The playtime of childhood with its joys and sorrows was over for Naren, and a new life with a more serious outlook dawned for him when, in 1879 at the age of sixteen, he passed the Entrance Examination and entered College. He had grown to manhood’s stature, was muscular, agile and inclined to stoutness. Hereafter one sees him as a student, intensely intellectual.
Naren studied at the Presidency College for a year; but after that time he entered the General Assembly’s Institution founded by the Scottish General Missionary Board. It is now known as the Scottish Church College. Hard study on the eve of the Entrance Examination together with ascetic practices had shattered his health, and consequently he had a nervous breakdown. He went to Gaya for a change and returned to Calcutta a few months before the First Arts Examination which he passed in 1881 in the second division. It was while he was in the First Arts classes that he met for the first time in November, 1881, Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. It will be interesting to note here how he first came to hear of the great saint. Professor William Hastie, the great scholar, was at that time the Principal of the Institution. One day during the absence of the professor of English he took over the literature class. He was explaining Wordsworth’s “Excursion”, in which the poet refers to the state of trance of which the poet had had a glimpse while contemplating the beauties of nature. The students did not understand. The professor said, “Such an experience is the result of purity of mind and concentration on some particular object, and it is rare indeed, particularly in these days. I have seen only one person who has experienced that blessed state of mind, and he is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. You can understand if you go there and see for yourself.” It was thus that Naren heard of his future Master, and not through the Brdhmo Samaj of which he was a member.
Naren did not limit his studies to the curriculum. During the first two years of his college life he acquired a thorough grasp of all the masterpieces of Western logic, and in his third and fourth year classes he set himself to mastering Western philosophy as well as the ancient and modern history of the different nations of Europe.
Even in College, Naren depended on his prodigious memory. A month before the B.A. Examination he had not read a single page of Green’s History of the English People which was one of the text books prescribed. He did not even own a copy. He procured one and vowed that he would not leave his room until he had mastered its contents. In three days he knew the book thoroughly. Often before the examination he would read for the whole night and use strong tea or coffee to keep himself awake. Came the morning before the B.A. Examination and we find Naren in a strange mood. Far from dreading the coming ordeal his mind was filled with the idea of the uselessness of all learning if it did not bring with it the desire for Reality which is born of the love of God, So we find him standing outside of his college-mate’s room singing absorbedly, almost ecstatically, his face radiant. He began with the opening verse of the song, “We are like children” etc. Again it was a song of praise:
“Sing ye, O mountains, O
clouds, O great winds!
Sing ye, sing ye, sing His Glory!
Sing with joy all ye, the suns and moons and stars!
Sing ye, sing ye, His Glory!”
He sang and talked until nine o’clock.
A friend intervened and reminded him of the examination. But Narendra paid no attention. Already his great renunciation was being foreshadowed. However, he appeared for the examinations the next day and passed.
For four or five years Naren had studied vocal and instrumental music under the able tutelage of Ahammad Khan and Beni Gupta, two well-known musicians, and could play many musical instruments, though he excelled in song. From the Mohammedan teacher he learnt many Hindi, Urdu, and Persian songs, most of them devotional. He wrote later on an elaborate preface to a book of Bengali songs compiled by one of his friends in which he discussed the science and technique of Indian music.
In college, he attracted the attention of both Indian and English professors who recognised his ambitious mind and the latent powers of his personality. Principal W. W. Hastie said, “Narendra Nath is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide, but I have never yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German Universities, amongst philosophical students. He is bound to make his mark in life!” Naren tested everything by argument. Even during recreation he continued the discussions begun in the hours of study. He was vehement, vigorous, of untiring energy, and his topics of conversation were endless. During his collegiate life he underwent a wonderful psychological transformation. A born idealist and seeker of truth, he was not to be satislied with mere worldly enjoyments. He longed to pierce the veil of nature, but his reason had to be satisfied at the same time. Beneath the surface of his conscious mind ran the swift currents of desire for Reality, which made him aware from his earliest years that his life was to be different from the rest of mankind.
Let it not be imagined, however, that he was not a lad in other things. He was as keen for adventure as ever and the first to see the humorous side of a situation. Small incidents like the following show how strong was his affection for his friends. On the eve of the B.A. Examination one of his friends found himself in such financial difficulties that he could not pay the college or examination fees. Naren interceded on his behalf to the Superintendent of the college, who had the power to remit the entire amount, but to no avail. One day he resolved to make a last appeal and waited in the street at the hour at which he knew the Superintendent was sure to pass. He made such an impassioned plea that the Superintendent relented and the friend was able to take the examinations without any further trouble.
The remarks of one of Naren’s friends will give an insight into their attitude towards him. Said he, “It was delightful often open a subject for discussion just for the pleasure of hearing him speak. He was so interesting and, above all, so original. Even at that time he detested any sort of weakness. He was a great admirer of Napoleon, and tried to impress upon us that the followers of any great cause must give the unquestioning obedience which Marshal Ney showed to his emperor.”
It was at this period that he began to interest himself in the issues of the day, specially Brahmo Samaj. The healthy activities of the Brahmo Samaj were in sharp contrast to the moribund state of Hindu society; and its leader, Keshab Chandra Sen, the hero of a hundred platforms, was the idol of young Bengal. We shall state here very briefly the underlying principles of the Brahmo movement. The travail of passing through a new birth of a nation brings in its train movements of reform, the struggle of a new vision seeking expression and the old established tradition desiring conservation. From the clash between these two come the reformers and the reactionaries. The Brahmo Samaj is the outward expression of an endeavour to liberalise and at the same time to conserve the evolved instincts of the Hindu race. Its coming into existence was co-terminous with the awakening of the intellect of the illustrious reformer Raja Rammohan Roy, a man of gigantic intellect, inflexible will and the courage and prestige necessary for any attack on the evils which threatened the very existence of the nation. He was wide enough to see that if Hinduism was to survive it would be at the cost of many religious and social reforms. Later, Maharshi Debendra Nath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen became his most powerful followers, and it is really owing to these two that the life of the movement was assured. This movement protested against certain forms and tenets of the orthodox Hindu, such as polytheism, image worship, Divine Incarnation, and the need of a Guru. It therefore offered a monotheistic religion which repudiated all these. On the social side, reforms in the way of breaking up of the caste system and the caste consciousness, the recognition of the equality of man, the education and emancipation of women, with the raising of the marriageable age were demanded. It was a tremendous task which they assigned to themselves, one requiring endless patience and wisdom. But the Brahmo Samaj lacked the means of carrying out these reforms, and the recognition of the fact that all reforms must come from within — that superimposition can have no lasting influence.
It is not to be wondered at that this movement captured the imagination of young Bengal. In Naren was aroused a tumult of thought and feeling, and he came to regard the Samaj, whose meetings he often attended, as an ideal institution in which might be solved all of life’s problems, individual or national. He was imbued with the same ideas as the Brahmo leaders. He knew the burden and had chafed under the rigidity of caste. He had no sympathy with polytheism and image worship. He espoused the cause with all earnestness, and it was his earnest wish that the strength of thought, depth of feeling, the enthusiasm and the personal magnetism which were the characteristics of Keshab Chandra Sen, and through which he influenced his numerous followers, might one day be his.
In 1878 there was a split in the Brahmo Samaj, and a number of the members headed by Pandit Shiva Nath Shastri and Vijay Krishna Goswami formed a new society called the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. Naren identified himself with the new organisation and his name is still on the rolls of the original members. He also joined at this time a movement for the education of the masses, irrespective of caste, creed or colour. His intense desire for freedom made him willing to identify himself with anything that promised liberation from obsolete methods, or to cast aside anything that might interfere with his gaining of a larger vision. He was not content with passivity; he wanted to know the “why” and the “how” of every phenomenon, mental or spiritual.
The most important trait in his character was purity. Like every other lad he was subjected to influences of a dubious nature. The opportunities for questionable adventures were many, but the influence of his mother made itself felt here, for she had made purity a matter of loyalty to herself and to the family. Then too, “something” always held him back, as he himself said later on. And purity became the standard by which he judged all ideals and visions of the soul and God; it was the background to all his thought and feeling, and he felt that, without it, the spiritual life was impossible. To him, it was not a passive resistance to evil, but an active, overwhelming passion, a burning spiritual force relating itself to all forms of life and far beyond the merely sexual definition. Brahmacharya1 was his ideal for students — a Brahmacharya of hard intellectual labour combined with and governed by great personal purity — a necessary stage of preparation of mind and heart for the vision which the scriptures promise to those who are faithful to that ideal.
About this time Naren’s father began to urge him to marry, with the tempting prospect of such a large dowry that he would be able to go to England to take the Civil Service Examination. But Naren rebelled. And strange to say, every time the subject of marriage came up, some unforeseen difficulty would arise or events would take some turn making it necessary to abandon the matter for the time being.
The inward spiritual urge was becoming very strong now. With the rest of the Brahmo Samaj he believed in a formless God with attributes (as distinguished from the Absolute of the Advaita Vedanta2), but, unlike the others, he was convinced that if God really existed He would surely appear in answer to the sincere prayers of the devotee. He felt that there must be a way of realising Him, else life would be futile.
Since entering youth’s estate as he would go to sleep two strikingly dissimilar visions of life would come up before his mind’s eye — one of the life of comfort, ease, luxury, the life of the senses, the enjoyment of wealth, power, name, and fame, and the love of a devoted wife and family, in short, the worldly life — the other picture was of the Sannyisin, a wandering monk having no possessions, fixed in the consciousness of Divine Reality, living as fortune caused him a drift, eating only such food as chance might bring and resting at night under the canopy of the sky in the forest or on the mountain side. He believed himself capable of realising either of these ideals, and he often pictured himself in both, for he felt these two were within him, two painters, one, the spirit of desire, the other, the spirit of renunciation. But the further inward he would go the stronger became the figure of renunciation; the worldly one would begin to fade until finally it disappeared. Thus the spiritual self of Naren held mastery, choosing the renunciation of desire, which is the only way to gain the vision of God.
For a time the intellectual atmosphere of the Brahmo Samaj satisfied him; he felt uplifted during the prayers and devotional songs. But presently it began to dawn on him that, if God was to be realised, he was no nearer the goal than before he joined it. What were philosophies and Vedas, but attempts to describe the Indescribable? They were useless if they did not bring one to the feet of the Lord!
In his longing to know the Truth he turned to Maharshi Debendra Nalh Tagore, who was regarded by many as one of the best of spiritual teachers. Naren had been, in company with some friends, to see him once before, and he had advised them to practise meditation with great intensity. So to the Maharshi who lived in retirement in a boat on the Ganga, Naren, burning with the desire to know God, went a second time. The sudden appearance of Naren startled the venerable old man. Before he could say a word, Naren, tense with excitement, burst out the question: “Sir, have you seen God?” The Maharshi was unable to answer and contented himself with saying, “My boy, you have the Yogi’s eyes.” Naren came away disappointed. No, the Maharshi had not seen God. He went to the leaders of other religious sects, and not one of them could say that he had seen God. Where then should he go? Suddenly he remembered Shri Ramakrishna, whom he had met for the first time at the house of a devotee; of his friend Surendra Nath Mitra in November, 1881, whither Naren had gone to sing. The Master had been greatly attracted by the singing, had made inquiries about Naren and had even invited him to Dakshineswar. So Naren decided to go to Dakshineswar with Surendra Nath and put his question.
We shall see later what happened there and Shri Ramakrishna’s answer to the question. This meeting marked the opening of a new chapter in the spiritual life of Narendra Nath.