1. Lack of records concerning divine incarnations as aspriants

The study of the religious histories of the world reveals that except in the case of Lord Buddha and Sri Chaitanya, there is little detailed account available of the spiritual disciplines and practices of the incarnations of God as aspirants. In the history of their lives we do not meet with any detailed description of the indomitable zeal and unbounded love which they nurtured in their hearts and with the help of which they proceeded to realize the truth in life. Nor do we come across detailed discussions of the surges of awe and admiration, of pang and pleasure, of hope and despair, alternating with each other, gripped by which, they felt now elated, now dejected, though never allowing the vision of the goal to grow dim even for a moment. Further, we do not find either a natural nexus of cause and effect between their wonderful actions and behaviour during the later parts of their lives, on the one hand, and the education and actions and aspirations of their childhood, youth, etc., on the other. For example, how Lord Sri Krishna, the darling of the Gopis of Vrindavan, became transformed into Sri Krishna, the Lord of Dwaraka and the Resuscitator of religion, is not clearly indicated. Only a fact or two of the wonderfully catholic life of Jesus the Christ before his thirtieth year is known to us. Only the all-conquering preaching peregrinations of Acharya Sankara are recorded. And so it is with all others.

2. Devotees do not like the idea that incarnations are imperfect at any period of their lives

The reason for this is difficult to envisage. Perhaps those things have not been recorded on account of the excessive devotion on the part of the devotees. Perhaps they were hesitant to attribute human imperfections to divine characters, and therefore thought it reasonable to shut them out from people’s gaze. Or it may be, the devotees thought that they would be doing more good to men by holding before their eyes as an ideal the fully developed noble ideas and sentiments of these great ones than by tracing the history of their superhuman efforts to arrive at them; and therefore they deemed it useless to place on record those endeavours. The devotees like to see their beloved Master ever perfect. They refuse to admit that because they have assumed human forms, any kind of human weakness, or lack of insight or power could ever creep into their character. They are always anxious to see the whole universe inside the divine children and not only are ever eager to read the experience and intelligence of an adult in the meaningless acts and efforts of their childhood but would strain every nerve to view them as the perfect embodiments of omniscience and omnipotence and of universal love and tolerance. No wonder, therefore, they come to the conclusion that it is only in order to elude the eyes of men that the incarnations of God feign the mental efforts of spiritual practices and the bodily states of hunger, sleep, fatigue, disease, death, etc. Even in our own time we have known many eminent devotees of our Master having the firm conviction that his disease was a feigning of this sort.

3. It does not stand to reason that such an idea interferes with devotion

It is due to mere weakness that the devotees arrive at such a conclusion. They do not like to attribute human efforts, aims, etc., to the incarnations of God only because such a notion, they think, would harm their devotion. Therefore we have nothing to say against them; but such weakness, it is certain, is seen in a devotee when his devotion is not mature enough. It is only in that state of devotion that he cannot think of the divine Lord as devoid of powers. In course of time when devotion matures and the love of God deepens considerably, such thoughts regarding the powers of God are resented as veritable obstacles to the path of devotion and the devotee carefully avoids them from a distance. All the devotional scriptures say this over and over again. We see that although Sri Krishna’s foster mother Yasoda daily experienced the divine powers of her boy, she looked upon him just as a boy and fondled or chastised him accordingly. The Gopis similarly could not attribute any relation to Sri Krishna other than that of a beloved, in spite of their knowledge that he is the very Cause of the universe. Instances can easily be multiplied.

4. The Master’s teaching: “Love-relation to the intimacy of ‘Thou’ and ‘I’ cannot stand when knowledge of powers intervenes”, and “nobody’s spiritual attitude should be tampered with”

When the devotees of the Master expressed their great eagerness to have some kind of vision as a direct evidence of particular powers of God, endearingly would he say to them many a time: “Ah, it is not good to have such visions; fear will intervene when you see powers. Feeding and dressing Him and the deep loving relation of ‘Thou’ and ‘I’ will all cease.” Alas, how often did we not feel piqued on such occasions and think that he evaded our request only because he would not bestow on us the vision! If, however, at that time any devotee took courage and said feelingly with a firm faith, “Your grace can make the impossible possible. Please be compassionate and grant me the vision” the Master would reply in an endearing tone, “Can I bring about anything, my child? What Mother wills, happens;” Thus answered, if he would still insist and say “Your will will be Mother’s too” the Master’s usual reply was, “My child, I do wish that all of you may have all kinds of spiritual states and visions; but is it fulfilled?” Instead of desisting even then, if the devotee persisted in his faith, the Master only expressed his love to him by a gentle smile and an affectionate look, or would sometimes say, “What shall I say? Let Mother’s will be done.” But the Master, although pressed so importunately, never tried to break that firm belief of the devotee and destroy his spiritual attitude. Many a time did we see such behaviour on the part of the Master and hear him say, “Ah, the spiritual attitude of no one should be destroyed.”

5. An example of the destruction of spiritual attitude on the occasion of the Siva ratri at the Kasipur garden

Although not directly connected with the subject matter of this Introduction, the topic once raised should be explained to the reader with reference to an incident. The power of transmitting to others the capacity to realize spiritual truths by a mere touch or by willing falls to the lot of very few aspirants. The Master told us time and again that Swami Vivekananda in course of time would have the privilege of possessing the power and there with do much good to the people. Such a highly qualified person as the Swami is indeed rare in the world. The Master knew it well from the very beginning of their meeting and started moulding his character and religious life in a special way by imparting the knowledge of the unity of existence spoken of in the Vedanta. Accustomed to the dualistic mode of worship of the Brahmo Samaj, the Swami regarded the non-dualistic mode taught in the Vedanta as a blasphemy. But the Master tried in various ways to make him practise it. The Swami said: “As soon as I went to Dakshineswar, the Master gave me those books which he forbade others to read. Among other books, a copy of the Ashtavakra Samhita was in his room. When the Master found anyone reading that book, he would forbid him and would give him instead such books as ‘Mukti and how to attain it’, the BhagavadGita or some Purana. But, scarcely had I gone to him when he took out the book and asked me to read it. Or, he would ask me to read some part of the Adhyatma Ramayana, which is full of non-dualistic ideas. I said, and sometimes bluntly, ‘What is the use of reading this book? It is a sin even to think ‘I am God’. The book teaches the same blasphemy. It should be burnt.’ The Master smiled and said, ‘Do I ask you to read it to yourself? I ask you to read a little to me. Please do it. In that case, you will not have to think that you are God.’ So I had to read a little for him at his request.”

Again, although he was training the Swami that way, the Master was guiding Swami Brahmananda and his other boy devotees, in their spiritual lives in various other ways — some through the worship of God with forms, some through that of God with attributes but without forms, others through pure unalloyed devotion, yet others through devotion mingled with discrimination between the real and the unreal, and so on. Thus although Swami Vivekananda and other boy devotees sat and slept, ate and walked together, and discussed religious theories in the company of the Master at Dakshineswar, the latter was training them all in diverse ways according to their peculiar tastes and tendencies.

It was March 1886. The Master at the Kasipur garden was daily becoming weaker on account of a disease in his throat. But he engaged himself with a far greater and much more unstinting enthusiasm than before in moulding the spiritual lives of his devotees, particularly the life of Swami Vivekananda. He did not stop merely with teaching the Swami the path of Sadhana and helping him to carry the teaching into practice, but was also training him up in something else, namely how to prevent the other boy devotees from returning to worldly life and how to guide them and hold them together. Every evening after dusk he would ask all others to move away, call the Swami to himself and teach him all these for two or three hours continuously, sometimes drawing him into a discussion. From the words and actions of the Master, it seemed to most of the devotees that he was feigning the throat disease in order to establish his Order firmly and that he would be all right as soon as that purpose was fulfilled. As days rolled on Swami Vivekananda alone felt in his heart of hearts that the Master was arranging everything and preparing, as it were, to take a long, long leave of the devotees. It is doubtful, however, whether even he was always conscious of it.

Then there was a slight awakening in the Swami of the power of transmitting spirituality to others by a touch. No doubt, he had felt that power arise within him from time to time, but he had not yet tested the truth or falsity of it by touching anyone that way. Still in various ways he got the proofs of the truth of the doctrine of non-duality spoken of in the Vedanta and came to believe in it, and tried to introduce that doctrine among the devotees, young or old, married or unmarried, with the help of reason and inference. There arose then a keen controversy over it; leading to sharp differences of opinion, nay, agitation, among the devotees. For, it was the peculiar nature of the Swami to assert vehemently what he understood to be true and to extort its acceptance from others by means of logical arguments. Then the boy Swami did not realize that truth in the practical world assumed different forms according to different conditions and capabilities. It was the Sivaratri in the month of Phalgun. Three or four of the boy devotees were keeping the fast with the Swami. They had a mind to spend the night in worship and in keeping vigil. Lest the noise should disturb the Master’s rest, the worship was arranged in a small room built for the kitchen, situated a little away to the east of the residential quarters. There was a fair shower of rain after dusk. The devotees were delighted to see in the masses of newly formed clouds flashes of lightning ever and anon, simulating the matted hair of Siva.

After finishing the worship, Japa and meditation pertaining to the first quarter of the night, the Swami was taking rest and conversing with others, sitting on the worshipper’s seat. One of the companions went out to prepare a smoke for him and another went towards the residential quarters on an important work. Just at that time, a keen feeling of that divine power arose suddenly in the Swami. He wanted to observe its effects by putting it to test that night and said to Swami A,1 who was sitting in front of him, “Do touch me for a while”. In the meantime the boy who had gone to prepare tobacco entered the room and saw the Swami sitting motionless in meditation, and A with his eyes shut, touching the Swami’s right knee with his right hand, which, he noticed, was rapidly trembling. A minute or two elapsed thus when the Swami opened his eyes and said, “That is enough. How did you feel?”

A. “Exactly like something entering into one when one holds an electric battery, one’s hand trembling all the while.”

The other person asked A, “Was your hand trembling of itself when you touched the Swami?”

A. “Yes, I could not keep it steady, though I tried to.”

There was then no more talk about it. The Swami smoked. All of them then applied their minds to the worship and meditation pertaining to the second quarter of the night. A entered into deep meditation at that time. We had never seen him enter into such deep meditation before. The whole of his body became stiff, with his neck and head slightly bent, the consciousness of the outer world appeared to have completely disappeared for some time. Everyone present thought that he had such meditation as a result of having touched the Swami a little while previously. The Swami also noticed that state of his, and indicated it to a companion by a sign.

After the last quarter’s worship was over at four in the morning, Swami Ramakrishnananda came to the worship-room and said to the Swami, “The Master wants you.” As soon as he was told, the Swami went up to the Master in his room on the first floor of the residential quarters. Ramakrishnananda also accompanied him to attend to the service of the Master.

No sooner had the Master seen the Swami than he said, “What is this? Expenditure with hardly any accumulation! Allow it first to accumulate well in yourself; then you will know where and how to spend it. Mother Herself will teach. Don’t you see what harm you have done to him by injecting your attitude of mind into him? He has been progressing till now with a particular mental attitude, the whole of which has now been destroyed, like a miscarriage during the sixth month of pregnancy. What’s done is done. Don’t act so thoughtlessly from now on. The boy, however, is lucky that greater harm has not befallen him.” The Swami said afterwards, “I became completely flabbergasted. The Master could know whatever we did at the time of the worship! What else could I do but remain silent when he scolded me like that?”

As a result of this, not only was the old spiritual attitude of A completely destroyed but the new attitude of non-dualism, being difficult to grasp and assimilate quickly was also misunderstood; and in the name of non-dualism he would behave like an atheist, sometimes committing improper act or acts contrary to scriptural injunctions. Although the Master from then taught him the truth of nonduality and affectionately pointed out the mistakes he was committing in the day-to-day acts of his life, it was long after the passing away of the Master that A guided by that attitude, could rightly adjust his daily actions to that ideal.

6. When sporting like a man, the Divine behaves like a man

To the class of devotees who think that the efforts of the incarnations of God for the attainment of truth or the fullest manifestation thereof in life are mere simulation, our answer is that we never heard the Master express that view. Rather, we have heard him say often, “When the Divine sports as a human being, He behaves exactly like an ordinary man and experiences weal and woe and attains perfection by dint of personal effort, endeavour and austerity.” The history of the religions of the world bears witness to this. And it is clear that were it not so, the very purpose of the incarnation of the Divinity would be defeated.

The Master’s teachings to the devotees can be broadly divided into two classes. The reader will realize it when we quote a few of these. On the one hand we find him saying to his devotees, “I have cooked food, simply sit down to partake of it”; “The mould is prepared, cast your own minds and get the form”; “If you cannot do anything at all, give me your power of attorney”, so on and so forth; and on the other hand, “Give up all desires one by one, it is then that you will succeed”; “Be like a castoff leaf blown by the wind”; “Give up lust and lucre and call on God”; “I have done all the sixteen parts. Do at least one part yourselves” and so on. It seems that our progress in life is retarded, because we very often fail to understand the significance of the Master’s teachings and thus to choose between free will and pre-destination, self-effort and self-surrender.

One day at Dakshineswar we had a long discussion with one of our friends2 on free will and predestination and went to the Master for its true solution. The Master amused himself with our boyish discussion for some time and then said seriously, “Is there any one who has free will or anything like that? It is by God’s will alone that everything has always happened and shall happen. Man understands it in the long run. But then something has to be added. Just as, when a cow is tied to a post with a long tether, it can stand at a distance of one cubit from it or of the whole length of the rope, so it is with the free will of man. A man ties a cow with the idea ‘Let her lie down, stand or move about wherever she wills within that area’. Similarly God has given man some power. And He has also given him freedom to use as much of it as he likes and in any way. This is why man feels he is free. But the rope is fastened to the post. And mark this: If anyone prays to Him in all humility, He may remove him to another place and tie him there; or He may lengthen the tether or even remove it completely from his neck.”

Thus instructed, we asked, “Then man has no hand in practising religious discipline. Everyone may say, ‘Whatever I do, is according to His will’.”

The Master said: “Of what avail is it to say so? They are empty words. What avails it to say, ‘There is no thorn, no pricking’? As soon as you touch a thorn you cry out ‘Ugh’. If the practising of Sadhana were in the hands of man, all would have undertaken it. But how is it that they can’t? There is, however, one thing: He does not give one more power, if the little that is given is not properly used. This is why individual effort and perseverance are necessary. Don’t you see, everyone has to make some effort, however small, before he gets God’s grace? When one does so, the experiences of ten lives are crowded, through His grace, into one and then all come to an end. But one has to make some effort. Listen to a story:

7. The conversation between Vishnu and Narada on this topic

Vishnu, who eternally sports in Goloka, for some reason cursed Narada that he must go to hell. Narada’s anxiety knew no bounds. He sang hymns in His praise and pleased Him Then he said, ‘O Lord, I wish to know what and where hell is and how many kinds of hell there are. Please be gracious to tell me all about it. ’ Vishnu then drew on the ground with a piece of chalk, heaven, earth and hell as they were situated, and said, ‘This is heaven and this is hell’. Narada said, ‘Is that so? My suffering in hell is then done here’. Saying so, he rolled on the hell drawn on the ground, got up and bowed down to the Lord. Vishnu smiled and said, ‘What’s that? Can that be suffering hell?’ Narada replied, ‘Why not, Lord; are not heaven and hell your creations? When you drew hell and called it such, the spot really became hell. And when I rolled on it, it was a real suffering of hell for me’. Narada said so with deep faith. That is why Vishnu said, ‘Be it so’. But Narada had to roll on that hell drawn on the ground with true devotion and faith. It was by making that little effort that his suffering was annulled.” The Master explained to us from time to time with the help of this story, that there was thus room for perseverance and individual effort in the realm of grace too.

8. Incarnations of God assume imperfection of man to discover paths to liberation

The incarnations of God have to experience to a great extent, the spiritual blindness and circumscribed knowledge experienced by us, when they assume human bodies and play their parts as human beings. They have to make efforts like us to discover the way out of spiritual darkness and ignorance. And although an awareness of their real divine nature now and then arises in their minds for a short time, it becomes veiled again till that path is discovered. Thus, for the good of the many they have to assume a veil of Maya and grope their way like us all in this realm of light and darkness. But as they have not even an iota of hankering for selfish enjoyment in their minds, they see more light in life than we do, and easily concentrating all the numerous powers within them, solve life’s problems in a short time and engage themselves in doing good to humanity.

9. If incarnations are not thought of as human beings, we cannot get at the purpose of their lives and endeavours

Inasmuch as our Master, the god-man, has actually accepted human imperfections, much good will accrue to us from the study of those human feelings of his. And that is why we advise our readers to study his divine nature keeping before their eyes his human feelings. If we do not take him as one of us, we shall not be able to discover any purpose behind his superhuman effort, perseverance, etc., at the time of his Sadhana. Otherwise, the question will naturally arise, why there had to be such effort to realize the truth, when he was eternally perfect. And we cannot escape the idea that his terrible effort threatening his very life was but a sham. That is not all. His effort, steadfastness, and renunciation for the purpose of firmly implanting the high ideals in his life, with a view to realizing God, will give rise to despair rather than hope in our hearts, making the dispelling of ignorance from our lives an impossibility.

10. Unenlightened souls can understand an incarnation of God only as a human being

Dependent as we are on the Master’s grace, we must accept him as being endowed with human feelings like ourselves. For is it not his sympathy with our sorrows that leads him to come forward to remove them? Therefore, from whatever angle we see, we have no other course than to think of him as having human feelings. In fact, until we ourselves are free from all kinds of bondage and are established in the nature of the attributeless Brahman, we shall have to think of and accept God, the universal cause, and His incarnations as being endowed with human feelings. The saying “Becoming God, one should worship Him”, is indeed true. If you have reached the Nirvikalpa plane of consciousness by virtue of Samadhi, then alone will you be able to realize the real nature of God, have a correct conception of Him and truly worship Him But if you have not been able to do so, your worship will be but an attempt at ascending to that divine plane and making yourselves fit for the true worship of God. Till then, you will continue to consider God, the cause of the universe, to be a human being endowed with extraordinary powers.

11. God takes on a human body out of compassion for humanity. Therefore it is beneficial to study the lives of divine incarnations as human beings

Persons who can ascend to the state of Godhead and can truly worship Him as the divine Being, are very few. Weak aspirants like ourselves have been till now very far from that state. Thus, having compassion on ordinary mortals like ourselves, and desiring to accept our heartfelt worship, God descends to the plane of human beings, putting on the appearance of a god-man by assuming a human body and human feelings. We are in an advantageous position to study the history of the Master’s spiritual striving in comparison with that of the god-men of the past, for the Master himself delineated in detail from time to time the facts of the Sadhana period of his life in such glowing colours that they have remained firmly imprinted on our minds. Again, the wonderful play of his life as an aspirant had been acted before all the people of the Kali temple just before we went to him And many of those people were still there. So we had also the opportunity of hearing from them some of those events. That apart, before we begin to study the history of these events, it is good to rehearse once in a general way the fundamental principles of Sadhana. So we shall add a brief discussion on it.

  1. ^Swami Abhedananda.
  2. ^Swami Niranjanananda.