The Swami was suffering from asthma in these days. On October 27, he had his chest examined, at the request of some of the monks, by the well-known specialist, Dr. R. L. Dutt, who in consultation with some other doctors gave the opinion that the Swami must be careful of himself. A clot of blood was found to have been formed in his left eye, possibly due to tremendous concentration. The monks made efforts constantly to keep him from going into the deeper states of meditation, fearing that the Great and Final Meditation might come upon him at any time, and that he might throw off the body like a worn-out garment. So abstracted was his mind from outward surroundings in these days, that often he would not hear the answer to questions he himself had asked.
Two or three days after the Swami’s arrival from Kashmir, a disciple, whom Swami Brahmananda had instructed to try to bring the Swami down, if possible, from his exalted state, on entering the room, found him seated cross-legged, facing the east, apparently totally abstracted. It was at this time that the clot of blood was observed in his left eye. When the Swami was asked about it he replied casually, “Oh, it is nothing! It might be due to my intense practice of meditation at Kshir-Bhavani.” With the intention of diverting his mind, the disciple begged him to tell the story of his pilgrimage to Amarnath. In telling the tale he suddenly exclaimed, “Ever since I went to Amarnath, Shiva Himself has entered into my brain. He will not go!” After a short silence he went on, “On my way to Amarnath, I climbed up a specially steep ascent, not used by the pilgrims. A sort of determination forced me to travel by that solitary path.” He wanted to be altogether alone, free from all distractions. His whole mind was burning with Shiva! He forgot in those moments that he had a body. His personality was filled with a Great Consciousness. “Probably, my boy,” continued the Swami, “the exertion has slightly shaken the system. The sensation of bitter cold there was like innumerable pinpricks. I also went into the cave with only a loin cloth on, my body being covered only with ashes. At the time I felt neither heat nor cold. On coming out. however, I was benumbed! . . .” The disciple then questioned him as to the legend of the white pigeons which are said to have their abode in the cave of Amarnath, and the sight of which on leaving the shrine grants, the legend holds, the fulfilment of any desire and heightens the merit of the pilgrimage accomplished. The Swami replied, “Yes! Yes! I know! I saw three or four white pigeons, but I could not be sure whether they belonged to the cave or lived in the adjoining hills.”
He spoke of the Divine Voice heard by him at the temple of Kshir-Bhavani. When the disciple sought to explain it away by suggesting that it might be a wholly subjective experience, the echo of intensely powerful thoughts with no objective reality, he gravely remarked, “Whether it be from within yourself, or from some external agency, if you hear with your own ear, exactly as you are hearing my words, a voice not connected with any form speaking to you from the skies, will you doubt its reality?”
Later on, the disciple asked the Swami if he had ever seen ghosts and spirits. He replied that the spirit of one of his relations had appeared to him now and then bringing new's of far-off places. “But,” he said, “on enquiry I found that its words were not always true. In a place of pilgrimage I prayed for its emancipation, and since then I have not seen that spirit again.”
The Swami was obliged to stay most of the time in Calcutta for treatment, but he did not allow his illness to prevent him from meeting the numerous visitors who flocked to him for instruction. One of his disciples writes of the Swami's activity in those days:
“A gathering was an everyday occurrence when Swamiji used to stay in Calcutta. At every hour of the day, from early morning till eight or nine at night, men would flock to him. This naturally occasioned much irregularity in his meals; so, his Gurubhais and friends desiring to put a stop to this state of things, strongly advised him not to receive visitors except at appointed hours. But the loving heart of Swamiji who was ever ready to go to any length to help others, was so melted with compassion at the sight of the thirst for religion in the people, that in spite of ill health he did not comply with any request of the kind. His only reply was, ‘They take so much trouble to come, walking all the way from their homes, and can I, sitting here, not speak a few words to them, merely because I risk my health a little?’”1
The Swami at that time was an embodiment of love. His heart went out to meet everybody. His grace descended upon all, saints and sinners alike. The misery of the world afflicted him terribly. Perhaps he also knew that the time for his final passing away was approaching. So he could not deny his blessings and benediction to anybody. As a result it was found that many persons who apparently led indifferent lives were initiated by him into the mysteries of spirituality. Soon a whisper went round the Math that the Swami was not a proper judge of a man’s inner propensities, that one could easily satisfy him with a few words of praise. Otherwise how could he give his blessings to men of such worldly propensities? These gossips particularly wounded the feeling of a disciple, and he one day, as the Swami was taking his evening stroll in the Math compound, approached him and said, “Well, Swamiji, I have something to ask you.” “Yes,” said the Swami without turning his head. Then the disciple said, “Much talk is going round the Math that you cannot properly discriminate a right person from a wrong one. You bestow your grace upon everybody without looking into his previous life or inner propensities. As a result we find some of your disciples leading an indifferent life even after receiving your blessings.” The Swami suddenly turned his head towards the disciple and exclaimed moved with emotion, “My boy, do you say that I do not know a man! What! When I see a man I not only find out the working of his inner self, but even get a glimpse of his previous life. I know what is going on in his subconscious mind. Even he does not know it. But, then, do you know why I bless such persons? The poor souls have knocked at every gate to get a little peace of mind. But they have been refused everywhere. They have come to me at last. If I, too, refuse them, they will have nothing else to fall back upon. So I do not discriminate. Oh, they are so afflicted! The world is so full of miseries!”
In this he was so like his Master, Shri Ramakrishna!
Sister Nivedita and her school were a constant source of interest to the Swami, and he always endeavoured to make the life she had adopted easier. Sometimes he would ask her to eat with him; he would then prepare special dishes for her, and force her to take them in his presence, for he knew that she was then undergoing rigorous austerities, living on a spare diet of milk and fruit and sleeping on a bare board, as the stricter nuns do in the convents of the West. He would now and then ask her to cook delicacies for him, so that she too might partake of them. He would also make others eat a little of the food cooked by her, thus breaking down to a great extent the iron barriers of orthodoxy among his own people with regard to her. And, as for his own orthodox disciples, he was constantly breaking the bonds of meaningless customs and traditions of ages. He would sometimes test their loyalty to him by asking them to partake, as his Prasada, of some food concerning which orthodoxy cries, “Hands off!” As regards Sister Nivedita he made every effort to have her accepted by the Hindu society, and was always ready to listen to her in a discussion.
One day, in company with Swami Yogananda and Sharat Chandra, the Swami took the Sister to see the Calcutta Zoological Gardens. The superintendent, Rai Bahadur Ramabrahma Sanyal, hearing of his visit, received him and his party cordially at the entrance, and showed them all the animal-houses. The Swami was desirous of seeing the feeding of the lions and the tigers; that was done for him at the order of the superintendent. The snakes interested him, and he entered into a long discussion on the history of the evolution of reptiles. Next it was the monkey-house. Here one calls to mind, how both in India and in the West, on seeing the almost-human members of this species, he woud sometimes address them curiously, saying, “Well, how did you get into that body? What frightful Karma in the past has brought you here?”
After the partaking of light refreshments a long conversation ensued. The superintendent was a student of Botany and Zoology and held strongly to the Darwinian theory of evolution. But the Swami, though admitting Darwin’s theory to be sound enough to a certain extent, assailed it with a greater theory, that of Patanjali’s “filling in of nature”, which, he showed, offered the ultimate solution of the causes of evolution. He pointed out that Patanjali, unlike the Western philosophers, did not believe in “Struggle for existence”, “Survival of the fittest”, and “Natural selection” as causes in the evolution of one species into another. Howsoever true these may be in the lower order of nature, struggle and competition, the Swami held, instead of making for progress, retard the development of human character. Perfection, according to the ancient Hindu sages, is man’s real nature; only it is prevented from manifestation by certain obstacles, and when these are removed, it manifests itself fully. And it is through education and culture, through meditation and concentration, and, above all, through renunciation and sacrifice that the obstacles are removed. Thus the competitive struggle of sex and food, he maintained, did not apply to the human plane, in its higher aspects; for the sages struggled to grow above and away from nature, to conquer animal instinct, to conquer even the sense of progress and merge the human nature in the Divine.
The superintendent much pleased exclaimed, “Swamiji, that is a wonderful theory! We need in India at the present day more men like you, versed in Eastern and Western Philosophy, to point out to our educated community their one-sidedness and to correct their fallacies and confusions.” The same evening he explained more clearly and elaborately his theory of evolution with special reference to the needs of modern India, to a group of friends and visitors, at Balaram Babu’s house.
To relate it briefly, he said that Darwin’s theory is applicable to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, but not to the human kingdom where reason and knowledge are highly developed. In our saints and ideal men we find no trace of struggle whatever, and no tendency to rise higher or grow stronger by the destruction of others. There we find sacrifice instead. The more one can sacrifice the greater is he. The struggle of a rational man is with his internal nature. The more he succeeds in controlling the mind the greater is he. On being questioned, “Why then do you emphasise so much the need of our physical improvement?” — the Swami thundered:
“Are you men? You are no better than animals, satisfied with eating, sleeping and propagating, and haunted by fear! If you had not had in you a little rationality, you would have been turned into quadrupeds by this time! Devoid of self-respect, you are full of jealousy among yourselves, and have made yourselves objects of contempt to foreigners! Throw aside your vain bragging, your theories and so forth, and reflect calmly on the doings and dealings of your everyday life. Because you are governed by animal nature, therefore I teach you to seek for success first in the struggle for existence, and to attend to the building up of your physique, so that, you may be able to wrestle all the better with your mind. The physically weak, I say again and again, are unfit for the realisation of the Self! When once the mind is controlled and man is the master of his self, it does not matter whether the body is strong or not, for then he is not dominated by it.”2
Sleep rarely visited the Swami at this period. His disease kept his brain constantly active, and at frequent intervals in the night and in the early hours of the morning he was awake. He therefore earnestly desired rest, as is evidenced by the following incident. It was an eclipse of the sun. He was at Balaram Babu’s house, and had just eaten a meal cooked by a disciple, who was rubbing his feet gently, when suddenly the sound of conch-shells and the ringing of bells were heard, announcing the approach of the eclipse. “Well,” said the Swami, “the eclipse of the sun has begun. Let me have a nap.” Later when the sky had become quite dark, he remarked, “Isn’t it an eclipse, indeed!” Then he turned over to sleep. Some time after, he arose and said to the disciple attending on him, “They say a man is rewarded a hundredfold in what he may desire or do during the time of an eclipse. I thought that if I could sleep soundly just a little now, I should get good sleep in the future. But it was not to be. I have slept for about fifteen minutes only. The Divine Mother has not blessed this body with sound sleep.”
One of the events of these days, which pleased the Swami greatly, was the starting of the Udbodhan as the Bengali fortnightly organ of the Order. Swami Trigunatita volunteered to be its editor and manager, with a few Brahmacharins to help him. A press was bought and the journal made its appearance on January 14, 1899. The Swami gave directions about the lines along which the paper should be conducted. Nothing but positive ideas for the physical, mental and spiritual improvement of the race should find place in the magazine. Instead of criticising and finding fault with the thoughts and aspirations of mankind as embodied in the literature, philosophy, poetry, arts, etc., of ancient and modern times, it should point out the way in which they might be made the more conducive to progress. It should never attack or seek to destroy any one’s faith. The highest doctrines of the Vedas and the Vedanta should be presented to the people in the simplest way, so that by diffusing true culture and knowledge it might in time be able to raise the Chandala to the status of the Brahmana. It should stand for universal harmony as preached by Shri Ramakrishna, and scatter his ideals of love, purity and renunciation. The untiring zeal and perseverance, marked by wonderful self-denial, with which Swami Trigunatita laboured for the success of the journal was most exemplary, and, as the Swami remarked, only an unselfish Sannyasin could do such heroic work.
It was on December 16 that the Swami announced to the monks that he would go for a short change to Vaidyanath, and that later on, probably in the summer, he would again visit Europe and America. The Swami insisted constantly on the necessity of performing works of service and of mercy, and aroused in the monks the desire to consecrate their lives to this ideal. On December 19, the Swami, attended by Harendra Nath, a Brahmachari disciple, left for Vaidyanath where he was the guest of Babu Priyanath Mukherjee. Here he busied himself with private studies, in writing letters, and in taking much exercise, spending long hours in walking. He was much alone those days; and removed from all public and business concerns, his mind tended to the meditative state, however much he tried to force himself to rest. On the whole, his health was bad; and here, for a time, complications arose. A violent form of asthma set in, causing him severe discomfort. In one of the asthmatic attacks he was almost suffocated; those who stood about him feared that the time had come for him to leave his body.
It was at the house of the same gentleman, when once he was staying with Swami Niranjanananda, that while out for a walk one day, they found a man lying helpless on the road side, in the cold of winter, suffering from acute dysentery. The poor man had only a rag on, and that too was soiled, and he was crying with pain. The Swami wondered how he could help him. He himself was only a guest. How could he take such a patient there without his host’s knowledge and consent? But he must do so, at any cost! With the help of his Gurubhai he gently raised the sufferer to his feet, and both lending their support brought him slowly to the house. There they cleansed and clothed his body, and put hot fomentations on him. The two Gurubhais nursed the sick man back to recovery. The host, instead of being vexed, was lost in admiration, and realised that the heart of Vivekananda was as great as his intellect!
During the Swarm’s absence from Calcutta, the Holy Mother visited the new monastery on December 20, 1898. On January 2, 1899, the Math was finally removed entirely from Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden-house to its present quarters. Sister Nivedita, on the invitation of the monks, gave a series of lessons to the Brahmacharins on Physiology, Botany, Arts and Painting, and on the Kindergarten system. The Swami was kept regularly informed of the movements of his Gurubhais and of the work at the monastery by letters sent to him almost daily at Vaidyanath.
Among the many epistles which he wrote during this period, that written to a certain Bengali woman-disciple, is particularly interesting, as it gives glimpses of his ideas on the origin of custom, widow-marriage, liberty, and the psychology of the religious consciousness. It reads in part as follows:
“Some very important questions have been raised in your letter. . . .
“(1) Rishi, Muni or God — none has the power to force an institution on society. When the needs of the times press hard on it, society adopts certain customs for self-preservation. Rishis have only recorded those customs. As a man often resorts even to such means as are good for immediate self-protection, but which are very injurious in the future, so also, society not infrequently saves itself for the time being, but these immediate means which contributed to its preservation turn out to be terrible in the long run.
“For example, take the prohibition of widow-marriage in our country. Don’t think that Rishis or wicked men introduced the law pertaining to it. Notwithstanding the desire of men to keep women completely under their control, they never could succeed in introducing those laws without betaking themselves to the aid of a social necessity of the time. Of this custom two points should be specially observed:
“(a) Widow-marriage takes place among the lower classes.
“(b) Among the higher classes the number of women is greater than that of men.
“Now, if it be the rule to marry every girl, it is difficult enough to get one husband apiece; then how to get, by and by, two or three for each? Therefore has society put. one party under disadvantage, i.e. it does not let her have a second husband, who has had one; if it did, one maid would have to go without a husband. On the other hand, widow-marriage obtains in communities having a greater number of men than women, as in their case the objection stated above does not exist. It is becoming more and more difficult, in the West too for unmarried girls to get husbands.
“Similar is the case with the caste system, and other social customs.
“So, if it be necessary to change any social custom, the necessity underlying it should be found out first of all; and by altering it, the custom will die of itself. Otherwise, no good will be done by condemnation or praise.
“(2) Now the question is: Is it for the good of the public at large that social rules are framed, or society is formed? Many reply to this in the affirmative; some again may hold that it is not so. Some men, being comparatively powerful, slowly bring all others under their control, and by stratagem, force, or adroitness, gain their own objects. If this be true, what can be the meaning of the statement, that there is danger in giving liberty to the ignorant? What, again, is the meaning of liberty?
“Liberty does not certainly mean the absence of obstacles in the path of misappropriation of wealth etc., by you and me, but it is our natural right to be allowed to use our own body, intelligence or wealth according to our will, without doing any harm to others; and all the members of a society ought to have the same opportunity for obtaining wealth, education, or knowledge. The second question is: Those who say that if the ignorant and the poor be given liberty, i.e., full right to their body, wealth, etc., and if their children have the same opportunity to better their condition and acquire knowledge like those of the rich and highly situated, they would be perverse — do they say this for the good of the society, or blinded by their selfishness? In England, too, I have heard, ‘Who will serve us, if the lower classes get education?’
“For the luxury of a handful of the rich let millions of men and women remain submerged in the hell of want and abysmal depth of ignorance, for if they get wealth and education, society will be upset!
“Who constitute society? The millions, or you, I, and a few others of the upper classes?
“Again, even if the latter be true, what ground is there for our vanity that we lead others? Are we omniscient? ‘Uddhared Atmana Atmanam’ — ‘Raise self by self.’ Let each one work out one’s own salvation. It is freedom in every way, i.e. advance towards Mukti is the worthiest gain of man. To advance towards freedom — physical, mental and spiritual — and help others to do so is the supreme prize of man. Those social rules which stand in the way of the unfoldinent of this freedom are injurious, and steps should he taken to destroy them speedily. Those institutions should be encouraged by which men advance in the path of freedom. . .”
This letter reveals the many-sidedness of the Swami's character. He was as much a sociologist as a religious teacher.
Among the many important letters that he had received from distinguished Indians during his last stay in Calcutta, the one from the great millionaire-philanthropist of Bombay, Sir Jamsedji N. Tata, is worth quoting here, even though the contents of the Swami's reply to this significant note are not in the hands of the Brotherhood:
“Dear Swami Vivekananda,
“I trust you remember me as a fellow-traveller on your voyage from Japan to Chicago. I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels.
“I recall these ideas in connection with my scheme of Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read. It seems to me that no better use can be made of the ascetic spirit than the establishment of monasteries or residential halls for men dominated by this spirit, where they should live with ordinary decency, and devote their lives to the cultivation of sciences — natural and humanistic. I am of opinion that if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science, and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda. Do you think you would care to apply yourself to the mission of galvanising into life our ancient traditions in this respect? Perhaps, you had better begin with a fiery pamphlet rousing our people in this matter. I should cheerfully defray all the expenses of publication.
“With kind regards, I am, dear Swami,
Jamsedji N. Tata”
“23rd November, 1898.
“Esplanade House, Bombay.
The Swami remained at Vaidyanath until the last days of January, 1899. On February 3, he is seen once more in the companionship of his Gurubhais and disciples, carrying on the task of training them for the firm establishment of that mission for which he had been born.
The Swami, it must be remembered, was always busy training consciously or unconsciously his Sannyasin and Brahmacharin disciples in various ways. Now, it would be that they should cook for him — himself an excellent cook — or execute his orders with exactitude and promptness. In the way of discipline he was most rigorous and exacting, so that they might learn the greatest accuracy, and following the example of the great Pavhari Baba, concentrate on even the simplest acts of life. In this connection he once said, “He who knows how even to fill a Chillum of tobacco properly, knows also how to meditate. And he who cannot cook well, cannot be a perfect Sannyasin. Unless cooking is performed with a pure mind and concentration, the food is not palatable.” Or, he would train some of the disciples with the design of making them preachers. He would ask them to stand up and speak extempore before him and a group of Sannyasins and householders. Sometimes, they would be shy, but he would insist, and tell them the story of how Shri Ramakrishna had once given him sound advice as to the overcoming of shyness. “Think,” said Shri Ramakrishna, “of the men before you as worms, as the old proverb runs!” Once warmed up to the subject, the disciples would speak fluently, now on the Upanishads, now on Jnana or Bhakti, or again on the necessity of Shraddha, renunciation, and so forth. He would always encourage them with cheers, or with saying “Well done!” at the end of a speech. Of Swami Shuddhananda, he said, “In time he will be an excellent speaker!” Again to the same Swami he said one day, by way of encouragement, being satisfied at one of his works, “You are the beloved son in whom I am pleased.” He always used to extol to the highest even the smallest merit of his followers.
A remarkable characteristic of the Swami was, that he made all who were about him feel great and equal to brave or dare anything. Success or failure, on their part, would elicit from him nothing but approbation and encouragement; for he judged his Gurubhais and his disciples, not by their actual achievements, but by the spirit which actuated them. Enough, if they had dared and done their best! He would throw them into water beyond their depth, figuratively speaking, to make them learn to swim. He had infinite faith in the possibilities of the human soul, and would inspire them with a fire and an eloquence which were simply irresistible. He told them that they were as capable of inspiration as he himself. He could see an atom of goodness in the disciple magnified to a mountain, and the mountains of faults and failings but as mere atoms! In such a relationship, every word spoken, every thought, every act attempted or accomplished, every purpose grasped or uncompre-liended, became charged with power and vision. Such was the spirit in the Math in those days.
The internal affairs of the Math were perfectly organised by Swami Saradananda, who had been called back from America by the Swami, especially for that purpose. Even though he knew that the former was just at the height of his usefulness and possibilities there, he thought it a greater and more urgent duty to have the work of the headquarters organised and some of the younger members trained for the life of the preacher by one who had made himself acquainted with Western needs and temperaments, and with Western methods of organisation. Besides, he knew that the work in America would not suffer; for Swami Abhedananda was working there with untiring zeal and surprising success. Since his arrival at the Math at the beginning of February 1898, Swami Saradananda gave himself up to his task with great devotion. Everything went on like clock-work and with great enthusiasm. Question-classes and classes for the study of the Sanskrit language and of Eastern and Western philosophies were conducted regularly by him and by Swami Turiyananda, and meditation classes were held daily. The business part of the Math was entrusted to the younger members. This was initiated at the instance of the Swami, as he held that unless they were given independence and the right of self-government in their sphere, with responsibilities to shoulder, they would never learn to stand on their own feet and work whole-heartedly for the cause. They formed themselves into a body, electing a superintendent from among themselves for every month, who was responsible for the efficient carrying out of all the daily duties and demands of the Math. On the principle of division of labour the superintendent assigned to every fellow-disciple his duties, had a reserve force to meet emergencies, and allowed some in turn to devote themselves entirely to Tapasya. He had to see that all work was done properly and in time, that everything was kept neat and clean and in its place, and that the sick members were nursed, and so on. It was a delight to the Swami to see both before he left the Math in the early part of the year 1898, and after he returned in October, that the organisation of the Math was so satisfactory.
The Swami is seen in these days pre-eminently in his monastic aspect, constantly teaching his disciples the ideals and practice of the monastic life. Gathering them together whenever the mood came upon him, he would instruct them on the duties of their life, impress upon them the responsibilities of the great vow they had taken, and put before them its glories and possibilities. He would often say, “Brahmacharya should be like a burning fire within the veins!” Or, “Remember, the ideal is the freedom of the Soul and service to all.” Life of Sannyasa meant to him, renunciation of the personal for the universal good till the personal was merged in the impersonal. He made ideals so intensely practical and living that one never thought of them as abstractions. He held that nothing was impossible for one who had faith in himself. He would point out:
“The history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within. You can do anything. You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently to manifest infinite power. As soon as a man loses faith in himself, death comes.
“Believe first in yourself and then in God. A handful of strong men will move the world. We need a heart to feel, a brain to conceive, and a strong arm to do the work. Buddha gave himself for the animals. Make yourselves fit agents to work. But it is God who works, not you. One man contains within him the whole universe. One particle of matter has all the energy of the universe at its back. In a conflict between the heart and the brain, follow your heart.”3
In one of the congregations of disciples the talk drifted to Adhikarivada, or the doctrine of special rights and privileges, and the Swami spoke in unmeasured terms against it and the evils that have resulted from it. He said that the highest truths should be given to one and all alike without any distinction. His disciples should be bold enough to give out the truth unequivocally and fearlessly without caring for the prevailing customs of the people and of the country.
“No compromise! No whitewashing!” he cried out, “No covering of corpses with flowers!” . . . This attempt at compromise proceeds from arrant, downright cowardice. Be hold! My children should he brave, above all. Not the least compromise on any account. Preach the highest truths broadcast. Do not be afraid of losing your respect, or of causing unhappy friction. Rest assured that if you serve Truth in spite of temptations to forsake It, you will attain a heavenly strength, in the face of which men will quail to speak before you things which you do not believe to be true. People would be convinced by what you say to them, if you can strictly serve Truth for fourteen years continually, without swerving from It. Thus you will confer the greatest blessing on the masses, unshackle their bondages and uplift the whole nation.”4
Or quoting Bhartrihari he would exclaim, “Let sages praise thee, or let the world blame. Let fortune itself come, or let poverty and rags stare thee in the face. Eat the herbs of the forest, one day, for food; and the next day, share a banquet of fifty courses. Looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, follow thou on!”
Again and again he would say that only a great monk can be a great worker. “Only the unimpassioned and unattached do most for the world” he would say. “Who can claim to be a greater worker than Buddha or Christ?” In the Swami's eyes there was no work which was secular. All work was sacred. All work was worship. “We must combine the practicality and the culture of the finest citizenship with the love of poverty, purity and thorough renunciation that characterise the true monk and man of God!”
In discussing the character of service which the monks should take up, he would speak of the feeding of the poor, relief in times of famine, nursing the sick, directing the sanitation of an infected town, founding orphanages and hospitals and centres of education and training — all of which have since become integral elements in the work and life of the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission. In the monastery itself, besides leading the spiritual and intellectual life, they were also to acquaint themselves, theoretically and practically, with music, gardening, the keeping of animals, and so forth. And he himself, setting an example, would often experiment in the sinking of a well or cooking and baking, or teaching them choral singing. He would insist on physical exercise, saying, “I want sappers and miners in the army of religion! So, boys, set yourselves to the task of training your muscles! For ascetics, mortification is all right! For workers, well-developed bodies, muscles of iron and nerves of steel!” Study, also, was required in order that the monks might, through their learning, develop well-reasoned judgment on the adjustment between the social and spiritual needs of the times and the best way to bring about an exchange of the highest ideals between the East and the West.
The Swami was never tired of impressing upon the minds of his monastic disciples that renunciation with unbroken Brahmacharya was the only key to Illumination, to the realisation of the Highest. The life of the monk was a continuous struggle, a warfare with the internal nature. As such, he must practise intense Tapasya, self-control and concentration if he aspired to victory. Nothing pleased him so much as to see some one of them devoting himself to austerities and meditation in solitude. Once he turned fiercely upon someone, who had put to him a worldly question, with the remark, “Go and perform Tapasya for some time in order to purify your mind, and then you will not ask such perverse questions!”
The Swami insisted that in their preparatory stage his disciples must submit themselves to strict discipline, and scrupulously observe the regulations about food and other external restrictions enjoined on the Brahmacharins. On the night of December 16, before he left for Vaidyanath, he held a long meeting at the monastery, in which he gave instructions to the younger members concerning the regulation of food, and particularly about eating sparingly at night. Knowing the importance of the action of food on the mind, he said, “Without control over food the control of the mind is impossible. Overeating causes much evil. Both body and mind are ruined by over eating!” In their state of spiritual development they were not to eat food touched by non-Hindus. In this preparatory stage they should have Nishtha without being narrow-minded and bigoted. They should keep firmly to the life of Brahmacharya. But if, at any time, they found themselves unable to adhere to the high ideals and rigorous discipline of Sannyasa, they should be free to return to the householder's life. This was a much more desirable and manly step than to lead a hypocritical life and bring degradation on themselves and disgrace to the Order. They were to rise early, meditate and perform their religious duties systematically, and be particularly mindful of Tapasya. They should take special care of their health, and be punctual as to the time of meals and other personal necessities. Their conversation at all time should be on religious subjects. As in Western monasteries, they were not even to read newspapers during a certain period of their training. They were not to mix freely with householders. On this point, charging them, one day in the month of May, in a fever of monastic passion, he exclaimed:
“The men of the world should have no voice in the affairs of the Math. The Sannyasin should have nothing to do with the rich, his duty is with the poor. He should treat the poor with loving care, and serve them joyfully with all his might. To pay respects to the rich and hang on them for support has been the bane of all the monastic communities of our country. A true Sannyasin should scrupulously avoid that. Such conduct becomes a public woman rather than one who professes to have renounced the world. How should a man, immersed in Kama-Kanchana (lust and greed), become a true devotee of one whose central ideal was the renunciation of Kama-Kanchana? Shri Ramakrishna wept and prayed to the Divine Mother to send him such a one to talk with as would not have in him the slightest tinge of Kama-Kanchana, for he would say, ‘My lips burn when I talk with the worldly-minded.’ He also used to say that he could not even bear the touch of the worldly-minded and the impure. That King of Sannyasins can never be preached by men of the world. The latter can never be perfectly sincere, for they cannot but have some selfish motives to serve. If God incarnates Himself as a householder, I can never believe him to be sincere. When a householder takes the position of the leader of a religious sect, he begins to serve his own interests in the name of principle, hiding the former in the garb of the latter, and the result is, that the sect becomes in time rotten to the core. All religious movements headed by householders have shared the same fate. Without renunciation religion can never stand.”5
After his return from Vaidyanath the Swami framed certain rules for his young disciples in order to guard them from the least touch of worldliness or contact with worldly-minded people. The latter should not, out of familiarity, sit or lie on the Sadhus’ beds, or sit at meals with them, and so on. To a disciple he said:
“Nowadays I feel a sort of disagreeable smell of lust in the bodies and clothes of worldly people. I had read of it in the Shastras, and now I find why it is that men of purity and renunciation cannot bear the touch or the association of the worldly-minded. With right rigour and wisdom the Shastras enjoin Brahmacharins to remain absolutely aloof from not only women but also even from those who associate with women. When the Brahmacharins become firmly established in the ideals of Sannyasa, there is no harm in their mixing with householders.”6
But it is not to be supposed from the above, that the Swami was a hater of householders or of women. He would not allow the younger members of the Math to live even in the Holy Mother’s retreat in Calcutta for the purpose of serving her — whom he adored as greatly as he did Shri Ramakrishna — just because it was like a women’s Math where women-devotees lived and many ladies came to pay their respects to the Holy Mother and to be taught by her. There was the instance of his rating a young Brahmacharin of blameless character, whom he found there after returning from Kashmir, and of his appointing an aged but energetic disciple in his place.
The Swami was not blind to the great virtues and ideals of the householder’s life, and he counted among his best friends men and women whose lives he held up as examples even to his monastic followers. He would often say, “I understand the greatness of the ideal householder, full of the yearning to protect and serve, eager to earn righteously and spend benevolently and ever striving to order his life after a spiritual ideal. Marriage may be the path, in fact, the only path, for certain souls, but he who has adopted the monastic life should know that everything in the world is fraught with fear. Renunciation alone can make one fearless. My boys, you must appropriate the greatness of the householder’s ideal.
“Our ideal of service to the world must be like that of the householder as taught in the parable of the birds. On seeing that two weary travellers, who had come beneath the forest tree in which they rested, had nothing to eat, the birds cast themselves into the fire lighted by the travellers in order to furnish them with food, because they thought that it was their duty as householders to do so.” Teaching the members of the Order in this way he infused into them a spirit, in which the highest service was made one with the highest of meditation.
Sometimes in a mood of remonstrance he would exclaim, “Say, what work shall I do in your country! Everyone here wants to lead, and none to obey. In the doing of great works, the commands of the leader have to be implicitly obeyed. If my Gurubhais tell me now that I have to pass the rest of my life in cleansing the drain of the Math, know, for certain, that I shall obey that order without a word of protest. He only can be a great commander who knows how to obey, without a word of murmur, that which is for the general good.” One is reminded here of that same readiness and utter self-abandonment in obedience, which the founders of the Western monastic orders demanded of their followers. To order the planting of cabbages with the heads downwards, or to remove a heap of stone from one place to another and then back again, as many times as ordered without asking the reason why, was one of Saint Francis of Assisi’s methods of testing his disciples. The will of the individual must be trained; only in that way, the Swami held, could the strength of a monastic organisation be maintained.
The Swami was sometimes tempted to give way to despair and think his life a failure, since there did not come to him “Two thousand enthusiastic youths” to be trained as Sannyasin workers ready to give their lives for the spiritual regeneration of their motherland, and the “Three hundred million rupees”; for, he used to say, that with these at his command, he could solve all of India’s problems and set her on her feet! “However,” he said, “I will do the very best myself, and infuse my spirit in others to continue the work. No rest for me! I shall die in harness! I love action! Life is a battle, and one must always be in action, to use a military phrase. Let me live and die in action!”
One evening while pacing to and fro, restless with the greatness of his thought, he suddenly stopped and exclaimed to a Sannyasin disciple, “Listen, my boy! Shri Ramakrishna came and gave his life for the world; I also will sacrifice my life; you also, every one of you, should do the same. All these works are only a beginning. Believe me, from the shedding of our lifeblood will arise gigantic heroes and warriors of God, who will revolutionise the whole world!” And he would often charge his disciples with the words, “Never forget, service to the world and the realisation of God are the ideals of the monk! Stick to them! The monastic is the most immediate of paths! Between the monk and his God there are no idols! ‘The Sannyasin stands on the head of the Vedas!’ say the Vedas, for he is free from churches and sects and religions and prophets and scriptures! He is the visible God on earth! Remember this, and go thou thy way, Sannyasin bold, carrying the banner of renunciation — the banner of peace, of freedom, of blessedness.”
When the Swami returned to Calcutta, he used to live sometimes in the new monastery and sometimes at Balaram Babu’s house. Though his health was still broken, he came with new plans and an invigorated spirit. Vaidyanath had done him some good inasmuch as it had given him rest. The very day after his return he held a meeting of his brother-monks, telling them that they must now be prepared to go forth, as did the followers of Buddha, and preach the gospel of Shri Ramakrishna to the people of India. Accordingly, that very day he called Swamis Virajananda and Prakashananda, his disciples, and instructed them to proceed at once to Dacca in Eastern Bengal. The former of them humbly protested, saying, “Swamiji, what shall I preach, I know nothing!” “Then, go and preach that!” exclaimed the Swami. “That in itself is a great message!” But the disciple, still unconvinced, prayed that he might be allowed to practise further Sadhanas and attain Realisation first, for his own salvation. The Swami thereupon thundred at him saying, “You will go to hell if you seek your own salvation! Seek the salvation of others if you want to reach the Highest! Kill out the desire for personal Mukti! That is the greatest of all Sadhanas.” And he added sweetly, “Work, my children, work with your whole heart and soul! That is the thing. Mind not the fruits of work. What if you go to hell itself working for others? That is better than winning heaven through self-sought salvation!” Afterwards he called these two disciples, bidding them to come into the worship-room of the monastery. The three sat in meditation, the Swami entering the deeper states thereof. Then, he solemnly said, “Now I shall infuse my Shakti, my Power into you! The Lord Himself shall be at your back!” That whole day he was most loving to these two disciples, and gave them private instructions concerning what they should preach and what Mantras they should give to such as might desire to be initiated. Thus specially blessed by their Guru, they left for Dacca on February 4. The Swami, moreover, commissioned two of his Gurubhais, Swamis Saradananda and Turiyananda, to preach in Gujarat, and they set out on their journey three days later.
It was the Swami’s great desire that the Vedas and other Shastras should be studied at the Math. From the time the monastery was removed to Nilambar Mukherjee’s Garden, he had started with the help of his Gurubhais regular classes on the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Vedanta-Sutras, the Gita, the Bhdgavata and other scriptures, and had himself taught for a time Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. Now he busied himself with a comprehensive study of Sanskrit scriptures and literature. And it was in these days that he composed his two great Sanskrit poems on Shri Ramakrishna, one of which is now daily sung at the Arati, evening service, at the Ramakrishna monasteries.
During this period many came from far and near to see the Swami, and constant discussion on religion and philosophy and on the ways and means of material and national improvement went on, recalling the days at Seal’s Garden. But the most memorable was the visit of Nag Mahashaya, who came all the way from his distant village-home at Deobhog in the district of Dacca, to the new Math. It was like the coming together of two great forces, one representing the highest type of the ancient householder’s ideal and the other, the ideal of a new type of monasticism — one mad with God-intoxication, the other intoxicated with the idea of bringing out the Divine in man — but both one in the vision of Sannyasa and Realisation! An account of the meeting will convey to the reader some idea of their mutual appreciation.
After saluting each other Nag Mahashaya exclaimed, “Jay Shankara! Blessed am I to see before me the living Shiva!” and remained standing before the Swami with folded hands. On being asked about his health he said, “What is the use of enquiring about a worthless lump of flesh and bones! I feel blissful at seeing Shiva Himself!” With these words he fell prostrate before the Swami, who at once raised him up. At this time the Upanishad class was being held. The Swami addressing his disciples said, “Let the class be stopped. Come and see Nag Mahashaya.” When all had seated themselves around the great devotee, the Swami said, “Look! He is a householder, but he has no consciousness of whether he has a body or not, of whether the universe exists or not! He is always absorbed in the thought of God! He is a living example of what man becomes when he attains Supreme Bhakti.” Turning to Nag Mahashaya he requested him to tell them something of Shri Ramakrislina, but he with his characteristic humility replied, “What shall I say! I am too unworthy to speak of Him! I have only come to purify myself with the sight of Mahavira who is His complement in the Divine play (Lila) of the Lord in His Incarnation as Shri Ramakrishna. Victory be to Him! Victory be to Him!” The Swami remarked, “You have truly known what our Master was; we are only beating about the bush!” Whereupon Nag Mahashaya broke forth in protest, “Pray, do not speak such meaningless words. You are the shadow of Shri Ramakrishna; He and you are the obverse and the reverse of the same coin! Let him see who has the eyes to see!”
After some talk the Swami said to him, “It would be so good if you would come and live at the Math. These boys will have a living example before them to mould their lives after. The great Bhakta replied in a mood of resignation, “I once asked the Master's permission to give up the world. He said, ‘Live in the world.’ So I am following his command, and come occasionally to be blessed with the sight of you all, his children.” Then the following dialogue ensued between them:
Swamiji: “Now my only wish is to awaken the country. This great giantess is as if sleeping, having lost all faith in her own strength — sleeping, dead to all outward appearance. If we can awaken her once more to the consciousness of her infinite strength in the Sanatana Dharma (eternal religion), then our Lord and we shall not have been born in vain! Only that one desire remains; Mukti and the like seem like trash before it! Do bless me that I may succeed.”
Nag Mahashaya: “The Lord is ever blessing you! Who can check your will? Your will and His are one. Jay Ramakrishna!”
Swamiji: “Oh, if only I had had a strong body, so needful for work! See, how since my coming back to India, my health is impaired, frustrating all my plans of work. In Europe and America I was so well.”
Nag Mahashaya: “Living in a body, as the Master used to say, one has to pay taxes in the shape of disease and affliction. But yours is a chest of gold sovereigns, and so it has to be guarded with vigilant care. Alas, who will do that! Who will understand what it means to the world!”
Swamiji: “Everyone in the Math looks after me with great love and care.”
Nag Mahashaya: “Blessed are they that serve you, for thus they are doing good not only to themselves but to the world at large, whether they understand it or not!”
It is impossible to express in writing the manner and the spirit in which Nag Mahashaya spoke these words of appreciation of the Swami. To the outside world they may well appear too fulsome and theatrical, and even blasphemous; but they will strike one, who knew that godly soul, as spontaneous and coming out of his deepest conviction. And those who were present at the meeting, found it difficult to check tears of emotion; for Nag Mahashaya had the rare power of breathing his thoughts and yearnings, by a few simple words, or even by a mere look, into the soul of his hearers until the tenderest feeling became living and vibrant!
The four preachers sent out by the Swami did excellent work in the various cities they visited. Everywhere they found great missionary opportunities for the spread of the gospel of Shri Ramakrishna, which appealed directly to all hearts, mainly because of its simplicity and directness. Swamis Virajananda and Prakashananda started, at the earnest desire of the citizens of Dacca, a branch of the Ramakrishna Mission there. Swamis Saradananda and Turiyananda made a tour of the cities in Kathiawar, and were enthusiastically welcomed by devoted admirers of the Swami, whom they found everywhere. By their lectures and talks on Vedanta the Swamis created a profound impression on the minds of the citizens of that distant province. After three months of preaching and teaching the four missionaries returned to the monastery at the call of the Swami who was rejoiced to hear the reports of their success.
It will be interesting to note here how the movement, initiated by the Swami in India and abroad, was being carried on by his co-workers whom he had inspired with the ideal of practising and preaching the Vedanta. In doing so, one sees four prominent features which characterised it at the close of the last century. Firstly, the propaganda of the Vedanta by individual Sannyasins of the Order; secondly, the founding of monastic centres; thirdly, the starting of temporary centres for the relief of distress in times of famine, plague, etc.; and fourthly, the establishment of permanent asylums for orphans.
To recapitulate the ground already covered: We have seen the inauguration of the Ramakrishna Mission in Calcutta, the establishment of the Math in Belur as the permanent headquarters of the Order and its organisation on a solid basis, the starting of the centre and the work of preaching by Swami Ramakrishnananda in Madras, the opening of the Girls’ School by Sister Nivedita at Calcutta, the sending out of four preachers to Gujarat and Eastern Bengal and the Vedanta work carried on by Swamis Saradananda and Abhedananda in England and America up to the end of 1896. We have mentioned the famine relief operations conducted by Swami Akhandananda in the District of Murshidabad in 1897, and the sanitary work initiated in 1898 in connection with the plague epidemic in Calcutta.
The Ramakrishna Mission held its weekly sittings in Calcutta regularly throughout 1897. Under its auspices public meetings also were held frequently at which Sister Nivedita and Swami Saradananda often delivered lectures. Swami Ramakrishnananda delivered several lectures and ably conducted as many as eleven classes a week in different parts of the city of Madras under the auspices of different societies. He also visited various other cities of the Presidency to carry on the Vedanta work there.
About the middle of 1897, the Swami deputed Swami Shivananda to work in Ceylon, in response to an appeal for a teacher made by the leading Hindu communities to him while he had been there. Besides arousing an interest in the Vedanta philosophy among the Tamil and the Sinhalese population there, Swami Shivananda opened classes for the teaching of Raja-Yoga and the Gita, the latter of which was attended by several Europeans also. One of them, Mrs. Pickett, to whom he gave the name of Hari-Priya, was especially trained by him so as to qualify her to teach the Vedanta to Europeans. He sent her with his authority to Australia and New Zealand to prepare the way for a teacher of the Vedanta there. She made a tour of both countries, interested earnest students in her cause and opened classes in Adelaide, S. Victoria and Nelson.
Swami Abhayananda, the first Sannyasin disciple of Swami Vivekananda in America, after nearly four years of brilliant preaching and teaching in Chicago and other cities, came to India in March 1899, and delivered stirring and learned lectures in Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Dacca, Mymensingh and Barisal.
The idea and the necessity of starting a monastery in a cool, secluded region of the Himalayas where the East and the West could meet on an equal footing of love and unity, exchange the highest ideals of each, and practise the Advaita philosophy, were much in the Swami’s thought. He had written to a friend that this monastery must be about 7,000 feet above sea-level, as he did not want to kill his Western disciples, who would come to work in India for the furtherance of his cause, by forcing on them the Indian mode of living in the fiery heat of the plains. On his tours he had himself looked for a suitable site in the hills in and about Dharamsala, Murree, Srinagar, Dehra-Dun and the town of Almora, but none answered the purpose satisfactorily. At length, when he went to Kashmir, he left the matter in the hands of Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, who, in the company of Swami Swarupananda made a tour into the interior of the Almora District, and, in the course of an extensive and diligent search, came upon the beautiful estate of Mayavati with its thickly-wooded hills at an elevation of 6,300 feet and fifty miles from Almora and commanding a magnificent view of the snow ranges. They decided it at once to be the spot for their cherished scheme of starting the Advaita Ashrama and of finding a permanent home for the Prabuddha Bharata. The purchase was promptly made and they came to make it their retreat on March 19, 1899, which happened to be the auspicious birthday anniversary of Shri Ramakrishna. The Advaita Ashrama was founded with the heartfelt blessings of the Swami and under his guidance, and the press was removed thither.
It is not too much to say that the Advaita Ashrama is the most unique of all the institutions started under the inspiration of the Swami, as the following lines which he wrote to the joint-founders of the Ashrama setting forth its ideal and principles will show:
“In Whom is the Universe, Who is in the Universe, Who is the Universe; in Whom is the Soul, Who is in the Soul, Who is the Soul of man; knowing Him, and therefore the Universe, as our Self, alone extinguishes all fear, brings an end to misery and leads to infinite freedom. Wherever there has been expansion in love or progress in well being of individuals or numbers, it has been through the perception, realisation and the practicalisation of the Eternal Truth — The Oneness of All Beings. ‘Dependence is misery. Independence is happiness.’ The Advaita is the only system which gives unto man complete possession of himself, takes off all dependence and its associated superstitions, thus making us brave to suffer, brave to do, and in the long run attain to Absolute freedom.
“Hitherto it has not been possible to preach this Noble Truth entirely free from the settings of dualistic weakness; this alone, we are convinced, explains why it has not been more operative and useful to mankind at large.
“To give this ONE TRUTH a freer and fuller scope in elevating the lives of individuals and leavening the mass of mankind, we start this Advaita Ashrama on the Himalayan heights, the land of its first expiration.
“Here it is hoped to keep Advaita free from all superstitions and weakening contaminations. Here will be taught and practised nothing but the Doctrine of Unity, pure and simple; and though in entire sympathy with all other systems, this Ashrama is dedicated to Advaita and Advaita alone.”7
Here there is no external worship of images, pictures or symbols of God, nor any religious ceremony or ritual except the Viraja Homa — not even the worship of his own Master, which is the central feature in the other monastic centres.
Before he left on his second visit to the West, the Swami in compliance with a request sent four of his disciples to help in the work of the Ashrama. Accordingly, within a week of his departure, Swamis Sachchidananda (senior), Virajananda and Vimalananda, and the Brahmachari Harendra Nath left the Belur Math to take up enthusiastically their new duties, which were mainly the construction of a building for the monks, roadmaking and agricultural work and helping in the publication of the journal.
Besides these institutions now firmly established, the three magazines already mentioned, namely, the Brahmavadin of Madras, the Prabuddha Bharata of Almora, and the Udbodhan of Calcutta, started either under the auspices or under the direct control and guidance of the Swami and conducted by his Gurubhais and disciples, did a vast amount of educational work in India and abroad. They spread far and wide his ideas and those of his Master. They brought out, vindicated and interpreted the thoughts and ideals of the ancient Indian sages and philosophers. They published the reports of the various activities of the members of the Order, and also brought out their writings and lectures.
Turning now to the Vedanta movement carried on in the West during the Swami’s absence, we notice that Swami Abhedananda who had taken charge of the classes in London continued them ably, and daily added to his own power as a teacher. Owing to the urgent and repeated calls from the Vedanta Society of New York for a Swami to take charge of the centre, he was obliged to leave for America in the latter part of July 1897, after working for some ten months in London, and the classes which he had been conducting had to be temporarily suspended, though the work was never at a standstill. The disciples of the Swami and many other students interested in the Vedanta continued to meet in small groups and helped each other and themselves by readings, talks and discussions, with unabated zeal, looking forward to Swami Vivekananda's return to them at no distant future.
It is wellnigh impossible to give here a full and systematic account of the wide-spread propaganda carried on by Swamis Saradananda, Abhedananda and Abhayananda in America. These missionaries of the Vedanta successfully carried their gospel through many of the principal States, making their headquarters in Boston, New York and Chicago, and the influential newspapers often contained eloquent editorials expressive of appreciation of their lectures and admiration for their personalities.
Swami Saradananda, as previously mentioned, was called back by the Swami to help his Indian work, especially in organising the chief monastery at Belur and training the disciples there as preachers for the West. He left New York for India on January 12, 1898, after about two years of incessant preaching.
Swami Abhedananda visited many cities of the U.S.A., delivering lectures and holding classes. He then established himself in New York where he opened regular classes on Yoga and meditation, which were attended by earnest students. To an occasional attendant at his classes the growth of interest was unmistakable in steadily increasing audiences of intelligent persons, many of them members of orthodox churches, with a representation of well-known persons in public life.
During this first period of his work, Swami Abhedananda met many representative thinkers in the world of art, science and religion, both in private life and in social gatherings, and by his unfailing courtesy and readiness in answering questions he awakened their friendly interest in his mission and teachings. One of the most liberal and enlightened of New York clergymen even went so far as to distribute the Swami’s lecture programmes among his congregation, advising them to go and listen to his teachings.
Swami Abhedananda delivered eighty-six lectures in Mott’s Memorial Hall alone. As the foregoing will show, he made a splendid record of arduous work well done, and secured the lasting esteem of all who had come within the sphere of his influence. Several of the best journals of the State, such as The Sun, The New York Tribune, The Critic, The Literary Digest, The Times, The Intelligence, and The Mind, published throughout appreciative accounts of his teaching and his personality.
On Easter Sunday, Swami Abhedananda initiated four Brahmacharins. During the summer he left New York to visit Worcester, Boston, Cambridge and other New England points and met many able and influential persons. Among others were Mr. Edison, the great inventor; Joseph Jefferson, the famous actor; William Dean Howells, the novelist; and professors in Cornell, Iowa, Yale and other universities.
No less active was Swami Abhayananda in preaching the gospel of the Vedanta in the United States, with her characteristic zeal and energy. Within four weeks the power of her teaching had been so strongly felt that men and women of intelligence and of high social standing gathered round her, and urged upon her to establish herself at Chicago. She accordingly founded the Advaita Society.
Thus one sees that the seeds sown by Swami Vivekananda on the American soil went on growing vigorously as days passed, striking their roots deep down into the heart of the nation. “It will be impossible to tell,” wrote a friend, “how many will look back in after years to the teachings of the Swamis as a turning-point in their lives.” In these six years one sees the growing influence of Oriental philosophy in America in the subjects comprised in courses of lectures, in sermons preached in some of the best known churches, in the publication of an increasing number of metaphysical and philosophical magazines, and in the rise of “New Thought” Societies — all setting forth the principles and practices of the Vedanta, under many names and in various ways. Thus, when the Swami left the shores of India the second time for the West, he did it with a satisfying consciousness of an ever-brightening prospect opening up before him. And though his visit was intended to be chiefly in search of health, he was again hurled into the vortex of intense activity, for preaching and teaching was as vital a part of his life as the air he breathed.
Let us also turn our attention to another sphere of activity, which, though humble, is not a less important factor of the movement — the various humanitarian works undertaken by the Brotherhood to alleviate the wants and miseries of the suffering humanity in India, starting with Bengal as a nucleus.
Swami Akhandananda, fired by the enthusiastic words of the Leader, did much educational work in Khetri. Through his activities the number on the roll in the local school increased immensely and the staff and quality of teaching also improved. At that time the system of slavery was in vogue in Rajputana. Through the endeavours of Swami Akhandananda many slave boys were made free and proper arrangements were made for their education.
But Swami Akhandananda's activities were not confined to the town alone. Going about from village to village he established five Lower Primary Schools. Shortly after, at the advice of Swami Vivekananda, and satisfied with seeing the uniform progress of these schools, the Maharaja of Khetri sanctioned from the revenue of his State an additional annual grant of rupees five thousand for the education department. The local Sanskrit School was also, by Swami Akhandananda’s effort, converted into a Vedic School for teaching Yajur-Veda. Some time after, in 1895, the Swami went to Nathdwara in Udaipur State for a brief stay, and there also after much labour started a Middle English School, and managed to conduct it for a time, thanks to the help of a Bengali youth. Besides these, he established in Alwar and other States in Rajputana several associations for the culture of knowledge, in which religion, various branches of learning and many other subjects pertaining to the welfare of the people were discussed.
Allusion has been made elsewhere to the famine relief work conducted by Swami Akhandananda in the District of Murshidabad with his exemplary zeal and self-sacrifice, which drew from the Government authorities praise and cordial co-operation. Moved by the helpless condition of deserted children in the course of his wanderings through affected villages, the Swami conceived the idea of starting an orphanage and began his work with two little orphans in August 1897, at Mahula, the centre of his relief work. At the beginning of 1899, it was removed to Sargachhi. The number of boys increased gradually as days passed. Besides feeding, nursing and housing them, he devoted his energy to educating them in various arts of usefulness, manual and intellectual, and training them morally and spiritually, so that they might be helpful to themselves and to others — in short, to make men of them in the full sense of the word. Within two years of its inception he made, with the limited funds at his disposal, proper arrangements for teaching, reading, writing and arithmetic in elementary English and the vernacular. Orphans of any creed and caste were welcome, and they were given full freedom to keep to their respective faiths and religious practices. Swami Akhandananda has ever since pushed on boldly with his self-imposed task, fighting against untold difficulties and hardships, with his health shattered under the strain. Suffice it to say here, that if Swami Vivekananda was the moving spirit and inspirer of the ideal of service to fellow-men among the Brotherhood, it was Swami Akhandananda who was the first and foremost to take it up and carry it out into practice.
Another famine relief centre was opened in August 1897 at Dinajpur where several deaths had occurred from starvation, under the management of Swami Trigunatita, on a plan similar to that at Murshidabad. He extended his help within two months to no less than eighty-four villages. His untiring and disinterested services attracted the attention of the Government, and the privilege accorded to Swami Akhandananda of obtaining rice at a much reduced price was also extended to him. The following extract from the official Report will show how the Swami’s work was appreciated by the Government:
“I cannot close my report without referring to the good work done by Swami Trigunatita, a member of the Ramakrishna Mission. . . . Here the Swami took up his abode in great discomfort, and distributed rice gratis to deserving cases. He made every endeavour to arrive at the truth and, as far as he was able, made personal enquiries into the cases. He subsequently gave some relief in Dinajpur town itself. . . . Relief was given irrespective of caste and creed . . . . I would add that the Swami managed the whole work himself without the assistance of myself or any one else. . .”At the end of the work a public meeting was convened on December 3, 1897, by the leading residents of the town to present an address of thanks to Swami Trigunatita. The President thanked the Swami and said among other things:
“ . . . . I fully realise (the Swami's good and disinterested work. He had nothing to bind him to this district. His only object was to do good to mankind. . . . He did not depend on the officials for help, neither did he work in opposition to them. The Swami did everything himself and with his own hands. This is the secret of success in Self-Government. Self-Government consists in having work done and not having meetings only. . . . If we had more such men, I must say, we shall have more Self-Government. . . . I am glad to preside at this meeting, localise though it is a small beginning, yet it is a beginning of self-help in the right line. If there is the germ, it may grow up in time.”
After the President had read the address of thanks, Swami Trigunatita rose and spoke in reply very eloquently for two hours, dealing with the cause and remedy of famine. His lecture was much appreciated.
A third relief centre was opened at Deoghar by Swami Virajananda, about the same time and on the same lines as the others. Besides these, centres of relief were also opened at Dakshineswar and Calcutta. It is a noteworthy fact in connection with the famine relief work that the friends and disciples of the Swamis in England and America were so much moved with the descriptions of the heart-rending distress that they convened meetings and sent liberal donations.
Mention has been made of the plans devised and arrangements completed by the Swami himself when the epidemic of the bubonic plague first broke out in Calcutta in May 1898, and when the panic-stricken people were fleeing the city. It was a Sannyasin clad in loin cloth who thought of their welfare then.
When the plague appeared in Calcutta again the next year, the Ramakrishna Mission plague service was promptly instituted on March 31, under the Swami’s instructions, and did considerable work in a well-organised way. He himself went to live in the slums to inspire courage in the people and cheer up the workers. The whole management was placed in the hands of Sister Nivedita as Secretary, and Swami Sadananda as the officer-in-chief with Swamis Shivananda, Nityananda and Atmananda as assistants. Bustees, or poor quarters, in four of the districts of the city were cleared of cart-loads of filth and congested matter and thoroughly disinfected with the help of scavengers under the direct supervision of the Swamis.
A movement of a permanent value among the students was inaugurated by the stirring words of Swami Vivekananda from the chair, on the occasion of Sister Nivedita’s address on “The Plague and the Duty of the Students’', at the public meeting held in the Classic Theatre Hall on April 21. Fifteen students volunteered for service. They were formed into a band of helpers, for door-to-door inspection of huts in selected Bustees, for the distribution of sanitary literature, and for speaking words of counsel. They used to meet on Sundays at the Ramakrishna Mission to submit reports of their work to Sister Nivedita, and to receive instructions from her until the epidemic subsided.
Another institution which grew at once into public favour and into huge proportions as a national festival after the return of the Swami to India from the West, was the celebration of the birthday anniversary of his Master, Shri Ramakrishna. Barring the religious significance and features of the festival, thousands of the poor were fed, not only at the headquarters but in all the branch centres of the Order in the different provinces.
This, in brief, is the record of public service done within two years and a half by the Ramakrishna Mission and the Brotherhood under the inspiration and guiding genius of Swami Vivekananda. The value of this kind of service is not to be gauged so much by the actual amount of work done, great though it was, as by the spirit of service and fellowship, of co-operation and unity infused into others to thrive and grow with ever-increasing force.
In those days when famine raged with all its horrors, the dominating thought with the Swami was of the poor and miserable victims. The cry of the distressed seemed to transfix his heart. All those who heard him talk during these days on the ways and means of alleviating the sad lot of the masses, felt in their inmost soul his love for his country and his sympathy for his countrymen.
Once Pandit Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar, the late revered editor of the Hitavadi, came to see the Swami with two of his friends. Learning that one of them came from the Punjab, the Swami entered into conversation with him on the needs of that province, especially about the scarcity of food that was then prevailing there, and how that had to be met. The talk drifted on to our duty to the masses in providing them with educational facilities for the betterment of their material and social conditions, and other allied subjects. Before taking leave the Punjabi gentleman expressed his regret courteously, “Sir, with great expectations of hearing various teachings on religion we came to see you. But unfortunately our conversation turned on commonplace matters. The day has passed in vain!” The Swami became at once grave and solemn and said, “Sir, so long as even a dog of my country remains without food, to feed and take care of him is my religion, and anything else is either non-religion or false religion!” All the three visitors were struck dumb by the Swami’s reply. Years after the passing of the Swami, Mr. Deuskar in relating the incident to a disciple, told him that those words burnt into his soul making him realise, as never he had done before, what true patriotism was.
It was about the same time also that a Pandit of the Upper Provinces came to the Swami to argue with him on the Vedanta philosophy. The Swami was then sorely depressed at his helplessness in coping with the wide spread famine. Without giving the Pandit any opportunity to discuss the Shastras, he said, “Panditji, first of all try to ameliorate the terrible distress that is prevailing everywhere, to still the heart-rending cry of your hungry countrymen for a morsel of food; after that come to me to have a debate on the Vedanta. To stake one’s whole life and soul to save thousands who are dying of starvation — this is the essence of the religion of the Vedanta!”
“Verily, the austerities and self-tortures of the Hatha-Yoga,” as a lecturer has said, “pale into insignificance before the higher and nobler way shown to us by the great Swami Vivekananda — this laying down of our lives as a sacrifice on the altar of humanity.”
As early as December 16, the Swami had announced his intention of going to the West. And now with the approach of summer he was urged by his friends and physicians to do so at once as his health was in the balance. He himself wrote to an American disciple on April 11: “Two years of physical suffering have taken away twenty years from my life. Well, but the soul changeth not, does it? It is there, the same madcap — Atman — mad upon one idea, intent and intense.” The sea voyage, it was thought, would do him good. It was finally decided that he would sail from Prinsep’s Ghat, Calcutta, on June 20, and that Swami Turiyananda as also Sister Nivedita who was sailing for England in the interest of her Girls' School, would accompany him.
Swami Turiyananda was held in great love and reverence by the Brotherhood for his austere life of Brahmacharya from his very boyhood, for his spirit of burning renunciation and his highly developed spiritual nature. Versed in Sanskrit and an adept in meditation, he had from the days of the Alambazar Math trained the younger members of the monastery by holding classes and talks and, above all, by his exemplary life. When it was proposed that he would accompany the Swami to America, he expressed the desire of taking with him some standard works on the Vedanta philosophy in Sanskrit, for help and reference. The Swami exclaimed, “Oh, learning and books they have had enough! They have seen the Kshatra power; now I want to show them the Brahmana!” He meant that in himself the West had seen the combative spirit and energy in the defence of the Sanatana Dharma; and now the time had come when the people of the antipodes should have before them the example of a man of meditation in his Guru-bhai, born and bred in the best traditions and rigorous disciplines of Brahmanahood.
Swami Turiyananda as a man of meditation was averse from public life. The Swami had tried hard to persuade him to come into the arena, but in vain. At last one day, in Darjeeling, when all argument had failed, the Swami put his arms round his Gurubhai’s neck and laying his head against his breast, wept like a child, saying, “Dear Haribhai (Brother Hari), can’t you see ine laying down iny life, inch by inch, in fulfilling this mission of my Master, till I have come to the verge of death! Can you look on without helping by relieving me of a part of my great burden?” The Gurubhai was overpowered. All hesitation vanished. Then and there he pledged himself to do unflinchingly the Swami’s bidding. So it was that he took the work in the West as the will of the Mother and resigned himself wholly to the task.
On the night of the nineteenth, a formal meeting was held at the monastery, at which the junior members presented their superior with a parting address, as they did also to Swami Turiyananda who gave a brief reply. The Swami’s own reply took the form of a short lecture on “Sannyasa: Its Ideal and Practice”, in which he insisted upon the Sannyasin’s love of death, that is to say, holding one’s life as a sacrifice to the world, because then all actions would be performed selflessly and with a view to doing good to others. Too high and impossible an ideal was wrong. That had been the trouble with the Buddhist and Jain reformers. Too much practicality was also wrong. The two extremes must be avoided. ‘‘You must try to combine in your life immense idealism with immense practicality. You must be prepared to go into deep meditation now, and the next moment you must be ready to go and cultivate these fields (pointing to the meadows of the Math). You must be prepared to explain the intricacies of the Shastras now, and the next moment to go and sell the produce of the fields in the market. . . .” They must remember that the aim of the monastery was man-making. They themselves must be Rishis. ‘‘The true man is he who is strong as strength itself and yet possesses a woman’s heart.” They must have a deep regard for their Sangha (the Order) and be implicitly obedient. Having given them this final instruction the Swami, gazing lovingly, as a father upon his children, blessed them.
On the day of departure, the Holy Mother gave a sumptuous and to all her Sannyasin children of the Math. Receiving her blessings, the two Gurubhais left in the afternoon for Prinsep’s Ghat where they found numerous friends assembled to bid them and Sister Nivedita farewell. The Swami was in the best of spirits and bade them all to be of good cheer. Needless to say that there was much sadness and everyone was visibly moved when the time for final greetings came, but the Swami, they knew, was always with them at heart.