WHEN Swami Vivekananda's Madras disciples decided to raise a sum of money sufficient to send him to represent Hinduism at the World's Fair at Chicago in 1893, they were in ignorance of the exact date of the opening of the Parliament of Religions. Consequently the Swami reached Chicago in the spring, several months before the time set for the delegates to meet. At first, he was much disturbed when he learnt how long he would have to wait, because his funds, none too extensive to start with, were running low. They had been greatly depleted by the bad management of his travelling companions to whom he had entrusted them. It became a problem to him how to maintain himself in a strange land until the time should come for him to fulfil his mission in America. He found his way to Boston and nearly resolved to return at once to India; but his charming personality soon won him friends, and his confidence returned.
He was most hospitably entertained in the family of a Professor of Harvard College, who persuaded him to adhere to his original plan to speak at the approaching Religious Congress.* By the advice of this kind friend Swami Vivekananda returned to Chicago, and his brilliant success at the Parliament of Religions is still fresh in the minds of all who heard him there. His very first words in his melodious voice aroused a perfect storm of applause. It is doubtful if any one of the thousands who listened to those first eloquent utterances had the least idea that never before in his life had he stood before an audience. So ready was his speech, so excellent his mastery of English, so finished his language, so flashing his wit and repartee that every one supposed he was an experienced public speaker. Surely the spirit and power of his Master spoke through him that day!
After the close of the Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda received many flattering offers to lecture in various parts of the United States. He was so desirous to send help to his fellow Sannyasins in India that he accepted an engagement with a Lecture Bureau and delivered many lectures in the Western States. He soon found, however, that he was utterly unsuited for such a career. Naturally, he could not speak to promiscuous audiences on the topics nearest to his heart, and the life of ceaseless change was too strenuous for a contemplative nature like his own. He was at this time a far different being from what he afterward developed into. He was dreamy and meditative, often so wrapped in his own thoughts as to be hardly conscious of his surroundings. The constant friction of alien thoughts, the endless questioning, the frequent sharp conflict of wits in this Western world awoke a different spirit, and he became as alert and wide awake as the world in which he found himself.
At great pecuniary sacrifice, the Swami severed his connection with the Lecture Bureau; but once more his own master. he turned his steps towards New York. A Chicago friend was instrumental in bringing him to this metropolis of the U.S., and he reached New York in the early part of 1894. His Western experiences had convinced him that there were many in America who would gladly learn of the ancient philosophy of India, and he hoped that in this city he would be able to come in contact with such inquiring minds.
He gave a few public lectures, but was not yet in a position to begin regular work, as he was a guest in the homes of his friends. In the summer of that year he went to New England, still as a visitor, and spent a week or two at Greenacre where Miss Farmer was inaugurating the "Greenacre Conferences", which in later years became so widely known through the school of Comparative Religions conducted there by the late Dr. Lewis G. Janes, who was long the gifted and liberal-minded President of the Brooklyn Ethical Association.
From New England, Swami Vivekananda returned to New York in the autumn, and at a lecture he gave in the parlour of a friend he met Dr. Janes, who at once recognized the unusual character and attainments of the Swami and invited him to lecture before the Association in Brooklyn. The two men became warmly attached to each other and formed a friendship that lasted as long as they lived.
Swami Vivekananda lectured in Brooklyn for the first time on 30th December, 1894 and his success was immediate. A large and enthusiastic audience greeted his appearance at the Pouch Mansion, and a course of lectures there and at other places in Brooklyn soon followed. From this time his public work in America really began. He established himself in quarters of his own, where he held several classes a week and came into more intimate relations with his students. Earnest people flocked to hear him and to learn the ancient teachings of India on the all-embracing character of her philosophy that every soul must be saved, that all religions were true, being steps in the progress of man toward a higher and ever higher spiritual realization — and above all to hear the constant lessons of the Swami on a world-wide, universal religious toleration.
At this time the Swami was living very simply in New York; and his earliest classes were held in the small room he occupied, and in the beginning were attended by only three or four persons. They grew with astonishing rapidity, and, as the little room filled to overflowing, became very picturesque. The Swami himself always sat on the floor, and most of his audience likewise. The marble-topped dresser, the arms of the sofa, and even the corner washstand helped to furnish seats for the constantly increasing numbers. The door was left open, and the overflow filled the hall and sat on the stairs. And those first classes! How intensely interesting they were! Who that was privileged to attend them can ever forget them? The Swami so dignified yet so simple, so gravely earnest, so eloquent, and the close ranks of students, forgetting all inconveniences, hanging breathless on his every word!
It was a fit beginning for a movement that has since grown to such grand proportions. In this unpretentious way did Swami Vivekananda inaugurate the work of teaching Vedanta philosophy in New York. The Swami gave his services free as air. The rent was paid by voluntary subscriptions, and when these were found insufficient, Swami hired a hall and gave secular lectures on India and devoted the proceeds to the maintenance of the classes. He said that Hindu teachers, of religion felt it to be their duty to support their classes and the students too, if they were unable to care for themselves; and the teachers would willingly make any sacrifice they possibly could to assist a needy disciple.
The classes began in February 1895, and lasted until June. But long before that time, they had outgrown their small beginnings and had removed downstairs to occupy an entire parlour floor and extension. The classes were held nearly every morning and on several evenings in each week. Some Sunday lectures were also given, and there were "question" classes to help those to whom the teaching was so new and strange that they were desirous to have an opportunity for more extended explanation.
In June, after four months of constant lecturing and teaching, Swami Vivekananda accepted the invitation of one of his friends and went to Percy, N.H., for a period of rest in the silence of the pine woods. Before he left New York, he promised to meet at Thousand Island Park any students who were sufficiently interested in Vedanta to follow him so far, and there give them more special instruction. One of the class members had a cottage there and had invited the Swami to be her guest for as long a period as he fell inclined to remain. Swami said that those students who were willing to put aside all other interests and devote themselves to studying Vedanta, travelling more than three hundred miles to a suitable spot, were the ones really in earnest, and he should recognize them as disciples. He did not expect many would lake so much trouble; but if any responded, he would do his share of helping them on the path.
About the middle of June, six or eight students gathered in the little house at Thousand Island Park; and true to his promise, Swami Vivekananda came there on the 20th of the month and remained for seven blessed weeks. A few more students joined us. until we numbered twelve, including our hostess. To those who were fortunate enough to be there with the Swami, those are weeks of ever hallowed memory, so fraught were they with unusual opportunity for spiritual growth. No words can describe what that blissful period meant (and still means) to the devoted little band who followed the Swami from New York to the Island in the St. Lawrence, who daily served him with joy and listened to him with heartfelt thankfulness. His whole heart was in his work, and he taught like one inspired. Every morning he could hardly wait for the household duties to be attended to, so eager was he to begin his work of teaching. As early as it could be managed, we gathered around him, and for two and sometimes three hours he would steadily expound the teachings of his Master Shri Ramakrishna. These ideas were new and strange to us, and we were slow in assimilating them; but the Swami's patience never flagged, his enthusiasm never waned. In the afternoons, he talked to us more informally, and we took usually a long walk. Every evening we adjourned to an upstairs piazza that commanded a glorious view over the waters and islands of the broad river, it was an enchanting picture that our eyes rested upon. At our left stretched a thick wood, the tops of its waving trees like a lake of vivid green, gradually lost themselves in the dancing blue waters of the St. Lawrence. Not one building of any kind was in sight, save a hotel on a distant island whose many gleaming lights were reflected on the shimmering waves. We were alone with nature, and it was a fitting scene in which to listen to the utterances of such a Teacher. The Swami did not appear to address us directly, but rather seemed to be speaking to himself in words of fire, as it were, so intense were they, so eloquent and convincing, burning into the very hearts of his listeners never to be forgotten. We listened in utter silence, almost holding our breath for fear of disturbing the current of his thoughts, or losing one of those inspired words.
As the days and weeks passed by, we began to really understand and grasp the meaning of what we heard, and we gladly accepted the teaching. Every one of the students there, received initiation at the hands of the Swami, thus becoming disciples, the Swami assuming towards them the position of guru, or spiritual father, as is done in India, where the tie uniting guru and disciple is the closest one known, outranking that of parent and child, or even husband and wife. It was purely a coincidence that there were just twelve of us!
The ceremony of initiation was impressive from its extreme simplicity. A small altar fire, beautiful flowers, and the earnest words of the Teacher alone marked it as different from our daily lessons. It took place at sunrise of a beautiful summer day, and the scene still lives fresh in our memories. Of those who became Brahmacharinis at Thousand Island Park, two are dead, and one is now in India helping to carry on the work nearest to Swami Vivekananda's heart, the uplifting of his fellow-countrymen. Most of the others have rendered faithful service in the cause of Vedanta during the ten years that have passed since then. (A more detailed description of the events at Thousand Island Park is available in the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda as Inspired Talks.)
In August the Swami went to France and later to England to start there a centre for Vedanta work. At the earnest solicitation of his many friends and students in New York Swamiji returned to us in December of 1895 and opened classes once more. There were nine in each week and all were attended by large numbers, to the full capacity of the rooms. This time we were fortunate enough to secure the services of a good stenographer, who, to unusual abilities, later added the service of a devoted adherent. He became strongly attached to the Swami and his teaching and never spared himself in his work for the cause. He subsequently accompanied the Swami to England and to India, and it is entirely due to his efforts that the Swami's utterances in those countries have been preserved. The fruits of his labours in New York are known to us in the books, Raja-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, besides several pamphlets of the Sunday lectures. The New York lectures jnana-yoga have never been published, although they are among the finest the Swami ever gave. Those in book form that bear the name Jnana-Yoga were delivered in England and India. (This refers to the book published in New York in 1902. The Jnana-Yoga issued by Advaita Ashrama contains the lectures delivered in New York as well. — Publisher.)
A few more students became disciples in New York. some of them being initiated on the occasion of the celebration of the birthday of Shri Ramakrishna in 1896. In March of this year Swami Vivekananda went to Boston, Detroit, and Chicago to lecture. He delivered several addresses in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one of these, known as the "Harvard Address" has been preserved in pamphlet form and became widely known, both in the United States and in India.
In the middle of April, the Swami sailed for England where he lectured for many months, being joined there first by Swami Saradananda and later by Swami Abhedananda, who is now the head of the Vedanta Society in New York. From London Swami Vivekananda returned to India at the close of 1896 accompanied by his everfaithful stenographer and several of his English disciples. He did much public work there and many of his lectures delivered in India are now in print, both in book and in pamphlet form. After more than two years of most arduous labour, the Swami's health broke down, and he was forced to retire to the Math at Belur for a much needed rest. In the autumn of 1899 he sailed for England, accompanied by Swami Turiyananda, He did not remain long in London, but came once more to the United Stales. He made only a brief stay in New York and then went to California. The climate there proved very beneficial to his health, and he was able to deliver many lectures, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He thus made a successful beginning of Vedanta work on the Pacific Coast; and later, Swami Turiyananda went to California to carry on the work thus inaugurated. A friend of the cause presented a large tract of land in the California mountains to Swami Vivekananda. It is situated about twelve miles from the far-famed Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. The Shanti Ashrama has been established there, and for a couple of months each year the Swami in charge of the Vedanta work in San Francisco establishes a retreat there, accompanied by those members of his classes who wish to enjoy a period of meditation. They mostly live in tents, although a few wooden cabins have been erected under the fine old trees.
In the summer of 1900, Swami Vivekananda returned to New York. making short stops en route at Chicago and Detroit to visit his old friends there. When he reached New York, he was much pleased to find that the Vedanta Society had at last succeeded in securing a home. This was in East 58th Street, and the Swami spent seven weeks there. He gave a few public lectures, but he did not care to do much work of this kind. He was chiefly desirous to meet his old friends and disciples; and as in the days at Thousand Island Park, he spent most of his time in teaching them and in conversation with them. It was a happy time apparently for both Teacher and disciples. All too soon, it came to an end. The Swami had received an invitation to address the Religious Congress held that year at the Paris Exposition. So he sailed from New York in August, never to revisit the city where he had done so much work in teaching and lecturing. He might have returned had his life been prolonged, but it was not to be.
In Paris, Swamiji met many prominent people and made many warm friends. He mastered the French language sufficiently to converse with those who could not speak English. From France he started with a party of friends for Egypt to visit the Cataracts of the Nile. But at Alexandria he received news of the death of a friend in India, which necessitated his immediate return to that country. His many Western friends saw him no more, but his memory will never die in our hearts and our gratitude for his loving service lo us can never fail. It is a priceless privilege to have known such a man. He was truly a mahatman and did a great work, work that will long be an influence in the lives of his own countrymen as well as in those of his European and American friends. May he be for ever blessed!
(Prabuddha Bharata, January 1906)