A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Before one proceeds to enter into the life of the Swami as a great teacher, training a group of earnest disciples in America, it would be well to take into account many experiences that he had by the way as a lecturer touring through the country. Naturally he met many persons of note and distinction, and of these was the famous agnostic and orator, Mr. Robert Ingersoll, with whom the Swami on several occasions discussed religious and philosophical subjects. During the course of these conversations the great agnostic cautioned the Swami not to be too bold and outspoken, to be careful in his preaching of new doctrines and his criticisms of the ways of life and thought of the people. When asked the reason why, Mr. Ingersoll replied, “Fifty years ago you would have been hanged if you had come to preach in this country, or you would have been burned alive. You would have been stoned out of the villages, if you had come even much later.” The Swami was surprised; he could not believe that there was such a great amount of fanaticism and bigotry in the American nation, and he told Mr. Ingersoll as much. But there was a difference between the modes of teaching of these two great preachers, for Mr. Ingersoll antagonised all religious ideas, whereas the Swami, though presenting a new order of religious thought, was tolerant of all religions and a devotee of the Christ. The difference between these two great souls is best presented in an anecdote told by the Swami himself. “Ingersoll once said to me,” said the Swami in the course of a class talk,” ‘I believe in making the most out of this world, in squeezing the orange dry, because this world is all we are sure of.’ I replied, ‘I know a better way to squeeze the orange of this world than you do; and I get more out of it. I know I cannot die, so I am not in a hurry. I know that there is no fear, so I enjoy the squeezing. I have no duty, no bondage of wife and children and property; and so I can love all men and women. Everyone is God to me. Think of the joy of loving man as God! Squeeze your orange this way and get ten thousandfold more out of it. Get every single drop!’”

One of the most trying experiences that the Swami had while on his lecturing tour occurred when he was visiting a Western town. Hearing him speak of Indian philosophy, a number of university men, who had become cowboys, took him at his word when he said that one who had realised the Highest was equanimous under all conditions and was not disturbed by any outward influences. They decided to put him to the test and so invited him to lecture to them. When he arrived they escorted him to a wooden tub which they had placed with the bottom up to serve as a platform in the public square of their village. The Swami commenced his address, soon losing himself in the subject. Suddenly there was a deafening noise of shots which went whizzing past his ears! Undisturbed he continued his lecture to the end as though nothing was happening. When he had finished, the cowboys flocked about him and in their boisterous language, they pronounced him “a right good fellow”.

But this incident is complemented by another, which, by its genuine human touch, reveals the fineness, and the greatness of the man. Being an Oriental he was often in the South mistaken for a Negro. Once, when he was leaving a train, a Negro porter, who had seen the Swami welcomed by a reception committee, came up to him, saying that he had heard how in him one of his own people had become a great man and that he would like to have the privilege of shaking hands with him. The Swami warmly clasped the hands of the railway-porter and exclaimed, “Thank you! Thank you, brother!” He related many similar confidences made to him by Negroes and he never resented being thought of as one of them. It happened several times in important cities of the South, that he was refused admittance to the hotels because of his dark colour, the proprietors saying that they could not accommodate a Negro and showing him the door with scant courtesy; but even in these dilemmas he refused to say that he was an Oriental. Whereupon the manager of his lecturing tour had to make other arrangements for him. When the hotel people read his lectures in the morning papers and heard his name spoken broadcast with reverence, they were mortified and hurried to him to offer apologies. Even in the barber shops of Northern cities, he was shown the door with caustic remarks. Long after, when a Western disciple referring to these incidents asked him in surprise why he had not informed them who he was, he replied, “What! Rise at the expense of another! I did not come to earth for that!” He was never ashamed of his race. On the contrary, he was proud that he was an Indian, and when any Westerner displayed a sense of superiority before him, because of the fairness of his skin, he did not escape his stern reproof. Sister Nivedita writes:1

“He was scornful in his repudiation of the pseudo-ethnology of privileged races. ‘If I am grateful to my white-skinned Aryan ancestor,’ he said, ‘I am far more so to my yellow-skinned Mongolian ancestor, and most so of all, to the black-skinned Negritoid!'

“He was immensely proud, in his own physiognomy, of what he called his ‘Mongolian jaw,’ regarding it as a sign of ‘Bull-dog tenacity of purpose and referring to this particular race-element, which he believed to be behind every Aryan people, he one day exclaimed, ‘Don’t you see? The Tartar is the wine of the race! He gives energy and power to every blood!’”

Wheresoever he went in the course of his lecture tours the Swami found his name blazoned in the papers. The reporters and editors literally besieged him on all sides. He was made to answer innumerable questions with regard to his habits of life, his religion, his philosophy, his views of Western civilisation, his scheme of future work, his diet, his antecedents, the manners and customs of his people, the political conditions of his land, and a host of other subjects. In this manner the newspapers made the American public acquainted with many details of his personal as well as his country's history. When he came to Detroit, in the month of February 1894, he was sought after by newspaper reporters day in and day out. It would be well to quote here what the Detroit Free Press, one of the leading journals not only of this city but of America itself, writes concerning him, as the description of the Swami given in this paper is typical of what was printed of him elsewhere in other cities:

“Since the Parliament he has spoken to immense audiences in many towns and cities, who have but one opinion of praise and are enthusiastic over his magnetic power and his way of giving light and life to every subject he touches upon. Naturally his views of great questions, coming like himself from the other side of the globe, are refreshing and stirring to American people. His hearers are pleasantly astonished when the dark-hued, dark-haired, dignified man rises in rich yellow robes and speaks their own language with fluency, distinctness and correctness.”

Commenting on his lecture of February 18, 1894, this same paper reports:2

“Swami Vivekananda, Hindu philosopher and priest, concluded his series of lectures, or rather sermons, at the Unitarian church last night speaking on ‘The Divinity of Man.’ In spite of the bad weather, the church was crowded almost to the doors, half an hour before the Eastern brother — as he likes to be called — appeared. All professions and business occupations were represented in the attentive audience — lawyers, judges, ministers of the Gospel, merchants, a Rabbi — not to speak of the many ladies who have, by their repeated attendance and rapt attention, shown a decided inclination to shower adulation upon the dusky visitor, whose drawing-room attraction is as great as his ability in the rostrum.

“The lecture last night was less descriptive than preceding ones, and for nearly two hours Vivekananda wove a metaphysical texture on affairs human and divine, so logical that he made science appear like common sense. It was a beautiful logical garment that he wove, replete with as many bright colours and as attractive and pleasing to contemplate as one of the many-hued fabrics made by hand in his native land and seemed with the most, seductive fragrance of the Orient. The dusky gentleman uses poetical imagery as an artist uses colours, and the hues are laid on just where they belong, the result being somewhat bizarre in effect, and yet having a peculiar fascination. Kaleidoscopic were the swiftly succeeding logical conclusions, and the deft manipulator was rewarded for his efforts from time to time by enthusiastic applause.”

Writing of her appreciation of the Swami, in his first visit to Detroit, Mrs. Mary C. Funke, a well-known society woman of that city, says many years after:

“Februrary 14th, 1894, stands out in my memory as a day apart, a sacred, holy day; for it was then that I first saw the form and listened to the voice of that great soul, that spiritual giant, the Swami Vivekananda, who, two years later, to my great joy and never-ceasing wonder, accepted me as a disciple.

“He had been lecturing in the large cities of this country, and on the above date gave the first of a series of lectures in Detroit, in the Unitarian church. The large edifice was literally packed and the Swami received an ovation. I can see him yet as he stepped upon the platform, a regal, majestic figure, vital, forceful, dominant, and at the first sound of the wonderful voice, a voice all music — now like the plaintive minor strain of an Eolian harp, again, deep, vibrant, resonant — there was a hush, a stillness that could almost be fell, and the vast audience breathed as one man.

“The Swami gave five public lectures and he held his audiences, for his was the grasp of the ‘master hand,’ and he spoke as one with authority. His arguments were logical, convincing, and in his most brilliant oratorical flights never once did he lose sight of the main issue the truth he wished to drive home.’”

Indeed, one of the notable characteristics in all the Swami’s addresses delivered at this time, which the newspaper descriptions of him did not fail to notice, was his patriotism. To quote one of them: “His patriotism was perfervid. The manner in which he speaks of ‘My country’ is most touching. That one phrase revealed him not only as a monk, but as a man of his people.”

Everywhere he went the Swami gave himself and his time unstintingly in service. He gave and gave, until the strain became intense. He accepted every invitation, thinking that it was an opportunity afforded him to help others. He felt that he was being guided by the Lord; and it was true of him that he exerted as great an influence in private as in public life. To present the ideals of the civilisation and the religious consciousness of his own race to the peoples of the West, to enhance the spiritual vision of all with whom he came into contact, to enlighten the Western mind with the knowledge of the Advaita Vedanta — these were the ideas which possessed him. The spiritual side of his message was constantly in the foreground, and he found that though India might be seriously in need of material aid, the West stood infinitely more in need of spiritual assistance. So he decided that he should give himself to the West as well as to the East, that he should give himself, in fact, to the whole wide world.

During this period and continuously the Swami received invitation after invitation to speak before clubs and churches and before private gatherings. Most of these he readily accepted in so far as was practicable for him, and thus it is no wonder to find him travelling here and there and everywhere in the Eastern and Mid-Western States of America, numbers of times, from Chicago to New York and from Boston to Baltimore.

He had to deliver twelve to fourteen lectures or sometimes even more a week. He felt greatly the excessive physical and mental strain; he confessed that on his lecture tour after a time the strain was so great that he felt as if he had exhausted himself intellectually. At such times he asked himself, “What is to be done! What shall I say in my lecture tomorrow!” And in his extremity he was aided in many wonderful ways. For instance, at dead of night he would hear a voice shouting at him the very thoughts which he was to speak on the morrow. Sometimes it would come as from a long distance, speaking to him down a great avenue, as it were; and then it would draw nearer and nearer. Or again it would be like someone delivering a lecture alongside of him, as he lay on his bed listening. At other times two voices would argue before him, discussing at great length subjects that he would find himself repealing on the following day upon the platform or in the pulpit. Sometimes these discussions involved ideas that he had never heard or thought of previously.

He was not, however, puzzled at these strange happenings, and interpreted them as manifestations of the wider faculties of the mind — subjective, mere automatic mental operations. The mind, imbued with given forms of thought, works instinctively on their enlargement, calling on the creative faculties for their more perfect presentation and utterance. It was perhaps an extreme case of the mind becoming its own Guru. Commenting upon these experiences to his more intimate disciples he would remark that they constituted what is regarded as inspiration. Though the Swami described them as subjective experiences, yet it must be noted that some of the inmates of the same residence would ask him in the morning, “Swami, with whom were you talking last night? We heard you talking loudly and enthusiastically and we were wondering.” The Swami would smile at their bewilderment and would answer in an evasive manner which left them mystified. To his disciples he would explain that these incidents betrayed the powers and potentialities of the Self, and denied that there was anything miraculous about them.

During this time and at certain subsequent periods of his stay in the West the Swami felt extraordinary Yoga powers developing spontaneously within him, yet, rarely did he exercise them with determination; in the few cases that he did so, it was only for some grave reason. He could change, if he so wished, the whole trend of the life of any one by a simple touch. He could see clearly things happening at a great distance. Some of the intimate disciples to whom he spoke casually of this fact, prevailed upon him to allow them to test him, in spite of his abhorrence of making a display of psychic powers, and they invariably found his words to be true. On many an occasion his students would find him answering and solving the very doubts and questions that were troubling them at the moment. He could read one’s past life and read the contents of one's mind at a glance. Once a wealthy citizen of Chicago chaffed the Swami rather flippantly about his Yogic powers and challenged him to demonstrate them. He said, "Well, sir, if all this which you say be true, then tell me something of my mental make-up, or of my past!” The Swami hesitated a moment; then he fixed his eyes upon those of the man as though he would pierce, by some quiet but irresistible power, through the body to the naked soul. The man at once became nervous. His flippancy gave way to sudden seriousness and fear and he exclaimed, "O Swami, what are you doing to me? It seems as if my whole soul is being churned and all the secrets of my life are being called up in strong colours!” The Swami did not consider these powers to be marks of spirituality and never cared to exercise them.

People who had listened for years with increasing dissatisfaction to numerous preachers of modern cults, came to hear him and had their souls aroused and their spiritual hopes fulfilled. His utterances were authoritative, his realisation genuine, he spoke of what he had felt and had himself seen. Those who had knocked long at the doors of wisdom found that through him the gates were opening. And those who had him as their guest at this time would speak of him as a kaleidoscopic genius, enriching his surroundings with a many-sided greatness. It is no wonder that those who came in intimate contact with him would say that he was a soul of unspeakable beauty and grandeur and that he transcended their previous notions of greatness or of saintship.

In September, 1894, finding that his American work had been wilfully misrepresented in Calcutta and that enterprising publishers were printing books of his speeches and sayings in such a way “as to savour of political views,” he wrote with vehemence to a disciple in Madras stating:3

“I am no politician or political agitator. I care only for the Spirit . . . . So you must warn the Calcutta people that no political significance be ever attached falsely to any of my writings or sayings. What nonsense! . . . I heard that the Rev. Kali Charan Banerji in a lecture to the Christian missionaries had said that I was a political delegate. If it was said publicly, then publicly ask the Babu from me, to write to any of the Calcutta papers and prove it, or else take back his foolish assertion . . . . I have said a few harsh words in honest criticism of Christian Governments in general, but that does not mean that I care for, or have any connection with politics . . . . Tell my friends that a uniform silence is all my answer to my detractors . . .. This nonsense of public life and newspaper blazoning has disgusted me thoroughly. I long to go back to the Himalayan quiet.”

Only a man of the Swami’s calibre could have stood the intensity of his life at this time. It is no wonder, therefore, to find him longing for the retreats and silence of the distant Himalayas.

  1. ^The Master as I saw Him, Chapter XVI.
  2. ^Complete Works, Volume III.
  3. ^Complete Works, Volume V.