Naren's days now passed in study and meditation. Often he went to Dakshineswar. At his own home he lived in a room all to himself. Vishwanath Datta, whose ambition was to see Naren a great legal light, made him an assistant to Nimai Charan Bose, a well-known attorney-at-law. Vishwanath was also desirous of seeing his son marry. On several occasions he had planned for Naren’s marriage, but for some reason or other arrangements were always broken off. Shri Ramakrishna was greatly opposed to Naren’s marriage. He prayed to Mother that it should never take place. He was greatly relieved when such negotiations fell through, for he held that Naren was not born for the love of any single person, or for the rearing up of a family, but for the saving of souls. Naren’s father, however, did secure an alliance with a powerful and wealthy family of Calcutta who were ready to pay a magnificent sum as dowry to Naren’s people and send him to England for education. But before the marriage could take place the father passed away. Naren now became his own master. His determination to remain unmarried was inflexible. The ideal of celibacy became a principle with him as his passion for purity became stronger. And when the members of the family would press him to lead the householder's life and repeatedly urged him to marry, he said to them with vehemence, “What, are you going to drown me? Once married, it will be all over with me!”
Naren often spoke about the glory of the monastic life to his friends; they did not understand and tried to induce him to turn his attention to worldly pursuits. “Why not settle down to definite plans, Naren? You have a great career before you if you will only look more towards the prospects which the world holds out" said a friend. Naren met this remark witn a shrug and told them that he had often desired to possess a reputation, position and popularity, with wealth and power. But reflection had shown him that death comes and engulfs all! Why should then one build up greatness which can be destroyed by death! "The life of the monk is really great for he seeks to push aside the power of death. He seeks a changeless reality, while the world deals with and falls with the conditions of change.” The friends were not convinced. "The trouble is,” said one of them, “that Naren has met an old man who goes into trances and lives a monk's life in the grounds of the Kali-teinple at Dakshineswar on the banks of the Ganga. He is always meditating and talking about God and knows nothing about the world. This man is upsetting all of Naren’s ambitions and is turning his mind from worldly affairs and ruining his future. The name of this old man is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Naren, if you have any sense, give up going to see him. It is hampering your studies, and it will ruin your whole future if you continue. You have great talents. You can attain anything if you set your will to it and give up going to Dakshineswar.” Naren replied very gravely, “You see, you do not understand. I myself do not understand. No, even I do not understand, but I love that old man, that saint, Shri Ramakrishna.”
If Narendra did not go to Dakshineswar for several days, the Master would come to his disciple in Calcutta, when he would give Naren counsel regarding meditation and other spiritual exercises. He was afraid that Naren, unable to bear the importunities of his parents and relatives, would accept the bondage of married life. He often encouraged him to live the strict life of Brahmacharya and said one day, “A man develops subtle power as a result of strict observance of the vows of celibacy for twelve years. Then he can understand and grasp very subtle things which otherwise elude his intellect. Through that understanding the aspirant can get direct revelation of God. That pure understanding alone enables him to realise Truth.”
The ladies of the family concluded that Naren was averse to marriage as a result of his intimacy with Shri Ramakrishna. Referring to this, Naren said later, “One day my grandmother overheard my Master speaking in my room, about the efficacy of a celibate life. She told of this to my parents. They became greatly concerned lest I should renounce the world and were increasingly anxious that I should marry. My mother was especially fearful lest I should leave the family to take upon myself the vows of monastic life. She often spoke of the matter to me; but I would give a casual reply. But all their plannings for my marriage were frustrated by the strong will of the Master. On one occasion all negotiations of marriage were settled, when a petty difference of opinion arose and the engagement was broken.”
Naren, as we have seen, sat for his B.A. Examination in 1884. Some days after the examination he suddenly came face to face with the grirn reality of the world; his lightheartedness and boyishness of spirit received a rude shock. It was the early part of 1884. The examination result was not yet out. He had gone one evening about two miles from the city of Calcutta to visit a friend at Baranagore. It was night and there was much talk. Just as the merriment and song were at their height, a messenger came from Naren’s home with the news that his father had died suddenly of heart disease. The news overwhelmed Naren. He hastened at once to Calcutta. The mother, the two sisters, and two younger brothers of Naren were waiting and weeping. Naren was dazed. He could neither weep nor speak. According to custom he performed the last rites for his father.
Vishwanath's sudden death placed the entire family in a desperate condition, for he was the only earning member and always spent more than he earned. The creditors knocked at the door. Relatives who had been indebted to his father in so many ways now turned into enemies. They even resolved to deprive the family of its living quarters. Though Narendra had no income he was compelled to maintain seven or eight persons. Came days of suffering. From comfort Naren was suddenly thrown into the direst poverty, facing at times even actual starvation. Later he made efforts to forget those terrible days, but in vain. So dark were they, so heavy the clouds of fate. Yet he is the real man who meets fate fearlessly and with power, the captain of his soul. This Naren did. He passed his B.A. Examination and was admitted to the Law class. In college he was the poorest of the poor. Even shoes became a luxury; his garments were of the coarsest cloth, and many times he went to his classes without food. Often he became faint with hunger and weakness. His friends, now and then, invited him to their houses. He would chat happily with them for long hours, but when food was offered, the vision of the desolation at his home would come up in his mind and prevent him from eating. He would leave with the excuse that he had a pressing engagement elsewhere. On reaching home he would eat as little as possible in order that the others might have enough. Since his passing away his mother has told many stories of the sacrifices her son made for her at that time. Often he would refuse to eat on the plea that he had already eaten at the house of a friend, when the fact was, he did not eat at home for fear of depriving others of a full meal. Such was the greatness and such was the fineness of the man! At the same time he tried to be his ordinary boyish, joyous self and to make light of his trials. The Datta family was proud, in a lordly way, and concealed its misery under the cloak of pride. His friends, sons of wealthy families of Calcutta, drove up in magnificent carriages to Naren's home to take him for drives and pleasure trips, never suspecting that his wasting away physically was due to any other cause than an exaggerated grief at the loss of his father.
To make matters worse, a dispute arose with a branch of the family over the very house in which Naren and his mother lived. On some far-fetched basis a case was made out against them, and the affair was brought into the courts. The contestants demanded that the house be partitioned, they to receive the larger and better portion. This was a blow to Naren. His mother sank under it. That they were to have their affairs aired in public! The case dragged on and on. During the trial several incidents occurred which revealed the temper, the character and the wit of Naren. Finally the case was decided in favour of Naren’s family.
After that, things became easier but by no means comfortable. For several years it was a painful struggle to obtain the coarsest food and clothing. Yet they were happy, when they remembered that the home was theirs and they were together. Naren made every effort to make both ends meet. He became a Freemason, hoping that the social advantages thereby to be gained would also create a financial opportunity for him. He became a teacher in one of Vidyasagar’s institutions, but gave that up in a month’s time for better opportunities. It was a hand-to-mouth existence. There were moments when Naren despaired, but he was too brave to show what he felt. In other trying times later, the memory of these struggles and hardships gave him strength to carry on, for nothing could be worse than the evils through which he had already successfully passed. The relationship between mother and son was deepened a hundredfold through these tempestuous experiences and she was made to recognise through them that in Naren was the trait of character which she especially admired in his father — never, never to acknowledge defeat.
The following is Naren’s own description of this darkest period of his life:
“Even before the period of mourning was over I had to knock about in search of a job. Starving and barefooted, I wandered from office to office under the scorching noon-day sun with an application in hand, one or two intimate friends who sympathised with me in my misfortunes accompanying me sometimes. But everywhere the door was slammed in my face. This first contact with the reality of life convinced me that unselfish sympathy was a rarity in the world — there was no place in it for the weak, the poor and the destitute. I noticed that those who only a few days ago would have been proud to help me in any way, now turned their face against me, though they had enough and to spare. Seeing all this, the world sometimes seemed to me to be the handiwork of the devil. One day, weary and footsore, I sat down in the shade of the Ochterlony Monument in the Maidan. Some friends of mine happened to be there, one of whom sang a song about the overflowing grace of God, perhaps to comfort me. It was like a terrible blow on my head. I remembered the helpless condition of my mother and brothers, and exclaimed in bitter anguish and despondency, 'Will you please stop that song? Such fancies may be pleasing to those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and have no starving relatives at home. Yes, there was a time when I too thought like that. But today before the hard facts of life, it sounds like grim mockery.'
“My friend must have been wounded. How could he fathom the dire misery that had forced these words out of my mouth? Sometimes when I found that there were not enough provisions for the family and my purse was empty, I would pretend to my mother that I had an invitation to dine out and remain practically without food. Out of self-respect I could not disclose the facts to others. My rich friends sometimes requested me to come to their homes or gardens and sing. I had to comply when I could not avoid it. I did not feel inclined to express my woes before them nor did they try, themselves, to find out my difficulties. A few among them, sometimes, used to ask me, ‘Why do you look so pale and weak today?’ Only one of them came to know about my poverty without my knowledge, and, now and then, sent anonymous help to my mother by which act of kindness he has put me under a deep debt of gratitude.
“Some of my old friends who earned their livelihood by unfair means, asked me to join them. A few among them who had been compelled to follow this dubious way of life by sudden turns of fortune, as in my case, really felt sympathy for me. There were other troubles also. Various temptations came in my way. A rich woman sent me an ugly proposal to end my days of penury which I sternly rejected with scorn. Another woman also made similar overtures to me. I said to her, 'You have wasted your life seeking the pleasures of the flesh. The dark shadows of death are before you. Have you done anything to face that? Give up all these filthy desires and remember God!'
“In spite of all these troubles, however, I never lost faith in the existence of God nor in His divine mercy. Every morning taking His name I got up and went out in search of a job. One day my mother overheard me and said bitterly, ‘Hush, you fool, you have been crying yourself hoarse for God from your childhood, and what has He done for you?’ I was stung to the quick. Doubt crossed my mind. 'Does God really exist' I thought, ‘and if so, does He really hear the fervent prayer of man? Then why is there no response to my passionate appeals? Why is there so much woe in His benign kingdom? Why does Satan rule in the realm of the Merciful God?’ Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s words — ‘if God is good and gracious, why then do millions of people die for want of a few morsels of food at times of famine? — rang in my ears with bitter irony. I was exceedingly cross with God. It was also the most opportune moment for doubt to creep into my heart.
“It was ever against my nature to do anything secretly. On the contrary it was a habit with me from my boyhood not to hide even my thoughts from others through fear or anything else. So it was quite natural for me now to proceed to prove before the world that God was a myth, or that, even if He existed, to call upon Him was fruitless. Soon the report gained currency that I was an atheist and did not scruple to drink or even frequent houses of ill fame. This unmerited calumny hardened my heart still more. I openly declared that in this miserable world there was nothing reprehensible in a man who, seeking for a brief respite, would resort to anything. Not only that, but if I was once convinced of the efficacy of such a course, I would not, through fear of anybody, shrink from following it.
“A garbled report of the matter soon reached the ears of the Master and his devotees in Calcutta. Some of these came to me to have a first-hand knowledge of the situation and hinted to me that they believed in some of the rumours at least. A sense of wounded pride filled my heart on finding that they could think me so low. In an exasperated mood I gave them to understand plainly that it was cowardice to believe in God through fear of hell and argued with them as to His existence or non-existence, quoting several Western philosophers in support. The result was that they took leave of me with the conviction that I was hopelessly lost — and I was glad. I thought that perhaps Shri Raniakrishna also would believe that, and this thought filled me with uncontrollable pique. ‘Never mind,’ I said to myself, ‘if the good or bad opinion of a man rests upon such flimsy foundations, I don’t care.’ But I was amazed to hear later that the Master had, at first, received the report coldly, without expressing an opinion one way or the other. And when one of his favourite disciples, Bhavanath, said to him with tears in his eyes, ‘Sir, I could not even dream that Narendra could stoop so low,’ he was furious and said, ‘Hush, you fool! The Mother has told me that it can never be so. I shan’t be able to look at you if you speak to me again like that.’
“But notwithstanding these forced atheistic views, the vivid memory of the divine visions I had experienced since my boyhood, and especially after my contact with Shri Ramakrishna, would lead me to think that God must exist and that there must be some way to realise Him. Otherwise life would be meaningless. In the midst of all troubles and tribulations I must find that way. Days passed and the mind continued to waver between doubt and certainty. My pecuniary wants also remained just the same.
“The summer was over, and the rains set in. The search for a job still went on. One evening, after a whole day’s fast and exposure to rain I was returning home with tired limbs and a jaded mind; overpowered with exhaustion and unable to move a step forward, I sank down on the outer plinth of a house on the roadside. I can’t say whether I was insensible for a time or not. Various thoughts crowded in on my mind, and I was too weak to drive them off and fix my attention on a particular thing. Suddenly I felt as if by some divine power the coverings of my soul were removed one after another. All my former doubts regarding the coexistence of divine justice and mercy, and the presence of misery in the creation of a Blissful Providence, were automatically solved. By a deep introspection I found the meaning of it all and was satisfied. As I proceeded homewards I found there was no trace of fatigue in the body and the mind was refreshed with wonderful strength and peace. The night was well nigh over.
“Henceforth I became deaf to the praise and blame of worldly people. I was convinced that I was not born like humdrum people to earn money and maintain my family, much less to strive for sense-pleasure. I began secretly to prepare myself to renounce the world like my grandfather. I fixed a day for the purpose and was glad to hear that the Master was to come to Calcutta that very day. 'It is lucky', I thought, 'I shall leave the world with the blessing of my Guru'. As soon as I met the Master, he pressed me hard to spend that night with him at Dakshineswar. I made various excuses, but to no purpose. I had to accompany him. There was not much talk in the carriage. Reaching Dakshineswar I was seated for some time in his room along with others, when he went into a trance. Presently he drew near me and touching me with great tenderness, began to sing a song, with tears in his eyes. I had repressed my feelings so long, but now they overflowed in tears. The meaning of the song was too apparent — he knew of my intentions. The audience marvelled at this exchange of feeling between us. When the Master regained his normal mood, some of them asked him the reason of it, and he replied with a smile, ‘Oh, it was something between him and me’. Then at night he dismissed the others and calling me to his side said, 'I know you have come for the Mother’s work, and won’t be able to remain in the world. But for my sake, stay as long as I live'. Saying this he burst into tears again. The next day with his permission I returned home. A thousand thoughts about the maintenance of the family assailed me. I began to look about again for a living. By working in an attorney’s office and translating a few books, I got just enough means to live from hand to mouth, but it was not permanent, and there was no fixed income to maintain my mother and brothers.
“One day the idea struck me that God listened to Shri Ramakrishna’s prayers; so why should I not ask him to pray for me for the removal of my pecuniary wants — a favour the Master would never deny me? I hurried to Dakshineswar and insisted on his making the appeal on behalf of my starving family. He said, ‘My boy, I can’t make such demands. But why don’t you go and ask the Mother yourself? All your sufferings are due to your disregard of Her.’ I said, ‘I do not know the Mother, you please speak to Her on my behalf. You must.’ He replied tenderly, ‘My dear boy, I have done so again and again. But you do not accept Her, so She does not grant my prayer. All right, it is Tuesday — go to the Kali temple tonight, prostrate yourself before the Mother and ask Her any boon you like. It shall be granted. She is Knowledge Absolute, the Inscrutable Power of Brahman, and by Her mere will has given birth to this world. Everything is in Her power to give.’ I believed every word and eagerly waited for the night. About 9 o’clock the Master commanded me to go to the temple. As I went, I was filled with a divine intoxication. My feet were unsteady. My heart was leaping in anticipation of the joy of beholding the living Goddess and hearing Her words. I was full of the idea. Reaching the temple, as I cast my eyes upon the image, I actually found that the Divine Mother was living and conscious, the Perennial Fountain of Divine Love and Beauty. I was caught in a surging wave of devotion and love. In an ecstasy of joy I prostrated myself again and again before the Mother and prayed, ‘Mother, give me discrimination! Give me renunciation! Give unto me knowledge and devotion! Grant that I may have an uninterrupted vision of Thee!’ A serene peace reigned in my soul. The world was forgotten. Only the Divine Mother shone within my heart.
“As soon as I returned, the Master asked me if I had prayed to the Mother for the removal of my worldly wants. I was startled at this question and said, ‘No, sir, I forgot all about it. But is there any remedy now?’ 'Go again', said he, ‘and tell Her about your wants.’ I again set out for the temple, but at the sight of the Mother again forgot my mission, bowed to Her repeatedly and prayed only for love and devotion. The Master asked me if I had done it the second time. I told him what had happened. He said, ‘How thoughtless! Couldn’t you restrain yourself enough to say those few words? Well, try once more and make that prayer to Her. Quick!’ I went for the third time, but on entering the temple a terrible shame overpowered me. I thought, ‘What a trifle I have come to pray to the Mother about! It is like asking a gracious king for a few vegetables! What a fool I am!’ In shame and remorse I bowed to Her respectfully and said, ‘Mother. I want nothing but knowledge and devotion.’ Coming out of the temple I understood that all this was due to the Master’s will. Otherwise how could I fail in my object no less than thrice? I came to him and said, ‘Sir, it is you who have cast a charm over my mind and made me forgetful. Now please grant me the boon that my people at home may no longer suffer the pinch of poverty.’ He said, ‘Such a prayer never comes from my lips. I asked you to pray for yourself. But you couldn’t do it. It appears that you are not destined to enjoy worldly happiness. Well, I can't help it.’ But I wouldn’t let him go. I insisted on his granting that prayer. At last he said, ‘All right, your people at home will never be in want of plain food and clothing.’”
The above incident is, no doubt, a landmark in Naren’s life. Hitherto he had not realised the significance of the Motherhood of God. He had nothing but unfeigned contempt for image-worship. From now on the full meaning and purpose of the worship of God through images was brought home to him, thus making his spiritual life richer and fuller. Shri Ramakrishna was delighted beyond measure at this transformation. The following account of Vaikuntha Nath Sanyal, another devotee of the Master, who visited Dakshineswar the next day, will bear this out:
“Coming to Dakshineswar at noon I found the Master alone in his room and Narendra sleeping outside. Shri Ramakrishna was in a joyous mood, and as soon as I saluted him he said, pointing to Narendra, ‘Look here, that boy is exceptionally good. His name is Narendra. He would not accept the Divine Mother before, but did so yesterday. He is in straitened circumstances nowadays. So I advised him to pray to the Mother for riches, but he couldn’t. He said he was put to shame. Returning from the temple he asked me to teach him a song to the Mother, which I did. The whole of the last night he sang that song. So he is sleeping now' Then with an unfeigned delight he said ,'Isn’t it wonderful that Narendra has accepted Mother?’ I said, ‘Yes’. After a brief pause he repeated the question, and thus it went on for some time.
“At about 4 o’clock Narendra came to Shri Ramakrishna before leaving for Calcutta. But no sooner had the Master seen him than he came closer and closer to him and sitting almost on his lap said, pointing first to himself and then to Narendra, ‘Well, I see I am this and again that. Really I feel no difference — as a stick floating on the Ganga seems to divide the water, which in reality is one. Do you see my point? Well, what exists after all but Mother? What do you say?’ After talking a few minutes like this, he wished to smoke. I prepared tobacco and gave him the hookah. After one or two puffs at it he said he would smoke from the Chillum (pipe). Then he offered it to Naren saying, Pull at it through my hands’. Naren of course hesitated. How could he defile the hands of his Guru by touching them with his lips? But Shri Ramakrishna said, ‘What foolish ideas you have! Am I different from you? This is myself and that too is myself.’ He again put forth his hands towards the lips of Narendra, who had no alternative but to comply with his request. Narendra took two or three puffs. Shri Ramakrishna was about to smoke when Narendra hurriedly interfered saying, ‘Please wash your hands first, sir.’ But his protest was in vain. ‘What silly ideas of differentiation you have!' the Master said and smoked without washing his hands, talking all the while in an exalted mood. I was surprised to see Shri Ramakrishna, who could not take any food part of which had already been offered to somebody else, making this remarkable exception in the case of Narendra Nath. It gave me an idea of his love and kinship to Narendra. When, at about 8 o’clock, he was in his normal mood again, Narendra and myself took leave of him and walked to Calcutta.”
Afterwards Narendra often said, “Shri Ramakrishna was the only person who, ever since he had met me, believed in me uniformly throughout — even my mother and brothers did not do so. It was his unflinching trust and love for me that bound me to him for ever. He alone knew how to love another. Worldly people only make a show of love for selfish ends.”