Indeed to be with Shri Ramakrishna was, in itself, a Tapasya (spiritual self-denial) and a Sadhana. It was, in itself, a rising beyond all bodily ideas and limitations of the senses. It required concentration and strength of character of the highest order to follow the Master in his flights of thought. It stirred the whole soul of the devotee to realisation and ecstatic fervour to enter the field of divine emotion which Shri Ramakrishna tried to depict in words and in which he soared, beyond all words, to God. The company of Shri Ramakrishna was, in itself, a most compelling stimulus to spirituality. Emotion literally blazed there. There the soul of things literally shone forth.
Only those who have sat at the feet of the Master can know the ocean of sweet intimacy and oneness with Shri Ramakrishna in which the disciples were bathed. It was a tender, natural, human and easy relationship, free from any affectation and the repelling spirit of egoism and aloofness which so often characterises the atmosphere which surrounds the Guru. The spirit was indeed divine; the presence of God was always felt; and yet there was much laughter and fun beneath the spreading trees of Dakshineswar and in the Master's room. The Master and the disciples would often sit under the boughs of the trees talking intimately and sweetly. And every now and then some spiritual remarks of the Master would change the human joy into divine blessedness.
Referring to those days Naren used to say, “It is impossible to give others even an idea of the ineffable joy we derived from the presence of the Master. It is really beyond our understanding how he would give us training, though unconsciously on our part, through fun and play, and thus mould our spiritual life. As the master-athlete proceeds with great caution and restraint with the beginner now overpowering him in the struggle with great difficulty, as it were, again owning defeat at his hands to strengthen his spirit of self-reliance, in exactly the same manner did Shri Ramakrishna treat us. Realising that in all exists the Atman (Self) which is the source of infinite strength, in every individual, pigmy though he might be, he was able to see the potential giant. He could clearly discern the latent spiritual power which would in the fullness of time manifest itself. Holding that bright picture before us he would speak highly of us and encourage us. Again he would warn us lest we should frustrate this future consummation by becoming entangled in worldly desires, and further he would keep us under control by carefully observing even the minute details of our life. All this was done silently and unobtrusively. That was the great secret of his training of the disciples and moulding of their lives. Once I felt that I could not practise deeper concentration in meditation. I told him of it and sought his advice and direction. He told me his personal experiences in the matter and gave me instructions. I remember that as I sat down to meditate during the early hours of the morning, my mind would be disturbed and diverted by the shrill note of the whistle of a neighbouring Jute Mill. I told him about it, and he advised me to concentrate my mind on the very sound of the whistle. I followed his advice and derived from it much benefit. On another occasion I felt great difficulty in totally forgetting my body during meditation and concentrating the mind wholly on the ideal. I went to him for counsel, and he gave me the very instruction which he himself had received from Totapuri while practising Samadhi at the time of his Vedantic Sadhana. He sharply pressed between my two eyebrows with his finger nail and said, ‘Now concentrate your mind on this painful sensation!’ As a result I found I could concentrate easily on that sensation as long as I liked, and during that period I completely forgot the consciousness of the other parts of my body, not to speak of their causing any distraction in the way of my meditation. The solitude of the Panchavati, associated with the various spiritual realisations of the Master, was also the most suitable place for our meditation. Besides meditation and spiritual exercises, we used to spend a good deal of time there in sheer fun and merrymaking. Shri Ramakrishna also joined with us, and by taking part enhanced our innocent pleasure. We used to run and skip about, climb on the trees, swing from the creepers and at times hold merry picnics. On the first day of the picnic the Master noticed that I myself had cooked the food, and he partook of it. I knew that he could not take food unless it was cooked by Brahmins, and therefore I had arranged for his meal at the Kali-temple. But he said, ‘It won’t be wrong for me to take food from such a pure soul like yourself.’ In spite of my repeated remonstrations, he enjoyed the food cooked by me that day.”
And Naren was in his element at Dakshineswar. All his boyish enthusiasm was let loose there. He was like a young lion sporting joyously in the presence of a strong but indulgent parent. All that pent-up energy of mind and heart which, revealing itself partially before, had brought on a great anguish of mind and tempest of heart, was now free to express itself fully. It manifested itself as a torrent of spiritual energy. Shri Ramakrishna understood and was delighted beyond words. The flights of Naren’s soul were visible to him. Like a majestic king, venerable in the long years of his spiritual experience, was the old man; and Naren was like the young prince and heir, full of the fire and energy and vigour of his spiritual inheritance. The Master let Naren’s mind work by the force of its own pressure. He allowed the mind of Naren to become its own Guru. He held that sincerity of heart brings on, of itself, the gradual illumination of the mind. He allowed Naren to doubt him, to sound him. He said, “Do not accept anything because I have said so. But test everything for yourself. It is not in assent or dissent that the goal is to be attained, but in actual and concrete realisation.” And this Naren did, though oftentimes it required infinite patience and entailed much sufferings on the Master.
It may be truly stated that only Narendra Nath, amongst the disciples, fully understood the greatness of Shri Ramakrishna. He also weighed the words of the Master in the balance. He alone dared to doubt. But, then, he alone had the glorified conviction with regard to the Master, which comes of having transcended doubt. The other disciples hung with rapt attention upon every word that fell from his lips. They were Bhaktas, they loved the Master. Theirs was the conviction which comes of love. They knew Shri Ramakrishna only through their burning love for him. But Naren would question him. Naren would smile at his statements and criticise them. Naren, too, had love for the Master such as no other disciple had, and it was this love which caused him to respect, to revere and adore him. But he would not be satisfied until he had made his convictions of the truth of Shri Ramakrishna’s teachings absolutely infallible, in so far as the analytical intellect was capable of sanctioning the utterances of a saint and seer.
It was this power of searching for truth, partly intellectual and partly spiritual, which filled the Master with a feeling bordering on respect for Naren. Yes, this was the “Shiva-nature” or the “Shiva-power” in Naren, as Shri Ramakrishna used to say. On a certain occasion, the Master said to the disciples present pointing to Narendra Nath, “Behold! Here is Naren. See! See! O what power of insight he has! It is like the shoreless sea of radiance! The Mother, Mahamaya Herself, cannot approach more than within ten feet of him! She is bound by the very glory which She has imparted to him!” Then he prayed that the Mother might dim that radiance in order that Naren might be able to work. “O Mother,” he prayed, “put a little of Thy Maya into Narendra!” For otherwise, he would be concerned, by the natural tendency of his soul, only with the highest reaches of personal realisation; he would be immersed in eternal meditation and would be mindful only of the Supreme Reality and thus be lost to the world!
The other disciples accepted Shri Ramakrishna’s valuation of Naren as indisputable. Had he not gauged the depths of their own natures also! Had he not, at the very first sight, had the vision of the special forms of divinity to which their minds tended! Had he not told every one of them their secret tendencies! By merely touching them he had imparted powers and realisations unto them! Who were they to doubt when he said of Naren, “He has eighteen extraordinary powers one or two of which are sufficient to make a man famous in the world”, or “He is a burning, roaring fire consuming all impurities to ashes”, and added, “Even should Naren live on beef and pork, it could not harm in the least the great power of spirituality within him!”
Wonderful was Shri Ramakrishna’s method of teaching. He would seldom enter into the argument of his disciples. With a word, a glance or a song, he would teach; and the teaching was always, “Realisation is the only goal. When realisation comes into the heart, all arguments cease and the state of divine knowledge shines forth”. One day Naren and other disciples were engaged in a tempest of argument: “Is God Personal or Impersonal? Does God become incarnate or is divine Incarnation a myth?” On and on the argument raged, until it covered all points of theological inquiry. Naren was the victor. He had overwhelmed all their theories. Shri Ramakrishna approached the gathering, and they heard the opening notes of the following song come from his lips:
what avail thy efforts to realise that Being!
Groping about, as thou dost, like a madman in a dark room!”
The song continued:
into the six schools of philosophy.
There that Being thou shalt not find!
Neither in the Tantras, nor in the Vedas!
That Being is fond of the sweet essence of Love!”
The disputatious disciples sat silent and ecstatic. Yes, here was the great answer to all their questionings. Indeed, Shri Ramakrishna was a teacher who spoke only in the language of realisation. He was not metaphysical. He had seen; he had literally seen the Truth. So, what need of splitting hairs over questions that must remain for ever debatable to the human mind? Like Buddha of old, Shri Ramakrishna had little use for logic. Spirituality is not the attainment of a great development of the faculty for setting line theories into words. It is realisation. It is character. It is the conquest of lust and gold. Shri Ramakrishna took the burden of realisation from the plane of discussion into the sphere of personal striving, into the sphere of austerities and of a realistic effort at vision. Whenever the discussion grew hot, he became impatient of “much talk”. Often he would compare the disputatious scholars who soared high on the wings of discussions to vultures and kites, which whilst soaring high kept their eye on the carrion beneath. The eyes of vain scholars were likewise fixed on the carrion of name and fame, lust and gold.
But the Master never interfered, no matter how high the discussion rose. He let them talk. They would learn better, he would say. Sometimes, however, he enjoyed it. By it he sensed the spiritual consciousness of his disciples. Verily was the Master’s company a great school in the training of the soul. It was all a stimulus to personal growth. Every one was free to utilise his own powers in discovering and realising his personal potentialities. But there were certain special occasions when Shri Ramakrishna would intervene. These were, for example, when Naren’s towering thought endangered the limited vision of another. There was that instance when Naren attacked faith as a means to liberation. He spoke of “blind faith”. The Master said, “Naren, what do you mean by ‘blind faith’? Faith is always blind. Has faith an ‘eye’? Why say ‘blind faith’? Either simply say ‘faith’ or say ‘Jnana’ (knowledge). What do you mean by classifying faith as one kind having an eye, and the other being blind?” By these words Shri Ramakrishna meant to convey that even the highest human knowledge, even all philosophy was “blind faith”, as compared with one atom of that realisation which came from an actual perception of Reality. Slowly but surely Naren came to understand that it was not knowledge but realisation which was true religion. Man must see God. Thinking of Reality was good, but better was the vision of it. It took time and much loving patience. But in the end Naren discovered that Shri Ramakrishna’s teaching was the eloquent silence of insight. Often, during conversations, Shri Ramakrishna would burst into some soul-stirring utterances. At other times he would leave the disciples to themselves and to their argumentative moods; the discussion ended, they would find him in deepest Samadhi. This, the disciples came to know after a time, was a silent and eloquent protest to their heated discussion. The most eloquent and convincing power in all the methods of Shri Ramakrishna’s teachings was the spiritual radiance of his personal life. His character was the power behind his teaching. The man who preached universal love and toleration lived it. Shri Ramakrishna never attacked any social custom. He did not preach against caste. Himself a Brahmin, he showed his great love for the outcaste millions who were lowest in the social scale; and he also revealed his sense of utmost humility before his Mother, by performing the most menial of all services, which even the lowest of the out-castes, the Chandalas and the Pariahs, would shrink from doing.
What were Shri Ramakrishna’s answers to questions pertaining to God-vision and methods of realisation? How to pray? “Pray in any form”, he would say, “for the Lord hears the footfall even of an ant.” How to find God? “By the conquest of lust and gold.” Sincerity was the main theme of his teaching. Without sincerity nothing was possible, with sincerity all was possible. He would say to Naren and others that if they but carried out one-sixteenth of what he had done to realise God, they would be blessed for ever. Is God Personal or Impersonal? “He is both”, said Shri Ramakrishna, “and yet He is beyond. Beyond any intellectual or theological dogmas. He is manifest in the soul's own inmost realisation. He assumes any form for the pleasure of His devotee. He is inexpressible. He is not to be put between the covers of a book or in the boundary of a temple.” “Is image-worship right or wrong?” Shri Ramakrishna said that all such were idle questions. Worship of anything was true which helped one to see God. Intense longing was the one thing needful.
Shri Ramakrishna was intimately connected with all paths of Sadhana that led to the realisation of God. The all-comprehensive Hindu scriptures prescribe certain methods of worship suited for particular temperaments, which appear rather vulgar and indecent to others. Once the drift of conversation turned to such modes of spiritual discipline. The Master said to Naren, “These people cannot rightly pursue their course of Sadhana. Most of them satisfy their base passions in the name of religion. Well, Naren, you need not hear these things. As regards myself, I look upon all women as my mother. This is a very pure attitude of mind. There is no risk or danger in it. To look upon woman as sister is also not bad. But the other attitudes are very difficult and dangerous. It is almost impossible to keep the purity of the ideal. There are various ways to reach God. Some of these are dirty like the scavenger’s entrance to a house. It is really desirable to enter the house by the front door.” Then in an exalted mood he said, “There are many opinions and many ways. I do not like these any more. The aspirants of different ways quarrel among themselves. You are my own people. There are no outsiders here. I tell you, I clearly find He is the whole and I am His part. He is the Lord and I am the servant. Again sometimes I think that He is I and I am He.”
Shri Ramakrishna’s manner of teaching charmed Narendra Nath. It modified his puritanical view of life which he as a Brahmo had. Shri Ramakrishna could not bear the word “sin”; he had no such terms in his spiritual vocabulary as “born in sin” and “a child of wrath”. He admitted that man was born with limitations; but where others fixed their attention upon limitations only, he foresaw that the destiny of every soul was the triumphant conquest of all limitations. On one occasion when Naren was denouncing the degenerating influence of certain weaknesses of schoolboys, believing them to be undermining their character, the Master chanced to overhear and said, “Why talk of these matters! Talk of the Lord and nothing else.” Such was his method of teaching and its substance.
The general teachings which the Master imparted to his disciples Narendra Nath assimilated in a unique way. He was the readiest among them all in arriving at their true spirit. His soul was most attuned to the spiritual vibrations of the Master's words. Thus he read volumes where others read but pages of that Revelation unto men which was the life and gospel of Shri Ramakrishna. Really Naren possessed a rare insight to interpret Shri Ramakrishna’s words. One instance will suffice. One day, some time during the year 1884, Shri Ramakrishna was seated in his room at Dakshineswar surrounded by his disciples among whom was Naren. The conversation drifted to the Vaishnava religion. The Master gave the gist of the cult of Lord Gauranga and finished by saying, “This religion enjoins upon its followers the practice of three things, viz relish for the name of God, compassion for all living creatures and service to the Vaishnavas, the devotees of the Lord. The real meaning of these precepts is this; That God is not different from His name. Therefore one should always repeat His name. God and his devotee, Krishna and the Vaishnava, are not separate from one another. Therefore everyone should show respect to all saints and devotees. Realising this world as belonging to Shri Krishna, utmost compassion should be shown to all creatures." Hardly had he uttered the words, “Compassion to all creatures", when he fell into Samadhi. After a while he came back to a semi-conscious state of mind and said to himself, “Compassion for creatures! Compassion for creatures! Thou fool! An insignificant worm crawling on earth, thou to show compassion to others! Who art thou to show compassion? No, it cannot be. It is not compassion for others, but rather service to man, recognising him to be the veritable manifestation of God !"
Everyone present there, no doubt, heard those words of Shri Ramakrishna uttered from the innermost consciousness of his soul; but none but Naren could gauge their meaning.
When Naren left the room he said to the others, “What a strange light have I discovered in those wonderful words of the Master! How beautifully has he reconciled the ideal of Bhakti with the knowledge of the Vedanta, generally interpreted as hard, austere and inimical to human sentiments and emotions! What a grand, natural and sweet synthesis! The ordinary impression is that the culture of the knowledge of Vedanta demands an utter ostracism of society and humanity and a rooting out of all tender sentiments such as love, devotion, compassion, etc. The aspirant thus goes astray in cherishing an uncompromising hatred towards the world and his fellow creatures, thinking them as impediments in the way of spiritual attainments. But from those words of wisdom which Shri Ramakrishna uttered in an ecstatic mood, I have understood that the ideal of Vedanta lived by the recluse outside the pale of society can be practised even from hearth and home and applied to all our daily schemes of life. Whatever may be the avocation of a man, let him understand and realise that it is God alone who has manifested Himself as the world and created beings. He is both immanent and transcendent. It is He who has become all diverse creatures, objects of our love, respect or compassion and yet He is beyond all these. Such realisation of Divinity in humanity leaves no room for arrogance. By realising it, a man cannot have any jealousy or pity for any other being. Service of man, knowing him to be the manifestation of God, purifies the heart, and in no time, such an aspirant realises himself as part and parcel of God, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.
“Those words of Shri Ramakrishna throw an altogether new light upon the path of devotion. Real devotion is far off until the aspirant realises the immanence of God. By realising Him in and through all beings and by serving Him through humanity, the devotee acquires real devotion. Those following the paths of work and Yoga are similarly benefited by those words of the Master. The embodied being cannot remain even for a minute without doing any work. All his activities should be directed to the service of man, the manifestation of that shall come when I shall proclaim this grand truth before the world at large. I shall make it the common property of all, the wise and the fool, the rich and the poor, the Brahmin and the Pariah.''
"It must be constantly borne in mind that the whole gist of the Master's personality and teaching was the very essence of Hinduism. It was not a sectarian Hinduism, but that wide and all-comprehending attitude of the soul which has been in a marked degree a Hindu racial ideal at all times. On the surface it appears as a rigidity of ceremonial form and as a congeries of unbelievable myths. But with the background of the Advaita philosophy, the whole setting and details are seen in an altogether different light. Therefore when Naren came to Shri Ramakrishna he found an altogether new theology. True, it was the same theology which he had been taught from his infancy, but he was now approaching it with understanding, whereas, as a child, he had imbibed it without reason, simply as a matter of custom and heredity. Formerly when the intellect aroused itself, doubt also arose; but now a new order of thought, a new outlook was being opened. For, the very life of Shri Ramakrishna revealed to him potentialities and realities in Hinduism he had never dreamt of. The Hinduism of Shri Ramakrishna was a positive, practical and living realisation. However Naren might question the actuality of the spiritual ideals and gods with which Hinduism abounds, he could not doubt the earnestness of his Master. Shri Ramakrishna injected a living spirit into Hinduism. It might be superstition, thought Naren at first; the Master himself might be a madman; but it must be a remarkable superstition which enabled this madman to transmit spirituality even by a touch! To Shri Ramakrishna Hinduism was alive. And, in this, how superior was it, thought Naren, to the theologically healthy but spiritually lifeless body of Brahmoisml For him, at least, Brahmoism did not emanate a burning and contagious spirituality. It was more of a social reform movement, even though the members, considered individually, might be possessed of great spiritual aspiration. And did not Keshab Chandra Sen, the leading spirit of the Brahmo movement, come and sit at the feet of Shri Ramakrishna, according him honour and worship bordering on that given to Divinity?
To Shri Ramakrishna Naren was indebted for his introduction to Hinduism. This understanding was a process. Naren came by it in watching his Master in religious worship, in religious teaching and in religious ecstasy. The spirit of this understanding was communicated to Naren in spite of himself. The Master injected his own consciousness, his own personal realisation of the Mother and of Hinduism into the soul of Naren. How he did this is not fully known. The process was purely spiritual and too subtle to be explained. The doubting Naren was passing away; the devotional Naren, the spiritual Naren — Naren, the Hindu — was being born.
In those days Naren, in common with many Brahmos feared for the psychical consequences of intense meditation, and too much inebriation from the love of God. Shri Ramakrishna quieted him on this point saying, “God is like an ocean of syrup. Would you not dive into it? Suppose, my boy, there is a vessel with a wide mouth containing syrup, and suppose you are a fly anxious to drink of the sweet fluid. How would you like to drink of it? Naren said to him in reply that he would like to sit on the edge and drink from the vessel, adding that if he chanced to fall in he was sure to be drowned and thus lose his life. Thereupon the Master said to him, “You forget, my boy, this is the Ocean of Sachchidananda, the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. Here one need not be afraid of death. This is the Ocean of Immortality. Only fools say that one should not run to excess in one’s love and devotion for God. Can anybody ever carry to excess his love for the Divine? Therefore I say to you, dive deep into the Ocean of God.” And Naren followed this advice in his life. His intellect might have questioned, but his heart went straight to the goal.
At this time, strange experiences came to him. Many times he saw Shri Ramakrishna in meditation when he himself was at home and the Master in distant Dakshineswar. One night, Naren dreamt that Shri Ramakrishna came to him and said, "‘Come! I will show you Gopi Radha!” Naren followed him. After having gone some distance, the Master turned to him and said, “Where else will you go?” Saying this, Shri Ramakrishna transformed himself into the beautiful personality and exquisite form of Radha herself. This so affected the conscious mind of Naren that whereas, formerly, he had only sung songs of the Brahmo Samaj relating to the Formless Brahman, he now sang songs to the great spiritual love of Radha, the individual soul, for Sri Krishna, the Indwelling Beloved One. When he narrated this dream to his brother-disciples, they were amazed. One asked him, “Do you believe in the significance of this?” And Naren answered, “Surely I do”.
Sometimes, Naren would see his “double”, as it were, following meditation. It would appear as one just like himself, of the same shape and form, and he wondered, “Who is this?” It would respond to all his actions like an image reflected in a minor and remain with him sometimes for more than an hour. He told Shri Ramakrishna of it, and the Master passed it over lightly, saying, “It is only an incident in the higher stages of meditation”.
Naren once longed to be lost, forgetful of all outer things, in Bhava or the ecstatic state. He saw how the devotees of the Master, such as Nityagopal and Manomohan, would fall to the ground seemingly lifeless at the chanting of the names of God. He was much depressed that he was unable to enter these states of blessedness in a like manner, and he complained about it to Shri Ramakrishna. The Master regarding him with tenderness replied, “My child, do not be disturbed. What does it matter? When a huge elephant runs into a pond, it sets up a great commotion in it, but if it goes into the waters of the Ganga, little commotion is set up. These devotees are, as it were, small ponds. A little of this great power of Divine Love coming into the enclosure of these small ponds lashes the water into a fury; but you are like the huge river.”
About this time Naren passed through a test which proved that he was a roaring fire of spirituality and renunciation. Some of his wealthy friends one day invited him for a drive to their garden in the suburbs of Calcutta. He consented joyfully but had no idea what sort of an evening drive it would be. They stopped in front of a house, and all alighted and entered the grounds where a garden party was being held. Merry-makers were these, and Naren enjoyed their singing and sang himself. After a time he grew tired and was told that he might rest comfortably in an adjoining room. His friends seeing him alone sent a dancing girl to amuse him. He was as simple as a child and talked to her like a brother. She told him many interesting things about her life, telling him of her sorrows and misfortunes. Seeing that she had engaged all his interest and sympathy, she misinterpreted his attitude and took a fancy to make him know what she felt. Instantly he remembered Shri Ramakrishna and thought of God. He became serious and started to his feet and said to the girl, “Excuse me, I must be going now. I have a genuine sympathy for you and wish you well. If you know that it is a weakness to lead such a life, you will get over it some day”. They parted. 'The girl returned in bewilderment and said to Naren’s friends sarcastically, “It is a nice trick you have played upon me, sending me to tempt a Sadhu!” Such was the great influence Shri Ramakrishna had cast on Naren.
One cannot bask in the radiance of a great personality without having the inner powers and potentialities aroused. Naren also acquired power and personality and a great spiritual consciousness at the feet of Shri Ramakrishna. The words of hope and strength which the Master spoke concerning him invigorated him. He became conscious of his future greatness. Once he said to his friends, “What! At best you will be lawyers or doctors or judges. Wait, I shall chalk out a path for myself”. He felt sure of himself because the Master was so sure of him. He saw famous men — physicians, lawyers, scholars, and religious teachers — who came to the Master all gathered together by his personality. Physicians tested his trances and his renunciation of gold; even when outward consciousness had receded, the body would shrink in response to the slightest contact with gold. Scholars noted down his sayings and found them to be utterances of the highest realisations. All were convinced of the spiritual greatness of Shri Ramakrishna. Naren was also convinced of his greatness, and the Master, too, had given him the foremost place among his disciples and devotees, though from a worldly point of view Naren knew he was nothing when compared with many of these. This enhanced Naren's self-reliance. The Master was not guided by worldly position in his choice. To one who was enormously rich and who won the title of Raja, he said, “People call you Raja. But I cannot do so! That will be a lie on my part”. To another, a self-styled philanthropist, he said, “You are a small-minded man, low born as you are”.
Thus Naren’s all-round development, physical, intellectual and spiritual, was due to the influence of Shri Ramakrishna. Naren had the native graceful bearing of a wild animal, w'ith absolute freedom of motion. He would walk along, now slowly and then with speed, his mind absorbed in thoughts which literally swept his soul. And yet, he had a certain boyishness of spirit about him and a spontaneity of manner which were a delight to all who knew him.
His appearance was that of a young man full of vigour and vitality, with a frame slightly above the middle height and somewhat thickset in the shoulders. His chest was expansive. His head was broad towards the front, indicative of high mental power and development. It was well shaped throughout. Indeed, he was one of the few men of whom it can be said, without intimating any feminity of type, that he was graceful. His eyes were the most striking of his features. They were often likened to lotus petals. They were rather prominent, though not protruding, and varied greatly in their colour according to the feelings of the moment. They revealed a keen, alert mind. Sometimes they were luminous in the depth and steadfastness of gaze; at other times they would sparkle with pleasure and excitement. When he spoke, it was as if, for the time being, only the person spoken to existed; one could not but feel flattered. Some accused him of intellectual avariciousness, if such a term can be used, and said that his interest in any one ceased when “he had wrung him dry”, to use their own expression. But it was always true of him that he gave more than he received. It was an intellectual exchange. He was muscular and athletic in his build and of striking carriage. But one lost sight altogether of the body, being all-absorbed in the interest of studying the face. He had a strong jaw, evidence of an iron will and fixed determination. He seemed to some as a joyous dreamer, to others as an intense thinker, to others again, as one who lived in a world rich with ideal love and beauty; but to all he seemed as a scion of an aristocratic house. His smile was benignant and merry.
But when he grew serious, his face would strike awe into the hearts of his companions. There were times when many of his brother-disciples regarded him as a child; and they loved him all the more even when he was irritating or exacting or impetuous. When he became excited in discussion, or was rapt in thought, his face and eyes would blaze, revealing the tremendous power of his personality. When he was absorbed in his own thoughts he could send such a force of repelling reserve that one would not dare to approach him. In fact intense aloofness was one of his striking traits. His was the temperament of a genius. Various moods would come upon him, now of a strange impatience with his environment, and again of a sweet and loving patience as of one who is indifferent to results of plans and enthusiastic desires, and who possesses a sense of having eternity at his back. And it might be said that considering the difficulties under which he laboured and suffered, and also the scant appreciation from those for whom he laboured and suffered, it was a wonder that his heart did not become like steel. But love and the spirit of gentle bearing remained with him throughout. He would say to himself, ‘‘Why should one expect to be understood! It is sufficient that they love me! After all who am I! The Mother knows best. She can do Her work. Who am I to think myself indispensable”. Indeed, his was a radiant personality, a gracious personality and, withal, a powerful personality.
The love which Shri Ramakrishna bore for him, struck a balance between his intellect and heart. By instinct Naren was a philosopher. Shri Ramakrishna made him a devotee.
But, lest it be thought that the Master developed only so much religious and emotional sentimentality in his disciple, let it be remembered that the highest philosophical realisation which Naren ever came to experience was, likewise, due to the Master. Insight, tempered and softened by spiritual love, was the foundation of his spirituality. Naren was the philosopher in a unique sense. Though, to all appearances, he was primarily a philosopher, the Master used to say that only a Bhakta, or a devotee of God, could have such amiable and pleasing features. “Jnanis are generally dry in their appearance; but Bhaktas are sweet to look upon.” Whatever this might have been, the words of Naren himself are best illustrative of his true nature. As Swami Vivekananda he once said to a disciple of his making a comparison between himself and the Master, “He was all Bhakti without, but within he was all Jnana; I am all Jnana without; but within my heart it is all Bhakti”. He meant by this that a great mantle of love hid the spiritual intellect of the Master, and a mantle of intelligence covered, as a cloak, the devotional nature within himself.
His afflictions and poverty drew out one side of Naren’s character, his associations another. Shri Ramakrislma perfected these two characters and moulded him according to the ideal he had in mind, the ideal which became living and incarnate as the Swami Vivekananda. Shri Ramakrishna said that, had Naren been nurtured in luxury and comfort he would have certainly drifted in some other direction. He might have become a great statesman, a great lawyer, a great orator or social reformer. But poverty had given Naren sympathy with the poor. The divine character of his Master had proved to him that there was a difference between intellectuality and spirituality. Philosophy thus became to him a handmaiden for spiritual realisation. It verified his spiritual experiences. He did not denounce the intellect; he acclaimed it. But hereafter he made reason subordinate to spiritual realisation. Prayer and meditation were the wings upon which Naren now rose to the spiritual consciousness.
How wonderful was the Master's love! After the passing away of Naren’s father, Shri Ramakrishna said to an influential devotee, “Naren’s father is dead. They are starving at home. Now it will be good if his friends help him’’. When the gentleman had taken his departure, Naren said, rather piqued, “Sir! Why did you tell that to him?” The Master, seeing that he had hurt his disciple’s sense of family pride in having thus made mention of their misfortunes, exclaimed with tears in his eyes, “O my Naren, do you not know that I would do anything for you; that for you I would even go about begging from door to door!” Naren was overpowered. This was love in very truth. It was overwhelming and selfless love. “It was true,” as Naren said of himself in relation to his Master at a much later period, “he made me his slave by his great love for me!”
As has been seen Shri Ramakrishna was much alarmed when the relatives of Naren were planning for his marriage. His love for Naren, his desire to save him from the life of the world, made the Master prostrate before the feet of the Mother. He prayed to Her many times, “Oh Mother, do break up all these plans! May Naren not sink!” But however great might be the love of the Master for Naren, he would be strict with him if he at any time associated with evil companions, even if only by the way. Did the slightest shadow of an impure thought cross Naren’s mind, the Master at once detected it. When Naren came to him, after having associated with any questionable person, he would say that he could not even look him in the face nor could he eat from his hand.
Naren’s bright future was always present before Shri Ramakrishna’s vision. He knew that Naren’s was the path of renunciation. He directed the entire course of Naren’s training towards this end. In that light he scrutinised his every movement. Once he found that Naren associated intimately with a devotee who had led a worldly life, and he warned Naren. But he protested that the devotee had given up his questionable habits. The Master said, “However much you may wash the pot where garlic is kept, still some smell will linger. The boys are pure. They are as yet uncontaminated with any idea of lust and gold. You have seen mangoes that have been pecked by crows. These mangoes cannot be offered to God nor be eaten by man. The devotees who have tasted worldly pleasure, belong to another group. A group of monks was seated together thinking of God. Some women passed by. One of the monks opened his eyes and cast oblique glances at them. He had renounced the world after being the father of three children. You cannot expect figs from thistles. Worldly men have no leisure to think of God. But do you think I hate them? No, never, I find God has become all these. I look upon all women as my Mother. So I find no difference between a chaste woman and a girl of ill fame .... I find every one seeks glass beads. No one wants diamonds. Man is enamoured of lust. He is caught in the glamour of wealth and riches. But to one who has seen God, these appear as worthless trifles. Some one said to Ravana, ‘You go to Sita assuming all forms in order to intimidate or humour her. Why don’t you take the form of Rama so that she may take you for her husband? Ravana replied, ‘If I meditate upon Rama, even the most exquisite beauty of the world appears as mere straw’. Devotion to God is impossible without purity of heart. An impure man cannot have single-minded devotion. His mind is diverted to various things. You cannot expect anything when you are attached to lust and gold. It is extremely difficult for a worldly man to be perfectly unattached. He is a slave to his wife, slave to his money and slave to his master.” Then looking at Naren, he said, “My dear boy, you will never attain to your goal if you are attached to lust and gold”. Verily as the sun is vastly above the earth, so was this Guru above all other Gurus. The Master and Naren transcended all traditional ideas of Guru and disciple. And was it wonderful that Naren should have counted, towards the close of his active life, these days of ecstasy at Dakshineswar, as days of eternal blessedness?
Such was the teaching Shri Ramakrishna gave to Naren during the first four years of their relationship, and such was the environment in which Naren grew beyond the confines of his utmost spiritual hopes. It is difficult to state, from a chronological point of view, just when Naren became the disciple of the Master. From a mystical point of view he had become the disciple when Shri Ramakrishna touched his heart. It was then that the Master literally took possession of him. But consciously Naren became the disciple only when his intellect had been convinced, which was a process of some months. But when he became the disciple, it was irrevocable. The period in which his mind hesitated before fully accepting the Master was part of his training. Had he accepted him from the very beginning, without understanding, he would not have become Swami Vivekananda, possessed of the power of convincing others because he himself had gone through the process of being convinced.
For five years Naren had the company of his Guru. These years were a period of silent realisation, silent teaching and silent assimilation. Every time Naren visited Dakshineswar it was a stirring event both to himself and the Master, marking the intensification of their relationship and the absorption of ideas and ideals on the part of the disciple. He was becoming saturated with spirituality. The Master gave him all that was to be given, all that he had. Shri Ramakrishna was like one who had struggled hard amidst almost insuperable difficulties to acquire a great treasure, and Naren was the son and heir who was to reap this treasure. Shri Ramakrishna had built up a great spiritual empire by conquering the dangerous invaders — lust and gold. Naren was to extend this empire over the earth. Shri Ramakrishna had dived deep down into the spiritual ocean. Naren was to show to the world the treasures which the Master had found therein. Shri Ramakrishna was the realisation and insight, and Naren was to become the utterance thereof.
Through Naren one is able to enter the group of devotees first at Dakshineswar, later on at Shyampukur and Cossipore, and witness the spiritual experiences and observe the methods of teaching of the Master. The training was all directed to making the disciples aware by a gradual process that all religions are paths to God and that all are essentially one. Naren judged Shri Ramakrishna from the broad standpoint of religion.
Whetner he was literally an incarnation of Lord or not, did not occupy the attention of Naren. He saw the character of the Master. That told a more complete tale in the way of revelation than all the most well-balanced metaphysical theories put together. Naren’s views at this time were broad, in fact too broad for the average understanding. He accepted Shri Ramakrishna in a larger sense than most of those about him. He often grew impatient over their tendency towards fanatical, limited and prejudicial acceptance of the Master. He held him in too high a reverence to place his personality into the narrow measure of the understanding of the Incarnation theory. Naren was too matter-of-fact spiritually to be self-deluded. He unconsciously accepted Shri Ramakrishna’s life as the demonstration of means towards all spiritual ends. He saw the spiritual path-finder in him. He heard his words as utterances of human verity in regard to the highest possibilities of the spiritual life. He instinctively sensed in the Master that which he later understood in the light of the science of a spiritual psychology, namely, that human personality can transcend its own boundaries by the sheer effort of intensification of transpersonal ideals. All the efforts of the saints had been this. And in Shri Ramakrishna Naren saw these efforts brought into the highest possible practice and realisation. He saw him in an intensely human light as the re-maker and preserver of the Hindu Dharma (religion); and in this light he saw in Shri Ramakrishna a new Chaitanya, a new Shankaracharya, a new Buddha; aye, even more, for the difficulties which stood in the way of the reinvigoration of Hinduism were far more numerous and serious in the present age than at any previous time. Instinctively Naren realised all this as a fact; and instinctively he saw the greatness of Shri Ramakrishna. This consummation was brought about at Shyampukur, and more intensely, at the garden-house of Cossipore.
It was in the middle of 1885 that Shri Ramakrishna showed the first symptom of a throat trouble which ultimately ended in the fatal cancer. He suffered so much from the intense heat of the summer that he began the use of ice. After a month or two he developed pain in his throat which was aggravated by talking and Samadhi. A physician was consulted who prescribed the necessary medicine and warned him against much talking, and at the same time cautioned the devotees against his going into Samadhi too often. But all attempts of the devotees to control the Master proved futile. At about that time Shri Ramakrishna attended a festival at Panihati, in the suburb of Calcutta, spending the whole day in singing and dancing and often going into Samadhi. The result was an aggravation of the disease. The doctors now definitely diagnosed it as “clergyman’s sore throat”. The Master carried out the instructions of the physician in all things but in the two essentials. Whenever there was an occasion for deep spiritual converse, he would lose all body-consciousness and go into ecstasies, or when afflicted people came to him for solace he would talk, no matter what it cost him. At the same time his communion with God was intensified; he had no regular hours for food or drink; most of his time was spent in meditation and prayer, which with him meant Samadhi. This made the last year of his life a slow crucifixion.
The devotees naturally became anxious. Narendra fully realised the gravity of the situation. He remarked to a friend, “I am afraid the object of our love and adoration will not live for long. I have read the medical books and consulted some doctor-friends about his disease, and I am afraid his throat trouble has turned into cancer, the cure for which has not yet been discovered.” Shri Ramakrishna readily agreed to the proposal of going to Calcutta for systematic treatment. Accordingly a small house was rented, but the Master did not like it and straightway left for Balaram Bose’s place at Baghbazar. Within a week he was removed to a better house at Shyampukur. Doctor Mahendra Lai Sarkar, the leading homoeopath of Calcutta, agreed to undertake his treatment. Naren organised the nursing; the Holy Mother came from Dakshineswar to do the cooking. Naren’s deep love for the Master, his wonderful self-sacrifice and intense enthusiasm greatly influenced the other disciples and they all resolved to devote their lives to the service of their spiritual guide and to the realisation of God. They forgot their studies and home. Their parents and guardians began to interfere; but for the zeal and encouragement of Naren, it would have been almost impossible for them to have continued the course they mapped out for themselves.
As none of the householder devotees was rich enough to bear the expenses single-handed, at times the faith of the boys wavered, and they wondered where the money to meet the expenses was to come from. They feared that they might even have to give way to the demands of their families and return to their homes. Whenever this happened some fresh proofs of divinity in Shri Ramakrishna would become manifest to convince them that he was the Lord Himself. Then they would reproach themselves saying, “Why this baseless apprehension, this anxiety about funds? Shri Ramakrishna himself will provide the means.” They were convinced that any service rendered to the Master would be conducive to their highest spiritual welfare, and they realised that his illness gave all an opportunity of service to the Guru, every one according to his full capacity. So the householders resolved to spend their last farthing in the service of the Master; and the young Brahmacharis gave their energies in personal service. All were upheld by an unbounded enthusiasm which was strengthened and stimulated by the spiritual revelation of Shri Ramakrishna. Many who were unable to go to Dakshineswar to see him found the opportunity at Shyampukur.
Naturally, there was much speculation as to the reason for the Master’s illness among the devotees. Some ascribed it to the will of the Divine Mother as being necessary for the fulfilment of a particular purpose; others thought that it was self-imposed by an Incarnation of the Divine to help mankind; a third group concluded that as birth, disease, decay and death are all incidental and inevitable phases of human life, the disease of the Master was a perfectly natural phenomenon, and that it was foolish to give a mystic or supernatural explanation to it. At the same time they were willing to shed the last drop of their blood in his service and to mould their lives in accordance with the lofty spiritual ideal given to them by the Master. Needless to say that Narendra Nath was the leader of the last group which consisted mostly of young men reading in schools and colleges. Though different groups of devotees regarded the Master variously as an Incarnation of God, a superman or a God-man', all of them were convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that the goal of life would be realised if they could emulate his example and render him service.
Naren was not a fanatic. Yet he had to acknowledge that before him he saw the loving, struggling, suffering human personality transformed the next moment into a divine personality. The human and the divine, he began to see, were inseparably related. Thus, by degrees, he came to know religion as a genuine human fact, its achievements lying in realistic efforts and the actual conquest of human limitations. He saw this enacted before him daily by Shri Ramakrishna. In the face of this what mattered belief? Realisation is the great desideratum. Shri Ramakrishna was the man of realisation. Naren aspired ever to be like him. The voice of his Master, his tears and smiles during his spiritual experiences, the manner in which he walked and ate and performed the thousand and one things of daily life became gospels, apocalyptic revelations unto him. Naren sat at the feet of the Master and in his eyes he read the whole meaning of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
He did not accept Shri Ramakrishna as an Incarnation of God, nor again as an ordinary human being. One day in reply to certain criticisms of Dr. Mahendra Lal Sarkar, the attending physician, Narendra Nath said, “Sir, we look upon the Master as a person who is like God. Let me make my idea clear to you. There is a point somewhere between the vegetable and animal creation where it is difficult to say whether a thing is an animal or a plant. Much in the same way, there is a point somewhere between the man-world and the God-world where one cannot say with certainty whether a person is human or divine.” He concluded by saying, “We look upon him not as God but as a God-like person. And hence we offer him worship bordering on divine worship.”
The Master, knowing that he was approaching the end of his mortal existence, was all the more eager to kindle in the heart of his chief disciples a burning desire for the realisation of God, which can only be attained by reducing to ashes all attachment to lust and gold. Therefore, his utterances at Shyampukur are replete with a spirit of utter renunciation. Shri Ramakrishna not only imparted his spiritual teaching to his disciples, but he gave them likewise the stimulus and the strength to follow those teachings. His own life, the force of his utterances, the ease with which he slipped into the highest Samadhi and his communion with Divine Realities — all these were as a great Light by which they gained a glorious spiritual consciousness. Coming at a time when Naren was being buffeted on all sides, the Master’s teaching sank deep into his heart to remain there for ever, a beacon light to show him the way through the wilderness of illusion.
When Doctor Mahendra Lal Sarkar, the Master’s attending physician, met Naren he was delighted with his conversations and invited him to dinner. Later when he heard him sing at Shyampukur, he was so pleased that he embraced and blessed him. He said to Shri Ramakrishna, “I am very glad to see that it is boys like him who come here for religious instruction. Naren is a real gem, fit to shine in any sphere of life.” The Master replied, “They say that the fiery appeal of Advaita Goswami brought about the Incarnation of Shri Gauranga at Nadia. Similarly everything that you see here (meaning his own advent) is on account of him (Narendra Nath).”
Of all the disciples of the Master, Naren, though very young, possessed the most penetrating intellect, as was shown by his keen observation and comprehensive outlook on life. This, in a measure, made him their natural leader, competent to chide as well as to guide, as will be shown by what follows.
While companionship with Shri Ramakrishna and wholehearted service to him gave the devotees increased faith and devotion, they were unconsciously walking on a very dangerous road. The emotions of the boys were more or less stirred up by the tragic picture unfolding before their eyes. To those of them who were of the more sentimental type, these emotions were insidiously replacing the sterner ideals of renunciation and self-restraint which are the bed-rock of spirituality. Emotion is good in its place, but it is not the goal — and too much indulgence therein might even cause one to miss the object to be attained. Of course, there were some reasons for their taking this mistaken view of spirituality. The mind naturally seeks the line of least resistance trying to make a compromise between God and the world, between renunciation and enjoyment. Few realise their contradictory nature and are satisfied with a partial success in spiritual matters. Shri Ramakrishna, knowing this, tested new-comers to see if their idea was of a comfortable religion, one that would not interfere with the satisfaction of their worldly desires. In such cases he never gave the entire spiritual truth but contented himself with imparting as much as they would find easy to accept and assimilate. This made for individual training. Of course, his instruction to householders was different from that given to his young boys not yet contaminated by the world. His general instructions were still different. There we find him saying, “In this Kali-Yuga the only way to cultivate spirituality is by chanting the name of the Lord and following the path of devotion as marked out by the sage Narada.” The devotees, however, did not realise the full significance of these words, that Narada taught complete renunciation of the world through love of God by a gradual process.
Another cause of the devotees’ error seems to have been their lack of comprehension of the significance of Shri Ramakrishna’s life. In moments of spiritual uplift they would see the Master weep and dance before he became lost in Samadhi. But his emotion, unlike theirs, had as its background a life of stern austerity and uncompromising renunciation and was evidence of strength rather than weakness. The situation had come to this pass when Girish Chandra Ghose arrived on the scene. Girish openly proclaimed the Master to be an Incarnation of God, and he tried to induce everyone to share his conviction. This proved nearly fatal to the disciples, for Girish’s case was a unique one. With none of his sincerity; there were some who went about declaring that they had given Shri Ramakrishna the “power of attorney” like Girish in spiritual matters and had therefore no need of any discipline, Girish soon was supported in his views by Ram Chandra Datta who thought the Master to be Shri Krishna and Shri Gauranga. Encouraged by Girish’s public announcement, he busied himself in working out fully his Incarnation theory and even went so far as to assign to different devotees the respective roles they had played with the above-named Incarnations. Those who displayed the greatest amount of sentimentality were spiritually the highest in his estimation.
Matters were brought to a head by Vijay Krishna Goswami, the great Brahmo preacher, who, though not a disciple of the Master, had had a vision of him as he sat in meditation in his room at Dacca. He lost no time in going to see the Master to tell him, “I have travelled all over the country and met many spiritual persons. But I have found none like you. Here is the full quota of sixteen annas1; whereas at other places I have found but two, three or four annas at the most. I saw you at Dacca in a vision and I have no doubts of you. People do not understand you because you are so easy of access. You live very near to Calcutta. The mere wish brings us to you. There is no difficulty of conveyance. Therefore, we cannot properly estimate your value. But had you been seated on the summit of a high mountain, the journey to which would mean great trouble and hardships, then we would have regarded you in a different light. Now we think that if such a very spiritual man lives near us, how great must be the spirituality of those who live far off! That is why we roam hither and thither in quest of spirituality instead of coming to see you.”
It may be easily seen that Vijay’s presence at Shyampukur caused the smouldering embers to burst into flame. The belief in the Master as a Divine Incarnation spread among the devotees like wild fire. Some of them waited in eager expectancy for miraculous manifestations of Shri Ramakrishna’s divine power; others would fall into partial trances accompanied by convulsions on hearing devotional music or the like.
Narendra Nath was the first to realise the dangers of the path the devotees were taking. He tried to convince the young disciples of their danger by telling them, “The effusion of sentiment which is not attended by a corresponding transformation of character and which is not strong enough to destroy the cravings of lust and gold by awakening in the heart an enthusiasm for the vision of God — is neither deep nor of any real value in the realm of spirituality. Physical contortions, tears, horripilations, and even momentary trance which result from this wrong emotion are, in reality, hysterical. These should be controlled by a determined effort. If that fails, one should take a nutritious diet or even consult a doctor. For unconsciously, you are feigning these things. It is only in rare individuals of gigantic spirituality that those emotions, overflowing the walls of restraint and appearing as trance or the shedding of tears, etc. are genuine. But ignorant people do not realise this and think that these outward symptoms, of themselves, indicate deep spiritual fervour. So instead of practising restraint, devotion and renunciation, they studiously cultivate these effusions with the result that their weakened nerves respond in this way to the slightest religious stimulus. If this is allowed to go on unchecked, the result is physical and mental disaster. Of one hundred persons who take up the spiritual life eighty turn out to be charlatans and fifteen become insane. Only the remaining five may be blessed with a vision of real truth. Therefore beware.”
That Naren was right was proved when it transpired later that some of those emotional outbursts had been carefully rehearsed at home; other cases were mere imitation. These yielded to an increase of food and sustained efforts at self-control. When these simple methods failed, Naren would make the individual the butt of searing ridicule. He hated the weakness that prompted the surrender of straightforwardness and discrimination. He placed positive ideals before the young disciples and tried to appeal to their innate strength. He surcharged with the ideals of austerity and real dispassion for the ephemeral objects of the world. He would depict to them in glowing colours the soul-stirring events of the Master's Sadhana period and keep them spellbound by dwelling on his real greatness. Quoting from the Imitation of Christ, he would say, "If one really loves the Lord, one must mould one's life according to the ideals of the Master. Therefore this is the real touchstone of our love for Shri Ramakrishna." Again he would remind them of the Master's teaching, "Keep the knowledge of Advaita in your pocket, and then act as you like in the world". He explained to them that the emotional side of the Master’s life was founded upon discrimination, and that therefore they must, above all, in their efforts to imitate him, try to discriminate between the real and the unreal.
While Naren was thus engaged in his own spiritual pursuits and in shaping the character of his young brother-disciples, the condition of the Master was going from bad to worse. Medicines proved of no avail. Dr. Mahendra Lai thought that it might be due to the foul and congested air of Calcutta and advised removal to some garden-house in the suburbs. After a vigorous search the garden-house belonging to Gopal Chandra Ghosh at Cossipore was hired on rupees eighty a month. On the afternoon of 11th December, 1885, the Master was removed to the new premises. He felt much refreshed at this new place Ťon account of its beautiful scenery, free air and solitude.