Before taking up the work that awaited him on his return to India, his first object was to visit Mrs. Sevier at the Mayavati Advaita Ashrama. On his arrival at the Math on December 9, he had the confirmation of his premonition of the passing away of his beloved disciple, Mr. J. H. Sevier, which had occurred on October 28, 1900. He at once telegraphed to Mrs. Sevier to say that he would be going to Mayavati, the date to be made known before starting. In reply he was asked to inform her of the date of his coming at least eight days beforehand, to enable the Brotherhood to make the necessary arrangements. But the intimation about the Swami's arrival at Kathgodarn railway station reached Mayavati at the eleventh hour. It was with great difficulty that the coolies and the Dandy-bearers were secured by the inmates of the Ashrama.
The Swami arrived at Kathgodam on the morning of the twenty-ninth in company with Swamis Shivananda and Sadananda. The Swami was feverish and was advised to rest for the day here, before undertaking the hardships of a hill journey. He could not have chosen a worse time for going to the hills. The winter of 1900-1901 was unusually severe, and particularly so during the days of his visit. The journey from the railway station to Mayavati — a distance of sixty-five miles — was by no means a pleasant one. There was a heavy snow-fall on the way. But the Swami kept the whole party in high spirits in spite of the bad weather.
The Swami with his party arrived at Mayavati on January 3, 1901. When he caught a view of the site of the Ashrama and its buildings, he was much pleased. As he came to the stream in the canyon below, he heard the bell of the monastery striking twelve, and he was so anxious to reach the Ashrama that he mounted a horse and pressed on at full speed. The monastery had been artistically decorated for the occasion with evergreens and flowers.
Unfortunately most of the time during the Swami's stay Mayavati was covered with snow, so that he was compelled to remain indoors and could not take the long walks he enjoyed so much. He remained at Mayavati till the eighteenth, and received a number of visitors from the neighbouring places. It was evident that the Swami was in declining health. In spite of his high spirits, it could be seen that he was unable to stand any physical strain and several times he had slight attacks of asthma; yet he was only thirty-eight years of age.
His conversations were a constant source of inspiration to the Mayavati Brotherhood. One day in the course of a talk he suddenly got up from his seat and paced to and fro, with his voice raised and eyes aflame with emotion, as if he was lecturing to a huge audience. He was speaking of his Western disciples, of their exemplary devotion and loyalty to him, their readiness to rush into the jaws of death at his command — and not one or two but dozens who would do the same — how they had served him lovingly, silently, right royally, and how they were ready to renounce everything for his sake, at one word from him. “Look at Captain Sevier,” cried the Swami, “how he died a martyr to the cause, at Mayavati!” On another occasion, speaking of obedience, he said, “Obedience and respect cannot be enforced by word of command; neither can it be exacted. It depends upon the man, upon his loving nature and exalted character. None can resist true love and greatness.” At the same time he emphasised the necessity of loyalty to the work undertaken, loyalty to the organisation and loyalty to the man who is placed in charge of a centre.
One day he told Swami Swarupananda of his ideas about the work that he wished to be carried out at the Ashrama, and charged him to push on with them with great zeal and energy. The latter said that as for himself he would do all he could, but without the co-operation of the brother-monks of the Ashrama and their assurance of remaining for at least three consecutive years, the task was beyond his powers. The Swami understood and when all were gathered before him, he broached the subject asking one after the other if he were willing to stay three years. All but Swami Virajananda acceded. When his turn came, he humbly but firmly said that he intended to pass some time exclusively in meditation elsewhere, living upon Madhukari Bhiksha. The Swami tried to dissuade him saying, “Don't ruin your health by practising austerities, but try to profit by our experience. We have subjected ourselves to extreme austerities, but what has been the result? — the breakdown of our health in the prime of manhood, for which we are still suffering. Besides, how can you think of meditating for hours? Enough if you can concentrate your mind for five minutes, or even one minute; for that purpose only certain hours in the morning and evening are needed. The rest of the time you will have to engage yourself in studies or some work for the general good. My disciples must emphasise work more than austerities. Work itself should be a part of their Sadhana and their austerities.” Swami Virajananda admitted the truth of his Master's words, but respectfully submitted that for all that, austerity was needed to gain strength of character and to conserve the spiritual powers, which were imperative if one were to work without attachment. When he left the place, the Swami acknowledged that at heart he knew that Swami Virajananda was right and appreciated his feelings, for he himself valued the life of meditation and the freedom of the monk. Recalling the memories of his Parivrajaka days — living on Bhiksha, with the mind fixed on God and having no thought of the world — he declared that they were the happiest and sweetest days of his life, and that he would gladly give up anything in exchange for that obscurity that frees one from the cares and worries of public life.
Of the many points of view that one gains of the snows at Mayavati, that at Dharamghar, the highest hill within the Mayavati boundaries, affords the finest vision of the snow range. Here, shortly after his arrival, the Swami spent one morning with the inmates of the monastery. He was so pleased with the site and its charming scenery that he wished to have a hermitage erected on that very spot, where he could meditate in solitude undisturbed. His favourite walk was along the lake-side and one day he said to Mrs. Sevier, “In the latter part of my life, I shall give up all public work and pass my days in writing books and whistling merry tunes by this lake, free as a child!”
A shrine room containing the image of Shri Ramakrishna had recently been established at the Ashrama at the earnest desire of some of the inmates. One morning the Swami chanced to go into this room and saw that regular Puja was being conducted with flowers, incense and other offerings. He said nothing at the time, but that evening when all were gathered about the fire-place, he spoke vehemently, disapproving of ceremonial worship in an Advaita Ashrama. It should never have been done. Here attention was to be paid only to the subjective elements of religion, such as private meditation, individual and collective study of the scriptures, and the teaching and culture of the highest spiritual monism, free from any dualistic weakness or dependence. This Ashrama had been dedicated to Advaita and Advaita alone. He had therefore the right to criticise. Though the Swami was emphatic in his criticism of the introduction of ritualistic worship there, he did not order them to break up the worship-room. He would not hurt the feelings of those who were responsible for it. That would be using his power. They ought to see their own mistake and rectify it. But the Swami’s uncompromising attitude on the matter led to the discontinuance of the worship and, ultimately, to the dissolution of the shrine itself. One who still doubted if it was right for him to profess himself a member of the Advaita Ashrama when he leaned towards Dualism appealed to the Holy Mother as a final recourse, only to receive the reply: “Shri Ramakrishna was all Advaita and preached Advaita. Why should you not also follow Advaita? All his disciples are Advaitins!” When the Swami returned to the Belur Math, in alluding to the above occurrence he remarked, “I thought of having one centre at least where the external worship of Shri Ramakrishna would not find a place. But going there I found that the Old Man had already established himself even there! Well, well!”
The Swami was by no means idle at Mayavati. His correspondence was very large. Besides, he gave religious instruction to the inmates and wrote three essays for the Prabuddha Bharata, entitled “Aryans and Tamilians”, “The Social Conference Address”, and “Stray Remarks on Theosophy”. The first of these articles shows remarkable historical insight. The second was a reply to Mr. Justice Ranade’s Presidential Address at the Indian Social Conference of 1900. While admitting the remarkable liberalism and sincere patriotism which characterised the spirit of the great Maratha leader, the Swami in this article denounces his criticism of the Sannyasins. It is a passionate defence of Indian monasticism and of its intrinsic value in the light of Indian history. His “Stray Remarks on Theosophy” is a sincere and interesting criticism. Besides these, he made an excellent translation of the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig-Veda at the special request of a friend, a distinguished man of science.
While the Swami was at Mayavati, the disciples out of their great love for their Guru served him in every possible way. Realising how difficult it is for a Westerner to understand the Hindu viewpoint as regards service to the Guru, he explained to a certain American disciple, “You see how they serve me! To a Westerner, this devotion may seem servile, and you may be shocked at the way I accept all this service without remonstrance. But you must understand the Indian idea, then everything will be clear to you. This is the spontaneous devotion of the disciple to the Guru. This service to the Guru is one of the means by which the disciple progresses in spirituality.”
The Swami was confined to the house most of the time because of the snow, and as his physical condition was not strong enough to bear the severe cold, he became impatient to go down to the plains, and soon left for Pilibhit.
All the way from Mayavati to Pilibhit the Swami was in excellent spirits. On the first night, at the Dak-bungalow at Champawat, he talked with great fervour of Shri Ramakrishna, especially of his inner sight and of his judgment of men, and said that whatsoever his Master had predicted about men and matters, had invariably come to pass. Therefore, so far as his Gurubhais were concerned, his entire attitude was always influenced by what Shri Ramakrishna had said of them. Speaking of those few whom Shri Ramakrishna had specially classified as Ishvarakotis (belonging to the Divine Class), the Swami said that he had, by his own insight and repeated tests, satisfied himself as to their superior intrinsic excellence. He added that though he might not always approve of their ways and opinions, and even might say harsh words to them now and then, yet in his heart he always gave them a much higher position than to the others, because Shri Ramakrishna himself had done so, and his judgment he accepted as unerring and unassailable. Repeatedly he exclaimed, “And above all, above all, I am loyal! I am loyal to the core of my heart!”
On another occasion, speaking of the Ishvarakotis, the Swami had said, “I can trust in them as I can in no one else. I know that even if the whole world were to desert me, they would stick to me and be ever faithful and ready to carry out my ideas and plans, even under the most impossible conditions.” Shri Ramakrishna had marked out seven of his disciples as Ishvarakotis. Ishvarakotis, according to him, are those who have to take birth whenever an Incarnation is born; they are like His high officials belonging to the inmost circle of His devotees, His Antaranga Bhaktas (devotees of the inner circle), whose mission in life is to complement His work, and to conserve His teachings. Thus, strictly speaking, though they are born with Realisation, they have no Mukti, and their Sadhanas are unconsciously intended only for the instruction of men. At the head of this class Shri Ramakrishna placed the Swami.
At Tanakpur riding-ponies were secured, for there was no railway from Tanakpur to Pilibhit at the time. Before reaching Pilibhit the Swami informed Swami Shivananda that he would have to leave them at Pilibhit and go forth by himself to beg money for the maintenance and improvement of the Belur Math. In this connection he said, “Each member of the Belur Math should go about preaching and teaching in India, and bring to the General fund at least two thousand rupees. Swami Shivananda bowed in assent to the command.
The Swami arrived at the Belur Math on January 24, 1901. About everything concerning the Advaita Ashrama, the Swami gave the highest praise. Its changing scenery, the precious soothing quiet of the Himalayan jungles, the loving kindness he had received from Mrs. Sevier, the unremitting service which had been so devoutly rendered him by the little band of disciples at his Himalayan centre — all these things, and many more, had made his visit to Mayavati a very happy one. In fact, he regretted that he had had to leave the hills so soon.