A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Having fulfilled his great work of training and initiating disciples at Thousand Island Park, the Swami returned to New York, where he made preparations to sail for England. He had long held the idea of going to London as a missionary of Hinduism and had been invited by Miss Henrietta Müller to be her guest. Mr. E. T. Sturdy, hearing that he was coming, wrote a cordial letter asking him to come and live with him. He assured him that there was a great field for his work in London and that he would do everything in his power to help the work on. One of the Swami’s New York friends invited him to join him in a tour to Paris and to England. Seeing that things were opening up for him he seized this opportunity to carry to England and to the English people that same great message which he had preached in America and which had aroused the foremost thinkers and representatives of American life and culture to a new order of thought and to a new spiritual outlook.

The Swami needed rest, and he thought that an ocean voyage would be a restorative to tired nerves and an exhausted brain. Therefore, in the middle of August, he sailed from New York, reaching Paris in the latter part of the month. The trip delighted him; now he was in Paris, the centre of European culture. He made the most of his brief stay by visiting its museums, its churches, its cathedrals, its art galleries, and was pleased to see how highly the artistic instincts of the French nation were developed. He was introduced to some of the enlightened friends of his host, with whom he discoursed on subjects which ranged from the highest spiritual to the most learned studies. They became his friends and enjoyed his company, for in himself he was historian, philosopher, wit and entertainer. As was his custom everywhere, in his short stay in Paris he acquired as much information as possible, asking, studying, and observing the culture of the West.

But even though he came to Paris for recreation, thoughts of work crossed his mind. Just before sailing from America he had received a letter from his disciples in India, warning him that missionary activity was strong against him in his native land and that articles and pamphlets were appearing, criticising his life, his teaching and his conduct. Evidently the missionaries had been criticising his diet in the West and many of the Hindus who had read this became opposed to the Swami and attacked him in strong terms. Naturally he was vexed, and so he writes from Paris on the day previous to his departure for London, to say:

“. . . I am surprised you take the missionaries' nonsense so seriously. . . . If the people in India want me to keep strictly to my Hindu diet, please tell them to send me a cook and money enough to keep him. This silly bossism without a mite of real help makes me laugh. On the other hand, if the missionaries tell you that I have ever broken the two great vows of the Sannyasin — chastity and poverty — tell them that they are big liars . . . .

“As for me, mind you, I stand at nobody’s dictation. I know my mission in life, and no chauvinism about me; I belong as much to the world as to India, no humbug about that . . . . What country has any special claim on me? Am I any nation’s slave? . . .

“. . . . I see a greater Power than man, or God, or devil, at my back. I require nobody’s help. I have spent all my life helping others. . . .

“Do you mean to say I am born to live and die one of those caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, atheistic cowards, that you find only amongst the educated Hindus? I hate cowardice, I will have nothing to do with cowards or political nonsense. I do not believe in any politics. God and truth are the only politics in the world, everything else is trash. . . .”

This letter, written on September 9, shows the Swami in a strong light. By this time missionary activity against the Swami had reached a high pitch. But the Swami was a strong man, and he could be a strong adversary when necessary. He had to be this, for otherwise his religion, his people, his name and his teaching would have been overthrown by cynical or malicious critics. He had literally to fight, his way for recognition. And when his character was attacked, he was, for the sake of his teaching, unequivocal in his replies. Oftentimes, however, the Swami felt like a child, and he would weep in solitude, praying to the Mother for protection and for help. On one occasion, during his early days in America, he was actually seen in tears reading a baseless assertion against his character, and when asked the reason he replied, “Oh! How deep is the wickedness of the world and to what lengths men go, in the name of religion, to cast aspersion upon another worker in God’s vineyard!” Even many of the Christian clerics were up in arms against the bigoted and slanderous statements which so-called Christian propagandists were heaping upon one whom every fair-minded Christian called “Our Eastern Brother”.

Now he was bound for England! He was filled with expectations and anticipation. In America he had often dreamt of visiting the great metropolis of London. He wondered how the British public would receive him — a Hindu belonging to a subject race, come to preach his religion to them. But this wonder was shortly to give place to a still greater wonder — namely, his unbounded and immediate success. He was received by friends, among them being Mr. Sturdy, and Miss Henrietta Müller whom he had met in America. He soon found himself accommodated now in one and then in another of the homes of his friends. After a few days’ rest he commenced work in a quiet way. During the day he paid visits to every place of historic or artistic interest, in the mornings and often in the late evenings he held classes and gave interviews. His reputation spread at once. Visitors poured in. He received numerous invitations; and within three weeks of his arrival he found himself engaged in strenuous work. He was interviewed by several of the leading journals, among them being The Westminster Gazette, and The Standard which spoke of him and of his teaching in highly complimentary terms.

The Swami's work, though intended to be mostly of a private character, soon assumed a public aspect, as the notices incorporating his teaching, that appeared from time to time in the daily journals, attest. People came in numbers to meet the Hindu Yogi, as he was called in London. One of the Swami's great friends at this time, who introduced him to numerous persons and immensely assisted him in forming his classes and propagating the Vedanta teaching, was Mr. E. T. Sturdy, a man who had long been interested in Indian thought and, indeed, had been in India and undergone severe asceticism in a hill-station in the Himalayas. He was a man of means and learning and position, and his name lent weight among the ciicle of his friends who went to the Swami’s classes. Among the early visitors to the Swami’s class-rooms was Lady Isabel Margesson and several of the nobility. The Swami worked day in and day out, even as he had done in New York, without respite, giving his whole spirit to those who came to be taught.

Feeling that the London public should hear his philosophy expounded to them, his friends arranged to have him give a public lecture at Princes’ Hall, Piccadilly, one of the most fashionable places in the metropolis, on the evening of October 22. And here the Swami delivered his address on “Self-Knowledge”. When he rose to speak that night, lie faced a large gathering of people, representing all walks of life and some of the best thinkers in London. The lecture was a tremendous success, and the next morning the journals were Idled with complimentary comments. The Standard wrote:

“Since the days of Ram Mohan Roy, with the single exception of Keahab Chundra Sen, there has not appeared on an English platform a more interesting Indian figure than the Hindu who lectured in Princes’ Hall . . . . In the course of his lecture, he made some remorselessly disparaging criticism on the work that factories, engines, and other inventions and books were doing for man, compared with half-a-dozen words spoken by Buddha or Jesus. The lecture was evidently quite extemporaneous, and was delivered in a pleasing voice free from any kind of hesitation.”1

The London Daily Chronicle wrote:

“Vivekananda, the popular Hindu monk, whose physiognomy bore the most striking resemblance to the classic face of Buddha, denounced our commercial prosperity, our bloody wars, and our religious intolerance, declaring that at such a price the mild Hindu would have none of our vaunted civilisation.”2

Under tne title, "An Indian Yogi in London," The Westminster Gazette wrote, following upon an interview of one of its correspondents with the Swami:

“. . . The Swami Vivekananda is a striking figure with his turban (or mitre-shaped cap) and his calm but kindly features . . . . His face lights up like that of a child, it is so simple, straightforward and honest.”

The interviewer held a long discussion with the Swami wherein the latter told him why he had renounced the world and adopted the Sannyasin’s life. The Swami mentioned the name of his Master, and said that he had come to organise no sect, to teach no sectarian doctrine, but to give the general outlines of the universal principles of the Vedanta and to let each apply them to his own concrete forms. He said, “I am the exponent of no occult societies, nor do I believe that good can come of such bodies. Truth stands on its own authority, and truth can bear the light of day.” The correspondent of the Gazette wrote of all the Swarm's ideals and of his brilliant success in America, and concluded by remarking, “I then took my leave from one of the most original of men that I have had the honour of meeting.” Thus the London public were informed of the Swami's being a monk and a teacher, and scores gathered at his quarters, seeking instruction, or desiring to satisfy their curiosity.

It was a novel and satisfying experience for the Swami to have the English people endorse his teaching and his character by this demonstration of enthusiasm. And though his stay in London was hardly more than a month from this lecture, he succeeded in making a deep and lasting impression upon those whom he met. Among these was Miss Margaret Noble, who later on was known as Sister Nivedita. She was struck with the novelty and the breadth of his religious culture and the intellectual freshness of his philosophical outlook, as also with the fact that “his call was sounded in the name of that which was strongest and finest, and was not in any way dependent on the meaner elements in man”. Both before she met him, and for some time after, Miss Noble was highly interested in educational work, being the Principal of a school of her own, and was one of the conspicuous members of the Sesame Club, founded for the furtherance of educational purposes. She moved in quiet but distinguished intellectual circles and was deeply interested in all modern influences and thought. She weighed, the Swami’s words in the balance and at first found some difficulty in accepting his views; but this, in the Swami’s eyes, was a sign of the power of true penetration, for he knew that though now she might hesitate, when she would once accept, there would be no more ardent champion of his ideas than she. It required many months, she herself confesses, for her to accept the Swami’s philosophy in toto.

Miss Noble pondered for a long time upon the Swami’s words; and before he left England for America she already called him “Master”. The description of her first meeting with the Swami is charming. She writes:

“Even in far away London indeed, the first time I saw him, the occasion must have stirred in his mind, as it does in mine, recalling it now, a host of associations connected with his own sunsteeped land. The time was a cold Sunday afternoon in November, and the place, it is true, a West-end drawing-room. But he was seated, lacing a half-circle of listeners, with the fire on the hearth behind him, and as he answered question after question, breaking now and then into the chanting of some Sanskrit text in illustration of his reply, the scene must have appeared to him, while twilight passed into darkness, only as a curious variant upon the Indian garden, or on the group of hearers gathered at sundown round the Sadhu who sits beside the well, or under the tree outside the village-bounds. Never again in England did I see the Swami as a teacher, in such simple fashion. Later, he was always lecturing, or the questions he answered were put with formality by members of larger audiences. Only this first time we were but fifteen or sixteen guests, intimate friends many of us, and he sat amongst us, in his crimson robe and girdle, as one bringing us news from a far land, with a curious habit of saying now and again ‘Shiva! Shiva;’ and wearing that look of mingled gentleness and loftiness, that one sees on the faces of those who live much in meditation, that look, perhaps, that Raphael has painted for us, on the brow of the Sistine Child.

“That afternoon is now ten years ago, and fragments only of the talk come hack to me. But never to be forgotten are the Sanskrit verses that he chanted for us, in those wonderful Eastern tones, at once so reminiscent of, and yet so different from, the Gregorian music of our own churches.”3

In the many talks and private lectures which the Swami gave in some of the aristocratic houses and before several clubs during his first stay in London, he invariably discoursed on the important tenets of the Hindu Faith, and especially of the Vedanta philosophy. As in America, so here also in his London conversations, he found himself besieged with questions of various character, and invariably he was the same brilliant wit and master of repartee and spiritual teacher. He would oftentimes express his lack of confidence in the Western conception of religious organisation and its love of, and dependence upon money, as opposed to the Hindu idea of absolute freedom in religious belief and pursuits and its glorification of Renunciation.

The lectures and talks of the Swami were sometimes thrilling and always illuminating in their character. Probably no other instance sets forth his eloquence and spirit more clearly than that which occurred in a West-end drawing-room where he lectured one evening to a highly cultural audience, composed mostly of fashionable young mothers. He was speaking on the greatness of the path of Love, showing to what heights of selflessness it leads and how it draws out the very best faculties of the soul. In elucidating his remarks, he said, “Suppose, a tiger should suddenly appear before you in the streets. How terror-stricken you would be, and how eager you would all be to fly away for your very lives! But” — and his tone became changed and his face of a sudden lighted up with that strength and fearlessness which the spiritual fire alone endows in its fullest measure — “suppose, there were a baby in the path of the tiger! Where would your place be then? At the mouth of the tiger — any one of you — I am sure of it.” His hearers were carried away by this splendid remark, at once a compliment to the possibilities within them and with the power of arousing their very highest spiritual nature. It was such characteristics as these — his immense personal magnetism, his directness, his lucidity, his vision — which gave convincing power to his utterances, and which bound indissolubly to himself, here, there and everywhere, large groups of the very finest and the most devout disciples. The remarkable way in which he classified religious ideas, the great breadth of his intellectual and spiritual culture, the newness and profundity of his ideas, the great ethical import attached to all he said, and, finally, his strength, manliness and fearlessness of spirit, each and all of these were bound to create an indelible impression.

In his first visit to London was laid an unshakable foundation for any future work he might find it fit to initiate. When he intended to visit England, he thought it would be “only to feel the ground”; but when he was once there, he found that his visit was not experimental but practically and immensely successful, beyond all anticipation. The Press had welcomed and heralded his ideas; some of the most select clubs of the city and even some leaders of its prominent clerical institutions had invited him and received him with marked admiration. He was moving in the best circles of English society and even members of the nobility were glad to reckon him as their friend. This completely revolutionised his idea of English men and women. In America he found that the public was most enthusiastic and responsive in taking up new ideas; but in England he discovered that though his hearers were more conservative in their declarations of acceptance and praise, they were all the more fervent and staunch, once they had convinced themselves of the worth of a teacher and his ideas. Before he left London to return to America and take up the threads of work there, he had the joyous satisfaction of being able to count many as his sincere friends and earnest supporters. In the middle of November he himself wrote to a disciple in Madras, saying:

“. . . . In England my work is really splendid. . . . Bands and bands come and I have no room for so many; so they squat on the floor, ladies and all. . . . I shall have to go away next week, and they are so sorry. Some think my work here will be hurt a little if I go away so soon. I do not think so. I do not depend on men or things. The Lord alone I depend upon — and He works through me.

“. . . . I am really tired from incessant work. Any other Hindu would have died if he had to work as hard as I have to. . . . I want to go to India for a long rest. . . .”4

A correspondent of a daily journal, who attended the class lectures of the Swami writes:

“It is indeed a rare sight to see some of the most fashionable ladies in London seated on the floor cross-legged, of course, for want of chairs, listening with all the Bhakti of an Indian Chela towards his Guru. The love and sympathy for India that the Swamiji is creating in the minds of the English-speaking race is sure to be a tower of strength for the progress of India.”

In the very midst of his English work, however, the Swami was receiving many letters, saying that the opportunity for American work was on the increase, and begging him to return to America for the sake of his disciples there. His English friends, on the other hand, were urging him to remain and to settle permanently in the metropolis. But he thought it would be best to give the seeds sown in London time to germinate. Besides, he felt that he was being called by the Lord, he promised to return to England in the following summer and continue the work begun there. He was gratified with what he said the Lord had accomplished through him and with a new spirit and renewed enthusiasm he turned his face again to the group of ardent followers in America. A rich Boston lady had promised to support his work throughout the coming winter in New York, and everything seemed bright and prosperous. Before he left, he advised those who were more particularly interested in his teaching to form themselves into a body and to meet regularly for the purpose of reading the Bhagavad-Gita, and other Hindu scriptures. Mr. E. T. Sturdy, writing to the Brahmavadin, in the month of February, 1896, of the Swami’s visit to England, says:

“The visit of the Swami Vivekananda to England has demonstrated that there exists a thoughtful, educated body of people here, which has only to be found and properly approached, to benefit very largely from the life-giving stream of Indian thought. . . .

“. . . . Again, from pulpit utterances, making reference to Swami Vivekananda’s expositions here, it was not difficult to see how, through him, some of the more open-minded of the Western clergy, who were fortunate enough to meet him, were able to make application, to their own system of religion, of pure Vedanta teachings . . . . Swami Vivekananda’s classes drew together considerable numbers from the various ranks of English life. The great majority of these carried away with them a clear conviction of his capacity as a teacher. Upon his return to America, in order to keep together the introductory work thus accomplished, classes were set on foot for the reading and study of the Bhagavad-Gita and other kindred subjects . . . . These classes continue. . . . No introduction is needed. . . . No society is formed, or will be formed, nor is any money consideration accepted . . . .”

The Swami’s success was due to his great art of presenting the supreme insight which he possessed. The above writer has expressed it well when, speaking of the Swami's coming, he says in continuation, “. . . But at length arrived on our shores a Yogi coming with love in his heart and the tradition of ages in his memory. . .” In the course of a single interview the Swami would often present to the audience a series of new ideas for the basis of a broad and all-inclusive spiritual life. In some instances literally an intellectual upheaval was created by his profound remarks on the metaphysics of the Vedanta; and many of his hearers admitted that it had never before fallen to their lot to meet with a thinker who in one short hour was able to express all that was very highest in the way of religious thought.

  1. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  2. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  3. ^The Master as I saw Him.
  4. ^Complete Works, Vol. 5.