MY first impression of the Swami was not happy one. He had come to the World's Fair as India's representative at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, and I, a young preacher fresh from the University, did not greatly admire the magnificent ease with which he waved aside Christian history and announced a new Star in the East. I think it was his lordly manner that disturbed, somewhat, my American sense of democracy. He did not argue that he was a superior person, he admitted it. Afterwards, when I learnt that several cities, notably Boston, had formed Vivekananda Clubs, I was prepared to credit the report that, not his ideals, but his eyes, were leading captive silly American women, which was manifestly unfair. Then, for several years, I heard nothing further of him.
I reached India in December 1900, embarking at Naples on the "Rubattino" of the old Italian Line. It chanced that my seat in the saloon was at the end of one of the centre tables — which has considerable to do with my story. Mr. Drake Brockman, I.C.S., of the Central Provinces, occupied the first seat on the right, and another English Civilian whose name has escaped my memory sat opposite him. At Suez there was a shift at table, some of the passengers having left the vessel, and our first meal in the Red Sea saw a strange gentleman, in Indian habit, seated next to Mr. Drake Brockman. He was silent at that first meal, taking only a ship's biscuit and soda water, and leaving before the meal was finished. There was some question up and down the board as to the identity of the distinguished stranger, for, as was quite evident, he was no mean personage; whereupon a rough and ready traveller, disdaining delicacy, called to the chief steward to bring him the wine orders. Ostensibly looking for his own wine card, he drew forth a modest soda water slip which was handed round the table. "Vivekananda", in pencil, was what passed across my plate. In a moment I remembered the furore he had created at the Parliament of Religions, and looked forward with some interest to the coming days at sea.
My earlier impression of the Swami was still strong upon me, so I did not immediately seek his acquaintance; a bow at table answered every requirement. But I chanced to overhear one of the passengers speak his name, and add, "We'll draw him!" I suppose my instinct for fair play pulled me toward Vivekananda as his unconscious ally in the intellectual recounters of the next ten days. Perhaps he discerned my unspoken friendliness, for almost immediately, he sought me out.
"You are an American?"
"Why do you teach religion in my country?" he demanded.
"Why do you teach religion in my country?" I countered.
The least quiver of an eyelash was enough to throw down our guards. We both burst out laughing, and were friends.
For a day or two, at table, one or other of the passengers proceeded to "draw" the Swami — only he refused to be drawn! His answers were ready and usually sufficient; but, more than that, they were brilliant. They sparkled with epigrams and apt quotations. Presently the lesser wits learnt the valour of putting up their swords, all excepting Mr. Drake Brockman; his keen and analytic mind constantly cut across Vivekananda's epigrams and held him close to the logic of admitted facts. It worried the Swami a lot! The rest of the company soon lost interest and permitted our little group at the end of the table to hold uninterrupted forum, breakfast. tiffin, and dinner.
One night I participated in a discovery. Vivekananda had been particularly brilliant. His conversation was like Ganga at high flood. There was really no interrupting him. A question might deflect him for a moment, but presently he was moving again on the main current of his speech. At the close of an unusually eloquent period he bowed slightly to each of us then arose and quietly left the saloon. The civilian sitting opposite Mr. Drake Brockman leaned across the table.
"Have you noticed that when the Indian gentleman is interrupted, he begins again where he left off?"
"Yes, we both had noticed it."
"He is repeating one of his lectures for our private benefit"
And so it was. But even so, it was an amazingly interesting performance, many leagues beyond the ordinary chitchat on board ship.
Vivekananda was a patriot much more than philosopher, I think his passion for the Vedantic propaganda was because this seemed to him the surest way of fostering Indian nationhood. I believe in this he was mistaken;* nevertheless, my recognition of his patriotism washed away completely my first unhappy impression of him and enabled me to know him as I think he would be glad to be remembered by his country-men — not as a religionist propagating an ancient creed, but as a lover of his own land seeking to promote her good in the society of modem nations.
It was this passion for his country, short-circuited by a misapprehension of the purpose of Christian missions, that brought on an explosion. One evening, over the nuts and coffee, the conversation had turned on India's preparedness for self-government, (By the way, the conversation took place more than twenty-two years ago, when as yet the Montagu-Chelmsford Reform Bill was nebulous and far away; similar conversations may logically continue for one hundred and twenty-two years to come, for no nation ever yet as "prepared" for self-government.)
Suddenly Vivekananda blazed.
"Let England teach us the fine art of government," he burst forth, "for in that art Britain is the leader of the nations," then, turning to me, "let America teach us agriculture and science and your wonderful knack of doing things, for here we sit at your feet; but" — and Vivekananda's pleasant voice grew harsh with bitterness — "let no nation presume to teach India religion, for here India shall teach the world."
That night we walked over the deck together and talked of the deeper things where there are no Britons, no Americans. no Indians, but only our hungry humankind and of one Son of Man whose sacrificial blood, somewhere in the shifting sands of Asia, still abides. I think I helped the Swami to understand that no missionary in his senses is seeking to teach "religion" in India, but only to help India know and love that Man.
During the last day or two of the voyage our understanding of each other increased greatly, and, as I believe, our mutual respect. The mysticism of Vivekananda was a fascination and wonder. For it was not affected. When our conversation touched, as it was bound to, on the hidden things of the spirit, his heavy eyelids would droop slowly and he wandered, even in my presence, into some mystic realm where I was not invited. When, on one such occasion. I remarked that a Christian's conscious fellowship with the Supreme Person must be alert and awake (as all personal fellowships must be), and therefore is essentially and necessarily different from a Hindu's immersion in the all-pervading Brahman, he looked at me with a quick glance of scrutiny but made no reply.
The last night, before the "Ruballino" reached Bombay. we were standing on the forward deck. Vivekananda was smoking a short sweet-briar pipe —the one "English vice", he said, which he was fond of. The wash of the sea and the unknown life which would begin on the morrow invited quietness. For a long time no word was spoken. Then, as though he had made up his mind I would do India no harm, he laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Sir," he said, "they may talk about their Buddhas, their Krishnas, and their Christs, but we understand, you and I; we are segments of the All-One."
His hand remained upon my shoulder. It was such a friendly hand, I could not rudely remove it. Then he withdrew it himself, and I offered him my own.
"Swami," I said, "you will have to speak for yourself and not for me. The All-One of which you speak is impersonal, and therefore must remain unknowable, even though we be immersed in it as this ship is immersed in the Indian Ocean; He whom I know, whom I love, is personal and very very real — and, Swami, in Him all fullness dwells.
The sweet-briar went swiftly to his lips, and the drooping eyelids as he leaned against the rail gave token that Vivekananda had gone forth on a far quest.Was it the All-One, or the One in all, the Swami sought the night?
(Prabuddha Bharata, March 1923)
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.