The Temple of Dakshineshwar was built by the wealthy Rani Rashmani, a woman of the Koiburto caste, and in the year 1853, Sri Ramakrishna took up his residence there, as one of the Brahmins attached to its service.
These were facts which had impressed the mind of Vivekananda even more deeply, perhaps, than he himself ever knew. A woman of the people had been, in a sense, the mother of that whole movement of which all the disciples of his Master formed parts. Humanly speaking, without the Temple of Dakshineshwar there had been no Ramakrishna, without Ramakrishna no Vivekananda, and without Vivekananda, no Western Mission. The whole story rested on the building, erected on the Ganges side, a few miles above Calcutta, just before the middle of the nineteenth century. And that was the outcome of the devotion of a rich woman of the lower castes, – a thing that under a purely Hindu government, bound to the maintenance of Brahmin supremacy, would never have been possible, as the Swami himself was not slow to point out. From this he inferred the importance of the noncognisance of caste, by centralised governments in India.
Rani Rashmani, in her time, was a woman of heroic mould. The story is still told, of how she defended the fisher-folk of Calcutta against wrongful taxation, by inducing her husband to pay the enormous sum demanded, and then insist on closing the river against the heavy traffic of the foreigners.
She fought a like good fight over the right of her household to carry the images of the gods along the roads she owned, on the lordly Maidan, or Park. If the English objected to the religion of the Indian people, she said in effect, it was a small matter to build walls at the disputed points, to right and left of the procession-path. And this was done, with the result of breaking the continuity of the grand pleasure-drive, the Rotten Row of Calcutta.
Early in her widowhood, she had to bring all her wits to bear on her bankers, in order to get into her own hands the heavy balance which she required for working-capital. This she accomplished, however, with the greatest tact and adroitness, and was mistress of her own affairs thenceforth. Later, a great law-suit, in which the ready-wit of her replies through counsel carried all before her, became a household word in Hindu Calcutta.
The husband of Rani Rashmani’s daughter, ‘Mathur Babu’ as he was called, bears a name that figures largely in the early history of Sri Ramakrishna. It was he who protected the great devotee, when all around held him to be religion-mad. It was he who continued him in the enjoyment of residence and allowances, without permitting duties to be demanded of him. In these things, Mathur Babu acted as the representative of his wife’s mother. Rani Rashmani had recognised the religious genius of Sri Ramakrishna, from the beginning, and proved unfaltering in her adhesion to that first insight.
And yet, when Ramakrishna, as the young Brahmin of Kamapukur, had first come to Dakshineshwar, so orthodox had he been, that he could not tolerate the idea of a temple, built and endowed by a low-caste woman. As the younger brother of the priest-in-charge, he had to assist, hour after hour, in the religious ceremonies of the opening day. But he would eat none of the prasadam. And late at night, it is said, when all was over, and the guests had dispersed, he broke his fast for the first time, with a handful of fried lentils bought in the bazaar.
Surely this fact deepens the significance of the position which he subsequently occupied in the Temple-garden. It was by no oversight that he became the honoured guest and dependent of the Koiburto Rani. We are justified in believing that when at last he found his mission, he recognised it as subversive, rather than corroborative, of the rigid conservatism to which his childhood in the villages had accustomed him. And we may hold that his whole life declares the conviction of the equal religious importance of all men, whatever their individual rank in the social army.
Our Master, at any rate, regarded the Order to which he belonged as one whose lot was cast for all time with the cause of Woman and the People. This was the cry that rose to his lips instinctively, when he dictated to the phonograph in America, the message that he would send to the Rajah of Khetri. It was the one thought, too, with which he would turn to the disciple at his side, whenever he felt himself nearer than usual to death, in a foreign country, alone, “Never forget!” he would then say, “the word is, ‘Woman and the People!'”
It is of course in moments of the formation of groups that the intensity of social power is at its greatest, and the Swami brooded much over the fact that the ‘formed could no longer give life or inspiration. ‘Formed’ and dead, with him, were synonyms. A social formation that had become fixed, was like a tree that had ceased to grow. Only a false sentimentality (and sentimentality was, in his eyes, selfishness, ‘the overflow of the senses’) could cause us to return upon it, with expectation.
Caste was an institution that he was always studying. He rarely criticised, he constantly investigated it. As an inevitable phenomenon of all human life, he could not look upon it as if it had been peculiar to Hinduism. It was on seeing an Englishman hesitate to admit, amongst gentlemen, that he had once killed cattle in Mysore, that the Swami exclaimed, “The opinion of his caste is the last and finest restraint that holds a man!” And with a few quick strokes he created the picture of the difference between those standards which differentiate the law-abiding from the criminal, or the pious from the unbelieving, on the one hand, and on the other, those finer, more constructive moral ideals, that inspire us to strive for the respect of the smaller number of human beings whom we regard as our peers.
But remarks like this were no indication of partisanship. It was for the monk to witness life, not to take sides in it. He ignored all the proposals that reached him, which would have pledged him to one party or another, as its leader. Only let Woman and the People achieve education! All further questions of their fate, they would themselves be competent to settle. This was his view of freedom, and for this he lived. As to what form that education should take, he knew enough to understand that but little was as yet determined. With all his reverence for individuality, he had a horror of what he called the crime of the unfaithful widow. “Better anything than that!” he said, and felt. The white un-bordered sari of the lonely life was to him the symbol of all that was sacred and true.
Naturally then, he could not think of any system of schooling which was out of touch with these things, as ‘education.’ The frivolous, the luxurious, and the de-nationalised, however splendid in appearance, was to his thinking not educated, but rather degraded. A modernised Indian woman, on the other hand, in whom he saw the old-time intensity of trustful and devoted companionship to the husband, with the old-time loyalty to the wedded kindred, was still, to him, “the ideal Hindu wife.” True woman-hood, like true monkhood, was no matter of mere externals. And unless it held and developed the spirit of true womanhood, there could be no education of woman worthy of the name.
He was always watching for chance indications of the future type. A certain growth of individualism was inevitable, and must necessarily bring later marriage, and perhaps a measure of personal choice, in its train. Probably this, more than anything else, would tend to do away with the problems created by child-widowhood. At the same time, it was not to be forgotten that early marriage had, in its time, been a deliberate attempt, on the part of the community, to avoid certain other evils which they had regarded as incidental to its postponement.
He could not foresee a Hindu woman of the future, entirely without the old power of meditation. Modern science women must learn: but not at the cost of the ancient spirituality. He saw clearly enough that the ideal education would be one that should exercise the smallest possible influence for direct change on the social body as a whole. It would be that which should best enable every woman, in time to come, to resume into herself the greatness of all the women of the Indian past.
Each separate inspiration of days gone by had done its work. The Rajput story teemed with the strength and courage of the national womanhood. But the glowing metal must flow into new moulds. Ahalya Bae Rani had been perhaps the greatest woman who ever lived. An Indian sadhu, who had come across her public works in all parts of the country, would naturally think so. Yet the greatness of the future, while including hers, would be no exact repetition of it. The mother’s heart, in the women of the dawning age, must be conjoined with the hero’s will. The fire on the Vedic altar, out of which arose Savitri, with her sacred calm and freedom, was ever the ideal background. But with this woman must unite a softness and sweetness, as of the south winds themselves.
Woman must rise in capacity, not fall. In all his plans for a widows’ home, or a girls’ school and college, there were great green spaces. Physical exercise, and gardening, and the care of animals, must form part of the life lived there. Religion, and an intensity of aspiration more frequent in the cloister than outside it, were to be heart and background of this new departure. And such schools, when the winter was over, must transform themselves into pilgrimages, and study half the year in the Himalayas. Thus a race of women would be created, who should be nothing less than “Bashi-Bazouks of religion,”* and they should workout the problem, for women. No home, save in their work; no ties, save of religion; no love, but that for guru, and people, and motherland.
Something after this sort was his dream. He saw plainly enough that what was wanted was a race of women-educators, and this was how he contemplated making them.
Strength, strength, strength was the one quality he called for, in woman as in man. But how stern was his discrimination of what constituted strength! Neither self-advertisement nor over-emotion roused his admiration. His mind was too full of the grand old types of silence and sweetness and steadiness to be attracted by any form of mere display.
At the same time, woman had as large an inheritance as man, in all the thought and knowledge that formed the peculiar gift of the age to India. There could be no sex in truth. He would never tolerate any scheme of life and polity that tended to bind tighter on mind and soul the fetters of the body. The greater the individual, the more would she transcend the limitations of femininity in mind and character; and the more was such transcendence to be expected and admired.
* The Bashi-Bazouks were the bodyguard of the Caliph. For many centuries, the members of the Turkish Guard consisted of soldiers who had been kidnapped in early childhood from all races and countries, and brought up in Islam. Their religion was thus their passion, and the service of their land and sovereign, their only bond of union. They were renowned throughout Europe for their fierceness
He looked, naturally enough, to widows as a class, to provide the first generation of abbesslike educators. But in this respect, as in all others, he made no definite plans. In his own words, he only said ” ‘Awake! Awake!’ Plans grow and work themselves.” Yet he would have welcomed material, wherever it might have come from.
He knew of no reason why it should be impossible to any woman – by strong and simple character and intellect, and uprightness of living – to make herself a vehicle of the highest ideals. Even burdens of the conscience must be held redeemable by sincerity. “All great ends must be freely pursued,” says a recent writer on feminist movements, and the Swami had no fear of freedom, and no distrust of Indian womanhood.
But the growth of freedom of which he dreamt, would be no fruit of agitation, clamorous and iconoclastic. It would be indirect, silent, and organic. Beginning with a loyal acceptance of the standards of society, women would more and more, as they advanced in achievement, learn to understand both the commands and the opportunities, which characterised the national life. By fulfilling those demands, and availing themselves to the full of their opportunities, they would grow more Indian than ever before, even while they entered on a grandeur of development, of which the past had never dreamt.
In nothing, perhaps, did the personal freedom of Vivekananda show itself more plainly than in his grasp of the continuity of the national life. The new form was always, to him, sanctified by the old consecration. To draw pictures of the goddess Saraswati was, according to him, “to worship her.” To study the science of medicine was “to be down on one’s knees, praying against the demons of disease and filth.” The old bhakti of the cow showed how receptive was the spirit of Hindu society of new and scientific methods of dairy-farming, and the pasturing and care of animals. The training of the intellect to its highest perfection, he believed essential to the power of religious concentration. Study was tapasya, and Hindu meditativeness an aid to scientific insight. All work was a form of renunciation. Love, even of home and family, was always capable of being wrought into a grander and more universal passion.
He delighted to point out that to the Hindu all written words were sacred, English and Persian to the full as much as Sanskrit. But he hated the tinkling sound of foreign manners and foreign accomplishments. He could not bear to listen to a criticism that concerned itself merely with the readjustment of externals. When comparisons had to be made, he dealt always with the ideal as differently expressed by different societies and measured either failure or achievement, whether in modern or mediaeval, by this central aim.
Above all, his conception of love was one that admitted of no differentiation between the speaker and him of whom he spoke. To refer to others as “they” was already, to his ears, almost hatred. He always united himself with the criticised or the condemned. Those about him realised that if the universe had indeed been resolvable into an ultimate formula of dualism, his own part would have been chosen, not with Michael the Archangel, but with him, eternally defeated, over whom he triumphed. And this was with him no expression of an inner conviction that he could teach or aid. It was simply the passionate determination to share the hardest lot to which any might be driven without escape, to defy the powers of the universe, if need be, by himself suffering the utmost to which any single consciousness anywhere might find itself irretrievably doomed.
Well might he point out, as he does in certain of his published letters, that even compassion was not motive enough, on which to build the service of others. He would have no such patronage. Compassion, he said, was that which served others with the idea that they were jivas, souls: love, on the contrary, regarded them as the Atman, the very Self. Love, therefore, was worship, and this worship the vision of God. “For the Advaitin, therefore, the ONLY motive is love.”
There was no privilege to be compared with the trust of a great service. “It is the Saviour,” he says, in one of his letters, “who should go on his way rejoicing; not the saved!” As priests purifying themselves for the service of the altar, with eager awe, and the will to endure all, and yet be steadfast, must they come forward, who were chosen for the sacred task of woman’s education. He remembered, and often repeated, the words of Mataji Maharani, the Mahratta woman who founded in Calcutta, the Mahakali Pathshala. “Swamiji!” she said, pointing to the little girls whom she taught, “I have no help. But these blessed ones I worship, and they will take me to salvation!”
A like intensity of chivalry spoke, in his attitude towards those whom he called “the People.” Education and knowledge were the right of these, as much as of their brothers, higher in the social scale. Having this, they would work out their own destiny, freely, from within.
In this view of the task before him, the Swami was only continuing the tradition of all the great Indian teachers, from Buddha downwards. In the age when the philosophy of the Upanishads had been the exclusive privilege of the Aryans, the Tathagatha arose, and taught to all alike the Perfect Way, of Nirvana by Renunciation. In a place and a period where the initiation of the great Masters was the cherished culture of the few, Ramanuja, from the tower of Conjeeveram, proclaimed the mystic text to all the pariahs. It is now the dawn of the modern age, – with its realisation of manhood by secular knowledge – in India. Naturally then, to Vivekananda the absorbing question was, how to give secular knowledge to the People.
He saw, of course, that the energy and co-operation of the whole nation was necessary, if material prosperity was ever to be brought back to India. And he knew well enough that the restoration of material prosperity was an imperative need. A God, he said, with his accustomed vigour, who could not in this life give a crust of bread, was not to be trusted in the next for the kingdom of heaven! He also felt, probably, that only by the spread of knowledge could the country as a whole be kept steadfast in its reverence for the greatness of its own inherited culture, intellectual and religious.
In any case, new life could only be poured into the veins of the higher classes, by a great movement of forth-reaching to the democracy. He believed that the one thing to be renounced was any idea of birth as the charter of leadership. The sublimated common-sense that men call genius, was to the full as likely to occur in the small shopkeeper, or in the peasant taken from the plough, as in the Brahmin or the Kayasth. If the Kshatriya had had any monopoly of courage, where would Tantia Bhil have been? He believed that the whole of India was about to be thrown into the melting-pot, and that no man could say what new forms of power and greatness would be the result.
He saw plainly that the education of the Indian working-folk was properly the task of the Indian lettered classes, and of no others. The infinite danger that attended the introduction of knowledge by foreign minds from foreign sources, was never for one moment hidden from him. This is the meaning of his constant plea, in his published correspondence, for the teaching of the villages, by wandering students, who would carry the magic lantern, the camera, and some means for simple chemical experiments. Again he begs for the inclusion of some secular instruction in the intercourse of the begging friars, with the humbler classes. All this, of course, would be little more than a support and attractive invitation, to the New Learning. For that learning itself every man would have to struggle, alone or in combination. But there can be no doubt that to bring home to a large population the idea that there is a world of thought and knowledge unattained by them, is the first step in the popularising of new culture. In such schemes, therefore, the Swami was emphatically right.
As befitted a religious teacher, however, the work that he himself initiated and consecrated was almost always some special service of the hungry or the sick. It was he who found the money that started the special sanitation missions, first undertaken by the Order, as a measure for plague-prevention, in 1899, and never since abandoned. Throughout his years in the West, he was seeking for workers “to devote themselves to the Indian pariahs,” and nothing caused him such exultation in 1897 as to see his Brahmin disciples nursing low-caste patients through cholera. “We see again,” he said, referring to this, “what happened before, in the days of Buddha.” And those who knew him best, feel a peculiar reverence and affection for the little hospital in Benares, that was the last-born child of his love and pity.
But his heart was not less bound up in other undertakings, which, though less directly his, were more purely educational. The well-being of the various magazines in which the Order was interested, and the industrial education carried on by the Orphanage at Murshidabad, were matters of the deepest import in his eyes. Under present circumstances in India, the magazine is often a kind of peripatetic school, college, and university, all in one. It has a marvellous degree of influence. It carries ideas on the one hand, and offers a means of selfexpression on the other, and it was an instinctive perception of this educational value that made the Swami so eager about the fate of various papers conducted by his brethren and disciples.
The same number of a periodical will sometimes combine the loftiest transcendental abstractions on one page with comparatively faltering secular speculations on the next, and in this affords an exact index to the popular mind of the Transition. The Swami himself said, referring to this paradox, “The Hindu’s idea of the means of knowledge is meditation, and this serves him well, when the subject is mathematics. Unfortunately, however, his instinct would lead him to the same method in the case of geography, and not much geography comes that way!”
Vivekananda’s passion of pity, however, did not concern itself with the Indian people only. True to his Oriental birth, he would always defend the small farmer or the small distributor, against those theorists who seem to consider that aggregations of business are justified in proportion to their size. He held that the age of humanity now dawning would occupy itself mainly with the problems of the working-folk, or, as he expressed it, with the problems of the Sudra.
When he first landed in the West, he was greatly attracted, as his letters show, by the apparent democracy of conditions there. Later, in 1900, he had a clearer view of the underlying selfishness of capital and the struggle for privilege, and confided to someone that
Western life now looked to him “like hell.” At this riper stage of experience, he was inclined to believe that China had gone nearer to the ideal conception of human ethics than newer countries had ever done, or could do. Yet he never doubted that for man, the world over, the coming age would be “for the People.” “We are to solve the problems of the Sudra,” he said, one day, “but oh, through what tumults! through what tumults!” He spoke like one gazing direct into the future, and his voice had the ring of prophecy; but, though the listener waited, hoping eagerly for more, he only became silent, lapsing into deeper thought.
I have always believed that it was for the guiding and steadying of men through some such age of confusion and terror, that in our Master’s life and that of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the worship of the Mother has sounded such a mighty Udbodhan. She it is who unites in Herself the extremes of experience. She shines through evil as through good. She alone is the Goal, what-ever be the road. Whenever the Swami would chant Her salutation, one would hear, like the subdued music of some orchestra behind a single melody, this great chorus of the historic drama. “Thou art the welfare and happiness in the homes of the virtuous,” he would recite, “And Thou art the misery and wretchedness, in those of the quarrelsome and wicked!” And then, as the mingling of oppressor and oppressed in a common hope and terror, as the trampling of armies, and turmoil of nations, grew louder and clearer to the mental ear, one would hear the thunder of the great Ascription rise above it all:
“Thou Mother of blessings,
Thou the Giver of desires,
Thou the Doer of all good,
To Thee our salutation.
Thee we salute, Thee we salute, Thee we salute.
Thou terrible dark Night!
Thou the Night of Delusion!
Thou the Night of DEATH -To THEE our salutation!
Thee we salute. Thee we salute. Thee we salute.”