The Incarnations bear a special message for the world. Moved by compassion at the sight of the sorrows and miseries of afflicted humanity, the Lord who is beyond the contamination of ignorance incarnates Himself in this world, acknowledging a temporary allegiance, as it were, to All-powerful Maya, His own inscrutable Power. His is only a translucent veil, and he is aware, even from his very birth, of the special mission he has for the world. After an intense Sadhana of some years the veil is rent and his real self shines forth, a consummation which takes an ordinary mortal thousands of births to attain. Then his power becomes irresistible. He revolutionises the world. His very presence radiates spirituality; his look and touch perform miracles. But an Incarnation, composed as he is of pure Sattva (light and wisdom), cannot, owing to his very nature, produce a mass effect upon humanity. Another personality is required with more Rajas,1 who is capable of taking the ideas of the perfected one and giving them to the world. The inscrutable power which drags down the Lord from His High Throne to take birth as an Incarnation also projects a portion of Him, as it were, as a complementary being, for the fulfilment of his mission. In the fullness of time, the Incarnation seeks him out and makes him the conduit for his Gospel. The spiritual history of the world demonstrates the truth of this. Though surrounded by innumerable disciples and devotees, Christ had to choose a Peter as the rock upon which to build the foundation of His Church. Sri Krishna had Arjuna, Buddha had Ananda, Gouranga had Nityananda — all furnishing further evidence of this strange phenomenon. To Shri Ramakrishna, Narendra Nath played this complementary part.
At their first meeting Shri Ramakrishna instantaneously recognised that Naren was the one who was to carry his message to the world. Through his Nirvikalpa Samadhi, Shri Ramakrishna had gained the power to identify himself with the cosmic mind in which this universe rises and disappears like a tiny bubble in the ocean. Past, present, and future held no secret from him. He knew of the past happenings which are chronicled in the pages of nature as well as events which were to come. It was thus that Shri Ramakrishna was aware of the number of devoted souls who were born specially to assist him and the measure of help he would get from every one.
Shri Ramakrishna was the heart of old India, with its spiritual perspective, its asceticism and its realisations — the India of the Upanishads. Naren came to him with all the doubts and scepticism of the modern age, unwilling to accept even the highest truths of religion without verification, yet with a burning zeal for the Truth raging within him. Naren had yet to learn that though reason is the best instrument in the relative world, yet it cannot carry one beyond relativity into the realm of the Absolute where the truth of religion abides. The result of the contact of these two great personalities, Shri Ramakrishna and Narendra Nath, was Swami Vivekananda who was to become the heart of a New India, with the ancient spiritual perspective heightened, widened, and strengthened to include modem learning — old ideals assimilating the new. The intense activity of the West was to be combined with the deep meditation of the East. Asceticism and retirement were to be supplemented by work and service to others. From the merging of these two currents came Neo-Hinduism, the faith of a glorious Tomorrow, in which all should be fulfilment and nothing denial.
From a personal point of view the meeting was likewise extraordinary. It is better to give Shri Ramakrishna’s own account, in brief, of the first visit of his greatest disciple:
“Narendra entered this room by the western door. He seemed careless about his body and dress, and unlike other people, unmindful of the external world. His eyes bespoke an introspective mind, as if some part of it were always concentrated upon something within. I was surprised to find such a spiritual soul coming from the material atmosphere of Calcutta. A mat was spread on the floor. He sat on it just near the place where you now see the big jar containing the water of the Ganga. The friends with whom he had come appeared to be ordinary young men with the usual tendencies towards enjoyment. He sang a few Bengali songs at my request. One of it was a common song of the Brahmo Sainaj, which begins —
‘O my mind, go
to your own abode
In the foreign land of this world
Why roam uselessly like a stranger!'
“He sang the song with his whole heart and put such pathos in it that I could no longer control myself, but fell into an ecstatic mood.
“Then he took leave. But after that I felt such a constant agonising desire to see him! At times the pain would be so excruciating that I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel! Then I could no longer check myself. I ran to the northern quarter of the garden, a rather unfrequented place, and there cried at the top of my voice, ‘O my darling, come to me! I cannot live without seeing you!' After some time, I felt better. This state of things continued for six months. There were other boys who also came here; I felt greatly drawn towards some of them, but nothing like the way I was attracted towards Narendra.”
Narendra too was profoundly moved at his first visit to the Master. He told some of his friends of it later, though with some reserve:
“Well, I sang the song; but shortly after, he suddenly rose and taking me by the hand led me to the northern verandah, shutting the door behind him. It was locked from the outside; so we were alone. I thought that he would give me some private instructions. But to my utter surprise he began to shed profuse tears of joy as he held my hand, and addressing me most tenderly as one long familiar to him, said, ‘Ah, you come so late! How could you be so unkind as to keep me waiting so long! My ears are well-nigh burnt in listening to the profane talks of worldly people. Oh, how I yearn to unburden my mind to one who can appreciate my innermost experience! ' Thus he went on amid sobs. The next moment he stood before me with folded hands and began to address me, ‘Lord, I know you are that ancient sage, Nara — the Incarnation of Narayana — born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind,' and so on!
“I was altogether taken aback by his conduct. ‘Who is this man whom I have come to see,' I thought, ‘he must be stark mad! Why, I am but the son of Vishwanath Datta, and yet he dares to address me thus!’ But I kept quiet allowing him to go on. Presently he went back to his room, and bringing some sweets, sugar candy, and butter, began to feed me with his own hands. In vain did I say again and again, ‘Please give the sweets to me, I shall share them with my friends! ' He simply said, ‘They may have some afterwards,' and desisted only after I had eaten all. Then he seized me by the hand and said, Promise that you will come alone to me at an early date,' At his importunity I had to say ‘yes’ and returned with him to my friends.”
To the others ranged about the Master, some of whom were old, some middle-aged and some lads of Naren’s age, but all convinced of his holiness, he said, “Behold! how Naren beams with the light of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning!” Those who heard him say this looked upon Naren with wonder. Not only was it strange that the Master should speak thus, it was still more strange that he should have seen such profound spirituality in this boy. “Do you see a light before falling asleep?” asked Shri Ramakrishna. Narendra said, “Yes, sir.” The Master cried, “Ah! It is true. This one is a Dhyana-Siddha — an adept in meditation even from his very birth,'’
Regarding his conflicting thoughts about the strange words and actions of Shri Ramakrishna, Narendra Nath used to say:
“I sat and watched him. There was nothing wrong in his words, movements or behaviour towards others. Rather from his spiritual words and ecstatic states he seemed to be a man of genuine renunciation, and there was a marked consistency between his words and life. He used the most simple language, and I thought, ‘Can this man be a great teacher?' — I crept near to him and asked him the question which I had asked so often: ‘Have you seen God, sir?’ ‘Yes, I see Him just as I see you here, only in a much in tenser sense.’ ‘God can be realised,’ he went on, ‘one can see and talk to Him as I am doing with you. But who cares to do so? People shed torrents of tears for their wife and children, for wealth or property, but who does so for the sake of God? If one weeps sincerely for Him, He surely manifests Himself.’ That impressed me at once. For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he had seen God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. As I heard these things from his lips, I could not but believe that he was saying them not like an ordinary preacher but from the depths of his own realisations. But I could not reconcile his words with his strange conduct with me. So I concluded that he must be a monomaniac. Yet I could not help acknowledging the magnitude of his renunciation. ‘He may be a madman,’ I thought, ‘but only the fortunate few can have such renunciation. Even if insane, this man is the holiest of the holy, a true saint, and for that alone he deserves the reverential homage of mankind!’ With such conflicting thoughts I bowed before him and begged his leave to return to Calcutta.”
Though Naren considered him to be a madman, he was at a loss to account for the strange feeling of blessedness that came over him as he sat near the Master. But it was all strange — the number of adoring devotees, the unaccountable religious ecstasy of the Master, his return from ecstasy, the atmosphere of intense blessedness, his words, the uplifting of his own soul — all these were bewildering to Naren. But in spite of the impression made by the Master, Naren was slow to accept him as teacher and allowed the thousand and one preoccupations of his daily life to prevent him from keeping his promise to repeat his visits and it was nearly a month later that he set out alone on foot to the temple-garden of Dakshineswar. The following is the description of this momentous meeting given by Narendra to some of his brother-disciples:
“I did not realise then that the temple-garden of Dakshineswar was so far from Calcutta, as on the previous occasion I had gone there in a carriage. The road seemed to me so long as to be almost endless. However I reached the garden somehow and went straight to Shri Ramakrishna’s room. I found him sitting alone on the small bedstead. He was glad to see me and calling me affectionately to his side, made me sit beside him on his bed. But the next moment I found him overcome with a sort of emotion. Muttering something to himself, with his eyes fixed on me, he slowly drew near me. I thought he might do something queer as on the previous occasion. But in the twinkling of an eye he placed his right foot on my body. The touch at once gave rise to a novel experience within me. With my eyes open I saw that the walls, and everything in the room, whirled rapidly and vanished into naught, and the whole universe together with my individuality was about to merge in an all-encompassing mysterious void! I was terribly frightened and thought that I was facing death, for the loss of individuality meant nothing short of that. Unable to control myself I cried out, ‘What is it that you are doing to me! I have my parents at home! ' He laughed aloud at this and stroking my chest said. ‘All right, let it rest now. Everything will come in time!' The wonder of it was that no sooner had he said this than that strange experience of mine vanished. I was myself again and found everything within and without the room as it had been before.
“All this happened in less time than it takes me to narrate it, but it revolutionised my mind. Amazed I thought what it could possibly be. It came and went at the mere wish of this wonderful man! I began to question if it were mesmerism or hypnotism. But that was not likely, for these acted only on weak minds, and I prided myself on being just the reverse. I had not as yet surrendered myself to the stronger personality of the man. Rather I had taken him to be a monomaniac. So to what might this sudden transformation of mine be due? I could not come to any conclusion. It was an enigma, I thought, which I had better not attempt to solve. I was determined, however, to be on my guard and not to give him another chance to exert a similar influence over me.
“The next moment I thought, how can a man who shatters to pieces a resolute and strong mind like mine be dismissed as a lunatic? Yet that was just the conclusion at which one would arrive from his effusiveness on our first meeting — unless he was an Incarnation of God, which was indeed a far cry. So I was in a dilemma about the real nature of my experience as well as the truth about, this remarkable man, who was obviously pure and simple as a child. My rationalistic mind received an unpleasant rebuff at this failure in judging the true state of things. But I was determined to fathom the mystery somehow.
“Thoughts like these occupied my mind during the whole of that day. But he became quite another man after that incident and, as on the previous occasion, treated me with great kindness and cordiality. His behaviour towards me was like that of a man who meets an old friend or relative after a long separation. He seemed not to be satisfied with entertaining and taking all possible care of me. This remarkably loving treatment drew me all the more to him. At last, finding that the day was coming to a close, I asked his leave to go. He seemed very much dejected at this and gave me his permission only after I had promised to come again at my earliest convenience.”
A few days after the above experience, Narendra Nath paid his third visit to the Master at Dakshineswar, and though he was determined not to be influenced, yet he fared no better than the other times. Shri Ramakrishna took him that day to the adjacent garden of Jadunath Mallik. After a stroll in the garden they sat down in the parlour. Soon Shri Ramakrishna fell into a trance and touched Narendra Nath. In spite of all his precautions Naren was totally overwhelmed and immediately lost all outward consciousness. When he came to himself after a while, he found the Master stroking his chest.
Naren had no idea of the happenings of this period, but it was then that the Master learned many strange things about him. Referring to this incident, he said later on, “I put several questions to him while he was in that state. I asked him about his antecedents and where he lived, his mission in this world and the duration of his mortal life. He dived deep into himself and gave fitting answers to my questions. They only confirmed what I had seen and inferred about him. Those things shall be a secret, but I came to know that he was a sage who had attained perfection, a past master in meditation, and that the day he knew his real nature, he would give up the body, by an act of will, through Yoga.”
It is interesting to learn what revelations the Master had of his greatest disciple even before his arrival at Dakshineswar. This is how he described them:
“One day I found that my mind was soaring high in Samadhi along a luminous path. It soon transcended the stellar universe and entered the subtler region of ideas. As it ascended higher and higher I found on both sides of the way ideal forms of gods and goddesses. The mind then reached the outer limits of that region, where a luminous barrier separated the sphere of relative existence from that of the Absolute. Crossing that barrier, the mind entered the transcendental realm, where no corporeal being was visible. Even the gods dared not peep into that sublime realm, but had to be content to keep their seats far below. The next moment I found seven venerable sages seated there in Samadhi. It occurred to me that these sages must have surpassed not only men, but even the gods, in knowledge and holiness, in renunciation and love. Lost in admiration I was reflecting on their greatness, when I saw a portion of that undifferentiated luminous region condense into the form of a divine child. The child came to one of the sages, tenderly clasped his neck with his lovely little arms, and addressing him in a sweet voice attempted to drag his mind down from the state of Samadhi. The magic touch roused the sage from his superconscious state, and he fixed his unmoving, half-open gaze upon that wonderful child. His beaming countenance showed that the child must have been the treasure of his heart. In great joy the strange child said to him, ‘I am going down. You too must go with me.’ The sage remained mute, but his tender look expressed his assent. As he kept gazing on the child, he was again immersed in Samadhi. I was surprised to find that a fragment of his body and rnind was descending on earth in the form of an effulgent light. No sooner had I seen Naren than I recognised him to be that sage.”2
On another occasion, Shri Ramakrishna in a vision saw a streak of light flash across the sky from Varanasi towards Calcutta. In great joy he exclaimed, “My prayer has been granted and my man must come to me one day.”
Now it is apparent that Naren’s inability to discover what had happened during his trance was due to the will of the Master who thought it best that his disciple should not be aware of the highest state too soon. He was not as yet prepared for it and would only have been terrified. And when Naren was in that state of Samadhi, the Master turned the subconscious currents of Naren’s nature, by force, as it were, into the superconscious channel, working a great transformation in his mind. So, little by little he began to regard Shri Ramakrishna not as a madman, but as the only sane man among the myriad lunatics of the world, who dwell in the asylum of selfishness and desire, bound down in the prison-house of lust and gold. Still the strange words Shri Ramakrishna addressed to him at the first meeting were an anomaly to him. The full significance of the part he was to play with the Master came to him later after repeated tests and trials.
Naren was the Master’s from the moment the Master touched him. It was a possession however which meant the highest freedom for Naren’s soul. He lost many of his cherished convictions, for instance, that a Guru was not necessary. How could a man, he had reasoned, necessarily weak and short-visioned, be the unerring guide that implicit obedience demands? Now he realised that it was possible that such a man could exist and that his help and influence would be of inestimable value. His faith in asceticism and renunciation was strengthened by coming in contact with the Master. He devoted himself with his entire heart and soul to the task of realising God, willingly accepting from Shri Ramakrishna the necessary advice and help which appealed to his reason, but only after a searching analysis of the Master’s realisations and mode of life.
Narendra was a sceptic, with no faith in the Hindu gods. He laughed at many of the injunctions of the Hindu scriptures. He was not one to silence the questionings of his mind. He would not drive off a doubt with the lash of a fanatic creed. Open was his soul to all that might come in. At first came darkness, appalling darkness, intensified by anguish. Even here he tried to see; and when the gloom was blackest and he was beginning to ask himself if he might not be chasing phantoms, a faint light as of the dawning of Truth became apparent. This gave him hope to go on in the face of failures and increasing doubts. Still dissatisfied he demanded the actual vision. The more he struggled against doubt, the more insistently it arose within the silence of the soul. He was, however, a born sailor on the ocean of the struggle for Reality, and his sailor’s instinct kept him up. Naren was confident that beatific knowledge must come as a triumphant climax to all his struggles and sufferings.
Shri Ramakrishna understood and loved Naren the better for all this turmoil, for he himself had had to pass through upheavals, which, though they were tempests of the soul instead of the mind as in Naren’s case, were similar in their cause and intensity. He saw that Naren’s intellect, because of the very intensity of his desire for the Truth, would always doubt; but he saw as well that Naren would conquer in the end, that he would transcend all limitations and become a spiritual giant. So he continued to guide and instruct him with infinite love and patience.
Hereafter Naren’s life is that of the Saint-in-the-making. It is no longer his mind to which one pays attention, though it becomes more and more luminous as the years go on; it is his heart, his very soul, his vision that captivates attention. A time was coming when the whole orb of his soul was to shine forth with the radiance and glory of the full moon. He was to attain unto the very highest possibilities of the, mystical consciousness, wherein the soul and the Supreme Reality are revealed as a perfect and indistinguishable Unity. In that imperious question, “Mahashaya (venerable sir), have you seen God?’' asked by Naren of the Maharshi Debendra Nath, is the dawn of his spiritual life. Before that the intellect ruled and doubt was supreme; but even then were heard, though faintly so, the stirrings of an approaching dawn, which grew into the day of glorious vision in the effulgent presence of Shri Ramakrishna, the Sun of Truth.