“HE knew nothing of Vedanta, nothing of theories! He was contented to live that great life, and to leave it to others to explain.” So said the Swami Vivekananda once, referring to his Master, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. And, as an expression of the idea that there may in a great life be elements which he who lives it may not himself understand, the words have often come back to me, in reference to his own career.
In the West, the Swami had revealed himself to us as a religious teacher only. Even now, it needs but a moment’s thought and again one sees him in the old lecture-room, on the seat slightly raised above his class, and so enthroned, in Buddha-like calm, once more in a modern world is heard through his lips, the voice of the far past.
But renunciation, the thirst after freedom, the breaking of bondage, the fire of purity, the joy of the witness, the mergence of the personal in the impersonal, these, and these alone, had been the themes of that discourse. It is true that in a flash or two one had seen a great patriot. Yet the secret signal is sufficient where destiny calls, and moments that to one form the turning-point of a life, may pass before the eyes of a hundred spectators, unperceived. It was as the apostle of Hinduism, not as a worker for India, that we saw the Swami in the West.
“Oh how calm,” he exclaimed, “would be the work of one, who really understood the divinity of man! For such, there is nothing to do, save to open men’s eyes. All the rest does itself.” And out of some such fathomless peace had come all that we had seen and heard of him.
From the moment of my landing in India, however, I found something quite unexpected underlying all this. It was not Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, nor even the ideas which were connected with him, that formed so strange a revelation here. It was the personality of my Master himself, in all the fruitless torture and struggle of a lion caught in a net. For, from the day that he met me at the ship’s side, till that last serene moment, when, at the hour of cow-dust1, he passed out of the village of this world, leaving the body behind him, like a folded garment, I was always conscious of this element inwoven with the other, in his life.
1. The hour of cow-dust or Goudhuli in India, refers to the time in the evening when villagers return home after having grazed their cattle. At this time the sun is close to setting and the dust kicked up by the cow’s feet bathes everything in a golden mist
But wherein lay the struggle? whence came the frequent sense of being baffled and thwarted? Was it a growing consciousness of bodily weakness, conflicting with the growing clearness of a great purpose?
Amongst the echoes that had reached his English friends of his triumphal reception in India, this had been the note carried by a man-friend to my own ear. Banished to the Himalayas1 with shattered health, at the very moment when his power had reached its height, he had written a letter to his friend which was a cry of despair.
And some of us became eager to take any step that might make it possible to induce him to return to the West, and leave his Indian undertakings on other shoulders. In making such arrangements, how little must we have realised of the nature of those undertakings, or of the difficulty and complexity of the education that they demanded!
To what was the struggle actually due? Was it the terrible effort of translating what he had called the ‘super-conscious’ into the common life? Undoubtedly he had been born to a task which was in this respect of heroic difficulty. Nothing in this world is so terrible as to abandon the safe paths of accepted ideals, in order to work out some new realisation, by methods apparently in conflict with the old.
Once, in his boyhood, Sri Ramakrishna had asked “Noren,” as he was then called, what was his highest ambition in life, and he had promptly answered, ‘to remain always in Samadhi.’ His Master, it is said, received this with a smile. “I thought you had been born for something greater, my boy!” was all his reply.
We may take it, I think, that the moment marked an epoch in the disciple’s career. Certainly in years to come, in these last five and a half years, particularly, which were his crowning gift to his own people, he stood for work without attachment, or work for impersonal ends, as one of the highest expressions of the religious life. And for the first time in the history of India an order of monks found themselves banded together, with their faces set primarily towards the evolution of new forms of civic duty.
In Europe, where the attainment of the direct religious sense is so much rarer, and so much less understood than in the East, such labour ranks as devotional in the common acceptance. But in India, the head and front of the demand made on a monastic order is that it produce saints. And the value of the monk who, instead of devoting himself to maintaining the great tradition of the super-conscious life, turns back to help society upwards, has not in the past been clearly understood.
1. The intense work in America and Europe coupled with the Sannyasin lifestyle that Swami Vivekananda lead broke down his health completely On his return to India he suffered from diabetes, kidney disease and asthma. To recuperate doctors advised him to escape the damp climate of Calcutta and seek rest in Himalayan mountain towns, such as Darjeeling.
In the Swami’s scheme of things however, it would almost seem as if such tasks were to take that place in the spiritual education which had previously been occupied by systems of devotion. To the Advaitin, or strict believer in the Indian philosophy of Vedanta, the goal lies in the attainment of that mood in which all is One and there is no second. To one who has reached this, worship becomes impossible, for there is none to worship, none to be worshipper; and, all acts being equally the expression of the Immanent Unity, none can be distinguished as in any special sense constituting adoration. Worship, worshipper, and worshipped are one.
Yet it is admitted, even by the Advaitin, that systems of praise and prayer have the power to “purify the heart” of him who uses them. For clearly, the thought of self is more quickly restrained in relation to that of God, than to any other. Worship is thus regarded as the school, or preparation, for higher stages of spiritual development. But the self-same sequence would seem to have held good in the eyes of the Swami, with regard to work, or the service of man. The “purifying of the heart” connoted the burning out of selfishness. Worship is the very antithesis of use. But service or giving, is also its antithesis. Thus he hallowed the act of aid, and hallowed, too, the name of man. Till I know of one disciple, who, in the early days of the Order, was so filled with the impulse of this reverence that he sucked the sores of the lepers to bring them ease.
The nursing of the sick and the feeding of the poor, had indeed from the first been natural activities of the Children of Ramakrishna. But when the Swami Vivekananda returned from the West these things took on a larger aspect. They were considered from a national point of view. Men would be sent out from the Monastery to give relief in famine-stricken areas, to direct the sanitation of a town, or to nurse the sick and dying at a pilgrim centre. One man started an orphanage and industrial school at Murshidabad. Another established a teaching nucleus in the South. These were, said the Swami, the ‘sappers and miners’ of the army of religion.
His schemes however went much further. He was consumed with a desire for the education of Indian women, and for the scientific and technical education of the country. How the impersonal motive multiplies the power to suffer, only those who have seen can judge. Was his life indeed a failure, as he was sometimes tempted to feel it, since there never came to his hands that “twenty million pounds” with which, as he used to say, he could have set India on her feet? Or were there higher laws at work, that would eventually make a far greater success than any that could have been gathered within a single lifetime?
His view was penetrative as well as comprehensive. He had analyzed the elements of the development to be brought about. India must learn a new ideal of obedience. The Math was placed, therefore, on a basis of organization which was contrary to all the current ideas of religious freedom. A thousand new articles of use must be assimilated. Therefore, though his own habits were of the simplest, two or three rooms were provided with furniture. Digging, gardening, rowing, gymnastic exercises, the keeping of animals, all these were by degrees made a part of the life of the young brahmacharins1 and himself.
And he would throw a world of enthusiasm into a long course of experiments on such problems as the sinking of a well or the making of brown bread. On the last Charok Puja day of his life a gymnastic society came to the Math for sports and prizes, and he spoke of his desire that the Hindu Lent should be celebrated henceforth by special courses of athletic exercises. The energy which had hitherto gone into the mortification of the body, might rightly, in his opinion, under modern conditions, be directed to the training of the muscles.
To a western mind, it might well seem that nothing in the Swami’s life had been more admirable than this. Long ago, he had defined the mission of the Order of Ramakrishna as that of realizing and exchanging the highest ideals of the East and of the West. And assuredly he here proved his own power to engage in such an undertaking as much by his gift of learning as by that of teaching.
But it was inevitable that he himself should from time to time go through the anguish of revolt. The Hindu ideal of the religious life, as a reflection on earth of that of the Great God in the Divine Empyrean, “- the Unmoving, the Untouched, “pure, free, ever the Witness, ” – is so clear and so deeply established that only at great cost to himself could a man carry it into a fresh channel. Has anyone realized the pain endured by the sculptor of a new ideal? The very sensitiveness and delicacy of perception that are necessary to his task, that very moral exaltation which is as the chisel in his hand, are turned on himself in passive moments, to become doubt, and terror of responsibility.
What a heaven of ease seems then, to such a soul, even the hardest and sternest of those lives that are understood and authenticated by the imitative moral sense of the crowd! I have noticed in most experiences this consciousness of being woven out of two threads, one that is chosen and another endured. But in this case the common duality took the form of a play upon two different ideals, of which either was highest in its own world, and yet each, to those who believed in its fellow, almost as a crime.
1. Brahmacharins are monks who have taken a vow of celibacy.
Occasionally, to one who was much with him, a word, let fall unconsciously, would betray the inner conflict. He was riding on one occasion, with the Rajah of Khetri, when he saw that his arm was bleeding profusely, and found that the wound had been caused by a thorny branch which he had held aside for himself to pass. When the Swami expostulated, the Rajput laughed the matter aside, “Are we not always the Defenders of the Faith, Swamiji ?” he said. “And then,” said the Swami, telling the story, “I was just going to tell him that they ought not to show such honour to the Sannyasin, when suddenly I thought that perhaps they were right after all. Who knows? May be I too am caught in the glare of this flashlight of your modern civilisation, which is only for a moment.” “- I have become entangled,” he said simply, to one who protested that to his mind the wandering Sadhu of earlier years, who had scattered his knowledge and changed his name as he went, had been greater than the Abbot of Belur, burdened with much work and many cares, “I have become entangled.”
And I remember the story told by an American woman, who said she could not bear to remember his face, at that moment when her husband explained to this strange guest that he must make his way from their home to Chicago with money which would be paid gladly to hear him speak of religion. “It was,” she said “as if something had just broken within him, that could never again be made whole.” One day he was talking, in the West, of Meera Bae, – that saint who once upon a time was Queen of Chitore, – and of the freedom her husband had offered her, if only she would remain within the royal seclusion. But she could not be bound. “But why should she not?” someone asked, in astonishment. “Why should she?” he retorted. “Was she living down here in this mire?” And suddenly the listener caught his thought, of the whole nexus of the personal life, with its inter-relations and reaction upon reactions, as intolerable bondage and living anguish.
And so, side by side with that sunlit serenity and child-like peace which enwrapped the Swami as a religious teacher, I found in his own country another point of view, from which he was very, very human. And here, though the results of his efforts may have been choicer, or more enduring, than those of most of us, yet they were wrought at the self-same cost of having to toil on in darkness and uncertainty, and only now and then emerging into light. Often dogged by the sense of failure, often over-taken by a loathing of the limitations imposed alike by the instrument and the material, he dared less and less, as years went on, to make determinate plans, or to dogmatize about the unknown. “After all, what do we know?” he said once, “Mother uses it all. But we are only fumbling about.”
This has not perhaps been an element in the lives of the great teachers on which their narrators have cared to dwell much. Yet one catches a hint of it in the case of Sri Ramakrishna, when we are told how he turned on God with the reproach, “Oh Mother! what is this You have brought me to? All my heart is centred in these lads!” And in the eleventh chapter of the Dhammapada1 one can see still, though twenty-four centuries have passed since then, the wave-marks of similar storms on the shores of the consciousness of another Teacher:
Seeking for the maker of this tabernacle, and not finding, I must run through a course of many births; and painful is birth again and again. But now, maker of the tabernacle, thou hast been seen! Thou shall not again build up this tabernacle. All thy rafters are fallen. Thy ridge-pole is broken. The mind, approaching the Eternal, has attained to the extinction of all desires.
There was one thing however, deep in the Master’s nature, that he himself never knew how to adjust. This was his love of his country and his resentment of her suffering. Throughout those years in which I saw him almost daily, the thought of India was to him like the air he breathed. True, he was a worker at foundations. He neither used the word ‘nationality,’ nor proclaimed an era of ‘nation-making’. ‘Man-making’, he said, was his own task. But he was born a lover, and the queen of his adoration was his Motherland.
Like some delicately-poised bell, thrilled and vibrated by every sound that falls upon it, was his heart to all that concerned her. Not a sob was heard within her shores that did not find in him a responsive echo. There was no cry of fear, no tremor of weakness, no shrinking from mortification, that he had not known and understood. He was hard on her sins, unsparing of her want of worldly wisdom, but only because he felt these faults to be his own. And none, on the contrary, was ever so possessed by the vision of her greatness. To him, she appeared as the giver of English civilisation. For what, he would ask, had been the England of Elizabeth in comparison with the India of Akbar? Nay, what would the England of Victoria have been, without the wealth of India, behind her? Where would have been her refinement? where would have been her experience?
His country’s religion, history, geography, ethnology, poured from his lips in an inexhaustible stream. With equal delight he treated of details and of the whole, or so it would often seem to those who listened. Indeed there would sometimes come a point where none who wished to remember what had been said already, could afford to listen any longer. And still, with mind detached, one might note the unwearied stream of analysis of the laws regarding female inheritance, or the details of caste customs in different provinces, or some abstruse system of metaphysics or theology, proceeding on and on for a couple of hours longer.
1. The Dhammapada is an ancient Buddhist scripture containing the teachings of Lord Buddha.
In these talks of his, the heroism of the Rajput, the faith of the Sikh, the courage of the Mahratta, the devotion of the saints, and the purity and steadfastness of noble women, all lived again. Nor would he permit that the Mohammedan should be passed over. Humayoon, Sher Shah, Akbar, Shah Jehan, each of these, and a hundred more, found a day and a place in his bead-roll of glistening names.
Now it was that coronation song of Akbar which is still sung about the streets of Delhi, that he would give us, in the very tone and rhythm of Thanasena. Again, he would explain how the widows of the Mogul House never remarried, but lived like Hindu women, absorbed in worship or in study, through the lonely years. At another time he would talk of the great national genius that decreed the birth of Indian sovereigns to be of a Moslem father and of a Hindu mother. And yet again he would hold us breathless, as we lived through with him the bright, but ill-starred reign, of Sirajud-Daulah; as we heard the exclamation at Plassy of the Hindu general, listening to an order sent in treachery, “Then is the day lost!” and saw him plunge, with his horse, into the Ganges; as, finally, we lingered with the faithful wife, clad in the white sari of the widow amongst her own people, through long years tending the lamp above the grave of her dead lord.
Sometimes the talk would be more playful. It would arise out of some commonplace incident. The offering of a sweetmeat, or the finding of a rare commodity like musk or saffron, or events simpler still, would be enough to start it.
He told us how he had longed, when in the West, to stand once more at dusk some little way outside an Indian village and hear again the evening calls, – the noise of children growing sleepy at their play, the evensong bells, the cries of the herdsmen, and the half-veiled sound of voices through the quickly-passing twilight. How homesick he had been for the sound of the July rains, as he had known them in his childhood in Bengal! How wonderful was the sound of water, in rain, or waterfall, or sea! The most beautiful sight he could remember was a mother whom he had seen, passing from stepping-stone to stepping-stone across a mountain brook, and turning as she went, to play with and caress the baby on her back. The ideal death would be to lie on a ledge of rock in the midst of Himalayan forests, and hear the torrent beneath, as one passed out of the body, chanting eternally ‘Hara! Hara! The Free! The Free!’
Like some great spiral of emotion, its lowest circles held fast in love of soil and love of nature; its next embracing every possible association of race, experience, history, and thought; and the whole converging and centring upon a single definite point, was thus the Swami’s worship of his own land. And the point in which it was focussed was the conviction that India was not old and effete, as her critics had supposed, but young, ripe with potentiality, and standing, at the beginning of the twentieth century, on the threshold of even greater developments than she had known in the past. Only once, however, do I remember him to have given specific utterance to this thought. “I feel myself” he said in a moment of great quiet, “to be the man born after many centuries. I see that India is young.” But in truth this vision was implied in every word he ever spoke. It throbbed in every story he told. And when he would lose himself, in splendid scorn of apology for anything Indian, in fiery repudiation of false charge or contemptuous criticism, or in laying down for others the elements of a faith and love that could never be more than a pale reflection of his own, how often did the habit of the monk seem to slip away from him, and the armour of the warrior stand revealed!
But it is not to be supposed that he was unaware of the temptation which all this implied. His Master had said of him, in the years of his first discipleship, “It is true that there is a film of ignorance upon his mind. My Mother1 has placed it there, that Her work may be done. And it is thin, as thin as a sheet of tissue paper. It might be rent at any moment!” And so, as one who has for-sworn them will struggle against thoughts of home and family, he would endeavour, time and again, to restrain and suppress these thoughts of country and history, and to make of himself only that poor religious wanderer, to whom all countries and all races should be alike.
He came back, in Kashmir, from one of the great experiences of his life, saying, with the simplicity of a child, “There must be no more of this anger. Mother said ‘What, even if the unbeliever should enter My temples, and defile My images, what is that to you? Do YOU PROTECT ME? OR DO I PROTECT YOU?”
His personal ideal was that sannyasin of the Mutiny, who was stabbed by an English soldier, and broke the silence of fifteen years to say to his murderer “- And thou also art He!”
He was always striving to be faithful to the banner of Ramakrishna, and the utterance of a message of his own seemed often to strike him as a lapse. Besides, he believed that force spent in mere emotion was dissipated, only force restrained being conserved for expression in work.
Yet again the impulse to give all he had would overtake him, and before he knew it, he would once more be scattering those thoughts of hope and love for his race and for his country, which, apparently without his knowledge, fell in so many cases like seed upon soil prepared for it, and have sprung up already, in widely distant parts of India, into hearts and lives of devotion to the Motherland. Just as Sri Ramakrishna, in fact, without knowing any books, had been a living epitome of the Vedanta so was Vivekananda of the national life. But of the theory of this, he was unconscious. In his own words, applied to his own Master, “He was contented simply to live that great life, and to leave it to others to find the explanation!”