A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


Now London was left behind. It was as if a great burden had suddenly dropped from the Swami’s shoulders. He knew that the work would go on well under Swami Abhedananda. He had faith in the Lord, and he knew that he was but an instrument in the hands of the Most High.

The Swami rejoiced that he was free again. He said to Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, “Now I have but one thought, and that is India. I am looking forward to India — to India!” On the eve of his departure an English friend asked, “Swami, how do-you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?” His significant reply was, “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy, it is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!”1

The party travelled directly to Milan, via Dover, Calais and Mont Cenis. The Swami who was in his happiest mood, made the long hours pass rapidly, and the journey, a delight. His mind was full of plans for his country, and of thoughts of the crowded hours of public life he would probably have on reaching there. Railroad travelling generally fatigued him, but on this occasion he seemed to enjoy it. He was like a boy, pleased with everything, and keenly observant of everything on the way. His companions entered heartily into his enthusiastic moods and plans of work, for they too were eagerly anticipating their Indian experience. They entertained high hopes of what they should do in India in helping the Swami to establish the proposed Himalayan Ashrama.

Through France, across the Alps, the train travelled on and at last they reached Milan. The Swami and his companions took up their quarters at a hotel close to the cathedral in order to visit frequently this celebrated edifice. The Swami was much impressed with Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. Altogether the Swami enjoyed Milan; this was his first experience in Italy. Leaving Milan, the party next visited the city of Pisa, famous for its Leaning Tower, its cathedral, the Campo Santo and its baptistry. Both in Milan and in Pisa the Swami admired the rich marble work, which in Pisa, in particular, is both of black and white. From Pisa they came to Florence. Its situation on the Arno, surrounded by picturesque hills makes of Florence a beautiful city, apart from the many objects and places of historic interest. The art galleries were visited, drives were taken in the parks, the history of Savonarola was narrated, and the three travellers entered into the spirit of this city.

In Florence the Swami had a pleasant experience. As he was driving in the Park he met Mr. and Mrs. Hale of Chicago, whom the reader will recall as the Swami's intimate friends and hosts in America, whose residence he had made his home for some time. They were touring in Italy and knew nothing of his presence in the city. Thus it was for the three a most agreeable surprise. The Swami spent some hours in lively reminiscences and discussed with them the plans of his life and work in India.

As the train left Florence for Rome the Swami was full of emotion, for of all cities in Europe he was most desirous to see Rome. One week was spent in this imperial city. Each day new places of interest were visited. Prior to leaving London, Mrs. Sevier, through the kindness of Miss MacLeod, was given the address of a Miss Edwards, well known in English circles in Rome. With her was staying Miss Alberta Sturgis, a niece of Miss MacLeod and already known to the Swami. Both these ladies joined him and Mr. and Mrs. Sevier in several of their excursions in and about Rome. Miss Edwards became a warm admirer of the Swami and she was especially taken with the idealism of his philosophy and with his immense knowledge of Roman history and general human culture.

Everything that he saw in Rome immensely interested him. At St. Peter's beneath its vast dome, before the shrines of the Apostles, he entered, in the silence of meditation, into that apostolic world in which the Apostle Paul preached and St. Peter inspired the followers of the Christ. He was impressed with the Christian liturgy, seeing therein a kinship with the religious ceremonials of his own land. One of his lady companions asked, “Well, Swami, do you like these ceremonies?” He said, “If you love a Personal God, then give Him all your best — incense, flower, fruits and silk. There is nothing good enough to be offered to God.” But on Christmas Day when he attended the imposing ceremony of High Mass at St. Peter’s with Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, he became restless after a time and whispered to them, “Why all this pageantry and ostentatious show? Can it be possible that the Church that practises such display, pomp and gorgeous ceremonial is really the follower of the lowly Jesus who had not where to lay his head?” He could not help drawing a contrast between these splendours of the outward religious form at St. Peter’s and the great spirit of Sannyasa which the Christ taught!

In order to divert the Swami’s mind Mr. and Mrs. Sevier arranged for many pleasant drives on those beautiful old Roman highways away from even history and ruins. The climate and the spirit of the Eternal City are at their best in the winter season, especially at Christmas time. The Christ-spirit filled the air, and the Swami was caught up into it; many times he spoke touchingly of the Christ-Child, contrasting the stories of His birth with that of the beautiful Indian Christ-Child, Shri Krishna.

The Swami made the round of all the places of interest in Rome, the palaces of the Caesars, the Forum, the Palatine Hill, the Temple Vesta, the public baths of the ancient Romans, the colosseum, the Capitoline Hill, and the Church of S. Maria di Ara Coeli, St. Peter’s, and the Vatican, amongst other places of interest, of beauty and historic importance. At the Forum, once adorned with most imposing buildings and which is now covered with numerous relics of its former majesty, Swamiji closely examined Trajan’s Pillar, the most beautiful column in Rome. It is 117 ft. in height and the bas-reliefs with which it is ornamented, represent the exploits of Trajan, and contain over 2,000 human figures. The triumphal Arch of Titus, which was erected in 81 A.D.to commemorate the conquest of Jerusalem, is in a good state of preservation. Swamiji was very quiet at first; but the more one watched him, the more convinced one became of the interest that lay behind the outward calm. He, was thinking of the Rome of long ago that had mighty aspirations and embodied them in architectural forms, marvellous for their size and beauty. As he went from place to place, he began to voice his observations, mingling with them such a wealth of knowledge of history and architecture that a glamour was thrown around the ancient monuments. He traced the fortunes of the Imperial idea under the Roman Empire in the heyday of its power, when the world seemed to lie at its feet, conquered; its rise and fall after the death of Augustus, when the people and their rulers were alike corrupt.

Being Christmas Eve, the streets outside the church of S. Maria di Ara Coeli had the appearance of a fair, with their lines of stalls, filled with sweets and toys, fruits and cakes, and cheap pictures of the Bambino. The Swami was amused and said, it reminded him of a mela (a religious fair) in India.

When the party left Rome, however, the Swami was not sad, for he realised that each day was bringing him nearer to the desired event — the departure for India. The next move was to Naples, where they were to embark. There were several days before the date of sailing giving the party an opportunity to see Naples and its famous environments. A day was spent in seeing Vesuvius, the party ascending to the crater by the funicular railway. While they were there, a mass of stones were thrown up into the air from the crater. Another day was devoted to visiting Pompeii, and the Swami was charmed with all he saw there. He was especially interested in a recently excavated house containing frescoes, fountains and statues, exactly as they were found. The Museum and the Aquarium also attracted the attention of the party. But what most concerned them was the approach of the date for sailing. The ship arrived at last from Southampton, bringing Mr. Goodwin as one of its passengers.

The steamer left Naples on December 30, 1896, and was to reach Colombo on January 15, 1897. They were to be many days on the ocean, but the voyage was not tedious. The Swami was throughout in excellent spirits and greatly benefited by the rest. In the Mediterranean, about midway between Naples and Port Said, the Swami had a phenomenal dream which made a profound impression upon his mind. One night, shortly after he had retired, he had a dream in which a bearded old man, venerable and Rishi-like in appearance, appeared before him and said, “Observe well this place that I show to you. You are now in the island of Crete. This is the land in which Christianity began.” The Swami then heard him say, “I am one of the TherapeutŠ who used to live here.” And he added still another word which escaped the Swami’s memory, but which might be “Essene,” the name of a sect of which Jesus the Christ is said to have been a member. They were monastic in tendency, with a liberal religious outlook and a philosophy embracing the highest unity. The word TherapeutŠ unmistakably means Sons or disciples of the Theras, from Thera, an elder among the Buddhist monks, and Putra, in Sanskrit, means a son. The old man concluded, “The truths and ideals preached by us have been given out by the Christians as having been taught by Jesus; but for the matter of that, there was no such personality of the name of Jesus ever born. Various evidences testifying to this fact will be brought to light by excavating here.” 

The Swami woke and at once rushed to the deck to ascertain their whereabouts just then. He met a ship’s officer, turning in from his watch. “What is the time?” he asked him. “Midnight,” he was told. “And where are we?” “Just fifty miles off Crete!” The Swami was startled at this singular coincidence, and it set him thinking about the historicity of Jesus the Christ, about which he had never entertained any doubts. Now he saw that the Acts of the Apostles might be an older record than the Gospels themselves, and that the views of the TherapeutŠ and the sect of Nazarene might have commingled, thus conferring upon Christianity both a philosophy and a personality. But these speculations could not be offered as conclusive evidence in support of this idea of the origin and history of Christianity.

He, however, had no doubt that in Alexandria a meeting had taken place of the Indian and Egyptian elements which contributed considerably towards the moulding of Christianity. It is said that the Swami wrote to a friend in England, who was an archaeologist, about his dream, and asked him to find out if there was any truth in it. It was some time after the Swami’s death that an item appeared in The Statesman of Calcutta stating that some Englishmen in the course of excavations in Crete came across records containing wonderful revelations of the origin of Christianity.

Whatever doubts the Swami may have had on the matter, the dream did not make him yield a whit in his love and adoration of the Son of Mary. There was the instance when a Western disciple requested him to give his blessing to a picture of the Sistine Madonna; he touched the feet of the Divine Child instead. There was also the instance when he turned upon another and exclaimed with fire in his eyes, “Madam, had I lived in Palestine in the days of Jesus of Nazareth I would have washed His feet, not with my tears but with my heart’s blood!”2

The Swami had an unpleasant experience with two of his fellow-passengers on his way to India. They were Christian Missionaries who insisted on talking with him on the contrast between Hinduism and Christianity. Their methods of argument were most offensive; when they were beaten at every point, they lost their temper, became rude and virulent, and abused the Hindus and their religion. The Swami stood it as long as he could; walking close to one of the speakers he suddenly seized him quietly but firmly by the collar and said, half-humorously and half-grimly, “If you abuse my religion again I’ll throw you overboard!” The frightened Missionary “shook in his boots” and said under his breath, “Let me go, sir, I’ll never do it again!”3 From that time on he was most obsequious to the Swami on all occasions and endeavoured to remedy his misbehaviour by exceeding kindness.

Apropos of this incident, the Swami exclaimed in the course of a conversation with a disciple in Calcutta, “My dear Sinha, if anybody insulted your mother, what would you do?” “I would fall upon him, sir, and teach him a good lesson!” “Well said, but, now if you had the same positive feeling for your own religion, the true Mother of our country, you could never bear to see any Hindu brother converted into a Christian. Nevertheless, you see this occurring every day, yet you are quite indifferent! Where is your faith! Where is your patriotism! Every day Christian Missionaries abuse Hinduism to your faces, and yet how many are there amongst you who will stand up in its defence, whose blood boils with righteous indignation at the fact?”

As a contrast to this, was one that occurred at Aden. While visiting the places of interest at this port, he drove to the Tanks, three miles inland. Espying a man at a distance busily engaged in smoking his Hookah, he left his English disciples and walked rapidly towards him. He was highly delighted at seeing an Indian face again. Accosting him as “brother”, he entered into conversation with him. The man happened to be a Hindusthani betel-leaf seller. Swami’s friends were greatly amused when they heard the Swami say boyishly to the stranger, “Brother, do give me your pipe”, and to see him puffing away at it with great glee. Mr. Sevier then made merry with him by saying, “Now we see! It was this then that made you run away from us so abruptly!” The Swami had not had a Hookah smoke for years. When the man learned who his guest was, he fell at the Swami’s feet. Speaking of this incident, the Swami’s companions say, “The shopkeeper could not have resisted him, for he had such an endearing way about him when asking for anything that he was simply irresistible. We shall never forget that ingenuous look on his face when he said with childlike sweetness, ‘Brother, do give me your pipe.’”

In the early morning of January 15, the coast of Ceylon could be seen in the distance. It was a beautiful sight in the roseate hues of the rising sun. Gradually, the harbour of Colombo with its majestic Cocoa Palms and its yellow-sanded beach came to view. This was India,4 and the Swami was beside himself with excitement. But he was totally unaware that he was going to meet representatives of all religious sects and social bodies who had come to welcome him home. One of his Guru-bhais5 had come to Ceylon to meet him; others were on the way, and in Madras and in Calcutta there was great excitement over his coming arrival. He was to find that he had become the “man of the hour” in India, that his ovation was to be the first event in a grand march of triumph and national recognition from Colombo in the far south to Almora in the distant north.

  1. ^Complete Works, Vol. 3.
  2. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  3. ^Vivekananda - A Biography
  4. ^In those days Ceylon was a part of India.
  5. ^Swami Niranjanananda.