In October 1901, the Swami’s condition again became serious, and Dr. Saunders, a noted physician of Calcutta was called in. The Swami was ordered to abandon even the slightest exertion and to give up all intellectual work. Not long after the doctor’s visit he was confined to his bed — a fact which distressed him as he was eager to be up and doing. From this time onwards the monks cautioned one another and all the visitors that came, to abstain from any serious conversation with him; and if in his talks the Swami drifted to any serious subject, they would object. Whenever he felt better, he busied himself with some manual work or other. Sometimes he would hoe the grounds of the Math, sometimes he would plant fruit-trees and flower plants, or sow vegetable seeds, and watch their growth with boyish interest.
In these days an incident occurred which exhibited the marvellous faith and Yoga power of the Swami. His disciple, Swami Nirbhayananda, was in delirium from high fever, and all hope of his recovery was abandoned. The fever rose to 107 degrees. The Swami was very anxious. Finally, seized by a sudden intuition, he went to the shrine of the monastery to worship Shri Ramakrishna and after washing the casket containing the relics of Shri Ramakrishna, he brought the sacred water to the sick monk to drink. The fever abated suddenly. The Swami turning to his Gurubhais and disciples, said with great joy, “Behold the power of Shri Ramakrishna! What wonders can he not work!”
A spiritual experience of a very striking character which the Swami had, and which made a profound impression on all those who came to know of it, was the fulfilment of a test in regard to the actual Presence of Shri Ramakrishna in the monastery chapel. It occurred shortly after his return from his last visit to the West. The reliquary of the Master is regained by his devotees as his Living Presence. The Swami sometimes called it “Atmarama’s Kauta”. One day doubt entered his mind and he asked himself, “Docs Shri Ramakrishna really reside here? I must test it!” Then he prayed, “My Lord, Shri Ramakrishna, if thou art really present here, then bring hither within three days the Maharaja of Gwalior who has come to Calcutta on a short visit!” He knew that the chance of the Prince’s coming was very remote. He mentioned his prayer to none and indeed, later on, forgot all about it. The next day, returning in the evening from Calcutta where he had gone for a few hours on some business, he learned that the Maharaja of Gwalior was actually prepared to call on him. He had deputed his brother to see if the Swami was at the Math, and in case of his not being there to leave word that he wished very much to see the Swami, but as he was leaving Calcutta the next day, he would reserve the pleasure of seeing him for some other occasion. As soon as the Swami heard this news, he remembered his test, and literally running up the stairs to the shrine, bowed his head repeatedly before the altar containing the sacred casket. Swami Premananda who was at that time meditating there was bewildered. Then the Swami narrated to him and to the assembled monks, all about the test and all marvelled at this proof of the Presence of the Lord in the chapel.
If the Swami had critics he had also staunch friends and admirers among the most representative of his countrymen. During the session of the Indian National Congress which was held in Calcutta that year in the latter part of December, scores of distinguished delegates from different provinces availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the monastery and pay their homage to Swami Vivekananda whom they regarded as the Patriot-Saint of Modern India. He often spoke with them in Hindi instead of in English, and invariably made a great impression on them.
Among the ideas which he discussed with the leaders of the Congress was the founding of a Vedic Institution to train teachers and preserve the ancient Aryan culture and Sanskrit learning. The delegates were in fervant sympathy with this plan.
This desire to found a Vedic college was cherished by the Swami to the very end, and even on the last day of his life, he was seen speaking to a Gurubhai on the need of Vedic study. In order to secure funds to commence this work early on a small scale, he instructed Swami Trigunatita to dispose of the Udbodhan Press. This, however, did not take a practical shape as the Swami passed away before he could do anything in this direction.
Towards the end of the year two learned and influential men from Japan visited the Math. They had come especially to interview the Swami in order to induce him to appear before a Congress of Religions that was being contemplated at the time in Japan. They said, “If such a distinguished person as you take part in the Congress, it will be a success. You must come and help us. Japan stands in need of a religious awakening, and we do not know of any one else who can bring about this much-desired consummation.” The speaker was the Rev. Oda, the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Japan. The Swami seeing his marked sincerity, as well as that of his companion, Mr. Okakura, became enthusiastic, and consented. Though his health was very bad at the time, he did not mind it, so long as he could be of service to humanity. With them he talked on the glorious life of the Lord Buddha and the philosophical side of his teachings, with such fervour, devotion and insight that they simply marvelled. There was a boy named Hari who had accompanied the elders to India. Mr. Okakura and Hari were made comfortable as the guests of the monastery. They loved the Swami dearly, who moved with them freely and joined the boy in his boyish hobbies. Later the news of the death of Hari while travelling in India, deeply affected the Swami. Mr. Okakura requested the Swami to accompany him to Buddha Gaya; and as the Swami desired to visit Varanasi and had already made arrangements for his stay there at Gopal Lai Villa, he accepted the invitation of his Japanese friend, saying, “It would give me the greatest pleasure to accompany you to the place where the Tathagata attained Nirvana, and after that to go on a pilgrimage to Varanasi where the Buddha first preached his Gospel unto man. Besides, Varanasi has for me a special attraction!”
Reflecting on this visit, Sister Nivedita has written:
“When the winter again set in, he (the Swami) was so ill as to be confined to bed. Yet he made one more journey, lasting through January and February 1902, when he went first to Buddha Gaya and next to Varanasi. It was a fit ending to all his wanderings. He arrived at Buddha Gaya on the morning of his last birthday, and nothing could have exceeded the courtesy and hospitality of the Mahanta (head of the monastery). Here, as afterwards at Varanasi, the confidence and affection of the orthodox world were brought to him in such measure and freedom that he himself stood amazed at the extent of his empire in men’s hearts. Buddha Gaya, as it was now the last, had also been the first, of the holy places he had set out to visit. And it had been in Varanasi some few years back (when he was an unknown monk) that he had said farewell to one, with the words, ‘Till that day when I fall on society like a thunderbolt I shall visit this place no morel’’’1
From Buddha Gaya the Swami went on to Varanasi where he hoped the dry climate would improve his health. Mr. Okakura parted from him there, after getting his promise that he would soon let him know definitely when he would sail for Japan.
In Varanasi he was again the centre of attraction for numerous persons. The Mahantas and orthodox Pandits who came to see him, became his great admirers, in spite of his sweeping ideas in the restatement and reform of Hindu culture, and the fact that he had crossed the seas. He met here the Maharaja of Bhinga, who begged him to establish a monastery of the Order in the Holy City, offering him a certain sum of money for its maintenance for one year and assuring him of his further support. The Swami promised that he would do so, and on his return to Calcutta sent Swami Shivananda with a disciple to open an Ashrama there. Many times he went on an afternoon trip on the Ganga, and on a few occasions, when his health permitted, he bathed in its waters, and then, as a common pilgrim, visited the holy temples, particularly that of Vishvanath. He kept himself in touch also with affairs in Calcutta and his other Indian centres. One of his letters indicative of his true historical and archaeological spirit, shows that he was bestowing much thought at the time on Buddhism. It reads:
“My dear Swarupananda,
“ . . . In answer to C—’s letter, tell him to study the Brahma-Sutras himself. What does he mean by the Brahma-Sutras containing references to Buddhism? He means the Bhashyas (commentaries), of course, or rather ought to mean; and Sliankara was only the last Bhashyakara (commentator). There are references though in Buddhistic literature to Vedanta, and the Mahayana school of Buddhism is even Advaitistic. Why does Amara Singha, a Buddhist, give as one of the names of Buddha ‘Advayavadi’? C— writes, the word Brahman does not occur in the Upanishads! Quelle betise!
“I hold the Mahayana to be the older of the two schools of Buddhism.
“The theory of Maya is as old as the Rik Samhita. The Shvetasvatara Upanishad contains the word ‘Maya’ which is developed out of Prakriti. I hold that Upanishad to be at least older than Buddhism.
“I have had much light of late about Buddhism, and I am ready to prove that (1) Shiva-worship, in various forms, antedated the Buddhists, that the Buddhists tried to get hold of the sacred places of the Shaivas, but failing in that, made new places in the precincts, just as you find now at Buddha Gaya and Sarnath (Varanasi).
“(2) The story in the AgniPurana about Gayasura does not refer to Buddha at all — as Dr. Rajendralal will have it — but simply to a pre-existing story.
“(3) That Buddha went to live on Gayashirsha mountain proves the pre-existence of that place.
“(4) Gaya was a place of ancestor-worship already, and the footprint-worship the Buddhists copied from the Hindus.
“(5) About Varanasi, even the oldest records go to prove it as the great place of Shiva-worship, etc., etc.
“Many are the new facts I have gathered in Buddha Gaya and from Buddhist literature. Tell C— to read for himself, and not be swayed by foolish opinions. . . .
“A total revolution has occurred in my mind about the relation of Buddhism and Neo-Hinduism. I may not live to work out the glimpses, but I shall leave the lines of work indicated, and you and your brethren will have to work it out.”
Under the inspiration of the Swami’s teachings, several Bengali youths at Varanasi had formed themselves into a band to be of service to thousands of suffering pilgrims in that sacred city. They rented a small house and endeavoured with their limited means to provide proper food, shelter and medical aid to destitute pilgrims, helpless widows and aged persons lying ill in the streets and Ghats of the city. They worked with a zeal and a spirit of self-sacrifice, which recalled the days of St. Francis of Assisi. The Swami was delighted with the work they were doing and was proud of them. “You have the true spirit, my boys,” he said, “and you have always my love and blessings! Go on bravely; never mind your poverty; money will come; a great thing will grow out of it surpassing your fondest hopes!” For their sake he wrote an appeal which was to accompany the first report of “The Ramakrishna Home of Service” as this new institution was called.
The Swami’s stay in Varanasi was a very pleasant one. The dry climate relieved him of his asthmatic attacks; and amidst the temples and Sadhus (holy men) of the sacred city he felt himself to be dwelling in the Spirit. In his letters to Western disciples written from Varanasi he speaks of its shrines, its Ghats and its holiness. And those to whom these letters were written, were exceedingly glad to know that the Swami was somewhat better. He, however, returned to the monastery at Belur shortly.
There were times, however, when the Swami, finding his body becoming more and more incapable of work, would become despondent, because only a few workers had come forward to help him. His hopes were centred in gathering together a number of intelligent young men who would renounce everything for the welfare of others, and who would lay down their lives in working out his ideas for their own good and for that of their country. He used to say that if he could get ten or twelve youths fired with a faith like that of Nachiketa, he could turn the whole current of thought and aspiration of his country into a new channel.
Speaking of this one day to Sharat Chandra, he suddenly exclaimed, “Keeping before you the national ideal of renunciation which comes out of devotion to the Lord, you have to work fearlessly with the strength of a lion, heedless of the fruits of action and without caring for criticism. Let Mahavira be your ideal. See how with unbounded faith in the name of Rama he — the prince of the self-controlled ones, wise and sagacious — crossed the ocean in one bound, defying death! You have to mould your lives after that high ideal, thinking yourselves the servants of the Lord.” He condemned all weakening ideals in all departments of life including religion, and advocated in all spheres of activity the expression of the loftiness of spirit which heroism breathes. “Only by following such an ideal of manliness can we ensure the welfare of our motherland. . . . But, mind you, never for a moment swerve an inch from the path of righteousness. Never let weakness overcome you.”2
Speaking in this strain the Swami came downstairs and sat on the canvas cot under the mango tree in the courtyard, facing the west, as he often used to do. His eyes were luminous; his whole frame seemed alive with some strange spiritual consciousness. Pointing to the Sannyasins and Brahmacharins about him, he exclaimed, “And where will you go to seek Brahman? He is immanent in all beings. Here, here is the visible Brahman! Shame on those who disregarding the visible Brahman set their minds on other things! Here is the Brahman before you as tangible as a fruit in one’s hand! Can’t you see! Here — here — here is the Brahman!” He spoke these words in such an inspiring way that over all present there came the peace and insight of deep meditation. They stood like marble statues, so motionless and hushed in silence had they become! Swami Premananda after his bath in the Ganga was on his way to the chapel for worship. Hearing the words of his Gurubhai he fell into a trance and became motionless. After quarter of an hour the Swami said to him, “Now go for worship.” Then only did Swami Premananda regain his normal consciousness.
That scene was unforgettable. Everyone in the monastery was struck with amazement at the wonderful power of the beloved Leader who with but one word could raise the minds of all to the, heights of Supreme Insight.
About this time, the latter part of the year 1901, a number of Santal labourers used to work in the Math grounds. The Swami would be talking with them and listening to their tales of woe. He found it a great relaxation from his work and tense state of mind. One day some gentlemen of wealth and position came to see him while he was talking with these poor labourers. When he was told of the arrival of the visitors, he said, “I shan't be able to go now. I am quite happy with these people!”
The Swami was especially fond of one of the Santals, Keshta by name. This man used to say, “O Swami, don't come to us when we are working, for we cannot work while we talk to you, and the supervising Swami takes us to task for not doing our full measure of work!” At these words the Swami was visibly affected, and assured them that Swami Advaitananda would not scold them. Sometimes the tale of their wants and miseries would move him to tears, when Keshta would say, “Now you must go, Swami! We won't tell you any more of our troubles, for it makes you weep!”
One day the Swami asked Keshta, “Would you all like to have a feast here?” The man replied, “Dear father, if we eat food cooked by you with salt we shall lose our caste!” On the Swami's insisting and finally saying that salt would not be mixed in the cooking but would be served to them separately, Keshta agreed. The menu included Puris, sweets, curd and a number of other delicacies. The Swami himself supervised the arrangements and the serving of food to his guests, who exclaimed from time to time, “O Swami, where did you get such fine things! We have never tasted such dishes before.” When the meal was over, the Swami told them, “You are Narayanas; today I have entertained the Lord Himself by feeding you!” Later, to a disciple he remarked, “I actually saw the Lord Himself in them! How simple-hearted and guileless they are!”
Shortly after, to the Sannyasins and the Brahmacharins of the Math he said, “See how simple-hearted these poor illiterate people are! Can you mitigate their misery a little? If not, of what use is your wearing the Gerua? Sacrificing everything for the good of others — this is true Sannyasa. Sometimes I think within myself, ‘What is the good of building monasteries and so forth! Why not sell them and distribute the money among the poor. What should we care for homes, we who have made the tree our shelter? Alas! How can we have the heart to put a morsel to our mouths, when our countrymen have not enough wherewith to feed or clothe themselves!’ Let us, throwing away all pride of learning and study of the Shastras and all Sadhanas for the attainment of personal Mukti, go from village to village devoting our lives to the service of the poor. Let us through the force of our character and spirituality and our austere living convince the rich man of his duty to the masses and induce him to give money for the service of the poor and the distressed. Alas! Nobody in our country thinks of the low, the poor and the miserable! These are the backbone of the nation, whose labour produces our food. Where is the man in our country who sympathises with them, who shares in their joys and sorrows! Look, how for want of sympathy on the part of the Hindus, thousands of Pariahs in the Madras Presidency are becoming Christians! Don’t think that it is merely the pinch of hunger that drives them to embrace Christianity. It is simply because they do not get your sympathy. Is there any fellow-feeling or sense of Dharma left in the country? There is only ‘Don’t-touchism’ now! Kick out all such degrading usages! How I wish to demolish the barriers of ‘Don’t-touchism’ and go out and bring together one and all, calling out, ‘Come all ye that are poor and destitute, fallen and downtrodden! We are one in the name of Ramakrishnal’ Unless they are raised, this motherland of ours will never awake! What are we good for if we cannot provide them with food and clothing! Alas! They are ignorant of the ways of the world and hence fail to eke out a living, though they labour hard day and night for it. Gather all your forces together to remove the veil from their eyes. I see as clear as daylight that the same Brahman, the same Shakti that is in me is in them as well! Only, there is a difference in the degree of manifestation — that is all. In the whole history of the world have you ever seen a country rise without a free circulation of the national blood throughout its entire body? If one limb is paralysed, then even with the other limbs whole, not much can be done with that body — know this for certain.”
A lay disciple said to the Swami, “It is too difficult a task, sir, to establish harmony and co-operation among all the varying religious sects and creeds that are current in this country, and to make them act in unison for a common purpose.” Vexed at these words, the Swami said, “Don’t come here any more if you think any task too difficult. Through the grace of the Lord, everything becomes easy of achievement. Your duty is to serve the poor and the distressed, without distinction of caste and creed. What business have you to think of the fruits of your action? Your duty is to go on working and everything will follow of itself. My method of work is to construct, and not to destroy that which is already existing. Read the histories of the world and you will see that invariably, in every country, at some particular epoch, some great man has stood as the centre of its national life, influencing the people by his ideas. You are all intelligent boys, and profess to be my disciples — tell me what you have done. Can’t you give away one life for the sake of others? Let the reading of the Vedanta and the practising of meditation and the like be left for the next life! Let this body go in the service of others; and then I shall know that your coming to me has not been in vain.” Later on, he said, “After so much Tapasya I have understood this as the highest truth: ‘God is present in every being. There is no other God besides that. He who serves all beings serves God indeed!’”3
The two above-mentioned incidents were typical of the many noteworthy occasions when the Swami, in spite of his illness and sufferings, rose to heights of amazing power, feeling and eloquence in giving his message to his disciples and countrymen, from the enforced seclusion of his monastery. No wonder that he would feel a reaction! But who could check that mighty flame within him, which must either burst out and set the souls of others on fire, or consume his whole being!
On the occasion of the birthday festival of Shri Ramakrishna, shortly after his return from Varanasi, the Swami was unable to leave his room. In fact, for some days previous he had been confined to his bed. His feet were swollen, and he was almost unable to walk. A gloom was cast over the celebration by the announcement that his malady had taken a serious turn. The disappointment of the thousands who had come on this festive occasion was great, for they had anticipated the pleasure of seeing him and hearing his words; and for their sake the Swami thought several times in the morning of appearing in public. But he soon found that even the few visitors who had come to him in the early part of the day had tired him. So he decided to rest and ordered Swami Niranjanananda to keep guard and permit none to enter his room. The Gurubhai did as he was bidden. Only one lay disciple attended on the Swami. Seeing the Swami’s state of health, the disciple was deeply affected. The Swami understanding his feelings said, “What is the use of giving way to sorrow, my boy? This body was born and it will die. If I have been able to instil into you all, even to a small degree, some of my ideas, then I shall know that I have not lived my life in vain! Always remember that renunciation is the root idea. Unless initiated into this idea, not even Brahma and the World-Gods have the power to attain Mukti.”
He then became deeply absorbed in thought. After a while he observed, “I think that it will be better if from now the anniversary is celebrated in a different way. The celebration should extend to four or five days instead of one. On the first day, there may be study and interpretation of the scriptures; on the second, discussion on the Vedas and the Vedanta, and solution of the problems in connection with them; on the third day, there may be a question class; the fourth day may be fixed for lectures; and on the last day there will be a festival ton the present lines.”
When the Sankirtana parties arrived, he stood by the window on the southern side, supporting himself against its iron bars, and gazed lovingly on the assembled thousands. After a few minutes he was constrained to sit down again, as he was too weak to stand. He then spoke to the disciple on the realisation of the Self which comes out of devotion to the Lord who is born as a world-teacher from time to time. He also talked of the glory of the Avataras or Incarnations of God, who alone can give Mukti to millions of souls even in one life by dispelling their ignorance.
He gave a beautiful explanation of what is meant by grace. He said, “He who has realised the Atman becomes a storehouse of great power. From him as the centre and within a certain radius emanates a spiritual force, and all those who come within this circle become animated with his ideas and are overwhelmed by them. Thus without much religious striving they inherit the results of his wonderful spirituality. This is grace.”
“Blessed are those,” he continued, “who have seen Shri Ramakrishna. All of you also will get his vision. When you have come here, you are very near to him. Nobody has been able to understand who came on earth as Shri Ramakrishna. Even his own nearest devotees have got no real clue to it. Only some have got a little inkling of it. All will understand it in time.”
Off and on during the last year and a half of his life the Swami was under strict medical orders. When he returned from Varanasi to be present at the festival of Shri Ramakrishna's birthday anniversary at the Belur Math, and to take up again, as he had hoped, his work of personal training and teaching, his health suffered a serious relapse. His Gurubhais became nervous over his condition. At the earnest entreaty of Swami Niranjanananda, in which all his other Gurubhais joined, he agreed to place himself under the treatment of an Ayurvedic practitioner, the well-known Kaviraj Mahananda Sen Gupta of Calcutta. The treatment was most rigorous; he was not allowed to drink water or take any salt. These instructions the Swami adhered to faithfully. Firstly, because he loved to feel the response of the body to the will, to realise his own command over it; secondly, because he felt that he must abide by the wishes of his Gurubhais; and lastly, for the sake of the work that was constantly opening up before him, he thought he should give a trial to any course of treatment to regain his health, though he was not himself very hopeful. To one he said in loving humility, “You see, I am simply obeying the orders of my Gurubhais. I could not disregard their request; they love me so dearly!” To a disciple who asked him, “Swamiji, how is it that in spite of the severe heat of the summer you can refrain from drinking water, when you were in the habit of drinking it hourly throughout the day?” he replied, “When I decided to begin the treatment, I imposed this vow upon myself, and now the water would not go down my throat. For twenty-one days I have refrained from water, and now in rinsing out my mouth I find that the muscles of my throat close of their own accord against the passage of a single drop. The body is only a servant of the mind. What the mind dictates the body will have to obey.” After a few days of Ayurvedic treatment, he was able to say to his Gurubhais, “Now I do not even think of water. I do not miss it at all!” He was overjoyed to find that in spite of physical weakness and broken health, his strength of will remained. After more than two months’ use of the Ayurvedic medicines he felt greatly benefited.
In spite of the severe restrictions of the treatment, a very spare diet and very little sleep, the natural glow of his countenance and the lustre of his eyes were undiminished, and he knew no respite from his labours. Shortly before beginning the treatment he had begun reading the newly published edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His disciple, Sharat Chandra Chakravarti, seeing one day those twenty-five large volumes remarked, “It is difficult to master the contents of so many volumes in one life.” He did not know at the time that the Swami had already finished ten volumes and was reading the eleventh. “What do you mean?” said the Swami. “Ask me whatever you like from these ten volumes and I can tell you all about it.” The disciple, out of curiosity, brought down the books and asked him many questions on difficult subjects, selecting one or two from every volume. Not only did the Swami answered the questions displaying a vast amount of even technical knowledge, but in many instances he quoted the very language of the books! The disciple was astounded at the extraordinary intelligence and memory of his Guru, and exclaimed, “This is beyond the power of man!” The Swami then told him that there was nothing miraculous about the matter, and that if one could only observe the strictest Brahmacharya, one could retain and reproduce exactly what one had heard or read but once, even if it were years ago. “For the lack of this Brahmaclharya," he added, “we as a nation are becoming poorer and poorer in strength and intellect, and are losing our manhood.”
After a while the Swami went on to explain to the disciple in the most lucid and convincing way the arguments advanced and conclusions arrived at by the different systems of Hindu philosophy. When the talk was going on, Swami Brahmananda came in and said to the disciple, “How inconsiderate you are! Swamiji is unwell, and you, instead of humouring him with light talk, as I told you to do, are tiring him out by making him speak on these abstruse subjects!" The disciple was abashed. But the Swami said to the Gurubhai, “Who cares for your medical restrictions and all that stuff! They are my sons ; if in giving them instruction my body wears out, who cares a straw for that!”
The conversation afterwards turned on the topic of the Bengali poets. The Swami was very severe on Bharat Chandra, one of the older Bengali poets, and praised Michael Madhusudan Dutla’s Meghanadavadha Kavya as the greatest work of poetic genius in the Bengali literature, adding that it was difficult to find another epic poem even in the whole of Europe in modern times to match with it. “And do you know," he said in conclusion, “what portion of it I regard as the greatest creation of the poet? It is the scene in which Indrajit has been slain in battle, and Mandodari, the queen of King Ravana, stricken with sorrow at the loss of her valiant son, is imploring her husband to desist from battle; but Ravana, burning with pride, anger and revenge, like a great hero that he is, casting off from his heart all grief for his dead son, and without thought for the fate of his queen and other sons, is ready to go forth to battle. ‘Come what may, let the universe remain or be broken up into fragments, I will not forget my duty!’ — these are the words of a mighty hero!” Then he asked the disciple to bring the book from the Math library, and he read aloud that portion in a thrilling manner.4
Another morning, in talking with the same disciple, he raised the question of establishing his much-desired Math for women somewhere near Calcutta, on the bank of the Ganga, on the same lines as the one for men, with the Holy Mother as its central figure and guiding spirit, so that Brahmacharinis and women-teachers might be trained there to work for the regeneration of their sex in India. In a long, enthusiastic talk he spoke in detail of his ideas about the nunnery, the means and methods of its action, the urgent need of starting centres all over the country for the education of Indian women on national lines, and the great results that would come out of such work in time.5
Throughout 1901 and even up to his passing away in 1902, the Swami, was eager to receive friends and visitors and instruct his disciples, notwithstanding the request of his Gurubhais to take rest, for, in the matter of teaching, he set no limits. Everything must be sacrificed, even the body itself. Sometimes hearing of the plight of earnest seekers who were refused admission to his presence by the monks, he would be so deeply moved with pity that he would say, “Look here! What good is this body! Let it go in helping others. Did not the Master preach unto the very end? And shall I not do the same? I do not care a straw if the body goes! You cannot imagine how happy I am when I find earnest seekers after truth to talk to. In the work of waking up the Atman in my fellow-men I shall gladly die again and again!”
Especially from the early part of March 1902 until his passing away, the Swami was busy in many ways. He did not mind even his illness when he was bent upon doing something. Even to the last day he himself conducted numerous scriptural and question classes at the monastery, and oftentimes the Brahmacharins and even his own Gurubhais came to him for spiritual advice. He would often explain the various methods of meditation, and train those who were backward in it. He spent hours in answering correspondence, or in reading, or making notes on Hindu philosophy or Indian history for publication; for recreation he would sing or discourse with his Gurubhais, giving himself up to fun and merriment. Oftentimes, in the midst of his talks his face would assume a dreamy far-away look, and then all would leave him, knowing that he wished to be left alone with his thoughts.
The Swami’s eye saw everything that went on in the monastery, and he was very strict during these days in enforcing discipline. He insisted upon thorough cleanliness; when he found the floor covered with dust because of the servants' illness, he himself would sweep it, in order to teach the disciples the necessity of cleanliness, and would not surrender the broom to them. He would examine the beds and see that they were properly cared for and aired. If he found any carelessness in that respect, his reprimand was most severe. And once when Bagha, the Math dog, polluted the water brought for the Puja through the gross carelessness of one of the junior members, he was greatly vexed. He insisted that the classes on the Vedas and the Puranas should be held regularly. He allowed none of the members of the Order to rest after the noonday meal, making them commence at once the study of the Puranas.
The Swami abhorred extremes. He protested against the too elaborate paraphernalia of daily worship at the Math in the strongest terms and advised his disciples to devote more time to scriptural study, religious talks and discussions as well as to meditation, in order to mould their lives and understand the true spirit of Shri Ramakrishna’s teachings, and not waste their time over superfluous and minute details in conducting the worship. He felt that the Puja should be done in the simplest way with due devotion and fervour, and go hand in hand with meditation and study, and not be allowed to take up the whole time of the monks. In order to enforce this, he introduced the ringing of a bell at appointed hours when the monks had to leave whatever they might be doing to join the classes for study, discussion and meditation, and any one failing to do so promptly was severely censured. Indeed, he was a loving and stern Guru, loved and feared at the same time by his disciples and Gurubhais. Throughout his stay at the Belur monastery, and especially during the last few months of his life, the Swami used to lay great stress on meditation. About three months before his death, he made a rule that at four o’clock in the morning a hand-bell should be rung from room to room to awaken the monks, and that within half an hour all should be gathered in the chapel to meditate. Over and above this, the Swami encouraged his disciples to practise austerities. Besides formulating a hard and fast daily routine for the monks, he had already written out, in the early part of the year 1898, a comprehensive set of rules and regulations, for the proper guidance of the monastic Order, wherein he had briefly set forth his principal ideas, methods and lines of work. This was to form the ideal of the Brotherhood, the carrying out of which in practice was to be the sole aim and endeavour of the monks. In his charge to the disciples he repeatedly pointed out that no monastic order could keep itself pure and retain its original vigour or its power of working for good, without a definite ideal to reach, without rigorous discipline and vows, and without keeping up culture and education within its fold. He also pointed out that had it not been for the severe austerities and Sadhanas practised by himself and the Brotherhood, both during the lifetime of their Master and after his Mahasamadhi, and had it not been for his divine life which stood as an example and ideal before them, they could not have achieved what they had done.
Thus everyone was bound by routine as regards eating, resting, helping in worship and household duties, study and meditation. There were also rules which the visitors and the lay disciples of Shri Ramakrishna had to observe whenever they were at the monastery, so that their visits might not interrupt the activities of the monks. For the welfare of the Order he had sometimes to be harsh and severe in enforcing the observance of the daily routine, even though he occasionally incurred displeasure thereby.
The Swami's joy was great when meditation and austerities were in full swing. He would say to his old friends and lay disciples, “See how the Sadhus are practising devotion here. That is right! In the morning and evening, as Shri Ramakrishna used to say, the mind turns naturally, when trained, to the highest spiritual thoughts, and it is therefore easier to control and concentrate it at these junctures. One should therefore try to meditate then on God with undivided attention!” What he preached, he practised. Whenever his health permitted — and fortunately he was comparatively well at this time — he joined in the morning meditation in the chapel. He used to rise at 3 a.m. In a prominent part of the worship-room a special seat was spread for him, facing the north. He meditated there with the others. No one was allowed to leave his seat until the Swami had risen. Oftentimes his meditation would last for more than two hours. Then he would get up chanting, “Shiva! Shiva!” and bowing to Shri Ramakrishna he would go downstairs and pace to and fro in the courtyard, singing a song to the Divine Mother or to Shiva as he walked. His presence in the meditation-room invariably lent an added power and intensity to the meditations of those who sat with him. Swami Brahmananda once remarked, “Ah! One at once becomes absorbed if one sits for meditation in company with Naren! I do not feel this when I sit alone.”
The days when the Swami could not join in the general meditation, he would make enquiries as to the attendance. Once, after an absence of many days, the Swami went into the worship-room at a time when the monks should have been meditating. It so happened that on that particular day many were absent! The Swami was vexed at this lapse, and at once coming down called them all before him. He demanded an explanation, and on receiving no satisfactory answer, passed orders that as a penalty none of them except those who had been present at the meditation and two or three others who were ill at the time should be allowed to have meals at the Math on that day. He bade them go out for Madhukari Bhiksha, or beg handfuls of rice and other foodstuff from the villagers and cook for themselves under the trees in the Math grounds. They were forbidden to go to their friends in Calcutta, from whom they might expect to have a hearty dinner. He spared none, not even the greatest of his Gurubhais, whom he otherwise treated with a special reverence. In order to ensure obedience, he ordered the one in charge of the store-room not to supply cooking materials that day. So most of them were obliged to go out for begging their food. But he could not bear to see his dear ones and those whom he respected begging their food, and he left for Calcutta on the pretext of business. He returned to the Math the next day, full of added love and kindness, and laughed at the queer experiences of some, or the better success of others, and rejoiced at the warm welcome and the sumptuous feast which some had received from some Marwari merchants of Salkhia, three miles distant from the monastery.
The days passed as though they were hours. Whatever the mood in which the Swami might be, for his Gurubhais and disciples his presence was in itself a constant source of joy and inspiration. Whether he was impatient, whether he reprimanded, whether he was exacting or unreasonable, whether he was the Teacher or the meditating Sage, whether he was full of mirth or grave — to his Gurubhais he was always the beloved “Naren”, and to his disciples the blessed and incomparable Guru. A well-known preacher speaking of the Swami in these days says:
“At this time he began to feel that he had finished his public work and had delivered to the world the message of bis blessed Master, Shri Ramakrishna. The inexhaustible energy and power that were working through the form now made him turn his attention to another work, the work of training the disciples and moulding the character of those that had gathered round him, by his living example as well as by his soulstirring spiritual instructions. Silently ignoring his world-wide fame, he lived unostentatiously in the quiet monastery on the bank of the Ganga, sometimes playing the part of a Guru or spiritual teacher, sometimes that of a father, sometimes even that of a school master. Man-making was with those who came to him was of the kindliest character. His all-embracing love was truly divine. To the visitors he was a personification of humility. . . . Through a heart weeping at the sight of the suffering and degradation of the illiterate masses of India, through a soul glowing with the fire of disinterested love for humanity, and through true patriotism and thorough self-sacrificing zeal that did not know what fatigue was, he showed to his disciples how a God-inspired soul felt, and worked lor humanity. Like a cloud in the rainy season that silently deluges the world with water, he now worked silently and proved to his disciples that he was a real worker who felt the universal brotherhood of man, who did not talk much, who did not make little sects for universal brotherhood, but whose acts, whose whole body, whose movements, whose walking, eating, drinking, whose whole life manifested a true brotherhood of mankind, a real love and sympathy for all. By preaching Vedanta, by living and moving in Vedanta, by cosmopolitan charity, and by the simplicity, purity and holiness of his life, Swami Vivekananda solved the problem of the future of his Motherland by holding before the eyes of his disciples, followers, friends and admirers, nay, be tore even the whole of India, the ideal of character-building through the light and spirit, of Vedanta.”