Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda
K. Sundarama Iyer
I MUST first mention the name of Mr. M.C. Alasinga Perumal, late headmaster of the High School attached to Pacheyappa's College. From the time when the Swami first came to Madras in December 1892 after his visit to Kanyakumari and Rameswaram, he attached himself with adoring love and never-failing enthusiasm to the Swami's person and to his ministry in the world in all its phases and details — an adhesion and service to the Great Master which, to me at least, has always seemed a thing of beauty and brought to me a consolation and joy in many a dark hour of my heart's sinkings. That our degenerate Hindu society could still produce one who had in his nature so pure and perfect a passion of reverence and tender affection towards the Swami's prophetic soul was to me a discovery, and I have seen nothing like it in this southern peninsula at least of the Indian continent. He was the life and soul of the work of all kinds done in South India in support of the Swami's ministry, or by his direction and suggestion. "Achinga" — as we familiarly used to call him — was hard at work and ever vigilant and got everything needed to be done in order to make the Swami's reception at Madras a success. He first got up some sort of a reception committee — one not of a formal character, but which was of use to him. Dr. Subrahmanya Aiyar was its chief, and it included Messrs V. Krishnaswami Aiyar. P.R. Sundara Aiyar, C. Nanjunda Rao. V.C. Seshachari, Col. Olcott, Dr. Barrows of Chicago (who had come over to deliver a course of lectures on Christianity) and others. The committee got ready two or three leaflets for distribution everywhere in the town; the object was to give our people some account of the Swami's memorable work of preaching in the West, and contained chiefly extracts from the opinions formed of him by leaders of thought and the leading journals in the United States and Great Britain. They also arranged for the putting up of a number of triumphal arches from the Egmore railway station to Castle Kernan and for sticking placards regarding the Swami's arrival in all parts of the city. Everywhere a wide interest had already been created in consequence of the reports, daily received and published in the papers, of the hearty welcome accorded to the Swami in his progress from Colombo, through Rameswaram, Ramnad, and Siva-ganga to Madura, Trichinopoly, and Kumbakonam. Even in the small and insignificant intermediate rural railway stations men flocked to catch a glimpse of the great man. Men came from the mofussils in large numbers to Madras to meet the Swami, or even to have the inestimable privilege of looking at this new and world-moving messenger of the Indian sages of yore. Lots of young men who had come to Madras for the university examinations remained to have a glimpse of him and to hear his voice and to learn his message to his countrymen. Everyone — in fact men of all ages, classes, and sects — felt that the Swami had done an everlasting service to the cause of the motherland and its immortal prophets and acharyas (teachers) and gurus (religious leaders), past and present, such as no one had ever done before — and that he was not only a true saint and religious messenger from India to the civilization of the West, but a patriot who had raised his country and his compatriots in the estimation of the civilized world. Everywhere the Swami's personality, mission, and achievements became the one topic of absorbing interest, and all awaited his arrival with eager interest and intense expectation. The Hindu published a leader extolling the Swami's work in the West in terms of the highest enthusiasm leading up towards its close to a white heat of passionate outburst, indeed, one still remembers vividly how among its educated readers many here and there quoted its concluding sentences, asking who there could be who would not associate himself with the Swami's great work for humanity and advance it in all possible ways.
The morning previous to the Swami's arrival Mr. and Mrs. Sevier, two of his zealous Western disciples, accompanied by one Mr. Harrison — a Ceylonese Buddhist and an admirer and friend of the Swami — arrived at Madras and were met at the railway station and taken to Castle Kernan. That same evening a public reception was arranged for them, and it was attended, among others, by Col. Olcott. I thought, from what Col. Olcott said to me, that he was a warm friend and sincere admirer of the Swami. I had also once read in the Theosophist a paragraph that the Swami had, during his previous visit to Madras in December 1892, gone to the Adyar headquarters and received a hearty welcome there from the Colonel and his associates. Hence what we heard from the Swami on his arrival the next day and his outburst against the Theosophical Society at his first Madras lecture in a manner altogether unusual with him came on me as a surprise; but more of this later in its due place. We were all squatting on the floor in the temporary platform at one end of the shamiana (canopy) put up for the Swami's interviews and question meetings at the Castle Kernan. Mrs. Sevier was saying something about the Swami's stay in London, and about one of his meetings or lectures at Mr. Sturdy's house. Colonel Olcott at once quoted the example of Mrs. Besant, and asked Mrs. Sevier to take a chair while we remained squatting, and tell us all she knew about the Swami and how she became his disciple. At once Mrs. Sevier replied that she was not Mrs. Besant — that, while Mrs. Besant was a speaker and scholar and could command every one's attention on any and every occasion to what fell from her lips, she (Mrs. Sevier) was only a plain woman and could say nothing which was of much interest or importance to them. Col. Olcott was nonplussed and became silent. After making their acquaintance with the visitors, all who had assembled lingered on for a while and then dispersed.
The next morning was the long and eagerly expected day of the Swami's arrival. Enormous crowds wended their way to the railway station and also gathered together and kept waiting for him to have a glance while he passed through the streets in order to reach Castle Kernan. The station, inside and outside, was a veritable sea of heads and faces. The previous night my neighbour Mr. R.V. Srinivasa Iyer came to me and asked me to accompany him in his carriage to the Egmore railway station. I had known him for several years as a colleague of mine in the Kumbakonam College and had also frequently met him after his transfer to the revenue department. He had never felt much interest in religious problems or personalities, though he had been a diligent student of European philosophy. His offer to join in the welcome which the city of Madras was offering to the Swami was to me a pleasant surprise. On our way he said he too was eager to see what the Swami was like after all the glory he had gained in his career as an Indian teacher and promulgator of our ancient philosophic religion. At last the train steamed into the station to the great delight of all who had gathered there and been kept waiting owing to the lateness of its arrival. The Swami alighted in company with two of his fellow-disciples of Shri Ramakrishna and another who was his own disciple and had been attracted to him while he was formerly a station-master in some railway line in North India. They had gone to Colombo to meet him and to give him new kashaya (ochre) clothing for his wear as an Indian Sannyasin in lieu of his European costume. The Swami was also accompanied by Mr. Goodwin, the Englishman who had been engaged to take down in shorthand his lectures in America and who had become his disciple and refused to accept any wages for his work and now had got himself attached to the Swami for the rest of his life. He was clothed in purely Indian and Brahmin costume to the surprise of us all. A few introductions were made to the Swami at the station. As I had known the Swami at Trivandrum in December 1892 even before he paid his first visit to Madras, and as we had moved and conversed freely and intimately with each other, I was very eager to meet the Swami at once but owing to the enormous crowds, it was a pure chance, except in the case of a few big men, whether one got an opportunity or not to see the Swami at the station. I managed, however, to elbow my way through the crowd to where the Swami stood and to see and exchange a few words with him before he entered his carriage and the procession started. I made a sashtanga namaskara at the Swami's feet, and asked whether he still remembered me. He replied that he never forgot a face and referred to his slaying in my house at Trivandrum. It was then that my name was mentioned to him by Dr. Subrahmanya Aiyar. Professor M. Rangacharya, my old friend and colleague at the Kumbakonam College had also accompanied the Swami from Kumbakonam, and both of us went together to Castle Kernan, following the procession. As we went on, we found that at the beach some students had insisted on having the horses unharnessed, and dragged the carriage themselves for some distance. This idea of displacing the horses and of young men dragging the carriage was rather disgusting to our Indian ideas and tastes. Later in the day I mentioned the matter to the Swami himself, and he too seemed not to quite relish the idea. He told me that he had already himself mentioned it to the students who had made and carried out the proposal.
On the route from Kumbakonam, the Swami had been joined at the Chingleput railway station by the representative of the Madras Mail who sought an interview. The interview, in the form of questions and answers, appeared that evening in that paper and gave a most interesting account of the Swami's observations and activities in America and of his future aims during his stay in India. Later on Mr. Rangacharya told me that the questions put were all his own and had elicited from the Swami his short, pithy, and ready replies. The Madras Mail's representative had only to take them down in short-hand. At this distance of time, however, I only remember that the Swami said that the American..., men were absorbed in business and money-making and so the women were the masters of the situation and availed themselves of every opportunity to improve their minds and culture, and that it was the women who largely attended his lectures and classes. The Swami expected that his labours would bear better fruit in England than in America; for though the English people were rather "thick-skulled" and therefore were slow to take in new ideas, they never flinched from carrying out their convictions into practice when once their minds had been influenced. The Swami arrived al Kernan Castle and met several gurubhais or brother-disciples of Shri Ramakrishna, and entered into close and familiar intercourse with them. Their simple ways and hearty greetings, their easy manners and frank unconventional behaviour towards each other, were very attractive to all who had the privilege of getting into the interior of Castle Kernan. The Swami and they soon sat at dinner and when it was over, the Swami came up into the hall in the upper storey for rest and slumber after his hard labours during his journey in receiving deputations and replying to addresses and almost always in giving more or less formal discourses when the demands and importunities for them could not be put off.
The Swami's health had largely given way in the course of his unwearied labours in the West during three years of lecturing, teaching, and training of disciples in various courses of Vedic discipline and methods of meditation. Much anxiety was evinced by his associates and felt even by himself in regard to this matter. It was a wonder how he responded under these conditions to the demands made on his almost exhausted stock of energy, while on this return visit of his to the motherland and in the course of his energetic attempts to start his mission of India's spiritual renovation under his Great Master's banner and the influence of his own unique personality and enlightened guidance.
Professor Rangacharya and myself were invited by "Achinga" to interview the Swami and arrived at an arrangement with regard to his lecture programme during his Madras sojourn to satisfy the public expectations and also to reveal to his countrymen his plans and hopes for the future. The Professor was returning to Kumbakonam the next day, and so the matter must be settled at once. The Swami had taken some rest, and we found him seated on a carpet in a room upstairs. When we broached the topics, the Swami replied that we might settle between ourselves the topics of his discourses and simply inform him and leave them in his hands. His first public appearance was to be made in order to receive and reply to the address to be presented to him on behalf of the people of Madras, then there were to be four public addresses, devoted to a comprehensive and detailed exposition of his ideas regarding India's mission to the world and the mission of her sages to their own children in the motherland. The Swami had also to reveal his means and methods for renovating the national and spiritual life of India in accordance with its altered conditions. We fixed the Swami's topics (1) My plan of campaign, (2) The Sages of India, (3) Vedanta in its application to practical life, and (4) the Future of India. The Swami also had, at "Achinga's" special request, to deliver an address to the Triplicane Literary Society on "Some aspects of his work in India". This programme was actually carried out, and all the topics mentioned were fully treated by the Swami according to his own method and manner. The Swami also consented to have two morning sittings at the Castle to meet people who desired to put him questions and elicit answers on any topic they liked.
The same evening, or the next day's forenoon (I do not remember which, very likely the latter) Rangacharya and myself wished to listen to a little music of the Swami of which we had heard a great deal. We suggested the Ashatapadi. The Swami had no public engagements, and having had necessary rest, was in one of his sweetest and most serene moods and at once responded. He sang one of Jayadeva's song in most entrancing voice and in the appropriate raga (tune) which we never heard before in this part of the country. The impression then received is one never to be effaced, and the Swami revealed himself to us in one of the lighter veins or aspects of his composite nature and his weird and soaring personality — I may also here say that from the first day on which he reached the Castle Kernan, and up to the last, his residence was at all times crowded with visitors from all classes of the population and by the people of both sexes. Many delicate and retiring women of high and respectable families approached the Castle Kernan as if they were visiting a temple. Their devotional feeling reached its climax when they gained admission inside and prostrated themselves before the Swami as if he were one of our avataras or acharyas revisiting the scene of their labours. Crowds kept constantly waiting in front of the Castle at all hours of the day and even for some time after it was dark. It had gone forth that he was an avatara of Sambandhaswami (a Shaiva saint) and the idea was taken up everywhere and with absolute trustfulness among the common people. Whenever the people who kept watching and wailing caught a glimpse of him while passing to and fro within the Castle grounds or when he passed by them to get into his coach on the way to one of his meetings, they prostrated en masse before him. The scene on such occasions was as impressive as it was unusual to see. Even when our heads of maths (monasteries) appeared in public on the rare occasions in which they went on a visitation tour among their enrolled or avowed disciples, or paid a visit to a temple deity, or passed in procession (vishwa-yatra) through the streets of the place in which they had their permanent residence (math) — I had never witnessed this kind of collective worship and homage giving conspicuous vent to the popular emotions or love and reverence, and revealing to the world where the heart of the nation still lay. The renunciation of the world's pompous vanities, and its unsubstantial fleeting attachments was the sole means to the attainment of the lotus feet of the Supreme and the resulting liberation from the miseries of the samsarika (transmigrating) wanderings in the material universe.
When the appointed day, the third after his arrival, came for the Swami to receive the Madras address, he left the Castle Kernan at about 4 p.m. It was a day of universal and high-wrought expectations. The interest felt and evinced by the entire educated community and the student population of Madras had reached heights and summits not easily imaginable. The scene in front of the Victoria Hall and along the roads and by-ways leading to it defies adequate definition or accurate description. The Swami's carriage, as it passed, could not easily find the space it needed for reaching its destination. Professor Rangacharya and myself, at the Swami's gracious request, took our seats in his carriage. I enjoyed the infinite pleasure and privilege of once more looking at his wonderful eyes direct, recalling to my recollection all he had achieved and mentally running over what his future career might be as the future minister of the Vedic religion. I could not but indulge in high hopes and aspirations regarding the future of this great land of Bharata (India) after it had yielded itself in faith and hope to this new heaven-sent messenger of our holy rishis (seers). I must avow that so far a gaping width or chasm separates the expectations of that moment and the actualities of the quarter of a century that has since passed. There is, however, no need at all for despondency. I fully believe that the propaganda then started by the Swami will sooner or later attain developments which will command our confidence in the efficacy of the working constitution framed by him, even though its rate of progress towards the ultimate goal, namely, the spiritualization of all human nature and human institutions, must necessarily be slow.
As we alighted from the carriage, there were loud cries of "Open air meeting" from all the vast crowds assembled in front of the Hall. It had been arranged that the address to the Swami should be presented inside the Hall. The Hall was filled to its utmost capacity. Sir V.Bhashyam Ayyangar had already occupied the chair. The Swami took his seat on the dais by his side, and Mr. M.O. Parthasarathy Ayyangar read the address. All eyes were fixed on Swamiji, and expectation was at its highest pitch. Every heart was receptive and ready to imbibe the sweet flow of melody from the voice and wisdom of the Great Master on whose every word his Western hearers had so long hung with delight and which had charmed all ranks and conditions of people of both sexes in the very life centres of the material civilization of the West. Meanwhile loud and continuous shouts of "Open air meeting" breaking into the Hall. interrupted the proceedings within. They issued from every part of the immense gathering of students and young people outside, so that the Swami's heart was touched and it became impossible for him to speak from the dais where he was standing. He said also that he could not disappoint the countless masses of the young men, eager and enthusiastic, assembled beyond the doors. The Swami and his crowded audience outside issued out to meet and mingle with the vast and seething mass of human faces and figures visible as far as the eye could reach and which rejoiced and broke into thundering shouts of joy when the Swami appeared before them. Soon, however, he found that the sounds and shouts from vast crowds made it impossible that his voice could be heard everywhere or even beyond the few who stood in his neighbourhood. The Swami's voice, too, inspite of its attractive sweetness and the even flow of its thrilling cadence, wanted those qualities of sonorousness and strength which, mounting to the swell of a trumpet blast, made a Gladstone, Bright, or O'Connel heard to the utmost limits of a vast concourse of fifty thousand people or more. The Swami spoke from the top of a Madras coach — "in the Gita fashion" as he called it, to the mirth of all who heard him — meaning that there was some sort of distant analogy between himself speaking from a coach and in parting his counsel and inspiration to his people at the dawn of the new epoch he was inaugurating, and Shri Krishna re-delivering his lost message of yoga to a world which had allowed it to sink into oblivion owing to the steady decline of national spirituality during the "great efflux of time" (Gita, IV). The huge crowd became so unmanageable, and their loud shouts and cheers so swelled as to make the Swami's voice inaudible. So he spoke briefly, though he did not fail to clearly enunciate the central truths of Hinduism, how renunciation, love, and fearlessness were India's offer to humanity in order to help souls cross the ocean of samsara and the "Mystery of Life" into the Joy of Truth and the ever-present realization and illumination of the Self, the One only without a second....
But the Swami found it impossible to proceed further and concluded by thanking all who had heard him asking them to "keep up" their enthusiasm and to give all the help he "required" from them, "to do great things for India" and carry out all his plans for the revival of this "big gigantic race"....
The subject of the First lecture was "My plan of campaign". The Swami told me and others in the course of his conversation that he intended "to be out once for all" with the truth regarding what the Theosophical Society had done for him in America and elsewhere. Some friends had told the Swami that Colonel Olcott had been claiming that the Theosophical Society had paved the way for the Swami in America, that had it not been for the spade work done by the Society in its mission of spreading "occultism" or "ancient wisdom" everywhere, the Swami would not have been able to accomplish even the little he had been able to do in propagating the truths and ideals of the Vedantic religion and philosophy. The Swami had heard, too, on his arrival in Madras, from one of his gurubhais that a well-known Buddhistic friend of his at Calcutta had received a letter from a prominent Madras Theosophist in which that gentleman, on hearing that the Swami had from America once wired to his friends in Madras that he had only a trifling sum left of the funds he had received when starting for the Parliament of Religions and would soon be nearing starvation-point and without the warm clothing required for the approaching cold season, had written as follows of the Swami, "they would soon be rid of the devil". This letter had been handed over for safe custody to the Belur Math. The Swami also told us that, wherever he had been invited to lecture in America, the Theosophists had tried to hinder his own Vedantic propaganda in various ways. Moreover, the prejudice which many leading Americans had everywhere contracted against the Mahatmic cranks of Theosophy and its puerile trumperies and monstrous fictions had made them imagine that the Swami's mission, too, was a kindred movement of obscurantism appealing similarly to the credulity imbedded in the innermost recesses of the minds of the common masses of men and must be similarly ostracized by all enlightened leaders and by all who care to base their beliefs and convictions regarding religion on sound methods of investigation and proof and on the experiences resulting from established and authoritative processes of meditation. The Swami had to remove mountains of unreasoning dislike and unfounded opposition which had been engendered everywhere owing to this circumstance. Moreover, the Christian missionaries, too, tried to prevent people everywhere from receiving him or even countenancing his endeavours to enlist support and sympathy for the doctrines and spiritual methods of the Vedas and the Vedanta. The Swami told me that even (Mr.) Mazoomdar, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj, who was attending the Parliament of Religions — a man whom he had known and esteemed almost from his boyhood and student days — joined the missionaries in the work of spreading false reports against him and discrediting his endeavours on behalf of the Vedic religion and went about saying that that religion was receding and losing its hold on the Indian mind — on the cultured intellects of India as well as on the mass mind — and that therefore Christ had come to stay in India. The Swami also showed me two issues of a Christian weekly journal published in America — whose name I do not distinctly recollect at this distance of time, but perhaps its name was The Witness — in which the missionaries had published an appeal for funds in aid of Mazoomdar's propagandist work in India, pointing out how he too would preach Jesus Christ and help forward the ultimate triumph of the Christian religion. The Swami condemned in unmeasured terms this transaction as opposed to all recognized canons of honourable public life and the relations between leaders of opposing creeds or churches. It was Mazoomdar that the Swami had in view, when he referred in this first Madras lecture of his to "one of my own countrymen", "the leader of a reform party in India" (and so on).... Some of the Swami's friends and supporters in Madras tried to dissuade him from making these references to his enemies and detractors in America, and especially his attack on the Theosophical Society and its founder. They told him that several members of that Society entertained unlimited regard and reverence towards him and had gathered in large numbers from the mofussil to greet and honour him on his return from the West. The Swami was inexorable, and gave forcible expression to the facts as he knew them and the feelings evoked in him by the troubles he had had to encounter from those who had ever been proclaiming from the housetops that they formed "the nucleus of universal brotherhood"....
The first of the four lectures arranged for him was delivered on the evening of Tuesday, the ninth, the fourth day after his arrival (sixth). That same day he lectured in the morning at the Triplicane Literary Society. As I could not be present at that lecture, I can say nothing about it from my own impressions. Nor was I present at his visit to the Social Reform Association on Wednesday, the l0th. I however asked the Swami about what happened, and he replied that he said nothing of special interest, but gave little or no encouragement to the revolutionary views entertained by its chief members, though he "admitted the need for social reforms", such as the removal of untouchability, the restoration and redistribution of the caste system so as to recover its ancient basis, etc.
Before I pass on, I must go back and narrate some incidents of the 8th February. I have the dates, and will try to preserve the chronological order of the facts, so far as I can rely on my memory of them. At about noon. Prof. P. Lakshmi Narasu — whom I have always esteemed as a gentleman of great learning and high character — came to the Castle, accompanied by the late Mr. N.K. Ramaswami Iyer. Mr. Lakshmi Narasu was a student of science and an avowed Buddhist, but I did not know who his companion was. The latter gentleman I learnt was the publisher, and the former the editor and the leading (or even the sole) contributor to a journal which was appearing somewhat irregularly and abandoned after a few issues had been published, called The Awakener of India. It was so named in order to deny (or dispute) the impression or implication conveyed by the title of another journal, a monthly, which had been started at Madras some time previously with the support or at the suggestion of the Swami, viz The Awakened India (or Prabuddha Bharata which was later on transferred to the Advaita Ashrama established by the Swami at Almora and is still published from there. These two visitors of the Swami were evidently of opinion that his mission and labours in America and the propaganda work started in Madras at his instance by the publication of the Brahmavadin and Prabuddha Bharata had yet had no effect in imparting a new impulse of activity, and India still remained sunk as deep as ever in her lethargic slumber of ages. Their own Awakener of India, however, was, on the whole, a bright and rousing performance while it lasted. I still remember some vitriolic contributions on what it called "Blavatskosophy", containing uncompromising attacks on the creed of Theosophy as formulated by M. Blavatsky in her writings. On entering the side-room upstairs, I saw the Swami's two visitors and others seated, and the Swami in front of them but close to one of the walls, though not leaning against it and sitting in his usual vyakhyasana, posture appropriate to an expounder of the shastras (scriptures). Mr. Lakshmi Narasu sat calm and silent like one confident of his own invincible position of strength. As I entered the room, his companion, whom we all knew well during his subsequent career, was saying, "We want, Swami, to have a free talk on various problems of philosophy and religion, especially on the Vedanta to which we have strong objections. When will you be able to find the time for us?" I look my seat, when the Swami called me to his side. Soon he said, with his usual smile lightening up his face. "Here is my friend, Sundararaman; he has been a Vedantist all his life, and he will meet all your arguments. You can refer to him." This greatly enraged N.K. Ramaswami Iyer who turned at me with eyes betokening scorn, if not contempt, and then turned once more to the Swami, "We have come here to meet you, and not any other person."The Swami did not reply, of course. Meanwhile, other persons and topics turned up. The Swami remained where he was for some time longer. I left the room, and do not know what passed afterwards there.
In the afternoon of the same day, the Swami, after a short nap-was seated in the back room upstairs in the Castle Kernan and I found him in one of those moods of sweet serenity when his face assumed the air both of a child and an angel from heaven, an appearance with which I had become familiar at Trivandrum and whose fascination was irresistible to all who had the fortune to meet and converse with him on such occasions or moments. I have just mentioned the Swami's afternoon nap, and I will now say what used to happen on such occasions. He was always having visitors about him and sat listening or speaking to them. Suddenly his eyes became still, though remaining open, and he seemed not to listen or even to be conscious of what was passing about him. When once more he became aware of the scene, he seemed as if he had been utterly insensible to it. He had been neither asleep nor awake. On one of such occasions during these nine days at the Castle, I asked the Swami what sort of mood it was. He only answered, "I can't say what." I did not wish to press the matter. I do not know if it was not a case of voluntary retirement for the nonce into his inner self as a sort of escape from the weariness of the busy scene and life about him. Some may think that it was simply a state of drowsiness preliminary to the regular slumber which the Swami fell into later. But I who have seen him both while getting into, and getting out of, this condition, and remember, too, how long he remained in a sitting posture and how peculiar his eyes appeared while they remained fixed and without the least sign of movement, cannot help saying that he seemed to me like one who for a while had left his physical tenement and fleeted away to another state of existence, something like what is described in one of the many strange episodes narrated in the Vasishtha-Maharamayana.
Later in the same afternoon, at about 4 p.m., there came a deputation to the Swami from Tiruppattur in the Salem District, a place now transferred lo the North Arcot District. The Swami was, I think, seated in the same room as before. The deputation consisted of five or six persons, all Shaivites. There was no Brahmin among them. This would be easily understood when one knows that they seemed — at least to me — to have been prepared and sent on to meet the Swami by the then District Munsiff of the place, who was later on in the same year to become the founder and editor of the Siddhanta-Deepika, now for some years defunct, and also the founder and organizer of the movement known as the "Shaiva-Siddhanta-Mahasabha", which continues still to hold a peripatetic annual gathering and has also given the Inspiration for many local Shaiva Sabhas and their activities and annual festive gatherings. Mr. Nallaswami Piliai was well known to me and even very friendly. Though he was a strong advocate of the Shaiva cult and siddhanta, he wanted to liberalize it and propagate its tenets so as to make it acceptable to all, not only in India, but all over the world. He seemed to me — and I still think so — to have been fired by the example of the Swami and his activities and triumphal progress in America, England, India, and elsewhere. He was anxious to maintain the traditions of Shaivism, and to include the Brahmins, too, among the believers and brethren of the Shaiva faith. As the Swami was an Advaitin, the deputation from Tiruppatur was, perhaps, expressly prepared and sent to beard the lion in his den and to tackle him on some fundamental points of Advaita doctrine. The head of the deputation had a whole sheet filled with questions, and he told the Swami that he wanted answers. The Swami nodded assent, and wanted him to begin. The first question was, "How does the Unmanifested become the manifested?" The Swami's reply came on at once without a moment's hesitation, but it fell, too, like thunder from the blue vault of heaven, paralyzing its victims and stultifying their nervous system and its workings. The same question was put later at one of the Swami's question meetings (in the shamiana put up for the purpose at Castle Kernan) by a young Madhva Brahmin who was then, I think, a college student and is now an active member of the Madras Corporation. He, too, got the same answer, couched in the same or similar terms, and with the same stunning and electrifying effect. The Swami's reply was, "Questions of how, why, or wherefore relate to the manifested world, and not to the Unmanifested which is above all change and causation and therefore above all relation to the changing universe and our samsarika (transmigrating) life in it. The question, therefore, is not one which can be reasonably put. Put a proper question — a more rational question — and I will answer. "The reply brought about an impasse, and his interlocutors felt that they were face to face with one who could meet and solve philosophic puzzles and queries of all kinds, a master before whom they must need bow in humility and meekness rather than launch forth in a game of dialectics. They seemed at once to have forgotten their carefully prepared and transcribed scheme and synopsis of questions in the manuscript they had brought, and suddenly, felt the wand of the magician in their front, and his enchantment was stealing over their minds and hearts with its occult power and overpowering grasp. The Swami at once realized the situation. Then followed a scene which it is not possible adequately to depict. This past master of the arts and weapons of Indian dialectics, this lion of the Vedanta with his conquering air and roar, the impetuous and rolling thunder of his voice, and his lower jaw symbolizing, as he once told me himself, his "combative temperament", all on a sudden became transformed into what seemed a long-lost comrade of one's youth or a tenderly-loved brother restored after a long separation and whole-heartedly interested in all that concerned one's welfare. The Swami began to address them in a strain and in tones captivating all his listeners and all who were present. He spoke somewhat as follows: The best way to serve and seek God is to serve the needy, to feed the hungry, to console the stricken, to help the fallen and friendless, to attend upon and serve those who are ill and require service, and so on and on. The deputation kept listening while the Swami's heart went out to them in a fervour of passionate exhortation to serve their fellow-men. It seemed as if after all they had met the one messenger of joy and peace from heaven for whom they had been searching in vain, one in whom there was no doubt or equivocation, a master who had searched their hearts and finding the void in them, had supplied the pabulum they needed, had taught them the central truth of life and of deliverance from its troubles. The shades of evening fell, they offered their homage at the feet of the saint; and as they took their departure, their countenances showed traces of a new light having touched their hearts and given them a new impulse to life and work.
We now come on to the day of his second Madras lecture. That morning I met the Swami at the house of Dr. Subrahmanya Iyer in the Luz Church Road at the latter's special invitation. We met in the room upstairs, and the Swami explained to us his plans for a vast religious reformation and revival in India which would serve to bring Hindus, Christians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, and all under a common flag of brotherly union and serve as a star of hope and harmony, and a ceaseless incentive to the striving by men of all creeds and colours after a common goal of national aspiration. He wanted a new sort and style of temple with a hall in the front containing statues of the sages and prophets of all great religions, and behind it an inner precinct containing a pillar with the letter (or letters) Om inscribed on it and underneath the open sky. Nothing else worth chronicling occurred here, except that the kind host had got ready for the Swami a lot of sweet laddus and other sweet and well-spiced preparations of which he partook but in name. There was also the inevitable coffee which the Swami barely tasted. The Swami was, perhaps, never a good eater, at least was not one such, to my knowledge. When he stayed with me at Trivandrum, he used to take but one light meal in the daytime, and only a little milk at night. At the Castle itself, in course of the day, I saw nothing noteworthy. There was the usual stream of visitors steadily flowing, and among them also the usual flow of lady-visitors of high family status come to worship at the Swami's feet and receive his blessing. There was one young man from Coimbatore who had read the Swami's lectures on raja-yoga, published by Longmans, and had tried to practise yoga according to the instructions conveyed therein. He related his experiences, and among them he mentioned that he felt that his body was growing lighter and lighter. He also informed the Swami that some of his friends, and especially Pandits, had warned him of the danger and even certainty of becoming insane, if he persisted in his yogic practices without seeking a practical instructor to correct or enlighten him wherever he went wrong or had a doubt as to the next step in his course of yoga. The Swami told him not to give ear to these men, but to persist in his resolve to reach the goal of samadhi. Each step he won would lead him onward and enable him to overcome obstacles. There was no danger at all anywhere and he was always ready to help him whenever he needed help. The young man was quite satisfied and left for his native place. He did not seem in the least interested by the Swami's career as a prophet of Vedantism in the West or in India at the time he met him in the Castle.
In the evening the Swami delivered his second lecture on "The Sages of India". The Victoria Hall was crowded to its utmost capacity. The one exceptional feature of this day's gathering was that the editor of the Madras Mail, the late Mr. H. Beauchamp, was present on the platform. No other European in Madras was present at any of the Swami's lectures or meetings. But he rose and left in the middle of the Swami's address. I noticed, but it might have been a mere accident, that, just as Mr. Beauchamp was leaving the Swami was saying of Shri Krishna the following, after quoting a well-known verse of the Gopika-Gita: "One kiss of those divine lips, and all sorrow vanishes and the thirst for Thee increases for ever," etc. This was a free rendering of the verse quoted. I trust that Mr. Beauchamp's British sense of social propriety was not wounded, and the Swami's utterances regarding Shri Krishna was not the direct cause of his leaving the meeting....
On Friday, the 12th of February, I met the Swami twice. In the morning, the shamiana at the Castle was full to overflowing and bubbling with enthusiasm when the Swami arrived and took his seat on the platform. We had read glowing accounts of the manner in which he had replied to questions put to him in America, how his replies came like "flashes of lightning" and revealed to his audiences the extraordinary force of his intellect and his grasp of the varieties of life and the universe, how his retorts to those who attempted to land him in a deadlock or discomfiture carried confusion into the ranks of his opponents or detractors! Here was the opportunity for all to witness his dialectical sword-play and his sympathetic response to honest inquiry, and he had a large and admiring audience before him. He rose to the occasion, but I regret that my memory avails me not, and most or all of what happened is obliterated and gone out of my mind altogether. There was a young European lady of high intelligence and attractive appearance and demeanour who put various questions on topics of Vedanta: What is realization of the atman? What is maya What is the relation of the one existence to the universe? and so on. The Swami's resources of knowledge and argument were all brought out in full to the delight and enlightenment of the lady and the entire audience. She expressed her intense gratification and gratitude to the Swami. and told him that she would be leaving for London in a few days to resume her social work among the dwellers in its slums and how great a privilege it would be to her if she could ever meet him again, but doubted much whether it would be vouchsafed to her. The Swami replied that she might rest assured as to that, as he intended to go back to London after taking some rest and starting the Shri Ramakrishna Mission here. The Swami rose from his seat and advanced a few steps to see that way was made for her to leave the meeting, and remained standing till she bowed and retired. In the afternoon, she came back, I was told, with her father who was engaged in Christian missionary work in Madras, and sought and obtained for him an interview which lasted nearly an hour. When I saw the Swami after his visitors had departed, I asked him how he found the strength and stamina needed for this incessant activity, and he gave me the following reply full of significance to those who can appreciate it: "Spiritual work never tires in India." I have already referred above to the young Madhva student who put a question, the same as stood first in the long array with which the members of the deputation from Tiruppattur had hoped to confound and baffle the Swami. The whilom young questioner of the Swami has now, I believe, developed into an ardent and public-spirited citizen of Madras and is active among its city-fathers who form the Corporation Assembly. I hope he will not misunderstand me if ever these pages or lines happen to attract his notice. The Swami's answer was given in the very words already quoted by me, of course so far as I remember them at this distance of time. The terms of the reply confounded him somewhat, as they did almost every one to whom I had seen them addressed or have myself addressed them sometimes since after these meetings and interviews of mine with the Swami. The point raised is one Fundamental to the Vedanta and is perhaps met somewhat differently therein; but the Swami's manner of meeting it is quite his own, though implied in the language of the great bhashyakara (commentator), Shri Shankaracharya. As I have earlier given the exact terms of the Swami's reply, I shall not repeat. But the young man as he then was, who put the question felt somewhat stunned and confused for the nonce, and replied, "What, Sir?" The audience murmured somewhat when he used the term, "Sir", in addressing the Swami. But the incident closed at that point, so far as I can recollect it now. Another interesting event then occurred. A Vaishnava Pandit spoke to the Swami in Sanskrit and raised some knotty point in the Vedanta for discussion. As at that time, I had not studied Sanskrit, I was not in a position to know what it exactly was, and I can now say nothing of it. The Swami patiently heard the Pandit, but then began addressing the audience in English. He said he did not care to waste his time in mere fruitless wranglings on doctrinal details which had no practical value in life. The Pandit then asked the Swami to tell him in precise language whether he was an Advaitin or a Dvaitin. The Swami replied again, in English and in a tone and voice still ringing in my ears."Tell the Pandit that, so long as I have this body, I am a Dvaitin, but not afterwards. This incarnation of mine is to help to put an end to these useless and mischievous squabbles and puzzles which only serve to distract the mind and make men weary of life and even turn them into sceptics and atheists." The Pandit then said in Tamil. "The Swami's statement is really an avowal that he is an Advaitin." The Swami rejoined, "Let it be so". The matter then dropped.
Yet another incident at this meeting, and it has a personal interest for me. I have mentioned the name of the late Mr. R.V. Srinivasa Iyer, secretary to the Board of Revenue, whom I accompanied to the Egmore railway station on the day the Swami arrived. Once we were conversing about the Swami and his career and ministry among men in the West and here in India after his return from America. Mr. Srinivasa Iyer said that, so long as no one remembered what occured in previous births, no relation of cause and effect could be discovered between what then occurred and one's present experiences of life. What then was the profit to be gained by the teachings of the Vedanta regarding liberation and the means to it? So long as there is no proof of karma (result of past works) and of reincarnation as its fruit, one can rest content with learning or endeavouring how to get on here, and there the matter ends. The Vedanta has no practical value, and has only a speculative interest for students of philosophy and metaphysics. He wanted me to put a question or two to the Swami and obtain his reply. The questions were as follows, and I give also the Swami's replies.
Q. 1. So long as we have no memory of previous births, how can the doctrines of karma, and reincarnation command assent or have a practical bearing and significance in life? How can they be effective as an impulse to purification in thought and act and thereby lead to the attempt to realize the atman and gain liberation from samsara (worldly existence)?
A. Even in this life we have no continuous memory of events, and still we act as if they are related as cause and effect and influence our life and fortunes. Why not we act similarly in regard to the relation between the events of the past and present lives, and follow the injunctions of the Veda and of our guru in regard to the means of liberation from samsara and its troubles past and present?
Q. 2. In this life, we have the continuing consciousness of our personal identity as we pass through the various stages and events of our life. We have no such consciousness of personal identity, persisting in relation to our past and present births.
A. We can, by going through certain well-recognized processes, gain such a consciousness of the persistence of our personality in different births. Why don't you try?
This was in substance what I had myself told Mr. Srinivasa Iyer from my study of the Swami's lectures and writings in the West and of translations of Indian works in English. So, I was quite satisfied. Some of the people whom I met after the meeting was over expressed the opinion that the Swami had not attempted to meet the question raised in a serious manner and he only fenced about and parried what was a home-thrust. I replied that I got exactly the answers I had expected. The Vedanta was a practical religion, and no mere dialectics. When I met Mr. Srinivasa Iyer later, and told him all, he told me that he was sure that he had raised the one question which needed an answer, and that no real reply had been given. It was no answer to say that our course of life must be changed so long as no attempt was made to carry conviction by argument and instruction. The practical Vedantin knows better, and there we let the matter rest.
I again met the Swami in the central hall upstairs, at about . 1 p.m. Visitors were coming in as usual. But nothing of interest occurred. At last, there turned up late Mr. K.P. Shankara Menon, the then High Court Vakil, Madras, and who later became a Judge of the Travancore High Court. He seemed to have known the Swami before. He and the Swami were seated together on a sofa. I look a seat in front and kept watching what was going on. The Swami said something about the absurd lengths to which the Malabar people carried their ideas of pollution and purification and especially their cries and groans to wain or scare away untouchables while passing on the roads and lanes. Suddenly, the Swami turned to the question of castes and marriages in Malabar, and said that the Nairs had every right to claim the status of Brahmins as for several centuries or even yugas, the Nambudiri Brahmins had lived in sambandham (relation) with their women. Manu-Smriti insisted on seven successive generations marrying Brahmins in order that non-Brahmins may secure Brahminical status by birth. The spirit of Manu's ruling was fulfilled among the Nairs, for, even though there might be interruptions in the middle, there was a certainty that, on the whole, there must be at least seven times seven sambandhams, if the whole period of Malabar history and Malabar society were taken in consideration. Mr. Shankara Menon seemed to be much interested in the Swami's proposal or suggestion, and even seemed to think the attempt feasible and that an effort might be made to see if it could be materialized. Just at this moment, Mr. (now Sir) C. Shankaran Nair — even then famous as a Madras lawyer and political leader — entered the hall, approached the Swami, and received a hearty welcome. He was led to a seat on the sofa, Mr. Shankara Menon having, like myself, taken a chair. Mr. Shankaran Nair told the Swami that he had called at his residence in London when he was last there, but left on learning that he was not at home. The Swami was about to say something when Mr. Shankara Menon, looking at Mr. Shankaran Nair, broke forth suddenly as follows: "The Swami thinks that we, Nairs, must all claim to be Brahmins, and gives a reason based on the Manu-Smriti where the status of a Brahmin is said to have been earned by a Shudra who had been born to seven generations of Brahmin fathers in succession." Mr. Shankaran Nair understood the situation in the twinkling of an eye. but was clearly in no mood for entering into a discussion on so delicate a matter, especially when, as it seemed to me, he found a stranger and Brahmin like myself was present and the whole discussion might generate mixed feelings and would certainly be long remembered and even recorded at some future time, even as it is being done so far as it had proceeded before Mr. Shankaran Nair appeared on the scene. Mr. Shankaran Nair dropped the topic altogether, being too sober and shrewd a man not to know that that was neither the place nor the occasion for setting a programme, or even raising a discussion regarding a social revolution of far-reaching import and involving momentous and delicate issues, and cutting at the root of existing relations, social and marital, between men and women belonging to various strata of Malabar Hindu society. Mr. Shankaran Nair stayed but a few minutes longer, and then left accompanied by Mr. Shankara Menon....
The next day. Saturday the 13th of February, the Swami delivered his lecture on "Vedanta in Indian life" at the Pacheyappa's Hall. The Hall was packed to its utmost capacity. I was on the platform, and just by my side sat Mr. G. Subrahmanya Iyer, the later editor of The Hindu. At one point of his address the Swami, addressing the students assembled before him, said something to the following effect: Don't be constantly crying out, Gita, Gita, Gita. The Gita teachings cannot be truly understood or put into practice by those who. like you, are weak in frame and whose vigour is decaying prematurely by the cramming of text-books for examinations. Go and play football, and develop your biceps muscles, and get strong, and you will then be fit to understand the Gita teachings. Here was the opportunity for Mr. G. Subrahmanya Iyer, and he exclaimed in Tamil to those who were near him, even while the Swami was on his legs, "I have said the same thing often, but none would give ear. The Swami says it now, and you all cheer."
Mr. G. Subrahmanya Iyer had once been a very orthodox Hindu, and rigidly addicted to Vedic rituals and sadacharas (observances). He changed to the opposite extreme of a social revolutionary after the virgin-widowhood of his young daughter had given him a rude and painful shock and made him realize the penalties and pains inevitably associated with Hindu orthodoxy which men had long borne and still do bear with invincible strength and serenity of heart, simply because they believe that the shruti and smriti impose them on the faithful in order to qualify them for and raise them ultimately to the spiritual blessing and innermost joy of supreme liberation from samsara. Mr. Subrahmanya Iyer was in a mood of ecstasy as the Swami went on with his deliverances in this occasion on the topics of "strength" and "fearlessness", and said that without them no spiritual perfection was possible. His words came on the audience with telling effect. "Believe", he said, "that you are not the body or mind, but the soul. the atman; and that is the first step to the gaining of strength and to uphold and realize the teaching of the Upanishads," He also dwelt at length on the organismal basis and value of caste. Caste was a natural order, the only natural way of solving the problem of life.... .Mr. G. Subrahmanya Iyer's enthusiasm and ecstasies had somewhat cooled when the Swami spoke on caste and said, too, that caste was not only found in India, but, everywhere, and in every country he had seen.
On Sunday, 14th of February, the Swami delivered his fourth and last lecture on the "Future of India". I never saw a more crowded scene or a more enthusiastic audience. The Swami's oratory was at its best. He seemed like a lion, traversing the platform to and fro. The roar of his voice reverberated everywhere, and with telling effect. One remarkable utterance I can never forget, and it showed the Swami's powers of foresight and omniscience. Peace, religion, language, government — all together make a nation; but some one of these is the basis and the rest we build on that one. Religion is the keynote of Indian life and Indian nationality can be built on that basis....
The next day, Monday the 15th of February, the Swami left for Calcutta by steamer. Several of his admirers and followers and personal friends accompanied him in order to lake leave when the steamer sailed. Mr. Tilak had invited the Swami to Poona, and he first thought of going there. But he wanted rest, and was ever pining for the Himalayan atmosphere. At the beach, several merchants of the caste of Arya-Vaishyas (known as Komattis) met him and presented a formal address of thanksgiving to him for his services to the holy motherland. The Hon. Mr. Subba Rao of Rajahmundry, presented the address to the Swami on their behalf. The Swami simply bowed his acknowledgement, and made kind inquiries of them. Several boarded the steamer, and remained with the Swami to the last. I was one of them. and the pain of having to part from this heaven-sent mahapurusha (great soul) was felt by each and all of us, who kept crowding about him. I begged of the Swami the favour of a moment's interview apart, and he came. We walked a few steps, and then I asked and obtained permission to put two questions. First, "Swamiji, tell me, if indeed, you have done lasting good by your mission to so materialistic a people as the Americans and others in the West." He replied. "Not much, I hope that here and there I have sown a seed which in time might grow and benefit some at least." The second query was, "When shall we see you again, and on your mission work in South India?" He replied, "Have no doubt about that, I shall take some rest in the Himalayan region, and then burst on the country everywhere like an avalanche." This was not to be, and I never saw the Swami again. I had looked for the last time on his fathomless and compelling eyes, and at the prophetic fire and glow in the face of him whom I consider the greatest man and teacher of the age, a true mahapurusha and messenger from the heaven to the people of India and to all mankind. Glory to Swami Vivekananda for ever and ever!
(Vedanta Kesari, January-February 1923)
Courtesy: Partha Sinha
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.