I had heard of “the spiritual life” in Calcutta, as of a thing definite and accessible, to be chosen deliberately, and attained by following certain well-known paths. I found it, on reaching the mountains, to have its roots deep in a yearning love of God, in an anguished pursuit of the Infinite, of which I cannot hope to give any description. For this was characteristic of our Master. Where others would talk of ways and means, he knew how to light a fire. Where others gave directions, he would show the thing itself.
I wish here to be exceedingly explicit. My own part, throughout the years of my discipleship, appears to me to have been something like that of a thought-reader. The only claim that I can make is that I was able to enter sufficiently into the circuit of my Master’s energy to be able to give evidence regarding it from direct perception.
And since I believe that such an experience is subject to laws as definite as those of any physical force, I must endeavour to describe accurately the conditions under which this happened to me.
The Swami himself was, on personal subjects, intensely reserved. He had received confessions, of course, in many parts of the world, yet no one ever lived who more anxiously sought to escape the office of spiritual director. A hot flush and an accession of delicate hauteur were his immediate response, even to such merely theoretical questions as appeared to him to demand too intimate a revelation of the personal experience. I have sometimes heard enquiries forced upon him in his London classes – as to such matters as the feeling which accompanies Samadhi, for instance, – when it was clear to all listeners that he would rather have endured a careless touch upon an exposed nerve.
He had himself suggested my joining his travelling party, for the purpose of receiving his personal training for the work he wished me to do in India. But the method of this training proved entirely general. We would sit all together in garden or verandah, and listen, all together, to the discourse of the hour, each appropriating as much as she chose, and studying after-wards as she liked.
In all that year of 1898 I can remember only one occasion when the Swami invited me to walk alone with him for half an hour, and then our conversation – for it was towards the end of the summer, when I had begun to understand my own position a little – was rather of the policy and aims of the future, than of anything more subjective.
Undoubtedly, in the circle that gathers round a distinguished thinker, there are hidden emotional relationships which form the channels, as it were, along which his ideas circulate and are received. Even a mathematician will succeed in impressing himself on his generation, only in proportion to the radiance of feeling on which his thought is carried. But these expressions are wholly impersonal, and are appreciated by different receivers in very different ways. One holds himself as servant; another, as brother, friend, or comrade; a third may even regard the master-personality as that of a beloved child.
These things have been made into a perfect science in India, and it is there boldly understood and accepted that without some such dramatisation of their own relation to it, ordinary minds cannot be made susceptible of a great religious impulse. In my own case the position ultimately taken proved that most happy one of a spiritual daughter, and as such I was regarded by all the Indian people and communities, whom I met during my Master’s life.
But at the beginning of these journeys, before this and other things became clear to me, my mind was wholly in bewilderment, and it was my great good fortune that I was given at this time, as my daily teacher, in Bengali and in Hindu religious literature, the young monk known as the Swami Swarupananda. For I have always thought that it was to the fact that I found myself on the line of communication between his mind and that of our Master, – as on the pathway of interaction between some major and minor heliograph, – that I owed my ability there-after to read and understand a little of those feelings and ideas with which the air about us was charged.
The Swami Swarupananda had been received at the Monastery, within a few days of my own admission, in the chapel there, to the vows of a novice. But he, after some few weeks of probation, had received the yellow cloth, and taken the rank of a Sannyasin, at the hands of the Swami. The story of his mental development was of extraordinary interest to me. For this man had been brought up in his childhood in the Vaishnava faith, that is to say, in an idea of God as the kind and loving Lord and Preserver of men, and of Krishna as the Saviour and Divine Incarnation, which is practically tantamount to the Christianity of the West.
The usual revulsion, familiar to all of us, had been encountered. In the early and most chivalrous years of manhood he had witnessed a few instances of the injustice of life, had seen bitter proof that the battle in this world was to the strong, and found himself unable to believe longer in the sweet myth of his childhood, of an all-kind Providence. One of these stories I remember. Passing through a crowded street one day, he found a poor woman kneeling and crying softly, as, grain by grain, she picked up from the dust a handful of rice, that had been jostled out of the bowl in her hand, by a passer-by. And then the man found himself in his passionate pity, crying indignantly, “What the Devil would God be doing, if He existed, to let such things happen?”
Two or three such experiences precipitated him upon a year of mental suffering so keen that he never again knew perfect health. But he emerged from it in the peace that comes of a settled attitude towards life. He would break the dream. In other words, he had reached the conclusion that thousands of Indian students have arrived at, both before and since the time of Buddha.
It was henceforth impossible to him to imagine that the solution of the problem might ultimately be found in any picture of God seated on a throne, and the soul of man, in any attitude or relation, kneeling before Him. Rather, he saw in the ignorance and selfishness of the mind itself, the source of all such dreams as this, and of those further dreams, of pain and pleasure, of justice and injustice, of which the world, as we know it, is made up. And he determined to conquer this illusion, to reach the point of utmost insight and certainty, to gain deliverance from the perception of opposites, and to attain to that permanent realisation of One-ness which is known, in the Hindu conception of life, as Mukti.
From this time on, his schooling of himself to reach the highest would appear to have become a passion. One came to understand, in many ways, that the remaining years of his life in his father’s house had been almost more severe than those spent in most monasteries. And I, reading the Bhagavad Gita under his guidance, long afterwards at Almora, was made able to conceive of what we call the love of God as a burning thirst.
Under the influence of the Swami Swarupananda, I began seriously the attempt at meditation. And if it had not been for this help of his, one of the greatest hours of my life would have passed me by.
My relation to our Master at this time can only be described as one of clash and conflict. I can see now how much there was to learn, and how short was the time for learning to be, and the first of lessons doubtless is the destroying of self-sufficiency in the mind of the taught. But I had been little prepared for that constant rebuke and attack upon all my most cherished prepossessions which was now my lot. Suffering is often illogical, and I cannot attempt to justify by reason the degree of unhappiness which I experienced at this time, as I saw the dream of a friendly and beloved leader falling away from me, and the picture of one who would be at least indifferent, and possibly, silently hostile, substituting itself instead 1.
Fortunately it never occurred to me to retract my own proffered service, but I was made to realise, as the days went by, that in this there would be no personal sweetness. And then a time came when one of the older ladies of our party, thinking perhaps that such intensity of pain inflicted might easily go too far, interceded kindly and gravely with the Swami. He listened silently and went away. At evening, however, he returned, and finding us together in the verandah, he turned to her and said, with the simplicity of a child, “You were right. There must be a change. I am going away into the forests to be alone, and when I come back I shall bring peace.” Then he turned and saw that above us the moon was new, and a sudden exaltation came into his voice as he said, “See! the Mohammedans think much of the new moon. Let us also with the new moon begin a new life!”
As the words ended, he lifted his hands and blessed, with silent depths of blessing, his most rebellious disciple, by this time kneeling before him….It was assuredly a moment of wonderful sweetness of reconciliation. But such a moment may heal a wound. It cannot restore an illusion that has been broken into fragments. And I have told its story, only that I may touch upon its sequel.
Long, long ago, Sri Ramakrishna had told his disciples that the day would come when his beloved “Noren” would manifest his own great gift of bestowing knowledge with a touch. That evening at Almora, I proved the truth of his prophecy. For alone, in meditation, I found myself gazing deep into an Infinite Good, to the recognition of which no egoistic reasoning had led me. I learnt, too, on the physical plane, the simple everyday reality of the experience related in the Hindu books on religious psychology. And I understood, for the first time, that the greatest teachers may destroy in us a personal relation only in order to bestow the Impersonal Vision in its place.
1. Nivedita’s difficult experience with Swami Vivekananda was not specific to her alone, but was probably undergone by other disciples as well. The strain is not to be thought of as a flaw in the temperament of either the disciple or the guru, rather it was a process of spiritual transformation which Sister Christine beautifully explains, in the book Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda.
She writes that when people accepted Vivekananda as their ‘friend’ he would never interfere in their beliefs, or point out their faults to them; but once someone accepted him as their ‘guru’ the relationship changed. Then he felt it his responsibility to “attack foibles, prejudices, valuations” – in other words to destroy false ideas and illusions which his disciples clung to, and thus free them from Maya, so that they may succeed in their quest to realizing the Supreme Truth by which this world is pervaded.
It is this process that Sister Nivedita is referring to, when she says that Vivekananda relentlessly attacked her cherished prepossessions and beliefs, thereby destroying a superficial friendship, and replacing it with a much deeper guru-disciple bond, in which he could help her attain a glimpse of the Infinite.