REMINISCENCES OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA
MY first contact with the Ramakrishna movement was through Swami Vivekananda. It occurred before the Mission had taken definite form, when all there was to tell of the far-spread work to be done later was a band of wandering sannyasins, waiting for the call, yet half unaware that they were waiting. One of the band said to me years after: “If we had dreamed of the labours that day before us, we would not have spent our strength in severe austerities or taxed our bodies by privations and long wanderings. All that was asked of us, we thought, was a simple life of renunciation, obeying in humble spirit what our Master had taught us.”
The first hint of anything beyond this, I learnt from the same source, was a quiet voice heard only by Swami Vivekananda as he lay at the point of death in a Himalayan glade under a rude thatch of dry branches. It said: “You will not die. You have a great work to do in the world.” He told it to two fellow disciples with him, and one of them told it to me. But the voice came without a form to give it substance. How could they know that the words spoken were prophecy?
Time proved them to be such. Their fulfilment had just begun, when all unexpectedly I touched the Swami’s orbit, now circling a world. My mother, sister, and I had spent the month of June at the Great Fair of 1893 in Chicago, and we were planning lo return for the Congress of Religions in the autumn on our way to Japan and the Orient. A death in the family brought our journey to a halt in a little town in Ohio. Soon after our arrival there the Swedenborgian minister, as a courtesy to strangers, invited us to dine with him. We went. The minister himself met us at the door, his face aglow with enthusiasm. He had just returned from the Congress of Religions and he could talk of nothing else.
He described at length the various sessions of the Congress, dwelling with emphasis on this delegate or that. “But”, he continued, “there was one speaker who stood out above all others, because of his learning, his eloquence, and his impressive personality. No other could compare with him except two or three Roman Catholic prelates, and they had sent their best mea.” He paused, leaving his brilliant figure without name or nationality. “Who was he?” I asked eagerly. The minister replied quietly: “A Hindu — Swami Vivekananda.”
I was prepared to be keenly interested, for the spiritual teachings of India were not unfamiliar to me, Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia had acquainted me with the exalted beauty of Lord Buddha’s life and doctrine; I had read and reread Mohini Chatterji’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, looking up all his references to parallel passages in the Bible; and long hours had been devoted through the previous winter to the study of Max Muller’s English version of the Upanishads. I still have the copy, worn and marked, that I used at that time. Thus a gradual orientation had taken place in my mind.
Autumn brought our return to New York. Winter set in with its busy routine, but the memory of the conversation with the Swedenborgian minister still remained vivid. One day, as I was walking up Madison Avenue, I saw in the window of the Hall of the Universal Brotherhood a modest sign saying: “Next Sunday at 3 p.m. Swami Vivekananda will speak here on ‘What is Vedanta?’ and the following Sunday on ‘What is yoga?”. I reached the hall twenty minutes before the hour. It was already over half full. It was not large, however — a long, narrow room with a single aisle and benches reaching from it to the wall; a low platform holding reading-desk and chair at the far end; and a flight of stairs at the back. The hall was on the second storey and these stairs gave the only way of access to it — audience and speaker both had to make use of them. By the time three o’clock had arrived, hall, stairs, window-sills, and railings, all were crowded to their utmost capacity. Many even were standing below, hoping to catch a faint echo of the words spoken in the hall above.
A sudden hush, a quiet step on the stairs, and Swami Vivekananda passed in stately erectness up the aisle to the platform. He began to speak; and memory, time, place, people, all melted away. Nothing was left but a voice ringing through the void. It was as if a gate had swung open and I had passed out on a road leading to limitless attainment. The end of it was not visible; but the promise of what it would be shone through the thought and flashed through the personality of the one who gave it. He stood there — prophet of infinitude.
The silence of an empty hall recalled me to myself. Everyone was gone except the Swami and two others standing near the platform. I learnt later that they were Mr. and Mrs. Goodyear, ardent disciples of the Swami. Mr. Goodyear made the announcements at the meetings. After that I attended all the classes and lectures during the Swami’s two seasons in New York, but I never came in close personal touch with him. There seemed to be an intangible barrier. Was it created by shyness or a sense of strangeness, or by my elder sister’s prejudice? She had no sympathy with my Oriental studies and often said she wished I “could get salvation nearer home”.
The meetings began in an upper room; then because of their increasing size they were transferred to the floor below. Later they moved to another house — one in a long monotonous row of dingy boarding houses. It was a heterogeneous gathering at the classes in those shabby lodgings — old and young, rich and poor, wise and foolish; stingy ones who dropped a button in the collection basket, and more generous ones who gave a dollar bill or even two. We all met day after day and became friends without words or association. Some of us never missed a meeting. We followed the course on bhakti-yoga and the course on jnana-yoga. We walked simultaneously along the paths of raja-yoga and karma-yoga. We were almost sorry that there were only four yogas. We would have liked to have six or eight, that the number of classes might be multiplied.
We were insatiable knowledge-seekers. We did not limit ourselves to any one doctrine or scripture. We went to one lecture in the morning, a second one in the afternoon, and sometimes to a third in the evening. Philosophy, metaphysics, astrology, each had its turn. Yet although we seemed to scatter our interest, our real loyalty belonged to the Swami. We recognized in him a power that no other teacher possessed. It was he alone who was shaping our thought and conviction. Even my dog — an Irish setter — felt this. He would stand perfectly still and a quiver would run through his body whenever Swamiji would lay his hand on his head and tell him he was a true yogi.
The faithful group that followed the Swami wherever he spoke were as relentless as they were earnest. If he suggested tentatively omitting a class because of a holiday or for some other reason, there was a loud protest always. This one had come to New York specially for the teaching and wished to get all she could; another was leaving town soon and was unwilling to lose a single opportunity of hearing the Swami. They gave him no respite. He taught early and late. Among the most eager were a number of teachers, each with a blank book in hand; and the Swami’s words were punctuated by the tap of their pencils taking rapid notes. Not a sentence went unrecorded; and I am sure that if later any one had made the circuit Of the New York Centres of New Thought, Metaphysics, or Divine Science, they would have heard everywhere Vedanta and yoga in more or less diluted form.
Through the late winter and spring of 1895 the work — carried on without the intermittence of the earlier teaching — gained tremendous momentum and fervour. We divided our interest no longer. It was wholly focussed on the message the Swami had to give. That had become the foundation of our daily living, the stimulus that urged us onward. For several consecutive months class followed class, lecture followed lecture. Now there remained only a final class and a final lecture. Then the last class was over and in a hush of sadness we filed out from the shabby lodging-house, dropping our farewell offering in the basket at the door.
There was still a final Sunday lecture. It look place in the Madison Square Concert Hall — a fairly large hall on the second floor behind the Madison Square Garden, a vast arena used for automobile exhibitions, bicycle races, horse shows, for anything that required space. The building seemed huge at that time, but later New York outgrew it. and it was torn down. The Concert Hall was much used by Glee Clubs, siring quartets, and lectures. I do not know how many it held, but it was full to the uttermost at that closing lecture — every seat, every foot of standing room was occupied.
I believe that was the day on which Swami Vivekananda delivered the lecture on My Master. As he entered the hall from a door at the side of the platform, one sensed a different mood in him. He seemed less confident, as if he approached his task reluctantly. Years after in Madras I understood. He hesitated at all times to speak of his guru. During his early wanderings through South India he refused to reveal his name even, believing he represented him so poorly. Only in Madras, when he came unaware upon his Master’s picture, did the words burst from his lips: “That is my guru, Shri Ramakrishna,” and tears streamed down his face. So now was he reluctant. He began his lecture with a long preamble; but once in his subject, it swept him. The force of it drove him from one end of the platform to the other. It overflowed in a swift-running stream of eloquence and feeling. The large audience listened in awed stillness and at the close many left the hall without speaking. As for myself, I was transfixed. The transcendent picture drawn overwhelmed me. The call had come, and I answered.
It was on this Sunday that Swami’s first volume appeared. For some time the lectures of one Sunday had been for sale on the book table, the next Sunday in pamphlet form. Now a whole collection of lectures on karma-yoga was brought out in a large, thin, closely-printed volume — very different from the edition published later. It was not very beautiful, but the workers were extremely proud of it.
A supplementary meeting in a private house marked the close of the Swami’s New York work. In June he went with a group of students to Thousand Island Park and in August he sailed for Europe. The time of hearing was over, the time of pondering and practising had come. As we dwelt in memory on the Swami’s teachings and tried from day to day to put them into our life, we came to feet more and more that a mighty comet had swung into our hemisphere, shone for a season in our heavens, and swung out again, leaving a line of light behind it. Its radiance still lingers.
Those who attended Swami Vivekananda’s classes and lectures in New York soon grew familiar with a tall, very portly figure who moved about doing everything. We learnt before long that it was Miss Ellen Waldo, a distant connection of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a person of wide philosophic and general culture. The Swami had given her the Sanskrit name “Haridasi”. and it was well chosen. She was truly a “Servant of the Lord” — her service was continuous and untiring. She cooked, edited, cleaned and took dictation, taught and managed, read proof and saw visitors.
When Swami Vivekananda came to New York, he encountered a strong racial prejudice, which created many hardships for him both in his public and in his private life. Among other things it was extremely difficult for him to secure a proper lodging. Landladies invariably assured him that they had no feeling themselves, but they were afraid they would lose their boarders or lodgers if they took an Asiatic into the house. This forced the Swami to accept inferior living quarters. Neither environment nor association was what he should have had. One day, after he had been overnight in one of these dingy lodgings, he said to Miss Waldo: “The food here seems so unclean, would it be possible for you to cook for me?” She went at once to the landlady and obtained permission to use the kitchen. Then from her own store she gathered together cooking utensils and groceries. These she carried with her on the following morning.
She lived at the far end of Brooklyn. The only means of transportation was a jogging horse-car, and it required two hours to reach the Swami’s lodging at 38th Street in New York. Undaunted, every morning found her on her way at eight o’clock or earlier; and at nine or ten at night she was on her way home again. When there came a free day, the Journey was reversed. It was Swamiji who took the jogging horse-car, travelled the two hours and cooked the meals. He found genuine rest and relaxation in the freedom and quiet of Miss Waldo’s simple home. The kitchen was on the top floor of the house, in front of it the dining-room full of sunshine and potted plants. As the Swami invented new dishes or tried experiments with Western provisions, he ran back and forth from one room to the other tike a child at play.
“In all this close association with Swamiji,” Miss Waldo said to me later, “it seems strange that the idea of renunciation never once occurred to me. Nor did I ever think seriously of following him to India. I seemed to belong in America. Yet there-was nothing I would not have done for him. When he first came to New York, he insisted on wearing his orange robe everywhere. It required no little courage to walk up Broadway beside that flaming coat. As the Swami strode along in lordly indifference, with me just behind, half out of breath trying to keep up with him, every eye was turned upon us, and on every lip was the question: “What are they?’ Later I persuaded him to adopt more subdued clothing for the street.”
One morning the Swami found Miss Waldo in tears, “What is the matter, Ellen?” he asked anxiously. “Has anything happened?” “I seem unable to please you”, she replied. “Even when others annoy you, you scold me for it,” The Swami said quickly. “I do not know those people well enough to scold them. I cannot rebuke them, so I come to you. Whom can I scold if I cannot scold my own?” Her tears dried at once, and after that she sought scoldings; they were a proof of nearness.
Miss Waldo herself told me of this experience as her own. Romain Rolland tells it of another disciple. Both can be true. The incident could easily repeat itself.
Miss Waldo had had wide experience in teachers. She had sat at the feet of many during her long pursuit of truth, but sooner or later they had all fallen short in some way. Now the fear was in her heart that this new Hindu Swami might prove wanting. She was always watching for a sign of weakness. It came. She and the Swami were together in a New York drawing-room. The New York Swami Vivekananda knew was very different from the New York of today. The streets then were lined with monotonous blocks of brown stone houses, one so completely like very other that a visiting artist of note once asked: “How do you know when you are at home? You could as well be in the house next door.”
Each of these narrow, but deep houses held on the first floor a long narrow drawing-room, with high folding-doors at one end, two large windows at the other, and between them a mirror reaching from floor to ceiling. This mirror seemed to fascinate the Swami. He stood before it again and again, gazing at himself intently. In between he walked up and down the room, lost in thought. Miss Waldo’s eyes followed him anxiously. “Now the bubble is going to burst”, she thought. “He is full of personal vanity.” Suddenly he turned to her and said: “Ellen, it is the strangest thing, I cannot remember how I look. I look and look at myself in the glass, but the moment I ‘ turn away I forget completely what I look like.”
It was during this first visit to America that the Swami’s Raja-Yoga took form. The greater part was dictated to Miss Waldo. She look it down in long hand. Those cherished hours of work on it were specially happy ones for her. She often spoke of them. Each day when the Swami’s meal had been prepared and her tasks in the kitchen were done, she would come up to the back parlour where Swamiji lodged; take her seat at a table, on which stood an open ink-well; and dip her pen in the ink. From that moment until the work was laid aside for the day, her pen was kept wet, to catch the first rush of words that fell periodically from the Swami’s lips. Sometimes in seeking for an English equivalent for the Sanskrit word in an aphorism, he would sit in concentrated silence for fifteen or twenty minutes — but the pen was not allowed to dry. The burst of dictation might come at any instant.
When the manuscript was completed, it was entrusted to Miss Waldo to put into print, but many distresses and heartaches lay in wait for her before publication was accomplished. Another devoted follower of the Swami borrowed the manuscript, carried it to London, and brought it out there, believing it was to the Swami’s advantage to have it appear in England. For the time this blocked the American edition, and it was only possible to have an American edition by adding the glossary and other matter.
(Prabuddha Bharata, April & May 1932)