Part I — The disciple and the Master
Vivekananda the wonder-warrior
Sri Ramakrishna’s unstinting Grace and Naren’s volcanic Will combined to create Vivekananda, who created a commotion all over the world. The never-to-be-forgotten words of Sri Aurobindo run:
“”…the Master marked out Vivekananda as the heroic soul destined to take the world between his two hands and change it.””
Vivekananda came into the world in an age seething with rank materialism. Spiritual values were at a discount. He held the mighty torch of spirituality high. Exceptional was his clarion call to lead the life of the Spirit. The soul-stirring message of Sri Ramakrishna was embodied in him, in this lion amongst men. And as regards the message of India to the world, “Remember,” declares Vivekananda, “not the Soul for Nature, but Nature for the Soul.”
But there is the amusing story that Vivekananda in his childhood, in reply to his father’s query, said that his ambition in life was to become a coachman like the one who loved him much and whose love he reciprocated.
Another anecdote: once in his adolescence he asked his father what he had done for his son. “Go and look into the mirror,” came the prompt reply. Naren obeyed. He looked at his own reflection in the mirror and walked away quietly. Evidently he became convinced that he owed his magnificent personality solely to his father.
Now let us move on to a more significant topic. Tagore was an adorer of beauty, while the dominant trait of Vivekananda was the expression of power. But Vivekananda, too, possessed a deep sense of appreciation of subtle beauty. “Beauty,” says he, “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.'”
Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated. Further, they are not many in number who really have the power of appreciating it.
“My tastes are aristocratic; my actions are democratic.
— Victor Hugo”
In the realm of spirituality this truth got full manifestation in Vivekananda’s life. His was the heart that pined to realise the lofty Truth. And he did it. But about his actions, we can say that they were democratic; that is, his actions were for the good of humanity at large.
Vivekananda looked upon the world as his dear Motherland, and upon mankind as his true brothers and sisters. Come what may, to serve them was his cherished religion. Religion is a unique thirst for the One and the many. Assimilation and tolerance are the true signs of the greatest religion. Let us not forget Colton: “Men will wrangle for religion; write for it; fight for it; die for it; do anything but live it.” Religions are like the lines of a poem. As each line is helpful — rather, responsible for the completion of the poem — even so every religion is responsible for the entire fulfilment of the others. And according to Vivekananda religion is never a mere creed, but an ever-living and enlightening experience. How beautifully he unites the two antagonists, the materialist and the spiritualist: “The materialist is right. There is but One. Only he calls that Matter and I call it God.”
It is an undeniable fact that the Western mind has a liking for making plans before it takes up anything. Is it at all advisable? Not in the least, in the opinion of Vivekananda. The Eternal Will is sure to carry out its work at its chosen hour. Once he had to reprove: Nivedita. “Plans! Plans! That is why you Western people can never create a religion! If any of you ever did, it was only a few Catholic saints, who had no plans. Religion was never preached by planners.”
Again, it was Vivekananda who spoke to his Indian brothers about the greatest achievement of the English: “They have known how to combine obedience with self-respect.”
Neither are we to obliterate from our minds his solemn warning to the Westerners that they must never attempt to force upon others that which they have found good for themselves. But his consolation too is very cogent. He elsewhere says, “Never forget that a man is made great and perfect as much by his faults as by his virtues. So we must not seek to rob a nation of its character even if it could be proved that that character was all faults.”
God and men are as inseparable as one’s head and hair. It is our blind stupidity that fails to find the indivisibility of man and God. The gods who are not one of us, who ignore us and look down upon us, can never be our cherished gods. “I would not worship,” Vivekananda boldly exclaims, “even the Greek gods, for they were separate from humanity! Only those should be worshipped who are like ourselves, but greater. The difference between the gods and me must be a difference only of degree.”
“Better to wear out than to rust out.” Vivekananda’s whole body — rather, his earthly life — vibrated with this unique Idea. Mother Earth lost him when he was on the right side of forty. But his work? No hyperbole, it can easily be rated as the eighth wonder of the world. Let us cite here his firm conviction with regard to work. “By work alone,” he writes, “men may get to where Buddha got largely by meditation or Christ by prayer. Buddha was a working Jnani, Christ was a Bhakta, but the same goal was reached by both of them.”
His was a life of unimaginable sacrifice. And how can India, his Motherland, dare to forget his message of stupendous sacrifice? “For my own part I will be incarnated two hundred times, if that is necessary to do what I have undertaken amongst my people.” At this Sri Ramakrishna, if he had heard his disciple, could have done nothing but clap and dance in supreme ecstasy. For it was this very Naren whose heart ached to remain always in samadhi and whom he had to scold fondly by saying, “I thought you had been born for something greater, my boy!”
“” //Veni, Vidi, Vici.// ” (“I came, I saw, I conquered.”)
— Julius Caesar”
Nowhere else had this truth been proved so wonderfully as it was in the life of Vivekananda. Caesar conquered only empires, but the spiritual Giant of India conquered the heart of mankind. The great Emperor was only of an age, but the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna shall shine for all time.
Vivekananda and his Master
A popular view is that without Vivekananda Sri Ramakrishna would have remained the Sri Ramakrishna of Bengal; to the wider world he would at most have been a mere name. One may quite reasonably dispute the point, for no spiritual force of Sri Ramakrishna’s dimensions could lose its dynamism and remain confined within the narrow limits of one little province. But it goes without saying that Vivekananda would not have been his mighty self without his child-like, simple, but towering spiritual Master.
The reciprocal appreciation of the greatness of the disciple and the Master found an exceedingly interesting expression in their lives. The former was firmly convinced that millions of Vivekanandas could come into existence at the fiat of his Master, while the latter declared that his Naren was the incarnation of Narayan himself to uplift humanity.
Without Arjuna would the victory of Kurukshetra have been possible? Sri Krishna had to preach the whole Gita to train his disciple, over and above infusing into him his divine force.
Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda appeared in an age more advanced. Hence the Master could much more easily make of Naren what he intended him to be.
In the life of Narendranath we notice two instances in which Matter submitted to Spirit. The young Narendranath, steeped in agnosticism, accepting matter and doubting the existence of the supreme Spirit, would question people who seemed to be advanced in spirituality as to whether they had direct vision of God. Maharshi Devendranath, father of Tagore, attempted thrice in vain to answer the query of the bold young man, and at last said, “You possess the eyes of a Yogi.”
This very Narendranath fell at the hallowed feet of Sri Ramakrishna, who was a veritable embodiment of Spirit, and who saw Spirit permeating Matter.
As a contrast, the supremely materialistic America practically bowed down before Vivekananda, who stood there as the spiritual representative of the East.
His was a life of numerous miracles. At the age of eight he entered into trance for the first time! He was only thirty years old when America — nay, the West — found the spiritual giant in him! In his childhood and boyhood he condemned women terribly. But in his later years he fought like a giant for the progress of Indian womanhood! We may, however, hold that in his earlier days Vivekananda was afraid not of woman but of temptation. It took six long years for him to make his proud head bow to the Mother Kali. And when his surrender was complete he opened his devoted lips: “All my patriotism is gone. Everything is gone. Now it’s only Mother, Mother!”
I am sure my purpose will be best served if I just reproduce his own words about Kali. “How I used to hate Kali!” Vivekananda said, “and all Her ways. That was the ground of my six years’ fight — that I would not accept Her. But I had to accept Her at last. Ramakrishna Paramahansa dedicated me to Her, and now I believe that She guides me in every little thing I do, and does with me what She wills.”
Vivekananda ruthlessly looked down upon the so-called miracles that create a commotion in the minds of people. “I look upon miracles as the greatest stumbling block in the way of truth. When the disciples of Buddha told him of a man who had performed a so-called miracle — and showed him the bowl, he took it and crushed it under his feet and told them never to build their faith on miracles, but to look for truth in everlasting principles. He showed them the inner light — the Light of the Spirit, which is the only safe light to go by. Miracles are only stumbling blocks. Let us brush them aside.
To show surprise at anything amounts to a tacit expression of ignorance, and hence of weakness. “Never show surprise, “such was the command of Viswanath Dutta to his son Naren when he was in his teens. The son acted according to his father’s instructions from that very day until the end of his life. He spent years at the foot of the silence-hushed and snow-capped Himalayas during his itinerancy. He met people drawn from all sections of society — from the lowest to the highest. He came in close contact with the poorest and the richest of the world. In spite of striking differences in the world, surprise could never take shelter in his all-conceiving eyes.
Perfection is the only choice for a man treading the path of spirituality. Perfection and infinite bliss run abreast. True happiness lies nowhere else except in perfection. But how to achieve this perfection? Vivekananda shows us a unique way to achieve the impossible. He writes: “If we can distinguish well between quality and substance, we may become perfect men.”
Sweetness and happiness are rarely found in carrying out earthly duties. No human being must be judged by the nature of his duties, but by the manner and the spirit in which he discharges them. What is our duty and what is not our duty has been the most puzzling, the most intricate problem to solve since the dawn of civilisation. But the bold statement made by Vivekananda solves it in a very easy manner: “Any action that makes us go Godward is a good action, and that is our duty; any action that makes us go downward is evil, and that is not our duty.” And we may further add to it that in order to advance in life, it is our duty to have faith in ourselves first and then in the Divine. Everybody must remember the undeniable truth that without having faith in oneself one can never have faith in God.
Two mothers and a son: Bhuvaneshwari, Sarada Devi, and Naren
Sweeter than the sweetest is the smile of our physical mother. Deeper than the deepest is her affection. Mightier than the mightiest is the power of her blessing. Vaster than the vastest is her hope for her son.
If there be anything never-to-be forgotten, it is the reminiscences of one’s own mother. “Wife and children may desert a man, but his mother never,” so says Vivekananda. In his childhood and boyhood Vivekananda found his confidante in nobody else save his mother; and from her he inherited not only moral purity and aesthetic sense, but also many intellectual faculties and a unique memory. His mother’s commanding personality could easily win the respect and veneration of all who came in contact with her. Her son’s influence shook the world, and her influence moulded his life considerably.
The young Naren was subject to fits of restlessness. His temper was of the quickest and he was possessed of dauntless spirit and childish pranks, but even so, with no difficulty he could make a clean breast of the misdeeds of his restlessness to his mother.
“Should the worst come to the worst, never swerve from the path of truth.” One day the schoolboy Naren got this bold and precious advice from his mother after his return from school. A sad incident had taken place in the class. The geography teacher had said, “Naren, what you say is wrong.” “No, Sir, it is right.” “I say, it is not in the book.” “No, Sir, it is.” “No argument, I shall beat you black and blue.” Smack went the cane repeatedly. Yet Naren’s sincere and bold heart would not acquiesce in what he knew to be wrong. After a while the teacher opened the book. To his extreme sorrow and shame he found Naren to be perfectly right.
As Naren was wont to disclose everything to his dear mother, this sad incident too he related to her. A tender smile played upon her lips. She fondly caressed and blessed her son, saying, “I am really happy and proud of you, my son. Should the worst come to the worst never swerve from the path of truth.”
Another piece of advice he got from his mother in his boyhood. “Bileh [Naren], as you will try your utmost not to lose your prestige, even so never indulge in hurting or lowering others’ prestige.”
True, poverty is no sin. But this truth too we cannot altogether ignore — that poverty often doubts the existence of the merciful God. Within a few months after the death of Viswanath Dutta, the family members found themselves in the jaws of poverty. Friends and relatives began deceiving them terribly. The eldest, Naren, was simply unfit to make both ends meet. Alas, one morning while he was rising from bed and repeating the name of God, his attention was distracted by the sudden outburst of his mother, who cried out, “Fool, be quiet! You have made yourself hoarse with praying to God from your childhood up. And what has He done for you?” His mother’s words cut him to the quick. Such an occurrence, however, was very rare.
In after years, many times Vivekananda spoke of his mother with a deep sense of gratitude. “It is my mother who has been the constant inspiration of my life and work.”
In 1894 Vivekananda was a guest of Mrs. Ole Bull in America. To comply with her request he gave a lecture on “The Ideals of Indian Women” to the women of Cambridge, suburb of Boston. They were so charmed by it that they could not help writing a letter to his mother in India.
“”To The Mother of Swami Vivekananda,
..we, who have your son in our midst, send you greetings. His generous service to men, women and children in our midst was laid at your feet by him in an address he gave us the other day on ‘The Ideals of Indian Women.’ The worship of his mother will be to all who heard him an inspiration and an uplift… Accept, dear Madam, our grateful recognition of your life and work in and through your son. And may it be accepted by you as a slight token of remembrance to serve in its use as a tangible reminder that the world is coming to its true inheritance from God, Brotherhood and Unity.””
Two arresting incidents will form a significant contrast between the mother and the son with respect to mundane love for each other. One night during his lonely itinerancy, while he was in Madras, Vivekananda dreamed that his mother had died. He was utterly upset, for he firmly believed that his mother was actually dead — so much so that he was preparing himself to perform her obsequies in Madras. His disciple Alasingha Perumal pointed out that as a sannyasin, a renouncer, he had no right to perform the last rites of his mother. “Nonsense, how could Shankara do all that? I am not going to abide by such silly and obligatory rules which preclude me from making my last offerings of gratitude to the memory of my dearest mother,” came the prompt reply from the Swami. Subsequently he consulted an occultist who assured him that his mother was alive and hale and hearty. And this occultist’s word proved to be quite correct. On the other hand, when the news of her son’s entering the state of Final Illumination reached his mother’s ears, her brave heart voiced forth, “Giving birth to a son having such an exceptional genius I am ever prepared to receive such blows.”
Now let us turn to his spiritual mother, Sarada Devi. However great the earthly mother may be, her love is no match for the disinterested love of the spiritual Mother. Vivekananda’s deepest conviction about the spiritual Mother runs:
“”Eternal, unquestioning self-surrender to the Mother alone can give us peace. Love her for herself, without fear… Love her because you are her child. See her in all, good and bad alike. Then alone will come ‘Sameness’ and Bliss Eternal that is Mother herself…””
Once Vivekananda’s physical mother went to the Belur Math with one of her woman friends. She showed her friend the newly constructed buildings and the beautiful surroundings and remarked, “My Naren has done all this.” Sarada Devi and Naren also happened to be near by. Vivekananda in no time corrected his mother, saying, “Not your Naren,” and pointing to Sarada Devi, “but hers. Your Naren is by no means capable of such achievements.”
On the eve of his departure for America he decided that he would cross the seas only after having some concrete indications from his Master. He waited and waited, but in vain. At last he argued that his spiritual Mother and the Master were one and the same, and that he would seek her permission to go abroad. Accordingly he wrote a letter to Sarada Devi from Madras. By the time he received a letter from her he had had a dream in which he saw his Master Sri Ramakrishna proceed to the West over the waves and waters. This he took for approval of his plan. Presently he received whole-hearted permission from his spiritual Mother. With redoubled faith he was able to undertake his historic voyage.
When the Swadeshi movement was in full swing, Sarada Devi once remarked, “Had my Naren been alive, he could not have remained quiet and would have surely been put in jail.” This indicates how constantly she cherished the memory of her darling Naren, whom she would not allow to go anywhere alone after his triumphant return from the West. We will not be far from the truth if we dare say that behind the fiery political activities of Nivedita her Master Vivekananda’s mighty influence loomed large. We are apt to lose sight of Swami Vivekananda’s great contribution to the reawakening of the Indian Nation. His spiritual genius has, so to speak, eclipsed his patriotism. To cite Amal Kiran (K.D. Sethna):
“”We who live in this day of India’s reawakening to the Yogic secrets of her own past cannot but pay homage to the mighty figure of Vivekananda. Together with his Guru, Ramakrishna, he was the most potent early shaper of the resurgence of our national genius.””
Vivekananda’s heart pined for the removal of the untold poverty and suffering of the masses — not through alms and charity, but by awakening the Spirit in their hearts, so that they could make their own way and stand up with their heads erect, as men amongst other men.
On the day of Sri Ramakrishna’s passing his disciples and consort were standing by him. An excruciating pain was in their hearts. Sarada Devi’s eyes were full of tears, for soon her Kali (Ramakrishna) would pass behind the curtain of eternity. Naren was confused — almost baffled. Suddenly to their surprise Sri Ramakrishna, to whose life remained a few fleeting hours, said to Sarada Devi: “Why do you weep so bitterly? I leave your Naren with you. ”
We have dealt with the two mothers, physical and spiritual. Now let us focus our attention on their son. It will not be sufficient to say that Vivekananda was the son or brother or friend of so and so. Who, then, was Vivekananda? Or was there any need for any one to ask him for his credentials? Let us leave J.H. Wright to answer it. “To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the Sun to state its right to shine.”
“The very fact that Ramakrishna’s chosen instrument for world-work was Vivekananda, a complex passionate analytic mind, a highly cultured master of system and organisation, a richly endowed physical nature, shows that India moves instinctively to grip earth no less than heaven. At least the intention of Ramakrishna was to reshape through Vivekananda the whole of the country’s life in the light of God-realisation.” With these most significant words K.D. Sethna has depicted with unsurpassed mastery Vivekananda’s life-long mission.
Verily, Vivekananda once boldly declared that his personality was ushered upon the earth to bring down into the day-to-day practical life the precepts of Vedanta which Shankara wanted to reserve only for the ascetics dwelling in caves and forests.
“”We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.””
These words of Longfellow are absolutely correct, but some more we may add to them: a genius can be judged only by another genius.
When Vivekananda’s days were numbered, he once said in a very low voice, “If there had been another Vivekananda, then he would have understood what this Vivekananda has done. But in years to come hundreds of Vivekanandas will come into the world.”
It is left to history alone to bear witness to these profoundly pathetic and supremely prophetic words of Vivekananda, an Olympian leader of mankind.
Vivekananda speaks about Christ
“”These great children of Light, who manifest the light themselves, they, being worshipped, become as it were, one with us and we have become one with them.””
It is easier to have faith in the Personal God than in the impersonal. God dons the earthly cloak. He bodies forth the creation of His own time, and casts a far-flung glance into the yet unborn to bring it into existence. He reveals Himself to each individual according to his power of receptivity.
To the beginner, Christ would immediately speak of the Personal God: “Pray to your Father in Heaven.” To the one a little more advanced, he would say, “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” But to the one who was fully advanced and his dear disciple, he would proclaim: “I and my Father are One.” We find the same truth echoed in Sri Ramakrishna’s words. He disclosed to his beloved Naren (Vivekananda), “He who is Rama, He who is Krishna, dwells at once in this body as Ramakrishna.”
It is a sad fact that often the disciples of various paths misinterpret the teachings of their masters to the extent of claiming theirs as the only Master. In doing so, they bring their teachers down to the level of ordinary men. An aspirant, they claim, in spite of high achievements, counts for nothing unless and until he is prepared to give all credit to their master. What blind ignorance! If the master were an ear-witness of his disciple’s utterance, he would burn with shame. On this Vivekananda says:
“”Suppose Jesus of Nazareth was teaching, and a man came and told him, ‘What you teach is beautiful. I believe that it is the way to perfection, and I am ready to follow it; but I do not want to worship you as the only begotten Son of God.’ What would be the answer of Jesus of Nazareth?
“‘Very well, brother, follow the ideal and advance in your own way. I do not care whether you give me the credit for the teaching or not… I only teach truth, and truth is nobody’s property, nobody’s patent truth. Truth is God Himself. Go forward.’ But what the disciples say nowadays is, ‘No matter whether you practise the teachings or not, do you give credit to the Man? If you credit the Master, you will be saved; if not there is no salvation for you.'””
An interesting event took place when Vivekananda was staying at Thousand Island Park. It was a dark and rainy night. A few ladies from Detroit had travelled hundreds of miles to find him there. Having met him, one of them humbly spoke out, “We have come to you just as we would go to Jesus if he were still on the earth and ask him to teach us.” Vivekananda, deeply moved and overwhelmed with humility, replied, “If only I possessed the power of Christ to set you free now!”
Christ unveiled the truth, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” A heroic echo is heard in Vivekananda: “It is already yours… It is yours by right.” We are drawn to the famous lines of the Gita: “He who seeth Me everywhere and seeth everything in Me, of him will I never lose hold, nor shall he ever lose hold of Me.” Almost parallel to this are the divine words of Christ: “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”
The Nazarene was a product of the East, although the people of the West have managed to forget this bare truth. “An Oriental of Orientals,” said Vivekananda of the son of Mary. It is quite natural that in the Bible we come across many images, symbols, natural scenes and simple ways of living common to the oriental countries. But what is more important, the oriental view is that this material life falls short of true satisfaction. So when Christ says, “Not this life, but something higher,” Vivekananda cannot help remarking, “Like a true son of the Orient, he is practical in that.”
Vivekananda meant that our earthly achievements, however grandiose, are in no way enough to quench the ever-pinching thirst of human souls to attain to higher life.
Christ’s body is Christianity. Christianity embodies humility. Vivekananda’s humility the entire world treasures. He once said:
“”If you ask me, ‘Is there a God?’ and I say ‘Yes,’ you immediately ask my grounds for saying so, and poor me has to exercise all his powers to provide you with some reason. If you had come to Christ and said ‘Is there any God?’ he would have said, ‘Yes,’ and if you had asked, ‘Is there any proof?’ he would have replied, ‘Behold the Lord.'””
Vivekananda and America
He who broke the barrier between East and West and placed the two on common ground is still a living force in both. His function was to bring in oneness where there was none before, by carrying the best of each to the other. The East had become lost by moving away from materialism; the West, by keeping clear of spirituality. A happy marriage of the two, he deeply felt, was the supreme need of the world. Life without spirituality was as poor as life without material power. Hence he dynamised the East with the force of the West, and inspired the West with the ancient wisdom of the East.
It is foolish to think that he sailed for America to satisfy his mental curiosity. It is also an absurdity to believe that his feet touched foreign shores to make a noise in the world. No. It was Sri Ramakrishna’s silent blessing that kindled the inspiration-fire of the beloved disciple to share his light with the soil and soul of America.
No country is superior to others in all spheres of life. Vivekananda, with his deeply penetrating insight, says: “As regards spirituality, the Americans are far inferior to us, but their society is far superior to ours.” He showed how a happy and true union could be effected between the other-world-loving Indians and this-world-loving Americans: “We will teach them our spirituality and assimilate what is best in their society.”
Asia, Europe and America — each continent made a contribution of its own to the world at large. With the help of his spirit’s vision, Vivekananda revealed the truth: “Asia laid the germs of civilisation, Europe developed man, and America is developing woman and the masses.”
It is an established fact that the women in America are the most advanced in the world, especially in the cultivation of knowledge. Vivekananda made a surprising observation:
“The average American woman is far more cultivated than the average American man.” He further added: “The men slave all their life for money and the women snatch every opportunity to improve themselves.” His highest compliment to women came when he said: “I have seen thousands of women here whose hearts are as pure and stainless as snow.” And again: “American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! I have not words enough to express my gratitude to you.
However, he was also deeply indebted to American men. For it was J.H. Wright, Professor of Greek at Harvard University, who was first in realising what Vivekananda was when the Indian monk was found, prior to becoming a delegate to the Parliament of Religions, almost destitute, no better than a street-beggar. Verily, Professor Wright, that blessed son of America, was a man of action. He introduced Vivekananda to the President of the ‘Parliament’ in Chicago. The professor’s flaming and instructive words have echoed and re-echoed in the hearts of both East and West: “To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the Sun to state its right to shine.”
Vivekananda’s soul-stirring addresses inspired the audience to have faith in all the religions of the world, to hug the best in each religion. There was a magic spell of throbbing delight woven around his very name at the Parliament of Religions. He was the figure that dominated the world’s gaze there. A report appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 30th, 1893, about the great triumph of the Indian spiritual giant: “If he merely crosses the Platform, he is applauded, and this marked approval of thousands he accepts in a childlike spirit of gratification, without a trace of conceit.”
The same paper on April 5th, 1894, had an irresistible recollection:
“”At the Parliament of Religions, they used to keep Vivekananda until the end of the programme, to make people stay until the end of the session. On a warm day, when a prosy speaker talked too long and people began going home by hundreds, the Chairman would get up and announce that Swami Vivekananda would make a short address just before the benediction. Then he would have the peaceful hundreds perfectly in tether. The four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus would sit smiling and expectant, waiting for an hour or two of other men’s speeches, to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.””
In no time America realised that Vivekananda was no isolated dreamer, nor, unlike most spiritual figures of the East, did he care primarily for his own personal salvation. They discovered in him a lofty spiritual realist and a universal lover of humanity. It was his vast personality and his spiritual inspiration that achieved for him such acclaim in America. Vivekananda’s credo was characterised by its freedom; thus the freedom-loving Americans responded enthusiastically to his message. They accepted his teaching that material prosperity and spiritual aspiration must run abreast and help each other if man is to see the full face of Divine Knowledge.
It is indeed only when we live in this truth that we can bask in the glorious Sunshine of the Soul that is Vivekananda.
Vivekananda and England
What Vivekananda, as a boy, despised and obstinately refused to learn, proved, in his glorious youth, a mighty instrument of victory in his hands. Apart from his towering spiritual personality, his hold on the English tongue facilitated his hold on the mind, heart and soul of East and West. His obstinacy failed to reverse God’s Will, which was shaping his destiny.
“”…Vivekananda has forged from it [the English language] a thrilling clarion of the Vedanta calling both the East and the West…,” so writes K.D. Sethna in his //The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future//.”
I hope it will not be out of place to cite a few momentous lines from that book just to make my readers intimate with the significance and necessity of the English language in India:
“”We shall be underestimating the significance of the English language in India if we think that it is only a valuable means of promoting our political, economic and technological interests in the democratic world. English is, above all, an immensely cultural asset. And it is such an asset not simply because it renders available to us magnificent countries of the mind, but also because it renders possible to us the most magnificent expression of our soul.””
It will be no exaggeration to say that by virtue of the English language alone India stands in the vanguard of the political history of mankind.
As each individual has a distinct place to fill in the world, even so every language has an important role. And it has been an established fact that no other European tongue has so much power of assimilating elements from foreign languages as does the English language.
The English language was brought into Britain by Teutonic invaders. These invaders were of three types: Jutes, Saxons and Angles. Modern English has undergone a considerable change. It is no more the language brought into Britain by the Saxons and the Angles.
Grimm, a German linguist, writes in his famous book On the Origin of Languages that “English possesses a veritable power of expression such as perhaps never stood at the command of any other language of men. Its highly spiritual genius and wonderfully happy development and condition have resulted from a surprisingly intimate union of the two noblest languages in modern Europe, the Teutonic and the Roman.”
Not only in his boyhood, but also in the prime of his youth, while his feet were touching the alien shores, Vivekananda’s ruthless contempt for England was almost unbelievable. As regards the English national life, a strong suspicion was then haunting his mind.
To quote him: “No one ever landed on English soil with more hatred in his heart for a race than I did for the English.” But with what result? He had to revise his feeling overnight. In the following lines we shall observe his excessive love for England disclosed by himself before a multitude of people at Calcutta:
“”There is none among you here present, my brothers, who loves the English people more that I do now.” We may as well ask him why and how could the English have won his heart? His immediate reply is: “The more I lived among them, saw how the machine was working — the English national life — and mixed with them, I found where the heartbeat of the nation was, and the more I love them.””
“”I am not ashamed to confess that I am ignorant of what I do not know. ”
Had we been able to share this lofty truth of Cicero’s, there would not have existed the giant wall of misunderstanding between England and India. The arrow of England is Matter. The arrow of India is Spirit. The victory of either can never be the true fulfilment of human birth. Both the arrows must be united to pierce the veil of Ignorance. Lo, the victory of victories, the fulfilment of fulfilments is at our disposal. Vivekananda’s supremely pathetic voice speaks:
“”The difficulties that arise between us and the English people are mostly due to ignorance; we do not know them, they do not know us.””
Obedience and self-respect are the two divine qualities in a human being. If one can combine these two unique virtues, then truly one has achieved something invaluable. Of the greatest achievement of the English, Vivekananda’s lofty appreciation is this: “They have known how to combine obedience with self-respect.”
I am sure I will lose much in this humble attempt of mine if the ever-inspiring memory of Nivedita does not echo in my heart. In sending his spiritual daughter Nivedita’s supreme sacrifice into the world, Swami Vivekananda declared: “Nivedita is the fairest flower of my work in England.”
The presiding Deity of England not only claps her hands with delight, but also burns herself, as it were, in the flames of ecstasy to hear from a spiritual Giant of the East, “My work in England has been more satisfactory than anywhere else. I firmly believe that if I should die tomorrow, the work in England would not die, but would go on expanding all the time.”
The disciple of Sri Ramakrishna was a live spring of spiritual force. No hyperbole, he was the Recoverer and Vivifier of the submerged soul of India. It was with his Master’s immortal teachings that he vitalised the sinews of India and illumined her darkened soul. Vivekananda was not only a great Indian figure, but also a world influence. What we actually learn from him is to fight while there is life within our limbs. Fight against what? Fight against weakness, fight against ignorance.
Vivekananda in Pondicherry
Pondicherry derives from Puduhcheri, a new town. Yes, it is a new, an ever-new town, new from age to age.
In Agastya’s time it was Vedapuri, the seat of Vedic knowledge. The truths of the Veda are at once eternal and ever-new. Coming down to our own days, we find Vivekananda visiting Pondicherry in 1893, just a few months before embarking on his historic voyage to America, where the multitudes of people heard in him the voice of eternity ringing across the ages, and saw in him the ineffable vision of God.
Vivekananda, the dearest disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Tilak, the fearless Champion of India’s swaraj, Bharathi, the patriot Bard of India’s nationalism and independence, Sri Aurobindo, the Heaven-born Prophet of India’s independence and of the Life Divine — all hallowed the town with the dust of their feet. Sri Aurobindo’s fixing on Pondicherry as the divinely ordained seat of his world-transforming Sadhana led to visits by a number of distinguished leaders of the national movement — Lala Lajpat Rai, C.R. Das, MoonjePurushottandas Tandon and Rabindranath Tagore, to name only a few. In 1914 there occurred an epoch-making event in the history of the world. From Paris came a remarkable spiritual figure, Madame M. Alfassa, now known as the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It is she who by her divine Personality and far-seeing powers of organisation has changed the face of Pondicherry to a great extent, and is continuing to build a New Life in this ever new town. The Vedapuri of old is again going to be the Vedapuri of the modern times — the meeting-place of East and West, the place of pilgrimage of the whole world.
During his six-year itinerary, Vivekananda toured India from end to end. From the Himalayan heights down to the plains he came, to the farthest point of Cape Comorin, the confluence of the three waters, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea. The appalling poverty, malignant wretchedness, and untold degradation of India tortured his athletic heart. Furthermore, the caste-system was for him an unspeakable abomination.
Equally, to set foot on foreign shores was, in those days, a counter-abomination for the orthodox. Hence Vivekananda’s position in the orthodox circles of Pondicherry could easily be imagined. There was a hot exchange of words over his sea voyage between Vivekananda and an orthodox pandit of the town. The pandit had a musty load of crystallised superstitions of by-gone days in his head. He gloried in spending all his energy discussing the touchableness and untouchableness of this man and that man, of this food and that food, of this country and that country. We shall leave Vivekananda himself to relate to us that curious incident:
“Balaji and G.G. may remember one evening at Pondicherry — we were discussing the matter of sea-voyage with a Pandit, and I shall always remember his brutal gestures and his kadapina (Never)! They do not know that India is a very small part of the world, the whole world looks down with contempt upon the three hundred millions of earth-worms crawling upon the fair soil of India and trying to oppress each other. This state of things must be removed.” This was the Pondicherry of 1893!
Few could really feel and appreciate his stupendous sacrifice for his Motherland. Rabindranath said of Vivekananda, “He sacrificed his life into a bridge between East and West.” Sri Aurobindo said of Vivekananda, “The capitulation of Vivekananda to Sri Ramakrishna was a capitulation of the West to the East.” The symbolic beginning is now become the realistic fact that is emerging in Pondicherry. France replaced her political link with Pondicherry with a golden link of her culture. Pondicherry stands as an Indian town with a broad intellectual culture and outlook — the promising beginning of a consummation of Vivekananda’s dream to bring West into East and East into West, as well as Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s dreams, all aiming at Unity in diversity of culture.
A spiritual giant and a seer-poet
Vivekananda was a flaming tongue of fire. Tagore was a sea of beauty and delight. Vivekananda was a clarion-call. Tagore was a soul-stirring flute. For both, humanity was a great love — dynamic and powerful on the part of Vivekananda, soft and sweet on the part of Tagore.
Vivekananda says in effect: “No time to linger! Awake, O India, and with your dauntless strength achieve the loftiest height of your Spirit.” Tagore says in effect: “Look everywhere and see God’s beauty, and then, O Ind, raise your proud head towards the Highest.”
With his spirit’s height, Vivekananda was the most nourishing, life-giving fruit. With his creative genius, Rabindranath was the most beautiful flower. The Goddess Mahakali shone in the eyes of Vivekananda. The Goddess Mahalakshmi smiled through the eyes of Rabindranath.
Yet it was only after their recognition by the West that the East would claim them, the spiritual giant by the impact of his Chicago address, the mystic poet by virtue of his Gitanjali. In both cases, the divine singer expressed himself in divine measure. Through his spiritual emotion and his soul-stirring voice, Narendra pleased his divine Master, Ramakrishna, and through him, the world. By his soul-awakening songs of transcendental beauty, Rabindranath charmed the world and seized the All-Blissful.
Both Narendranath and Rabindranath came into the world from the Unknown. They were, as it were, two tireless voyagers. Rabindranath touched the earth-sphere in 1861, just two fleeting years before Narendranath. Narendranath left earth and entered the upper-sphere in 1902, thirty-nine long years before Rabindranath.
Verily, Vivekananda and Tagore were pilgrims to Infinity’s Shore, where the finite, at last, has its perfect Play.
The spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda
East represents the Soul-power. West represents the power of Matter. The absolute surrender of Miss Margaret Noble at the feet of an Indian sannyasin stands as a glorious proof of the submission of the West before the spiritual Light of India. This truth finds its significant corroboration in the very name Nivedita given her by her Master. Truly, Nivedita was an emblem of true offering. She successfully utilised the power that she received from her Master in the cause of uplifting Indian womanhood and of freeing the Indian Nation from foreign yoke. This again proves that as the East is endowed with the power of imparting spirituality, even so the West possesses the power of receiving it.
The sincerity of Nivedita’s devotion to her Master expressed itself more in her life than in anything else. She lived the truths which she heard from the Swami’s soul-awakening lips. And in this connection, it will be quite apposite on our part to remember the fiery and intoxicating words that she received from Vivekananda on the eve of her departure for India: “I will stand by you unto death, whether you work for India or not, whether you give up Vedanta or remain in it. The tusks of the elephant come out, but they never go back. Even so are the words of a man.” Needless to say, her Master’s words echoed and re-echoed in the innermost recesses of her heart during her historic voyage — nay, to the end of her life.
Margaret’s father was quite aware of her bright future even in her childhood. He found that his daughter was not of the common run. Therefore, before breathing his last, Samuel, who was a parson, spoke to his wife in a low tone, almost a whisper, about Margaret:
“”When God calls her, let her go. She will spread her wings…She will do great things.””
On January 28, 1898, Margaret landed in India. She was one of the most precious jewels that the West could offer to India. It may also be said that she was an unknown schoolteacher who would later stand in the glare of wide publicity.
“The Mother’s heart, the hero’s will,
The sweetness of the southern breeze,
The sacred charm and strength that dwell
On Aryan altars, flaming free
All these be yours and many more,
No ancient soul could dream before,
Be thou to India’s future son,
The mistress, servant, friend in one.”
The chief disciple received from her Master this unique benediction while she was being initiated into the vow of Brahmacharya (celibacy) and the name Nivedita was given to her. A man treading the path of spirituality must never forget that, as opportunity never knocks at one’s door twice, even so benediction, a true benediction, rarely repeats itself. But the power of that benediction can easily fight out the stupendous odds of centuries that eclipse the Knowledge-Sun of the disciple.
It will be worth while to pay more attention to the word ‘benediction,’ the touchstone in the life of Nivedita. It happened that during their stay at Almora, Vivekananda for some time assumed altogether a different aspect in his relation to Nivedita. He was unbelievably severe to her. He neglected her much more than one could believe possible. “My relation,” says the disciple, “to our Master at this time can only be described as one of clash and conflict.” But the red-letter day at last dawned to save her life from the deepest pangs. To cite her once again: “And then a time came when one of the older ladies of our party, thinking perhaps that such intensity of pain inflicted might easily go too far, interceded kindly and gravely with the Swami. He listened silently and went away. At evening, however, he returned and finding us together in the verandah, he turned to her and said with the simplicity of a child, ‘You are right. There must be a change. I am going into the forests to be alone and when I come back I shall bring peace.’ Then he turned and saw that above us the moon was new and a sudden exaltation came into his voice as he said, ‘See! the Mohammedans think much of the new moon. Let us also with the new moon begin a new life!’ As the words ended he lifted his hands and blessed with silent depths of blessing his most rebellious disciple, by this time kneeling before him… I was assuredly a moment of wonderful sweetness of reconciliation…Long, long ago Sri Ramakrishna had told his disciples that the day would come when his beloved ‘Naren’ would manifest his own great gift of bestowing knowledge with a touch. That evening at Almora I proved the truth of his prophecy.”
A rare combination of sweet devotion and lofty intellect was Nivedita. No Indian will ever deny the important role that she played after entering into the Indian political fray. With a fearless heart she associated herself with the activities of Sri Aurobindo, Tilak, and other political leaders of the front rank. In those days she was surcharged within and without with her Master’s indomitable spirit. She had fully learned the meaning of suffering. To our joy her mighty sacrifice was crowned with success.
“Nivedita,” says Tagore, “was the universal mother. We have seldom come across such motherly love which can embrace the whole of a country outside the bounds of its family circle… When Nivedita used to say ‘our people,’ one could easily detect the tone of intense familiarity in that; it was so sincere and yet so spontaneous!… Nivedita had the natural power to endear herself to the people of India, irrespective of caste, creed and religion. She could mix with them intimately and freely. She looked at them with respect and not with compassion.”
In this connection let us cite here an incident that actually took place in her life. The milk-man who would daily supply her with milk asked her one day to give him some advice on religion. On hearing it her eyes widened with surprise. “You! You are an Indian. You need to have a piece of advice from me? Is there anything that you people do not know? You are the descendant of Sri Krishna. Accept my salutation.”
The following lines appeared in the Karmayogin, edited by Nivedita in the absence of Sri Aurobindo, who had then retired to Chandernagore on receiving a divine Command from above. We shall observe here how Nivedita identified herself with India and expressed her high hopes that India would occupy the highest rank of leadership in the domain of intellectual activities:
“”The whole history of the world shows that the Indian intellect is second to none. This must be proved by the performance of a task beyond the power of others, the seizing of the first place in the intellectual advance of the world. Is there any inherent weakness that would make it impossible for us to do this? Are the countrymen of Bhaskaracharya and Shankaracharya inferior to the countrymen of Newton and Darwin? We trust not. It is for us, by the power of our thought, to break down the iron walls of opposition that confront us, and to seize and enjoy the intellectual sovereignty of the world.””
“”Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some to be chewed and digested. ”
The Master as I saw him, by Nivedita, inevitably has its place with those books that are to be ‘chewed and digested.’ According to Sri Aurobindo this book was written with the blood of her heart. Also it was Sri Aurobindo who, many years ago, addressed her as the flame-spirit.
The life and teaching of Sister Nivedita can easily claim to form an imperishable part of the recent history of Indian womanhood. Her wonderful sacrifice lives in spirit in spite of her departure from human existence, through the ever-expanding activities of the followers and admirers of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Nivedita’s was a heart of supreme selflessness. Her devotion pined to dive into the sea of Hindu Religion to discover ‘full many a gem of purest ray serene.’ And she got them. She, with her superb intellect, ceaselessly helped Indian education, art, science, and politics. Her multifarious activities transcend human understanding, culminating in direct contact with the Olympian spirit of her Guru. Her humility remained throughout as an innate characteristic, notwithstanding the ceaseless outpouring of respect and veneration she received from the hearts of those who knew her and closely studied her life.
Napoleon’s dictionary did not house the word ‘impossibility’, and hers had no room for ‘despair’. Even the last words she uttered under her breath amply show that her life, which was a true replica of her Master’s heroic spirit, would not give way to despair: “The boat is sinking, but I shall see the sunrise.”
(Sri Chinmoy, Vivekananda: an ancient silence-heart and a modern dynamism-life, Agni Press, 1993)