- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.
Nagendra Nath Gupta
NEARLY a quarter of a century has elapsed since Swami Vivekananda went to his rest; and every year that passes is bringing fresh recognition of his greatness and widening the circle of appreciation. But the generation that knew him in life and heard his voice is also passing with the years. Such of his contemporaries as are left owe it to his memory and to their countrymen to place on record their impressions of one who, by Universal assent, was one of the greatest Indians as well as one of the world's great men. There is no need to repeat the story of his life, for that has been well and fully done by his disciples in the four volumes compiled by them. But one who knew him, as I did, may endeavour to strike a personal and reminiscent note, and to recall, so far as memory may serve, some small details of large significance, and the traits of character and the bearing that distinguished him from the people around him. I knew him when he was an unknown and ordinary lad, for I was at college with him; and I knew him when he returned from America in the full blaze of fame and glory. He stayed with me for several days and told me without reserve everything that had happened in the years that we had lost sight of each other. Finally, I met him at the monastery at Belur near Calcutta shortly before his death. In whatever relates to him I shall speak of what I heard from himself and not from others.
The conditions in India were very peculiar when Swami Vivekananda first attracted public attention. The imposition of a foreign domination and the grafting of a foreign culture had produced a pernicious effect on Indian life and Indian thought. The ancient ideals were either forgotten or obscured by the meretricious glamour of Western materialism. There was an air of unreality about most of the progressive movements in India. In every field of activity a sort of smug unctuousness had replaced the single-minded earnestness and devotion of the ancient limes. The old moorings of steadfast purpose had been slipped and everything was adrift and at the mercy of every wind and wave from outside India. The ancient Aryan had reaped that there could be no achievement without sacrifice and self-surrender. The modern Indian in his new environment fancied that surrender was not necessary for attainment. Following the example of the West, the Indian reformer did his work while living in comfort and ease. The method followed was that of the dilettante, touching the surface of great problems, but seldom attempting to probe deeper. Men with an eloquent tongue and the gift of persuasive speech stirred the emotions and feelings of their hearers, but the effect was more or less fleeting, because of the lack of Strength in the appeals. The conditions in India might be described as a flux, if there were any assurance of a return of the tide. Perhaps there was no conscious self-deception, but people were deceived and mistook the sham for the reality. The placid self-complacence noticeable everywhere was an unmistakable sign of growing weakness and inability to resist the inroads of habits of thought and ideals of life destructive of everything that is enduring, everything that is real in the long established order of things in India.
In the midst of these depressing surroundings was the quiet and scarcely noticed emergence of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa after a period of preparation and meditation unknown to the people about him. He was practically an unlettered man like some of the great prophets of old, and by occupation he was the priest of a temple, a vocation for which he became unfit later on. Ignorant people thought his mind was giving way, but in reality it was a struggle of the spirit seeking true knowledge and finding its expression. And when this was attained, he no longer avoided men, and drew around him a small band of earnest young men who sought for guidance from him and endeavoured to follow his teachings. Many of his sayings have been collected and published, but these give only a faint indication of his individuality. It may be said with absolute truth that he was one of the elect who appear at long intervals in the world for some great purpose. It has been my privilege to hear him speak; and I felt then, as I feel now, that it is only rarely that men have the great good fortune of listening to such a man. The Paramahamsa's language was Bengali of a homely kind; he was not supple of speech as he spoke with a slight though delightful stammer, but his words held men enthralled by the wealth of spiritual experience, the inexhaustible store of simile and metaphor, the unequalled powers of observation, the bright and subtle humour, the wonderful catholicity of sympathy and the ceaseless flow of wisdom.
Among the young lads and men attracted by the magnetic personality of the Paramahamsa was Narendra Nath Datta, afterwards known as Swami Vivekananda. There was nothing to distinguish him from the other young men who used to visit Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. He was an average student with no promise of brilliance, because he was not destined to win any prize of the learned or unlearned professions, but the Master early picked him out from the rest and predicted a great future for him. "He is a thousand-petalled lotus," said the Paramahamsa, meaning that the lad was one of those who come fully equipped into the world for a great purpose and to be a leader of men. The reference was to the spiritual sphere, since the Paramahamsa took no account of worldly success. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa could not only read faces with unerring accuracy, but he had also extraordinary psychic power, which was demonstrated in the case of Vivekananda himself. That young man was not very regular in his visits to the Paramahamsa. On one occasion he was absent for several weeks. The Paramahamsa made repeated inquiries about him and ultimately charged one of Vivekananda's friends to bring him. It may be mentioned that the Paramahamsa lived in the temple of Dakshineswar, some miles to the north of Calcutta. The Paramahamsa added that when Narendra came he wished to see him alone. Accordingly, there was no one else in the room when Narendra came to see the Paramahamsa. As soon as the boy entered the room the Paramahamsa left his seat and saying, "Why have you been staying away when I wanted to see you?", approached the lad and tapped him lightly on the chest with a finger. On the instant — these are Vivekananda's own words — the lad saw a flash of dazzling light and felt himself swept off his feet, and he cried out in alarm, "What are you doing to me? I have parents." The Paramahamsa patted him on the back and soothed him, saying "There, there, that will do."
Shortly after this incident Vivekananda became an accepted disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The number of these disciples was very small and the Paramahamsa was very careful in choosing them. Every one of these disciples was subjected to a constant and unrelaxing discipline more than Spartan in its severity. There was no spoon-feeding and coddling. The Paramahamsa's prediction about Vivekananda was not communicated to any publicity bureau, and he and his fellow-disciples were always under the vigilant eyes of the Master, Vratas (vows) of great hardship were imposed upon the disciples, and the discipline was maintained unbroken even after the passing of the Paramahamsa. Vivekananda went to Varanasi, and it was there that he acquired the correct enunciation and the sonorous chanting of the hymns and the mantras which he recited very impressively at times in a deep musical voice. I have heard him singing in a fine tenor voice at the request of friends, and as an orator there were both power and music in his voice.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa frequently passed into a trance or samadhi, The exciting cause was invariably some spiritual experience or some new spiritual perception. On one occasion — it was in 1881 — I formed one of a party that had gone with Keshab Chandra Sen by river to see the Paramahamsa. He was brought on board our steamer, which belonged to Maharaja Nripendra Narayan Bhup of Cooch Behar, Keshab's son-in-law. The Paramahamsa, as is well known, was a worshipper of the goddess Kali; but he was also an adept in the contemplation of Brahman the formless, nirakara, and had some previous conversation with Keshab on this subject. He was sitting close to Keshab facing him, and the conversation was practically a monologue, for either Keshab or some one else would put a brief question and, in answer, the Paramahamsa with his marvellous gift of speech and illustration would hold his hearers entranced. All of us there hung breathless upon his words. And gradually the conversation came round to nirakara (formless) Brahman, when the Paramahamsa, after repeating the word nirakara two or three times to himself, passed into a state of samadhi. Except the rigidity of the body there was no quivering of the muscles or nerves, no abrupt or convulsive movement of any kind. The fingers of the two hands as they lay in his lap were slightly curled. But a most wonderful change had come over the face. The lips were slightly parted as if in a smile, with the gleam of the white teeth in between. The eyes were half closed with the balls and pupils partly visible, and over the whole countenance was an ineffable expression of the holiest and most ecstatic beatitude. We watched him in respectful silence for some minutes after which Trailokya Nath Sanyal, known as the singing apostle in Keshab Chandra Sen's sect, sang a hymn to the accompaniment of music, and the Paramahamsa slowly opened his eyes, looked inquiringly around him for a few seconds and then resumed the conversation. No reference was made either by him or any one else to his trance.
On another occasion the Paramahamsa wanted to see the Zoological Gardens of Calcutta. His eagerness was like a child's and would not brook any delay. There were times when his ways were strongly reminiscent of the saying in the Shrimad-Bhagavata that the mukta, the emancipated and the wise, is to be known by his childlike playfulness. A cab was sent for and the Paramahamsa, accompanied by some disciples, was driven the long distance from Dakshineswar to Alipur. When he entered the Gardens, the people with him began showing him the various animals and aquatic collections, but he would not even look at them. "Take me to see the lion," he insisted. Standing in front of the lion's cage he mused. "This is the Mother's mount" — the goddess Kali in the form of Durga or Parvati is represented as riding a lion — and straightway passed into samadhi. He would have fallen but for the supporting arms around him. On regaining consciousness, he was invited to stroll round the Gardens and see the rest of the collection. "I have seen the king of the animals. What else is there to see?" replied the Paramahamsa. And he went back to the waiting carriage and drove home.
There seems to be an obvious incongruity between the predisposing causes of samadhi on these two occasions. On the first, it was the contemplation of the nirakara Brahman, a high and abstruse spiritual concept; on the second, it was merely the sight of a caged lion. But in both instances the process of the concentration of the mind and the spirit is the same. In one, it is the intense realization of the supreme Brahman without form; in the other, it is a realization in the spirit of a visual symbolism inseparably associated with the goddess Kali. In both cases a single spiritual thought occupies the mind to the exclusion of everything else, obliterates the sense of the objective world, and leads to samadhi. No photograph taken of the Paramahamsa in samadhi ever succeeded in reproducing the inward glow, the expression of divine ecstasy, brahmananda, stamped on the countenance.
As a young enthusiast passing through a probation of discipline Vivekananda desired that he should have the experience of continuous samadhi. The Paramahamsa explained to him that this was unlikely as he had to do important work in the cause of religion. But Vivekananda would not be dissuaded. and once while sitting in meditation, he fell into samadhi. The Paramahamsa, when apprised of it, said. "Let him enjoy it for a time. "Vivekananda realized afterwards that the Master was right, and the time came when in fulfillment of the prophecy of the Master he held aloft the torch of Truth in distant lands and proclaimed that the light of knowledge comes from the East.
Under the vow of poverty and mendicancy Vivekananda travelled widely in northern and southern India for eight years, and his experiences, as may be imagined, were varied. He spent a great deal of his time in the Madras Presidency, and he had first-hand knowledge of the evil influence of professional sadhus. He knew intimately the village life of the Telugu and Tamil-speaking peoples, and he found his earliest admirers in the Madras Presidency. He was in Behar when there was great excitement in that Province on account of the marking of mango trees with lumps of mud mixed with vermilion and seed grain. In a number of districts in Behar numerous mango topes were discovered marked in this fashion. The trustees of an empire, as the Government in this country somewhat theatrically call themselves, may have a lofty function; but they have an uneasy conscience; and the official mind was filled with forebodings of some impending grave peril. The wonderful secret police got busy at once, and it was shrewdly surmised that the marks on the mango trees bore a family resemblance to the mysterious chapatis which were circulated immediately before the outbreak of the Mutiny. The villagers, frightened out of their wits by the sudden incursion of armed and unarmed, but not the less terrible on that account, authority in their midst, denied all knowledge of the authorship of these sinister marks. Suspicion next rested upon the itinerant sadhus wandering all over the country; and they were arrested wholesale for some time, though they had to be let off for want of evidence, and the recent facilities of regulations and ordinances did not then exist. It was found out afterwards that the marking of mango trees was merely by way of an agricultural mascot for a good mango or general crops. Vivekananda had to get up early in the morning and to trudge along the Grand Trunk Road or some village path until some one offered him some food, or the heat of the sun compelled him to rest under a roadside tree. One morning as he was tramping along as usual, he heard a shout behind him calling upon him to halt. He turned round and saw a mounted police officer, bearded and in full panoply, swinging a switch and followed by some policemen. As he came up. he inquired in the well-known gentle voice affected by Indian policemen who Vivekananda was, "As you see, Khan Saheb," replied Vivekananda, "I am a sadhu." "All sadhus are badmashes (rogues)," sententiously growled the Sub-Inspector of Police. As policemen in India are known never to tell an untruth. such an obvious fact could not be disputed. "You come along with me, and I shall see that you are put in jail." boomed the police officer. "For how long?" softly asked Vivekananda. "Oh, it may be for a fortnight, or even a month." Vivekananda went nearer him and in an ingratiating and appealing voice said, "Khan Saheb, only for a month? Can you not put me away for six months, or at least three or four months?" The police officer stared, and his face fell. "Why do you wish to stay in jail longer than a month?" he asked suspiciously. Vivekananda replied in a confidential tone, "Life in the jail is much better than this. The work there is not hard compared with this wearisome tramp from morning till night. My daily food is uncertain, and I have often to starve. In the jail I shall have two square meals a day. I shall look upon you as my benefactor if you lock me up for several months." As he listened, a look of disappointment and disgust appeared on the Khan Saheb's face, and he abruptly ordered Vivekananda to go away.
The second encounter with the police took place in Calcutta itself. Vivekananda with some of his fellow-disciples was living in a suburb of Calcutta quietly pursuing his studies and rendering such small social service as came his way. One day he met a police officer who was a friend of Vivekananda's family. He was a Superintendent of Police in the Criminal Investigation Department, and had received a title and decoration for his services. He greeted Vivekananda cordially and invited him to dinner for the same evening. There were some other visitors when Vivekananda arrived. At length they left, but there were no signs of dinner. Instead, the host spoke about other matters until suddenly lowering his voice and assuming a menacing look he said, "Come, now, you had better make a clean breast of it and tell me the truth. You know you cannot fool me with your stories for I know your game. You and your gang pretend to be religious men, but I have positive information that you are conspiring against the Government." "What do you mean?" asked Vivekananda, amazed and indignant, "What conspiracies are you speaking of, and what have we to do with them?" "That is what I want to know," coolly replied the police officer. "I am convinced it is some nefarious plot, and you are the ringleader. Out with the whole truth, and then I shall arrange that you are made an approver." "If you know everything, why don't you come and arrest us and search our house?" said Vivekananda, and rising he quietly closed the door. Now, Vivekananda was an athletic young man of a powerful build, while the police officer was a puny, wizened creature. Turning round upon him Vivekananda said, "You have called me to your house on a false pretext and have made a false accusation against me and my companions. That is your profession. I, on the other hand, have been taught not to resent an insult. If I had been a criminal and a conspirator, there would be nothing to prevent me from wringing your neck before you could call out for help. As it is, I leave you in peace." And Vivekananda opened the door and went out, leaving the redoubtable police officer speechless with ill-concealed fright. Neither Vivekananda nor his companions were ever again molested by this man.
Another experience that Swami Vivekananda related to me bordered on the tragic. The particular vow he had undertaken at that time was that he should steadily walk the whole day without either looking back or begging from any man. He was to halt only, if accosted, and to accept food if it was offered to him unasked. Sometimes he had to go without any food for twenty-four and even forty-eight hours. One afternoon about sunset he was passing in front of a stable belonging to some wealthy person. One of the grooms was standing on the road. Vivekananda had had nothing to eat for two days and was looking weak and weary. The groom saluted him and looking at him asked. "Sadhu babaLit. "Father monk" — Publisher, have you eaten anything today?" "No," replied Vivekananda, "I have eaten nothing." The groom took him into the stable, offered him water to wash his hands and feet and placed his own food consisting of some chapatis and a little chutney, before him. The chutney was hot, but in the course of his wanderings Vivekananda had got accustomed to eat chillies, which were often the only condiment he had with his food. I have seen him eating a handful of pungent, green chillies with evident relish. Vivekananda ate the chapatis and the chutney, but immediately, afterwards felt a frightful burning sensation in his stomach and rolled on the ground in agony. The groom beat his head with his hands and wailed, "What have I done? I have killed a sadhu." The pain must have been due to eating the chutney on an empty stomach. Just about this time a man with a basket on his head happened to be passing and halted on hearing the cries of the groom. Vivekananda asked him what he had in his basket, and the man replied it was tamarind. "Ah, that is just what I want,"said Vivekananda, and taking some of the tamarind he mixed it with water and drank it. This had the effect of allaying the burning sensation and the pain, and after resting for a while Vivekananda resumed his journey.
In the remote regions of the Himalayas Vivekananda met with some perilous adventures, but nothing daunted him and he went through the treadmill of discipline with high courage and tireless energy. The vows imposed upon him entailed prolonged trials of endurance, an unbroken course of self-discipline, meditation, and communion. When he arrived in America, without friends, without funds, he had nothing beyond his intellectual and spiritual equipment, and the indomitable courage and will that he had acquired in the course of his purposeful wanderings in India. One of his own countrymen, who had attained some fame and was a man of considerable able eminence, attempted to discredit him by circulating unfounded calumnies against him. In spite of difficulties Vivekananda found his way to the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, and it was there that recognition came to him. He was probably the youngest man in that memorable and historical as well as unique gathering. Beyond the fact that he was a Hindu he carried no other credentials. The name of his guru was unknown in Europe and America. He was an obscure young man unknown to fame, with no reputation either in his own country or out of it for scholarship, holy living, or leadership. It is impossible to conceive an assembly more critical or less emotional than that gathering of learned and pious men from all parts of the world representing all the churches and creeds of the world. Men of great erudition steeped in sacred lore, reverend and high dignitaries of many churches, men who had left the seclusion of the cloister and the peace of the monastery had met in solemn conclave in a great city in the Far West. It was a Parliament not filled from the hustings and polling booths, but from the temples and pagodas, the synagogues and churches and mosques of the world. They were mostly men well-advanced in life, accustomed by years of discipline to self-control, engaged in contemplation and meditation, and not likely to be lightly swayed by extraneous influences. Some of them were men of an international reputation, all of them were men of distinction. Obviously the least among them was this youthful stranger from the East, of whom no one had ever heard and who was probably there more by sufferance than by the right of any achievement to his credit. How he carried that grave assembly of religious men by storm, how pen-pictures of the young Hindu monk in the orange-coloured robe and turban filled the newspapers of America, and how the men and women of America crowded to see and hear him are now part of history. Slightly varying Caesar's laconic and exultant message it may be truthfully said of Swami Vivekananda, he went, he was seen and heard, and he conquered. By a single bound as it were he reached from the depth of obscurity to the pinnacle of fame. Is it not remarkable, is it not significant, that of all the distinguished and famous men present at the Parliament of Religions only one name is remembered today and that is the name of Vivekananda? There was, in sober fact, no other man like him in that assembly, composed though it was of distinguished representatives of all religions. Young in years, the Hindu monk had been disciplined with a thoroughness and severity beyond the experience of the other men who had foregathered at the Parliament of Religions. He had had the inestimable advantage of having sat at the feet of a Teacher the like of whom had not been seen in the world for many centuries. He had known poverty and hunger, and had moved among and sympathized with the poorest people in India, one of the poorest countries in the world. He had drunk deep at the perennial fountain of the wisdom of the ancient Aryan Rishis, and he was endowed with a courage which faced the world undismayed. When his voice rang out as a clarion in the Parliament of Religions, slow pulses quickened and thoughtful eyes brightened, for through him spoke voices that had long been silent but never stilled, and which awoke again to resonant life. Who in that assembly of the wise held higher credentials than this youthful monk from India with his commanding figure, strong, handsome face, large, flashing eyes, and the full voice with its deep cadences? In him was manifested the rejuvenescence of the wisdom and strength of ancient India, and the wide tolerance and sympathy characteristic of the ancient Aryans, The force and fire in him flashed out at every turn, and dominated and filled with amazement the people around him.
Other men from India had preceded him in the mission from the East to the West — men of culture, men of eloquence and religious convictions — but no other man created the profound impression that he did. These others assumed a tone which was either apologetic, or deferential to the superiority of the West to the East. Some said they had come to learn and did not presume to teach, and all were more or less overawed by the dazzling magnificence of Western civilization. But Swami Vivekananda never had any doubts or misgivings, and he knew he came from a land which had produced most of the great and wise teachers of men. The glitter of the West held no lure for him, and his voice never lost the ring of authority. Besides the people anxious to profit by his teachings, there was a good deal of promiscuous admiration. There was the usual sheaf of romantic letters from gushing and impressionable young women, and well-meant offers of service from many quarters. A dentist offered to clean his teeth free of charge whenever necessary. A manicure presented him with a set of his dainty instruments for which an Indian monk has no use. A more substantial offer was about a lecturing tour with a well-filled purse of shining dollars at the end of the tour. The money would have been useful for the monasteries afterwards established by Swami Vivekananda, but his vows precluded him from either earning or laying by any money. Besides the open lectures that he delivered in America and England, he held what may be called informal classes attended by a small number of select people, usually earnest inquirers or people anxious to learn what the Swami had to teach. The actual number of his disciples in those countries was not large, but he set many people thinking while his marvellous personality made itself felt wherever he went.
Swami Vivekananda had left India an obscure and unknown young man. On his return he was preceded by the fame he had won in America and England, and was acclaimed everywhere as an apostle and leader of the ancient Aryan faith. At Madras he was given an enthusiastic reception. Some of the organizers of his public reception at Calcutta thoughtfully sent him a bill of costs. Swami Vivekananda mentioned this incident to me with indignation. "What have I to do with any reception?" he told me. "Those people fancied I have brought a great deal of money from America to be spent on demonstrations in my honour. Do they take me for a showman or a charlatan?" He felt humiliated as well as indignant. On his return to India earnest young men came to him to join the Ramakrishna Mission founded by him. They look the vows of celibacy and poverty, and they have established monasteries in various parts of India. There are some in America also so that Swami Vivekananda's work in that part of the world is still carried on, and his memory is held in great reverence. Swami Vivekananda told me that the Paramahamsa insisted on celibacy and moral purity as the essence of self-discipline, and this is equally noticeable among Swami Vivekananda's disciples and those who have joined the Brotherhood after his passing. Every member of the Ramakrishna Mission is pure of heart and pure in life, cultured and scholarly, and is engaged in serving his fellow-men to the best of his ability, and the community is the gainer by their example and their selfless and silent service.
The last time I had met Swami Vivekananda before he left for the United States was in 1886. I happened to be in Calcutta on a brief visit and one afternoon I received intimation that Paramahamsa Ramakrishna had passed into the final and eternal samadhi. I drove immediately to the (Cossipore) garden-house in a northern suburb of Calcutta where the Paramahamsa had passed his last days on earth. He was lying on a clean white bed in front of the portico of the house, while the disciples, Vivekananda among them with his eyes veiled with unshed tears, and some other persons were seated on the ground surrounding the bedstead. The Paramahamsa was lying on his right side with the infinite peace and calm of death on his features. There was peace all around, in the silent trees and the waning afternoon, in the azure of the sky above with a few clouds passing overhead in silence. And as we sat in reverent silence, hushed in the presence of death, a few large drops of rain fell. This was the pushpa-vrishti, or rain of flowers of which the ancient Aryans wrote, the liquid flowers showered down by the gods as an offering of homage to the passing of some chosen mortal to rank thenceforth among the immortals. It was a high privilege to have seen Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in life and also to have looked upon the serenity of his face in death.
It was not till eleven years later in 1897 that I met Vivekananda again. He was then famous alike in the East and the West. He had travelled largely, seen many countries and many peoples. I was at Lahore and I heard he was staying at the hill station of Dharamsala. Later on he went on to Jammu in Kashmir territory and next came down to Lahore. There was to be a demonstration and a house had been engaged for him. At the railway station when the train came in, I noticed an English military officer alighting from a first class compartment and holding the door respectfully open for some one else, and the next second out stepped Swami Vivekananda on the platform. The officer was about to move away after bowing to the Swami, but Vivekananda cordially shook hands with him and spoke one or two parting words. On inquiry Vivekananda told me that he did not know the officer personally. After entering the compartment he had informed Swami Vivekananda that he had heard some of the Swami's discourses in England and that he was a colonel in the Indian Army. Vivekananda had traveUed first class because the people at Jammu had bought him a first class ticket. The same night Vivekananda came away to my house with two of his disciples. That night and the following nights and during the day whenever I was free we talked for long hours, and what struck me most was the intensity of Vivekananda's feelings and his passionate devotion to the cause of his country. There was a perfect blending of his spiritual fervour with his intellectual keenness. He had grappled with many problems and had found a solution for most of them and he had in an unusual degree the prophetic vision, "The middle classes in India," he said, "are a spent force. They have not got the stamina for a resolute and sustained endeavour. The future of India rests with the masses." One afternoon he slowly came up to me with a thoughtful expression on his face, and said, "If it would help the country in any way, I am quite prepared to go to prison." I looked at him and wondered. Instead of making the remotest reference to the laurels still green upon his brow, he was wistfully thinking of life in prison as a consummation to be wished, a service whereby his country might win some small profit. He was not bidding for the martyr's crown, for any sort of pose was utterly foreign to his nature, but his thoughts were undoubtedly lending towards finding redemption for his country through suffering. No one had then heard of Non-cooperation or Civil Disobedience, and yet Vivekananda, who had nothing to do with politics, was standing in the shadow of events still long in coming. His visit to Japan had filled him with enthusiastic admiration for the patriotism of the Japanese nation. "Their country is their religion." he would declare, his face aglow with enthusiasm. "The national cry is Dai Nippon, Banzai!. Live long, great Japan! The country before and above everything else. No sacrifice is too great for maintaining the honour and integrity of the country."
One evening Vivekananda and myself were invited to dinner by a Punjabi gentleman (the late Bakshi Jaishi Ram), who had met Vivekananda at Dharamsala, a hill station in the Punjab, Vivekananda was offered a new and handsome hookah to smoke. Before doing so, he told his host. "If you have any prejudices of caste, you should not offer me your hookah, because if a sweeper were to offer me his hookah tomorrow, I would smoke it with pleasure, for I am outside the pale of caste." His host courteously replied that he would feel honoured if Swamiji would smoke his hookah. The problem of untouchability had been solved for Swami Vivekananda during his wanderings in India, He had eaten the food of the poorest and humblest people whom no casteman would condescend to touch, and he had accepted their hospitality with thankfulness. And yet Swami Vivekananda was by no means a meek man. In the course of his lecture on the Vedanta at Lahore, one of the loftiest of his utterances, he declared with head uplifted and nostrils dilated. "I am one of the proudest men living." It was not pride of the usual worthless variety but the noble pride of the consciousness of a great heritage, a revulsion of feeling against the false humility that had brought his country and his people so low.
I met Goodwin, the young Englishman who at one time was on the high road to become a wastrel, but fortunately came under Vivekananda's influence and became one of his staunchest and most devoted followers. Goodwin was a fast and accurate stenographer and most of Vivekananda's lectures were reported by him. He was simple as a child and wonderfully responsive to the slightest show of kindness. Later on I met some of the lady disciples of Swami Vivekananda, Mrs. Ole Bull. Miss MacLeod, and Miss Margaret Noble, the gifted young Irishwoman to whom Vivekananda had given the beautifully appropriate name of Nivedita, the Offered One, one dedicated and consecrated to the service of India. I first met Sister Nivedita at Srinagar in Kashmir and next at Lahore where I saw a great deal of her. and again in Calcutta where she came to my house more than once. I took her through the slums of Lahore and showed her the Ramlila, which greatly interested her. She made eager inquiries about everything relating to India. She was in splendid health when she first came out to India, but the austerities which she practised affected her health, and she rapidly spent herself and was spent in the service of India. Of her fine intellect and gift of literary expression she has left abiding evidence in her exquisite books.
In conversation Vivekananda was brilliant, illuminating, arresting, while the range of his knowledge was exceptionally wide. His country occupied a great deal of his thoughts and his conversation. His deep spiritual experiences were the bedrock of his faith and his luminous expositions are to be found in his lectures, but his patriotism was as deep as his religion. Except those who saw it, few can realize the ascendancy and influence of Swami Vivekananda over his American and English disciples. Even a simple Mohammedan cook who had served Sister Nivedita and the other lady disciples at Almora was struck by it. He told me at Lahore. "The respect and the devotion which these Memsahebs (foreign ladies) show the Swamiji are far greater than any murid (disciple) shows to his murshid (religious preceptor) among us." At the sight of this Indian monk wearing a single robe and a pair of rough Indian shoes his disciples from the West, among whom were the Consul General for the United States living in Calcutta, and his wife, would rise with every mark of respect; and when he spoke, he was listened to with the closest and most respectful attention. His slightest wish was a command and was carried out forthwith. And Vivekananda was always his simple and great self, unassuming, straightforward, earnest, and grave. Once at Almora he was visited by a distinguished and famous English-woman whom he had criticized for her appearance in the role of a teacher of the Hindu religion. She wanted to know where-in she had given cause for offence. "You English people." replied Swami Vivekananda, "have taken our land. You have taken away our liberty and reduced us to a state of servility in our own homes. You are draining the country of its material resources. Not content with all this, you want to take our religion, which is all that we have left, in your keeping and to set up as teachers of our religion." His visitor earnestly explained that she was only a learner and did not presume to be a teacher. Vivekananda was mollified and afterwards presided at a lecture delivered by this lady.
The next year I met Swami Vivekananda in Kashmir, our house-boats being anchored near each other on the Jhelum. On his way back to Calcutta he was my guest for a few days at Lahore. At this lime he had a prescience of early death. "I have three years more to live." he told me with perfect unconcern, "and the only thought that disturbs me is whether I shall be able to give effect to all my ideas within this period." He died almost exactly three years later. The last time I saw him was at the monastery at Belur shortly before his death. It was the anniversary of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and I saw Swami Vivekananda, when the samkirtana (singing of hymns with music) was at its height, rolling in the dust and heaping dust on his head in a paroxysm of frenzied grief ....
His thoughts ranged over every phase of the future of India, and he gave all that was in him to his country and to the world. The world will rank him among the prophets and princes of peace, and his message has been heard in reverence in three continents. For his countrymen he has left priceless heritage of virility, abounding vitality, and invincible strength of will. Swami Vivekananda stands on the threshold of the dawn of a new day for India, a heroic and dauntless figure, the herald and harbinger of the glorious hour when India shall, once again, sweep forward to the van of the nations.
(Prabuddha Bharata, March & April 1927)
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.