REMINISCENCES OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
(Translated from Swamijir Katha in Bengali)
DEAR READER, if you wish to enjoy reading a few pages of my reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, you must bear with me for a while till I have given you some idea about the sort of man I was before I met the Swami, the conceptions I had of religion, my education, and my nature in general. Unless you have this background, you will not understand what I gained from my contact with Swamiji. Before I passed the Entrance (High School) Examination, I had not the faintest idea about religion; but when I reached the fourth class, and had a smattering of English, I developed a great dislike for the Hinduism of our days, and this though I had not studied in any missionary school! After passing the Entrance Examination, it became quite impossible for me to subscribe to the Hinduism that I knew. Then during my college life, that is to say, when I was between nineteen and twenty-five, I read a little of physics, chemistry, botany, and other branches of science, and had a little acquaintance with the Western thinkers like Darwin, Mill, Huxley, Tyndall. and Spencer. The result was what could be expected from ill-digested knowledge — I became an out and out atheist. I believed in nothing, and I knew nothing about devotion to God. I then condemned all religions, though mentally; and I thought that others were inferior to me intellectually.
At this time, the Christian missionaries began to visit me very often. While condemning other religions, they, with great intellectual acumen argued it out for me that faith is the sine qua non of religion. In Christianity, one must start with faith, and then only one can appreciate its uniqueness, as well as its superiority to other religions. But such queer approach and scholasticism could hardly convert me, a sworn atheist that I was then. Western education had taught me, “Do not believe in anything without evidence”, whereas the missionaries said, “First faith and then proof. My mind remained unconvinced. Then they said, “You should read the Bible attentively, and then you will get faith” I followed the advice, and it was my good fortune that I had quite a number of distinguished missionaries to help me. Still faith was far away from me. Nevertheless, some of them said that I had advanced considerably and had imbibed faith in Christianity, but that my orthodoxy was standing in the way of my conversion. The net result was that I began to doubt my doubt itself. As a way out of this impasse, they suggested that they would answer ten questions put by me; that as each question was answered satisfactorily, they would take my signature on it, and that when the last question would thus be solved to my satisfaction, I should embrace Christianity. It so happened that soon after finishing the third question, I left the college and entered the world. Even after this, I continued to read religious literature and frequented places of worship — churches, temples, and Brahmo prayer halls. But I could not chalk out a path for myself. At last, I came to the conclusion that nobody realty knew anything about the soul or its existence after death, that one can get some solace in this life by holding on to some religion, whatever it may be, and that faith in any particular religion comes as a matter of habit. As a matter of fact, nobody can convincingly prove or disprove religion with the help of reasoning.
Fortune was in my favour, and I got an employment with a high salary. I now led a comfortable life. Yet a strange want made me ill at ease. Thus days. months, and years rolled on.
Belgaum, Tuesday, October 18, 1892: It was about two hours past evening, when a stout young monk, with a cheerful countenance, came to my house with a lawyer friend of mine of the same locality. The friend introduced him with the words, “Here is a learned Bengali Sannyasin who has come to meet you.” I turned back and found a serene figure with eyes flashing like lightning and a face clean shaven. His body was covered with an ochre robe, in his feet he had strapped sandals of the Maharashtrian type; and on his head was an ochre turban. The figure was so impressive that it is still vivid in my memory. It pleased me and attracted me. though I did not realize then why it was so. After a while, I saluted him and said. “Sir, do you smoke? I am a Kayastha, and I have but one hookah. If you have no objection to smoke from it. I can have some tobacco prepared for you.” He replied, “I smoke whatever comes to hand — tobacco from a hookah or cigarette. And I have no objection to smoke from your hookah.” I ordered for some tobacco.
My belief at that time was that all Sannyasins in ochre robes were cheats, and I naturally thought that this one, too, had come to me with some motive. Besides, the lawyer friend belonged to Maharashtra, while he was a Bengali. It was inconvenient for Bengalis to live with Maharashtrians: and that was why he had come to live with me. Despite all such thoughts passing through my mind, I invited him to stay with me and asked him whether his belongings should be brought to my house. He replied, “I am quite at home with the lawyer; and if I leave him just because I have found a Bengali, he will be hurt, for they all love and respect me. But I shall think about it and let you know later on.” We did not have much talk that night. But the few words that he spoke convinced me that he was more learned and intelligent than myself. He could have earned a decent sum if he wanted, but he did not touch money. Although he had not the wherewithal to make him happy, he was, in fact, a thousand times happier than myself. It struck me that he had no want, just because he had no thought for any personal gain. When I learnt that he would not come to my house, I said, “If you have no objection to take tea with me, I shall be happy to have you here in the morning. He agreed and went back with the lawyer. At night I was thinking about him for a long time — I had never before met a man so free from wants, so happy and content, and having such a smiling face. I believed that a man without wealth might as well depart from this world, and that a Sannyasin truly free from wants is an impossibility; but that belief got a shaking today, which left it rather weak.
October 19, 1892: I had been waiting for Swamiji from six o’clock in the morning. It struck eight. So without waiting any longer. I left for Swamiji’s place with a friend. There we found him seated in the midst of a respectable gathering of lawyers and other learned men, and carrying on conversation with them. He answered their questions without the slightest hesitation, sometimes in English and sometimes in Hindi or Sanskrit. There were also people like myself who accepted Huxley’s philosophy as their Bible, and started arguing with Swamiji on that basis. But he silenced them all either through repartees or serious dissertation. As I sat there after saluting him, I was thinking. “Is he a man or a god?” So I could not remember all that I heard. I write down only the few words that come to my mind.
A very respectable lawyer asked. “The mantras we use in our morning and evening prayers are in Sanskrit, and we do not understand a bit of them. Is it of any use to us to go on uttering them?”
Swamiji replied, “They do have good results. Born in a Brahmin family as you are, you can easily learn the meaning of those few mantras. If you do not do so, who is to blame? Even if you do not understand the meaning, I hope, when you sit for prayer, you have the feeling that you are doing something virtuous and not sinful, if you have the belief that you are doing something meritorious, then that in itself is enough to yield good results.”
Just then somebody said, “Talks on religious matters should not be carried on in a foreign language, since it is prohibited in such-and-such a purana.” Swamiji replied, “It is good to talk of religious things, no matter what the language is.” In support of this he quoted from the Vedas and added, “A judgment passed by a High Court cannot be set at naught by a lower court.”1
Thus it went on till it struck nine, when those who had to attend office or court left, while others still sat there. Swamiji’s eyes now fell on me, and he said, “My son, I had not the heart to disappoint so many people and go to your place, Please don’t mind this.” When I pressed him to come and stay with me, he replied at last, “I shall go if you can make my host agree to your proposal”. So I persuaded the lawyer friend somehow and returned to my place with Swamiji. His belongings consisted only of a kamandalu (a water pot used by monks) and a book wrapped in a piece of ochre cloth. Swamiji was then studying French music. We had our tea at ten o’clock after reaching home. He understood my hesitation in expressing my own doubts, and so he himself gauged my intellectual make-up through a few words.
Some time earlier, somebody had published a poem in the Times asserting that it was extremely difficult to determine what is God, which religion is true, and such other abstruse questions. As that poem had much affinity to my religious ideas of those days. I preserved it carefully. I now produced it before him. He read it and remarked. “The man has become confused”. Gradually I got over my hesitation. From the Christian missionaries I had not got any solution of the contradiction involved in holding that God is both just and merciful; and I feared that Swamiji, too, could throw no better light. When I put the question to him, he said, “Methinks you have read much of science. Do not two opposite forces, centripetal and centrifugal — act in each material substance? If such a contradiction can meet in matter, may not justice and mercy be reconciled in God? All I can say is that you have a poor idea of your God.” I was silenced. Again, I believed that truth is absolute, and that all religions cannot be true at the same time. In answer to such questions he said, “All we know about things now or may know in future are but relative truths. It is impossible for our limited mind to grasp the absolute truth. Hence, though truth be absolute, it appears variously to diverse minds and intellects. All these facets or modes of truth belong to the same class as truth itself, they being based on the same absolute truth. This is like the different photographs of the same sun taken from various distances. Each of them seems to represent a different sun. The diverse relative truths have the same kind of relation with the absolute truth. Each religion is thus true. Just because it is a mode of presentation of the absolute religion.”
When I said that faith is the basis of all religions, Swamiji smiled a little and said. “A man goes beyond all wants once he becomes a king; but the difficulty is how to become one. Can faith be infused from outside? Nobody can have real faith unless he has personal experience. “When in the course of talk I called him a sadhu (holy man), he said, “Are we really so? There are holy men whose very sight or touch wakes up spirituality in others.”
Again I asked, “Why do the Sannyasins idle away their time in this way? Why do they depend on the charity of others? Why don’t they undertake some work beneficial to society?” Swamiji said, “Now, look here. You are earning this money with such struggle, of which only a little portion you spend on yourself; and some of it you spend for others who, you think, are your own. But they neither acknowledge any gratefulness for what you do for them. nor are they satisfied with what they get. The balance you save like the mythological yaksha who never enjoys it. When you die, somebody else will enjoy it all; and perchance, he will abuse you for not having accumulated more. This is your condition. On the other hand, I do nothing. When I feel hungry, I let others know by gestures that I want food; and I eat whatever I get. Neither do I struggle nor do I save. Now, tell me who among us is the wiser — you or I?” I was astonished, for before this nobody dared to talk to me so boldly and frankly.
After lunch we had some rest. Then we went to the house of that lawyer friend, where we had more of such discussion. At nine o’clock at night we returned home. On the way I said, “Swamiji, you must have been greatly bored today by all this argumentation.”
He replied, “My son, would you have offered me even a morsel of food, if I had kept mum. the out and out utilitarians that you all are? I go on chattering like this. People get amused, and so they crowd around me. But know it for certain that people who argue, or put questions like this before an assembly are not at all eager to know the truth. I also read their motives and answer them accordingly.”
“Swamiji,” I put in, “how do you get such ready and pointed answers for all the questions?”
“These questions are new to you,” he said, “but these have been put to me and I had to answer them times without number.”
The conversation continued during dinner. He told me of the many adventures he had during his travelling through the country under vow and not touching any money. As I listened, it struck me that he must have endured great hardship and trouble; and yet he related them with a smile, as though it was all a great fun! Sometimes he went without food; sometimes he ate so much of chillies that for lessening the burning sensation in the stomach he had to drink a cupful of tamarind water! At some places he was curtly turned away with the remark, “Sannyasins have no place here.” Sometimes he was shadowed by government spies. Many other incidents he related in great glee, which were a great fun to him, but they made my blood curdle. As the night had advanced very far, I spread a bed for him and then retired for the night. But sleep I had none that night. I wondered how the deep-rooted doubts that had haunted me all these years took flight at the very sight of Swamiji. Now I had nothing more to ask. As days passed by, not only my family, but also our servants developed such love and respect for Swamiji, and they served him so meticulously, that he became rather embarrassed.
October 20, 1892: In the morning I saluted Swamiji. Now I had more boldness as also more devotion. Swamiji, too, was pleased to hear from me many accounts of forests, rivers, hills, and valleys. He had been now in this town for four days. On the fifth day, he said, “A Sannyasin must not live in a town for more than three days, and in a village for more than four days. I want to leave soon.” I would not listen to all that; I was determined to argue it all away. After a long discussion he said: “If one stays at one place for long, one develops attachment for others, We left our home and friends. It is but proper for us to be away from all such sources of maya.” I entreated him to stay on and argued that he would never fall into maya’s snares. At last he agreed to stay for a couple of days more.
In the meantime I thought that, if Swamiji addressed a public gathering, we would get the benefit of his wisdom and others also would gain thereby. I pressed him for this, but he would not agree on the plea that such platform speeches might generate in him a desire for name and fame. At the same time he intimated that he would have no objection to a public conversazione.
One day, in the course of a talk, Swamiji quoted verbatim some two or three pages from the Pickwick Papers. I wondered at this, not understanding how a Sannyasin could get by heart so much from a secular book. I thought that he must have read it quite a number of times before he took orders. When questioned he said, “I read it twice — once when I was in school, and again some five or six months back.” “Then how do you remember,” I asked in wonder, “and why can we not remember thus?” “One has to read with full attention,” he explained, “and one must not fritter away the energy one draws from food.”
Another day, Swamiji was reading a book all by himself, reclining in his bed, I was in another room. Suddenly he laughed so aloud that I thought that there must be some occasion for such a laughter, and so I advanced to his door to find that nothing special had happened; he continued to read as before. I stood there for some fifteen minutes; till he did not notice me. His mind was all riveted on the book. Later on, he noticed me and asked me to walk in. When he heard that I had been standing there for a pretty long time, he said, “Whatever one has to do, one must apply to it one’s whole attention and energy for the time being. Pavhari Baba of Ghazipur would clean his brass water vessel with the same undivided attention as he used in his meditation, japa, worship, study, etc. He cleaned it so diligently that it shone like gold,”
Once I asked Swamiji, “Why is stealing considered a sin? Why do all religions prohibit stealing? To me, it seems that to think that one thing belongs to me and another to somebody else is only a figment of the brain. As a matter of fact, it does not amount to stealing if one of my relatives should take away one of my things without informing me. Besides, we do not brand it as stealing when the birds or animals snatch away anything.”
“It is true,” said Swamiji, “that no act can be regarded as stealing at all times and under all circumstances. Again every act may be considered wrong or even sinful under altered conditions. You should not do anything that brings misery to others, or weakens you physically or morally. That is sinful and its opposite is virtuous. Just think of this: Don’t you feel sorry when somebody steals something from you? What is true for you, you should know, is true for the whole world. If you can be so bad as to inflict some pain on some being in this world, though you are fully aware that everything here is evanescent, you will gradually come to such a state that no sin will be too great for you. Again, social life becomes impossible if there is no division of virtue and vice. When you live in society, you have to comply with its rules and regulations. If you retire to a forest, you can go about dancing naked; that harms nobody, and none will stop you. But should you behave so in a town, the reasonable thing to do will be to get you arrested by the police and have you locked up in some solitary place!”
Swamiji sometimes imparted very valuable lessons through humour or derision. Though he was my guru, to sit by him was not just like sitting before a school-master. He would be merry, full of gaiety, fun, and laughter, just like a boy, even when imparting the highest instruction. He laughed and made others laugh with him. Then, suddenly, he would start explaining an intricate point with such seriousness that people wondered at his mastery over the subject and over himself. They used to think. “Did we not find him just now as but one like ourselves?” People would come to him at all hours for learning from him, and his door was always open. They had diverse motives. Some came to test him, some to enjoy his humorous talks, some others to be in closer contact with the rich people of the town who came to Swamiji, and still others to get a few moments’ respite from the worries of the world, to hear his spiritual talks, and to be enlightened thereby. Such was his power of diving into others’ minds; he understood their motives at once and dealt with them accordingly. Nobody could hide anything from his penetrating eyes. Once a boy from a rich family began to frequent Swamiji’s place just for the sake of avoiding his university examination, and he gave it out that he would become a monk. He happened to be the son of a friend of mine. I asked Swamiji, “Why does that boy come to you so frequently? Will you advise him to become a monk? His father is a friend of mine.” Swamiji replied, “His examination is near at hand, and he wants to take orders just to avoid the examination. I told him, ‘Come for the monastic life after passing the M.A. examination. It is easier to get the M.A. degree than to lead the life of a monk.'”
During Swamiji’s stay at my house, so many people used to gather there in the evenings that it all looked like a big meeting. I shall never forget the words he told me one of those days while reclining against a bolster under a sandal-tree. As that subject requires a long introduction, I reserve it for a future occasion. Here I would like to add a few more words about myself. Some time earlier my wife had expressed a desire to take initiation from some guru; and I had told her, “Choose a guru who will command my respect as well. You will derive no benefit if the very advent of your guru in the house should create some adverse feeling in me. We shall both be initiated together if only we come across a good man, otherwise not.” She too agreed to this. When Swamiji was with us, I asked her, “Would you like to be a disciple of this guru?” “Will he really agree to be a guru” she asked eagerly, and added, “If he agrees, we shall be only too grateful.”
With great hesitation, I asked Swamiji one day, “Swamiji, will you fulfil a desire of mine?” When he wanted to know what it was, I requested him to initiate both of us. He said, “For a householder, it is best to have some householder as his guru. It is very difficult to be a guru. The guru has to take the responsibility of the disciple. Before initiation the disciple must meet the guru at least three times.” With these and other arguments he wanted to put me off. But when he found that I was not be dissuaded, he agreed. He initiated us on October 25, 1892. Then I had a desire to have his photograph. He would not agree. I persisted, and after a long-drawn tussle, he gave his consent and a photograph was taken on the 28th. As Swamiji had not agreed to be photographed on an earlier occasion, inspite of the earnest request of another gentleman, I had to send two copies of this one to him on request.
In the course of a talk Swamiji said, “I have a great desire to spend a few days with you in the forest under a camp. But they are holding a Parliament of Religions at Chicago, and I shall go there if I get an opportunity.” When I proposed to raise money by subscription, he refused it for some reason best known to himself. At this time, he was under a vow of not accepting or touching any money. After great effort I persuaded him to accept a pair of shoes in place of Maharashtrian sandals as also a cane walking stick. Before this, the Rani of Kolhapur had not succeeded in making him accept any gift, and so she had sent him a pair of ochre clothes. Swamiji accepted these and left behind the pieces he had been wearing with the remark, “A Sannyasin must not have a burden about him”.
Before my contact with Swamiji, I had tried to read the Gita more than once. As I could not understand it, I concluded that there was really nothing to know from it, and so I gave up the attempt. One day Swamiji began to explain the Gita to us; then I discovered what a wonderful book it was. As I learnt from him to appreciate the teaching of the Gita, so also I learnt from him to read the scientific novels of Jules Verne, and Sartor Resartus of Carlyle.
At that time I used to take medicines rather liberally. He told me, “When you find that some disease has made you bed-ridden, then only you should take medicines, not otherwise. Ninety per cent of such diseases as nervous debility are mere figments of the brain. The physicians kill more people suffering from such diseases than they save. What do you gain by thinking and talking of all these for ever? Take it easy as long as you live, and be cheerful. Never indulge in pleasures which tax the body or which make you repent. As regards death, what does it matter if one or two like you or me die; that will not make the earth deviate from its axis. We should never consider ourselves so important as to think that the world cannot go on without us.”
Just then. for some reason or other, I was not pulling on well with my superiors in office. Any little remark from them would make me lose my balance. Though I had a lucrative job. I could not be happy even for a day. When I told Swamiji about my difficulty, he remarked, “Why are you in service? Is it not for the salary you get? You are getting it regularly every month; so why should you be upset? When you are free to resign at any moment you like, and nobody binds you down to it, why should you add to your miseries by thinking, Oh, in what bondage am I placed! Another thing: will you tell me whether, apart from doing the work for which you draw the salary, you ever did anything just to please your superiors? You never did so, and yet you are angry with them that they are not satisfied with you. Is that wise on your part? Know it for certain that the ideas we entertain about others express themselves through our conduct; and even though we may not express these in words, people react accordingly. We see in the external world the same image that we carry in our hearts: nobody realizes how true the saying ‘The world is good when I am good’ is. From today try to get rid of the habit of finding fault with others, and you will find that, to the extent you succeed in this, the attitudes and reactions of others also change accordingly.” Needless to say that, from that day. I got rid of the habit of drugging myself; and a new chapter in my life opened from my effort to give up faultfinding.
When the question was raised once as to what constituted good and what bad. Swamiji said. “What is conducive to the goal aimed at is good and what impedes it is bad. Our ideas of good and bad are just like our ideas of elevation and depression. As you rise higher, the distinction becomes obliterated. They say that the moon has mountains and plains: but we see it all as a flat surface. It is just like that.” Swamiji had this peculiar power that, whatever might be the question, the answer came so aptly and readily that the hearer stood convinced.
Words fail to express the sorrow that Swamiji felt another day on reading from the newspaper that a man had died of starvation in Calcutta. Repeatedly he said, “Now the country is about to go to rack and ruin!” Being asked to explain, he said.”Don’t you see that in other countries hundreds of people die every year, inspite of their poor-houses, work-houses, charity funds, etc.? But in our country we never heard of death through starvation just because of the system of almsgiving in vogue here. This is the first time I read in a newspaper that man dies of starvation in Calcutta even when there is no famine.”
As a result of my English education, I thought it was a wastage of money to offer a pice or two to beggars. My idea was that such petty help not only did no good to the recipients, but it also brought about their ruin by enabling them to smoke hemp with it. The only gain was that the giver’s bill of expenditure went up by that amount! So I concluded that, instead of giving trifling amounts to many, it is better to give somebody a bigger amount. When I asked Swamiji, he said, “When a beggar comes, it is better to give him something according to your means. After all you will pay a pice or two; and so why should you rack your brain about what the man will do with it — whether he will spend it well or waste it? Even if he wastes it on hemp, it is to the advantage of society that he gets those few pice; for unless people like you offer it to him willingly, he will steal it from you. If instead of that, he buys hemp, smokes a little, and then sits quietly, is it not to your own advantage? So even this kind of charity results in nothing but good for society.”
From the very beginning I found that Swamiji was against the system of child marriage. He always advised all, and particularly the boys, to stand boldly against this social evil. Such patriotism, too, I had never seen in any other person. Those who met Swamiji after he returned from the West for the first time never knew how he had travelled through the length and breadth of India, observing all the rigorous vows of a monk and not touching money at all. When somebody suggested that a man of such a strong will as he had no need of so many rules and vows, he replied, “Look here, the mind is so mad, so intoxicated, that it can never sit quiet; if it gets the least opportunity, it will drag you after itself. To keep control over that mind, even a Sannyasin must observe rules. All are under the delusion that they have the fullest control over their minds and that they allow it some freedom knowingly. When one sits for meditation, one can very well understand how much control one really has over the mind. Even when one wants to think of a certain matter for some time, one cannot keep the mind fixed on that subject for so long as ten minutes. All are under the delusion that they are not henpecked and that it is only out of love that they allow their wives to exercise some influence over them. The belief that one has the mind in tether is just like that. Never relax yourself under the false belief that you are the master of your mind.”
In the course of a talk one day I said. “Swamiji, I think one must be highly educated in order to understand religion.” He said, “One does not require any high education to understand religion for oneself; but one must have it if one has to explain it to others. Paramahamsa Ramakrishna signed his name as ‘Ramkesto’, but who indeed knew the essence of religion better than he?”
I had an idea that monks and holy men could never be stout and ever contented. One day, when I gave expression to this with a smile and a dig at him, he answered in a bantering tone, “This is my famine insurance fund! Even if I do not get food for days on end, my fat wilt keep me alive, whereas your vision will be blurred if you do not gel food for a day. And a religion that cannot bring peace to men must be shunned as a disease brought on by dyspepsia.”
Swamiji was a master in music. One day he started singing. I had no training to appreciate it; besides, how could I have the time to listen to it? We were charmed by his talks and stories. He was well acquainted with several branches of modern science, to wit, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, mixed mathematics, and so on, so that he was able to solve our problems about all these in a few words. He would explain intricate religious questions with the help and analogy of science. I never knew anybody else who could prove so convincingly that science and religion had the same goal in view and that their progress was also along the same path.
He liked chillies, pepper, and such other pungent things. When I asked for the reason one day, he said. “During his wanderings a monk has to take all kinds of food, and drink water from all sorts of places; that tells upon the health. To counteract their bad effect, many monks become addicted to hemp and other intoxicants. For the same reason I have taken to chilli.”
Many princes, including those of Rajasthan and the Deccan, honoured him very much, and he too loved them sincerely. Many could not understand why a monk of such strong principles should mix so much with princes and Rajas. There were fools enough who even hinted at this incongruity. Asked about the reason, Swamiji explained one day, “Just compare the results one can achieve by instructing thousands of poor people and inducing them to adopt a certain line of action on the one hand, and by converting a prince to that point of view on the other. Where will they get the means for accomplishing a good project even if the poor subjects have a will to do it? A prince has the power of doing good to his subjects already in his hands. Only he lacks the will to do it. If you can once wake up that will in him, then, along with it, the fortune of his subjects will take a turn for the better, and society will be immensely benefited thereby.”
To explain that religion does not consist in learned discussion, but in realization, he would say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Realize it. Without that you can understand nothing.” He had no kind word for a false monk, and would say, “One should renounce only after one has got control over one’s mind while still at home. Else one gets mixed up with the hemp-smoking monks once the first charm wears away.” “But it is most difficult to have this at home,” I intervened. “For instance, if I start practising all those virtues like considering all to be equal, giving up likes and dislikes, and so on, which you say are the best means for becoming a man of realization, then from the very next day, my servants, my subordinates, and even the members of my family will not leave me in peace even for a moment.” In reply he related the parable of the snake and the holy man,2 as narrated by Shri Ramakrishna, and then added, “Never give up the hissing. Go on with your work, thinking it to be your duty. Punish others when you have to; but don’t be angry when inflicting punishment.” Then he resumed the earlier topic and said, “Once I was the guest of a Police Inspector in a place of pilgrimage. He was a religious man, and had some devotion. His salary was only Rs.125 per mensem, whereas his monthly expenditure went up to two hundred or three hundred rupees. When we became more intimate, I asked him, ‘Your expenditure seems to exceed your income. How do you manage it?” ‘Men like you manage it, sir,’ said he with a smile. ‘Don’t think that all the monks who come to this place of pilgrimage are as good as yourself. Whenever any suspicion arises. I search their belongings; and often enough, much money is found. When any one of them is suspected for theft, he at once takes to his heels leaving behind everything, which then comes to my possession. I do not resort to any other illegal means of satisfaction like bribe.'”
One day I had a very beautiful talk with Swamiji about infinity. He said, “There can be no two infinites.” When I said that time is infinite and so also is space, he replied, “I can understand that space is infinite, but it passes my understanding how time can be infinite. In any case, I can understand that only one thing can be infinite. If there be two infinites, how would you demarcate their respective spheres? If you advance further, you will find that time and space get lost in each other. Still further advance will show you that all things are infinite, but those infinite things are one in essence and not two.”
Thus Swamiji’s stay in my house till the 26th October brought a feast of joy to us. On the 27th he said, “I won’t stay any more. I have been moving southward with a view to reaching Rameswaram,” My further entreaties for keeping him back proved infructuous. On the 27th he decided to take the mail train for Marmagaon. I purchased a ticket for him. After seating him in the train, I saluted him and said, “Swamiji, I never saluted anybody in this life with my whole being, but I do so now and feel wholly rewarded.”…
I met Swamiji only three times. The first meeting was before he left for America. That was at Belgaum, about which I have already told you much. The second meeting was some time before he left for the West the second time. The third meeting was some six or seven months before he left this world. It is impossible to present a detailed account of all that I learnt from him during these meetings. Many events, are so personal that they cannot be related, while others escape my memory. Of the few things that I still remember, I shall present only those that may be of interest to the readers in general.
I thought that the language of his lectures at Madras just after his return from the West, in which he dealt with caste system, was rather bitter against certain sections of Hindu society. When I told him so, he replied “I spoke only the truth and nothing but the truth. In comparison with the prevailing situation, the language was not at all harsh. I find no reason why truth should be watered down or hidden back. Just because I criticized those customs, it does not mean that I have any ill feeling towards these people, nor should one think that I am the least sorry for what I have done out of a sense of duty. Neither of the two positions is true. I did not speak out of anger, nor do I regret now. Should the occasion arise again for performing such an unpleasant duty, I shall still do so without the least hesitation.”
In my previous account I said something about his estimation of false monks. When that topic cropped up another day, he said, “It is true that many rogues adopt the monk’s garb for concealing their nefarious deeds or for avoiding detection after some serious crime; but society, too, has its own share of the blame. Society labours under the false belief that a man goes beyond all shortcomings as soon as he takes the monk’s vow. In your estimation, it is bad for him to have a full meal, bad to lie down on a bed; he must not even use such a common thing as an umbrella or a pair of shoes! Why, are they not men like yourselves? It is quite wrong to think that one has no right to wear the ochre robe unless one is already a Paramahamsa (a monk of the highest perfection). Once, I met a monk who had a fancy for good dress. You would have mistaken him for a luxurious man, but in reality he was a true monk.”
Swamiji used to say, “The mental attitudes and feelings of men differ very much according to time, space and circumstances. The same is the case with religion.Then, again, each man has a bias for something, and every one in this world thinks himself to be wiser than others. That really matters little, but the difficulty arises when a person begins to think that the truth lies with none other than himself. Each one wants that others should look at a thing from his own point of view and understand it accordingly. He is convinced that nothing else but what he has known can be true. But nobody should allow such an idea to get hold of him, be it in the field of religion or secular knowledge.
“No one rule can equally apply to people of this world in any field whatsoever. For instance, you can notice that moral principles and even an appreciation of beauty differ in accordance with time, space, and circumstances. In Tibet polyandry is in vogue. I came across such a family during my sojourn in the Himalayas. The family had six male members who had but one wife. When we became more friendly, I pointed out to them the outrageousness of the custom, at which they took offence and said. ‘You are a monk, and yet you preach this kind of selfishness to people! Is it not wrong to think that something is meant for one’s own exclusive enjoyment, but not for others?’
“Every one knows that beauty among the Chinese is judged in accordance with the shortness of the nose and the smallness of the feet. The same kind of peculiar judgment prevails in the field of food. The English do not like the sweet-smelling rice that we prefer so much. Once when a judge of a certain place was transferred, the members of the bar sent all kinds of excellent food to him. Among these was a quantity of sweet-smelling rice. When this was served to the judge, he thought it was rotten; and when he next met the lawyers, he said. ‘You ought not to have given me rotten rice’.
“Once while travelling in a train. I had in the same compartment some four or five Europeans as my fellow passengers. In the course of a talk, I remarked that the best way to enjoy tobacco is to smoke it from a hookah full of water at the bottom and having at its top a lump of flavoured tobacco prepared with spices and molasses. I had some such tobacco, and I showed it to them. They smelt it and said, ‘It emits such a bad smell, and you call it good flavour!’ Thus, opinions about smell, taste, beauty, etc. differ among men according to time, place, and social environment,”
It did not take me long to appreciate those words of Swamiji. I remembered how I loved hunting in my earlier days. Whenever any animal or bird came in sight. I used to become restless to kill it, and feel miserable if I failed to do so. Now I do not like that kind of killing at all. So likes and dislikes are a matter of habit.
Each man has a tendency to stick to his own views dogmatically, and this is particularly true in matters religious. Swamiji used to tell us a story about this: Once a king advanced with his army against another territory. Naturally, a big council was summoned in the small kingdom to devise ways and means for its protection from the enemy. All classes of people were represented there — engineers, carpenters, cobblers, blacksmiths, pleaders, priests, and others. The engineers advised, “Put a barricade around and dig a deep trench.” The carpenters said, “Raise a wooden wall.” The cobblers said, “There is nothing like leather; put a barricade of leather all around.” The blacksmiths said, “All this will be of no avail. An iron wall is the best thing, for shots cannot penetrate through it.” The pleaders said, “No such thing need be erected. Let us convince the enemy by arguments that he has no right to conquer our country.” The priests said, “You are all raving like lunatics. Offer sacrifices, perform other rites for warding off this evil, offer tulasi leaves etc., and the enemy will be baffled in his attempt.” The result was that nothing was done to save the kingdom, and the councillors went on debating ad infinitum. That is human nature.
The story reminded me of another incident. I told this to Swamiji: “Swamiji, as a boy, I liked very much to talk with lunatics. Once I came across a madman who seemed to be very intelligent. He knew a little of English, and all that he needed was to drink water. He had a broken water pot with him, with which he used to drink water wherever he got it, no matter whether it was a ditch or a hose. When I asked him why he drank so much water, he replied, ‘Nothing like water, sir’. I wanted to give him a good water pot, but he would not accept it. When asked for the reason, he explained that he had the broken one with him for so long just because it was broken. If it was a good one, it would have been stolen long ago.”
When I had finished, Swamiji remarked, “He must have been a very funny lunatic. They are called monomaniacs. Each one of us has such a mania. Only, we have the power to conceal it, whereas the unbalanced man lacks that power. That’s where we differ from the madmen. A man comes to grief once he loses that self-control through disease, sorrow, egotism, passion, anger, jealousy, or any kind of self-indulgence or oppression. Then he fails to suppress his mania. And we say, that he is off his head. That’s all that it means.”
Swamiji’s patriotism was very profound. This I mentioned even earlier. Once that topic was broached, and somebody told him that though it was a duty for lay people leading a social life to have love for their country, a Sannyasin should be above any attachment for his own country and that he should rather love all countries and pray for the good of all. I shall never forget the burning reply that these words evoked from Swamiji. He said, “How can a man who does not feed his own mother look after other people’s mothers?” Swamiji admitted that there were many defects in our current religious practices, habits, and social customs; and he would say, “It is our bounden duty to try to rectify them by all means; but that does not mean that it is necessary to tell the English people about all these things by publishing them in the newspapers. There is no greater fool than one who washes one’s dirty linen in public.”
One day we started talking about the Christian missionaries, and I happened to remark that they had done, and had been doing, a great deal of good to our country. At this he said, “But the amount of evil they have done is no less. They have done all in their power to throw to the winds the little faith that our people had in themselves and their own culture. Loss of faith means disintegration of the personality itself. Does anybody understand that? How can the missionaries prove the superiority of their own religion without decrying our deities, without condemning our religion? There is another point to consider. If anyone has to preach a particular religion, he must not only believe in it fully, but also practise it in life with full faith and sincerity. Most of the missionaries say one thing and do something else. I can never tolerate dishonesty.”
One day he said some very fine things about religion and yoga. I shall reproduce the substance of these as far as I can: “All creatures are ever eager to get happiness. They are eternally engaged in this effort, but they are seldom seen to arrive at the goal. Yet most people do not stop to find out why they fail to. That is why men suffer. Whatever ideas a man may have about religion, nobody should try to shake his faith so long as he himself sincerely believes that he is deriving real happiness thereby. Even if one tries to rectify, it does not yield any good result unless the man himself cooperates willingly. Whatever the profession may be, when you find that a man is eager merely to hear of religion, but not to practise it, you may at once conclude that he has no firm faith in anything.
The basic aim of religion is to bring peace to man. It is not a wise thing for one to suffer in this life so that one can be happy in the next. One must be happy here and now. Any religion that can bring that about is the true religion for humanity. Sense-enjoyment is momentary, and it is inevitably mixed with sorrow.
“Only children, fools, and animals can believe this mixed happiness to be the real bliss. Even so, I won’t mind if anybody can have perpetual happiness and freedom from anxiety by holding on to that happiness as the be-all and end-all of life. But I have still to find a man like that. Rather, in common experience, it is found that those who mistake sense-enjoyment for the highest bliss become jealous of others who happen to be richer or more luxurious than themselves. They suffer from their hankering after that kind of more refined sense-enjoyment. After conquering the world, Alexander the Great felt miserable at the thought that he had no other country to conquer. That is why thoughtful men, after long experience and examination, have decided that men can be really happy and free from anxiety only when they have full faith in some religion or other.
“Men naturally differ in so far as their intellectual equipment and attainments are concerned. So religion also must differ according to men’s temperaments; else they will never have any satisfaction from it, nor will they derive the highest benefit from it. The religion that will suit any particular nature has to be found out personally by the man concerned through a process of careful thinking, testing, and experimenting. There is no other way. Study of religious literature, instructions of guru, company of holy men, etc. can only help him in his quest.
“About works also, it should be understood that nobody can wholly avoid doing something or other, and no work can be either wholly good or wholly bad. If you undertake a good work, you are bound to do some amount of bad work along with it. As a result, along with the happiness derived from the good work, some amount of unhappiness and dissatisfaction also will come inevitably. If you want to avoid that much of evil, you will have to give up the hope of deriving the apparent happiness from sense-enjoyment, that is to say, you will have to give up all selfish motives and go on doing your works out of a sense of duty. That is what is called ‘work without motive’ (selfless work). While instructing Arjuna about this in the Gita, Shri Krishna says, ‘Work, but dedicate its fruit-to Me, that is to say. work for Me’.” …
I asked Swamiji one day whether the instruction of Shri Krishna to Arjuna, just on the eve of the battle of Kurukshetra was a historical event. What he said in reply is very charming:,/p>
“The Gita is a very old book. In ancient times there was no such fuss about writing histories or getting books printed; and so it is difficult to prove the historicity of the Gita to men like you. Still I see no reason why you should rack your brains about the truth of the event recorded in the Gita. Even if somebody were to prove to you with incontrovertible facts that the Gita represents the actual words of Shri Krishna as told to Arjuna, will you really believe in all that is written in that book? Should even God Himself incarnate and come to teach you, you will challenge Him to prove His Divinity, and you will apply your own arguments to disprove His claim. So why should you be worried about the authenticity of the Gita? If you can, accept as far as it lies in your power the teachings of the Gita and actualize them in your life. That will be a real benefit to you. Shri Ramakrishna used to say, ‘If you happen to be in a mango garden, eat as many of the luscious fruits as you can; what need have you to count the leaves? It seems to me that any belief or disbelief in the events recorded in a religious book is determined by a personal equation. When somebody falls into certain circumstances and finds that his condition is similar to some incident mentioned in the book concerned, he believes that the incident must be true; and then he eagerly adopts the means prescribed by the book for tiding over the difficulty.”
One day he explained to us in a very attractive way the need for conserving one’s physical and mental energy for the adequate discharge of one’s duty. He said, “One who wastes one’s energy in dabbling in other people’s affairs and in other aimless activities can hardly have any energy left for performing a desirable duty. The sum total of the energy that can be exhibited by a person is a fixed quantity. As such. if it finds an outlet in a useless way, it can no further be drawn on for any purposeful activity. One requires tremendous energy to realize the deeper truths of religion. That is why the religious books of all races advise the aspirants not to waste their energy in the enjoyment of sense-objects, but to preserve it through continence and other means.”
Swamiji disliked some of the customs prevailing in the villages of Bengal. He was disgusted with the habit of using the same reservoir of water for bathing, washing clothes, and drawing drinking water. He often said, “What can you expect from those whose brains are filled with all the dirt in the world? And this rural habit of dabbling in other people’s affairs is extremely bad. Not that the urban people also don’t have that habit. But they have not much time to spare, for urban life is costly so that it means harder labour. After the day’s hard labour, they do not have much time left for moving about the chess-men while smoking and gossiping about other people. Were it not so, the urban ghosts would have ridden over the shoulders of (that is to say, would have outdone) the rural ghosts in such matters.”
A volume could have been filled wish the fine words of this kind that Swamiji uttered every day. It was not his habit to give the same kind of reply to the same question or to repeat the same illustration. Whenever he had any occasion to deal with the same question he threw such new light on it and used such new similes and illustrations that it seemed altogether a fresh subject and a fresh way of explaining it. As a result, his talks never bored any one; rather the interest increased at every step and people sat spellbound. In his public speeches also he used the same method. It was not his habit to think over the whole matter earlier and jot down the points on paper. Even a minute before the speech he would be talking on all sorts of subjects, making fun, and cutting jokes — none of them having any connection with the subject of the speech. In fact, he himself would not know what he would be talking. However that may be, I shall put on record, as far as I can. the things he told us during the few days that we had the good fortune of coming in contact with him.
I stated earlier that I had not met anyone who could equal Swamiji in his brilliant exposition of religion in the light of science and his successful reconciliation of the two. A few of those words are presented here. It is to be understood, however, that it is all a reproduction from memory, so that there are chances of inaccuracy. If anything in this account appears to be wrong, that is not the fault of Swamiji’s exposition, but rather of my poor memory. Swamiji said:
“All things, sentient and insentient, are rushing helter-skelter towards unity. In the beginning, men gave different names to the diverse things on which their eyes fell. Then, after examination, they arrived at the conclusion that all things are derived from sixty-three primary elements. Now again, many suspect that those elements themselves are compounds of more basic materials. When chemistry will reach its goal, all things will be discovered as emerging out or unity, of which they are but so many states. At first people considered heat, light, and electricity to be different. Now it has been proved that they are but different states of the same energy. In early days men divided the things of this world into the sentient, the insentient, and the plants. Then they discovered that just like other living creatures plants also have life and feeling, the only difference being that they cannot move. So we are now left with only two divisions ⃛ the sentient and the insentient. A day will soon come when it will be found that even that which is considered insentient has some sort of sentience.
“The undulated land that we see on the surface of the earth is also trying to become plane. Rain water is washing down the hills to fill up the valleys. A hot thing placed amidst other things tries to attain the same state of warmth through radiation of heat. Things are thus advancing towards unity through conduction, convection, and radiation.
“Although the flowers, fruits, leaves, and roots of a tree appear to be different to us, science has proved that they all are same. A ray of light is perceived to have seven colours when seen through a prism. What is seen with bare eyes as having one colour may be seen as blue or red when seen through blue or red glasses.
“Thus also, truth is but one; but through maya we see it diversely. It is in this way that people get all kinds of knowledge in and through the one, undivided Truth, which is beyond lime and space. But people are neither aware of this one Truth, nor can they comprehend it.”
When Swamiji had spoken thus. I added, “Can we really believe even our own eyes? If two rails are placed parallel to each other, they seem to meet at the furthest end. That is the vanishing point. Mistaking a rope for a snake is a matter of daily occurrence; and so is there mirage as an optical illusion. …John Stuart Mill said that though man is mad after Truth, yet he lacks the power to comprehend the absolute Truth; for should even the real Truth come to him, how can he know that it is really so? All our knowledge is relative, we have no capacity to grasp the Absolute.”
Swamiji said, “It may be true that you, or people in general, do not have absolute knowledge; but how can you say that nobody can have it? What you call knowledge now is really a form of ignorance. When true knowledge dawns, this false knowledge disappears; then you see everything to be but One. The idea of duality arises from ignorance.”
“Swamiji, that is a very precarious position”, I protested. “If there are two kinds of knowledge, viz true knowledge and false knowledge, then what you consider to be true knowledge may well be false, and the dualistic thought that you denounce to be false may very well be true.”
“Quite so” said he, “That is why one has to believe in the Vedas. The Vedas contain the truths experienced by the sages and seers of old who went beyond the range of duality and perceived unity. Depending on mere reasoning, we cannot pass any judgment as to whether the waking state or the dream state is the true one. How can we know which of the two is true so long as we cannot take our stand on something beyond both of them, from where we can look at them objectively? All that we can say now is that two different states are experienced. When you are experiencing one, the other seems to be false. You might have been marketing in Calcutta in your dream, but you wake up to find yourself lying in your bed. When the knowledge of unity will dawn, you will see but One and nothing else; you will then understand that the earlier dualistic knowledge was false. But all that is a long way off. It won’t do to aspire to read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata before one has hardly begun to learn the alphabet. Religion is a matter of experience, and not of intellectual understanding. One must practise it in order to understand it. Such a position is corroborated by the sciences of chemistry, physics, geology, etc. It won’t do to put together one bottle of oxygen and two of hydrogen and then cry: ‘Where is water?’ They have to be placed in a closed container and an electric current passed through them, so that they can combine into water. Then only you can see water, and you can understand that water is produced from a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. If you wish to have the unitive experience, you must have that kind of faith in religion, that kind of eagerness, diligence, and persistence; and then only you will succeed. One can hardly get rid of the habit one has acquired a month ago; when that is so, what to speak of those habits acquired ages earlier? Each man carries a huge burden of tendencies acquired through a series of past lives, which blur his vision. And yet all and sundry would have the absolute Truth now and here! One feels a momentary dislike for the world when one gets a hard knock, and then one cries out, ‘Oh, why don’t I realize unity?'”
“Swamiji, if what you say is true,” I argued, “it will lead to fatalism. If the accumulated results of past lives cannot be wiped off in a single birth, then one may as well give up all attempt. I can wait for my liberation until all will have it.”
“That is not exactly the case,” he explained. “While it is true that one has to suffer the consequences of one’s past actions, it is also possible to exhaust those results very quickly through certain processes. You can display ten magic lantern pictures in ten minutes, or you can spend the whole night in showing them. That depends on your own earnestness.”
Swamiji’s explanation of the mystery of creation was very interesting: “All created things are divided into two classes — sentient and insentient — for the sake of convenience. Man belongs to the highest rank of created beings. According to some religions. God created man in His own image, while some people think that man is only a monkey without tail. Still others assert that man alone has the power of thinking, since his brain has a greater proportion of grey matter. In any case. all agree that man is a creature and, as such, he is included in creation as a whole. Now to understand what creation is, on the one hand, the Western scholars have recourse to the processes of analysis and synthesis, and they go on examining everything individually. On the other hand, our forefathers in India spent very little time for the maintenance of the body in this warm climate and fertile land, and then with a bare loin cloth and a dim lamp, they started in all earnestness to find an answer to their question, ‘What is that by knowing which everything will be known?’ Their ranks were made up of all kinds of people. So in our religion, we come across all shades of opinion ranging from the ultra-materialism of the Charvakas to the non-dualism of Shankaracharya. Both these groups of people (in the West and in the East) are now converging on the same point, and they are beginning to speak the same language. They now assert that all the things in the universe have evolved out of one basic Reality, which is infinite in time and space, and which defies all description. Time and space also are of that kind. Time, that is to say such conception of time as days, months, years, aeons, etc., is determined for us chiefly by the motion of the sun. Now, think of time seriously. What does it amount to? The sun is not without a beginning; there was a time when the sun did not exist, and it is certain that a time will again come when the sun will cease to exist. So undivided time comes to mean nothing more than an inexpressible idea or entity. By the term ‘space’ we understand the limited space delimited by the earth or the solar system, which is only an infinitesimal part of the infinite creation. It is quite possible that there is a space without any matter in it. So infinite space is also an inexpressible idea or entity like time. Now from where and how did the solar system and all this creation come? Generally we do not see any product where there is no producer, and so we conclude that this creation must have a creator. But then this creator may have another creator, which is absurd. So the first creator, or first source, or God also comes to be an infinite and inexpressible idea or entity. That which is infinite cannot be many; and hence all these infinites are but the different expressions of a single entity, and they must be one.”
Once, I asked him, “Swamiji, is the common belief in the mantra etc. true?” He replied, “I find no reason why it should not be true. You become pleased when somebody addresses you with soft, sweet words, and you fly into a rage when you spoken to in a harsh, jarring tone. Then why should not the deities presiding over different things be pleased by sweet invocation?”
After all this discussion, I said, “Swamiji, now that you have fully gauged my intellectual capacity, will you kindly chalk out the path that I should follow.” Swamiji replied. “First, try to bring the mind under control, no matter what the process is. Everything else will follow as a matter of course. And knowledge — the non-dualistic realization is very hard to attain. Know that to be the highest human goal. But before one reaches there, one has to make a long preparation and a prolonged effort. The company of holy men and dispassion are the means to it. There is no other way.”
(Translated from Swamijir Katha in Bengali)