Chief of intellectual passions with the Swami, was his reverence for Buddha. It was perhaps the historical authenticity of this Indian life that was the basis of the delight it roused in him. “We are sure of Buddha and Mohammed, alone amongst religious teachers,” he was wont to say, “for they alone had the good fortune to possess enemies as well as friends!”
Again and again he would return upon the note of perfect rationality in his hero. Buddha was to him not only the greatest of Aryans, but also “the one absolutely sane man” that the world had ever seen. How he had refused worship! Yet he drew no attention to the fact that it had been offered. ‘Buddha,’ he said, ‘was not a man, but a realisation. Enter, all ye into it! Here receive the key!’
He had been so untouched by the vulgar craving for wonders, that he coldly excommunicated the lad who had by a word brought down a jewelled cup from the top of a pole, in the presence of the crowd. Religion he said, had nothing to do with jugglery!
How vast had been the freedom and humility of the Blessed One! He attended the banquet of Ambapali the courtesan. Knowing that it would kill him1, but desiring that his last act should be one of communion with the lowly, he received the food of the pariah, and afterwards sent a courteous message to his host, thanking him for the Great Deliverance. How calm! How masculine! Verily was he the bull in the herd and a moon amongst men!
And perfect as he was in reason, he was at least as wondrous in compassion. To save the goats at Rajgir, he would have given his life. He had once offered himself up, to stay the hunger of a tigress. Out of five hundred lives renounced for others, had been distilled the pity that had made him Buddha.
There comes to us a touch of his humour across the ages when he tells the tale of the youth, sobbing out his love for one he has never seen, whose very name he does not know, and likens his plight to the iterations of humanity about God. He alone was able to free religion entirely from the argument of the supernatural, and yet make it as binding in its force, and as living in its appeal, as it had ever been. This was done by the power of his own great personality, and the impress it made on the men of his own generation.
For some of us, one evening, the Swami sat reconstructing the story, as it must have appeared to Jasodhara, the wife of Buddha, and never have I heard the dry bones of history clothed with such fullness or convincingness of life.
Hindu monk as he himself was, it seemed to Vivekananda natural enough that a strong personality should have what he conveniently described as “European ideas about marriage,” and should insist, as did Buddha, on seeing and choosing his bride for himself. Each detail of the week of festivities and betrothal was dwelt on tenderly.
Then came the picture of the two, long wedded, and the great night of farewell.
The gods sang, “Awake! thou that art awakened! Arise! and help the world!” and the struggling prince returned again and again to the bedside of his sleeping wife. “What was the problem that vexed him? Why! It was she whom he was about to sacrifice for the world! That was the struggle! He cared nothing for himself!”
Then the victory, with its inevitable farewell, and the kiss, imprinted so gently on the foot of the princess that she never woke. “Have you never thought,” said the Swami, “of the hearts of the heroes? How they were great, great, great, and soft as butter?”
It was seven years later, when the prince, now Buddha, returned to Kapilavastu, where Jasodhara had lived, – clad in the yellow cloth, eating only roots and fruits, sleeping in no bed, under no roof, – from the day he had left her, sharing the religious life also, in her woman’s way. And he entered, and she took the hem of his garment, “as a wife should do,” while he told, to her and to his son, the Truth.
But when he had ended, and would have departed to his garden, she turned, startled, to her son, and said “Quick! go and ask your father for your patrimony1!”
And when the child asked “Mother, which is my father?” She disdained to give any answer, save “The lion that passes down the street, lo, he is thy father!”
And the lad, heir of the Sakya line, went, saying “Father, give me my inheritance!”
Three times he had to ask, before Buddha, turning to Ananda, said “Give it!” and the gerrua cloth was thrown over the child.
Then, seeing Jasodhara, and realising that she, too, longed to be near her husband, the chief disciple said “May women enter the Order? Shall we give to her also the yellow cloth?”
And Buddha said “Can there be sex in knowledge? Have I ever said that a woman could not enter? But this, O Ananda, was for thee to ask!”
Thus Jasodhara also became a disciple. And then all the pent-up love and pity of those seven years, welled forth in the Jataka Birth-stories! For they were all for her! Five hundred times each had forgotten self. And now they would enter into perfection together.
“- Yes, yes, so it was! For Jasodhara and for Sita, a hundred years would not have been enough to try their faith!”
“No! No!” mused the teller, after a pause, as he ended the tale, “Let us all own that we have passions still! Let each one say ‘I am not the ideal!’ “Let none ever venture to compare another with Him!”
During the years of our Master’s boyhood at Dakshineshwar, the attention of the world had been much concentrated on the story of Buddhism. The restoration of the great shrine of Bodh-Gaya was carried out about this time* under the orders of the English Government, and the share taken in this work by Rajendra Lala Mitra, the Bengali scholar, kept Indian interest intense throughout the country. In 1879, moreover, the imagination even of the unlearned classes in English-speaking countries was deeply stirred, by the appearance of Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” said to be in many parts an almost literal translation from the ‘Buddha Charita’ of Ashwa Ghosh.
But the Swami was never satisfied with taking things at second-hand, and in this too could not rest contented until in 1887 he, with his brethren, contrived to read together, not only the ‘Lalita Vistara,’ but also the great book of the Mahajana school of Buddhism, the ‘Prajna Paramita,’** in the original.*** Their knowledge of Sanskrit was their key to the understanding of the daughter-language.
The study of Dr. Rajendra Lala Mitra’s writings and of the ‘Light of Asia,’ could never be a mere passing event in the Swami’s life, and the seed that thus fell on the sensitive mind of Sri Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, during the years of his discipleship, came to blossom the moment he was initiated into sannyas, for his first act then was to hurry to Bodh-Gaya, and sit under the great tree, saying to himself ‘Is it possible that I breathe the air He breathed? That I touch the earth He trod?’
* The excavations round the great shrine were first commenced by the Burmese Government in 1874.The British Government took them in hand in 1879 and completed the work in 1884.
At the end of his life again, similarly, he arrived at Bodh-Gaya, on the morning of his thirty-ninth birthday; and this journey, ending with a visit to Benares, was the last he ever made.
At some time in the years of his Indian wanderings, the Swami was allowed to touch the relics of Buddha, probably near the place where they were first discovered. And he was never afterwards able to refer to this, without some return of that passion of reverence and certitude which must then have overwhelmed him. Well might he exclaim, to someone who questioned him about the personal worship of the Avatars, “In truth, Madam, had I lived in Judaea in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, I would have washed His feet, not with my tears, but with my heart’s blood!”
“A Buddhist!” he said, to one who made a mistake about the name of his faith, “I am the servant of the servants of the servants of Buddha!” as if even the title of a believer would seem, to his veneration, too exalted to claim.
But it was not only the historic authenticity of the personality of Buddha that held him spellbound. Another factor, at least as powerful, was the spectacle of the constant tallying of his own Master’s life, lived before his eyes, with this world-attested story of twenty-five centuries before. In Buddha, he saw Ramakrishna Paramahamsa: in Ramakrishna, he saw Buddha.
In a flash this train of thought was revealed, one day when he was describing the scene of the death of Buddha. He told how the blanket had been spread for him beneath the tree, and how the Blessed One had lain down, “resting on his right side, like a lion,” to die, when suddenly there came to him one who ran, for instruction.
The disciples would have treated the man as an intruder, maintaining peace at any cost about their Master’s death-bed, but the Blessed One overheard, and saying “No, no! He who was sent* is ever ready,” he raised himself on his elbow, and taught. This happened four times, and then, and then only, Buddha held himself free to die. “But first he spoke to reprove Ananda for weeping. The Buddha was not a person, he said, but a realisation, and to that, anyone of them might attain. And with his last breath he forbade them to worship any.”
The immortal story went on to its end. But to one who listened, the most significant moment had been that in which the teller paused, – at his own words “raised himself on his elbow and taught,” – and said, in brief parenthesis, “I saw this, you know, in the case of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa!”
And there rose before the mind the story of one, destined to learn from that Teacher, who had travelled a hundred miles, and arrived at Cossipore* only when he lay dying. Here also the disciples would have refused admission, but Sri Ramakrishna intervened, insisting on receiving the new-comer, and teaching him.
The Swami was always deeply pre-occupied with the historic and philosophic significance of Buddhistic doctrine. Sudden references and abrupt allusions would show that his thoughts were constantly with it. “’Form, feeling, sensation, motion, and knowledge are the five categories,’” he quoted one day, from Buddha’s teachings,** “’in perpetual flux and fusion. And in these lies Maya. Of anyone wave, nothing can be predicated, for it is not. It but was, and is gone. Know, O Man, thou art the sea!’ Ah, this was Kapila’s philosophy,” he went on, “but his great Disciple brought the heart to make it live!”
And then, as the accents of that Disciple himself broke upon the inner ear, he paused a moment, and fell back on the deathless charge of the Dhammapada to the soul:
“Go forward without a path!
Fearing nothing, caring for nothing,
Wander alone, like the rhinoceros!
Even as the lion, not trembling at noises,
Even as the wind, not caught in a net,
Even as the lotus-leaf, unstained by the water,
Do thou wander alone, like the rhinoceros!”
“Can you imagine what their strength was?” he said one day, as he dwelt on the picture of the First Council, and the dispute as to the President. “One said it should be Ananda, because He had loved him most. But someone else stepped forward, and said no! for Ananda had been guilty of weeping at the death-bed. And so he was passed over!”
“But Buddha,” he went on, “made the fatal mistake of thinking that the whole world could be lifted to the height of the Upanishads. And self-interest spoiled all. Krishna was wiser, because He was more politic. But Buddha would have no compromise. The world before now has seen even the Avatar ruined by compromise, tortured to death for want of recognition, and lost. But Buddha would have been worshipped as God in his own lifetime, all over Asia, for a moment’s compromise. And his reply was only ‘Buddha-hood is an achievement, not a person!’ Verily was He the only man in the world who was ever quite sane, the only sane man ever born!”
* Sri Ramakrishna entered into Mahasamadhi at the garden-house of Krishna Gopal Ghosh in Cossipore, 1886.
** Vide Vinaya Pitaka, Part I, Sacred Books of the East Series.
Indian clearness of thought spoke in the Swami’s contempt for our Christian leaning towards the worship of suffering. People had told him in the West that the greatness of Buddha would have been more appealing, had he been crucified! This he had no hesitation in stigmatising as “Roman brutality.” “The lowest and most animal liking,” he pointed out “is for action. Therefore the world will always love the epic. Fortunately for India, however, she has never produced a Milton, with his ‘hurled headlong down the steep abyss’! The whole of that were well exchanged for a couple of lines of Browning!”
It had been this epic vigour of the story, in his opinion, that had appealed to the Roman. The crucifixion it was, that had carried Christianity over the Roman world. “Yes Yes!” he reiterated, “You Western folk want action! You cannot yet perceive the poetry of every common little incident in life! What beauty could be greater than that of the story of the young mother, coming to Buddha with her dead boy? Or the incident of the goats? You see the Great Renunciation was not new in India! Gautama was the son of a petty chieftain. As much had been left many times before. But after Nirvana, look at the poetry!
* “It is a wet night, and he comes to the cowherd’s hut, and gathers in to the wall under the dripping eaves. The rain is pouring down, and the wind rising.
“Within, the cowherd catches a glimpse of a face, through the window, and thinks ‘Ha, ha! Yellow Garb! stay there! It’s good enough for you!’ And then he begins to sing.
‘My cattle are housed, and the fire burns bright. My wife is safe, and my babes sleep sweet! Therefore ye may rain, if ye will, O clouds, to-night!’
“And the Buddha answers from without, “My mind is controlled. My senses are all gathered in. My heart is firm. Therefore ye may rain, if ye will, O clouds, to-night!’
“Again the cowherd – ‘The fields are reaped, and the hay is all fast in the barn. The stream is full, and, the roads are firm. Therefore ye may rain, if ye will, O clouds, to-night!’
“And so it goes on, till at last the cowherd rises, in contrition and wonder, and becomes a disciple.
“Or what could be more beautiful than the Barber’s story?
** ‘The Blessed One passed by my house,
my house – the Barber’s!
* The Swami was here making a rough paraphrase, from memory, of Rhys David’s metrical rendering of the Dhaniya Sutta, from the Sutta Nipata, in Fausboll’s translation of the Dhammapada. See Rhys Davids’ American Lectures.
** The original form of this anecdote, as it appeared in the Buddhist texts in old times, under the name of Upali Prichcha (The Questions of Upali, the Barber) has been lost; but the fact that there was such a writing in existence, is known from its mention in other Buddhist books e. g. The Vinaya Pitaka.
‘I ran, but He turned and awaited me.
Awaited me – the Barber!
I said, ‘May I speak, O Lord, with thee?’
And He said ‘Yes!’
‘Yes!’ to me – the Barber!
And I said ‘Is Nirvana for such as I?’
And He said ‘Yes!’
Even for me – the Barber!
‘And I said ‘May I follow after Thee!’
And He said ‘Oh yes!’
Even I – the Barber!
‘And I said ‘May I stay, O Lord, near Thee?’
And He said ‘Thou mayest!’
Even to me – the poor Barber!’”
He was epitomising the history of Buddhism one day, with its three cycles – five hundred years of law, five hundred of images, and five hundred of tantras, – when suddenly he broke off, to say, “You must not imagine, that there was ever a religion in India called Buddhism, with temples and priests of its own order! Nothing of the sort! The idea was always within Hinduism. Only the influence of Buddha was paramount at one time, and made the nation monastic.”
And the truth of the view so expressed can only, as I believe, become increasingly apparent to scholars, with time and study. According to it, Buddhism formed complete churches only in the circle of missionary countries, of which Kashmir was one.
And an interesting morsel of history dwelt on by the Swami, was that of the adoption of the Indian apostolate in that country, with its inevitable deposition of the local Nags, or mysterious serpents living beneath the springs, from their position of deities. Strange to say, a terrible winter followed their disestablishment, and the terrified people hastened to make a compromise between the new truth and the old superstition, by re-instating the Nags as saints, or minor divinities of the new faith, – a piece of human nature not without parallels elsewhere!
One of the great contrasts between Buddhism and the Mother-church lies in the fact that the Hindu believes in the accumulation of Karma by a single ego, through repeated incarnations, while Buddhism teaches that this seeming identity is but illusory and impermanent. It is in truth another soul which inherits what we have amassed for it, and proceeds, out of our experience, to the sowing of fresh seed. On the merits of these rival theories, the Swami would often sit and ponder.
By those to whom, as to him, the great life of super-consciousness has ever opened, as also in a lesser degree to those who have only dwelt in its shadow, the condition of the embodied spirit is seen as an ever-fretting limitation. The encaged soul beats wings of rebellion ceaselessly, against the prisoning bars of the body, seeing outside and beyond them, that existence of pure ideas, of concentrated emotion, of changeless bliss and unshadowed light, which is its ideal and its goal. To these, then, the body is a veil and a barrier, instead of a means to mutual communing. Pleasure and pain are but the Primal Light seen through the prism of personal consciousness. The one longing is to rise above them both, and find That, white, undivided, radiant.
It was this train of feeling that expressed itself now and then in our Master’s utterances of impatience at current conceptions, as when he broke out with the words “Why, one life in the body is like a million years of confinement, and they want to wake up the memory of many lives! Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof!”
Yet this question, of the relation to one another of the different personalities in a single long chain of experience, never failed to interest him. The doctrine of re-incarnation was never treated by him as an article of faith. To himself personally, it was ‘a scientific speculation’ merely, but of a deeply satisfying kind. He would always bring it forward, in opposition to our Western educational doctrine that all knowledge begins with the senses, pointing out, on his side, that this beginning of knowledge is often lost in the remote past of the given person. Yet when all had been said, the question still remained whether in the end Buddhism would not be proved philosophically right. Was not the whole notion of continuous identity illusory, to give way, at the last, to the final perception that the many were all unreal, and the One alone Real? “Yes! he exclaimed one day, after long thought in silence, “Buddhism must be right! Re-incarnation is only a mirage! But this vision is to be reached, by the path of Advaita alone!”
Perhaps it gave him pleasure, thus to play off Sankaracharya against Buddha, as it were, by calling in Advaita to the aid of Buddhism. Perhaps it was the unification of history involved, that so delighted him; since the one idea was thus shown to be imperfect, apart from the other. “The heart of Buddha and the intellect of Sankaracharya” was always his definition of the highest possibility of humanity. In this vein was the attention he gave to the argument of a certain Western woman, against the Buddhistic view of karma.
The extraordinary sense of social responsibility involved in that rendering,* had escaped this particular mind. “I find,” she said, “no motive for doing good deeds, of which someone else, and not I, will reap the fruit!”
The Swami, who was himself quite incapable of thinking in this way, was greatly struck by the remark, and a day or two later said to someone near him -“That was a very impressive point that was made the other day, that there can be no reason for doing good to people, if not they, but others, are to gather the fruit of our efforts!”
“But that was not the argument!” ungraciously answered the person addressed. “The point was that someone else than myself would reap the merit of my deed!”
“I know, I know,” he replied quietly, “but our friend would have done greater justice to her own idea, if she had put it in this other way. Let us suppose it to stand, that we are deceived in doing service to those who can never receive that service. Don’t you see that there is but one reply – the theory of Advaita? For we are all one!”
Had he realised that the distinction between the mediaeval and modern Hindu minds lay precisely here, that in the modern idea of India there would always be a place accorded to Buddhism and Buddha? Had he told himself that the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which had dominated Indian education since the Guptas, were henceforth to be supplemented, in the popular mind, by the history of the Asokan and Pre-Asokan periods? Had he thought of the vast significance to Asia of such a generalisation, of the new life to be poured from Hinduism into the veins of Buddhist countries, and of the vigour and strength to be gained by India herself, from the self-recognition of the Mother-church, feeding with knowledge the daughter-nations? However this be, we must never forget that it was in Hinduism that he saw the keystone of the arch of the two faiths. It was this mother, and not her daughter, that he found all-inclusive.
Great and beloved Mother-church as she is, she has room to all time for the glorious form of the first and most lion-hearted of all her Avatars. She has place for his orders; understanding and reverence for his teachings; mother-love for his flock; and sympathy and welcome for the young he brought to her. But never will she say that truth is confined to his presentment; that salvation is only to be found through the monastic rule that the path to perfection is one and one alone.
That was perhaps the greatest of the Swami Vivekananda’s pronouncements on Buddhism, in which he said: “The great point of contrast between Buddhism and Hinduism lies in the fact that Buddhism said ‘Realise all this as illusion,’ while Hinduism said ‘Realise that within the illusion is the Real.’
* There is surely a sense in which the motive for doing right is much strengthened if we are to feel that another, and not oneself, will bear the punishment for our sin. We may compare with this our own sense of responsibility for the property, children, or honour of another.
Of how this was to be done, Hinduism never presumed to enunciate any rigid law. The Buddhist command could only be carried out through monasticism; the Hindu might be fulfilled through any state of life. All alike were roads to the One Real. One of the highest and greatest expressions of the Faith is put into the mouth of a butcher, preaching, by the orders of a married woman, to a sannyasin. Thus Buddhism became the religion of a monastic order, but Hinduism, in spite of its exaltation of monasticism, remains ever the religion of faithfulness to daily duty, whatever it be, as the path by which man may attain to God. “