; but there was a quality which he seldom named, a quality which is not directly associated with womanhood — yet from the stories he told, one knew that to him no type could be complete without it. Again and again he told the story of the Rajput wife who, whilst buckling on her husband’s shield said, “Come back with your shield or on it.” How graphically he pictured the story of Padmini, the Rajput queen! She stood before us in all her dazzling beauty, radiant, tender, lovely. Rather than permit the lustful gaze of the Mohammedan invader, every woman of that chivalrous race would rush to meet death. Instead of sympathizing with the trembling timid woman, full of fear for the one she loved. he said. “Be like the Rajput wife!”
Had it been merely a question of a college degree, were there not already numbers of women who had achieved that? The young men who came to him, many of them with degrees, needed training. Much that had been learnt must be unlearnt. New values must be substituted for old, new purposes and aims must be brought into focus. When the mind had been purified, then it was ready for the influx of spirituality, which was poured into it by teaching, conversation, and most of all by the living contact with those who could transmit it. In this way a gradual transformation could take place and they would be fitted to give the message and continue the work. Intellectual attainments were but secondary, although he did not underestimate their value. Reading and writing must be the key which would unlock the door to the treasure-house of great ideals and wider outlook. For it was not merely a school which he had in mind. not an institution, but something much larger, something which cannot be easily labelled or defined, something which would make thousands and tens of thousands of institutions possible in the future. In short, it was to be an attempt to create the educators of a new order. The education must not be merely academic, but to meet the requirements of the time, it must be intellectual, national, and spiritual. Unless those who initiated it lighted their own torches at the altar where burns the fire that was brought from above, the work would be of little value. Thai is why discipleship is necessary. All cannot come to the altar, but one torch can light others, until hundreds, thousands are aflame. Spirituality must be transmitted. It cannot be acquired, although regular practices are necessary — meditation, association with those who have realized, the reading of scriptures and other holy books.
Not that it was ever stated that devotion was one of the qualifications. It is only now, after this lapse of time, that in looking back, one knows how necessary it is. Swamiji made no demands of any kind. His respect, nay reverence, for the divinity within was so sincere and so profound that his mental attitude was always: “Hands off.” He did not ask tor blind submission. He did not want slaves. He used to say. “I do not meddle with my workers at all. The man who can work has an individuality of his own, which resists against any pressure. This is my reason for leaving workers entirely free.” Imperious though he was, he had something which held this quality in check — a reverence for the real nature of man. Not because he believed all men equal in the sense in which that phrase is often glibly repeated, but because in the language of his own great message, all men are potentially divine. In manifestation there are great differences. All should not have equal rights, but equal opportunities. With his great compassion he would have given the lowest, the most oppressed, more than those who manifested their divinity to a greater degree. Did they not need it more? Could such as he exact anything in the nature of control of the will of another? The devotion which he did not demand, but which was necessary nevertheless, lay in acceptance of him as a guru, a faith and love in him that would replace self-will.
India is passing through a transition, from the old order of things to the new, the modern. No matter how much we may deplore it, how much we may cling to the old and oppose the change, we cannot prevent it. It is upon us. The question is: how shall we meet it? Shall we let it overtake us unawares, or shall we meet it fearlessly and boldly, ready to do our pan to shape it to the needs of the future? Some have met it by blindly accepting an alien culture, suited to the needs of the land from which it sprang, but unsuited for transplantation. Each country must evolve its own culture and the institutions necessary for its development. If India cannot escape the change, which is taking place all over the world, especially in Asia, she must control the situation. The new must grow out of the old, naturally and in harmony with the law of its growth. Shall the lotus become the primrose? Rather let us create conditions by which the lotus can become a more beautiful, a more perfect lotus, which shall live for ever as the symbol of a great race, and, which although its roots be in the mud of the world, bears flowers in a rarer, purer atmosphere.
In some respects die transition which is upon us affects women particularly. With the growth of cities women are taken out of the free natural life of the village, and confined within brick walls in crowded towns. If they are poor but of high caste, as most of them are, they often do not escape from this confinement for months at a time. The economic pressure is incredibly severe. Anxiety, poor food, lack of air and exercise result in unhappiness, disease, and premature death. The lot of the widow is worse than that of the married woman. There is no place for her in the scheme of things. In the old village life she was part of the social order, a respected, useful asset. Now she is in danger of becoming the household drudge. She feels that the least she can do in return for food and shelter is to save the family the expense of a servant. When poverty becomes still more grinding, she is the first to know that in her absence the family would dispense with such help. In such a case there is feeling of humiliation for the less sensitive. For others it is much deeper. They feel that they are taking the bread out of the mouths of those around them, Their suffering is great, the more so in that they are helpless. There is nothing they can do to add to the family’s income.
It was this class that Swamiji particularly wished to help. “They must be economically independent,” he said. How this was to be done, it was not for him to say, so he implied. It was a problem to be worked out by the one who should undertake the work. “They must be educated,” he said next. Here he was more explicit and laid down certain principles. Education should not be according to Western methods but according to the Indian ideal. Reading and writing are not ends in themselves. The teaching could be such that these achievements would be used for a noble purpose and for service, not for self-indulgence and not to add one more superficial weapon. If the woman who learns to read, uses the knowledge only for imbibing vulgar, frivolous, sensational stories, she had better be left illiterate. But if it becomes the key which opens the door to the literature of her own country, to history, to art, to science, it proves a blessing. The great ideals of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were to be kept before their minds constantly, by stories, by readings, jatras, Kathakathas,4 until the characters lived and moved among them, until these ideas became pan of their very being, something living, vital, powerful, which would in time produce a race of superwomen.
There should be, to begin with, a thorough education in the vernacular, next Sanskrit, then English, science, history, mathematics, geography. And to this, work with the hands: sewing, embroidery, spinning, cooking, nursing, anything in the way of indigenous handicraft. While all Western knowledge, including science, must be given a place, Indian ideals and Indian traditions must always be held sacred. Education will come by the assimilation of the greatest ideas of the East and of the West. Any kind of education which undermines the faith of the Indian woman in the past culture of her race, its religion and traditions, is not only useless but detrimental. She had better be left as she is. Mathematics must become a discipline for the mind, a training in accuracy and truth, history a practice in tracing effects to their causes, a warning against repetition of the mistakes of the past. The emancipation of women meant to him a freedom from limitations, which should disclose their real power.
The old methods of education in the West concern themselves only with the mind, its training, its discipline. To this, certain facts relating to history, literature, science, geography, and languages were added. This is a very limited conception. Man is not a mind only. Why not build up a new education based upon the true nature of man? When a new Light comes into the world, it must illumine all aspects of life. If man is divine now, education must be an uncovering of the knowledge already in man? “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man,” he said.
Let us try a new experiment. At this crucial time when it becomes necessary to review the whole subject, let us break away from some of the old traditions of education. Let us build upon a broader conception, larger aims. Not only must Indian women be highly educated, but a few at least should be of outstanding intellect — the intellectual peers of any women in the world — their flame of spirituality set aglow by the Great Light which has illumined the world in these modern times. They should be on fire, renunciation and service should be their watchwords. A few such women could solve the problems of the women of India, In the past, women made the supreme sacrifice for a personal end. Are there not a few now who will devote heart, mind, and body for the greater end? “Give me a few men and women who are pure and selfless,” Swamiji would say, “and I shall shake the world!” No man can do this work. It must be done by women alone. On this point he was stern. “Am I a woman that I should solve the problems of women? Hands off! They can solve their own problems.” This was consistent with his unbounded faith in the power and greatness latent in all women. “Every woman is part of the Divine Mother, the embodiment of Shakti (Divine Energy),” he believed. This Shakti must be roused. If woman’s power is often for evil rather than for good, it is because she has been oppressed; but she will rouse the lion in her nature when her fetters drop. She has suffered throughout the ages. This has given her infinite patience, infinite perseverance.
Just as in theology, we no longer teach that man is a child of sin and sorrow, born and conceived in iniquity, but is a child of God, pure and perfect, why should we not change our attitude towards education, and look upon the student as a creature of light and knowledge, unfolding the leaves of his destiny in joy, freedom, and beauty? All religions have taught: “The Kingdom is within you.”
For obvious reasons, a new experiment in education can be worked out more easily with women than with men. Women need not work for a degree, as for some time to come they will not attempt to get positions requiring one. In this respect they do not yet find it necessary to conform to accepted standards. Out of it will grow a new race, a race of supermen and superwomen — a new order. Schools for children? Yes, for education should be widespread. Widows’ homes, nursing, all forms of service and activity. New life on all planes, the new intellectual outlook, full of new vigour. If the experiment fails, it will not be an entire loss. Power, initiative, self-responsibility will have been developed. If it succeeds as it inevitably must, the gain will be incredibly great. Results can hardly be foreseen at this stage. The woman who is the product of such a system will at least approach the stature of a superwoman. A few such are urgently needed at the present critical time.
Some of us believe that if Swami Vivekananda’s ideas regarding the education of women are carried out in the true spirit, a being will be evolved who will be unique in the history of the world. As the woman of ancient Greece was almost perfect physically, this one will be her complement intellectually and spiritually — a woman gracious, loving, tender, long-suffering, great in heart and intellect, but greatest of all in spirituality.
(Prabuddha Bharata, January – December 1931)
SOME PROBLEMS OF INDIA
It often seemed to us that Swami Vivekananda was not consistent. For days together he would inveigh passionately against child-marriage, caste, purdah, emotionalism in religion, or some other subject, until he made us believe that there was no other point of view. Then quite suddenly, perhaps in answer to a facile acceptance of all that he had said, he would turn and rend those who agreed with him, demolish all his previous contentions, and prove conclusively that the opposite was true. “But, Swamiji,” someone said in distress, “you said just the opposite yesterday.” “Yes, that was yesterday,” he would reply, if at all. Neither did he try to reconcile the two points of view or make any explanation. If we did not think he was consistent, what was that to him? As Emerson says. “A foolish consistence is the hobgoblin of little minds.” He was looking at all the problems of life from a different vantage point. From his observation tower, the surrounding country looked different from what it did to us who were a part of the landscape. The most he ever said was, “Don’t you see, I am thinking aloud?”
We came to know long afterwards that after weighing all the pros and cons, he came to a conclusion. This did not mean that he thought that one side was altogether right and the other altogether wrong, but rather that the balance was slightly in favour of the one, and probably only so because of the needs of time. Having come to this decision, he no longer discussed the matter but thought of some way to put his conclusions into practice.
Criticism he considered detrimental. Reform, he thought, did more harm than good because it always begins with condemnation. This was disintegrating especially in a country in the position of India where it is most important to restore the lost faith of the individual and the race. All change of value must be growth and could not be superimposed from outside. With his prophetic sense he could see the causes already at work bringing about the changes which so many felt to be necessary. Economic causes prevailed at this period. Very little thought was required to see how the growing poverty would affect purdah, caste, child-marriage as well as other customs.
Some one ventured to oppose him one day, and he turned swiftly saying. “What, you dare argue with me, a descendant of fifty generations of lawyers!” Then he marshalled his facts and arguments and spoke so brilliantly that some of us were convinced that black was white. But if one said to him. “I can’t argue with you, Swamiji, but you know that thus and thus is true,” to that he always yielded with amazing gentleness. “Yes, you are right.” All of this was but a little fun, a little relief from the tension at which he and we with him were kept much of the time.
What amazed us was that he not only saw the problems clearly but found solutions for them — solutions that were quite unique. Every custom was traced back to its origin. In the beginning there was a reason for it; it filled a need. In time it became a custom, and, as is usual with customs, accretions like barnacles were added and militated against its usefulness. What was valuable and what was harmful in this or that custom was now the question. As certain conditions brought it into existence, were the present conditions such as to put an end to it? After all, these institutions are not peculiar to India, as most seem to think. The United States has been in existence as an independent nation not much more than one hundred and fifty years, yet there are already two distinct castes which are as rigid as it is possible to make them. A negro may be as blond as a Swede, but can never cross the barrier between the two races. And then India never lynched its depressed classes! Besides these two rigid castes, there are many subdivisions less rigid, generally based on money. Is it not nobler to place highest the caste that is rich only in spirituality, than to make money the standard? Child-marriage was practised in Europe until quite recently. We read again and again of princesses married at twelve and we know that what the royal families did, the subjects imitated. In Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare, Juliet is stated to have been just under fourteen at the time her parents planned her marriage to Count Paris.
Is it not evident that these customs grow out of the limitations of human nature and out of certain conditions which made them necessary at the time? Instead of condemning, Swami Vivekananda, after tracing them back to their source, following their history, and seeing clearly what undesirable things had been incorporated, tried to find first of all the corrective idea. In some cases this in itself would be sufficient. In others, the forces at work in India today would bring about the change. But there are cases, in which without implying any condemnation of the old a new institution must be created, which will gently, almost imperceptibly, in time displace the old.
Marriage is a great austerity. It is not for self but for samaj — the society. There must be chastity in word, thought, and deed. Without a great ideal of faithfulness in monogamy there can he no true monasticism. There must be fidelity even when the emotion is no longer there. Chastity is the virtue which keeps a nation alive. To chastity he attributed the fact that India still lives while other nations no older than herself have sunk into oblivion.
Such an observation would lead to a recital of the rise and fall of the nations of antiquity. In the beginning of the national life, in its days of struggle, there was self-denial, restraint. austerity. As the nation grew prosperous, this was replaced by self-indulgence, laxity, luxury, resulting in decay, degeneration, destruction. Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome — this is the story of each and all. But India lives. However individuals may fail, India had never lowered the standard.
Then thinking of the changes which will inevitably come soon, he questioned, “Which is better? The arranged marriage of India or the individual choice of the West? But our young men are even now demanding the right to choose their wives.” Again, “Is intermarriage advisable? Heretofore, the worst of both races have produced an unfortunate breed. What if the best of the two races unite? It might produce a race of supermen. Would it? Is it advisable?” His country, always Swami’s country! How to preserve this great race which has given to the world some of its most transcendental ideas, and is still the custodian of spiritual treasures of which the world outside stands in need?
Or he would turn to the question of child-marriage. Was there any subject upon which he did not throw the rays of his luminous mind? It was a revelation to watch the concentration of this searchlight upon problems. A question or a chance remark was enough. He would jump up, walk rapidly to and fro while words poured forth like molten lava. His mind would seize upon a subject and he would not let it go until it had revealed its secret to him. It has been said that he upheld child-marriage, caste, purdah. He has been accused of being untrue to the great principle inherent in his message. Those of us who saw him wrestle with these problems, know how far from truth this is. He who was roused to a very passion of chivalry at the sight of injustice, of suffering due to man’s cruel domination, was he the one to add another link to the fetters which bind the helpless? He “whose heart was like butler.” whose feeling for the downtrodden was a passion, whose mission it was to help those in bondage to attain the Great Freedom, how could one think that he would not prove himself the Master of compassion, the Deliverer?
Yet he had but little sympathy with reform and reformers. How could he be in harmony with a method which, while it tore up the evil by the roots, destroyed so much that was beautiful and precious in the process, leaving ugly barren places behind? Whatever changes were to be made in his country, must not be brought about by the loss of her self-respect or by loss of faith in herself. Denunciation of her customs and institutions, no, that was not the way. What perversity was it that made so many of his own generation see only evil in the land of their birth and unalloyed good in everything Western? How had this hypnotism come about? Could India have lived through the ages if this were true? The heart of India is sound. Evils there may be. Where are they not? Is the West free from them? Pacing back and forth, hour after hour, he would wrestle with the problems of India.
It is essential in all cases, but particularly in India at the present day, not to destroy faith and reverence. Can you eliminate the evil without bringing graver dangers into existence? There was neither child-marriage nor purdah in ancient India — nor do they exist in all parts of India today. They are only in the provinces which have been under Mohammedan domination. What has it done? It has preserved the chastity of the race. Not only must women be chaste but men as well. The chaste woman must not so much as look at another man nor must she allow her face to be seen.
To him it seemed incredible that any man should look with contempt upon the institutions of his country or upon past institutions of which they were the product. But he was not blind to the other side. “We are degenerating in physique. Is this the cause? What is the remedy?” Of the evils that followed in the wake of child-marriage, he said little. Were they not too well known? He did not say that they must be ended. for he never gave expression to what to him was obvious. Here was an institution that entailed suffering, that made for weakness, that was evil in some of its aspects. One cannot believe that after having faced the facts he did not at once try to find some way to eliminate alt the undesirable elements. But was there any reason why he should adopt methods which would result in still worse evils. His was no stereotyped mind: then why expect of him stereotyped methods? Some of us were later to know why this subject stirred him so deeply.
After perhaps hours of thought on the subject, he would heave a deep sigh and say, “Well, well, the economic pressure will bring about changes. This together with education will do much to end it. Education! We must educate our women! But not the kind of education that is open to them now. Heaven forbid! That would be worse than the existing evil.”
(Prabuddha Bharata, Golden Jubilee Number, June 1945)
While he (Swami Vivekananda) was at Thousand Islands he made plans for future, not only for his disciples in India and the work there, but also for those of his followers in America, who were hoping some time to go to India, At that time we thought these plans only day-dreams. One day he said. “We shall have a beautiful place in India, on an island with the ocean on three sides. There will be small caves which will accommodate two each, and between each cave there will be a pool of water for bathing, and pipes carrying drinking water will run up to each one. There will be a great hall with carved pillars for the Assembly Hall, and a more elaborate Chaitya Hall for worship. Oh! it will be luxury.” It seemed as if he were building castles in the air. None of us dreamed that this was something which could ever be realized.
Of all that group I was the one who was privileged to go to India, though it was not until several years later. After I had been in India two or three years, I found myself alone in Bombay with two or three days at my disposal. For some time. I had had a desire to visit Kanheri,5 which I knew was not far from Bombay. I knew nothing of this place except that there were some caves there, one of them a Chaitya Hall, which Fergusson in his History of Indian and Eastern Architecture has described as a bad imitation of the one at Karli. Surely there was nothing in this to attract one! I wondered at the intensity of my desire, the more so as there were other groups of caves within easy reach of Bombay, but which I had no special desire to see. I wondered at it.
No one seemed able to direct me. Those whom I asked had never heard of Kanheri. After a whole day of inquiry, some one said, “I think, if you take the train tomorrow morning at seven and go to a place called Borivali, you will find some one who can tell you where Kanheri is.” This I did. I found that Borivali is only twenty-two miles from Bombay. I did not know any Hindustani at that time, but I remembered that the word for cave is guha. There were three bullock-carts at the station, one of them in charge of a lad of seventeen or so, whose looks I liked. I went up to him and said, “Guha“; he shook his head, I repeated “Guha, guha” He kept on shaking his head. Then a brilliant idea struck me and I said. “Kanheri, Kanheri!” This time he nodded vigorously. Then I said. “Kitna (How much)?” and he held up three fingers saying. “Tin rupiya (Three rupees).” I was delighted and climbed into his cart.
The road led first through a field of stubble and from that into a forest. This forest grew denser and darker the farther we penetrated into the interior. Behind trees, I could see the dark aboriginal people of the forest with bows and arrows peering at us. The road had become a mere cow-path and then even this track came to an end. Here my young bullock driver stopped. “From here you must go on alone.” he startled me by saving, I don’t know how, but it seemed that we were able lo make ourselves understood. So I answered. “But I can’t go on alone. I don’t know the way. You must come with me” He replied. “I can’t leave my bullocks.” I, being at that time ignorant of the tact that there were tigers in the forest which might devour his bullocks, suggested that he tie them to a tree and come with me. This he did after a little hesitation.
We went only a short distance and then came to a stream which at that season was almost dried up. On the other side was a small hill. Here we found carved stone steps leading lo the top. And what a view there was from the crest of the hill! The ocean on three sides, a forest leading down to the water, carved seats on which to rest, sculptured halls of magnificent proportions. Here it all was – the island with the ocean on three sides, a great sculptured Assembly Hall, the Chaitya Hall built in imitation of the one at Karli. the small cells, containing two stone beds each, pools of water between the cells, even the pipes to carry water! It was as if a dream had unexpectedly come true. The place was deserted, not even a caretaker. Coming upon this abandoned site, which answered in detail to the fairytale we had heard long before in America, I was profoundly affected. It was perhaps not strange then that I had a very vivid dream that night, in which it seemed that I was in the Durbar Hall with the great assembly of those who lived there in a time long past, I could see the gathering and the one who was instructing the assembled novitiates. I could even hear what was being said and recognized it as a teaching with which I was familiar, although it was different from the form to which I had been accustomed. The impression remained with me all through the next day and for many days to come. In fact, it proved to be indelible. But to my regret, I could not remember the words that were actually said.
I came back to Calcutta still full of this experience which had affected me so deeply. When I told Swami Sadananda the story of the finding of the deserted island with the 109 caves, and explained how Swamiji at Thousand Islands had described the place, he said. “Yes, Swamiji in his wanderings in western India before he went to America, found these caves. The place stirred him deeply”, for it seems that he had a memory of a previous life in which he lived there. At that time, the place was unknown and forgotten. He hoped that some day he might acquire it and make it one of the centres for the work which he was planning for the future. Later, in my wanderings in western India. I too found it, and now you! We have all lived there in the past!” In later years when he was in a position in which he might have acquired it, it was no longer available, for the government had taken it over. Now there is a caretaker at the place. A road has been built, the jungle cut down, and picnic panics may frequently be seen there.
Kanheri is on the island of Salsette, about twenty miles north of Bombay. It is in reality a part of the mainland, from which it is separated by a small stream. The ocean surrounds it on the other three sides. In the early years of the Christian era this island was inhabited by monastic members of the Buddhist Order. The great Chaitya Hall is said to have been dedicated by the celebrated Buddhaghosa in the year A.D. 4. There is an inscription to this effect in the entrance. At that time it must have been one of the great Buddhist centres. Buddhaghosa left Kanheri for Ceylon, and from there went to Burma where he introduced Buddhism. He was the great preacher of that age, remarkable for his eloquence and his power as a missionary. His great work. which has come down to modern times, is the Mahamarga — the Great Way.
SWAMI IN DETROIT — 1896
Vivekananda was to visit Detroit once more (in July 1900), but this time for only a short farewell visit.
When asked what preparation he made for speaking, he told us none — but neither did he go unprepared. He said that usually before a lecture he heard a voice saying it all. The next day he repeated what he had heard. He did not say whose, voice he heard. Whatever it was, it came as the expression of some great spiritual power, greater than his own normal power, released by the intensity of his concentration. This may have been quite unconscious. No written words can convey the vitality, the power, the majesty that came with his spoken words. What might happen to one’s ideas, values, personality, if this current of power were let loose upon them! It was great enough to move the world, let alone one little human personality, which was but as a straw upon its mighty current. It was force that could sweep everything before it. Old ideas would change, the purposes and aims of life, its values would change, old tendencies would be directed into a new channel, the entire personality would be transmuted.
What was it which emanated from him which all felt and none could explain? Was it the ojas of which he so often spoke, that mysterious power which comes when the physical forces of the body are transmuted into spiritual power? When this happens, man has at his command a power so great that it can move the world. Every word that he utters is charged. One who possesses it may say only a few sentences, but they will be potent until the end of time, while the orator who lacks it may ‘speak with the tongue of men and of angels’, but it is as nothing, ‘as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ This, according to Swami Vivekananda, explains why the few simple sayings of a humble carpenter are still a power in the world after two thousand years, while all that was said by the scholars and the learned of his time has been forgotten.
Something of this power is lost in the written word, as those know well who were fortunate enough to hear Vivekananda speak. The spiritual force generated at such times was so great that some in the audience were lifted above the normal state of consciousness, so that it was possible to remember only the beginning of a lecture. After a certain point, there seemed to be a blank. The normal mind was no longer functioning: a higher state of consciousness, beyond reason and memory, had taken its place. Long after, perhaps, it would be found that during that period when the mind seemed blank, a specially deep impression had been made.
So popular was he as a lecturer that no place could be found which was large enough to hold all who wished to come. The man who had in vain tried to find a hall large enough to hold the audiences for the lectures during Vivekananda’s second visit to Detroit said. “He could fill a circus tent!” After giving this course of lectures, he was invited by his friend Rabbi Grossman to speak at the Temple Beth-El on the last Sunday of his stay in Detroit. An hour before the time appointed, the Temple was filled to its utmost capacity and it became necessary to close the doors. Hundreds were turned away. Others, refusing to be shut out, hammered on the doors and tried by every means to gain admittance. Just as the lecture was about to begin the clamour became so great that it seemed as if the mob would storm the place. But when he appeared on the platform a hush fell over the audience. I heard a foreign voice near me gasp. “How beautiful he is!” And indeed never was beauty more ethereal. At this time the power was not so obvious. It had been transformed into a diviner radiance and a deeper compassion for the world which he was soon to leave. So India often pictures her gods — robes and turbans of concentrated sunlight, complexion of gold, a divine radiance lighting the face, an inner stillness as of a deep pool. He rose and poured forth majestic truths in a voice which completed a beautiful harmony of appearance, voice and message. Not a gesture was there to detract the mind from the intense concentration into which he had plunged his hearers.
In America he preached only Advaita. He seldom spoke of his Guru. Few suspected the tremendous influence upon his life of the simple Brahmin of Dakshineswar. Even to those who were most sympathetic, he approached the subject with shyness. But of the profundity of the relation there could be no doubt. Through it, there came to us our first glimpses of the meaning of ‘guru’. To this he added all that the scriptures have said, together with the tradition built up by the holy men of India throughout the ages. Passing through the crucible of his mind, his loyalty and devotion carried a most profound meaning. It did more than that. It created in us a similar feeling and attitude, and brought to birth a similar relation between us and our guru. It set a lofty standard.
How new these ideas were at that time! The first great idea was that the guru must be a knower of Brahman. This is the most important qualification, for only the knower of Brahman has the power to transmit spirituality. The transmission of spirituality from guru to disciple was a startling and fascinating idea to the Protestant type of mind in the West. Spirituality can be transmitted! This, then, explains the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. This is why the Church of Rome still believes that the spiritual power of Peter has been transmitted from Pope to Pope. Be that as it may, today in India it is believed, nay, known with certainty, that the guru can transmit his spirituality to a disciple.
Again, “each has an individual path which is known to the guru’; and his tendencies indicate whether he should take the path of devotion or worship, or of psychic control, or the path of knowledge of the Real, or of unselfish work. All paths lead to the goal, but one of these will present fewer obstacles to the aspirant. Having set the disciple on the path, the guru, like a loving mother, warns him of dangers, explains experiences that might otherwise alarm or dismay. He is the Guardian of the Threshold, not to forbid entrance, but to protect the neophyte against groundless fears. To him the disciple goes for courage. To him the disciple pours out his confidences and tells his experiences. He must tell them to no one else. His mantram, his ishtam, his experiences, must be, as Swamiji said, “not secret, but sacred.” There must be the utmost devotion and unquestioning faith in the guru. “Would you jump out of window if I asked you to?” he once asked. He wanted a few disciples who had that kind of devotion. He needed that quality for his work. Again and again, he told the story of Guru Nanak (Govind Singh) who, putting his disciples to the supreme test, asked who would trust him even unto death. One came forward. He look him into his tent and in a few minutes the great leader came out, his sword dripping with blood. Again he put their faith in-him to test, and again one went into the tent with him and did not come out again. This was repeated until five had gone into the tent not to return. Then he threw open the tent-flap, and they saw their companions unharmed in the tent, and with them a goat which the Guru had killed. Is it to be wondered at that with disciples whose devotion was unto death it was possible for Guru Nanak (Govind Singh) to accomplish the great work he did? For, as Swamiji so often said:
“Worship your guru as God. He will take you to the other shore. Trust him through everything. ‘Though my guru should visit the tavern and still, my guru is holy Nityananda still.’ 7 — Have that kind of faith in him.”
“‘Only those who go through the Sushumna (the path of Yogis) reach the Atman.'”
“They must go to a guru to learn.”
“The guru is the vehicle by which the spiritual influence is brought to you.”
Great as he himself was, one never felt inferior in his presence. In some indefinable way he made all who came into contact with him feel great. Was this because he had trained himself to see only the best in others and to make nothing of their faults and weaknesses? It was probably even deeper than that. Realizing himself as the Atman, it was his constant effort to see that Divine Self in others. Little faults can drop away, but That remains and shines forth. He knew us better than we knew ourselves. How constantly he voiced the highest truth as: “The greatest sin is to think yourself weak. No one is greater; realize you are Brahman. Nothing has power except as you bestow it. We are beyond the sun, the stars, the universe.”
IMPRISONMENT IN FLESH
Up and down, up and down ceaselessly. “He (Swamiji) is restless, so restless,” some would say. But it was not the restlessness of the man who does not know what is urging him on, what it is he wants. Only too well did he understand what was actuating him. He could have explained it lucidly, logically. A great free soul, conscious of the reality of his being, of his divinity, felt himself imprisoned in a cage of flesh. The bondage of the body was torture. The lion brought from the jungle, where he roamed at will, never forgets the glory of freedom. Restlessly he paces the short distance allowed by his bars. Here was a mighty free soul caged in flesh. The imprisoned glory struggled to escape. True, we are all caught in this bondage, but there is hardly a human being who knows it. We cling to our captivity. We would not give it up. Few even understand that “shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing Boy”.
But here before our eyes we saw one who was fully conscious, who realized the Great Freedom beyond, to whom the bondage was torture, who was ceaselessly struggling to break through. For us who witnessed this struggle, no words were necessary. Without any teaching whatever, our eyes were opened. “I am not the body, I am not the mind.” “So that is what it means,” we thought “I am beyond the body with its disabilities, beyond the mind with its limitations, for I am That, I am That.”
In 1902, I saw him at Belur, a very different Vivekananda from the one whom I had known in America. Here I saw the lion in his natural surroundings. Here it was not necessary to wear the mask of conventions, nor to conform to man-made rules. He had a serenity here which was sometimes lacking in foreign countries. He was among his own. He could be himself and it was an even greater self than we had seen before. He was surrounded by young devotees and brother-disciples, those sons of Sri Ramakrishna, who were now gathered in after long years of wandering. Much of his work was finished. He had given his message in America, in England, and to a lesser degree in Germany and France. In India the roar of the lion was heard from Colombo to Almora. Through the devotion of his young English disciple Goodwin, his message was put into permanent form. He had acquired the plot of land on the Ganges of which he had dreamed in America, and built a shrine for the worship of Sri Ramakrishna and a monastery which was to shelter the children of Sri Ramakrishna — his fellow disciples. He had organized teaching centres, educational institutions, orphanages, famine and flood relief. He was only thirty-nine, and he knew that his release was near. It came July 4.1902.
He shared the Hindu belief in the saying of the Gita that, “Whenever virtue subsides and vice prevails, then do I manifest Myself. For the protection of the good and the destruction of the evil and for the preservation of righteousness, I am born anew in every age.” (Bhagavad-Gita,. IV, 7-8).
Whenever spirituality is at a low ebb and the need of the world is great, God comes in human form. With the advent of the Avatar a great spiritual force comes into the world, a force which protects the good, destroys evil, preserves the Dharma, revivifies religion, draws thousands into the current of living spirituality, and brings new life. This influence is felt not only on the spiritual plane, but on the intellectual and physical planes as well. In the realm of intellect, it expresses itself as a revival of art, literature and music, of learning in every field. Men of genius appear and become famous in these realms. There is new life. In the physical world the power is not so intense, but more widespread and apparent. It manifests itself in a greater prosperity, in a renewed love of freedom, and in a more virile national consciousness. The nation enters upon a Renaissance. This power according to Swami Vivekananda continues in force for nearly six hundred years, gradually expending itself until the world again sinks into a state in which its only hope is another manifestation of God — another Avatar. While these are not all of equal rank, each brings an influx of spiritual power, revivifies life on all planes and moves the world. A few instances may illustrate this theory.
Before the coming of the Buddha, India had sunk into a state of materialism. All privileges were usurped by the Brahmins, who decreed that hot oil should he poured into the ear of Sudras who so much as heard the secret teaching. The time was ripe for the advent of a new manifestation of God, an Avatar — and the Buddha was born. He came, the Compassionate One, who withheld nothing. “I have never had the closed fist.” he said. “All that I know I have taught.” The highest teaching was given equally to the Brahmin and the outcaste, to the holy man and to the thief. All were equal in his sight, as they are in the sight of God. With him came a new influx of spirituality, a mighty force into which thousands upon thousands were caught. Its highest and greatest manifestation was in the realm of religion. There a great revival took place. Great numbers of all ranks gave up the world for the life of renunciation. Princes and barbers, masters and servants, alike entered upon the path. Once having renounced, all were equal. The prince bowed at the feet of his former barber, if it should be that the barber had been initiated first.
This incident is narrated in the Pali Canon: A number of the most powerful of the Sakya princes had decided to become monks of the Sangha of the Buddha. They were attended by their barber, who was to return to their homes the garments and jewels they had laid aside. As they went on, the barber too felt the impulse to join them in the new life. The princes encouraged him in this resolve, but asked him to go before them and receive initiation first, so that they would be obliged to do reverence to him. Caste restrictions and special privileges were put aside and only he was great, who was great in the “Kingdom of God”.
The revival was felt on all planes-of life, even politically, until under Ashoka, the first Buddhist Emperor. India was a great, united, prosperous empire. But after two or three hundred years the decline began, until at the time of Sankaracharya in the eighth century. Buddhism had reached such a state of degradation that it had to be destroyed.
Six hundred years after Buddha came Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman was master in the land of his birth. Oppression was rife. So desperate was the situation that all classes of people were expecting the coming of the Messiah to deliver them. But does the Avatar ever come in the guise acceptable to the worldly-minded? This son of a carpenter of Nazareth was “despised and rejected of men”. Only a few of the humblest followed him. But he was a mighty one, the son of God in very truth, destined to shake the world to its very foundations; for not long after his death, as time is reckoned in the history of nations, came the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. followed by the adoption of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine as the state religion.
Again six hundred years later in Arabia came the Prophet Mohammed who lifted his country out of the darkness and degradation into which it had fallen. With him began the rise of the Moslem power which was eventually to sweep over western Asia, northern Africa, and even into southern Europe, as also into India.
Sankaracharya in southern India was another great light who came “for the protection of the good and destruction of the evil and for the preservation of righteousness.” By this time. about A.D. 800. Buddhism had become degraded. Many evil customs had been added by the depressed races who had adopted it. It was fit only for destruction. He brought back to India the pure lofty teaching of the Atman. Buddhism was driven out of India, the ancient wisdom re-established. and the country entered upon a new chapter in its life.
The thirteenth century in Europe was the great creative period following the “Dark Ages”. Then came St. Francis of Assisi,”the troubadour of God”. A wave of spirituality swept the country, thousands embraced “Sister Poverty”. In the wake of this power came, first Dante (1265-1321) and Giotto (1266-1336), then later Savonarola (1452-1498) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), Benevenuto Cellini (1500-1571). Bernini (1598-1680) and other great names. The Renaissance had come.
We come now to the twentieth century — with the greatest war in the history of the world waging, brother fighting against brother, millions of the earth’s finest and best wiped out, nation against nation in Europe, the East against the West, in a death struggle, famine, pestilence, the downfall of religion, materialism rampant. Western civilization in danger of extinction. If ever there was need of an Avatar, it is at this time. Will the need be met in this time of direst need? What are the signs of the times? During the nineteenth century several stars of greater or lesser magnitude appeared in various parts of the world, all of whom did their part, great or small, to save the world from the cataclysm which seems about to overtake it. Each has brought new spiritual light and power. Among the greatest of these are the Bab and Bahaullah, in Persia, and Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in India. Which is the Avatar of this age? We are perhaps too close to these luminaries to know which is the greatest. The Baha’ist will say it is the Bab and Bahaullah, while the followers of Ramakrishna will claim with equal certainty that it is Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Are there signs by which we can tell? Which has given the message most needed at the present time? It must be a message not for any particular nation but for the world. Which has ushered in a new spiritual era, has brought a light which will never be extinguished, has let loose a power which will make a new heaven and a new earth? The future alone can tell.
(Prabuddha Bharata, March 1978)