A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


The life of a Parivrajaka, or itinerant monk, is necessarily of a chequered character. Though we have endeavoured to follow the Swami's continuous journeying in some consecutive and chronological form, there are many gaps filled with numerous incidents concerning most of which the Swami maintained silence, for it was not his wont, unless solicited, to speak at length upon the experiences of these days. Some of these, however, he related, and before taking up the story of his advent in Madras, it will be well to gain a comprehensive survey of these disconnected but interesting happenings in order to realise the inner nature of the man and to bring into prominence some of the factors in the background of his life.

Once he had a strange vision. He saw an old man standing on the banks of the Indus and chanting Riks, or Vedic hymns, in a distinctly different way from the accustomed methods of intonation of today. The passage which he heard was:

आयाहि वरदे देवि त्र्यक्षरे ब्रह्मवादिनि ।
गायत्रि चन्दसां मातर्ब्रह्मयोनि नमोस्तु ते ॥

“Oh, come Thou Effulgent One, Thou Bestower of Blessings, Signifier of Brahman in three letters! Salutation be to Thee, O Gayatri, Mother of Vedic Mantras, Thou who hast sprung from Brahman!” The Swami believed that through this vision he had recovered the musical cadences of the earliest Aryan. He also found some remarkable similarity to this in the poetry of Shankaracharya. Such a vision as this shows the extraordinary development of Yoga powers in the Swami.

There is then the story of the Tari Ghat station told by a disciple:

“It was one of those scorching summer noons in the United Provinces, when the Swami alighted from the train at Tari Ghat.

“A cloak dyed in the usual Sannyasin colour, and a third-class ticket for a station some distance away which someone had given him, were about his only belongings. He did not possess even a Kamandalu. He was not allowed by the porter to stay within the station-shed. So he sat down on the ground, leaning against a post of the waiting-shed for the third-class passengers.

“Of the motley crowd assembled there, we need mention only a middle-aged man of the North India trading-caste, a Baniya, who sat on a Durry (cotton mat) a little way off under the shelter of the shed almost opposite to the Swami. Recognising the Swami’s starving condition, he had made merry at his expense as they journeyed in the same compartment the previous night. And when they stopped at different stations and the Swami, who was suffering intensely from thirst, was unable to obtain water from the water-bearers because he had no money to pay for it, the Banya bought water to satisfy his own thirst and, as he drank it, taunted the Swami, saying, ‘See here, my good man, what nice water this is! You being a Sannyasin, and having renounced money, cannot purchase it and so you have the pleasure of going without it. Why don’t you earn money as I do and have a good time of it?’ He did not approve of Sannyasa; no, he did not believe in giving up the world and money-making for an idea. In his opinion, it was only right that the Sannyasin should starve, and so, when they both alighted at Tari Ghat, he took considerable pains to make it clear to the Swami by means of arguments, illustrations and pleasantries that he got just what he deserved. For the Swami was in the burning sun whilst the Baniya seated himself in the shade. ‘Look here,’ he began again with a derisive smile curling his lips, 'what nice Puries and Laddus I am eating! You do not care to earn money, so you have to rest content with a parched throat and empty stomach and the bare ground to sit upon!’ The Swami looked on calmly, not a muscle of his face moved.

“Presently there appeared one of the local inhabitants carrying a bundle and a tumbler in his right hand, a Durry under his left arm and an earthen jug of water in his left hand. He hurriedly spread the Durry in a clean spot, put on it the things he was carrying and called to the Swami, ‘Do come, Babaji, and take the food I have brought for you!’ The Swami was surprised beyond words. What did this mean? Who was this new-comer? The jeering Baniya’s look was changed to one of blank amazement. The new-comer kept on insisting, ‘Come on, Babaji, you must come and eat the food!’ ‘I am afraid you are making a mistake, my friend,’ said the Swami. ‘Perhaps you are taking me for somebody else. I do not remember having ever met you.’ But the other cried out, ‘No, no, you are the very Babaji I have seen!’ ‘What do you mean?’ asked the Swami, his curiosity fully aroused, while his jocose friend stood gaping at the scene. ‘Where have you seen me?’

The man replied, ‘Why, I am a sweetmeat vendor and was having my usual nap after my noon meal. And I dreamt that Shri Ramji was pointing you out to me and telling me that He was pained to see you without food from the day previous and that I should get up instantly, prepare some Puries and curry and bring them to you at the railway station with some sweetmeats, nice cold water, and a Durry for you to sit upon. I woke up, but thinking it was only a dream I turned on my side and slept again. But Shri Ramji, in His infinite graciousness, came to me again and actually pushed me to make me get up and do as He had said. I quickly prepared some Puries and curry, and taking some sweets which I had prepared this morning, some cold water and a Durry from my shop I ran here direct and recognised you at once from a distance. Now do come and have your meal while it is fresh. You must be very hungry.’ One can imagine the Swami’s feelings at this time. With all his heart the Swami thanked his simple host, while tears of love flowed from his eyes, but the kind man protested saying, ‘No, no, Babaji! Do not thank me! It is all the will of Shri Ramji!’ The jeering Baniya was quite taken aback at this incident, and begging the Swami’s pardon for the ill words he had used towards him, he took the dust of his feet.”

This incident, revealing Divine Providence as manifesting in the Swami’s life, is complemented by an incident of a different character which occurred in Rajputana. Once when he was passing through that province, he travelled with two Englishmen in the same carriage. They took him to be an ignorant Sadhu and made jokes in English at his expense. The Swami sat as if he did not understand one word. When the train stopped at a station further on he asked the station-master in English for a glass of water. When his companions discovered that he knew English and had understood all they had said, they were much embarrassed at their vulgar conduct and asked him why it was that he had not shown any sign of resentment. He replied, “My friends, this is not the first time that I have seen fools!” The men showed fight, but seeing the Swami’s strongly built frame and undaunted spirit, they thought better of it and apologised to him.

An amusing incident is told of the Swami to the effect that during one of his long railway travels his fellow-passenger was a learned occultist, who besieged him with all sorts of questions, asking whether he had been in the Himalayas, and whether he had met there any Mahatmas, possessed of all sorts of incredible powers. The Swami wishing to teach him a lesson, encouraged him to talk. Then, smiling within himself, he gave such a glowing description of the miraculous performances of the Mahatmas that his listener gaped in amazement. Then he was asked if they had told him anything about the duration of the present cycle. The Swami said that he had a long talk on that subject with the Mahatmas, who spoke to him on the coming end of the cycle and the part they would play in the regeneration of mankind to bring about the Satya-yuga once more, and so on and so forth. The credulous man hung upon every word that fell from the Swami’s lips! Gratified with the acquisition of so much new knowledge, he invited the Swami to partake of some food, which he readily consented to do, for he had not eaten anything for a whole day. His admirers out of respect had bought him a second-class ticket, but as he was then living up to the ideal of taking no thought for the morrow, they could not persuade him to take either money or food with him.

When the meal was over, the Swami regarded the man with much interest, and seeing that he had a great heart but because of his credulous nature had become entangled in pseudomysticism, spoke to him frankly and sternly, “You who boast so much of your learning and enlightenment, how could you unhesitatingly swallow such wild, fantastic tales!” The gentleman hung his head at this reproof and uttered not a word. Thinking of diverting him from his distorted notions of what constituted spirituality, the Swami said to him with great vehemence of feeling, “My friend, you look intelligent. It befits a person of your type to exercise your own discrimination. Spirituality has nothing to do with the display of psychical powers, which, when analysed, show that the man who deals with them is a slave of desire and a most egotistical person. Spirituality involves the acquisition of that true power which is character. It is the vanquishing of passion and the rooting out of desire. All this chasing after psychical illusions, which means nothing in the solution of the great problems of our life, is a terrible waste of energy, the most intense form of selfishness, and leads to degeneracy of mind. It is this nonsense which is demoralising our nation. What we need now is strong common sense, a public spirit and a philosophy and religion which will make us men.” The gentleman on hearing this was overcome by emotion, and understood the righteousness of the Swami’s attitude. He assured him that he would thenceforth follow his valuable precepts.

Speaking to Girish Babu of the experience of his Parivrajaka days, the Swami told of an event, of a more pleasant character, which took place in Khetri. To use the Swami’s own words:

“In the course of my wanderings I was in a certain place where people came to me in crowds and asked for instruction. Though it seems almost unbelievable, people came and made me talk for three days and nights without giving me a moment’s rest. They did not even ask me whether I had eaten. On the third night, when all the visitors had left, a low-caste poor man came up to me and said, ‘Swamiji, I am much pained to see that you have not had any food these three days. You must be very tired and hungry. Indeed, I have noticed that you have not even taken a glass of water.’ I thought that the Lord Himself had come in the form of this low-caste man to test me. I asked him, ‘Can you give me something to eat? The man said, ‘Swamiji, my heart is yearning to give you food, but how can you eat Chapatis baked by my hands! If you allow me I shall be most glad to bring flour, lentils, and other things, and you may cook them yourself.’ At that time, according to the monastic rules, I did not touch fire. So I said to him, ‘You had better give me the Chapatis cooked by you. I will gladly take them.’ Hearing this, the man shrank in fear; he was a subject of the Maharaja of Khetri and was afraid that if the latter came to hear that he, a cobbler, had given Chapatis to a Sannyasin, he would be severely dealt with and possibly banished from the State. I told him, however, that he need not fear and that the Maharaja would not punish him. He did not believe me. But out of the kindness of his heart, even though he feared the consequence, he brought me the cooked food. I doubted at that time whether it would have been more palatable if Indra, the King of the Devas, should have held a cup of nectar in a golden basin before me. I shed tears of love and gratitude and thought, ‘Thousands of such large-hearted men live in lowly huts, and we despise them as low castes and untouchables!’ When I became well acquainted with the Maharaja, I told him of the noble act of this man. Accordingly, within a few days the latter was called to the presence of the Prince. Frightened beyond words, the man came shaking all over, thinking that some dire punishment was to be inflicted upon him. But the Maharaja praised him and put him beyond all want.”

Once it occurred to the Swami, in the course of his itineracy, that going from place to place and begging for food from door to door was after all not the aim of his life for the realisation of which he had renounced his home. In a letter written about this time to one of his brother-disciples he says with great depression, “I am going about taking food at others’ houses shamelessly and without the least compunction like a crow.” He thought, “Let me beg no longer! What benefit is it to the poor to feed me? If they can save a handful of rice, they can feed their own children with it. Anyway, what is the use of sustaining this body if I cannot realise God?” A desperate ascetic mood came upon him, and a terrible spiritual dissatisfaction overwhelmed him, as sometimes occurs with great mystics, and he determined in a moment of supreme despair to plunge into a dense forest and, like some great Rishi of old, let the body drop from sheer starvation and exhaustion. Thereupon he entered into a thick forest which stretched for miles and miles before him, and walked the whole day without a morsel of food. The evening approached. He was faint from fatigue and sank to the ground beneath a tree, fixing his mind upon the Lord, his eyes looking vacantly in the distance.

After some time he saw a tiger approaching. Nearer and nearer it came. Then it sat down at some distance from him. The Swami thought, “Ah! This is right, both of us are hungry. After all, this body has not been the vehicle for absolute realisation, and as by it no good to the world will possibly be done, it is well and desirable that it should be of service at least to this hungry beast.” He was lying there all the while calm and motionless, waiting every moment for the tiger to pounce upon him, but for some reason or other the animal ran off in another direction. The Swami, however, thought that it might yet return and waited, but the tiger did not come. He spent the night in the jungle beneath the shelter of the tree, holding communion with his own soul. And with the approach of dawn, pondering in the silence of that forest on the guiding Providence of the Most High, a great sense of power came upon him. The full contents of this experience were known only to himself.

Once, in the course of his weary marches on foot, he became dizzy from exhaustion and could walk no farther. The sun was intolerably hot. Summoning his strength he reached a tree near by and sat down beneath its spreading branches. A sense of unutterable fatigue came over his limbs. Then, as a great light shines suddenly in the darkness, the thought came to him, “Is it not true that within the Soul resides all power? How can it be dominated by the senses and the body? How can I be weak?” Therewith a sudden energy flowed through his body. His mind became luminous. His senses recovered themselves, and he arose and journeyed on, determined that he would never yield to weakness. Many times he was in such a state in his Parivrajaka life; but he asserted his higher nature again and again, and strength flowed back to him. Says the Swami in one of his lectures in California:

“Many times I have been in the jaws of death, starving, footsore, and weary; for days and days I had had no food, and often could walk no farther; I would sink down under a tree, and life would seem to be ebbing away. I could not speak, I could scarcely think, but at last the mind reverted to the idea: ‘I have no fear nor death; never was I born, never did I die; I never hunger nor thirst. I am It! I am It. The whole of nature cannot crush me; it is my servant. Assert thy strength, thou Lord of lords and God of gods! Regain thy lost empire! Arise and walk and stop not!’ And I would rise up, reinvigorated, and here am I, living, today. Thus, whenever the darkness comes, assert the reality and every thing adverse must vanish. For, after all it is but a dream. Mountain-high though the difficulties appear, terrible and gloomy though all things seem, they are but Maya. Fear not — it is banished. Crush it, and it vanishes. Stamp upon it, and it dies.”

At another time, whilst travelling afoot in Cutch, he was passing through a desert. The scorching rays of the sun poured down upon him. His throat was parched, and nowhere near did his eyes find a human abode. On and on he went, until he saw a village with inviting pools of water, and he was happy at the prospect of finding food, drink and shelter there.

He hastened his steps, believing that he would soon be there. After walking on and on for a long time the village was as far off as ever l Finally, in despair he sat down upon the sands and looked about him. Where was the village! Where had it gone! And then he knew — it was only a mirage! And he thought, “Such is life! Such is the deceit of Maya.” He arose and journeyed on, and though he saw the mirage again, he was no more deceived, for he knew what it was. When in the West he gave a series of lectures on Maya, he compared Maya to a mirage, using this experience as an illustration.

Once he said in the presence of a disciple, as if speaking to himself, "O the days of suffering I passed through! Once after eating nothing for three days I fell down senseless on the road. I did not know how long I was in that state. When I regained my consciousness I found my clothing wet through by a shower of rain. Drenched in it, I felt somewhat refreshed. I arose and after trudging along some distance I reached a monastery, and my life was saved by the food that I received there.”

Many, many were the times when the Swami faced danger, hardship and want in the solitude as the wandering monk. Oftentimes there was nothing in his possession save perhaps a photograph of Shri Ramakrishna and a copy of the Gita. In Central India, probably when he left Khandwa, he had many trying experiences with people who refused to give him food and shelter. It was in that period that he lived with a family of the sweeper caste and saw the priceless worth and potentialities that often lie within the lowest of the low. It might have been this experience and similar others of human contact that made him realise the distressing condition of his land. Poverty, wretchedness and utmost misery he saw on every side, and his heart was overwhelmed with pity. Such experiences as these made of him a great patriot and champion of the depressed millions.

At one time, during his wanderings in the Himalayas, he lived with a family of Tibetans with whom polyandry is; the prevailing custom, And this family consisted of six brothers with but one common wife. When the Swami became sufficiently familiar with them, he argued with his hosts concerning polyandry, becoming quite fervent in his denunciation. The man became much vexed with him and asked him, “How can you, a Sadhu, bring yourself to teach others to be selfish! ‘This is a thing which only I should possess and enjoy to the exclusion of any other,’ — is not such an idea wrong? Why should we be so selfish as to have each a wife for himself? Brothers should share everything amongst themselves, even their wives.” Though the answer might have its logical weakness, the Swami was greatly astonished at such a reply from such simple-minded mountaineers. And, the Swami thought, one may argue for or against almost anything. It was this and similar incidents which caused him to think deeply over the customs and manners of various peoples, as he met them in his travels through many provinces from the Himalayas to the southernmost part of India. It certainly broadened his perspective and made him see life from all angles. It made him weigh well in the balance the arguments for as well as against any new experience or circumstance or custom which chanced to cross his path. He endeavoured to see the standards of social life and of ethics of all nations and races, through their eyes.

Before closing the chapter of his days of itineracy it would be relevant to think over the changes in the Swami's personality and temperament since he started on this life from Baranagore. Before this he had not seen much of the outside world. This wandering life had a great educational value for him, opening up as it did opportunities for original thought and observation. The synthetic ideas absorbed at Dakshineswar were put into practice through the Parivrajaka experience. As one of his brother-disciples has said of him, “He was constantly on the look-out for new experiences at this time, constantly gathering ideas, making contrasts and comparisons, saturating his mind with the religious and social ideas of every province, studying various systems of theology and philosophy and finding out the inherent worth of all the varied Indian peoples whose life he closely observed.” The most striking element in all his observations was his tireless search for unity in the world of Indian ideals. He finally realised that underlying all the diversity of customs and traditions was the oneness of the spiritual vision. The difference between the Mohammedan and the Hindu world he found to be only apparent, for the Mohammedans as a race were as generous and as human and as Indian at heart as the Hindus, and the enlightened among them understood and appreciated the culture of Hinduism and the intimate relationship between the philosophy of Sufism and Advaita Veddnta and other social and religious elements. So he came to think of both Mohammedans and Hindus as Indians first; and this automatically obliterated for him the distinction between the followers of the two great faiths. With this supreme synthetic outlook of the Indian world and the soundness of Indian ideals the Swami arrived at Madras, which practically terminated his days of wandering.