Late in the year 1900, the Swami broke off from the party of friends with whom he was travelling in Egypt, and went home suddenly, to India. “He seemed so tired!” says one of those who were with him at this time. As he looked upon the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and the rest of the great sights in the neighbourhood of Cairo, it was in truth like one who knew himself to be turning the last pages in the book of experience! Historic monuments no longer had the power to move him deeply.
He was cut to the quick, on the other hand, to hear the people of the country referred to constantly as “natives,” and to find himself associated, in his visit, rather with the foreigner than with them. In this respect, indeed, it would seem that he had enjoyed his glimpse of Constantinople vastly more than Egypt, for towards the end of his life he was never tired of talking about a certain old Turk who kept an eating-house there, and had insisted on giving entertainment without price to the party of strangers, one of whom came from India. So true it was, that to the oriental, untouched by modern secularity, all travellers were pilgrims, and all pilgrims guests.
In the winter that followed, he paid a visit to Dacca, in East Bengal, and took a large party up the Brahmaputra, to make certain pilgrimages in Assam. How rapidly his health was failing at this time, only those immediately around him knew. None of us who were away, had any suspicion. He spent the summer of 1901 at Bellur, ‘hoping to hear again the sound of the rains, as they fell in his boyhood!’ And when the winter again set in, he was so ill as to be confined to bed.
Yet he made one more journey, lasting through January and February 1902, when he went, first to Bodh-Gaya and next to Benares. It was a fit end to all his wanderings. He arrived at Bodh-Gaya on the morning of his last birthday, and nothing could have exceeded the courtesy and hospitality of the Mahunt.
Here, as afterwards at Benares, the confidence and affection of the orthodox world were brought to him in such measure and freedom that he himself stood amazed at the extent of his empire in men’s hearts. Bodh-Gaya, as it was now the last, had also been the first, of the holy places he had set out to visit. And it had been in Benares, some few years later that he had said farewell to one, with the words, “Till that day when I fall on society like a thunderbolt I shall visit this place no more!”
Many of his disciples from distant parts of the world gathered round the Swami on his return to Calcutta. Ill as he looked, there was none, probably, who suspected how near the end had come. Yet visits were paid, and farewells exchanged, that it had needed voyages half round the world to make. Strangely enough, in his first conversation after coming home from Benares, his theme was the necessity of withdrawing himself for a time, in order to leave those that were about him a free hand.
“How often,” he said, “does a man ruin his disciples, by remaining always with them! When men are once trained, it is essential that their leader leave them, for without his absence they cannot develop themselves!”
It was as the result of the last of those foreign contacts that had continued without intermission throughout his mature life, that he realised suddenly the value to religion of high ideals of faithfulness in marriage. To the monk, striving above all things to be true to his own vows, not only in word and deed, but still more earnestly and arduously, in thought itself, the ideals of social life are apt to appear as so much waste material.
Suddenly the Swami saw that a people to whom chastity was not precious, could never hope to produce a faithful priesthood, or a great monastic order. Only where the inviolability of marriage was fully recognised, could the path that lay outside marriage be truthfully held. By the sacredness of the social ideal, was the holiness of the super-social rendered possible.
This realisation was the crown of his philosophy. It could not but mark the end of “the play of Mother.” The whole of society was necessary, with its effort and its attainment, to create the possibility of the life of Sannyas. The faithful householder was as essential to the Sanathan Dharmma as the faithful monk. The inviolability of marriage and the inviolability of the monastic vow, were obverse and reverse of a single medal. Without noble citizenship, there could be no mighty apostolate. Without the secular, no sacerdotal, without temporal, no spiritual.
Thus all was one, yet no detail might be wilfully neglected, for through each atom shone the whole. It was in fact his own old message in a new form. Integrity of character, as he and his Master before him, had insisted, was a finer offering than religious ecstacy. Without strength to hold, there was no achievement in surrender.
For the sake of the work that constantly opened before him, the Swami made a great effort, in the spring of 1902, to recover his health, and even undertook a course of treatment under which, throughout April, May, and June, he was not allowed to swallow a drop of cold water. How far this benefitted him physically, one does not know; but he was overjoyed to find the un-flawed strength of his own will, in going through the ordeal.
When June closed, however, he knew well enough that the end was near. “I am making ready for death,” he said to one who was with him, on the Wednesday before he died. “A great tapasya and meditation has come upon me, and I am making ready for death.”
And we who did not dream that he would leave us, till at least some three or four years had passed, knew nevertheless that the words were true.
News of the world met but a far away rejoinder from him at this time. Even a word of anxiety as to the scarcity of the rains, seemed almost to pass him by as in a dream. It was useless to ask him now for an opinion on the questions of the day. “You may be right,” he said quietly, “but I cannot enter any more into these matters. I am going down into death.”
Once in Kashmir, after an attack of illness I had seen him lift a couple of pebbles, saying, “Whenever death approaches me, all weakness vanishes. I have neither fear, nor doubt, nor thought of the external. I simply busy myself making ready to die. I am as hard as that’ – and the stones struck one another in his hand – “for I have touched the feet of God!”
Personal revelation was so rare with him, that these words could never be forgotten. Again, on returning from the cave of Amarnath, in that same summer of 1898, had he not said, laughingly, that he had there received the grace of Amar Nath – not to die till he himself should will to do so? Now this, seeming to promise that death would never take him by surprise, had corresponded so well with the prophecy of Sri Ramakrishna – that when he should know who and what he was, he would refuse to remain a moment longer in the body – that one had banished, from one’s mind all anxiety on this score, and even his own grave and significant words at the present time did not suffice to revive it.
Did we not remember, moreover, the story of the great Nirvikalpa Samadhi of his youth, and how, when it was over, his Master had said, “This is your mango, Look! I lock it in my box. You shall taste it once more, when your work in finished.”
“- And we may wait for that,” said the monk who told me the tale. “We shall know when the time is near. For he will tell us that again he has tasted his mango.”
How strange it seems now, looking back on that time, or realise in how many ways the expected hint was given, only to fall on ears that did not hear, to reach minds that could not understand!
It would seem, indeed, that in his withdrawal from all weakness and attachment, there was one exception. That which had ever been dearer to him than life, kept still its power to move him. It was on the last Sunday before the end that he said to one of his disciples, “You know the WORK is always my weak point! When I think that might come to an end, I am all undone!”
On Wednesday of the same week, the day being Ekadasi, and himself keeping the fast in all strictness, he insisted on serving the morning meal to the same disciple. Each dish as it was offered – boiled seeds of the jack-fruit, boiled potatoes, plain rice, and ice-cold milk – formed the subject of playful chat; and finally, to end the meal, he himself poured the water over the hands, and dried them with a towel.
“It is I who should do these things for you Swamiji! Not you, for me!” was the protest naturally offered. But his answer was startling in its solemnity – “Jesus washed the feet of His disciples!”
Something checked the answer “But that was the last time!” as it rose to the lips, and the words remained unuttered. This was well. For here also, the last time had come.
There was nothing sad or grave about the Swami, during these days. In the midst of anxiety about over-fatiguing him, in spite of conversation deliberately kept as light as possible, touching only upon the animals that surrounded him, his garden, experiments, books, and absent friends, over and beyond all this, one was conscious the while of a luminous presence, of which his bodily form seemed only as a shadow, or symbol.
Never had one felt so strongly as now, before him, that one stood on the threshold of an infinite light. Yet none was prepared, least of all on that last happy Friday, July the 4th, on which he appeared so much stronger and better than he had been for years, to see the end so soon.
He had spent hours of that day in formal meditation. Then he had given a long Sanskrit lesson. Finally he had taken a walk from the monastery gates to the distant highroad.
On his return from this walk, the bell was ringing for evensong, and he went to his own room, and sat down, facing towards the Ganges, to meditate. It was the last time. The moment was come that had been foretold by his Master from the beginning. Half an hour went by, and then, on the wings of that meditation, his spirit soared whence there could be no return, and the body was left, like a folded vesture, on the earth.