A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Thus was consolidated the monastic Order of Ramakrishna at Baranagore. Some time at this period they performed the sacred Viraja ceremony and took the vows of lifelong celibacy and poverty, dedicating their lives to the realisation of God. The old names were changed for new ones to complete their severance from the old world and its associations. Rakhal and Yogin became Swamis Brahmananda and Yogananda respectively; Baburam and Niranjan, Swamis Premananda and Niranjanananda; Shashi and Hari, Swamis Ramakrishnananda and Turiyananda; Latu and Sarada, Swamis Adbhutananda and Trigunatitananda; Tarak and Kali, Swamis Shivananda and Abhedananda; Sharat and Gangadhar, Swamis Saradananda and Akhandananda; and Gopal Senior and Subodh became Swamis Advaitananda and Subodhananda. Some years later the list was completed by Hari Prasanna under the name of Swami Vijnanananda. Naren did not assume any permanent name. During his itinerant days he changed his name several times in order to avoid recognition. On the eve of his sailing for America he took the name of Swami Vivekananda at the request of the Maharaja of Khetri.1

Even as the feature of the Order was twofold, that of itinerant monkhood with personal freedom and yet bound by the love of the Master and the inspiration of his divine life to an organisation with a definite mission to fulfil, so in the personality of every member, especially Naren, were seen the two tendencies at war with each other at times. Loyalty to the Math and its mission was at variance very often with the traditional ideal of monasticism, and there were times when it seemed the Sadhu tendency would force them to the isolated Sannyasin's life in spite of themselves.

The tendency to pilgrimage was manifest even from the beginning; for several of the monks, as soon as the Master had departed, accompanied the Holy Mother to Vrindaban. Trigunatita one day abruptly left Baranagore without confiding his plans to any one. He left a note behind which read, “I am going to Vrindaban on foot. It is dangerous for me to stay here. Ideas may change. Formerly I used to dream of home and parents. Then I saw the form of Maya. Twice have I suffered much. Indeed, twice I had to return home. Therefore I am going on a long journey. The Master once said to me, 'Never trust your relatives. They can do anything.' He, however, returned very soon to the Math. Akhandananda started on a pilgrimage over the Himalayas to Tibet. Abhedananda, after his return from Vrindaban, again set out, in the company of Saradananda and Premananda, for Puri. Brahmananda often spoke of going to some distant solitary place, such as the bank of the sacred Narmada, to meditate. Even the holy atmosphere of Baranagore seemed to them not free enough; they desired to live as wandering monks, depending solely on God. But Ramakrishnananda chose to stay by the sacred relics of the Master.

Naren, too, was becoming restless. He felt his attachment to the brother-disciples as a sort of golden chain impeding his progress towards the realisation of God. Therefore he resolved to strike out into the unknown paths of the monk's life. One by one, all his Gurubhais, excepting Ramakrishnananda, had gone. The first wanderings of Naren were, one might say, but temporary absences. He would sally forth on one journey or pilgrimage after another, but would return against his will very soon. Although every time he left he would say, “It will be for good and all this time’', something inevitably forced him back.

Thus with the exception of several flying visits to Vaidyanath and Simultala, and a visit to Antpur, whither he had gone at the earnest solicitations of his friends who felt that he needed a rest from the strenuous life of the monastery, Naren did not leave Baranagore until the year 1888 was well on its way.

He had made up his mind to break from the monastery to test his own strength, to gather experiences of a new life, to make himself absolutely fearless, and at the same time to force his brother-disciples to learn self-reliance and to stand alone. He struggled hard to free himself; his mind wavered between the desire for the life of the Sadhu and his sense of responsibility for the Brotherhood.

There are necessarily some blanks in this part of Naren’s life-history, for he himself was indifferent as to the recording of his plans and journeys and spoke of them afterwards vaguely, casually. Then, too, he held his spiritual experience during the time too sacred to be discussed, even with his brothers. And yet something is known of him as the wandering monk. Sometimes one or other of the monks accompanied him; and those householders whom he met and initiated as lay disciples on his long tours throughout the land, have faithfully recorded the events during the time he lived with them, including even conversations. Then there are his letters written occasionally to his Gurubhais and his own disciples. Thus one is able to construct his life from 1887 to 1893 fairly accurately. All his brother monks excepting Ramakrishnananda, and Adbhutananda were with him in some one or other of his travels up to the time when he broke off all communication with the Baranagore Math, and these have become, as it were, his verbal historians. But more particularly Akhandananda, who was with him longer than any of the others, from the end of July, 1890, till the latter part of the autumn of the same year.

The first definite journey on which Naren set out, accompanied by Premananda and Fakir Babu, a lay devotee of the Master, was to Varanasi. He stayed there for about a week. The sacred Ganga, the scores of praying votaries, the numerous temples, the atmosphere of holiness, the thought that it was here that the Lord Buddha and Shankara had preached — all these made a vivid appeal to his imagination.

One day, as he was returning from the temple of Mother Durga, he was pursued by a troop of monkeys and fled, fearing that they might harm hirn; suddenly he heard the voice of an old Sannyasin calling out to him, “Stop, always face the brutes!” Naren turned, his fear gone; seeing him defiant the monkeys fled. In a lecture given in New York, years later, he referred to this incident and pointed out the moral of the story in this wise, “So face nature! Face ignorance! Face illusion! Never fly!”

At Varanasi he stayed at the Ashraina of Dwarakadas. This gentleman introduced him to the celebrated Pandit and Bengali writer, Bhudev Chandra Mukhopadhyaya. Naren held long conversations with him. When they parted, the Pandit said, "Wonderful! Such vast experience and insight at such an early age! I am sure he will be a great man!" He also visited the great saint, Trailanga Swami, who lived, lost to all outward activity, absorbed in the deepest meditation. To him, Shri Ramakrishna also had gone many years before. Naren next went to Swami Bhaskarananda, a celebrated ascetic of great learning. The conversation drifted gradually to the subject of the conquest of lust and gold. This was the one great condition laid down by Shri Ramakrishna for the realisation of God, one which he impressed with great emphasis on his monastic disciples. Bhaskarananda speaking ex cathedra, as it were, said, “No one can completely renounce lust and gold.” Naren replied boldly, “There have been many saints who have done so. And I myself have seen at least one who had completely overcome lust and gold.” The Swami smiled but did not believe him, and Naren left the place in righteous indignation.

From Varanasi Naren returned to Baranagore. As in the past, he spent his days with his brother-disciples in meditation, study and discussion. He had seen by this time a bit of India and during his travels had come across various people and many shades of opinion. His outlook was considerably widened, and he desired that his brother-disciples also enlarged their mental horizon. Sometimes a dim vision of the missionary life, the urge of the inner self, to go about ministering to the oppressed and downtrodden would present itself before Naren’s mind. This idea of service to man as the manifestation of God obsessed him at times. What better way could be found of applying the ideas of Vedanta to practical life? And he strove to inspire his brother-disciples with this new idea of religion. Even in those early days Naren would urge them to go to the village of the outcastes to preach; but the monks were quite averse from preaching. Their ideal was the realisation of God, first and foremost; after that, let their example be the teacher even as it had been with the Master. And the injunctions of Naren had confirmed them in this. Though he constantly insisted upon the necessity of making oneself fit by realisation before one preached, yet sometimes the spirit of the preacher would take hold of him, and once he said to a brother monk who was inveighing against lectures and sermons, “Everyone is preaching; what they do unconsciously I will do consciously. Ay, even if you, my brother monks, stand in my way, I will go and preach among the Pariahs in the lowest slums. Preaching means expression. Because Trailanga Swami remains silent and never talks do you think he does not preach? His very silence is a sermon! Even trees and plants are preaching!” Yes, Naren as Swami Vivekananda was to preach consciously and with soul-stirring eloquence that which hitherto the saints had done in silence. In Baranagore this great task commenced and his first audience was this little group of monks and devotees.

Naren's stay this time at Baranagore was a short one, for he was eager to take up again the solitary meditative life of the Sannyasin. He soon set out for the northern Tirthas. His first halt was at Varanasi, where he met Babu Pramadadas Mitra, the great Sanskrit scholar, who was acquainted with Akhandananda and through him had learned of Narendra Nath. Naren and Pramadadas soon became close friends, and Naren wrote many letters from the various places of pilgrimage asking the advice of Pramadadas in interpreting the Hindu scriptures.

Next he visited Ayodhya where he pondered long upon the Ramayana, building the great empire of the King-God Rama out of the materials of his learning and imagination, and listened with rapture to the singing of the Sadhus in his praise. From Ayodhya he went on to Lucknow where he was lost in admiration of the splendour of the palaces of the late Nawabs of Oudh, and of the city’s gardens and mosques. From Lucknow on to the beautiful city of Agra of Mogul memories and greatness. The handicraft and workmanship of Indian artisans astounded him; the beauty of the Taj Mahal overpowered him. He visited it many times, seeing it from many angles, in every perspective and light and, above all, through his love for India. He used to say, “Every square inch of this wondrous edifice is worth a whole day’s patient observation, and it requires at least six months to make a real study of it!” The great fort at Agra stimulated his historic imagination; walking about the streets of Agra amidst its palaces and tombs, he saw the whole Mohammedan era unfold before him.

From Agra he went on to Vrindaban, reaching it during the early part of August, 1888. The last thirty miles he went on foot, travelling as an itinerant monk with no possessions save a staff, a Kamandalu (water pot) and one or two books. About two miles from Vrindaban, he saw a man comfortably smoking a Chilluin (pipe) of tobacco by the wayside. Naren was weary and worn and felt that a smoke would do him good; so he asked the man to allow him to have a pull or two at the Chillum. The smoker shrank back and said hesitatingly, “Sir, I am a Bhangi, a sweeper!” Naren, gripped by traditional ideas of caste and social position, shrank back too, and went on his way without a smoke. After going a short distance, the thought struck him, “What, I have taken the Sannyasin’s vow and have given up all ideas of caste, family prestige and all, and yet I fell back into caste ideas when the man told me that he was a sweeper! And I could not smoke the Chillum which he had touched! That was due to ages of habit!” Nothing would do, but he must turn back in search of the man. He found him where he had left him, still smoking. Naren said to him, “My son, please prepare me a Chillum of tobacco.” He did not listen to the man's objections this time but insisted on taking the tobacco from that very Chillum. After smoking it Narcn continued on his way to Vrindaban. In speaking of Sannyasa once to a disciple, later on, he cited this incident and said, “Do you think the ideals of Sannyasa are easy to practise in life, my boy? There is no other path of life so arduous and difficult. Let your foot slip ever so little on the edge of a precipice, and you fall to the valley below. If one has taken the Sannyasin's vow, one has to examine oneself every moment to see if one is free of the ideas of caste, colour, etc. That incident taught me the great lesson that I should not despise anyone, but must think of all as children of the Lord.”

Arriving at Vrindaban, Naren rested at Kala Babu's Kunja, a temple erected by the ancestors of Balaram Bose, one of the lay disciples of the Master. Here Naren felt as if the floodgates of his heart were suddenly opened; the associations of the place with the life of Shri Krishna and his divine consort Radha evoked in him the highest devotional feeling. The life of Shri Krishna became vividly real to him, and he made up his mind to visit the suburbs of Vrindaban, where so many of the incidents that are told of Shri Krishna took place. So we find him wending his way towards Govardhan Hill. Once, in making a circuit of it, he made the vow that he would eat only what food was offered to him without the asking. By noon-time of the first day he was exceedingly hungry. To add to his discomfort, it rained heavily. Faint with hunger and much walking, he went on and on; suddenly he heard someone calling to him from the rear, but he paid no attention. Nearer and nearer came the man calling out that he had brought food for him. Naren began to run as fast as he could to test this apparent act of Providence. The man ran also and about a mile farther on overtook him at last and insisted on his accepting the food. That done, the man went away without a word. Naren burst into tears at this proof of the Lord's care of His devotee in the wilderness.

From Govardhan, Naren came to Radhakunda, a place held sacred by the Vaishnavas because of its association with Radlia. At this time he had only the Kaupin, or a narrow strip of cloth about his loins; having no other to wear after his bath he took this off, washed it and left it on the side of the tank to dry, whilst he was bathing. When he had bathed, to his surprise the Kaupin was gone! In his search hither and thither, he chanced to look up in a tree, and he saw a monkey sitting there with the cloth in its hands. When the monkey refused to surrender it, Naren was filled with anger against Radha, the presiding deity of the place, and vowed that he would go into the innermost recesses of the forest and starve himself to death. As he advanced into the jungle in pursuance of his plan, a man (who probably had seen the whole incident) came up with a new Gerua cloth and some food which Naren accepted. Naren retraced his steps and found, to his surprise, his Kaupin lying on the very spot where he himself had put it to dry before entering the water.

Next, we see Naren at the Hathras railway station on his way to Hardwar. The station-master, Sharat Chandra Gupta, was a remarkable character, a Bengali who had been reared amongst the Mohammedans of Jaunpur and who spoke Hindi and Urdu with more fluency than his mother tongue. His whole character might be summed up in three words — sweetness, sincerity and manliness. As he was going about in the performance of his duty, the figure of a monk, seated on the ground in the station compound, caught his eye. At the first sight he was attracted by the aura of spirituality about the young monk and went up to him to find if he might be of some service. After an exchange of greetings, Sharat asked, “Swamiji, are you hungry?” The monk replied, “Yes, I am.” “Then please come to my quarters,” said Sharat. Naren asked with the simplicity of a boy, “But what will you give me to eat?” Quoting from a Persian poem, Sharat said, “Oh beloved, you have come to my house. I shall prepare the most delicious dish for you with the flesh of my heart.” Naren accepted the invitation. Later Sharat found the Swami singing a Bengali song signifying: “My beloved must come to me with ashes on his moon face." The young devotee disappeared, to return divested of his official clothes, with ashes on his face.

In the course of his conversation with the station-master Naren learned that Brajen Babu, an old acquaintance, lived close by, and after the meal was over, he went to call on him. Brajen Babu welcomed him cordially and insisted that he should stay with him. All the time Naren was with him the whole Bengali population of the town poured in upon him. Sharat and his friend, Nata Krishna, were constant visitors and became attached to him. In a letter reminiscent of those days Nata Krishna writes: "Thus we with others spent the most blessed days of our life in constant spiritual conversations with him. By the power of his holy company, the sectarian quarrels and ill-feeling amongst the different factions of the Bengalis vanished. Those who entertained the pride of age or high position in society, used to come and sit like children before the young monk, forsaking their conceit of knowledge and position, and ask him questions on religious matters. The evening was generally spent in music, and all the gentlemen who assembled there were simply charmed with his sweet voice and sat for hours as if spellbound. The more they heard him the more they thirsted in their souls to hear him."

One day Sharat said to Naren, "Why do you look so sad?" Pausing for a while, Naren replied, "My son, I have a great mission to fulfil and I am in despair at the smallness of my capacity. I have an injunction from my Guru to carry out this mission. This is nothing less than the regeneration of my motherland. Spirituality has fallen to a low ebb and starvation stalks the land. India must become dynamic and effect the conquest of the world through her spirituality." Sharat, spellbound at these words, said with all the ardour of his soul, "Here I am, Swamiji; what do you want me to do?" The monk demanded, "Are you prepared to take up the begging bowl and the Kamandalu and work for the great cause? Can you beg from door to door?" "Yes," was the bold reply; and with a begging bowl in hand he went round to beg from the porters of the station.

One morning Naren decided to leave Hathras. He said to Sharat and Nata Krishna, "I cannot stay here any longer. We who are Sannyasins should not remain long in any place. Besides, I am becoming attached to all of you. This is also a bondage in spiritual life. Do not press me!" Finding the Swami immovable in his resolve to go, Sharat and his friend were grief-stricken. They requested him to make them his disciples. Naren replied, "Why! Do not think that everything in the life of spirituality will be gained by merely becoming my disciples. Remember that God is in everything, and then whatever you do will make for your progress. I shall come back now and then to be with you." But Sharat was not to be thus put off; the Swami was forced to initiate him.

Sharat found a substitute to take on his duties, and accompanied the Swami to Hrishikesh. But the journey proved too strenuous for the disciple. Accustomed to much comfort he found that the Sannyasin’s life was one of constant and terrible Sadhana, filled with uncertainties and hardships. "Once in our wanderings in the outlying districts of the Himalayas," said Sharat much later, "I fainted with hunger and thirst. The Swami cared for me and thus undoubtedly saved me from certain death. On another occasion, like a syce he led the horse, across a ford in a mountain river which was very dangerous because of its swiftness and slippery bottom. He risked his life several times for my sake. How can I describe him, friends, except by the word Love, Love, Love! When I was too ill to do anything but stagger along, he carried my personal belongings, including my shoes," Therefore, it is not strange that in later life when he once, feeling forlorn, asked the Swami if he was going to give him up, the Swami should answer with a sweet severity, "Fool, do you not remember that I have carried even your shoes!" Still another time, as the Swami and his disciple were wandering through the jungle, they came across some bleached human bones, with bits of rotten Gerua lying here and there. "See," said the Swami, "here a tiger has devoured a Sannyasin! Are you afraid?" The disciple promptly replied, "Not with you, Swamiji!" Even in these early days; when he was an unknown Sadhu, the force of his character and his power to inspire others, which were the Swami’s main qualities, were to be plainly seen.

At Hrishikesh the Swami and the disciple lived like other monks. The Swami was in his element here, where the very atmosphere breathed monasticism. He was glad beyond measure to hear the murmurings of the sacred Ganga and see the distant snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. They dwelt there in an atmosphere of intense prayer and meditation. But at this juncture the disciple fell seriously ill and there was no other course but to take him back to Hathras. The Swami who was desirous of staying at Hrishikesh for a time and then going on to the sacred Kedarnath and Badrinarayan in the interior of the Himalayas, was forced to give up his plans.

So the Guru and the disciple journeyed back to Hathras where they were welcomed. But here Naren himself fell ill of malarial fever contracted at Hrishikesh. The brothers at the Baranagore Math heard of his illness and urged him to return as soon as possible. To ensure his return they reported that there were many pressing matters which made his presence in Calcutta necessary. Hearing this the Swami, in spite of his weakness, felt that he must go; and in taking leave of his disciple he urged him to come, as soon as he was well, to the Baranagore monastery. At the expiration of several months when he was sufficiently recovered, Sharat Gupta gave up his job and joined his master at the monastery. Here he was received with open arms by the monks and admitted into their hearts and into their life as one of them, and he became Swami Sadananda.

The return of the Swami towards the end of 1888 was made the occasion for much jubilation at the Baranagore Math. Most of the monks were away on pilgrimage, but all of the householder disciples of the Master were present. With the exception of a short journey to Simultala where he went during the summer months of 1889 on account of his health and to see his relatives, this time the Swami stayed at the Baranagore Math for fully a year. Days passed in worship, prayer, meditation, study and song. Through loving discipline, Naren infused into his brother monks his own lire and wider knowledge of the mission that was before them, the mission which had been entrusted by the Master to his charge for fruition and dissemination. Most of the sublime ideas which he gave to the world in the time of his fame were not new, except in modes of expression, to his brother monks, for they had heard them in these Baranagore days. He broadened their perspective and made them think of India as an indivisible unit. Most of all, Naren initiated his fellow-monks into the living realities of Hinduism, making them conscious of the values of its thought and spirit. He made them capable of seeing Hinduism from the intellectual side and made them the defenders of the Faith against ruthless and ignorant criticism. He read and explained to them the sacred books of the Hindus.

The days at the Math were spent in strenuous study of the Hindu scriptures. Too poor to purchase books, the Swami borrowed some Vedanta literature from his friend Babu Pramadadas of Varanasi, together with a copy of Panini’s grammar for the Gurubhais so that they might study the Vedas. He writes thus to Babu Pramadadas: ‘‘The Vedas may well be said to have fallen quite out of vogue in Bengal. Many here in the Math are quite conversant with Sanskrit and are able to master the Samhita portion of the Vedas. They are of opinion that what has to be done must be done to a finish. So believing that a full measure of proficiency in the Vedic language is impossible without first mastering Panini’s grammar, which is the best available for the purpose, a copy of the latter is felt to be a necessity. This Math is not wanting in men of perseverance, talent and penetrative intellect. I can hope that by the grace of our Master, they will acquire in a short time Panini’s system and thus succeed in restoring the Vedas to Bengal.”

The Swami at this time was passing through a phase of enquiry into social customs and the anomalies of many scriptural passages. In his wanderings he saw for himself what an incubus the social system was for the masses; even the scriptures forbade the study of the Vedas by Shudras. The caste system which had originally rested on individual merits and qualifications had now hopelessly degenerated into slavish insistence on birth and heredity. The Swami was convinced that the regeneration of India demanded the throwing open of the immortal truths of the Vedas and the Upanishads to the classes as well as the masses. He voiced all these doubts to Pramadadas Babu who was a great Sanskrit scholar and, at the same time, asked many searching questions regarding the nature of the highest realisation, the authority of the Vedas, the law of Karma, the apparent contradictions to be found in various schools of Indian philosophy, the real import of the apparently meaningless injunctions of the Smritis, etc. These doubts and questions reflect only an intellectual stage of his reaching out towards the wisdom which was his in after years. His faith in the ideal of Truth and the realisations of the ancient seers as recorded in the scriptures was unshaken; he was striving to understand their real significance. He wanted to reach that standpoint from which he could reconcile all contradictions and differences. “I have not lost,” he writes to Prainadadas Babu, “faith in a benign Providence — nor am I ever going to lose it, — my faith in the scriptures is unshaken. But by the will of God, the last six or seven years of my life have been full of constant struggles with hindrances and obstacles of all sorts. I have been vouchsafed the ideal Shastra; I have seen the ideal man; and yet I fail myself to get on with anything to the end — this is my profound misery.”

But there were times when the Swami felt much “agitated and cramped” in mind. He was close to his mother and brothers who were living in abject poverty. The litigation over their ancestral properties left them almost destitute. This seemed, sometimes, too much for the Swami to bear. “Living near Calcutta,” writes the Swami to his friend Pramadadas Babu, "I have to witness their adversity, and with the quality of Rajas prevailing, my egotism sometimes develops into a desire to plunge into action. In such moments, a fierce combat ensues in my mind, and so I wrote that my mind was terrible. Now the lawsuit is settled. So bless me that after a stay in Calcutta for a few days more to settle matters, I may bid adieu to this place for ever. Bless me that my heart may wax strong with supreme strength divine and that all forms of Maya may drop off me for aye: 'We have taken up the Cross, Thou hast laid it upon us and grant us strength that we bear it unto death. Amen'.''

At such times the Swami would feel the strong desire to go again on pilgrimage, to pass his days in meditation and austerity. Often he would resolve to go to Varanasi and spend the time in the sacred city of Vishwanath. The presence of Pramadadas Babu there was an added temptation, for with him he might discuss many intricate problems of the scriptures. Life in Calcutta was becoming unbearable to him. Akhandananda was in the Himalayas. He wrote several times of crossing over to Tibet and gave many interesting descriptions of the Tibetan people and their customs. Four of the other disciples were in the Himalayas. The Swami’s desire to go also became irresistible, and one day during the last part of December, 1889, he left the monastery for Vaidyanath on his way, to the sacred Tirthas (places of pilgrimage) of Northern India. His mind was longing for Varanasi. “My idea,” writes the Swami from Vaidyanath, “is to remain there for some time and to watch how Vishwanath and Annapurna deal it out to my lot. And my resolve is something like ‘either to lay down my life or realise my ideal’ — so help me Lord of Kashi.”

But Providence decreed otherwise. At Vaidyanath he learned that Yogananda, one of the brother-disciples, was ill of chicken-pox at Allahabad. The Swami at once started for Allahabad. Through his nursing Yogananda recovered in a few days. Here the Swami received marked attention from the Bengalis of the town; they were astounded at his learning and wonderful character. The conversation centred chiefly around social and spiritual matters, and the Swami criticised with great vehemence the social abuses and iniquities of the Hindus. Here he came across a Mussulman saint, “every line and curve of whose face showed that he was a Paramahamsa”. Here too he heard of Pavhari Baba, the famous saint of Ghazipur. In order to meet him he went to Ghazipur during the third week of January, 1890.

The Swami stayed with Babu Satish Chandra Mukherjee and Rai Gagan Chandra Roy Bahadur. Satish Chandra was an old friend of the Swami’s Calcutta days. At his house many persons came to hear and see the Swami. The Swami was pained to see his countrymen fallen from the ideal of the Hindu seers to the level of the materialistic Western life. “Everything here,” writes the Swami to Pramadadas Babu at Varanasi, “appears good, the people are all gentlemen, but much westernised; it is a pity. I am thoroughly against the affectation of the West. Luckily my friend is not much inclined that way. What a frivolous civilisation is it indeed that foreigners have created! What a materialistic illusion have they brought with them! May Vishwanath save these weak-hearted!” In a postscript to the letter he adds, “Alas for the irony of fate, that in this land of Bhagavan Shuka’s birth, renunciation is looked down upon as a madness and sin!” He asked the social-reform champions of the place to refrain from violent denunciation and to carry on their work of mass education with infinite love and patience so that the growth might be natural, from within. He pitied those who had lost sight of the spiritual standards of the Hindu civilisation.

And who was Pavhari Baba? Born of Brahmana parents in a village near Varanasi, he went in his boyhood to Ghazipur where, under the training of his uncle, a lifelong Brahmacharin, he became versed in Vyakarana (grammar) and Nyava (logic) and in the theology of the Ramanuja sect. On his uncle’s death he resolved “to fill the gap with a vision that can never change”. Possessed with the real determination to find Reality, he wandered throughout the land. At length he was initiated into the mysteries of Yoga on the top of Mount Girnar in Kathiawar, holy both to Hindu and Jain devotees. From Girnar he journeyed to Varanasi, where he met a great Sannyasin, who lived in a cave in the high bank of the Ganga. Here he mastered the Advaita Vedanta system, after which he travelled for many years studying, living in great austerity. Finally he came to his old home, Ghazipur, where, emulating his teacher in Varanasi, he dug a hermitage in the ground, by the river’s bank, staying there many hours a day in meditation, and spending the nights on the other side of the river in austere practices. His daily diet consisted of a handful of bitter Nimba leaves or a few pods of red pepper only. He held all work to be “worshipping the Lord”, and he would often give the food he cooked, after offering it to his Ishta, to the poor or to wandering monks, refusing himself to eat. So spare was his diet that he was called Pavhari Baba, “The Air-eating Father”. As days went on, he spent more and more time in his cave, often months on end, until people wondered how he lived, and whether he was dead. After a time, however, the Baba emerged. When not absorbed in meditation he would receive visitors in a room above the entrance to his cave. Later he would see no one. Finally, one morning, smelling the odour of burning flesh and seeing volumes of smoke rising from his cell, people found that he had offered himself as a holocaust to the Lord, whilst his spirit soared into the blessedness of Samadhi.

No wonder, then, that the Swami was anxious to meet him. Later he admitted that he owned a deep debt of gratitude to the saint, and spoke of him as one of the greatest masters he had ever loved and served.2

It was very difficult to get an interview with Pavhari Baba. He never left his room, and when willing to speak at all, he would come just to the door, speaking from the inside. When the Swami met the Babaji, he was greatly struck with his personality. “A great sage, indeed!” he writes. “It is all very wonderful, and in this atheistic age, a towering representation of marvellous power born of Bhakti and Yoga! I have sought refuge in his grace, and he has given me hope — a thing very few are fortunate enough to get.” The Babaji was also much pleased to meet the Swami and hoped that he might stay there for some time.

The Swami moved to the garden-house of Gagan Babu and began to practise severe asceticism. Though suffering from an attack of diarrhoea, he ate the coarse food obtained by begging. Almost every day he would go to the Babaji’s cell and beg the grace of the saint. But Pavhari Baba was a wonderful man and full of humility. He never gave a direct reply to questions but would say, “What does this servant know?” But fire would flash as the talk went on. If the Swami were too pressing the Babaji would say, “Favour me highly by staying here for some days.” When the Swami who was suffering from lumbago could not go to the Babaji, the Babaji would always send someone to inquire about the Swami’s health.

It was at Ghazipur that the Swami met many European officials. Through Gagan Babu, he met Mr. Ross, a Government official in the opium department, who asked him many penetrating questions about the Hindu festivals. He also asked the Swami to write a paper on the Hindu festival, “Holi”, which the latter did. Mr. Ross introduced the learned Sannyasin to Mr. Pennington, the District Judge, who became so charmed with the Swami’s learned exposition of Hindu religion and social customs that he asked him to go to England to preach these ideas. Then with still another gentleman, Colonel Rivett-Carnac, the Swami had a lengthy discussion on Vedantism. At this time the Swami rose to his very highest moods. The spirit of the preacher in him was aroused, and he spoke with power and luminous insight.

At Ghazipur the Swami was in regular correspondence with Akhandananda who was sending him interesting descriptions of the Tibetans. The Swami wrote to his brother-disciple explaining the philosophy of the Tantrika rites and the Buddhistic doctrines. Naren was a great admirer of Buddha and would have liked to go to Tibet to study the Buddhistic scriptures. To this end he suggested to Akhandananda that he should come to Ghazipur and that from there they would set out together for Tibet via Nepal where one of his friends was private tutor to H. H. the Maharaja. It would be easy for them to penetrate into Tibet with the officers of the Nepalese Government who went annually to Lhasa under the protection of the Nepal State.

But now one turns from the group of the European and Indian listeners and from the eloquence of the monk to the silence and inner workings of the Swami’s own mind. At all times he was afflicted with a spiritual dissatisfaction and restlessness. He was always seeking, always striving and always analysing. In a solitary lemon-garden, said to be haunted, he practised the severest Sadhana; in spite of his ill health, he made efforts to plunge his soul into the highest Reality.

In the spiritual evolution of Naren two parallel lines of thought are seen at work at this period of his life. In the conscious plane he was filled with the desire to realise the highest Truth and remain immersed in Samadhi. All other ideals appeared insignificant to him in comparison. While this mood was uppermost he felt a great spiritual unrest, the like of which he had experienced only at the Cossipore garden-house during the closing days of Shri Ramakrislina’s life. The zeal for the highest Sarnadhi ate him up, as it were, day by day. In his intense restlessness to be merged in the Absolute, he had forgotten the words of the Master, "You have now tasted the highest realisation. For the present it is kept locked up and the key shall be with me. You have work to do. When you have finished that, you will enter into this Sarnadhi without a break." But in the unconscious plane of his mind another current of thought seemed to work with equal force. At such periods he was literally mad for the regeneration of his motherland. He would forgo the pleasure of the Nirvikalpa Sarnadhi even, in order to work for the uplift of the masses. It was the mission and purpose of his life. His was not to be a life of asceticism and retirement but that of intense activity and self-immolation. He would be sternly reminded of this latter ideal, as if by an unseen power, when he concentrated all his energy in meditation.

Naren suffered at this time from various mental and physical agonies. Lumbago was giving him a good deal of trouble. Sometimes the pain in the loins made him frantic. “I know not,” he writes, “how I shall climb up the hills. I find that the Babaji has wonderful endurance, and that is why I go to him.” He was greatly upset to learn that Abhedananda, his brotlier-disciple, was suffering from repeated attacks of malaria at Hrishikesh. The Swami sent a wire from Ghazipur to know if he needed him. “Well,” he writes to Pramadadas Babu, “you may smile, sir, to see me weaving all this web of Maya, — and that is, no doubt, the fact. But then there is the chain of iron and there is the chain of gold. Much good comes of the latter, and it drops off by itself when all the good is reaped. The sons of my Master are indeed the great objects of mv service, and here alone I feel I have some duty left for me.” But a week later he writes to Pramadadas Babu again, “You know not, sir, I am a very soft-natured man in spite of the stern Vedantic views I hold. And this proves to be my undoing. At the slightest touch I give way. For howsoever I may try to think only of my own good, I begin, in spite of myself, to think of other people’s interests.” He had set out this time with a stern resolve to carry out his own plans, but he had to give them up at the news of the illness of a brother at Allahabad. And now came this news from Hrishikesh. No reply had come as yet to his telegram to Hrishikesh. He was in a quandary, between his monastic yearnings and his love and sense of responsibility for his brother-disciples. What system of Yoga would be best to make it possible to remain serene in the midst of all these disturbing phenomena and to help him to concentrate on the Brahman? That was his constant thought. It was to learn this Yoga that he went to the Babaji.

But the Babaji, too, was proving difficult and showed no disposition to pass on to Naren the knowledge he craved. To all Naren’s importunities he was deaf. At last the Swami decided that if it were necessary in order to learn the Yoga he desired, he would be initiated by Pavhari Baba. To such lengths would he have gone in his determination to attain the thing he sought. No sooner had his decision been made than Shri Ramakrishna appeared before him and looked intensely into his eyes, without a word. Through a mist of tears Naren saw words of power, divinity, love and insight. He was abashed, overcome by self-reproach. And yet the struggle continued for days thereafter. Many times he resolved to become the disciple of Pavhari Baba in spite of his vision, but the vision of Shri Ramakrishna recurred, and other things happened, of which the Swami never spoke. So he gave up the idea. In the end it was Shri Ramakrishna who was triumphant. Long after the Swami composed a song in Bengali entitled “A song I sing to Thee” in which one finds a glimpse of this experience.3

The Swami understood Shri Ramakrishna after this. He saw clearly that the Master was the fulfilment of spirituality, that one who had sat at his feet and been blessed by him, stood in need of no other spiritual help. He wrote to Pramadadas Babu, referring to Pavhari Baba, “But now I see the whole matter is inverted in its bearings! While I myself came as a beggar to his door, he in turn wanted to learn of me! This saint perhaps, is not yet perfected — too much of rituals, vows and observances, and too much self-concealment. The ocean in its fullness cannot be contained within its shores, I am sure. So it is not good, I have decided, to disturb this Sadhu for nothing and very soon I shall take leave of him....

“To no great one am I going again. . . . So, now, the great conclusion is that Ramakrishna has no peer; nowhere else in this world exists such unprecedented perfection, such wonderful kindness for all that does not stop to justify itself, such intense sympathy for man in bondage. Either he must be the Avatara as he himself used to say, or else the everperfect divine man, whom the Vedanta speaks of as the free one, who assumes the body for the good of humanity. This is my conviction, sure and certain; and the worship of such a divine man has been referred to by Patanjali in the aphorism, 'Or the goal may be attained by meditating on the pure soul of a saint.'

“Never during his life did he refuse a single prayer of mine. Millions of offences has he forgiven me. Such great love even my parents never had for me. There is no poetry, no exaggeration in all this. It is the bare truth and every disciple of his knows it. In times of great danger, great temptation, I have wept in extreme agony with the prayer, ‘O God, save me’, and no response came; but this wonderful saint, or Avatara, or whatever you may wish to call hint, knew, through his power of insight into the human heart, of all my afflictions and removed them, in spite of myself, by bringing me to him.”

The Swami was satisfied, no more was his mind distracted; and soon he was able to give himself over to single-minded meditation. These occurrences are not indicative of any loss of faith in his Master, as the excerpt given below from a letter to Akhandananda shows: “My motto is to learn to recognise good, no matter where I may come across it. This leads my friends to think that I may lose my devotion to the Guru. These are ideas of lunatics and bigots. For all Gurus are one, fragments and radiations of God, the Universal Guru.” That the Swami’s idea was only to learn Raja-Yoga from Pavhari Baba is clear from an earlier portion of the same letter. He writes, “Our Bengal is the land of Bhakti and Jnana. Yoga is scarcely mentioned there. What little there is, is but the queer breathing exercises of the Hatha-Yoga — which is nothing but a kind of gymnastics. Therefore I am staying with this Raja-Yogi — and he has given me some hope.” Premananda was one of those who had mistaken Naren’s devotion to Pavhari Baba for disloyalty to Shri Ramakrishna, and he had come to Ghazipur to persuade Naren to go to Varanasi. Naren was very harsh with him and sent him away. He was not going to be overpowered any more by his love for his Gurubhais. He went away from Ghazipur to some distant village to meditate for days together without telling them where he was going. He wrote to Abhedananda to come to Varanasi and requested Pramadadas Babu to look after him. He asked Akhandananda to cease wandering in the Himalayas and either to settle at some place of his choice or to return to the Math at Baranagore.

But the persistent rumours of the illness of Abhedananda compelled him at last to go to Varanasi. This fitted in with his plans, for he had had in his mind for some time the secret desire to practise Tapasya at the holy city. He hurried to Varanasi as the guest of Pramadadas Babu. After making every arrangement for the care of Abhedananda, he settled himself in Pramadadas Babu’s garden and devoted his entire lime to the practice of austerities. While at Varanasi he received the heart-rending news of the passing away of Balaram Bose, the great householder devotee of the Master. He was plunged into a sea of grief. The memory of innumerable days of sweet companionship and of staunch friendship that crowded in upon him made him but lament the more. Pramadadas Babu was struck to see a monk, a strict Vedantist, so upset by death. But Naren said, ‘‘Please do not talk that way. We are not dry monks. What! Do you think that because a man is a Sannyasin he has no heart!” And with the intention of bringing solace to the bereaved family, who were all devotees of the Master, and also to enquire into the affairs of the Math, Naren left Varanasi for Calcutta.

And now that he was back to that same old life of prayer and meditation which had obtained in the Baranagore monastery, he encouraged the monks, whom he loved with his whole heart, to live up to the ideal. All his extensive learning went towards the intellectual development of his Gurubhais. In giving up their university examinations and renouncing their degrees, the monks had in reality lost nothing. Indeed they were admitted to a richer intellectual life, for their Leader was in himself an encyclopaedia of knowledge. Yet the Swami did not set himself up as a teacher. He would talk for hours, sometimes continuing the same subject for days, to the monks as they sat around him. There were no formal classes — he was simply expressing himself.

The presence of Naren was sorely needed at the Baranagore Math, for since the passing of Suresh Chandra Mitra on the 25th May, 1890, the brotherhood was in great financial difficulties. There was, sometimes, a great scarcity of food, but they were upheld by the power of meditation and prayer. Naren was the compelling guide, the leader in it all. He set their souls on fire with the memory of the Master’s words and the thrilling stories of his own life as a wanderer.

At this time he was assailed by the thought that something should be done to perpetuate the memory of Shri Ramakrishna in Bengal, the land of his birth — the erection, for instance, of a suitable temple on the bank of the Ganga in his name. Apropos of this he wrote a beautiful letter to Pramadadas Babu from Baranagore dated the 26th May, 1890, from which we give below some extracts.

“For various reasons, the body of Shri Ramakrishna had to be consigned to fire. There is no doubt that this act was very blamable. His ashes, however, have been preserved, and if they be now properly enshrined somewhere on the bank of the Ganga, I presume we shall be able, in some measure, to expiate the sin lying on our heads....

“What greater regret can there be than this that no memorial in this land of Bengal in the neighbourhood of the place of his Sadhana has as yet been raised in honour of him by whose birth the race of the Bengalis has been sanctified, the land of Bengal has become hallowed, who came on earth to save the Indians from the spell of the worldly glamour of Western culture, and who therefore chose most of his all-renouncing monks from university men?

“. . . Suresh Babu had offered a sum of Rs. 1,000 for the purpose, promising to give more, but for some inscrutable purpose of God he left this world yesternight! And the news of Balaram Babu’s death is already known to you.

“Now there is no knowing as to where his disciples will go with his sacred remains and his seat (you know well people here in Bengal are profuse in their professions, but do not stir out an inch in practice). The disciples are Sannyasins and are ready forthwith to depart anywhere their way may lie. But I, their servant, am in agony, and my heart is breaking to think that a small piece of land could not be had in which to install the remains of Bhagavan Ramakrishna.”

He begged Pramadadas Babu to raise a subscription from his friends there and thus help in the erection of the memorial. “I am," the letter continues, “Shri Ramakrishna's servant and am willing even to steal and rob, if by doing so I can perpetuate his name on the land of his birth and Sadhana and help even a little his disciples to practise his great ideals.... It would be the greatest pity if the memorial shrine could not be raised on the land of his birth and Sadhana! The condition of Bengal is pitiable. The people here are unable even to dream what renunciation truly means — only luxury, sensuality and selfishness are eating into the vitals of the race. May God infuse renunciation and unworldliness into this land!” But even in the midst of the training of his brother-disciples and his plans for raising a memorial to the Master, the spirit of restlessness seized him anew! And this time it drew him away for years from the Baranagore Math and his Gurubhais. Day by day he knew he was being drawn into a web of relationships and responsibilities, and calls on his time and attention were coming from all sides. All these were interfering with his taking up the life of the itinerant monk and his purpose, through just such a life, of becoming more confident of himself and the message he was to give. He must settle down; he must give himself up to contemplation; he must solve all the problems of the soul, and of the land he was born in. And therefore after two months’ stay in the monastery he started out in July, 1890, with the same old determination — never to return. This time the Swami intended to make the pilgrimage to the Himalayas from which Swami Akhandananda had just returned, with tales of marvellous interest and descriptions of far-off Tibet and beauteous Kashmir; with glowing accounts of the Tibetan lamaseries and of the grandeur of Kedarnath, Naren said to him, “You are my man! You have faith! Gome, let us be off together!” In a letter to a fellow monk, dated the 6th July, 1890, the Swami wrote: “I intend shortly, as soon as I can get a portion of my fare, to go up to Almora and thence to some place in Garhwal on the Ganga where I can settle down for a long meditation. Gangadhar is accompanying me. Indeed, it was with this desire and intention that I brought him down from Kashmir.... I am longing for a flight to the Himalayas.”

He said to his Gurubhais, “I shall not return until I acquire such realisation that my very touch will transform a man.”Before leaving Calcutta he went to Ghusuree, a village across the Ganga, where he sought out the Holy Mother to receive her blessings. And he told her, “Mother, I shall not return until I have attained the highest Jnana!” The Holy Mother blessed him in the name of the Master. She said, “My son, will you not see your own mother at home before leaving?” And he answered, “Mother, you alone are my mother!” And seeing his spirit, the Holy Mother again blessed him.

  1. ^Hereafter we shall refer to these monks by their Sannyasa names except in the case of Naren whom we shall continue to refer as Naren or simply as the Swami till his starting for the West when he actually took the name of Swami Vivekananda. Where the former names of the monks are used in quotations or extracts we request the reader to refer to this page for identity, if necessary.
  2. ^Complete Works, Vol. IV. — Sketch of the Life of Pavhari Baba.
  3. ^Complete Works, Vol. IV. — A Song I sing to Thee.