A Biography by His Eastern and Western Disciples


The next period of the Swami’s life in India, from January to October, 1898, comprises his stay in Calcutta and at the Math, which was transferred in February from Alambazar to Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden-house on the western bank of the Ganga in the village of Belur, and a long tour which he made in the Himalayas.

The Swami reached Calcutta from Khandwa about the middle of January. On March 30, he left Calcutta for Darjeeling because he felt a great need for a change. On May 3, he was once more in Calcutta, which he again left on May 11, in company with some of his Gurubhais and disciples both Eastern and Western, for Almora, where he remained till June 10. On June 20, he and his parly were in Kashmir, where they remained till about the middle of October. Then he returned to the plains and went with his Western disciples as far as Lahore before he left for Calcutta, where he arrived on October 18. This is a general survey of the Swami’s movements during these months.

Of his stay in Calcutta, the story is one of continuous engagements. The Math diary gives an account of his varied activities and occupations. He would be constantly engaged in visiting the houses of devotees or in receiving visitors who came to see him at the monastery or at Balaram Babu’s house or in writing theses and replying letters. The training of the Sannyasins and Brahmacharins formed the most important part of his work during this period. He would spend hours with them in meditation, song, study or in relating the experiences of the various stages of Yoga and spiritual insight. He took regular classes in scriptures and often would lecture on the Gita, Upanishads, the material sciences and history of nations or answer questions which he would invite from the members of the Math, giving illuminating solutions to the problems raised.

Among the many functions in which the Swami took part at this time, that of the consecration of the shrine in the newly-built house of Babu Nava Gopal Ghosh, in Ramakrishnapore, was especially interesting. That householder devotee of Shri Ramakrishna had invited the Swami with all the Sannyasins and Brahmacharins of the Math to perform the installation ceremony of Shri Ramakrishna’s image, and his joy knew no bounds when the Swami consented. On February 6, which happened to be the auspicious full-moon day, the Swami with all the monks arrived by boats at the Ramakrishnapore Ghat, and started a Sankirtana procession in which numerous devotees joined as it wended its way through the streets. The enthusiasm was tremendous; the Swami himself was barefooted and robed in simple Gerua; about his neck hung a Khol (drum), with which he accompanied the song, “The Infant Ramakrishna”, himself leading the chorus. Hundreds of people crowded the streets to see him, as he passed. When they found him dressed in simple Gerua like other Sannyasins, going barefooted through the streets, singing and playing upon the drum, it was hard to believe that this was he who had unfurled the banner of Vedanta in the West. They cheered him vociferously, impressed with his humble and at the same time regal demeanour!

Arrived at the host’s residence, the Swami and his party were received with reverence, amid the blowing of conch-shell and the beating of gongs. After a while he was led to the worship-room, which was marble-floored and beautifully fitted, with a throne on which was the porcelain picture of Shri Ramakrishna. The Swami was delighted at the room and the collection of materials for worship. The lady of the house, being congratulated by him, said with great humility that she and her family were too poor and unworthy to rightly serve the Lord and asked the Swami to bless them. He replied: “Dear mother, our Lord never in his life lived in such a marble-floored room. Born in a rustic, thatched hut, he spent his days in the simplest way. And,” he added in his witty way, “if he does not live here, with all these services of devoted hearts, I do not know where else he should!”

Then the Swami having covered himself with ashes, sat on the worshipper's seat and invoked the presence of Shri Ramakrishna, while his disciple, Swami Prakashananda, recited the Mantras appropriate for installation. It was here in this house that the Swami inaugurated the special Salutation to Shri Ramakrishna. Sitting before the image in meditation after the installation ceremony was over, he composed the following Shloka:

स्थापकाय च धर्मस्य सर्वधर्मस्वरूपिणे।
अवतारवरिष्ठाय रामकृष्णाय ते नमः॥

“Salutation to Thee, O Ramakrishna, the Reinstator of religion, the Embodiment of all Religions, the Greatest of all Incarnations!”

Day after day, the members of the Order were trained by the Swami, until his ideas became their very own. Through the perspective of his personality they saw the whole sphere of religious life in a new light and interpreted monastic ideals in original ways. Under his inspiration came upon some the desire to practise intense Sadhana and austerities, upon others the yearning to serve the sick and the poor, upon still others the hope of spreading ideas among the great masses. All were saturated with his great spirit and patriotism. He was verily a living fire of thought and soul at this time. Gita ideals, Vedanta, and the ideals of different sects in Hinduism were the constant subjects of discussion and practice, but in the foreground at all times was the ideal of the Master. The Baranagore days were oftentimes lived over again. The same old fire was present; the same intellectual brilliance shone forth; the same spiritual fervour was always uppermost.

It must be mentioned here that in the early part pf the year 1898, the Swami purchased a large tract of land, about seven acres in extent, together with a building on the bank of the Ganga at Belur, almost opposite the Baranagore bathing-ghat, for a big sum, most of which was given to him by his devoted friend and admirer, Miss Henrietta F. Müller. She had met the Swami on his first visit to the West both in America and England and it was she who together with Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, and Mr. E. T. Sturdy, met the expenditures of the Swami’s English work. Though possessed of large means, she was naturally of an ascetic bent of mind and being also liberal-minded and spiritual in her outlook she found in the Swami's personality and teaching the essentials for spiritual life. Once she even decided to give up the world. But the Swami persuaded her not to do so, but to help the world as much as she could, by remaining in it and living a selfless life.

The purchasing of this particular site was somewhat in the nature of the fulfilment of a prophecy; for long before his going to the West he had said to some of his Gurubhais, while standing on the Baranagore Ghat and when there was yet no thought of a site for the monastery, “Something tells me that our permanent Math will be in this neighbourhood across the river.” Though the property was purchased at the beginning of 1898, it did not become the permanent headquarters of the monks until January, 1899. The grounds, which were used as a dockyard for country-boats, were very hollow and uneven, and had to be filled up and levelled; besides many repairs had to be done to the building and a second story added, and one new building, a temple to Shri Ramakrishna, constructed. For all of these except the last, the Swami had sufficient funds which he had received from his London disciples. From every view-point the purchase was a success. That the monastery was on the other side of the river, and four miles by the public road across the Howrah bridge from the metropolis, made it more secluded.

Somewhat later the Swami received a large sum of money from Mrs. Ole Bull. She had made the acquaintance of the Swami at the beginning of his American work and had assisted him in a large way financially. She was well known all over America on account of her philanthropy, her culture and social position as the wife of the celebrated violinist. The Swami was often her guest at Cambridge, near Boston, and was the chief figure, on many occasions at her salons to which were invited the most distinguished scholars of the world. Her help on the present occasion put the monastery on a sound financial basis, much to the Swami's relief. It helped him to endow the monastery itself, and to build the temple of Shri Ramakrishna. Thus in all, the monastery, when completed, together with its endowment trust, represented more than one hundred thousand rupees.

The Math at the Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden-house was full by the time of the Shivaratri festival, which precedes by three days the birthday of Shri Ramakrishna. Swami Saradananda had recently returned from America; Swami Shivananda had come back from his Vedanta work in Ceylon, and Swami Trigunatita from Dinajpur after finishing his famine relief work there. The Swami was highly pleased with the work of all of them. He also congratulated Swami Brahmananda on the success of the Ramakrishna Mission under his guidance, and Swami Turiyananda for having, in his absence, trained the young Sannyasins and Brahmacharins of the Math. At the suggestions of the Swami, the latter prepared, in the afternoon of the Shivaratri day, thanksgiving addresses in English to every one of the Swamis, and these were read out to them at a meeting of the Brotherhood held at the Math, the Swami being in the chair. On being called upon by him, his Gurubhais in turn replied in suitable words to the addresses. Of Swami Turiyananda he remarked, “He has the oratorical voice.” Before rising to speak, the Swami said, “It is very difficult to address a parlour meeting. Before a large gathering it is easy to forget oneself in the subject of the discourse, and hence one is able to carry the audience with him. But this is not possible when only a few men are present. However, let me try.” He gave sound counsel to his Gurubhais and disciples in regard to the line of action they should adopt, both from the individual and the communal aspect.

The actual birthday ceremony of Shri Ramakrishna, as distinguished from its public celebration, took place at the monastery this year under the supervision of the Swami himself. On this occasion the Swami ordered a lot of sacred threads to be brought to the monastery. As one after another of the lay disciples of Shri Ramakrishna or of himself came, he let it be known that those of them who were not Brahmanas, but who really belonged to the other two twice-born castes, were on that day to be invested with the sacred thread. Speaking to his Brahmana disciple Sharat Chandra Chakravarti, whom he commissioned to perform the ceremony, he said, “The children of our Lord are indeed Brahmanas. Besides, the Vedas themselves say that every one of the twice-born castes has the right to be invested with the sacred thread. They have no doubt become Vratyas, that is fallen from their own ritualistic rights, but by performing the ceremony of expiation they are entitled to their own original caste rights again. This is the birthday of Shri Ramakrishna. Everyone will be purified by taking his name. Therefore this is the best occasion to give the Bhaktas the sacred thread. Give all those who come the appropriate Gayatri Mantra according as they are Kshatriyas or Vaishyas. All these must be gradually raised to the status of the Brahmana. All Hindus are brothers. It is we Hindus who have degraded some of our brothers by saying for centuries, ‘We won’t touch you!’ ‘We won’t touch you!’ No wonder that the whole country is reduced to the verge of humiliation, cowardice and stupidity. You must raise them by preaching to them the gospel of hope and cheer. Say to them. ‘You are men like ourselves; you have the same rights that we have!’”

As a result of the Swami’s decision more than fifty Bhaktas on that day received the Gayatri Mantra and the sacred thread, having first had their bath in the Ganga and then bowed before the image of Shri Ramakrishna. Of course this procedure was opposed to the orthodox view, but the Swami was determined to impress his ideas boldly upon the public by practical means. The initiates were naturally much ridiculed by their neighbours for having raised themselves to the status of the twice-born.

Though the Swami was bold in his attack on the stronghold of modern orthodoxy, he was not usually an advocate of drastic reforms of a destructive nature. He was always in favour of reforms which were constructive through growth from within and in conformity with the Shastras. In this he, following the Rishis of old, penetrated into the true spirit and meaning of the Shastras and adapted them to the need of the times, for the good of the race and its religion. The Swami would even have the time-honoured religious institutions and ceremonies strictly observed by the Order. Thus on the occasion of the Shivaratri festival, he was pained to see that no one at the Math had fasted, as is the custom among devout Hindus.

Following upon the Upanayana ceremony mentioned above, the Sannyasins of the monastery, joining mirth with devotion, seized upon the Swami and arrayed him as Shiva. They put the shell ear-rings in his ears, covered his whole body with holy snow-white ashes, placed on his head a mass of matted hair which reached to his knees, put bracelets of rosaries on his arms and on his neck hung a long rosary of large Rudrakshas in three rows. In his left hand they placed the sacred trident. Then they smeared their own bodies with ashes. “The unspeakable beauty of that form of the Swami dressed as Shiva” writes Mr. Sharat Chakravarti, “cannot be described; it is something which has to be seen, to be realised. Everyone present declared afterwards that they felt as if Shiva Himself, of youthful, ascetic form, was before them. And the Swami with the Sannyasins seated round him like so many Bhairavas or attendants of the Great God, seemed to have brought the living presence of the majesty of Kailasa within the precincts of the Math.” The Swami sang a hymn to Shri Rama, and inebriated with the name of the Lord went on repeating again and again, “Rama, Rama, Shri Rama, Rama!” He appeared entranced in Shiva nature. The sublimity of his expression deepened a hundredfold! His eyes were half shut; he was seated in Padmasana, while his hand played on the Tanpura (a musical instrument). The whole gathering of monks and devotees was caught up in the spirit of the hour and thrilled with religious ecstasy. Everyone seemed intoxicated with draughts of nectar of the name of Rama which issued from the lips of the Swami. For more than half an hour the tensest stillness prevailed and all sat motionless.

The chanting ended, the Swami sang a song in the same state of God-intoxication. Then the Swami Saradananda followed with the song, “The Hymn of Creation”, composed by the Swami, the latter himself playing on the drum. After some favourite songs of Shri Ramakrishna had been sung, the Swami suddenly removed his decorations, put them on Girish Babu after smearing his body with ashes, and covered him with a Gerua cloth, with the remark, “Paramahainsa Deva used to say that G. G. has a little of the Bhairava in him. Ay, there is no difference between him and ourselves.” This moved the great dramatist and brought tears to his eyes. When asked by the Swami to speak of Shri Ramakrishna to the assembled devotees, he could only say, after a long silence, with his voice choked with emotion: “What shall I say of our all-merciful Lord! His infinite grace I feel in that he has given even an unworthy self like me the privilege of sitting on the same seat with such pure souls as you who have renounced Kamini-Kanchana, ‘Lust and Gold’, even from boyhood!”

After this, the Swami briefly addressed those who had received the sacred thread, asking them to repeat the Gayatri daily at least one hundred times. In the meantime Swami Akhandananda arrived at the Math from his orphanage in Murshidabad. Referring to him the Swami said, “Look! What a great Karma-Yogi he is! Without fear, caring neither for life nor for death, how he is working with one-pointed devotion for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many!” This led the Swami to speak at length on Karma-Yoga, of how the realisation of the Self could be attained by devotedly working for others without attachment, seeing the Self in all. Then the Swami sang a beautiful song, composed by Girish Babu, “The Infant Ramakrishna” in which, among others, are the lines:

“On the lap of the poor Brahmana’s spouse
Who art Thou, O Radiant One, lying?
Who art Thou, O Digambara (Naked One),
come to the humble cottage-room?
                    * * *
Grieved at the world’s sore afflictions
ome with Thy heart bleeding for it?"

Among the many distinguished visitors who came to see the Swami at this time, was the Buddhist missionary, the Anagarika Dharmapala. He had come to see Mrs. Ole Bull, who was then residing at the old cottage on the recently purchased Math grounds and had stopped first at the monastery to ask the Swami to accompany him. The weather was exceedingly inclement. The rain was pouring in torrents. After waiting for an hour the Swami and Mr. Dharmapala with a few others decided to start. The path lay across very uneven and muddy ground, particularly in the compound of the new Math which was being levelled. Drenched with rain, his feet slipping in the mud, the Swami enjoyed himself like a boy, shouting with laughter and merriment. Mr. Dharmapala was the only one who was not barefooted and at one place his foot sank so deep in the mud that lie could not extricate himself. The Swami seeing his plight, lent his shoulder for support and putting his arm round his waist helped him out, and both laughing walked linked together the rest of the way.

On arriving at their destination, all went to wash their feet; when the Swami saw Mr. Dharmapala take a pitcher of water, he snatched it from his hand, saying, “You are my guest, and I must have the privilege of serving you!” With these words he was about to wash his feet when there arose a loud protest from Mr. Dharmapala. In India, to wash another’s feet is considered an act of the humblest service. All those who witnessed the scene were amazed at the Swami’s humility.

Another event of these days was the initiation of Swamis Swarupananda and Sureshwarananda into Sannyasa on March 29. It was on his third or fourth visit to the Math that the former was so deeply impressed with the long conversation he had with the Swami, that then and there he decided to give up the world and lead the life of practical spirituality under the Swami’s guidance. The friends who had accompanied him were startled when they were asked by him to carry the news that he did not mean to return to his home again, a decision to which he rigorously adhered. For several years he had been thinking of the problems of life and death; of how he could break the dream and be of service to the world. Though he had been married in his youth, he had eschewed all marital relations. Living under his parental roof a life of strict Brahmacharya, he was consumed with a burning desire to help his brother man. On meeting the Swami it took him no time to see, as he said in later years, that the opportunities of fructifying his own ideas, which coincided with those of the Swami, would be best afforded by his joining the Order, and he said as much to the Swami, who rejoiced at these words and said to a Gurubhai, “We have made an acquisition today!” Much later he said to a friend, “To get an efficient worker like Swarupananda is of greater gain than receiving thousands of gold coins.” This highly-qualified disciple, contrary to the general rule of the Order, was initiated into Sannyasa after but a few days’ stay at the monastery, so great was the Swami's faith in him. Within a few months he was made the editor of the Prabuddha Bharata magazine, and when the Advaita Ashrama was founded by the Swami in the Himalayas in the early part of the next year, he was made its President, which substantiated his Guru’s great confidence in him.

Four days previous to Swami Swarupananda’s initiation Miss Margaret Noble took the vow of Brahmacharya at the hands of her Master on a Friday which happened to be the Christian Feast of the Annunciation. She had first met the Swami in London and had regularly attended his classes and had imbibed more and more of that great Vedanta spirit and as a result she had decided to devote her life to the service of India and the Swami’s work. She was given most appropriately the name of Nivedita, by which she became widely known both in India and abroad, the name itself meaning, “One who is dedicated”. As illustrating a vital point in the Swami's character, and the ideal he put before those whom he made his own, the Sister herself gives to her readers a peep into the nature of the dedication ceremony in these words:

“May one of them never forget, a certain day of consecration, in the chapel at the monastery, when, as the opening step in a lifetime, so to speak, he first taught her to perform the worship of Shiva, and then made the whole culminate in an offering of flowers at the feet of the Buddha! ‘Go thou,’ he said, as if addressing, in one person each separate soul that would ever come to him for guidance, and follow Him who was born and gave His life for others five hundred times, before He attained the vision of the Buddha!’”1

This ceremony was in many respects a momentous event, as the Sister was the first Western woman novice received into any monastic order in India. Another event equally significant of the increasing contact, under the guidance of the Swami, between the West and the East, was the receiving of the European lady disciples in audience by the Holy Mother, the spouse of Bhagavan Shri Ramakrishna, and an orthodox lady of the highest rank. The audience was touching. She addressed her visitors as “My children”. Thence they brought back with them to their cottage for a few hours an aged lady, Gopaler Ma, whom Shri Ramakrislina used to call “Mother” in a special sense; they won her over, the most orthodox of Brahmana widows, even to eating with them, and a week later to living with them for three days.

During these days the Swami did not appear before the Calcutta public except on a few occasions. One of them was on March 11, when he presided over a meeting at the Star Theatre, in which the Sister Nivedita spoke on “The Influence of Indian Spiritual Thought in England”. The Swami spoke briefly on the subject. In introducing the lecturer he spoke of her as “another gift of England to India”, the others being Mrs. Besant and Miss Muller, all of whom, he said, had consecrated their lives to the good of India.

When she had finished, the Swami called upon Mrs. Ole Bull and Miss Henrietta Muller to say a few words. Miss Muller was hailed with applause when she addressed the audience as “My dear friends and fellow-countrymen”, for she said that she and the other Western disciples of the Swami felt in coming to India that they had come to their home, not only of spiritual enlightenment and religious wisdom, but the dwelling-place of their own kindred.

It was in the early part of March when Mrs. Ole Bull and Miss Josephine MacLeod, who had come from America on February 8, took up their residence in the old house on the Belur Math grounds. They had come all the way from America in order to see for themselves the land of their Master's birth, and to come into closer contact with him and his people. Miss Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita) had broken off all English associations and had come to India, on January 28, at the call of the Swami, intending to found, conjointly with Miss Henrietta Müller, an institution for the education of Indian women. It was with great pleasure that the Swami received them, and one sees him henceforth making constant efforts to bring about a deep and comprehensive understanding of the Hindu culture in the minds of his Western followers, by definitely training them. This training, however, was not in the long run confined to his Western disciples only, for, through the facile pen of Sister Nivedita, the ideas they received were transmitted to numerous Western and Eastern readers. Through her writings the more learned and scholarly aspects of the Swami’s message to India as a whole were likewise heralded broadcast. Thus, while the Swami was educating the small group of his Western disciples, he was at one and the same time speaking to an immense audience. And the ideas which he communicated in these days to his European followers have given tremendous impetus, through Sister Nivedita, to the development of a national consciousness.

While at Nilambar Mukherjee's garden-house, the Swami was wont to frequent the riverside cottage of his European disciples, even spending hours daily with them. Here under the trees he would reveal to them the deepest secrets of the Indian world, pertaining to its history, its folk-lore, its caste, custom and race. The ideals and realities of Indian religions were interpreted to them in such vivid, poetic and dramatic colours that, “In fact India herself became, as heard in him, as the last and noblest of the Puranas, uttering itself through his lips,” though it was true at the same time that whatever the subject of his conversation, “it ended always on the note of the Infinite”. He showed no mercy to his Western disciples in their wrong notions and prepossessions with regard to India. He would soften nothing in Hinduism which might at first sight be difficult or repellent to the European mind; he would rather put before them such things in their extreme form, and compel them to enter into their spirit and apprehend their meaning. The most difficult task for the Western disciples was, naturally, the understanding of the Hindu religious ideals and forms of worship, and the Hindu outlook on life. And the Swami would talk for hours, straining his mind and putting his whole heart in his effort to elucidate them. Carried on by his burning enthusiasm the Western disciples caught glimpses of the background of the Hindu thought symbols, so strange to them, and learnt the great outstanding watchwords and ideals of the Indian striving till they became their very own. Truly, in the Swami, East and West were made one. And in the end his Eastern and Western disciples mingled freely in thought and life. But the distance to be travelled was enormous. The process required a tremendous shifting of personality; and for the European disciples to acquire consciously the culture to which the Indian disciples were entitled by birth, necessitated a complete self-reorientation — and the presence of a master mind. And the Swami was infinitely patient. He never showed the slightest irritation at interruptions in the flow of his conversation, however frequent and irrelevant they might be, for he knew perfectly well the difficulties.

The training of his Western disciples who came to India was of momentous concern to Swami Vivekananda as a spiritual teacher and as a great Hindu. He knew that a grave responsibility rested upon him. He knew that for them, coming into close contact with the Indian people in their homes, seeing their manners and habits of dress and food and thought, and realising the material disadvantages of the land and its limitations, would be a crucial test of their faith in and regard for the Vedanta and of their power to further fathom the Hinduism he had preached. But he did not know perhaps that the strangest revelation to them was he himself. In the West he was a religious messenger, an apostle of Hinduism, his sole mission being to voice forth the spiritual message, the eternal wisdom of the far past. His only longing was the liberation of mankind from ignorance and the promotion of a brotherly feeling between different faiths and nations of the world. In India he was more of a patriot, a worker for the regeneration of his motherland, with all the struggle and torture of a lion caught in a net. Baffled and thwarted, not by the numerous formidable obstacles that lay in his path of fructifying his great purpose, but by the growing consciousness of failing health, even at the moment when his power had reached its height, his heart was prone to despair. But undismayed like a great hero he made superhuman efforts to rise to the occasion. Forced to live a comparatively retired life in the monastery, he put his whole soul to the task of making workers carry out his plans and ideas. And among the Western disciples he particularly chose one in whom he had great hope and trust; as such his illuminating discourses were mainly directed to her. If he had done nothing during this period other than the making of Sister Nivedita, he could not be said to have spent the year in vain.

He regarded the coming to India of his Western disciples as a test, an experiment. But had they all turned against him he would not have for one moment allowed himself to think unkindly of them. Had he not written to Sister Nivedita on the eve of her departure from London, “I will stand by you unto death whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it. The tusks of the Elephant come out, but they never go back. Even so are the words of a man.”2 And what father ever loved his children with a greater love than did he his disciples !

Since the arrival of Miss Noble in Calcutta, the idea of training her to be of service to her adopted land seriously exercised the Swami's mind. In his talks at the river-side cottage at Belur with the Western disciples he instilled into their minds the Indian consciousness, for he felt that a European who was to work on his behalf for India, must do so absolutely in the Indian way, strictly observing Hindu manners, customs and etiquette even to the minutest detail. Such a one, he demanded, must adopt the food, clothes, language and general habits of the Hindus, and he held up before one of them who was to take charge of the education of Hindu women, the life of Brahmacharya of the orthodox Brahmana widow as her model, only enlarging the scope of her activities by substituting the selfless service to the Indian people for the loving service to the family. “You have to set yourself,” he said to her, “to Hinduise your thoughts, your needs, your conceptions and your habits. Your life, internal and external, has to become all that an orthodox Brahmana Brahmacharini’s ought to be. The method will come to you, if only you desire it sufficiently. But you have to forget your own past and to cause it to be forgotten. You have to lose even its memory.” One cannot but acknowledge that such a line of Sadhana was the best means of assimilating that new consciousness which would enable her to grasp the significance of Indian problems. The Swami even insisted that feelings and prejudices that might appear crude, must be reverentially approached and studied, and not blindly ignored and despised. “We shall speak to all men,” he said, “in terms of their own orthodoxy!” Of course there were many inconveniences to the Western disciples, often much difficulty, particularly in getting accustomed to Indian diet and Indian manners. Ridiculous blunders were often made, but the Swami would always adjust the difficulty and right the matter.

The Swami was defiant in the defence of the culture of his people. He was ready to beat down mercilessly any other than a living interest in everything connected with the people of his land and thundered against anything that sounded like patronising. He would turn upon the Western disciples if they were guilty of stupid criticism. He demanded that they should come to the task of the understanding of India without prepossessions and with sincerity, and that India must be understood in the light of the spiritual vision. He upset any notion they might have had as to his country being either old or effete, and he often said that only a youthful nation could so readily have assimilated the ideals of a foreign culture. He made them see India, in the light of its ideals and ideas, as young, vital and powerful, as one throughout in the religious vision. He made them see that India's culture was incomparable, being developed through thousands of years of trial and experimentation till it had attained the highest standard ever reached by humanity, and consequently possessed an unshakable stability and strength. He made them see the why of every Indian custom. And they saw that though India was poor, it was clean, and that poverty was honoured in the land where religion was understood to be renunciation, and that here poverty was not necessarily associated with vice, as it is so often in the West. To the Swami all India was sacred and wonderful. And later on as he wandered with his disciples from city to city and province to province, he would recount to them the glories and the beauties of the land. The Swami was anxious that his Western disciples should make an impartial study of Indian problems. They were not only to see the glories, but also to have especially a clear understanding of the problems of the land and bring the ideals and methods of Western scientific culture to bear upon the task of finding a solution.

Certainly the training of his Western disciples was an arduous task. Often he contrasted the East with the West, showing alternately the advantages and disadvantages of the varied civilisations of the world. In short, he gave them the spirit of India and initiated them into its worth and its values.

In order to bind his Western and Eastern disciples together, the Swami would often deliberately perform some act, strikingly unorthodox, before a large number of his people, such as, showing social preference to his Western disciples, by calling them true Brahmanas and Kshatriyas, eating or drinking after them, or eating in public the food which they had cooked for him, and even making his brother-monks do the same. Thus to oppose long-standing traditions showed the supreme indifference to criticism and the tremendous sincerity of the Swami. His determination was to make all his disciples one in a real and deep brotherhood. In this the Swami truly united, as it were, the ends of the earth, and brought together the most opposite of human temperaments.

It goes without saying that in training his Western disciples in this way the Swami took into consideration the tendencies and aspirations of the pupils, for he knew that to go against them was assuredly to court disastrous results. Moreover, in such matters as these, it was not his nature to interfere with the liberty of the disciples. He would leave them free to observe, to gain their own experience, even at the cost of making mistakes. Sometimes, however, he would impose upon them long periods of severe restraint. “Struggle to realise yourselves,” he would say, “without a trace of emotion!” Or in talking of future methods he would say, “Mind! No loaves and fishes! No glamour of the world! All this must be cut out. It must be rooted out. It is sentimentality — the overflow of the senses. It comes to you in colour, sight, sound and associations. Cut it off. Learn to hate it. It is utter poison!”

The period of the training of the Western disciples of the Swami, which extended over nearly the whole of 1898, is filled with many humorous as well as solemn hours. The training which they received shaped their lives irrevocably, and made them apostles, either in a personal or in a public manner, of the greatness of Hinduism and Hindusthan. Some have passed away; some still live. But all alike have instinctively followed out the passionate request which he made to one who had asked him, “Swamiji, how can I best help you?” His answer was, “LOVE INDIA!”

To what extent the ideals set forth before the Western disciples by the Swami through his inspiring talks and personality translated themselves into living realities, is beautifully expressed by Sister Nivedita herself in the following words which she wrote at the year's end by which time, as we shall see, they had been to Naini Tal and Almora with the Swami:

“Beautiful have been the days of this year. In them the Ideal has become the Real. First in our river-side cottage at Bclur; then in the Himalayas, at Naini Tal and Almora; afterwards wandering here and there through Kashmir; — everywhere have come hours never to be forgotten, words that will echo through our lives for ever, and once at least, a glimpse of the Beatific Vision.

“It has been all play.

“We have seen a love that would be one with the humblest and most ignorant, seeing the world for the moment through his eyes, as if criticism were not; we have laughed over the colossal caprice of genius; we have warmed ourselves at heroic fires; and we have been present, as it were, at the awakening of the Holy Child.

“But there has been nothing grim or serious about any of these things. Pain has come close to all of us. Solemn anniversaries have been and gone. But sorrow was lifted into a golden light, where it was made radiant, and did not destroy.

“Fain, if I could, would I describe our journeys. Even as I write I see the Irises in bloom at Baramulla; the young rice beneath the poplars at Islamabad; starlight scenes in Himalayan forests; and the royal beauties of Delhi and the Taj. One longs lo attempt some memorial of these. It would be worse than useless. Not, then, in words, but in the light of memory, they are enshrined for ever, together with the kindly and gentle folk who dwell among them, and whom we trust always to have left the gladder for our coming.

“We have learnt something of the mood in which new faiths are born, and of the Persons who inspire such faiths. For we have been with one who drew all men to him — listening to all, feeling with all, and refusing none. We have known a humility that wiped out all littleness, a renunciation that would die for scorn of oppression and pity of the oppressed, a love that would bless even the oncoming feet of torture and of death. We have joined hands with that woman who washed the feet of the Lord with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. We have lacked, not the occasion, but her passionate unconsciousness of self.

“Seated under a tree in the garden of dead emperors there came to us a vision of all the rich and splendid things of Earth, offering themselves as a shrine for the great of soul. The storied windows of cathedrals, and the jewelled thrones of kings, the banners of great captains and the vestments of the priests, the pageants of cities, and the retreats of the proud — all came, and all were rejected.

“In the garments of the beggar, despised by the alien, worshipped by the people, we have seen him: and only the bread of toil, the shelter of cottage-roofs, and the common road across the cornfields seem real enough for the background to this life . . . . Amongst his own, the ignorant loved him as much as scholars and statesmen. The boatmen watched the river, in his absence, for his return, and servants disputed with guests to do him service. And through it all, the veil of playfulness was never dropped. ‘They played with the Lord,’ and instinctively they knew it.

“To those who have known such hours, life is richer and sweeter, and in the long nights even the wind in the palm-trees seems to cry —

“‘Mahadeva! Mahadeva! Mahadeva!’”3

On March 30, the Swami left Calcutta for another sojourn in Darjeeling, as the guest of the family with whom he had lived before. Here he once more allowed himself the fullest freedom, enjoying his rest in every possible way. In so far as he could, he followed the instruction of his physicians not even to think on any serious subject. When he was only partially restored to health, news suddenly reached him of the outbreak of plague in Calcutta. He hastened down to the metropolis so that he might be of help to his people who were terror-stricken with the new plague regulations. The outlook in Calcutta was threatening. It seemed as if a storm were about to burst. The people were running away in panic. The soldiery were called to quell riots. The Swami grasped the gravity of the situation at once. On May 3, the very day of his arrival at the Math, he was seen drafting and writing a plague manifesto in Bengali and in Hindi. He was greatly concerned and wanted to start relief operations immediately to help the afilicted. When a Guru-bhai asked him, “Swamiji, where will the funds come from?” — he replied with sudden fierceness of decision, “Why? We shall sell the newly-bought Math grounds, if necessary! We are Sannyasins, we must be ready to sleep under the trees and live on daily Bhiksha as we did before. What! Should we care for Math and possessions when by disposing of them we could relieve thousands suffering before our eyes!” Fortunately, this extreme step was not necessary, for he soon received promises of ample funds for his immediate work. It was settled that an extensive plot of ground should be rented at once, and in compliance with the Government plague regulations segregation camps be set up, in which plague patients would be accommodated and nursed in such a manner that the Hindu community would not be offended. Workers came in numbers to co-operate with his disciples. The Swami instructed them to teach sanitation and themselves clean the lanes and the houses of the districts to which they were sent. The relief which this work rendered to the plague patients was enormous, and the measures adopted by the Swami gave the people confidence. This work endeared him to the public, as they saw that he, indeed, was a practical Vedantin, a teacher who brought to bear the highest metaphysical doctrines of the Vedanta on the relief of want and affliction amongst his fellow-men.

The Swami remained in Calcutta until the possibility of an epidemic had passed away, and the stringent plague regulations were withdrawn. Already plans were being formed to make a journey to the Himalayas with his Western disciples. Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, who had taken up their residence in Almora, after a tour of India, following upon a long stay at Simla, were writing to the Swami to come. Accordingly, on the night of May 11, a large party left the Howrah Station for Kathgodam, whence the journey was to be made to Almora via Naini Tal. In the party were Swami Turiyananda, Niranjanananda, Sadananda and Swarupananda, Mrs. Bull, Mrs. Patterson, wife of the American Consul-General in Calcutta, Sister Nivedita and Miss Josephine MacLeod. It was Mrs. Patterson who had befriended the Swami once, during the early days of his preaching in America, by taking him into her home when she heard with indignation that he was refused admittance because of his colour to the hotels of the city. Since then she had become a great friend and admirer of the Swami; and when she heard of the proposed journey, she at once joined the party without caring for the whispered criticism and the probable loss of caste in the official world of Calcutta.

The journey from Calcutta to Naini Tal was throughout most interesting and educative to the Swami’s companions. All through the journey the Swami’s historic consciousness and love of his country were intensely evident. With passionate enthusiasm he would introduce them one by one to each point of interest as they reached it. As the train passed on and on, he related to them the greatness of Patna or Varanasi, or the splendours of the old Nawab courts of Lucknow, with such ardour and absorption as to create in the minds of his listeners the impression that they were in the presence of one who had lived and moved and had his very being in his country’s past. Indeed, there was not one city on which he did not look with tenderness and of whose history he was unaware. When traversing the Terai, he made them feel that this was like the very earth on which the Buddha had passed the days of his youth and renunciation in search of the highest truth. The gorgeous peacocks that now and then flew past, would lend occasion for some graphic account of the invincible Rajputs. The sight of an elephant or a train of camels would bring on a recital of tales of ancient battles or trade, or of the pomp of ancient Rajas or the Mogul court. And then, again, it might be the story of famines and malaria. The long stretches of the plains with their fields, farms and villages would give rise to thoughts concerning the communal system of agriculture, or the beauties of the daily life of the farm housewife, or the hospitality of the poor and humble Indian peasant folk to the Sadhus. And in the telling of these latter things his eyes would glisten and his voice fatter as the memory was stirred of his own days as a wanderer on the face of the Indian continent, when his great pleasure had been to reach some village compound and watch the home-coming of the cows at dusk. The piety of the Hindu on the banks of the Ganga and the piety of the Mussulman kneeling in his prayers, wherever the ordained hour might find him, were to his eyes equally great and uniquely Indian.

And again in word-pictures he would paint his love for the broad rivers, spreading forests and mighty mountains, all of which were such vital elements in the culture of his people. Even the dry-baked soil of the plains, the hot sands of the desert and the dry gravel-beds and stony tracts of many rivers had their message for him. His contact with his Western disciples, who in their zeal hung on every word that fell from his lips, seemed to make the Swami draw from his knowledge and love for India, the most intense poetic description. From history and scene his mind would travel to culture and he might tell them how in India custom and religion are one. The burning-ghat, the thought of a dead body as a thing impure, because cast off by the soul; the eating of food with the right hand and its use in worship and Japa; the nun-like life of the Hindu widow and her fasts, vigils and other rounds of austerities; the respect for parents as incarnate gods; the Varnashrama Dharma; the appointed hours of religious service and meditation for the Brahmana caste; the twofold national ideal of renunciation and realisation represented by the Sannyasin; the temple which each Hindu house is; the idea of the Ishta; the chanting of the Vedas by the children of the Brahmanas in the temple courtyards in Varanasi and in the South; the Mohammedan kneeling in prayer wheresoever the time of prayer may find him; the ideas of equality and fraternity practised among the followers of the Prophet — all these, the Swami would say, made up the culture of his land.

The disciples, hearing these graphic descriptions of the life and soul of his land, as they came in poetic or philosophical glimpses, understood now why he had repeated in his reply to the welcome address in Calcutta that which he had said to an English friend on leaving the West: “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.”4

On the morning of May 13, the journey came to an end and the party reached Naini Tal, the Swami stopping there to see his disciple, the Maharaja of Khetri, then staying in the hills. With great pleasure the Swami introduced the Prince to his European disciples. It was here that he met a Mohammedan gentleman, an Advaita Vedantist at heart, who, struck by his extraordinary' spiritual powers and personality, exclaimed: “Swamiji, if in after-times any claim you as an Avatara, an especial Incarnation of the Godhead, remember that I, a Mohammedan, am the first!”5 The gentleman became greatly attached to the Swami, and counted himself thenceforth as one of his disciples under the name of Mohammedananda.

The Swami held several conversations at Naini Tal with distinguished residents; in one of these he spoke especially of the illustrious Raja Ram Mohun Roy, of his breadth of vision and foresight, eloquently emphasising the three dominant notes of this great teacher’s message, his acceptance of the Vedanta, his patriotism and his acceptance of the Hindu and the Mohammedan on an equal footing. It might be said here that these were also the dominant factors in his own career.

As a striking incident of the ignorance about religion amongst the masses in the West, he related an amusing story. “Once a bishop went to visit a mine. He addressed the labourers and tried to teach them the grand truths of the Bible. In conclusion, he asked, ‘Do you know Christ?' One of them responded. ‘Well, what is his number?' Poor fellow, he thought that if the bishop would tell him Christ's number, he could find him among the gang of working-men." The Swami continued, “Unlike the Asiatics, the Westerners are not deeply spiritual. Religious thoughts do not permeate the masses. . . . The immorality prevalent amongst Western peoples would strike an Indian visiting London or New York. Hyde Park in London shows in broad daylight scenes which would repel an Asiatic., however degraded he might be."

“The lower classes in the West,” he continued, “are not only ignorant of their scriptures and immoral, but are also rude and vulgar. One day as I was passing through the streets of London, in my Eastern garb, the driver of a coal-cart, noticing the strangeness of my dress, hurled a lump of coal at me. Fortunately it passed by my ear without hurting me."

At Naini Tal he met Jogesh Chandra Datta, whom he had known in his school-days at the Metropolitan Institution, and whom he had seen the previous year at Murree. Jogesh Babu proposed to the Swami the advisability of raising funds wherewith to send young graduates to England to compete for the Civil Service, so that on their return they might be of help to India. But the Swami disapproved of the idea: “Nothing of the kind! They would, mostly, turn outlandish in their ideas and prefer to associate, on their return, with the Europeans. Of that you may be sure! They would live for themselves and copy European dress, diet, manners and everything else, and forget the cause of their own country.” Speaking of the lethargy and apathy of the Indians for the material improvement of their country and their lack of enterprise, especially on industrial lines, he literally wept with pain. The tears running down his face moved the audience deeply. Jogesh Babu writes:

“I shall never forget that scene in my life! He was a Tyagi, he had renounced the world, and yet India was in the inmost depth of his soul. India was his love, he felt and wept for India, he died for India. India throbbed in his breast, beat in his pulses, in short, was inseparably bound up with his very life. . . .”

From Naini Tal, the Swami went to Almora where with his Gurubhais and Sannyasin disciples he became the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, at Thompson House. His Western disciples took a house near by. It was the Swami’s habit, after having risen early and taken a walk with his Gurubhais, to visit the house of Mrs. Bull and her guests, where after joining in their early breakfast, he held conversations for some hours on all conceivable topics. It was here especially that Sister Nivedita, who was regarded by this time by the Indian people as the spiritual daughter of the Swami, received her great training at the hands of her Master. It was a training which revealed the greatness of the Master as also the enormous difficulty and struggle which confront the European mind in identifying itself with Indian ideals and Indian culture. Between these two strong personalities a conflict of wills commenced. The Sister’s whole mental outlook was aggressively Occidental and intensely British. Consequently, almost all along the line of contact between her mind and her Master's, points of distinction were emphasised; and the Swami, because he wanted to infuse into her his own passionate love of India, did not spare her. Concerning this period of trial Sister Nivedita speaking of herself writes many years later as follows:

“But with Almora, it seemed as if a going-to-school had commenced, and just as schooling is often disagreeable to the taught, so here, though it cost infinite pain, the blindness of a half view must be done away. A mind must be brought to change its centre of gravity. It was never more than this; never the dictating of opinion or creed; never more than emancipation from partiality. Even at the end of the terrible experience, when this method, as regarded race and country, was renounced, never to be taken up systematically again, the Swami did not call for any confession of faith, any declaration of new opinion. He dropped the whole question. His listener went free. But he had revealed a different standpoint in thought and feeling, so completely and so strongly as to make it impossible for her to rest, until later, by her own labours, she had arrived at a view in which both these partial presentments stood rationalised and accounted lor . . . . But at the time they were a veritable lion in the path, and remained so until she had grasped the folly of allowing anything whatever to obscure to her the personality that was here revealing itself. . . . In every case it had been some ideal of the past that had raised a barrier to the movement of her sympathy, and surely it is always so. It is the worships of one era which forge the fetters of the next.

“These morning talks at Almora then, took the form of assaults upon deep-rooted preconceptions, social, literary, and artistic, or of long comparisons of Indian and European history and sentiments, often containing extended observations of very great value. One characteristic of the Swami was the habit of attacking the abuses of a country or society openly and vigorously when he was in its midst, whereas after he had left it, it would often seem as if nothing but its virtues were remembered by him. He was always testing his disciples, and the manner ol these particular discourses was probably adopted in order to put to the proof the courage and sincerity of one who was both woman and European.”6

His intellectual conflict with the Sister resulted day after day in a gradual Hinduising, or better said, lndianising of her mind. He, however, admired this hesitation on her part in accepting foreign ideas; and once, he comforted her with the remark that in his own case he had had a similar fight with his own Master before accepting his.

How this constant clash and conflict of sentiments came to an end in peace, may be best told here in the language of the Sister herself:

“And then a time came when one of the older ladies of our party, thinking perhaps that such intensity of pain inflicted might easily go too far, interceded kindly and gravely with the Swami. He listened silently and went. away. At evening, however, he returned, and finding us together in the verandah, he turned to her and said, with the simplicity of a child, You were right. There must be a change. I am going away into the forests to be alone, and when I come back I shall bring peace.’ Then he turned and saw that above us the moon was new, and a sudden exaltation came into his voice as he said, ‘See! The Mohammedans think much of new moon. Let us also with the new moon begin a new life!’ As the words ended, he lifted his hands and blessed, with silent depths of blessing, his most rebellious disciple, by this time kneeling before him . . . . It was assuredly a moment of wonderful sweetness of reconciliation. But such a moment may heal a wound. It cannot restore an illusion that has been broken into fragments. And I have told its story, only that I may touch upon its sequel. Long, long ago, Shri Ramakrishna had told his disciples that the clay would come when his beloved ‘Naren’ would manifest his own great gift of bestowing knowledge with a touch. That evening at Almora, I proved the truth of this prophecy. For alone, in meditation, I found myself gazing deep into an Infinite Good, to the recognition of which no egoistic reasoning had led me. I learnt, too, on the physical plane, the simple everyday reality of the experience related in the Hindu books on religious psychology. And I understood, for the first time, that the greatest teachers may destroy in us a personal relation, only in order to bestow the Impersonal Vision in its place.”

The Swami’s discussions and teachings of these days that are recorded, though meant for his European disciples especially, were of great value to his own countrymen. His thought touched all angles of vision, and through him were made visible vital aspects of human wisdom in the light of the Supreme Realisation. Some of these morning talks at Almora have been recorded by Sister Nivedita in her charming little book, Notes of Some Wanderings with Swami Vivekananda, from which we cannot do better than quote the following extracts, which though lengthy will be found most interesting and instructive:

‘The first morning, the talk was that of the central ideals of civilisation: in the West, truth; in the East, chastity. He justified Hindu marriage-customs, as springing from the pursuit of this ideal, and from the woman’s need of protection, in combination. And he traced out the relation of the whole subject to the Philosophy of the Absolute.

“Another morning he began by observing that as there were four main castes — Brahmana, Kshatriya, Bunea, Sudra — so there were four great national functions, the religious or priestly, fulfilled by the Hindus; the military, by the Roman Empire; the mercantile, by England today; and the democratic, by America in the future. And here he launched off into a glowing prophetic forecast of how America would yet solve the problems of the Sudra — the problems of freedom and co-operation — and turned to relate to a non-American listener, the generosity of the arrangements which that people had attempted to make for their aborigines.

“Again, it would be an eager résumé of the history of India or of the Moguls whose greatness never wearied him. Every now and then, throughout the summer, he would break out into descriptions of Delhi and Agra. Once he described the Taj as ‘a dimness, and again a dimness, and there — a grave!’ Another time, he spoke of Shah Jehan, and then, with a burst of enthusiasm, ‘Ah! He was the glory of his line! A feeling for, and discrimination of beauty that are unparalleled in history. And an artist himself! I have seen a manuscript illuminated by him, which is one of the art-treasures of India. What a genius!’ Oftener still, it was Akbar of whom he would tell, almost with tears in his voice, and a passion easier to understand, beside that undomed tomb, open to sun and wind, the grave of Secundra at Agra.

“But all the more universal forms of human feeling were open to the Master. In one mood he talked of China as if she were the treasure-house of the world, and told us of the thrill with which he saw inscriptions in old Bengali (Kutil?) characters, over the doors of Chinese temples. Few things could be more eloquent of the vagueness of Western ideas regarding Oriental peoples than the fact that one of his listeners alleged untruthfulness as a notorious quality of that race. As a matter of fact the Chinese are famous in the United States, where they are known as businessmen, for their remarkable commercial integrity, developed to a point far beyond that of the Western requirement of the written word. So the objection was an instance of misrepresentation, which, though disgraceful, is nevertheless too common. But in any case the Swami would have none of it. Untruthfulness! Social rigidity! What were these, except very, very relative terms? And as to untruthfulncss in particular, could commercial life, or social life, or any other form of co-operation go on for a day, if men did not trust men? Untruthfulness as a necessity of etiquette? And how was that different from the Western idea? Is the Englishman always glad and always sorry at the proper place? But there is still a difference of degree? Perhaps — but only of degree!

“Or he might wander as far afield as Italy, ‘greatest of the countries of Europe, land of religion and of art; alike of imperial organisation and of Mazzini ; mother of ideas, of culture, and of freedom!'

“One day it was Shivaji and the Mahrattas and the year’s wanderings as a Sannyasi, that won him home to Raigarh. ‘And to this day,’ said the Swami, ‘authority in India dreads the Sannyasi, lest he conceals beneath his yellow garb another Shivaji.’

“Often the enquiry, Who and what are the Aryans? — absorbed his attention; and, holding that their origin was complex, he would tell us how in Switzerland he had felt himself to be in China, so alike were the types. He believed too that the same was true of some parts of Norway. Then there were scraps of information about countries and physiognomies, an impassioned tale of the Hungarian scholar, who traced the Huns to Tibet, and lies buried in Darjeeling and so on. . . .

“Sometimes the Swami would deal with the rift between Brahmins and Kshattriyas, painting the whole history of India as a struggle between the two, and showing that the latter had always embodied the rising, fetter-destroying impulses of the nation. He could give excellent reason too for the faith that was in him that the Kayasthas of modern Bengal represented the pre-Mauryan Kshattriyas. He would portray the two opposing types of culture, the one classical, intensive and saturated with an ever-deepening sense of tradition and custom; the other, defiant, impulsive and liberal in its outlook. It was part of a deep-lying law of the historic development that Rama, Krishna and Buddha had all arisen in the kingly, and not in the priestly caste. And in this paradoxical moment. Buddhism was reduced to a caste-smashing formula — ‘a religion invented by the Kshattriyas’ as a crushing rejoinder to Brahminism!

“That was a great hour indeed, when he spoke of Buddha; for, catching a word that seemed to identify him with its anti-Brahminical spirit, an uncomprehending listener said, ‘Why, Swami? I did not know that you were a Buddhist!’ ‘Madam,‘ he said rounding on her, his whole lace aglow with the inspiration of that name, ‘I am the servant of the servants of the servants of Buddha. Who was there ever like Him? — the Lord — who never performed one action for Himself — with a heart that embraced the whole world! So full of pity that He — prince and monk — would give His life to save a little goat! So loving that He sacrificed Himself to the hunger of a tigress! — to the hospitality of a pariah and blessed him! And He came into my room when I was a boy and I fell at his feet! For I knew it was the Lord Himself!’

“Many times he spoke of Buddha in this fashion, sometimes at Belur and sometimes afterwards. And once he told us the story of Ambapali, the beautiful courtesan who feasted Him, in words that recalled the revolt of Rossetti's great half-sonnet of Mary Magdalene:

‘O loose me! Seest thou not mny Bridegroom’s face,
That draws me to Him? For His feet my kiss,
My hair, my tears, He craves today: And oh!
What words can tell what other day and place
Shall see me clasp those blood-stained feet of His?
He needs me, calls me, loves me, let me go!’

“But national feeling did not have it all its own way. For one morning when the chasm seemed to be widest, there was a long talk on Bhakti — the perfect identity with the Beloved that the devotion of Raya Ramananda, the Bengali nobleman who was a contemporary of Chaitanya, so beautifully illustrates:

‘Four eyes met. There were changes in two souls.
And now I cannot remember whether he is a man
And I a woman, or he a woman and I a man!
All I know is, there were two, Love came, and there is one!’

“It was that same morning that he talked of the Babists of Persia — in their era of martyrdom — of the woman who inspired and the man who of his — somewhat quaint and surprising to unaccustomed minds, not so much for the matter of the statement, as for the explicitness of the expression — of the greatness and goodness of the young, who can love without seeking personal expression for their love, and their high potentiality.

“Another day coming at sunrise when the snows could be seen, dawn lighted, from the garden, it was Shiva and Uma on whom he dwelt; and that was Shiva, up there, the white snow-peaks, and the light that fell upon Him was the Mother of the World! For a thought on which at this time he was dwelling much was that God is the Universe — not within it, or outside it, and not the universe God or the image of God — but He it, and the All.

“Sometimes all through the summer he would sit for hours telling us stories, those cradle-tales of Hinduism, whose function is not at all that of our nursery fictions, but much more, like the man-making myths of the old Hellenic world. Best of all these I thought was the story of Shuka, and we looked on the Shiva-mountains and the bleak scenery of Almora the evening we heard it for the first time.

“Shuka, the typical Paramahamsa, refused to be born for fifteen years, because he knew that his birth would mean his mother’s death. Then his father appealed to Uma, the Divine Mother. She was perpetually tearing down the veil of Maya before the hidden Saint, and Vyasa pleaded that She should cease this, or his son would never come to birth. Uma consented, for one moment only, and that moment the child was born. He came forth a young man, sixteen years of age, unclothed, and went straight forward, knowing neither his father nor his mother, straight on, followed by Vyasa. Then, coming round a mountain-pass his body melted away from him, because it was not different from the universe, and his father following and crying, ‘Oh my son! Oh my son!’ was answered only by the echo, Om! Om! Om!’ — among the rocks. Then Shuka resumed his body, and came to his father to get knowledge from him. But Vyasa found that he had none for him, and sent him to Janaka, king of Mithila, the father of Sita, if perchance he might have some to give. Three days he sat outside the royal gates, unheeded, without a change of expression or of look. The fourth day he was suddenly admitted to the king’s presence with éclat. Still there was no change.

“Then as a test, the powerful sage who was the king’s prime minister translated himself into a beautiful woman, so beautiful that every one present had to turn away from the sight of her, and none dared speak. But Shuka went up to her and drew her to sit beside him on his mat, while he talked to her of God.

‘Then the minister turned to Janaka saying, ‘Know, O King, if you seek the greatest man on earth, this is he!’

“There is little more told of the life of Shuka. He is the ideal Paramahamsa. To him alone amongst men was it given to drink a handful of the waters of that One Undivided Ocean of Sat-Chit-Ananda — Existence, Knowledge and Bliss Absolute! Most saints die, having heard only the thunder of Its waves upon the shore. A few gain the vision — and still fewer, taste of It. But he drank of the Sea of Bliss!’

“Shuka was indeed the Swami’s saint. He was the type, to him, of that highest realisation to which life and the world are merely play. Long after, we learned how Shri Ramakrishna had spoken of him in his boyhood as, ‘My Shuka.’ And never can I forget the look, as of one gazing far into depths of joy, with which he once stood and quoted the words of Shiva, in praise of the deep spiritual significance of the Bhagavad-Gita, and of the greatness of Shuka — ‘I know (the real meaning of the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita), and Shuka knows, and perhaps Vyasa knows — a little!’

“Another day in Almora the Swami talked of the great humanising lives that had arisen in Bengal, at the long inrolling wash of the first wave of modern consciousness on the ancient, shores of Hindu culture. Of Ram Mohun Roy we had already heard from him at Naini Tal. And now of the Pandit Vidyasagar he exclaimed. ‘There is not a man of my age in Northern India, on whom his shadow has not fallen!’ It was a great joy to him to remember that these men and Shri Ramakrishna had all been born within a few miles of each other.

“The Swami introduced Vidyasagar to us now as ‘the hero of widow remarriage, and of the abolition of polygamy’. But his favourite story about him was of that day when he went home from the Legislative Council, pondering over the question of whether or not to adopt English dress on such occasions. Suddenly some one came up to a fat Mogul who was proceeding homewards in leisurely and pompous fashion, in front of him, with the news, ‘Sir, your house is on fire!’ The Mogul went neither faster nor slower for this information, and presently the messenger contrived to express a discreet astonishment, whereupon his master turned on him angrily. ‘Wretch! he said, ‘Am I to abandon the gait of my ancestors, because a few sticks happen to be burning?’ And Vidyasagar, walking behind, determined to stick to the chudder, dhoti and sandals, not even adopting coat and slippers.

“The picture of Vidyasagar going into retreat for a month for the study of the Shastras, when his mother had suggested to him the remarriage of child-widows, was very forcible. ‘He came out of his retirement of opinion that they were not against such remarriage, and he obtained the signatures of the Pandits that they agreed in this opinion. Then the action of certain native princes led the Pandits to abandon their own signatures, so that, had the Government not determined to assist the movement, it could not have been carried — ‘And now’, added the Swami, ‘the difficulty has an economic rather than a social basis.’

“We could believe that a man who was able to discredit polygamy by moral force alone, was ‘intensely spiritual’. And it was wonderful indeed to realise the Indian indifference to a formal creed, when we heard how this giant was driven by the famine of 1864 — when 140,000 people died of hunger and disease — to have nothing more to do with God, and become entirely agnostic in thought.

“With this man, as one of the educators of Bengal, the Swami coupled the name of David Hare, the old Scotsman and atheist to whom the clergy of Calcutta refused Christian burial. He had died of nursing an old pupil through cholera. So his own boys carried his dead body and buried it in a swamp, and made the grave a place of pilgrimage. That place has now become College Square, the educational centre, and his school is now within the University. And to this day, Calcutta students make pilgrimage to the tomb.

“On this day we took advantage of the natural turn of the conversation to cross-question the Swami as to the possible influence that Christianity might have exerted over himself. He was much amused to hear that such a statement had been hazarded, and told us with much pride of his only contact with missionary influences, in the person of his old Scotch master, Mr. Hastie. This hot-headed old man lived on nothing, and regarded his room as his boys’ home as much as his own. It was he who had first sent the Swami to Shri Ramakrishna, and towards the end of his stay in India he used to say, ‘Yes, my boy, you were right, you were right! — It is true that all is God!’ ‘I am proud of him!’ — cried the Swami, ‘but I don’t think you could say that he had Christianised me much!’ It appeared, indeed, that he had only been his pupil for some six months, having attended college so irregularly that the Presidency College refused to send him up for his degree, though he undertook to pass!

“We heard charming stories, too, on less serious subjects. There was the lodging-house in an American city, for instance, where he had had to cook his own food, and where he would meet, in the course of operations, ‘an actress who ate roast turkey every day, and a husband and wife who lived by making ghosts’. And when the Swami remonstrated with the husband, and tried to persuade him to give up deceiving people, saying ‘You ought not to do this!’ the wife would come up behind, and say eagerly ‘Yes Sir! That’s just what I tell him; for he makes all the ghosts, and Mrs. Williams takes all the money!’

“He told us also of a young engineer, an educated man, who, at a spiritualistic gathering, when the fat Mrs. Williams appeared from behind the screen as his thin mother, exclaimed ‘Mother dear, how you have grown in the spirit-world!’

“‘At this,’ said the Swami, ‘my heart broke, for I thought there could be no hope for the man.’ But never at a loss, he told the story of a Russian painter, who was ordered to paint the picture of a peasant's dead father, the only description given being, 'Man! Don’t I tell you he had a wart on his nose?’ When at last, therefore, the painter had made a portrait of some stray peasant, and affixed a large wart to the nose, the picture was declared to be ready, and the son was told to come and see it. He stood in front of it, greatly overcome, and said, ‘Father! Father! How changed you are since I saw you last!’ After this, the young engineer would never speak to the Swami again, which showed at least that he could see the point of a story. But at this, the Hindu monk was genuinely astonished. . . .

“June 9th. This Thursday morning there was a talk on Krishna. It was characteristic of the Swami’s mind, and characteristic also of the Hindu culture from which he had sprung, that he could lend himself to the enjoyment and portrayal of an idea one day, that the next would see submitted to a pitiless analysis and left slain upon the field. He was a sharer to the full in the belief of his people that, provided an idea was spiritually true and consistent, it mattered very little about its objective actuality. And this mode of thought had first been suggested to him, in his boyhood, by his own Master. He had mentioned some doubt as to the authenticity of a certain religious history. ‘What!’ said Shri Ramakrishna, ‘do you not then think those who could conceive such ideas must have been the thing itself?’

“The existence of Krishna, then, like that of Christ, he often told us, ‘in the general way’ he doubted. Buddha and Mohammed alone, amongst religious teachers, had been fortunate enough to have ‘enemies as well as friends’, so that their historical careers were beyond dispute. As for Krishna, he was the most shadowy of all. ‘A poet, a cowherd, a great ruler, a warrior, and a sage had all perhaps been merged in one beautiful figure, holding the Gita in his hand.’

“But today, Krishna was ‘the most perfect of the Avataras’. And a wonderful picture followed, of the charioteer who reined in his horses, while he surveyed the field of battle and in one brief glance noted the disposition of the forces, at the same moment that he commenced to utter to his royal pupil the deep spiritual truths of the Gita.

“. . . And the Swami was fond of a statement. . . . that the Krishna-worshippers of India had exhausted the possibilities of the romantic motive in lyric poetry.

“June 10th. It was our last afternoon at Almora that we heard the story of the fatal illness of Shri Ramakrishna. Dr. Mahendra Lai Sarkar had been called in, and had pronounced the disease to be cancer of the throat, leaving the young disciples with many warnings as to its infectious nature. Half an hour later, ‘Naren’, as he then was, came in and found them huddled together, discussing the dangers of the case. He listened to what they had been told, and then, looking down, saw at his feet the cup of gruel that had been partly taken by Shri Ramakrishna and which must have contained in it, the germs of the fatal discharges of mucus and pus, as it came out in his baffled attempts to swallow the thing, on account of ihe stricture of the food-passage in the throat. He picked it up, and drank from it, before them all. Never was the infection of cancer mentioned amongst the disciples again.”7

While at Almora the Swami met numerous residents of the place and distinguished persons from other parts of India, who had come up there to spend the summer months, and he instructed them all in the Dharma. During this time also, he met Mrs. Annie Besant twice; she was then the guest of Mr. G. N. Chakravarti. The first meeting took place at the house of the latter whose wife invited the Swami, who was known to her from the days of her girlhood. Shortly after, Mrs. Besant was invited to tea in his host’s house to meet the Swami, and with her, on both the occasions, he had long and pleasant conversations.

Though full of fun at times, the Swami often spoke of the torture of life, and would enter into moods of meditation. A strange longing for quiet obsessed him and on Wednesday, May 25, he left the circle of friends and disciples and retired to Shiyadevi, some distance from Almora. There he was in the silence of the forests for ten hours each day, but he found on returning to his tent in the evenings that crowds followed him even there, so he returned on Saturday. But he was radiant, for he had proved to himself that he could be again “the old-time Sannyasin, able to go barefoot, and endure heat, cold, and scanty fare, unspoilt by the West”. On the following Monday, May 30, the Swami accompanied by his host and hostess left Almora for a week, partly in search of seclusion, and partly on business, in connection with a possible purchase of an estate for his monastery which, however, fell through.

When he returned on Sunday evening, June 5, it was to receive two terrible shocks — the news of the death of Pavhari Baba whom he loved, as he had said once, “second only to Shri Ramarkrishna”, and the death of his dear disciple, Mr. Goodwin. Mr. Goodwin, who was last heard of with Miss Muller in Almora, had gone to Madras, where he had accepted an offer to join the staff of the Madras Mail. He died on June 2, at Ootacamund, of enteric fever. The sad news was not broken to him till the next morning, when he came early to Mrs. Bull's bungalow. He took his loss calmly, sat down and chatted quietly with his Western disciples. That morning he was full of Bhakti passing through asceticism far out of the reach of the sweet snares of personality.

“‘What is this idea of Bhakti without renunciation?' he said. ‘It is most pernicious!’ And standing there for an hour or more, he talked of the awful self-discipline that one must impose on oneself, if one would indeed be unattached, of the requisite nakedness of selfish motives, and of the danger that at any moment the most flowerlike soul might have its petals soiled with the grosser stains of life. He told the story of an Indian nun who was asked when a man could be certain of safety on this road, and who sent back, for answer, a little plate of ashes. For the fight against passion was long and fierce, and at any moment the conqueror might become the conquered.

“And as he talked, it seemed that this banner of renunciation was the flag of a great victory, that poverty and self-mastery were the only fit raiment for the soul that would wed the Eternal Bridegroom, and that life was a long opportunity for giving, and the thing not taken away from us was to be mourned as lost. . . .”8

But the Swami’s tender heart was sorely afflicted by the loss of a loving disciple who had served him so many years with the warmest devotion. As hours passed by, he “complained of the weakness that brought the image of his most faithful disciple constantly to his mind. It was no more manly, he protested, to be thus ridden by one's memory, than to retain the characteristics of the fish or the dog. Man must conquer this illusion, and know that the dead are here beside us and with us, as much as ever. It is their absence and separation that are a myth. And then he would break out again with some bitter utterance against the folly of imagining Personal Will to guide the universe. ‘As if’ he exclaimed, ‘it would not be one’s right and duty to fight such a God and slay Him, for killing Goodwin! — And Goodwin, if he had lived, could have done so much!’ And in India one was free to recognise this as the most religious, because the most unflinchingly truthful, mood of all!”

He took away a few faulty lines of someone's writing and brought back a beautiful little poem, Requiescat in Pace, in which nothing of the original was left. This was sent to the widowed mother, as his memorial of her son. And of him he also wrote;

“The debt of gratitude I owe him can never be repaid, and those who think they have been helped by any thought of mine, ought to know that almost every word of it was published through the untiring and most unselfish exertions of Mr. Goodwin. In him I have lost a friend true as steel, a disciple of never-failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was, and the world is less rich by one of those few who are born, as it were, to live only for others.”9

The Swami grew restless and impatient and yearned to be away and alone. He could no longer bear to remain in that place where the news of his great sorrow had reached him, where letters had to be written and received constantly, keeping his wound open. It was decided to spend some time in Kashmir. Therefore on June 11, he with only the women disciples who had accompanied him from Calcutta left Almora for Kashmir, as guests of Mrs. Ole Bull.

Before describing his travels in the immediate future, a fact of supreme import both to the Swami himself and to his mission must be mentioned. While in Almora he had arranged with Mr. and Mrs. Sevier and Swami Swarupananda to revive the defunct magazine, Prabuddha Bharata, the editor of which, B. R. Rajam Iyer, a gifted young man of twenty-six, a real Vedantin and an ardent admirer of the Swami, had just passed away. The Swami had always a special affection for this paper, financed and managed by Madrasi disciples. Coming up to Almora, as also many a time before, he had spoken of his intention to start papers in English and in the vernaculars to be conducted by his brother-monks and disciples, as he felt more and more their need and value — in common with public preaching, monastic centres and Homes of Service — in giving Modern India his Master's gospel as well as his own message. He had even once thought of bringing out a daily paper. However, he left for Kashmir with the satisfaction of knowing that the Prabuddha Bharata or “Awakened India” was to be transferred to Almora, as soon as the necessary arrangements were completed, with Swami Swarupananda as editor and Mr. Sevier as manager. The latter also came forward with an offer to meet all preliminary costs of purchasing and of bringing up the hand-press, type, paper and other necessary materials. Reaching Srinagar the Swami eagerly awaited the appearance of the first number of the magazine. And he sent an inspiring poem of invocation, “To the Awakened India”, charging it to wake up once more and resume its march “for working wonders new”, “till Truth, bare Truth in all its glory shines!”

Before taking the formal leave of the various activities of the Swami at Almora it will be interesting to give the reminiscences of an interview he had with Aswini Kumar Datta, the saintly patriot of Bengal.

It was some time in May or June in 1897. The Swami was staying at Almora with Capt. and Mrs. Sevier as their guest. Aswini Babu also came to that town in the course of travel. He learned one day from his cook of the presence of a strange Bengali Sadhu in the town, who spoke English, rode horses and moved altogether in a lordly style. He had learnt from the papers that the Swami was then staying at Almora, and therefore had no difficulty in identifying the strange Sadhu as the warrior-monk Vivekananda. Aswini Babu went out to meet the “Hindu Warrior”. Nobody could give him the address of “Swami Vivekananda”. But when he enquired about the “Bengali Sadhu”, a passer-by said, “You mean the riding Sadhu? There he is coming on horseback! That is his house, sir.” Aswini Babu saw from a distance that as soon as the ochre-robed Sannyasin reached the bungalow-gate, an Englishman came and led the horse to the door, where the Swami dismounted and went in.

A while after, Aswini Babu went in and enquired at the door. “Is Naren Datta here?” A young monk answered in disgust, “No sir, there is no Naren Datta here. He died long ago. There is only Swami Vivekananda.” But Aswini Babu said he did not want Swami Vivekananda, but Paramahamsa Dev’s Narendra. This conversation reached the Swami’s ears, and he sent for the disciple and enquired what the matter was. The young monk said, “A gentleman is enquiring about Naren Datta — Paramahamsa’s Narenara. I told him that he had died long ago, but he might see Swami Vivekananda.” The Swami exclaimed, “Oh what have you done! Just show him in.” Aswini Babu was accordingly called in and found the Swami seated on an easy chair. On seeing Aswini Babu, the Swami stood up and greeted him cordially. Aswini Babu said, “The Master had once asked me to speak to his dear Narendra. But Narendra could not speak with me much on that occasion. Fourteen years have passed by, I meet him again. The Master’s words cannot be in vain.” The Swami sincerely regretted not having been able to have a long talk with him on the first occasion. This astonished Aswini Babu, for he had scarcely expected that the Swami would remember him and a few minutes’ conversation held so long ago. The Swami’s memory astounded him.

When Aswini Babu addressed him as “Swamiji”, he interrupted him, saying, “How is that? When did I become a ‘Swami’ to you? I am still the same Narendra. The name by which I used to be called by the Master is to be a priceless treasure. Call me by that name.”

Aswini Babu: “You have travelled over the world and inspired millions of hearts with spirituality. Can you tell me which way lies India’s salvation?”

Swamiji: “I have nothing more to tell you than what you heard from the Master — that religion is the very essence of our being, and all reforms must come through it to be acceptable to the masses. To do otherwise is as improbable as pushing the Ganga back to its source in the Himalayas and making it flow in a new channel.”

A: “But have you no faith in what Congress is doing?”

S: “No, I have not.10 But, of course, something is better than nothing, and it is good to push the sleeping nation from all sides to wake it up. Can you tell me what Congress has been doing for the masses? Do you think merely passing a few resolutions will bring you freedom? I have no faith in that. The masses must be awakened first. Let them have full meals, and they will work out their own salvation. If Congress does anything for them, it has my sympathy. The virtues of Englishmen should also be assimilated.”

A: “Is it any particular creed you mean by ‘religion’?”

S: “Did the Master preach any particular creed? But he has spoken of the Vedanta as an all-comprehensive and synthetic religion. I also therefore preach it. But the essence of my religion is strength. The religion that does not infuse strength into the heart, is no religion to me, be it of the Upanishads, the Gita or the Bhagavata. Strength is religion, and nothing is greater than strength.'*

A: “Please tell me what I should do.”

S: “I understand you are engaged in some educational work. That is real work. A great power is working in you, and the gift of knowledge is a great one. But see that a manmaking education spreads among the masses. The next thing is the building up of character. Make your students’ character as strong as the thunderbolt. Of the bones of the Bengali youths shall be made the thunderbolt that shall destroy India’s thraldom. Can you give me a few fit boys? A nice shake I can give to the world then.

“And wherever you hear the Radha-Krishna songs going on, use the whip right and left. The whole nation is going to rack and ruin! People having no self-control indulging in such songs! Even the slightest impurity is a great hindrance to the conception of these high ideals. Is it a joke? We have long sung and danced; no harm if there is a lull for a time. In the meanwhile let the country wax strong,

“And go to the untouchables, the cobblers, the sweepers and others of their kind, and tell them, ‘You are the Soul of the nation, and in you lies infinite energy which can revolutionise the world. Stand up, shake off your shackles, and the whole world shall wonder at you.’ Go and found schools among them, and invest them with the ‘sacred thread’.”

It being the Swami's breakfast hour, Aswini Babu rose to take leave. But before going, he asked the Swami, “Is it true that when the Madras Brahmins called you a Shudra having no right to preach the Vedas, you said, ‘If I am a Shudra, ye the Brahmins of Madras are the Pariah of the Pariahs’?”

S: “Yes.”

A: “Was it becoming of you, a religious teacher and a man of self-control, to retort like that?”

S: “Who says so? I never said I was right. The impudence of these people made me lose my temper, and the words came out. What could I do? But I do not justify them.”

At this, Aswini Babu embraced the Swami and said, “Today you rise higher than ever in my estimation. Now I realise why you are a world-conqueror and why the Master loved you so much!”

  1. ^The Master as I saw Him.
  2. ^Complete Works, Vol. 7.
  3. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  4. ^Complete Works, Vol. 3.
  5. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  6. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  7. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  8. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  9. ^Complete Works, Vol. 9.
  10. ^The Swami here speaks of the Congress of those days, which hardly had any touch with the masses, being confined to the educated few.