A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Thus one sees the Swami, restless and impatient, ridding his heart of all attachment, to fulfil his purpose. From the moment he left Calcutta he was happy. The solitude, the village air, the seeing of new places, the meeting with new people and the getting rid of old impressions and of worry delighted him. The first place at which he and Akhandananda halted for some days was Bhagalpur. They were, at first, the guests of Kumar Nityananda Sinha, who perceived after conversation that they were highly educated and one of them was marvellously gifted. From there they went to the house of Manmatha Nath Chodhury, the private tutor to the Kumar. Babu Mathura Nath Sinha, a pleader, who was then in Bhagalpur wrote a letter afterwards reminiscent of his meeting with the Swamis in which he says:

“The very sight of them prepossessed me in their favour, I remembered to have seen one of them, who later on became renowned as the Swami Vivekananda, in my college days at Calcutta, as often leading the choir at the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. My conversation with him covered much ground, including literature, philosophy and religion, principally the latter two. It seemed that learning and philosophy were as the very air which he breathed. I discovered that the soul of his teaching was an intense and unselfish patriotism with which he invested and vivified his subjects. This was an abiding characteristic with him. When I read the glowing descriptions of the success he won at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, I felt that in him India had found her man.”

Manmatha Babu, whose guest the two Swamis were at Bhagalpur, was a staunch Brahmo. The Swami explained to him the many aspects of Hindu religion and impressed him by his interpretation of the various episodes of Shri Krishna's life. In June, 1906, Manmatha Babu wrote to a disciple of the Swami:

“One morning in August of the year 1890, Swami Vivekananda with Swami Akhandananda came unexpectedly to my house. Thinking them to be ordinary Sadhus, I did not pay them much attention. We were sitting together after our noonday meal; and believing them to be ignorant, I did not enter into conversation with them, but began to read an English translation of a work on Buddhism. After a while, Swamiji asked me what book I was reading. In reply, I told him the title of the book and asked, Do you know English?’ He replied, ‘Yes, a little.’ Then I conversed with him on Buddhism, but after a short time, I found out that he was a thousand times more learned than I. He quoted from many English works, and Babu Mathura Nath Sinha of Danapur and myself were astonished at his learning and listened to him with rapt attention. . . .

"One day Swamiji asked me if I practised any special Sadhanas, and we conversed on the practice of Yoga for a long time. From this I was convinced that he was not a common man, as what he said of Yoga was exactly the same as that which I had heard from the Swami Dayananda Sarasvati. Besides, he gave out many other important things on the subject which I had not heard before.

"Then, to test his knowledge of Sanskrit, I brought out all the Upanishads that I had with me and questioned him on many abstruse passages from them. By his illuminating replies I found that his mastery of the scriptures was of an extraordinary kind. And the way in which he recited from the Upanishads was charming. Thus, being firmly convinced of his wonderful knowledge equally in English, Sanskrit and in Yoga, I was greatly drawn towards him. Though he stayed in my house for only seven days. I became so devoted to him that I resolved in my mind that by no means whatever would I let him go elsewhere. So I strongly urged him to live always at Bhagalpur.

"‘Once I noticed him humming a tune to himself. So I asked him if he could sing. He replied, ‘Very little.’ Being pressed hard by us he sang, and what was my surprise to see that as in learning so in music he had wonderful accomplishment! Next day I asked him if he were willing thai I should invite some singers and musicians; he consented and I asked many musicians, several of whom were ostads, or adepts in the art, to come. Believing that the music would end by nine or ten at the latest, I did not arrange for supper for the guests. Swamiji sang without ceasing till two or three o’clock in the morning. All without exception were so charmed, that they forgot hunger and thirst and all idea of time! None moved from his seat or thought of going home. Kailas Babu, who was accompanying the Swami in his songs, was forced to give up finally for his fingers had become stiff and had lost all sensation. Such superhuman power I have never seen in anybody, nor do I expect to see it again. The next evening, all the guests of the previous night, and many others, presented themselves without any invitation. The player on the instrument also came, but Swamiji did not sing that evening. So everyone was disappointed.

"Another day I proposed to introduce him to all the rich men of Bhagalpur, and that I myself would take him to them in my carriage so that it would not be any trouble to him. But he declined and said, 'lt is not the Sannyasin’s Dharma to visit the rich!’ His fiery renunciation made a deep impression on me. Indeed, in his company I was taught many lessons which have always remained with me as spiritual ideals.

“From my boyhood, I was inclined to live in some solitary place and perform Sadhanas. When I met Swamiji, this desire grew strong. I often told him, ‘Let us both go to Vrindaban, and depositing three hundred rupees for each of us in the temple of Shri Govindaji we shall have as food Govindaji’s Prasad for the rest of our lives. Thus, without being a burden to anyone, we shall practise devotion day and night in a sequestered spot on the banks of the holy Jamuna!’ In reply to this he said, ‘Yes, for a special temperament or nature, this scheme is no doubt good, but not for all,’ meaning himself, who had renounced everything. Amongst his many new ideas, the two most impressive to me were:

“‘Whatever of the ancient Aryan knowledge, intellect and genius is still left can be mostly found in those parts which lie near the banks of the Ganga. The further one goes from the Ganga, the less one sees them. This convinces one of the greatness of the Ganga as sung in our scriptures.

“‘The epithet mild Hindu, instead of being a word of reproach ought really to point to our glory, as expressing greatness of character. For, see how much moral and spiritual advancement and how much development of the qualities of love and compassion have to be acquired before one can get rid of the brutish force of one’s nature, which actuates the ruining and the slaughter of one's brother-men for self-aggrandisement! . . . .’

“Swamiji fully knew in his heart that I would not willingly or easily let him depart from Bhagalpur. So. one day when I was away on some important business, he grasped this opportunity of leaving, after taking farewell of those at home. When I came back I made a strenuous search for him. but could discover no clue of him anywhere. And yet, why should I have thought that my will would avail! Why should Swamiji be like a frog in the well, when his field of work was the whole wide world!

“He had expressed to me his intention of going to the Badarikashrama. Therefore, after he had left Bhagalpur, I even went up to Almora in the Himalayas in search of him. There Lala Badri Shah told me that he had left Almora some time before; and knowing that he must have already journeyed a long way in the direction of the Northern Tirtha, I was compelled to give up my idea of following him.

“It was my heart’s desire to bring him once more to Bhagalpur after his return from America, but he could not come, having then perhaps very little leisure or opportunity to do so.’’

At the instance of Akhandananda, the Swami next visited Vaidyanath. Here they went to see Babu Raj Narayan Bose, the venerable old Brahmo preacher. The Swami had instructed his Gurubhai not to let Raj Narayan Babu know that he knew English. In the course of conversation many topics arose that required the use of English words, as for example “plus”; but the Swami surmounted the difficulty by making the plus sign by crossing his fingers. Not once did the old gentleman dream that the young monk before him spoke English as fluently as his own mother tongue. Much later, when the Swami's name became famous throughout the length and breadth of India, Raj Narayan Babu discovered that it was he who had visited him years ago and remembered his meeting with him. He said in surprise, “I thought he did not know English!” After passing the night with him, the monks started for Varanasi on the following day.

At Varanasi, the Swami stayed with his friend Pramadadas Babu, with whom he spent hours in the discussion of scriptural topics. He was very eager to see the snow-capped Himalayas, and so did not prolong his stay at Varanasi. As he was taking leave of Pramada Babu, he said, “When I shall return here next time I shall burst upon society like a bomb-shell, and it will follow me like a dog!” And he did not return to this sacred city until he had verily stirred up the world to new modes of thought and resurrected the spirit of the Indian sages.

At the insistence of Akhandananda, the Swami next went to Ayodhya and to the Ashrama of Janakivar Saran, a Sanskrit and Persian scholar, the Mahant of a local temple with vast estates. The Swami was much impressed with his learning and spiritual fervour and remarked to his brother-disciple, “I have seen a man, a real holy man!”

Next, one sees the Swami and his Gurubhai as the guests of Ram Prasanna Bhattacharya in Naini Tal, where they remained for about a fortnight. Then they left for Almora on their way to Badarikashrama, determined to walk all the way without a pice. On the third day they stopped for the night near a watermill by the side of a stream. An aged Peepul tree stood on the bank of the flowing stream; after his bath, the Swami repaired to the tree and sat there for about an hour absorbed in meditation. Then he said to his companion, "Well, Gangadhar, here under this banyan tree one of the greatest problems of my life has been solved." Then he told of his wonderful vision about the oneness of the microcosm and the macrocosm. What the Swami entered in a fragmentary way in his note book on that day, is given here, in translation, as it was found, verbatim. From this one may get a glimpse of his trend of thought and realisation. It reads:

“In the beginning was the Word etc.

“The microcosm and the macrocosm are built on the same plan. Just as the individual soul is encased in the living body, so is the Universal Soul in the Living Prakriti (Nature) — the objective universe. Shiva (Kali)1 is embracing Shiva; this is not a fancy. This covering of the one (Soul) by the other (Nature) is analogous to the relation between an idea and the word expressing it; they are one and the same, and it is only by a mental abstraction that one can distinguish them. Thought is impossible without words. Therefore, in the beginning was the Word etc.

“This dual aspect of the Universal Soul is eternal. So what we perceive or feel is this combination of the Eternally Formed and the Eternally Formless.”

When the monks arrived at Almora, Akhandananda took the Swami to the garden of Amba Dutt, wdiilst he himself went to inform Saradananda and Vaikunthanath of their arrival. These two brother-disciples had been in the Himalayas for some time. When they learned of the Swami’s presence, they hastened to the garden-house of Amba Dutt to greet him. They were half way to the place, when they met the Swami himself coming to see them. Lala Badri Shah, who was their host and one of the party, welcomed the Swami to his home. Here he had a long discussion with one Shri Krishna Joshi, the Sheristadar, on the necessity of renouncing the world. The court-officer was struck with his power of eloquence and learning. The Swami was much impressed with Badri Shah’s devotion and hospitality and remarked that he had rarely seen a devotee like him. Terrible news reached the Swami here. A telegram came from the brother telling of the suicide of one of his sisters. A letter which followed gave details. This caused the Swami great anguish of heart: and yet even in this grief he saw other realities. Through this perspective of personal woe he seemed to have been rudely awakened to the great problems of Indian womanhood. He now decided to travel into the wilder mountains. The situation was a peculiar one, a mingling of the domestic and monastic consciousness; but the balance of thought and determination swung with power in the latter direction.

Therefore he left in company with Saradananda, Akhandananda and Vaikuntha, with a coolie to carry their load, and turned his steps towards Garhwal. On the way Akhandananda suffered greatly from severe cough. The party reached Karnaprayag on the way to Badarikashrama. There they had to halt for three days, at the end of which time they gave up the idea of going up to Kedarnath and Badarikashrama as the road was closed by the Government on account of famine. After leaving Karnaprayag, the Swami and Akhandananda were taken ill with fever whilst staying in a Chati, or halting place for pilgrims. They remained at the Chati until they sufficiently recovered to go on, and at the end of a week the party proceeded to Rudraprayag. The scenery in these parts is beautiful beyond description with its waterfalls, streams, wild forests and its perfect peace and solitude. The invigorating atmosphere buoyed up the spirit of the Swami and the occasional glimpses of the eternal snows gladdened his heart. At Rudraprayag they met a Bengali monk, Purnananda by name, with whom they spent the night. A short distance from Rudraprayag, in a Dharmashala (a resting place) the Swami and Akhandananda were again attacked with high fever, this time so severely that they were unable to continue their journey. Fortunately, they met the Sadar Amin of the Garhwal District, Badri Dutt Joshi, who was on tour and encamped there. Seeing the suffering of the two monks he gave them some Ayurvedic medicines, and when they were sufficiently improved to be moved, sent them by Dandi to Srinagar,nine miles off. There they gradually recovered. The monks were now one hundred and twenty miles from Almora, which distance had been covered in a little more than two weeks. In spite of their repeated illness their time had been spent in wandering slowly up the mountain paths, begging their food, meditating and holding religious conversations.

At Srinagar the monks dismissed the coolie and took up their abode in a lonely hut by the banks of the Alakananda river in which Swami Turiyananda had once lived. Here they stayed about a month, living on Madhukari Bhiksha, which means, literally, the food procured by begging from house to house even as a bee collects honey from different flowers. During these journeys, as well as at Srinagar, the Swami instructed the Gurubhais in the teachings of the principal Upanishads excepting the Chhandogya and the Brihadaranvaka. The days passed away very happily in prayer, meditation and scriptural study. At Srinagar he met a schoolmaster, by caste a Vaishya, who was a recent convert to Christianity. The Swami spoke to him so eloquently of the glories of Hinduism that he returned to the Sanatana Dharma and became greatly attached to the monks.

From Srinagar they next moved to Tehri. At Tehri they found two rooms in a deserted garden meant for wandering monks. Here on the bank of the sacred Ganga they lived on Madhukari Bhiksha and spent most of their time in meditation and prayer.

After a time, they became acquainted with Babu Raghunath Bhattacharya, the Dewan of the Tehri Raj and an elder brother of Pandit Haraprasad Shastri of Calcutta. The Swami stayed with him for a few days. He was still eager to find a suitable place for meditation on the bank of the Ganga. The Dewan offered to help and even made suitable arrangements to enable him to do so in Ganeshprayag at the confluence of the Ganga and the Vilangana rivers. These plans had to be altered; for, on the very day they were completed, Akhandananda again fell ill, this time, of cold and examination of his chest by a local physician showed that his lungs were affected and and he was advised to move immediately to the plains for systematic treatment. The doctor was of opinion that the winter in the hills which was fast approaching would be too severe for the patient. Though everything was settled to go to Ganeshprayag, the Swami immediately changed his plans and went at once to the Dewan to explain the reason for the change and said that he would avail himself of his kindness sometime in the future. The Dewan gave him a letter of introduction to the Civil Surgeon of Dehra Dun and provided two ponies to take the Swami and Akhandananda to Mussooree besides meeting the other necessary expenses of the way. So, for the sake of his Gurubhai whom Shri Ramakrishna had entrusted to his care, the Swami, after about a month’s stay at Tehri, went to Dehra Dun, many miles away. Akhandananda writes, “I have heard the Swami say times without number that whenever he desired to retire into the life of silence and austerity, he was compelled by the pressure of circumstances to give it up.”

Leaving Tehri, the monks went to Rajpur, by way of Mussooree. Here they met Swami Turiyananda, who joined the party. Immediately at Dehra Dun Swami Akhandananda was taken to have his chest examined by Dr. Maclaren, the Civil Surgeon, to whom the Swami had brought a letter of introduction from the Dewan of Tehri. Careful examination found the patient to be suffering from a slight attack of bronchitis. Doctor Maclaren advised him to live in the plains and to have proper medical treatment. But some sort of shelter had to be found for the sick monk. So the Swami himself set out about the town of Dehra Dun in search of a suitable place, enquiring at many houses saying, “My Gurubhai is ill! Can you give him a little place in your house and arrange for suitable diet for him?” But he only received cold-hearted replies and excuses. At last Pandit Ananda Narayan, a Kashmiri Brahmin and a vakil of the town, took charge of the sick monk. He rented a small house for him and provided suitable diet and warm clothing. The others stayed elsewhere and lived on Bhiksha.

The Swami remained at Dehra Dun for about three weeks, and after advising Akhandananda to go to a friend’s house at Allahabad, he with the others went to Hrishikesh. Instead, Akhandananda, while visiting a friend at Saharanpur on his way to Allahabad took his advice and went to Meerut to consult Dr. Trailokya Nath Ghosh under whose treatment he remained for a month and a half.

The Swami went on to Hrishikesh, the place hallowed by Hindu legend and story. It is a picturesque and secluded spot, situated at the foot of the Himalayas, in a valley surrounded by hills and almost encircled by the Ganga. The whole place is monastic; the very air is pure and holy. Thousands of Yogis and Sannyasins of diverse sects assemble there every year to spend the winter in reading the scriptures and practising Yoga and meditation. In those days it was a jungle, covered with groves, wild plum shrubs, bushes of wild flowers and evergreens, and dotted here and there with thatched cottages raised by the Sadhus for their habitation.

The Swami and his Gurubhais stayed there for some time, dwelling in a hut near the temple of Chandeshwar Mahadeva, and living on Madhukari Bhiksha. Again the desire to perform severe Sadhanas arose in the Swami; but as ill luck would have it. his intention was frustrated by severe illness attended with high fever and delirium. He grew worse and worse until he became unconscious and almost pulseless as he lay on his crude bed composed of a couple of coarse blankets spread on the ground. Overwhelmed with grief and anxiety his brethren were at a loss to know what to do. In those days help could be found only at a great distance. They were in the utmost agony of mind, when a native of the hills appeared on the scene. He prescribed an indigenous medicine which, mixed with honey, was forced into the Swami’s mouth. Happily, it proved to be efficacious, and the Gurubhais were much relieved.

That experience made the Gurubhais realise just, who and what he was to them. If he should die, they thought, they would be friendless and alone in the world; without him the world would be a wilderness. When he recovered the Gurubhais took him to Hardwar, near at hand. Swami Brahmananda came from Kankhal where he had been staying, and all of them went to Saharanpur, visiting the house of Banku Behari Babu, a local pleader. When they learned that Akhandananda was in Meerut, they immediately went to that place.

The monks found Akhandananda at the residence of Dr. Trailokya Nath Ghose. Akhandananda was very eager to see the Leader, but was frightened when he saw the ravages that illness had made on him. "I had never seen him thinner," he said, “he was worn to a shadow. It seemed that he had not as yet recovered from his terrible illness at Hrishikesh.” For fifteen days the two monks remained with the physician, whilst the other brethren stayed at the house of Yajneshwar Babu, who later on embraced the monastic life and became known as Swami Jnanananda, the leader of the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal. Afterwards, all the brothers went to live together in the Settji's garden, the proprietor of which was a friend of Yajneshwar Babu. The Leader was still taking medicine to counteract the havoc wrought by the illness, and to control the persistent and frequent attacks of fever. There is no doubt that the austerities practised during his wanderings and haphazard eating had weakened him greatly. But at Meerut he gradually grew stronger.

While in the Settji’s garden, Swami Akhandananda brought to him an acquaintance, an Afghan gentleman who chanced to be a refugee Sardar and a relative of the Amir Abdar Rahaman of Afghanistan. This gentleman was as punctilious as the Hindus themselves in approaching a Sadhu, performing his ablutions in advance and bringing a basket of sweetmeats carried by a Hindu servant for presenting to the Swami. He was amongst the first of large numbers who came to see the Swami. In fact, this garden at Meerut was beginning to seem like a miniature Baranagore monastery, for here with the Leader were Swamis Brahmananda, Akhandananda, Turiyananda, Saradananda, Vaikunthanath, and one day Swami Advaitananda joined the party. The Swami was now fully restored to health and vigour, and every day he read to them after the noonday meal from the Sanskrit classics, interpreting and explaining the texts in a masterly way. Mrichhakatika, Abhijnana-Shakuntala and Kumara-Sambhava as well as the Vishnu-Purana were the books taken up one after the other. The monks themselves held singing parties and kept up their devotional practices and meditation even as they did at Baranagore. In the evening they used to go to the parade ground to see the various outdoor sports of the soldiers. This was one of the happiest periods of their life.

Desirous of spending some time in intellectual pursuits, the Swami asked Akhandananda to get from the local library the works of Sir John Lubbock. The books were returned the next day, with the message that the Swami had finished them. The librarian refused to believe this, saying that it was impossible. Whereupon the Swami went to the library and said, “Sir, I have mastered the whole of them; if you doubt it, you may put any question to me about them.” After a few questions the librarian was convinced that he had been in error and his astonishment was great. Later Swami Akhandananda asked, “Swamiji, how did you do it?” The Leader replied, “I never read a book word by word. I read sentence by sentence, sometimes even paragraph by paragraph in a sort of kaleidoscopic form.”

After a stay in Meerut for about five months, the Swami again grew restless. He remembered the life of freedom of the stern ascetics in the neighbourhood of Hardwar and Hrishikesh. “I saw many great men in Hrishikesh,” said the Swami in later life. “One case that I remember was that of a man who seemed to be mad. He was coming nude down the street, with boys pursuing and throwing stones at him. The whole man was bubbling over with laughter, while blood was streaming down his face and neck. I took him and bathed his wound, putting ashes (made by burning a piece of cotton cloth) on it to stop the bleeding. And all the time, with peals of laughter, he told me of the fun the boys and he had been having, throwing the stones. ‘So the Father plays,' he said.

“Many of these holy men hide in order to guard themselves against intrusion. People are a trouble to them. One had human bones strewn about his cave and gave it out that he lived on corpses. Another threw stones, and so on.” The Swami continued, "The Sannyasin needs no longer to worship or to go on pilgrimage or perform austerities. What then, is the motive of all this going from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, shrine to shrine, and austerity to austerity? He is acquiring merit, and giving it to the world!2" Yes, such a life was calling the Leader, if not in all the severity of its outward form, at least in its spirit, its desire for realisation and for solitude. His longing to see the Lord and receive His commands became so great that his Gurubhais were overcome with awe. For the Swami told them at Meerut that he had decided on the immediate course he was going to follow, that he knew already his mission. He had received the command of God regarding his future and told the monks that he was going to leave them in order to become the solitary monk. When Akhandananda begged to be taken along with him he said, "The attachment of Gurubhais is also Maya! If you fall ill I must look after you, and in case of my illness you must attend me. Thus one is hindered in one’s resolutions and attainment of the goal, I am determined to have no longer any form of Maya about me!" And so, one morning in the latter part of January, 1891, he left his devoted brethren and journeyed on to Delhi by himself.

  1. ^Shiva etc. — The reference is to the Tantrika conception of Kali embracing Shiva. Kali is the Mother of the universe, and Shiva, Her Divine Spouse.
  2. ^Sister Nivedita: The Master as I saw Him, Chapter 13.