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Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda

Cornelia Conger

BEFORE the Congress (or Parliament) of Religions met in Chicago at the time of the Columbian Exposition in 1893. members of various Churches volunteered to ask into their homes as guests delegates to it. My grandmother, Mrs. John B. Lyon, was one of these, requesting, if possible, that a delegate who was broad-minded be sent to us, as my grandfather was much interested in philosophy but heartily disliked bigots. Our home was 262 Michigan Avenue, a pleasant somewhat old-fashioned frame-house, painted olive green with boxes of red geraniums across the front. It was full of guests all that summer as my grandparents were naturally hospitable and this World's Fair was a very exciting and fascinating affair. So all our out-of-town relatives and friends were eager to come to Chicago to see it. When word came that our delegate was to arrive on a certain evening, the house was so crowded that my grandmother had to send her elder son to a friend's house to have his room for our guest. We had been given no idea who he would be, nor even what religion he was representing. A message came that a member of our Church — the First Presbyterian — would bring him after midnight. Everyone went to bed except my grandmother who waited up to receive them. When she answered the door-bell, there stood Swami Vivekananda in a long yellow robe, a red sash, and a red turban — a very startling sight to her, because she had probably never seen an East Indian before. She welcomed him warmly and showed him to his room. When she went to bed, she was somewhat troubled. Some of our guests were Southerners, as we had many friends in the South, because we owned a sugar plantation on the Bayou Teche in Louisiana. Southerners have a strong dislike for associating with anyone but whites, because they stupidly think of all people who are darker as on a mental and social plane of their former negro slaves. My grandmother herself had no colour prejudice, and she was sufficiently intelligent any way to know that Indians are of the same Caucasian inheritance as we are.

When my grandfather woke up, she told him of the problem and said he must decide whether it would be uncomfortable for Swami and for our Southern friends to be together. If so, she said he could put Swami up as our guest at the new Auditorium Hotel near us. My grandfather was dressed about half an hour before breakfast and went into the library to read his morning paper. There he found Swami and, before breakfast was served, he came to my grandmother and said, "I don't care a bit, Emily, if all our guests leave! This Indian is the most brilliant and interesting man who has ever been in our home. and he shall stay as long as he wishes." That began a warm friendship between them which was later summed up — much to my grandfather's embarrassment — by having Swami calmly remark to a group of my grandfather's friends one day at the Chicago Club "I believe Mr. Lyon is the most Christlike man I ever met!"

He seemed to feel especially close to my grandmother, who reminded him of his own mother. She was short and very erect, with quiet dignity and assurance, excellent common sense, and a dry humour that he enjoyed. My mother, who was a pretty and charming young widow, and I — who was only six years old — lived with them. My grandmother and my mother attended most of the meetings of the Congress of Religions and heard Swamiji speak there and later at lectures he gave. I know he helped my sad young mother who missed her young husband so much. Mother read and studied Swamiji's books later and tried to follow his teachings.

My memories are simply of him as a guest in our home — of a great personality who is still vivid to me! His brilliant eyes, his charming voice with the lilt of a slight well-bred Irish brogue. his warm smile! He told me enchanting stories of India, of monkeys and peacocks, and flights of bright green parrots, of banyan trees and masses of flowers, and markets piled with all colours of fruits and vegetables. To me they sounded like fairy-tales, but now that I have driven over many hundreds of miles of Indian roads. I realize that he was simply describing scenes from the memories of his own boyhood. I used to rush up to him when he came into the house and cry "Tell me another story, Swami", and climb into his lap. Perhaps, so far from home and in so strange a country, he found comfort in the love and enthusiasm of a child. He was always wonderful to me. Yet — because a child is sensitive — I can remember times when I would run into his room and suddenly know he did not want to be disturbed — when he was in meditation. He asked me many questions about what I learnt in school and made me show him my school-books and pointed out India to me on the map — it was pink. I recall — and told me about his country. He seemed sad that little Indian girls did not have, in general, the chance to have as good an education as we American children. Imagine how interested I was when Swami Shankarananda, President, Belur Math, told me he founded a girls' school in Calcutta!

My grandmother was president of the Women's Hospital at home, and he visited it with lively interest and asked for all the figures in infant mortality etc. So again it showed how much he was learning in our country to be used in helping his own people, because I was told that a maternity hospital was also founded later. How very happy that would have made my grandmother!

I was fascinated by his turban which struck me as a very funny kind of a hat, especially as it had to be wound up afresh every time he put it on! I persuaded him to let me see him wrap it back and forth around his head.

As our American food is less highly seasoned than Indian, my grandmother was afraid he might find it flat. He told us, on arrival, that he had been told to conform to all the customs and the food of his hosts, so he ate as we did. My grandmother used to make a little ceremony of making salad dressing at the table, and one of the condiments she used was Tabasco Sauce, put up by some friends of hers, the Mrs. Ilhennys, in Louisiana. She handed him the bottle and said, "You might like a drop or two of this on your meat, Swami". He sprinkled it on with such a lavish hand that we all gasped and said, "But you can't do that! It's terribly hot!" He laughed and ate it with such enjoyment that a special bottle of the sauce was always put at his place after that.

My mother took him to hear his first Symphony Concert on a Friday afternoon. He listened with great attention but with his head a bit on one side and a slightly quizzical expression. "Did you enjoy it?" mother asked at the end. "Yes, it was very beautiful", he replied, but mother felt it was said with some reservation. "What are you thinking?" she asked. "I am puzzled by two things", he answered. "First, I do not understand why the programme says that this same programme will be repeated on Saturday evening. You see in India, one type of music is played at dawn. The music for noontime is very different, and that for the evening is also of a special character. So I should think that what sounds suitable to your ears in the early afternoon would not sound harmonious to you at night. The other thing that seems strange to me is the lack of overtones in the music and the greater intervals between the notes. To my ears it has holes in it like that good Swiss cheese you give me."

When he began to give lectures, people offered him money for the work he hoped to do in India. He had no purse. So he used to tie it up in a handkerchief and bring it back — like a — proud little boy — pour it into my grandmother's lap to keep for him. She made him learn the different coins and to stack them up neatly to count them. She made him write down the amount each time, and she deposited in her bank for him. He was overwhelmed by the generosity of his audience who seemed so happy to give to help people they had never seen so far away.

Once he said to my grandmother that he had had the greatest temptation of his life in America. She liked to tease him a bit and said, "Who is she, Swami?" He burst out laughing and said, "Oh, it is not a lady, it is Organization!" He explained how the followers of Ramakrishna had all gone out alone and when they reached a village, would just quietly sit under a tree and wait for those in trouble to come to consult them. But in the States he saw how much could be accomplished by organizing work. Yet he was doubtful about just what type of organization would be acceptable to the Indian character, and he gave a great deal of thought and study how to adapt what seemed good to him in our Western World to the best advantage of his own people. I can see that Belur Math and his many charities are the result of this period in his life. I spoke earlier of his delightful slight Irish brogue. I recall that this came as a surprise to Swami Shankarananda. My grandfather used to joke him about it. But Swami said it was probably because his favourite professor was an Irish gentleman, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.

After Swami left us, my mother was eager to do some studying along the lines of Oriental philosophy, as she realized she had not enough background to understand his teachings as fully as she wished. A Mrs. Peake held some classes in Chicago that following winter and, in the course of them, mother discovered much to her surprise that if she held a letter torn up into fine bits between her hands, she received a brief but vivid impression of the writer, both physically and mentally. When Swamiji returned to Chicago a year or so later to give lectures, mother asked him about this strange gift, and he said he had it also, and that when he was young, he used to have fun doing it to show off, but that Ramakrishna had wrapped his knuckles and said, "Don't use this great gift except for the good of mankind. Hands that receive these impressions can also bring relief from pain. Use this gift to bring healing."

On this second visit, he only stayed with us for a short time. He knew he could teach better if he lived in his own regime of food and of many hours for meditation. It also left him free to receive many who came to him for help. So my grandmother helped him find a simple but comfortable little, flat, bur I do not recall that I ever saw it.

Swamiji was such a dynamic and attractive personality that many women were quite swept away by him and made every effort by flattery to gain his interest. He was still young and, in spite of his great spirituality and his brilliance of mind, seemed to be very unworldly. This used to trouble my grandmother who feared he might be put in a false or uncomfortable position, and she tried to caution him a little. Her concern touched and amused him, and he patted her hand and said. "Dear Mrs. Lyon, you dear American mother of mine, don't be afraid for me. It is true I often sleep under a banyan tree with a bowl of rice given me by a kindly peasant, but it is equally true that I also am sometimes the guest in the palace of a great Maharaja and a slave girl is appointed to wave a peacock feather fan over me all night long! I am used to temptation, and you need not fear for me!"

After having talked with Swami Shankarananda and been encouraged by him, I wished I had talked to my mother's younger sister, Katharine (Mrs. Robert W. Hamill) about her recollections of Swamiji. So when I reached home I asked her what she could add to my scattered memories. She was a bride and had her own home. So she was not at her mother's and father's so very much. She recalled Swamiji much as I did, but never heard him lecture. However, she and her husband were "young intellectuals" and had a group of young professors from our university, young newspaper men, etc. around them. One Sunday evening she was telling them how remarkable Swamiji was, and they said that modern scientists and psychologists could "show up" his religious beliefs in no time! She said. "If I can persuade him to come here next Sunday evening, will you all come back and meet him?" They agreed, and Swamiji met them all at an informal supper party. My aunt does not recall just what subjects were brought up, but that the entire evening was a lively and interesting debate on all sorts of ideas — Aunt Katharine said that Swamiji's great knowledge of the Bible and the Koran as well as the various Oriental religions, his grasp of science and of psychology were astounding. Before the evening was over, the "doubting Thomases" threw up their hands and admitted that Swamiji had held his own on every point and that they parted from him with warmest admiration and affection. —

When I was taken to meet Swami Shankarananda, I fell my memories were too childish and trivial to put down in black and white. I fell very humble and apologetic for taking up others' time. But the Swami said something infinitely kind and gracious which I shall never forget: That every great man is like a jewel with many facets. That each facet is important as it reflects a different aspect of his character. That I had come to him to offer a facet that was lacking in his records of Swamiji — of the weeks he had spent in our home when he first left India. So here is my very tiny "facet" offered in memory of someone I have loved for all these 62 years — not as a teacher, nor a great religious leader — but as a wonderful and vivid friend who lived in our home.

(Prabuddha Bharata, May 1956)

Courtesy: Partha Sinha












- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.

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