The summer of 1898 stands out in my memory as a series of pictures, painted like old altar-pieces, against a golden background of religious ardour and simplicity, and all alike glorified by the presence of one who, to us in his immediate circle, formed their central point.
We were a party of four Western women, one of whom was Mrs. Ole Bull of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and another a member of the higher official world of Anglo-Indian Calcutta. Side by side with us travelled the Swami, surrounded by his brethren (or gurubhais) and disciples.
Once arrived at Almora, he and his party became the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, who were then residing there, and we occupied a bungalow some distance away. Thus pleasantly grouped, it was possible to combine a high degree of freedom and intercourse. But when, after a month or so, we left Almora for Kashmir, the Swami went with us, as the guest of Mrs. Ole Bull, and left behind him all his attendants.
What scenes were those through which we journeyed from the beginning of May until the end of October! And with what passionate enthusiasm were we introduced one by one to each point of interest, as we reached it! The ignorance of educated Western people about India, – excepting of course those who have in some measure specialised on the subject -might almost be described as illiteracy, and our object-lessons began, I have no doubt, with Patna, the ancient Pataliputra, itself. The river-front of Benares, as one approaches it by railway from the East, is amongst the sights of the world, and could not fail of our leader’s eager praise. The industries and luxuries of Lucknow must needs be dwelt upon and enumerated. But it was not only the great cities of admitted beauty and historic importance, that the Swami, in his eagerness, would strive to impress on our memory. Perhaps nowhere did his love seem more ardent, or his absorption more intense, than as we passed across the long stretches of the Plains, covered with fields and farms and villages.
Here his thought was free to brood over the land as a whole, and he would spend hours explaining the communal system of agriculture, or describing the daily life of the farm housewife, with such details as that of the pot-au-feu of mixed grains left boiling all night, for the morning porridge. It was the memory, doubtless, of his own days as a wanderer, that so brightened his eyes and thrilled in his voice, as he told us these things. For I have heard it said by sadhus that there is no hospitality in India like that of the humble peasant home. True, the mistress has no better bedding to offer than straw, no better shelter than an outhouse built of mud. But it is she who steals in at the last moment, before she goes to rest herself amongst her sleeping household, to place a tooth-brush twig and a bowl of milk where the guest will find them, on waking in the morning, that he may go forth from beneath her roof comforted and refreshed.
It would seem sometimes as if the Swami lived and moved and had his very being in the sense of his country’s past. His historic consciousness was extraordinarily developed. Thus, as we journeyed across the Terai, in the hot hours of an afternoon near the beginning of the rains, we were made to feel that this was the very earth on which had passed the youth and renunciation of Buddha. The wild peacocks spoke to us of Rajputana and her ballad lore. An occasional elephant was the text for tales of ancient battles, and the story of an India that was never defeated, so long as she could oppose to the tide of conquest the military walls of these living artillery.
As we had crossed the boundary from Bengal into the North-West Provinces, the Swami had stopped to tell us of the wisdom and methods of the great and merciful English ruler who was at that time at the head of their administration. “Unlike others,” he said, in words that impressed my memory at the time, “he understands the need of personal government in Oriental countries, where a strong public opinion is not yet developed, so no hospital, no college, no office knows the day when he will pay it a visit of inspection. And even the poorest believes that if only he can reach him personally, he will receive justice at his hands.” This idea of the importance of personality in Eastern governments often came uppermost in his talk. He constantly spoke of a democracy as theoretically the worst form for an imperial government to take. And one of his favourite speculations was that it had been a perception of this truth that had urged Julius Caesar on, to aspire to the imperial authority.
We realised sometimes, as we listened to him, how hard it had been for the Indian poor, to understand the transition from the personal rule of sovereigns, always accessible to appeal, always open to the impulse of mercy, and able to exercise a supreme discretion, to the cold bureaucratic methods of a series of departments. For we heard from him the personal histories of innumerable simple folk, who, in the early years of British rule, had spent their all in the vain hope of reaching the Queen, and gaining her ear, at Windsor. Heart-broken pilgrims for the most part, who died, of want and disillusionment, far from the homes and villages that they would never see again!
It was as we passed into the Punjab, however, that we caught our deepest glimpse of the Master’s love of his own land. Anyone who had seen him here, would have supposed him to have been born in the province, so intensely had he identified himself with it. It would seem that he had been deeply bound to the people there by many ties of love and reverence; had received much and given much; for there were some amongst them who urged that they found in him a rare mixture of ‘Guru Nanak and Guru Govind,’ their first teacher and their last.
Even the most suspicious amongst them trusted him. And if they refused to credit his judgment, or endorse his outflowing sympathy, in regard to those Europeans whom he had made his own, he, it may have been, loved the wayward hearts all the more for their inflexible condemnation and incorruptible sternness. His American disciples were already familiar with his picture – that called to his own face a dreamy delight, – of the Punjabi maiden at her spinning wheel, listening to its “Sivoham! Sivoham! I am He! I am He!” Yet at the same time, I must not forget to tell that it was here, on entering the Punjab, even as, near the end of his life, he is said to have done again at Benares, that he called to him a Mussulman vendor of sweetmeats, and bought and ate from his hand Mohammedan food.
As we went through some village, he would point out to us those strings of marigolds above the door, that distinguished the Hindu homes. Again he would show us the pure golden tint of skin, so different from the pink and white of the European ideal, that constitutes the ‘fairness’ admired by the Indian races. Or as one drove beside him in a tonga1, he would forget all, in that tale of which he never wearied, of Siva, the Great God, silent, remote upon the mountains, asking nothing of men but solitude, and ”lost in one eternal meditation.”
We drove from Rawalpindi to Murree, where we spent a few days. And then, partly by tonga, partly by boat, we proceeded to Srinagar in Kashmir, and made it our centre and headquarters, during the wanderings of the following months.
It would be easy to lose oneself here in the beauty of our journeys, in descriptions of mountain-forests on the road to Almora, or of cathedral-rocks and corn-embosomed villages in the Jhelum Pass. For, as one returns upon that time, its record is found in a constant succession of scenes of loveliness. Not least of these pictures is the memory of the handsome old woman, wearing the crimson coronet and white veil of Kashmiri peasants, who sat at her spinning-wheel under a great chenaar-tree* in a farm-yard, surrounded by her daughters-in-law, when we passed that, way, and stopped to visit her. It was the Swami’s second call on her. He had received some small kindness at her hands the year before, and had never tired of telling how, after this, when he had asked, before saying farewell, “- And,
1. Tonga: a horse drawn carriage, which was used for transportation in India.
The Chenaar-tree is the Oriental Palm.
mother, of what religion are you?” her whole face had lighted up with pride and joy, and her old voice had rung out in triumph as she answered loudly and clearly, “I thank our God, by the mercy of the Lord, I am a Mussulman!”
Or I might tell of the avenue of lofty Lombardy poplars outside Srinagar, so like the well-known picture by Hobbema, where we listened to discourse after discourse on India and the Faith.
Or I might linger over the harvest merriment of the villagers, playing in reaped fields on moonlit evenings; or talk of the red bronze of amaranth crops, or the green of young rice under tall poplars at Islamabad. Forget-me-nots of a brilliant blue form the commonest wild flower of the Kashmiri fields in summer; but in autumn and spring, fields and river banks are violet-tinged with small purple irises, and one walks amongst their spear-like leaves as if they were grass. How infinitely tender are the suggestions of those little iris-covered hillocks, rounding off the rise of some road-side against the sky, that mark the burial places of the Mussulman dead!
Here and there, too, amidst grass and irises, one comes on groups of gnarled apple trees, or pear, or plum, the remains of the village orchards which the State, once upon a time, supplied to all its subjects free of cost. Walking here once, at twilight, along the high banks of the river, I watched a party of Mussulman herdsmen, crooks in hand, driving a small flock of long-haired goats before them to their village. And then, as they came to a knot of apple-trees, they stopped awhile, and spreading a blanket for praying-carpet, they proceeded to offer their evening-worship in the deepening dusk.
Verily, says my heart, there is no end of beauty. There is no end!
But in good sooth it is not of these things that I am attempting, in the course of the present pages, to speak. Mine is the broken and faltering witness of one who is fain to tell – not of geography nor of politics, nor yet of the ways and customs of interesting peoples and unknown races, but rather of the glimpses vouchsafed to her of a great religious life of the ancient order, living itself out, amidst the full and torturing consciousness of all the anomalies and perplexities of the Modern Transition.
Sri Ramakrishna had been, as the Swami himself said once of him, “like a flower,” living apart in the garden of a temple, simple, half-naked, orthodox, the ideal of the old time in India, suddenly burst into bloom, in a world that had thought to dismiss its very memory. It was at once the greatness and the tragedy of my own Master’s life that he was not of this type. His was the modern mind in its completeness. In his consciousness, the ancient light of the mood in which man comes face to face with God might shine, but it shone on all those questions and all those puzzles which are present to the thinkers and workers of the modern world. His hope could not pass by unheeded, – it might include or it might reject – the hope of men of the nineteenth century. That sudden revelation of the misery and struggle of humanity as a whole, which has been the first result of the limelight irradiation of facts by the organisation of knowledge, had been made to him also, as to the European mind. We know the verdict that Europe has passed on it all.
Our art, our science, our poetry, for the last sixty years or more, are filled with the voices of our despair. A world summed up in the growing satisfaction and vulgarity of privilege, and the growing sadness and pain of the dispossessed; and a will of man too noble and high to condone the evil, yet too feeble to avert or arrest it, this is the spectacle of which our greatest minds are aware. Reluctant, wringing her hands, it is true, yet seeing no other way, the culture of the West can but stand and cry, “To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Vae Victis! Woe to the vanquished!”
Is this also the verdict of the Eastern wisdom? If so, what hope is there for humanity? I find in my Master’s life an answer to this question. I see in him the heir to the spiritual discoveries and religious struggles of innumerable teachers and saints in the past of India and the world, and at the same time the pioneer and prophet of a new and future order of development. In the place which a problem took in his mind I find evidence regarding its final solution which -short of my own definite arrival at an opposite conclusion, as he himself would have been the first to point out – is of the highest value to myself.
And thinking thus, I believe that each trace of those higher and uncommon modes of thought and consciousness to which he held the key, has its significance for the modern age. I believe that much which has passed myself by, uncomprehending, will fall on its proper soil in other lives. And I pray only to give always true witness, without added interpolation, or falsifying colour.