The journey from Almora down to the plains through the hills covered with almost tropical forests was delightful. On the way the Swami pointed out a certain hill side inhabited, so legend holds, by a race of centaurs, and he told of his own experience of once having actually seen such a phantom there before hearing the folk tale. On June 12, the party rested above the beautiful lake, Bhim Tal. In his talks in the afternoon with his companions, the Swami translated some of the most charming Vedic verses, and songs of Soordas and other poet-devotees, in his intense and poetic way intoning every line in the original before giving its English form. The Rudra-prayer was thus rendered by him:
“From the unreal lead us to
From darkness lead us unto Light.
From death lead us to Immortality.
Reach us through and through our self.
And evermore protect us.....Oh Thou Terrible! —
From ignorance, by Thy sweet compassionate Face.”1
And then the psalm of invocation of peace and benediction:
“The blissful winds are sweet
The seas are showering bliss on us.
May the corn in our fields bring biss to us
May the plants and herbs bring bliss to us.
May the cattle give us bliss.
O Father in Heaven, be Thou blissful unto us!
The very dust of the earth is full of bliss.
It is all bliss — all bliss — all bliss.”
The next day the Pine and Deodar forests and the hills were left behind for the Punjab.
On reaching Rawalpindi, the party drove by Tonga to Murree, where they stayed for three days, and thence, partly by Tonga and partly by boat, they made their way to Srinagar, arriving there on June 22. On the way, from Kohala to Baramulla, the Swami, in the course of his instructions to his companions, spoke frankly of the modern abuses of Hinduism, and uncompromisingly denounced the evil practices known as Vamachara, prevalent in the name of religion, in the land. This is mentioned because it reveals that the Swami could see the faults as well as the virtues of his motherland, and that he kept nothing back from his Western disciples in his instructions concerning India telling them the worst things that might be said against his people and their creeds, as well as the best. And he could denounce when denunciation was imperative.
On June 19, passing through the valley of the Jhelum, the Swami was in a reminiscent mood. Speaking of Brahmavidya, the path of realisation of the One Absolute, and of how love conquers all evil, he related the story of one of his classmates, who subsequently became a rich man. He was suffering from an obscure disease which baffled the skill of the doctors. Naturally, he lost hope of recovery and interest in life in general and turned to religion and thoughts of Vairagya, as men do in such a case. Hearing that the Swami had become a religious man and an adept in Yoga he sent for him, begging him to come if only for once, which he did. As the Swami sat at his bedside, there came to him the Upanishadic text: “Him the Brahmana conquers, who thinks that he is separate from the Brahmana. Him the Kshatriya conquers, who thinks that he is separate from the Kshatriya and him the universe conquers, who thinks that he is separate from the universe.” Curiously, this acted like a charm on the sick man and the effect was miraculous. He grasped the theme even with the repeating of the passage, felt strength in the body as he had not done for a long time, and made a quick recovery! “And so,” said the Swami, “though I often say strange things and angry things, yet remember that in my heart I never seriously mean to preach anything but love! All these things will come right, if only we realise that we love each other.”
The readers will remember the fascination the Great God Shiva had for the Swami during his childhood. As he grew older his love for Shiva deepened; and now, being in the Himalayas, the abode of the Lord of monks and Yogis, the thought of Him was uppermost in his mind. To his disciples he would speak of the Pauranic conception of the oneness of Shiva and His consort, Uma, under the guise of half-man and half-woman, representing the junction of two great streams of thought, Monasticism and Mother-worship, or the vision of truth inseparable from renunciation and love supreme. And “he understood, he said, for the first time this summer, the meaning of the nature-story that made the Ganga fall on the head of the Great God, and wander in and out amongst His matted locks, before she found an outlet on the plains below. He had searched long, he said, for the words that the rivers and waterfalls uttered, amongst the mountains, before he had realised that it was the eternal cry ‘Byom! Byom! Hara! Hara!’ ‘Yes!’ he said of Shiva one day, ‘He is the Great God, calm, beautiful, and silent! and I am His great worshipper’.”
At Baramulla, and as the party entered further into Kashmir, the Swami’s mind was filled with the legends with which the Kashmiris have peopled the cathedral rocks, the many ruins and the winding passes. From a scenic point of view alone, the journey was intensely fascinating. Groups of singing peasants, or pious pilgrims and monks wending their way on foot through tortuous paths to the sacred shrines, the Irises in bloom on every hill-side, the green fields, the beautiful valleys ringed round with snow-clad mountains, and the poplars in the neighbourhood of Islamabad and the immense Chennaar trees to be seen everywhere, were in themselves pictures never to be forgotten.
No matter where he travelled, whether it was in the East or in the West, the Swami tried to identify himself with the habits of the people. So here in Kashmir one sees him drinking Kashmiri tea from a samovar and eating the jam of the country after the fashion of the people.
As the Swami had brought no attendants with him, he had to look after every little detail himself and to make all the necessary arrangements on the way for the comfort of the party, and these offices he performed with the keenest pleasure. Arriving at Baramulla on the twentieth, the party started in three Dungas, or house-boats, at about four o’clock in the afternoon for Srinagar, which they reached on the third day. On the next day of their trip far up the river Jhelum, when the boats were moored near a village, the Swami took his companions out for a long walk across the fields and turned into a neighbouring farmyard with a view to introducing them to a woman, of whose faith and pride he had spoken not only to themselves and others in private talks, but even in one of his speeches in Calcutta a few months before. In that farmyard they found seated under a tree a handsome elderly woman spinning wool, while round her, helping her, were her two daughters-in-law and their children. The Swami had called at this farm last year to beg for a glass of water, and after drinking had asked her in a mild tone, “And what religion is yours, mother?” “Thank God, sir,” the woman had said with triumph in her voice, “by the mercy of the Lord, I am a Mussulman!” The Swami was on the present occasion warmly welcomed by the whole family, and every courtesy was shown to his friends.
In one of these walks Sister Nivedita complained to the Swami of the abandonment of feeling which she had seen in Kalighat. “Why do they kiss the ground before the image?” she asked. The Swami became very quiet and then said, “Is it not the same thing to kiss the ground before that image as to kiss the ground before these mountains?”
The entire time spent in the Dungas on the river Jhelum in and about Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, (from June 21 to July 25), was an unparalleled educational opportunity for the Swami’s companions. Many excursions were made; and many were the discussions in which the Swami became so interested that he would sometimes forget all thought of food. The topics were extremely varied. Sometimes the subject would be the different religious periods through which Kashmir had passed, especially the period under Kanishka; again the morality of Buddhism and the religious imperialism of Asoka, or the history of Shiva-worship. One day he spoke of the conquests of Chenghis Khan, of whom he said, “He was not a vulgar aggressor,” and compared him with Napoleon and Alexander, saying that he, like the other two “was inspired with the thought of unity; he wanted to unify his world”. And he went on to say that those three were perhaps one soul, “manifesting itself in three different conquests”, in the same way that one Soul might have come again and again as Krishna, Buddha and Christ to bring about the unity of man in God in the world of religious realities. Often the talk would be on the Gita, “that wonderful poem, without one note in it of weakness or unmanliness”.
He had been in Kashmir scarcely a week when the desire for solitude swept over him and he would break away from the little company to roam about alone, returning later radiant from his contact with the Source of all Knowledge. After such an experience he would reiterate, “It is a sin even to think of the body!” “It is wrong to manifest power!” Or again, “Things do not grow better. They remain as they were, and we grow better by the changes we make in them.” He constantly interpreted human life as an expression of God. Social life seemed to be agony to him, so antagonistic was it to the old-time idea of the quiet and self-effacement of the monk. Speaking of these days the Sister Nivedita writes:
“The life of the silent ashen-clad wanderer, or the hidden hermit, he thought of, it would now and then seem, as the lover might think of the beloved. At no time would it have surprised us, had someone told us that today or tomorrow he would be gone for ever, that we were now listening to his voice for the last time. He, and necessarily we, in all that depended on him, were as straws carried on the Ganges of the Eternal Will. At any moment It might reveal Itself to him as Silence. At any moment life in the world might end for him.
“This plan-less-ness was not an accident. Never can I forget the disgust with which he turned on myself once, a couple of years later, when I had offered him some piece of worldly wisdom regarding his own answer to a letter which he had brought for me to see. ‘Plans! Plans!* he exclaimed in indignation. ‘That is why you Western people can never create a religion! If any of you ever did, it was only a few Catholic saints, who had no plans. Religion was never, never preached by planners!’”2
It can be readily understood that, living in the shadow ofthat great life fired with a burning passion for the highest, it became evident to the Western pilgrims that his plan-less-ness was the result of knowledge, and that solitude and silence was the greatest medium of self-development.
“Nothing,” said the Swami, “better illustrated to his own mind, the difference between Eastern and Western methods of thought, than the European idea that a man could not live alone for twenty years and remain quite sane, taken side by side with the Indian notion that till a man had been alone for twenty years, he could not he regarded as perfectly himself.”
Among the small excursions made at this time in the company of his disciples was the one to the temple of Takt-i-Suleiman, situated on the summit of a small mountain two to three thousand feet high. Beholding the beautiful and the extensive scenery of the place the Swami exclaimed. “Look! What genius the Hindu shows in placing his temples! He always chooses a grand scenic effect! See! The Takt commands the whole of Kashmir. The rock of Hari Parvat rises red out of blue water, like a lion couchant, crowned. And the temple of Martanda has the valley at its feet!” Then he launched into a long discourse on the innate love of nature in the Hindu character, which showed itself in its choice of sites of peculiar beauty and importance for building temples, hermitages and monuments.
Always given to merriment, the Swami postponed a contemplated journey to organise for his American friends a surprise celebration of the Fourth of July, their national festival. Taking the one non-American member of the party into his confidence, he went out late on the afternoon of the third and brought a Brahmana tailor in great excitement, asking her to explain to the man how to make a replica of the American flag. The stars and stripes were very crudely represented on the piece of cotton that was nailed, with branches of evergreens, to the head of the dining-room-boat, where an early tea was arranged for. As his own special contribution to the event, he wrote a poem which was read aloud by way of greeting, entitled “To the Fourth of July”, a passionate utterance of his own longing for the Final Freedom in the Infinite. Time proved it to have been penned in a prophetic vein, for four years later on that very day, his shackles of work broken, he entered in “springing joy” into that Final Freedom concerning which he had written.
On the journey back to Srinagar the Swami was full of the ideal of renunciation, and earned away by his mood he spoke with uncompromising scorn against those who sought to glorify the worldly life. “Is it so easy,” he exclaimed, “to be a Janaka? To sit on a throne absolutely unattached? Caring nothing for wealth or fame, for wife or child? One after another in the West has told me that he had reached this. To them I could only say, ‘Such great men are not born in India!’” On the other hand he said, “never forget to say to yourself, and to teach to your children: ‘As is the difference between a fire-fly and the blazing sun, between the infinite ocean and a little pond, between a mustard-seed and the mountain of Meru, such is the difference between the householder and the Sannyasin!’” He would bless, he said, even the fraudulent Sadhus and those who failed to keep to their vows, “inasmuch as they also have witnessed to the ideal, and so are in some degree the cause of the success of others!” Had it not been for the Gerua, the emblem of monasticism, he pointed out, luxury and worldliness would have robbed man of all his manliness.
A desire for quiet and peace seemed to grow more and more upon the Swami in these days, and the absence of two of his American disciples on a short visit to Gulmarg he took to be a fit opportunity to carry out his design. Without revealing his plans he made preparations for a pilgrimage to the famous Shiva shrine of Amamath by way of Sonamarg, and left on July 10, penniless and alone. On the fifteenth he returned, as he found the route was impracticable because of the summer heat which had melted some of the glaciers.
The next day, or the day after, in speaking of Bhakti, of Shiva and Uma, and of Radha and Krishna, he became so absorbed that he paid no heed to repeated calls for breakfast. He responded at last reluctantly, saying, “When one has all this Bhakti what does one want with food?”
On the eighteenth the whole party drifted down to Islamabad. On the afternoon of the next day they sought out and found the quaint old Temple of Pandrenthan, sunken in a scum-covered pond within a wood by the side of the Jhelum. Inside the temple the Swami introduced his companions to the study of Indian archaeology and taught them to observe the decorations in the interior with their sun-medallion and beautiful sculpture, in low relief, of male and female figures intertwined with serpents. Among the outside carvings was a fine image of Buddha, standing with his hands uplifted, in one of the trefoil arches of the eastern door, and a much defaced frieze of a seated woman, with a tree — evidently Maya Devi, Buddha’s mother. The temple was built of heavy grey limestone and dated perhaps from Kanishka’s time a.d. 150. To the Swami, writes Sister Nivedita, “the place was delightfully suggestive and she adds:
“It was a direct memorial of Buddhism, representing one of the four religious periods into which he had already divided the History of Kashmir: 1. Tree and Snake-worship, from which dated all the names of the springs ending in Nag as Veernag, and so on; 2. Buddhism; 3. Hinduism, in the form of Sun-worship; and 4. Mohammedanism. Sculpture, he told us, was the characteristic art of Buddhism, and the sun-medallion, or lotus, one of its commonest ornaments. The figures with the serpents referred to pre-Buddhism. . . .”3
It was sunset when the party returned to their boats. The presence in the wood of that silent chapel and of Buddha must have moved the Swami deeply, for on that evening his mind overflowed with historical comparisons. He spoke, for instance, of the points of similarity between the Vedic and the Roman Catholic ritual, holding the latter to have been derived from the former through Buddhism which was only an offshoot of Hinduism. “Vedic ritual,” he pointed out, “has its Mass, the offering of food to God, your Blessed Sacrament, our Prasada. Only it is offered sitting, not kneeling, as is common in hot countries. They kneel in Tibet. Then, too, Vedic ritual has its lights, incense, music.” When it was suggested that Hinduism had no Common Prayer, he flashed out at his opponent: “No! and neither had Christianity! That is pure Protestantism, and Protestantism took it from the Mohammedans perhaps through Moorish influence. Mohammedanism is the only religion that has completely broken down the idea of the priest. The leader of prayer stands with his back to the people, and only the reading of the Koran may take place from the pulpit. Protestantism is an approach to this.”
“Even the tonsure,” he continued, “existed in India, in the shaven head . . . . The monk and nun both existed in pre-Buddliistic Hinduism. Europe gets her orders from the Thebaid.”
Almost the whole of Christianity, he believed, was Aryan — Indian and Egyptian ideas tinctured with Judaism and Hellenism. Of the historicity of Jesus, he said, he had doubted in a way since his significant dream off Crete. However, “Two things stand out as personal living touches in the life of Christ: the woman taken in adultery — the most beautiful story in literature — and the woman at the well. How strangely true is this last, to Indian life! A woman, coming to draw water, finds, seated at the well-side, a yellow-clad monk. He asks her for water. Then he teaches her, and does a little mind-reading and so on. But in India when she went to call the villagers, the monk would have taken his chance, and fled to the forest!”
Of the prominent figures of Christianity he remarked that only of Saint Paul could history be sure, “and he was not an eyewitness, and according to his own showing was capable of Jesuitry — ‘by all means save souls’ — isn’t it?” He preferred Strauss to Renan, whose “Life of Jesus is mere froth”, and felt also that the Acts and Epistles were older than the Gospels. Saint Paul’s greatness lay in that he had galvanised into life an obscure Nazarene sect of great antiquity, which “furnished the mythic personality as a centre of worship”. But at the bottom was the great Rabbi Hillel, who was responsible for the teachings of Jesus. “The Resurrection,” he said, “was, of course, simply spring cremation. Only the rich Greeks and Romans had had cremation anyway, and the new sun-myth would only stop it amongst the few.”
Of Buddha, the Swami thought that he was the greatest man that had ever lived. “He never drew a breath for himself,” he exclaimed. “Above all, he never claimed worship. He said ‘Buddha is not a man, but a state. I have found the door. Enter, all of you! * ”
Drifting down the river, and enjoying the lovely scenery around, the party came the next day to the ruins of the two great temples of Avantipur, and on the twenty-second went on to Islamabad after visiting the temple of Bijbchara. The Swami took long walks in the morning with one or more of his pupils, across the fields and along the banks of the Jhelum. And his talks during these walks were as exhilarating as the mountain breeze that blew upon them, and as soul-enthralling as the blossoms on the fruit trees all about.
Discoursing on the sense of sin as current among the Egyptian, Semitic and Aryan races, he pointed out that though it appears in the Vedas, it quickly disappears, while the Egyptians and Semites cling to it as one of the main planks of their religious ideas. The Devil, according to the Vedic conception, is Lord of Anger, with the Buddhists he is Mara, the Lord of Lust. “But while Satan is the Hamlet of the Bible, in the Hindu scriptures the Lord of Anger never divides Creation. He always represents defilement, never duality. With Zoroaster, who was a reformer of some old religion which must have been Vedantic, Ormuzd and Ahriman were not supreme, they were only manifestations of the Supreme. In India, Righteousness and Sin — Vidya and Avidya — have both to be transcended to reach the highest truth.”
The talk would often drift to matters pertaining to his motherland and the future. “In order to strengthen the national life” he said, “we must reinforce the current of that life itself along the line of its own culture and ideals. For instance, Buddha preached renunciation and India listened. Yet within a thousand years, she had reached her highest point of national prosperity. The national life in India has renunciation as its source. Its highest ideals are service and Mukti.”
“No nation, not Greek or another, has ever carried patriotism so far as the Japanese. They don’t talk, they act — give up all for country. There are noblemen now living in Japan who gave up their political privileges and powers to create the unity of the empire. And not one traitor could be found in the Japanese war. Think of that!”
“The Sannyasin who thinks of gold, to desire it, commits suicide.”
“With the Hindus, marriage is not for individual happiness, but for the welfare of the nation and the caste.”
“You are so morbid, you Westerners! You worship Sorrow! All through your country I found that. Social life in the West is like a peal of laughter, but underneath, it is a wail. It ends in a sob. The fun and frivolity are all on the surface; really, it is full of tragic intensity. Here, it is sad and gloomy on the outside, but underneath are carelessness and merriment.”
“A leader is not made in one life. He has to be born for it. For the difficulty is not in organisation and making plans; the test, the real test of a leader lies in holding widely different people together, along the line of their common sympathies. And this can only be done unconsciously, never by trying.”4
But there was another side. The Swami was not the philosopher or the teacher all the time. He could be gay as well as grave, full of fun, jokes and humorous stories — a phenomenon which shocked the feelings of the divines and ecclesiastics when he was in the West. Some had even told him to his face, “Swami, you are a religious preacher. You should not give yourself up to laughter and frivolity like common folk. Such conduct does not befit you.” But his reply was: “We are children of Bliss and Light! Why should we be sombre and morose?”
Once at Islamabad, as the group sat round him on the grass in an apple orchard, during the evening hours, he was “engaged in the rarest of rare happenings” — a talk of a personal character. Picking up two pebbles in his hand he said, “Whenever death approaches me, all weakness vanishes. I have neither fear, nor doubt, nor thought of the external. I simply busy myself making ready to die. I am as hard as that” — and the stones struck one another in his hand — “for I have touched the feet of God!” Then he went on to tell them some remarkable episodes of his Parivrajaka life. The talk came to an end abruptly, when a child with a badly cut hand was brought to him by the villagers. He himself bathed the wound with water and applied the ashes of a piece of calico to stop the bleeding.
Next morning, the twenty-third, the entire party visited the ruins of Martanda, where they noted that the rest-house round the Temple was strangely Gothic in shape.
On the twenty-fifth they journeyed on to Acchabal, over a road of exquisite beauty. It was at Acchabal that the Swami during an open-air meal suddenly announced to his companions his intention to go to Amarnath, in company with the two or three thousand pilgrims then en route for the Shrine. As a special privilege Sister Nivedita was allowed to join him on the pilgrimage, so that she, as a future worker, might have a direct knowledge and insight into that time-honoured religious institution of his country. It was settled later, that his other European disciples would accompany the party as far as Pahlgam and there await the Swami’s return. Accordingly, returning to the boats, the start was made next afternoon, July 26, for Bawan, the first stopping-place on the way to the sacred shrine of Amarnath.
The pilgrimage of thousands of devotees to the far-away Cave of Amarnath, nestled in a glacial gorge of the Western Himalayas, through some of the most charming scenery in the world, is fascinating in the extreme. One is struck with wonder at the quiet and orderly way in which a canvas town springs up with incredible rapidity at every halting-place, with its tents of various colours and of all shapes and sizes, with its Bazaars, and broad streets running through the middle, and all vanishing as quickly at the break of dawn when the whole army of gay pilgrims set out on the march again. The glow of countless cooking-fires, the ashen-smeared Sadhus under the canopy of their large Gerua umbrellas stuck in the ground, sitting and discussing or meditating before their Dhunis, the Sannyasins of all orders in their various garbs, the men and women with children, from all parts of the country in their characteristic costumes, and their devout faces, the torches shimmering at nightfall, the blowing of conch-shells and horns, the singing of hymns and prayers in chorus — all these are most impressive, and convey to some extent an idea of the overmastering passion of the race for religion.
Taught by Shri Ramakrishna, the Swami in common with his fellow-disciples, had learnt to observe scrupulously all those customs and rules of conduct which had become consecrated during the ages, by the faith of millions. Thus while presiding over a Puja, or religious service, or over the initiation of a disciple into Sannyasa, he would see to it that all the necessary materials and accessories were correct in their minutest details and made ready in a proper way, and that the ceremony and chanting of Mantras and so on were conducted strictly in accordance with Vedic injunctions. While on pilgrimage he would do everything in the same devout way as the most simple-minded woman about him. He would bathe in the holy waters, offer flowers, fruits and sweets to the object of worship before breaking his fast, make obeisance prostrating himself on the ground, tell his beads, make Pradakshina and the like. The Swami, as befits one whose methods were always constructive and respectful of the varying stages and tendencies of those who came to him for guidance, as well as the vast number of pilgrims all about, made himself one with everyone in these ceremonials and rites. And so we see him imbued with the spirit of the pilgrimage, practising austerities with devotion and ardour, eating one meal a day cooked in the orthodox fashion, seeking solitude and silence as far as was possible, telling his beads and devoting much time to meditation in his tent.
On the hundreds of monks the Swami’s influence was tremendous, though at first he encountered strong opposition from the more orthodox of them, because of the presence of his foreign disciples. When their tents were pitched too near the pilgrims’ camp, the Sadhus raised a clamour demanding them to be removed further. The Swami treated their complaints with scorn, till a Naga Sadhu came up to him and said meekly, “Swamiji, you have the power, but you ought not to manifest it!” The Swami understood, and had the tents removed at once. Curiously enough, from the next day they all made way for him, and his tent as well as that of Sister Nivedita were placed at the head of the camp, in some commanding position. And throughout the rest of the journey, at every resting-place, the Swami's tent was besieged by scores of monks seeking knowledge from him. Many of them could not understand his broad, liberal views on religious subjects and his warmth of love and sympathy for Islam. The Mohammedan Tahsildar, the state-oflicial in charge of the whole pilgrimage, and his subordinates were so attracted to the Swami that they attended his talks daily, and afterwards entreated him to initiate them. Sister Nivedita also, by her amiable manners, soon became a general favourite with the pilgrims and received from them “endless touching little kindnesses”.
Passing Bawan, noted for its holy springs, and Eismukkam, the Swami and the host of pilgrims reached Pahlgam, the village of the shepherds, and encamped at the foot of an arrow-shaped ravine beside the roaring torrent of the Lidar. Here they made a halt for a day to observe the Ekadashi fast. Near Chandanawara, the next stage, the Swami insisted that his disciple climb her first glacier of a height of several thousand feet on foot. Exhausted with still another steep climb, scrambling up and down goat-paths at the edge of precipitous slopes, they pitched their tents amongst the snow-peaks, at an altitude of 18,000 feet. The whole of the following morning was a steady climb, till at last the source of the Lidar lay five hundred feet below, hushed in its icy mantle. Next day, crossing frost-bound peaks and glaciers the procession reached Panchatarni, the place of the five streams. In every one of these the pilgrims were required to take a dip, passing from one stream to another in wet clothes, in spite of the intense cold. Careful to observe every rite of the pilgrimage, the Swami cleverly escaped the observation of his spiritual daughter and fulfilled the law to the last letter in this matter.
On August 2, the day of Amarnath itself, the pilgrims after making a steep climb, and then a descent in which one false step would have meant instant death, walked along the glacier mile after mile till they reached a flowing stream, in which they bathed before entering the cave which was reached after another stiff ascent. The Swami who had fallen behind, perhaps intentionally, so as to be alone with his thoughts, came up and sent his waiting disciple on and bathed in the river. He then reached the cave, his whole frame shaking with emotion. The cave itself was “large enough to hold a cathedral, and the great ice-Shiva, in a niche of deepest shadow, seemed as if throned on its own base”. Then, his body covered with ashes, his face aflame with supreme devotion to Shiva, he entered the shrine itself, nude, except for a loin-cloth; and kneeling in adoration he bowed low before the Lord. A song of praise from a hundred throats resounded in the cave, and the shining purity of the great ice-Linga overpowered him. He almost swooned with emotion. A great mystical experience came to him, of which he never spoke, beyond saying that Shiva Himself had appeared before him and that he had been granted the grace of Amarnath, the Lord of Immortality, not to die until he himself should choose to throw off his mortal bonds, corroboration of the words of his Divine Master regarding him: “When he realises who and what he is, he will no longer remain in the body!” Also it might be that, in his wrestling with the soul to keep itself from merging in the Absolute, “was defeated or fulfilled that presentiment which had haunted him from childhood, that he would meet with death in a Shiva-temple amongst the mountains”. Indeed, so intense had been the shock of his mystical experience upon his physical frame that later on a doctor said, “Swamiji, it was almost death! Your heart ought naturally to have stopped beating. It has undergone a permanent enlargement instead.”
Never had the Swami visited a religious place with such spiritual exaltation. To his European disciple he said afterwards, 'The image was the Lord Himself. It was all worship there. I never have been to anything so beautiful, so inspiring!” Later on, in the circle of his Gurubhais and disciples, he said dreamily, “I can well imagine, how this cave was first discovered. A party of shepherds, one summer day, must have lost their flocks and wandered in here in search of them. What must have been their feeling as they found themselves unexpectedly before this unmelting ice-image white like camphor, with the vault itself dripping offerings of water over it for centuries, unseen of mortal eyes! Then when they came home they whispered to the other shepherds in the valleys how they had suddenly come upon Mahadeva!” Be that as it may, in the case of the Swami, it was truly so, in that he entered the cave and came face to face there with the Lord Himself! And if Amarnath had been an awesome religious experience to him, more so than Amarnath was the Swami to his companion. So saturated had his personality become with the Presence of that God that for days thereafter he could speak of nothing but Shiva. Shiva was all in all; Shiva, the Eternal One, the Great Monk, rapt in meditation, aloof from all worldliness.
The journey down the mountain trails to Pahlgam was interesting. The party passed the celebrated Lake of Death, into which, on one occasion, some forty pilgrims had been plunged by an avalanche, started, it is believed, by the volume of their song. The Swami and some of the pilgrims took a short-cut from here by following a narrow sheep-track which led down the face of a steep cliff. At Pahlgam, there was joy when he again met his other European disciples, and the Swami talked of nothing but Shiva and the shrine and the great vision that had come upon him.
On August 8, the party were on their way to Srinagar where they remained until September 30. During this time the Swami frequently went off in his boat by himself and remained for days in strictest solitude. His desire for introspection and meditation became more and more pronounced. Nevertheless, he continued to instruct his disciples about India and his own ideas, dwelling in particular upon “the inclusiveness of his conception of the country and its religions”, of his own longing to make Hinduism active and aggressive, a missionary faith, without its present “don’t-touchism”, and of the necessity of commingling the highest meditative with the most active, practical life. ”To be as deep as the ocean and as broad as the sky,” he said quoting Shri Ramakrishna, “was the ideal.” “Shri Ramakrishna,” he continued, “was alive to the depths of his being, yet on the outer plane he was perfectly active and capable.” At one time, before the trip to Amarnath, when someone had asked him, “Sir, what should we do when we see the strong oppress the weak?” he had made reply: “Why, thrash the strong, of course!”
“Even forgiveness,” he said on a similar occasion, “if weak and passive, is not good: to fight is better. Forgive when you can bring legions of angels to an easy victory. . . . The world is a battlefield, fight your way out.” Another asked him, “Swamiji, ought one to die in defence of right, or ought one to learn never to react?” “I am for no reaction,” replied the Swami slowly, and after a long pause added, “ — for Sannyasins. Self-defence for the householder!”
In Kashmir, the Swami and his party were treated with the greatest consideration by the Maharaja; and all during his stay various high officials visited the Swami’s house-boat to receive religious instructions and converse with him upon general topics. The Swami had come at the express invitation of the Maharaja, to choose a tract of land for the establishment of a monastery and a Sanskrit college. There was a beautiful spot by the river-side, which was used as a camping ground by Europeans. The Swami chose this site and the Maharaja, approving of his choice expressed his willingness to give it to him for his educational scheme. Some time after the return from Amarnath, the Western disciples, caught up in the Swami’s prevailing meditative mood, were desirous of practising meditation in silence and solitude. The Swami encouraged them, and suggested that they go and live in tents on the prospective Math ground, adding that it is auspicious, according to the Hindu idea, to have a new homestead blessed by women. And thus “a women’s Math” was established there, as it were, and the Swami coming occasionally for a short visit would talk to them of his dream of realising the great idea of “by the people, for the people, as a joy to worker and to served”.
It was a blow to the Swami, therefore, when about the middle of September, he heard officially that it would be impracticable to secure lands for the erection of his proposed monastery and Sanskrit college in Kashmir, for his choice was twice vetoed by the Resident. Though this news temporarily depressed him, the Swami began to understand, after much reflection, that for various reasons Kashmir, or any Native State for that matter would not be a suitable place for him to try the experiment of bringing his Indian followers into contact with European and vice versa. He realised that Bengal was far more suitable for any educational propaganda for India than this distant State; and Calcutta, the metropolis, was the intellectual centre of the country. Besides, so far as his having a monastery in a cool climate was concerned, that project had been taken up in earnest by his disciples, Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, and already they were on the look-out for a tract of land in the hills of Kumaon for this purpose. 'The Swami accepted the obstacles that had come in his path, therefore, as the Will of the Mother, and felt that all was for the best.
Following the pilgrimage to Amarnath, the Swami’s devotion concentrated itself on the Mother. The songs of Ramprasad were constantly upon his lips. The strength which comes of the meditation on the Eternal One now shifted itself to the devotion of a child. And it was sweet, and touching to see how he would worship, as Uma, the little four-year-old daughter of his Mohammedan boatman. He told his disciples once during these days that “wherever he turned he was conscious of the Presence of the Mother, as if She were a person in the room”. He felt that it was She or his own Master “whose hands are clasped upon my own and who leads me as though I were a child”. And now through the intensity of his spiritual personality, everything in the life of his comrades was associated with the thought of the Mother, as it had been before with that of Shiva.
The strain of meditation became more and more intense and the Swami bitterly “complained of the malady of thought, which would consume a man, leaving him no time for sleep or rest, and would often become as insistent as a human voice”. One day in the second week of September he had an experience, which can be compared only perhaps to that which he had had in the Dakshineswar temple-garden years ago, when at the bidding of Shri Ramakrishna he had gone to pray to the Mother to he relieved of the great strain of poverty that was upon him then.
He had gone in his boat to a solitary place, the only person he allowed to visit him was a certain Brahmo doctor, who had become devotedly attached to him during his sojourn in Kashmir that summer, and who came regularly to enquire after his daily needs. When the doctor found him lost in thought, or in meditation he would leave him quietly without disturbing him. The Swami's brain seethed with the vision and the consciousness of the Mother, whose personality literally overshadowed him. It became at once the most ascetic torture and the most ecstatic blessedness. His mind was turned to the highest pitch. Revelation must come, or the mind would give way.
One evening it came. He had centred “his whole attention on the dark, the painful and the inscrutable in the world, with the determination to reach, by this particular road, the One behind phenomena” — for such was his conception of the Mother. His whole frame shook as if under an electric shock. Was this what the Yogis speak of as the awakening of the Kulakundalini? Outside it was all stillness; but within him a world-destroying tempest raged. While his vision was intensest, he wrote a poem, Kali, the Mother, now one of his best known ones; in which a glimpse of his vision of the tumult of the universe, the Sturm und Drang of the cosmos which he pictured as the mad joy of the Mother's Dance is given. Filled with this sublime consciousness he wrote to the last word; the pen fell from his hand; he himself dropped to the floor losing consciousness, his soul soaring into the highest forms of Bhava-Samadhi. The man who had swayed thousands in the West, who had roused the Indian consciousness as it never was roused since the days of the Acharyas, lay as if dead in a swoon of ecstasy and awel
The Swami now gave himself to constant explanations of the worship of the Mother to his disciples and in calling upon Her, “Who is Herself, time, change and ceaseless energy”. He would say, quoting the great Psalmist, “Though Thou slay me, yet will I trust in Thee,” or “It is a mistake to hold that with all men pleasure is the motive. Quite as many are born to seek pain. There can be bliss in torture, too. Let us worship the Terror for its own sake.” Again, “Learn to recognise the Mother as instinctively in evil, terror, sorrow and annihilation as in that which makes for sweetness and joy!” Or “True, they garland Thee with skulls, but shrink back in fright, and call Thee, ‘O All-merciful One’!” “Only by the worship of the Terrible, can the Terrible itself be overcome and immortality gained. Meditate on death! Meditate on death! Worship the Terrible, the Terrible, the Terrible! And the Mother Herself is Brahman! Even Her curse is a blessing. The heart must become a cremation-ground, pride, selfishness, and desire all burnt into ashes. Then, and then alone, will the Mother come!” Writes Sister Nivedita:
“And as he spoke, the underlying egoism of worship that is devoted to the kind God, to Providence, the consoling Divinity, without a heart for God in the earthquake, or God in the volcano, overwhelmed the listener. One saw that such worship was at bottom, as the Hindu calls it, merely shopkeeping’, and one realised the infinitely greater boldness and truth of the teaching that God manifests through evil as well as through good. One saw that the true attitude for the mind and will that are not to be baffled by the personal self, was in fact the determination, in the stern words of the Swami Vivekananda, ‘to seek death not life, to hurl oneself upon the sword's point, to become one with the Terrible for evermore!’”5
And often, now and later, in moments of severe illness or pain, he would be heard to exclaim, “She is the organ! She is the pain! And She is the giver of pain! Kali! Kalil! Kali!” In all of his instructions these days he would say, “There must be no fear. No begging, but demanding — demanding the Highest! The true devotees of the Mother are as hard as adamant and as fearless as lions. They are not the least upset if the whole universe suddenly crumbled into dust at their feet! Make Her listen to you. None of that cringing to Mother! Remember! She is all-powerful; She can make heroes even out of stones!”
Wherever, he would say, the Mother was, there was no fear; wherever there was renunciation or self-forgetfulness, wherever there was the vision that “Everything which one touches is pain”, the child-soul turns to Mother for relief and support. And in the meditation on the skull and cross-bones of the Western mystic, he would see a dim reflection of the universal aspect of Mother-worship. His idea of the Divine Motherhood, the Power behind all manifestation, was as poetic as it was impersonal.
Following the experience related above, the Swami retired abruptly on September 30, to the Coloured Springs of Kshir-Bhavani, leaving strict injunctions that no one was to follow him. It was not until October 6, that he returned. Before this famous shrine of the Mother he daily performed Homa and worshipped Her with the offerings of Kshira, or thickened milk, made from one maund of milk, rice and almonds, and told his beads like the humblest pilgrim. And, as a special Sadhana, he worshipped every morning a Brahmin Pandit’s little daughter as Uma Kumari, the Divine Virgin. He began to practise terrible austerities. It seemed as if he would tear off all the veils that covered his soul through years of work and relative thought and again be the child before the Divine Mother. Even though Her caresses might prove pain to the body, they would give illumination and freedom to his soul. All thought of Leader, Worker, or Teacher was gone. He was now only the monk, in all the nakedness of pure Sannyasa.
He was transfigured when he returned to Srinagar. He entered the house-boat, his hands raised in benediction; then he placed some marigolds which he had offered to the Mother on the head of every one of his disciples. “No more ‘Hari Om!’ It is all ‘Mother’ now!” he said, sitting down. “All my patriotism is gone. Everything is gone. Now it is only ‘Mother! Mother!’ I have been very wrong. Mother said to me. ‘What, even if unbelievers should enter My temples, and defile My images! What is that to you? Do you protect Me? Or do I protect you?’ So there is no more patriotism. I am only a little child!” One day he had been pondering over the ruins and the desecration of the temple wrought by the vandalism of the Mohammedan invaders. Distressed at heart he thought, “How could the people have permitted such sacrilege without offering strenuous resistance! If I were here then I would never have allowed such things. I would have laid down my life to protect the Mother.” It was then that he had heard the Mother speaking as above. The disciples sat silent, awe-inspired. They could not speak, “so tense was the spot with something that stilled thoughts”. “I may not tell you more now,” he said addressing his disciples before leaving, “it is not in order. But spiritually, spiritually, I was not bound down!”
Though again with his disciples, they saw little of him. For hours he would walk beside the river in the secluded woods, absorbed within himself, so much so that he would not even see his companions on the roof of their house-boat. One day he appeared before them with shaven head, dressed as the simplest Sannyisin, and with a look of unapproachable austerity on his face. Quoting from his own poem, Kali the Mother, he interrupted himself to say, “It all came true, every word of it; and I have proved it, for I have hugged the Form of Death!” And here and there, the details of that austerity and fasting and self-renunciation he had practised at Kshir-Bhavani, and the revelations that had come to him were touched upon in his remarks. In his meditation on the Terrible in the dark hours of the nights at Kshir-Bhavani, there were other visions which he confided only to one or two of his Gurubhais, and which are too sacred to reveal to the public. It seemed, indeed, as if the Swami's whole nature rose in a supreme effort in a final struggle to rise above all worldly Samskaras.
At this same shrine, in the course of worship, one day, the Swami brooding with pain on the dilapidated condition of the temple, wished in his heart that he were able to build a new one there in its place, just as he wished to build his monasteries elsewhere, especially the temple to Shri Ramakrishna in the new Math at Belur. He was startled from his reveries by the voice of the Mother Herself saying to him, “My child! If I so wish I can have innumerable temples and magnificent monastic centres. I can even this moment raise a seven-storied golden temple on this very spot” “Since I heard that Divine Voice,” said the Swami to a disciple in Calcutta much later, “I have ceased making any more plans. Let these things be as Mother wills!”
During these days also, the Swami had an experience of a disquieting nature. Alluding to it he spoke later as “a crisis in his life.” A disciple of a Mohammedan Fakir used to come to him occasionally, attracted by his personality. Hearing one day that he was suffering from fever and severe headache, the Swami out of compassion touched him on the head with his fingers and, to his great surprise, the man’s ailments left him. After that he became very much devoted to the Swami, and came to him oftener than before. But the man’s Guru, the Fakir, when he heard of this, became bitterly jealous of the Swami, and afraid lest his disciple forsake him, spoke ill of the Swami and warned his disciple not to see him. Finding that his words had no effect, the man was irate and abused the Swami to his disciple. And actuated by a spirit of revenge, as also, perhaps, to convince him of his greater psychic power, he threatened to use charms against the Swami and prophesied that he would vomit and feel giddy before he left Kashmir. This actually came about and the Swami was precipitated into great perplexity of mind and furious wrath, not against the Fakir but against himself and his Master. He thought: “What good is Shri Ramakrishna to me? — What good are all my realisations and preaching of Vedanta and the omnipotence of the Soul within, when I myself could not save myself from the diabolical powers of a black magician?” This experience exercised his mind so much that even when he reached Calcutta three weeks later, it continued to agitate him, and he told the Holy Mother, who happened to be there at the time, all about it.
Preparations were now made to go to the plains. The Swami spoke in a very casual way about the future. He had no plans; all that he would wish for himself was the life of the monk, of silence and forgottenness. “'Swamiji' was dead and gone. Who was he that he should feel the urge for teaching the world? It was all fuss and vanity. The Mother had no need of him, but only he of Her. Work, when one had seen this, was nothing but illusion.” An overmastering love enveloped him. He believed now in nothing but love, love, love — love so intense that it would be impossible for even the vilest enemies to resist it. To continue in the words of Sister Nivedita:
“. . . I can give no idea of the vastness of which all this was utterance — as if no blow, to any in the world, could pass and leave our Master’s heart untouched; as if no pain, even to that of death, could elicit anything but love and blessing.
“He told us the story of Vasishtha and Vishwamitra; of Vasishtha’s hundred descendants slain; and the sage left alone, landless and helpless, to live out his life. Then he pictured the hut standing in the moonlight, amongst the trees and Vasishtha and his wife within. He is poring intently over some precious page, written by his great rival, when she draws near and hangs over him for a moment, saving, ‘Look, how bright is the moon tonight!’ And he, without looking up, ‘But ten thousand times brighter, my love, is the intellect of Vishwamitra!’
“All forgotten! the deaths of his hundred children, his own wrongs, and his sufferings, and his heart lost in admiration of the genius of his foe! Such, said the Swami, should be our love also, like that of Vasishtha for Vishwamitra, without the slightest tinge of personal memory.”6
The whole party came back to Baramulla on October 11, and left for Lahore the next day. The European disciples had decided to accompany the Swami thither, and wait there for some days, and then go sight seeing in some of the principal cities of Northern India such as Delhi, Agra, etc., with Swami Saradananda. The river trip to Baramulla was noticeable only for the extreme silence of the Swami, who preferred to be almost entirely by himself, and walked at the riverside alone mornings and evenings. He looked so ill and worn out that his companions feared a breakdown. Writes Sister Nivedita:
“The physical ebb of the great experience through which he had just passed — for even suffering becomes impossible, when a given point of weariness is reached; and similarly, the body refuses to harbour a certain intensity of the spiritual life for an indefinite period! — was leaving him, doubtless, more exhausted, than he himself suspected. All this contributed, one imagines, to a feeling that none of us knew for how long a time we might now be parting.”