GLIMPSES IN THE WEST
On July the 31st, we arrived in London, and the voyage that to myself had been so memorable, was over. The Swami spent a few weeks in Wimbledon, but at this time of the year, not many of his friends were in town, and before long he acceded to the invitations which were constantly reaching him, and went on to America, there to wait, in a beautiful country-home on the Hudson, for the leading that he confidently expected, to show him where his next effort was to lie.
A month later, I became a guest in the same house, and continued to see him daily, until November the 5th, that is to say, six or seven weeks later. After that date, when our party was broken up, the Swami paid a few visits in New York and its neighbourhood. At the end of the month he passed through Chicago, where I then was, on his way to California.
Again I met him in New York in the following June (1900). There for a few weeks, and later in Paris for a similar length of time, I saw him frequently; and in September, finally, I spent a fortnight as his fellow-guest, with American friends, in Brittany. So ends the priceless memory of the years of my schooling under him. For when I next saw my Master, in India in the first half of 1902, it was only to receive his final blessing and take a last farewell.
Discipleship is always serenely passive, but it changes, at a moment's notice, into strenuous effort and activity, when the personal presence of the Teacher is withdrawn. And this last was what our Master above all expected of his disciples. He said once that whenever a young monk, received for a few weeks or months into the monastery, complained that as yet he had learnt nothing, he always sent him back for a while to the world he had left, there to find out how very much he had in fact absorbed.
Every parting from him was like the entrusting of a standard for warfare. "Be the heroic Rajput wife!" he exclaimed in an undertone on one occasion, to a girl who was about to give way to emotion, at saying farewell to her betrothed. And the words acted like a charm. His last words, after my brief glimpse of him in Chicago, were “Remember! the message of India is always ‘Not the soul for Nature, but Nature for the soul!’”
When I said good-bye to him in Brittany in September, 1900, I was on the eve of returning alone to England, there to find friends and means, if possible, for the Indian work. I knew nothing as yet of the length of my stay. I had no plans. And the thought may have crossed his mind that old ties were perilous to a foreign allegiance. He had seen so many betrayals of honour that he seemed always to be ready for a new desertion.
In any case, the moment was critical to the fate of the disciple, and this he did not fail to realise. Suddenly, on my last evening in Brittany, when supper was some time over, and the darkness had fallen, I heard him at the door of my little arbour-study, calling me into the garden. I came out, and found him waiting to give me his blessing, before leaving, with a man-friend, for the cottage where they were both housed.
"There is a peculiar sect of Mohammedans," he said, when he saw me, "who are reported to be so fanatical that they take each newborn babe, and expose it, saying, 'If God made thee, perish! If Ali made thee, live!' Now this which they say to the child, I say, but in the opposite sense, to you, tonight — Go forth into the world, and there, if I made you, be destroyed! If Mother made you, live!"
Yet he came again next morning, soon after dawn, to say farewell, and in my last memory of him in Europe, I look back once more from the peasant market-cart, and see his form against the morning sky, as he stands on the road outside our cottage at Lannion, with hands uplifted, in that Eastern salutation which is also benediction.
The outstanding impression made by the Swami's bearing, during all these months of European and American life, was one of almost complete indifference to his surroundings. Current estimates of value left him entirely unaffected. He was never in any way startled or incredulous under success, being too deeply convinced of the greatness of the Power that worked through him, to be surprised by it.
But neither was he unnerved by external failure. Both victory and defeat would come and go. He was their witness. "Why should I care, if the world itself were to disappear?" he said once. "According to my philosophy, that, you know, would be a very good thing! But in fact," he added, in tones suddenly graver, "All that is against me must be with me in the end. Am I not HER soldier?"
He moved fearless and unhesitant through the luxury of the West. As determinedly as I had seen him in India, dressed in the two garments of simple folk, sitting on the floor and eating with his fingers, so, equally without doubt or shrinking, was his acceptance of the complexity of the means of living in America or France. Monk and king, he said, were obverse and reverse of a single medal. From the use of the best, to the renunciation of all, was but one step. India had thrown all her prestige in the past, round poverty. Some prestige was in the future to be cast round wealth.
Rapid changes of fortune, however, must always be the fate of one who wanders from door to door, accepting the hospitality of foreign peoples. These reversals he never seemed to notice. No institution, no environment, stood between him and any human heart. His confidence in that Divine-within-Man of which he talked, was as perfect, and his appeal as direct, when he talked with the imperialist aristocrat or the American millionaire, as with the exploited and oppressed. But the out-flow of his love and courtesy were always for the simple.
When, travelling in America, he had at first in certain Southern towns been taken for a negro, and refused admission to the hotels, he had never said that he was not of African blood, but had as quietly and gratefully availed himself of the society of the coloured race, when that was offered, as of that of the local magnates who hastened round him later, in mortified apology for what they deemed the insult put upon him.
"What! rise at the expense of another!" he was heard to say to himself, long after, when someone referred with astonishment to this silence about his race. "Rise at the expense of another! I didn't come to earth for that!" It is not for the monk to dictate terms: the monk submits.
Often, in after-years, he spoke of the pathos of the confidences regarding race-exclusion, which he had received at this time. Few things ever gave him such pleasure as a negro railway-servant who came up to him on one occasion, in a station, saying that he had heard how in him one of his own people had become a great man, and he would like to shake hands.
Finally, it was never possible, in his presence, for the vulgar social exultation of the white man to pass un-rebuked. How stern he would become at any sign of this! How scathing was his reproof!
And above all, how glowing was the picture he would paint, of a possible future for these children of the race, when they should have outstripped all others, and become the leaders of Humanity!
He was scornful in his repudiation of the pseudo-ethnology of privileged races. "If I am grateful to my white-skinned Aryan ancestor," he said, "I am far more so to my yellow-skinned Mongolian ancestor, and most so of all, to the black-skinned Negritoid!"
He was immensely proud, in his own physiognomy, of what he called his 'Mongolian jaw,' regarding it as a sign of 'bull-dog, tenacity of purpose'; and referring to this particular race-element, which he believed to be behind every Aryan people, he one day exclaimed "Don't you see? the Tartar is the wine of the race! He gives energy and power to every blood!"
In seeking to penetrate his indifference to circumstance, one has to remember that it was based on a constant effort to find the ideal thinking-place. Each family, each hearth-stone, was appreciated by him, in the degree in which it provided that mental and emotional poise which makes the highest intellectual life possible.
One of a party who visited Mont Saint Michel with him on Michaelmas Day 1900, and happened to stand next to him, looking at the dungeon-cages of mediaeval prisoners, was startled to hear him say, under his breath, "What a wonderful place for meditation!"
There are still some amongst those who entertained him in Chicago in 1893, who tell of the difficulty with which, on his first arrival in the West, he broke through the habit of falling constantly into absorption. He would enter a tram, and have to pay the fare for the whole length of the line, more than once in a single journey, perhaps, being too deeply engrossed in thought to know when he had reached his destination.
As years went on, and these friends met him from time to time, they saw the gradual change to an attitude of apparent readiness and actuality. But such alterations were little more than surface-deep. Beneath, the will glowed with all its old fervour, the mind held itself ever on the brink of the universal.
It seemed almost as if it were by some antagonistic power, that he was ‘bowled along from place to place, being broken the while,’ to use his own graphic phrase. "Oh I know I have wandered over the whole earth," he cried once, "but in India I have looked for nothing, save the cave in which to-meditate!"
And yet he was a constant and a keen observer. Museums, universities, institutions, local history, found in him an eager student. It was the personal aspect of conditions that left him unaffected. Never did the contrast between two hemispheres pass before a mind better fitted to respond to its stimulus.
He approached everything through the ideas which it sought to express. During the voyage to England, he came on deck one day after a sound sleep, and told me that he had in his dreams been pursuing a discussion, as between Eastern and Western ideals of marriage, and had come to the conclusion that there was something in both that the world could ill afford to lose.
At the end of his last visit to America, he told me that on first seeing Western civilisation he had been greatly attracted by it, but now he saw mainly its greed and power. Like others, he had accepted without thought the assumption that machinery would be a boon to agriculture, but he could now see that while the American farmer, with his several square miles to farm, might be the better for machines, they were likely to do little but harm on the tiny farmlands of the Indian peasantry. The problem was quite different in the two cases. Of that alone, he was firmly convinced.
In everything, including the problem of distribution, he listened with suspicion to all arguments that would work for the elimination of small interests, appearing in this as in so many other things, as the perfect, though unconscious expression, of the spirit of the old Indian civilisation. A strong habit of combination he was able to admire, but what beauty of combination was there, amongst a pack of wolves?
He had an intense objection to discussing the grievances, or the problems of India, in a foreign country; and felt deeply humiliated when this was done in his presence. Nor did he ever fail, on the other hand, to back a fellow-countryman against the world. It was useless for Europeans to talk to him of their theories, if an Indian investigator in the same line had come to an opposite conclusion. With the simplicity and frankness of a child, he would answer that he supposed his friend would invent more delicate instruments, and make more accurate measurements, which would enable him to prove his point.
Thus, student and citizen of the world as others were proud to claim him, it was yet always on the glory of his Indian birth that he took his stand. And in the midst of the surroundings and opportunities of princes, it was more and more the monk who stood revealed.