FLASHES FROM THE BEACON FIRE
This was not perhaps the only experience of its kind, but it was certainly the only one to which I need refer in detail; and the whole incident of which it formed a part gave me the clue to the attitude which the Eastern teacher demands of a disciple.
Before all things this attitude must be one of passivity. I have also heard it urged, that it must be one of personal service. Under these conditions, it is said, the thoughts of the master become as seeds, and germinate in the mind of the pupil. I cannot tell. My own offerings in this kind were limited to very brief and very occasional requisitions of the needle or the pen. A daughter must not at any time act, said the Swami, as if in her father's house were too few servants! Yet I do believe — for in some cases I have known its truth — that by the loving performance of humble offices for those above us, we may enter into spiritual and intellectual communion with them, which may bear strange and beautiful fruit in our own lives.
The feeling which people of certain schools in the West devote to the Church, that mixture of perfect faith and adoring love, the Eastern disciple is called upon to render to his guru, or spiritual master. It is he and his achievement, which are the power behind his follower. And the unpardonable sacrilege is a failure to acknowledge, or a repudiation of, this debt. Each will express his devotion in his own way. Greatest of all gurus is he who realises most deeply the freedom of the disciple. But devotion to the uttermost there must be. And dry-rot, it is believed, invades that spiritual life which seeks to base its message on itself.
We had at this time, it will be remembered, become part of a society in which solitude was regarded as the greatest medium of self-development. Nothing, said the Swami, better illustrated to his own mind, the difference between Eastern and Western methods of thought, than the European idea that a man could not live alone for twenty years, and remain quite sane, taken side by side with the Indian notion that till a man had been alone for twenty years, he could not be regarded as perfectly himself.
And the contrast, though necessarily expressed with some exaggeration, is nevertheless essentially correct. To Hindu thinking it is only in silence and alone-ness that we can drink so deep of the Impersonal Self that all the facets and angles of our personal littleness are rounded out, as by growth from within. Thus, the faces of the Buddhas, in the hour of Nirvana, are always calm.
The world, in all its aspects and relations, is but a childish interruption of the flow of thought. Behind everything is felt to be that unutterable fullness, of which the thing seen is so paltry and distorted an expression. Human relations are too poor to tempt those who have bathed in the wellspring of all such relations at the Ultimate Source. And this Ultimate Source is not thought of here, it must be remembered, as love or compassion or heroism, though all these may be roads by which to reach it, but as the perception of Oneness, and that alone. I have always thought that this is the reason why steadiness and quiet and self-effacement are virtues so much more central, in the Hindu conception, than the more active and aggressive characteristics prized in the West. Every respect in which we, being persons, can yet be consistently indifferent to our own personality, is so much gained.
Under the domination of these ideas, then, it appeared self-evident to all of us, in that wonderful summer of 1898, that far beyond any of the Saviours-made-visible, were those greater souls who had entered into the Impersonal and the Unmanifested, never to return. "It is a sin even to think of the body," the Swami would say, now and again; or, "It is wrong to manifest power!" And even in the compassion of a Buddha there was memory of persons! Even in the purity of Jesus there was manifestation!
This last thought seems to form a common motive with Indian Sadhus, for on one occasion when our tents had been pitched indiscreetly near a pilgrims' camp, and the Swami was halfminded to insist, against hundreds of obstreperous complainants, on leaving them where they were, a strange monk came up to him, and said in a low voice, "You have this power, Swamiji, but you ought not to manifest it!" And he at once had them removed.
As to the power of silence and retirement to make illumination visible, we had many opportunities of judging. For over and over again the Swami would break away, to return unexpectedly. It sometimes seemed as if life in society were an agony to him. He grew nervous under the gaze of numbers of admirers who had heard of his great fame, and would enter his boat and sit watching him, leaving him no privacy. The life of the silent ashen-clad wanderer, or the hidden hermit, he thought of, it would now and then seem, as the lover might think of the beloved.
At no time would it have surprised us, had someone told us that today or tomorrow he would be gone for ever; that we were now listening to his voice for the last time. He, and necessarily we, in all that depended on him, were as straws carried on the Ganges of the Eternal Will. At any moment It might reveal Itself to him as silence. At any moment, life in the world might end for him.
This plan-less-ness was not an accident. Never can I forget the disgust with which he turned on myself once, a couple of years later, when I had offered him some piece of worldly wisdom regarding his own answer to a letter which he had brought for me to see. "Plans! Plans!" he exclaimed in indignation. "That is why you Western people can never create a religion! If any of you ever did, it was only a few Catholic saints, who had no plans. Religion was never never preached by planners!"
As it was, in the course of that pleasant summer-journey, we were always liable to hear from the servants that the Swami's boat had left its moorings an hour ago, and would not return today. He might be away, in fact, either one or many days. We never knew. But always he returned from these lonely retreats with shining of radiance and peace, and ever-deepening utterance of knowledge.
To all the disciples of Ramakrishna, religious customs consecrated by the faith of others, have great significance. One of them speaks of the Scala Sancta in Rome1 as moving him deeply. The ideal of the Order moreover, is to participate in the worship of the accustomed devotees in every detail. Thus I have seen my own Master, when visiting holy places, make the same offerings of milk and rice, or tell his beads in the same manner, as the humblest of the women about him. The minutest rules of conduct, both secular and religious, would be scrupulously observed by him on these occasions. Thus he one-d himself with the people, before rising to his own greatest heights.
Two places in Kashmir are regarded as extremely sacred, one is Kshir Bhowani, a spring at which the Divine Motherhood is worshipped, and the other Amarnath, a mountain-cave in which there is an ice-emblem of Siva. And the most notable events of our summer were his pilgrimages to these two shrines.
But we also were ambitious. We desired to be taught to meditate, in systematic fashion, and begged to be allowed to make a retreat in some lonely place, where we might keep hours of silence, and make our attempts under definite direction. For this reason, tents were brought, and we camped for a week on the edge of a forest, at a place called Achhabal, in the beginning of September. The pilgrimage to Amarnath had been made at the beginning of August, and the Swami left us for Kshir Bhowani on the thirtieth of September. Finally we parted from him, and our journey was over, at Baramulla, October the twelfth.
Even apart from the greater revelations and experiences, flashes from the beacon-fire of that life in whose shadow we dwelt, fell constantly upon us. Once he had just returned from an absence, and as he sat talking of bhakti, a servant came to say his meal was ready. But we could see how intolerable was the thought of food, to one who was still living on the heights of the love of God.
Again it was evening, and we women-folk were seated in the boat of Sthir Mata, as we called our hostess, chatting in low tones, in the falling dusk, when suddenly he came in to spend a few minutes with us. The talk turned on the approaching departure for Europe; but it soon ended; and then one who expected to be left alone in India, spoke of how the others would be missed. The Swami turned on her with a wonderful gentleness. "But why so serious about it?" he said. "Why not touch hands and part with a smile? You are so morbid, you Westerns! You worship sorrow! All through your country I found that. Social life in the West is like a peal of laughter, but underneath, it is a wail. It ends in a sob. The fun and frivolity are all on the surface: really, it is full of tragic intensity. Now here, it is sad and gloomy on the outside, but underneath are carelessness and merriment.”
"You know, we have a theory that the Universe is God's manifestation of Himself, just for fun, that the Incarnations came and lived here, 'just for fun.' Play, it was all play. Why was Christ crucified? It was mere play. And so of life. Just play with the Lord. Say, 'It is all play. It is all play.' Do you do anything?" And then, without another word, he turned and went out into the starlight, and passed into his own boat. And we also, in the hush of the river, said goodnight and parted.
One evening, in our week of retreat, we sat under the great trees beside the stream, and it was of leadership that he talked. He began by comparing certain notable movements of the hour, of which one had grown daily during the lifetime of its founder, both in numbers and complexity, while the other had been seen breaking up into its component parts. Finally he said "I am persuaded, that a leader is not made in one life. He has to be born for it. For the difficulty is not in organisation, and making plans; the test, the real test, of a leader, lies in holding widely different people together, along the line of their common sympathies. And this can only be done unconsciously, never by trying."
From this, the talk somehow strayed to Plato, and someone asked for an explanation of the doctrine of Ideas. He gave this, and as he ended, he said, addressing one of the group in particular, "And so you see, all this is but a feeble manifestation of the great ideas which alone are real and perfect. Somewhere is an ideal you, and here is an attempt to manifest it! The attempt falls short still in many ways. Still, — go on! You will interpret the ideal someday." "I cannot feel the longing to get out of life that Hindus feel," said one on another occasion, in response to something he had said about breaking the bonds of life. "I think I would a great deal rather come back and help the causes that interest me, than achieve personal salvation." "That's because you cannot overcome the idea of progress," he retorted quickly. “But things do not grow better. They remain as they were, and we grow better, by the changes we make in them.”
This last sentence has to myself the ring of a Veda. "We grow better, by the changes we make in them." Similarly, when we were at Almora, I remember a certain elderly man with a face full of amiable weakness, who came to put to him a question about karma. What were they to do, he asked, whose karma it was, to see the strong oppress the weak? The Swami turned on him in surprised indignation. "Why thrash the strong, of course!" he said. "You forget your own part in this karma. — Yours is always the right to rebel!